A Fan's Look at Batman: The Animated Series
Batman has been popular in so many forms for so many hears. A common question among Batman fans is “Who is your Batman?” He has been depicted so many times in so many different mediums since his inception in Detective Comics in 1939. One of the most beloved versions of Batman can be found in Batman: The Animated Series, a cartoon which ran weekdays from 1992-1995 and continued in The Adventures of Batman and Robin from 1997-1999. Below is an analysis of the series and the qualities that made it not just a great incarnation of Batman but a great piece of TV and storytelling history.
*Note: I will refer to the series in volumes rather than seasons to mirror the format of the series' DVD releases.
One of the first things that sticks out about this show is its design. Created by Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski, the design of the characters and the world of Gotham City is very sophisticated, especially for a kid’s show that ran weekday afternoons on the Fox Kids Network. The creators were not concerned about brightening it up to match the other cartoons that appeared in the lineup but instead darkened it to match the look of the two Batman films that had recently been released by Warner Brothers, Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992).
The animators drew on black paper and added color, often dull hues for its many nighttime and cave scenes. Despite this, the look is visually eyecatching with its thin lines and shadows and bursts of color when appropriate (as in the "Mad as a Hatter" featuring the tea party scene from Alice in Wonderland, "Be A Clown" when Batman takes on The Joker in an abandoned amusement park, and "Pretty Poison" featuring the debut of Poison Ivy and her green plants).
The characters are realistically drawn with classic comic book features such as square jaws on the men, curves on the women, and Batman’s signature white, slanted eyes glaring and glowing in the dark. They omit cartoony features, such as disproportionate body parts, googly eyes, and the classic missing finger on each hand. The characters move like real people with distinct gaits, realistic grasping of objects, and a multitude of facial expressions. Animals are realistically drawn as well with slinky cats, flapping birds, and growling dogs. The vehicles are very detailed and move through the city with a sense of real motion and maneuverability, whether it be the Batmobile cruising down the street, police blimps hovering overhead, or The Batwing twisting around the tops of buildings.
The city also has a timeless feel in terms of technology and style. Men walk around in fedoras and women in fur coats and pearls while children wear t-shirts and jeans. The police cars are clunky, old-fashioned models while the Batmobile is a long, sleek, futuristic-looking vehicle. Televisions often broadcast in black and white while the Batcave is equipped with state-of- the-art (for the 90’s) computers and TV monitors. In this way, the best of every era is included and every decade in which the character has existed is represented without making anything feel out of place. This mixture creates a unique but familiar world in each episode.
Batman stories can be interpreted and executed in a multitude of styles from the light, campy TV show stories to the dark and gritty Frank Miller world from the comics. As a children’s show, Batman: The Animated Series had an obligation to tame the violence, content, and language of each episode, but they were able to blend really well written storylines with a simplicity that their target audience could understand without dumbing them down or losing them in content that was too complex.
This balance was particularly tricky in portraying vicious and ruthless villains like The Joker and Two-Face who use deadly weapons with the intent on harming and even murdering anyone who gets in their way. They were able to make these villains scary and threatening without showing actual murder and gore. There were countless kidnappings and murder attempts throughout the series, but everything worked out for the good guys in the end.
There was its share of violence, however. Batman and his allies always had at least one fight scene to battle through in each episode. Bullets typically flew at the heroes as well as innocent bystanders, and injuries were sustained, but most of this occurred off screen with characters ending up bandaged in the hospital or unconscious on the ground.
The death of Batman’s parents was also mentioned from time to time, though there was never an actual flashback scene or episode dedicated to reenacting this defining moment in the hero's life. This plays into the show’s exploring the psychology of the characters, both good and bad. The villains were far from one dimensional. They were evil and did wrong but often with a tragic or philosophical motive. Many were caught and convicted at the end of each episode, but few were sent to jail. They often ended up in Arkham Asylum where they received treatment for their psychological disorders.
Batman himself submitted to psychological treatment himself. Leslie Thompkins was a recurring character on the show, serving as Bruce’s psychologist who helped him through his issues, showing that even his mind is not completely sound, nor is he is a healthy, well adjusted guy. Still, this does not make him a bad guy, and there is always the hope that the villains can be rehabilitated. In this way, the show was an introduction to sociology and psychology for many of its viewers.
Most of the voice actors on the show were not well known, but fans have learned their names and been outspoken about demanding additional parts for these actors in spin-off series, video games, and whatever other jobs they can get them. Kevin Conroy has become the quintessential voice of Batman, even voicing old Bruce Wayne in the series, Batman Beyond. He was the first voice actor to use two different voices for both Batman and Bruce Wayne. His Batman has the clarity of Adam West with the viciousness of Christian Bale while his Bruce Wayne is friendly and upbeat, with a mild mannered, well-rehearsed billionaire persona.
