Tuesday, September 5, 2017 marked the 25th Anniversary of Batman: The Animated Series, a show that, to many of us, introduced the most definitive incarnation of the character created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger 78 years ago in Detective Comics #27 in 1939.
Premiering September 5, 1992, Batman: The Animated Series (Batman: TAS) profoundly changed the face of children’s animated television and was like nothing we’d ever seen before. Here was a cartoon series geared toward kids that explored mature themes and applied sophisticated storytelling, groundbreaking animation and design, as well as amazing music and voice casting.
First, there’s the animation. Borrowing from the styles of the 1940s Fleischer Superman cartoons, ’40s noir films, and Tim Burton’s Batman films, Batman: TAS brilliantly mixed eras, creating a Gotham that managed to seemingly exist in every decade and no decade at the same time. This combination of noir and Art Deco style became known as “Dark Deco.”
Another novel choice: when making backgrounds, instead of the traditional method of drawing dark colors on white paper, animators would apply light colors to black paper. But my personal favorite design choice was used only once in the early episode “The Cat and the Claw Part 1.” In order to visually isolate Bruce Wayne amongst a crowded background of extras, the crowd is seen only in silhouette. And when Selina Kyle makes her series entrance, she too is the only non-silhouetted figure in the crowd.
The show’s gorgeous opening titles sequence repurposed the series’ pilot. And not content to just cut from the titles directly into the episode, Batman: TAS went the extra thousand miles in the early seasons by designing exquisite and evocative, individual title cards inspired by those of classic ’30s era films. These were such an artistic highlight to the series that several sites have compiled a gallery of them all to be appreciated together in all their glory.
But perhaps the MVP of the show was casting director and voice director Andrea Romano, who assembled many of the people who my generation would come to regard as the definitive versions of their characters. Kevin Conroy’s Bruce Wayne/Batman puts all others to shame. And Mark Hamill’s Joker is so great, it partially overshadows a certain other famous role for which Hamill is known.
Then there’s the music. Danny Elfman’s main theme is unforgettable. And individual members of Batman’s rogue’s gallery often had their own musical themes that became as iconic as the characters themselves. One episode even playfully incorporated multiple villain themes into the same short sequence as Batman passes each corresponding character’s cell in Arkham Asylum:
What attracted me most to the series, though, was its rich storytelling. Though I wouldn’t realize it for many years, I can honestly say the show taught me a lot about writing. Perhaps the series’ most ambitious feat was transforming almost all of Batman’s rogues’ gallery into the tragic heroes of their own stories.
The best example of this was Mr. Freeze. Prior to 1992, Mr. Freeze was basically just a guy with an ice gun who made silly “freeze” puns. Batman: TAS invented an entire backstory that turned him into a sympathetic, almost Shakespearean figure, more a subject of pity than a sinister menace we root for the titular hero to defeat.
Batman: TAS’s Mr. Freeze, voiced by Michael Ansara, is a good man desperately going to great lengths to save his cryogenically frozen, dying wife, Nora, until greedy CEO Ferris Boyle callously pulls the plug on Nora. This Mr. Freeze is arguably entitled to his righteous indignation, and we almost want Batman to fail to stop him from killing his wife’s killer. The Nora backstory became so beloved it was used in almost every incarnation of the Mr. Freeze character since, including the despised Batman & Robin and the Fox series Gotham.
Similarly, audiences of Batman: TAS were allowed to see the point of view of most of Batman’s supervillains, recognize the fundamental humanity in them, and empathize with their plight. Catwoman became a moral crusader for animal rights; Poison Ivy, a crusader for the environment. The Riddler was getting back at his jerk boss who shamelessly stole all the profits from a product he developed and unjustly fired him. Clayface was an actor whose face was scarred in an accident. He became addicted to an experimental beauty product that allowed him to disguise his disfigurement and keep his career. When he learned of the horrible side effects of the product, greedy businessman Roland Daggett tried to kill him, accidentally turning him into a monster instead.
Even less larger-than-life criminals like gangsters were humanized. In one of my favorite episodes, “It’s Never Too Late,” the show left the theatrical Batman villains out entirely. In yet another bold choice, Batman isn’t even the main character. Instead, the episode largely revolves around Arnold Stromwell, one of two rival mob bosses in Gotham who’s never been more vulnerable after his son disappears. Fellow gangster Rupert Thorne seizes on the opportunity to finally take over. Throughout the episode, Stromwell is haunted by flashbacks to a tragedy in his youth involving his best friend while Batman spends much of the story actually trying to protect this murderous criminal from a different murderous criminal. Batman even reunites him with his missing son and peacefully persuades Stromwell to go straight.
The level of moral complexity on display was unlike anything on children’s television before. “See No Evil” was a beautiful, atmospheric, almost Hitchcockian thriller with a musical score nearly as gorgeously haunting as any by Bernard Herrmann. That episode introduces us to a villain who manages to be both one of the show’s creepiest, while simultaneously one driven by clear, relatable human motivations. Convict Lloyd Ventrix uses an invisibility suit to violate his ex-wife’s restraining order to spend time with his young daughter by pretending to be her imaginary friend Mojo. He’s a violent and dangerous criminal who plots to kidnap his daughter from his ex-wife, and yet he’s doing it all out of love for his daughter. The show forced its young audience to reconcile that apparent contradiction.
My favorite episode, “Joker’s Favor,” not only spotlighted Mark Hamill’s brilliant voice performance; it also introduced fan-favorite Harley Quinn. But what I love most about the episode is that it’s entirely about Charlie Michael Collins, an average, middle-aged working schlub and family man who has the misfortunate of once crossing the Joker and is now being threatened into doing him a favor. Batman is barely in the episode at all. This is Charlie’s story; Batman is just living in it.
And that’s a pattern in a lot of Batman: TAS‘ best episodes. The obvious choice for every episode of a Batman show for kids is Batman beating up crazy, costumed supervillains every week. But the team of Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, and company didn’t care and frequently sidelined Batman in their Batman show whenever they had a great anthology story about some random person existing in the Dark Knight’s universe. And when you have thoroughly engrossing stories like “See No Evil,” it’s easy to get lost in the family drama and the suspense, not even noticing the limited amount of Batman kicking and punching bad guys.
Batman: The Animated Series brought an unprecedented degree of artistry to a superhero cartoon. It prioritized story and character and took great care to make every aspect of the production — from the aesthetic design choices to the voice acting and the music — great to deliver a show that birthed a new generation of Batman fans. It reinvented old characters and created enduring new ones. And its influence can be seen in every incarnation of the character ever since.