These past few months I’ve been catching up on some of my childhood by watching the entire series of “Batman: The Animated Series” as well as its successor “The New Batman Adventures”. Having watched a fair share of episodes back in the day (the early 90’s) it occurred to me that this was regarded as one of the best cartoons ever produced for television. So I thought it would be nice to go back and see if it still holds up.
Now when this series first aired 17/18 years ago I was 14/15 myself and saw an episode once a week as it was part of the Saturday morning cartoon selection. It’s quite clear how this cartoon stands out from the crowd, as it is quite different from the rest, something I noticed back then already. There’s a sense of realism as the cops and villains both use guns instead of the lasers we got in shows like G.I. Joe, Marshall Bravestarr and Transformers, there’s little place for humor and most of the stories told have a tragic side to them, the cartoon is very dark and most of it takes place during the night. Thematically the show uses plot devices like police corruption, child abuse, schizophrenia, mob wars and such. Not the most easily digested material, especially for children. Batman was a cartoon that was aimed for a more mature audience yet was aired here in The Netherlands between Eek The Cat and The Animaniacs or cartoons similar to those.
Watching these episodes now brought back memories, especially from the older ones. I never saw “The New Adventures of Batman & Robin” as I didn’t watch so much cartoons anymore when I was hitting my 20s in 1997. These episodes were released on DVD in the order of production, which was very different from the order they were aired so I sorted them in a way I would watch them as they were aired. The reason I did this is because the second episode featured Robin and I could have sworn I just saw episodes with Batman alone back in the day and that Robin was introduced later on. It seems I was partially right with that, but more on that later.
A lot of articles on this Batman series consist of a list of people’s favorite episodes and with more than 100 episodes produced (including “The New Batman Adventures”) and it’s easy to understand why. Sadly these lists overlap each other pretty much as most of them have titles like “Beware of the Gray Ghost”, “Two-Face”, “Almost Got ‘Im”, “Over the Edge” and “Mad-Love” on them. If I wanted to be original I could go with a list of worst episodes I guess though they’ve been done as well, but I don’t want to do a simple listing article, I want to discuss the series as a whole.
Batman: The Animated Series is clearly a product of its time. After Batman went dark and moody in the movie by Tim Burton this series was green lit. A bold move as most cartoons were bright and colorful with breezy story lines where the hero saves the day but he or she is as bland as ever. It’s not like Spider-man (and his amazing friends) ever mourned the death of his Uncle Ben. The guy was never even mentioned as far as I know, while he was the whole reasoning of Spidey’s choice to fight crime in the first place. Batman’s reasons for becoming a crime fighter are mentioned in multiple episodes including one where he wakes up in a world where his parents were never killed and sees how his life would had looked without Batman.
Every episode starts off with a nicely animated sequence of Batman capturing two criminals with Danny Elfman’s musical theme behind it. This also ties the series to the movies a lot. While taking the tone and the theme of the movies it never connects to them, the series is standalone and the villains here have no real connection to their movie counterparts. Only the Penguin is modeled after his movie version and even has his Duck boat in the sewers in one episode. One of the episodes even has him take over control of the Batmobile just as he did in Batman Returns.
The visual style of the series is one of the most standout aspects of the series. After the dark intro a vintage title card is shown. A lot of them are beautiful and really stylish. Apparently the backgrounds of the series where created on black paper instead of the usual white, something which the producers called “Dark Deco”. This is the reason why the show became so dark, and even the few daylight scenes always have a dark touch to them. It’s never sunny in Gotham City. There are some episodes that take Batman out of Gotham City, but even when set in Japan, the Old West or a slave camp full where people work in the sun the series maintains a dark touch to its visuals. This is one of the choices I disliked about the series, if they have a daylight scene, they should really try to make a more brighter scene than they did here. But in defense for the series, it does follow the footsteps of Tim Burton as his two movies also didn’t include a lot of daytime scenes and few scenes that did were depressing as well.
