“I am vengeance. I am the night. I. Am. Batman!”
From that chilling line, an entire universe is formed, and animated storytelling would never be the same. It’s hard to believe but this month marks the 25th anniversary of Batman: The Animated Series. This show raised the quality of animated programming to new heights and re-defined the Dark Knight for an entire generation. For many, Batman: TAS is the gold standard, the definitive take on the character, his villains, and his whole world. Its influence is far-reaching; it can be found in everything from video games to live-action films to the very comics that inspired its creators in the first place.
Batman: The Animated Series debuted in September 1995, as part of the Fox Network’s new animated block on Saturday mornings. The show was immediately moved to weekday afternoons, primetime viewing for kids getting out of school. I still remember watching the first episode, ‘The Cat and the Claw, Part One”, which introduced new, yet familiar versions of Batman and Catwoman. I’m sorry to say that at the time, I wasn’t impressed.
Now, before you start chucking Batarangs at my face, let me explain – I wasn’t much into comics at the time. My familiarity with Batman was almost entirely from watching reruns of the sixties TV show starring Adam West and Burt Ward. I was used to more colorful villains, over-the-top situations and expertly-delivered Bat-puns. Batman: The Animated Series was something else entirely. It was so serious and grounded and… well, boring. It felt like some weird hybrid, merging aspects of the old TV show with the darker tone of Tim Burton’s 1989 film (of which I was and still am a fan) but without the humor and fun of either.
Fortunately, it wouldn’t be long before I discovered just how important those aspects would be.
I revisited Batman: TAS some time later after a friend showed me an article which included a spread of all the villains featured thus far. I was astounded. There were characters I’d never heard of before. Two-Face and Killer Croc, Man-Bat and Poison Ivy. I was intrigued and decided to give the show another shot. This time it was “Joker’s Favor”, a standout episode featuring Mark Hamill as the title villain. He was always my favorite of Batman’s rogues and this interpretation was just fantastic. Scary and funny and so dynamic! Needless to say, this episode turned everything around for me.
In the years since, Hamill’s name has become synonymous with the role, every bit as much as Luke Skywalker. From his raspy, theatrical voice to his blood-curdling, maniacal laugh, Hamill WAS the Joker. That particular episode also introduced the world to Joker’s lady-friend/lackey Harley Quinn. Harley was never intended to be anything more than a one-time henchman (henchwoman? Henchgirl?) but it’s hard to imagine the DC Universe without her. Her popularity led to several Harley-centric episodes, followed by her own ongoing comic book series and countless appearances in video games, toy-lines and motion pictures in the years since.
Batman: TAS was a game-changer in a lot of ways. There was no irony or camp to be found, just solid, intelligent storytelling with a darker tone than any children’s programming at the time. The showrunners took great care in maintaining the tone of the series throughout its run, without ever going too dark or violent. Part of the brilliance of the show was keeping that moody atmosphere in every episode, while still keeping it appropriate for younger viewers. It was never pandering, never controversial. As a result, it’s still immensely watchable! Few shows from that era hold up still but TAS certainly does.
Much of the show’s appeal can also be found in the characters: Bruce Timm’s simplistic, retro designs are incredible and it’s hard to imagine certain characters appearing any other way. His artistic influence can be found all across DeviantArt pages and even series such as Star Wars Rebels. The personalities of the heroes and villains are so engaging that you even may even find yourself rooting for the bad guys.
See Mr. Freeze’s tragic origin in the Emmy-winning episode “Heart of Ice”, for example. Even Gotham City is a character; the retro designed buildings and cars look like something out of the 20s; people own big screen TVs that are black and white for some reason, and technology is years ahead but without veering into sci-fi territory. Everything feels like it’s of another time, converging together in this crime-ridden world.
But all of that would mean nothing were it not for the title character. This version of Batman (voiced by Kevin Conroy) is a man tormented by the death of his parents, trying to do right by them while never falling into the darkness that consumes so many of the villains he faces every week. Unlike now, where we seem to get a rehash of that crime alley scene every other movie, we never once see his origin in Batman: The Animated Series. Only in snippets do we see the events that transform him — flashbacks and dreams that show just enough.
He is further defined by his relationships: sidekick Robin, loyal servant Alfred, the antagonistic Detective Bullock and so many others. By far the most interesting is his friendship with Commissioner Jim Gordon, a man who inexplicably respects and trusts this masked vigilante in spite of everything. We never see their first meeting or how this trust is established but we don’t have to. It exists and that’s what matters.
Batman: TAS had for four seasons, ending at eighty-three episodes and two feature-length films (the theatrically-released Mask of the Phantasm being one of the best Bat-flicks ever) but that wasn’t all. The Dark Knight returned in a slightly revamped series, which is known more for its new character designs than anything else. This series also crossed over with the Bruce Timm-produced Superman animated series, which brought the two heroes together for the first time since the Super Friends, essentially making Batman: The Animated Series the first entry in a shared universe that has continued off and on to this day.
And while nothing will ever compare to those first few seasons, the stories and characters will continue to entertain and inspire fans for years to come.