Historical Circuit: Batman: The Animated Series (****)

Let’s face it: the 1990’s were a pretty haphazard decade for a great majority of things, mass media the most unfortunate victim of all. Whether it was the substandard live-action television shows, the criminally high number of terrible movies amongst some brilliant ones, and music that might have scared everyone off to Mars if we had the technological means to do so, the 90’s was a decade we couldn’t move quickly enough away from. As Mickey Rourke’s The Ram so eloquently put it in Darren Aronfsky’s The Wrestler, “90’s sucked.” But…my friends, amidst the rubble, amidst the mildew and dilapidated sewage of the 1990s arose something nobody expected, something I fear a great many adults overlooked because, after all…animation is child’s play to many a parent.  That’s correct, the shining beacon of the 1990’s was Animation. With films like Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Aladdin, The Prince of Egypt, and Ghost in the Shell; and television programs such as Rugrats, Ducktales, Chip and Dale: Rescue Rangers, Gummi Bears, Spongebob Squarepants, and Ren & Stimpy, how could you possible argue against the fact that the 1990’s greatest contribution was the often unjustifiably undervalued animation genre? But amongst all that, there was one show that successfully merged all that a child’s eye into adulthood could ever want, all an adult’s nostalgic longing for being a kid again could ever need — that, my fellow readers, is Batman: The Animated Series. As I embark on my historical circuit review on what I consider to be the greatest animated series of all time, I thought I’d get us in the mood by reminding you of that now infamous intro-sequence of the Emmy-winning program, now in HD below:


When I was a kid, I developed this fascination of film noir, admiring the seediness and darkness of it all. To me, noir was my first foray into the world of adulthood where there were occurrences of vice all around, but it if you were a calm and intelligent detective, you could maneuver your way past the darkness and become a force of good. The first major influence for my love of this milieu was Bob Hoskin’s Detective Eddie Valiant from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but it was Batman in Batman: The Animated Series who became my first real detective hero. I loved the intelligence of Bruce Wayne, how he wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty when the job required it, his calm and collected nature unshakeable. The problem with many Batman/Bruce Wayne characterizations was that many authors tended to make the mistake that these two men are worlds apart. They really aren’t, in my eyes. Bruce is a man filled with pain and hurt, but does good with the unlimited resources he has at his disposal, giving away money to charities and averting his company from illegal business practices. Batman is a man who also has a plethora of resources to tap into, uses his cunning and wits to take down Gotham’s toughest villains, and exhibits unbridled passion whenever he takes down his enemies. It isn’t as though Batman is ever on the verge of losing it, merely that he sinks into his role of Gotham’s peacekeeper so well that it fuels his emotions, unleashing a destructive energy that incites fear in all of his adversaries.

Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill: The two greatest voice-actors in television…hate to break it to ya!

My love for the character of Batman that I’ve just described comes directly from Kevin Conroy, who voiced the Caped Crusader in Batman: The Animated Series. When someone asks me who my favorite Batman actor is, they expect me to say Christian Bale, Val Kilmer, Adam West, George Clooney (god, I hope not), or Michael Keaton. When I respond by saying “Kevin Conroy,” there’s usually a confused look on the person’s face. But trust me when I say, a voice alone can completely embody a character, even if you have no idea who Kevin Conroy is (which is blasphemy, by the way). Conroy was the first actor to really understand the humanity of Batman. Batman isn’t this over-the-top buffoonish hero in a ridiculous costume, he isn’t this playboy idiot who can somehow “get it together” when he dons his infamous mask and suit, and he certainly is not some machismo jock who stumbles about and wins the day with a slug of his fist. Conroy understood that the best way to play Batman was to portray a man who wasn’t perfect, but damned his best to be with the role he was given as Gotham’s protector. Batman’s biggest weakness is his love for his friends — the relationships he builds between Robin, Commissioner Gordon, Batgirl, and even lost souls like Catwoman and Two-Face place an extra weight of responsibility upon the Caped Crusader, a weight that can often become too taxing. That weakness may prevent Batman from always succeeding in his judiciary goal of locking away Gotham’s most heinous villains for good, but at least it displays his humanity, his trustworthiness, and — behind that tortured soul that’s been through a whirlwind of pain and hurt — a true and noble heart that you wouldn’t expect a hero like Batman to display so openly and compassionately. For that, Kevin Conroy should take a bow.