Another remarkable aspect of the movie is its look of the city and vehicles. The Police have blimps where they patrol in, all the cars have a distinct 30’s/40’s look to them and most bad guys use a Tommy Gun. Together with the vintage title cards the series tries to create a film noir world dating back to the 1930’s while on the other hand incorporating newer technology like computers and even a cell phone in The New Batman Adventures. This gives the series a touch of timelessness.
Having been made in the early 90’s when Batman’s villains on the big screen were often mutants (Penguin, Mr Freeze, Poison Ivy), undead (Catwoman being revived by cats) or simple deranged freaks due to an accident (Two-Face, Joker) The Animated Series often has villains with supernatural powers as well, some of them a lot more extreme like Clay-face. Would a cartoon be made today it would not surprise me if they would go for a more realistic approach like Christopher Nolan does in his three Batman movies, but the supernatural approach worked at the time and since this is a cartoon its easy to accept it even though sometimes the concepts are rather silly. But as silly as some of them are, they are always played straight. One of the later episodes even has Batman battling a real demon and a cat turning into a human-like character. Something that will never work in a live action Batman movie I think but you’ll never know I guess.
The episodes are mostly set up in a villain-a-week form occasionally taking a detour with episodes like “Perchance For A Dream”, the aforementioned episode where Bruce Wayne’s parents are never killed, or “Legends of the Dark Knight” where kids tell stories about Batman and we get two tales; one depicting the 50’s Batman and one depicting Frank Miller’s 80s Batman. These kinds of episodes are a breath of fresh air as over the course of 109 episodes the every week a new villain with a scheme becomes somewhat routine. Luckily the makers keep that routine fresh by using a really large variety of villains over the course of the series with only the core and best known villains returning for multiple schemes. It’s no surprise, but characters like the Joker, Penguin, Scarecrow, Poison Ivy have multiple episodes dedicated to them while a lot of lesser known villains only get one episode, maybe two tops. In some cases villains were created for this show, like Harley Quinn or Baby Doll, while in other cases characters were drastically redesigned like the silly concept of The Clock King and Mr Freeze who was given a tragic back story about a comatose wife he kept cryogenically frozen while working on a cure, which brings me to another aspect of these villains: tragedy.
While there still are plenty of villains whose back-stories are unknown, none of them seems to be evil for the sake of just being evil. Joker for instance is simply a lunatic psycho who fell into a vat full of chemicals but most of the villains now operate with reasons that generate sympathy with the audience. They didn’t mean to become evil, they just had life working against them. Two-face was a good guy until he developed a schizophrenic alter-ego and became disfigured when a crime lord tried to assassinate him after which his evil character takes over. Mr Freeze tries to save his cryogenically frozen wife after his study is shut down and an accident has him confined to a special suit to keep him alive. Edward Nygma is schemed out of his intellectual property which could have made him millions by a sneaky business man and tries to take revenge as the Riddler. The Mad Hatter is desperately in love with a girl and when she prefers her abusive boyfriend above him he uses his mind control device he developed to convince her otherwise. Man-Bat, The Clock King, Harley Quinn… all back stories turn out to be tragic and not always due to their doing. A protagonist is only as good as his antagonist and in this show both are developed equally well.
But regardless the general very positive critical reception of the show there are some remarks to be made in general about it. My main problem I have with the show is the fact that there isn’t an ongoing story line here, all stories are self contained so the capture of one villain one week has no influence on the fact that three episodes on he’s running around a free man with no explanation on how he escaped Arkham Asylum whatsoever. There are little to no events that have influence on future episodes, origin stories not including. A lot of those stories set up a, mostly villainous, character and have them pop up from time to time in future episodes with a new scheme. Dark as it might be, little have we progressed from the 60’s live action show in terms of dealing with such characters.
This also brings me to another point of critique; could somebody please fix the security at Arkham Asylum? Every captured villain ends up here yet they all manage to escape from time to time. Batman might not kill, but at least the movies brought closure to the villains by having some of them meet their end. And if the security is working fine, than apparently the justice system isn’t. Riddler, Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy and Penguin all have committed crimes worthy of many years of penitentiary yet over the course of these series all have an episode in which they are being released. Of course they all end up back in Arkham whether they do or do not try to change to fit in society. To give the series credit where it’s due; it does acknowledge this in two separate episodes which feature a vigilante like Batman who is out to kill all these criminals; Lock Up and The Judge.