Conroy is backed by dozens of talented voice actors who turn out serious and sophisticated performances. The actors recorded their dialogue in the same room and were able play off each other and watch each other’s acting processes and execution. Regular players include Loren Lester as Robin, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as Alfred, Bob Hastings as Jim Gordon, Melissa Gilbert as Barbara Gordon, and Mark Hamill as The Joker. They never overact (unless their character calls for it), and they never feel cartoony in their performances (unless appropriate, such as Arleen Sorkin's portrayal of Harley Quinn or the various brain dead henchmen that work for each of the villains) and treat the material with seriousness and respect to the material.
This combination of talent was gathered by the famous casting director, Andrea Romano who has cast the voices for dozens of cartoon series throughout the years including The Animaniacs, Tiny Toon Adventures, and Ben 10. She even has 32 acting credits to her name, having provided background voices in numerous episodes of these series, including Batman: The Animated Series, Justice League, and Teen Titans.
Batman’s rogues gallery is one of the most popular and interesting in super hero history. They are colorful, unique, and interesting and can be rendered multiple ways, just like Batman. There is a chicken or egg debate in the Batman universe that Batman actually does more harm than good by creating these extreme villains who feel that they must match his level of madness and theatrics in order to go head to head with The Dark Knight. Others say that the villains created Batman and that he had to match their extremes in order to take them down and clean up Gotham. Either way, the two sides coexist in a tug of war for control of the city.
Few of Batman's villains utilize superpowers or supernatural strengths to take on Batman. Some, like the Riddler, Ra’s al Ghul, and The Mad Hatter use their wit and technology to best him. Others, like Bane and Killer Croc harness their brute strength to take him on. Some are equally matched in fighting skills, such as Catwoman. Others have taken on physical mutations that fuel their evil quests, such as The Penguin, Clayface, and Poison Ivy.
Besides these colorful characters, however, there are the basic mobsters, thieves, and conspirators that run wild in Gotham. The show did not stray from introducing them as less exuberant but still threatening foes, some of whom even teamed up with the famous rogues to conspire to take down Batman and his family of caped crusaders, such as Nightwing, Robin, and Batgirl.
Arkham Asylum also played a large part in the series. Most of the main villains, once captured, would end up there or would be shown there at the beginning of an episode before they escaped and wreaked their havoc in the city. Batman would tirelessly capture and throw them back into their temporary calls, highlighting his no-kill policy, despite his preferred method proving to be just a temporary, ineffective solution. Batman’s methods were addressed more than once in the series. He was often ridiculed for his inability to stop these villains for good, considering they seemed to be beyond rehabilitation. While volume 1 of the series introduced many villains’ origin stories, volume 2 showed them breaking out of Arkham again and again, never learning their lesson.
By volume 3, however, many villains tried to turn over a new leaf, wanting to rejoin society as law abiding citizens, but by then, too much damage had been done to their reputations, their minds, and too much trust had been lost, leaving them no choice but to return to their old ways. Still, these episodes are compelling in the way that they cause the audience to reassess these characters and society in general, as did Batman. Very complex themes and ideas were circulating through these storylines. You didn’t have to be an adult to understand their complexity or simply pity them.
Nods to the Previous Films/Comics/TV Show
The Animated Series premiered just after the release of the film Batman Returns in 1992. It was argued that this film was not kid-friendly with its inclusion of gore, kidnapping, and language. So, it was a a bold mode for the animators to borrow from the first two films for this show. Right away, the opening theme song kicked off the show with a rendition of the first film’s “Batman March” from composer, Danny Elfman. The rest of the show’s music was composed by Shirley Walker which built from that iconic Batman theme.
Many character attributes were the same too, such as the inclusion of the yellow symbol on Batman’s costume to mirror the movie, which mirrored the current design of the comics at the time including:
- The Penguin’s design is modeled after the likeness of The Penguin in Batman Returns. One episode even featured his yellow duck boat car from the film.
- The Joker’s real name in the series is revealed to be Jack Napier, an invention of the first movie.
- The car was very similar to the movie car as was the Batplane.
- Adam West, who played Batman in the 1966 TV show and movie, made a voice cameo playing a character similar to himself in the episode, “Beware the Gray Ghost”.
Children and parents alike could spot these Easter eggs and bond over the Batman’s of the past mixed into this new adaptation of the character and his world.
Inspiring The Comics
The writers for this show had decades of material to draw from when writing their scripts, but this didn’t inhibit them from creating their own characters and storylines which became so well known that they were incorporated into the Batman universe as part of the continuity of the comics. One of the most noted is the incorporation of Harley Quinn as The Joker’s right hand woman with her dimwitted, spunky personality and unhealthy obsession with one of the most dangerous characters ever created. She is a visually striking and psychologically fascinating character made even more so in the episode, “Mad Love”. In this episode, it is revealed that Harley was a psychiatrist at Arkham who fell in love with The Joker and became his henchwoman and has stuck by him ever since, despite his deceitful and abusive nature. She has since appeared in the comics, video games, TV movies, and will eventually be featured in future films.