Another remark I have is about the “fitting into society” concept. “Birds Of A Feather” is a Penguin story where he genuinely tries to change and become a respected citizen and is one of the better episodes made, but it is a bit lazy writing they do the story over 3 times after this one; one where Harley tries to lead a decent honest life and two where either Riddler or Poison Ivy pose as living an honest life while plotting crimes secretly.
As I mentioned earlier I was under the impression Robin would be introduced in a later phase. But while he was never mentioned in the first episodes suddenly he pops up in episode 19 when it turns out he was at college all this time. It’s a bit annoying how he didn’t seem to exist in the universe as nobody ever mentioned him and then suddenly have him be the center of an episode that simply tells us he was already Batman’s aid. When you have Batman operating on his own for 18 episodes and is shown solo in the show’s opening, you would expect Robin to be introduced with an origin story of some sort. He got his origin story, but only later on. For viewers of this show he just shows up out of nowhere.
And last some nitpicking. Unlike Marvel characters, DC characters live in fictional cities and Gotham City is such a city. The whole series has a unique style to it but one of the elements they gave Gotham was a mangled statue of liberty look-a-like in Gotham Bay just like the real Statue Of Liberty. Personally I thought this was a stupid idea and made it as if they are mimicking New York instead of creating a unique city.
So while I love the darkness the series has, the tragedy of most of the villains, the art deco title cards and they way they gave Gotham a distinct vintage look the series isn’t as perfect as some people make it out to be. Yes, it is very good, but it could have been even better. While it has some very good episodes, there are some that are very bad or simply uninteresting. While I love the darkness of it, which certainly at the time was something refreshing, I do think they could have used more daylights scenes whenever there was a reason for them. Sometimes you just get the idea that crime only occurs at night.
The New Batman Adventures
Two years after “Batman: The Animated Series” ended a successor was created called “The New Batman Adventures”. With an updated animation style and character redesigns 24 episodes were produced featuring Batman, Robin, Batgirl and Nightwing. Unlike the original series this show did explain how a new Robin became Batman’s sidekick almost from the start and later on explained in a memorable episode how the original Robin became Nightwing after he and Batman both went different ways. It also shows us how Batgirl became a more prominent crime fighter and is even aware of Batman’s secret identity. I like the animation in this series… it took the “Dark Deco” design of the original and made it more sleeker. Characters and machines were given an update, some just a little while others completely. The Scarecrow now looks impressively scary and The Penguin even had his character changed. Instead of weird bird-filled schemes to destroy Batman or to rob something he’s now a legitimate businessman, nightclub owner and fence of stolen property. On the other hand The Riddler now looks like a muscular super villain. No bowler hat here and he doesn’t even get one dedicated episode in this series.
In terms of stories it really continues the original series; mostly a self-contained villain-a-week episodes but while not as revolutionary as the original series was at the time of its release “The New Batman Adventures” did manage to have its fair share of memorable episodes in its mere 24-episode run with fan favorite episodes like “Mad Love”, “Old Wounds” and “Over The Edge”.
Though it takes some time to watch all these episodes I was not disappointed. Even the lowest rated episodes still manage to be entertaining. I like how they used a lot of lesser known characters instead of just using the most well known villains over and over again. The Riddler for instance doesn’t show up until the 41st episode but until he appears more obscure characters like Red Claw, Man-Bat, Hugo Strange and Clock King already have had an episode dedicated to them! The series holds up pretty well though there are times the plots do venture into the 60s camp Batman territory. On the other hand, the series references and acknowledges its sometimes goofy past by having, mostly small, references to them. The appearance of Bat-Mite in the form of a robot for instance or the 50s Batman animation style and story in “Legends of the Dark Knight”.
If the Nolan series would inspire another animated series I would like to see how they transfer the realism of the series to animation. Certainly over-the-top characters like Clay-Face would need a drastic change but Batman has proven he can work in various incarnations; whether it’s the colorful 50s/60s style or the Gothic 80s/90s style. A down to earth realistic version could work just as well.