Another contribution was the backstory of Mr. Freeze. This was a character created by the TV series in the 60’s but was very one-dimensional and as a result, very boring. Writer Paul Dini remedied this in the episode “Heart of Ice” where Mr. Freeze is revealed as a scientist who was pushed into a vat of chemicals which froze his skin and made him susceptible to above freezing temperatures. This all occurred while then, Dr. Victor Fries tried to find a life saving cure for his terminally ill wife who he kept encased in ice while he worked on his research. It’s a heartbreaking turn of events that changes Fries’ mindset, making him literally cold-hearted and vengeful of the human race, save for his beloved wife. This is highlighted by a (no pun intended) chilling performance by Michael Ansara who provides a lifeless, monotone voice for the character. The origin of this character was incorporated into the comics and served as the agreed upon back story for many years (look up DC's launch of "The New 52" for further details).
The show has its share of cartoony, kid-friendly lines, but it also has its share of funny, inspiring, and heartbreaking lines. Below is a sample of some of the most memorable:
- Whenever Kevin Conroy is introduced on a panel or at a convention, he is likely to utter the phrase, “I am vengeance, I am the night, I am Batman!’ Fans of the show immediately recognize it from the episode, “Nothing to Fear” where Batman overcomes the crippling guilt of his parents’ death set off by the Scarecrow’s fear gas by reaffirming his identity and the fear that he instills in his enemies. These lines were echoed in TV spots, making it Batman's trademark line from the series.
- Every kid knows the version of "Jingle Bells" which incorporates and pokes fun at Batman:
Jingle bells, Batman smells
Robin laid an egg
Lost a wheel
And The Joker got away!"
In the episode, "Christmas with The Joker," Batman's arch nemesis belts out this tune, adding a new verse in the process: "
"Crashing through the roof
In a one-horse open tree
Busting out I go
Laughing all the WHEE! Ha! Ha! Ha...!"
- The Joker’s songwriting skills strike again in the episode, “The Laughing Fish”:
"They're finny and funny and oh so delish.
They're joyful and jolly. Jokerfish!:
Sings Harley Quinn during a commercial spot for the Joker’s poisonous fish which he attempts to sell to unwilling Gothamites.
- Killer Croc is a strong and scary-looking villain, as a man covered in crocodile skills and razor sharp teeth, but he is not the smartest. In the episode, “Almost Got ‘im” several of the villains sit around telling stories of how close they came to taking down Batman. Croc’s story is short and sweet:
Killer Croc: ME! There I was, holed up in this quarry, when Batman came nosing around. He was getting closer... Closer...
Poison Ivy: And...?
Killer Croc: I threw a rock at him!
... It was a big rock...
- Not every quote is meant for laughs, though. In the episode, “I Am The Night,” Commissioner Gordon is seriously injured by a villain known as The Jazzman. This hits Batman hard, and he sets out to catch the villain before he finishes off Gordon. When he succeeds, he visits Gordon in his hospital room where the following exchange of words takes place:
Gordon: Gotta keep fighting, never stop. What I try to live by. Maybe if I had been younger I could have been like you. Always wanted to be a hero.
Batman: You are a hero, Jim.
- My personal favorite line from the series, though, is from “Harley’s Holiday”. After being released from Arkham with a clean bill of health, Harley gets caught up in a misunderstanding while shiopping in a Gotham Department Store, sending her running from the law once again. Batman, who is often unsympathetic towards villains, notices that Harley is innocent of her alleged crime and sets out to stop her before she gets into real trouble. At the end, she is sent back to Arkham to continue her therapy and can’t help but ask Batman why he risked his life for her after countless interactions where she aided The Joker in trying to kill him:
Harley: I got one question. I've been nothing but trouble. How come you've been so nice to me?
Batman: I know what it's like to try to rebuild a life. I had a bad day too, once.
Harley: Nice guys like you shouldn't have bad days.
There are countless other quotes littered throughout the series, some funny, some sad, some thought provoking, but all are well written and true to the Batman universe and aware of its age-diverse audience.
How To Watch The Series Today
Fox Kids has long since disappeared from the TV lineup, but episodes of this series are still easy to find. For awhile, reruns aired on The Hub Network, which is now Discovery Kids. In 2004 and 2005, a four volume set was released on DVD featuring episode of both The Animated Series and The New Adventures of Batman and Robin. Bonus features on these discs include interviews with the show’s creators and voice actors, behind the scenes featurettes, and other bonus features that teach fans more about how the groundbreaking show came to be.
These days, the actors are still invited to panels and podcasts and are hired to voice characters in other cartoon series, and spinoffs of the show such as animated movies (such as Mask of the Phantasm) and new series, such as Batman Beyond. The creators are still at work as well. Paul Dini is still writing scripts for TV animated series, Andrea Romano is still casting actors for new shows, and Bruce Timm is still producing Batman and other DC comics-inspired shows.
The creators took a risk in creating such a sophisticated and visually unique kid’s show, but it proves that if you don’t sacrifice your vision for expectation in your genre, you can create works of art that not only last but fuel other great art and a devoted fan base who keeps demanding quality in their entertainment. Batman: The Animated Series is one of my favorite TV series of all time, and I will continue to watch these classic episodes over and over for years to come.
What do you love about Batman: The Animated Series? Leave your comments below!