But the real heroes behind the series are creators Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski, who drew great inspiration from Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns. They fell in love with the fantasy art-deco look of the films, where comic book characters could come to life in such a postmodern visual playground. But rather than regurgitate Burton’s bizarre style and love for fantasy, Timm and Radomski only extracted the film’s art-deco style, giving the animated world of Batman an incredible retro, Gothic feel that fit right in with their noir interests. The creators also felt compelled to utilize variations of Danny Elfman’s Batman score for their show, as its slightly retro yet action-oriented sound fit perfectly in line with the series’ 1940’s noir vibe. Danny Elfman actually agreed to work with Timm and Radomski on a brand new score for the show, but the original work would not see the light of day until the second season. In total, what was so genius about the work Timm and Radomski created was that it took the best elements of Burton’s world while simultaneously ignoring the pieces that derailed the evolution of Batman as a character. Gone was the campy and overtly fantastical feel of the films, and instead what we were left with was nothing short of noir pulp at its finest, with writing that pushed the boundaries of what was imaginable for a half hour kid’s program. For once, an animated show wasn’t solely presented to entertain. Instead, Batman: The Animated Series sought out new ways to expand a kid’s imagination by presenting thought-provoking scenarios where consequences were inevitable, and in some cases the good guy might not always win. The show was the best possible preparation for a kid making the transition into his teenage years, and then into adulthood. No longer were being shielded away from the truths of reality by shows that kept us in a bright and colorful bubble — with Batman: The Animated Series, we saw the effects of crime, the loss of a parent, and the cost of friendship. What better way to make us emotionally ready for a brutal world than a series such as this? I cannot think of a better stepping stone for life in any entertainment medium.

How can one possibly review Batman: The Animated Series without discussing Mark Hamill’s comeback as the deliciously insane Joker? He took Jack Nicholson’s constant state of lunacy, yet turned Batman’s greatest nemesis into a walking piece of complex art. In the series, we witnessed something almost no fan had ever seen from The Joker before: fear. The Joker may exude confidence in person, his gleeful laughs and unusual preparedness the quickest way to incite fear in his foes, but deep down there is a scared, panic-stricken man whose greatest fear of all is Batman himself. Batman is the antithesis of the Joker. He’s stoic, grim-faced, and never in the mood to play games, making him the one hitch in Joker’s maniacal plan for social anarchy. The fear that Joker displays in Batman: The Animated Series not only gives him an extra layer of depth, but in some strange and unprecedented way it humanizes the demonic clown. Hamill’s ability to juggle each facet of the Joker’s personality is astonishing, and I cannot imagine another voice actor who’d come as close to concretely defining the most recognizable villain in comic book lore.

Because Batman: The Animated Series is better seen than explained, I thought I’d do something a bit different with this historical review. I will provide a list for what I consider to be the 5 Best Episodes of Batman: The Animated Series, and give you clips to help better understand my reasoning. Hopefully for those who’ve never seen the show (again, blasphemy), this will perhaps have you itching to check out what you’ve been missing all your life. Without further ado, here is a countdown of my Top 5 Greatest Episodes of Batman: The Animated Series:

5. “Joker’s Favor” — Why is this episode so amazing, you ask? Well, it spawned the character of Harley Quinn (voiced by Arleen Sorkin), the female accomplice of The Joker who became so popular with the fans that her own comic book origins story was created in Paul Dini (writer of Batman: The Animated Series) and Bruce Timm’s award-winning Mad Love. Every one-liner and sarcastic remark that Harley Quinn ever made on the show, the fans would hold on to for dear life. Although her role is minor in this particular episode, the scene where she pretends to be a female cop is equal parts alluring and sinister. Instantly, you want to know more about this character and what is behind her unhealthy obsession with The Joker. Aside from a spectacular introduction of a scene-stealing character, this episode goes down some suspenseful territory by placing Commissioner Gordon’s life in grave peril. From Hamill and Sorkin’s vocal performances alone, I can guarantee you this won’t be an episode soon forgotten.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HORkfz_225Q

4. “Robin’s Reckoning,” Parts 1 and 2 — How do you redeem a reviled hero like Robin in the comic book world? Simple: hire Randy Rogel as a writer.  Batman: The Animated Series had already given leeway to a more mature, less annoying Robin in previous episodes, but it wasn’t until this two-parter that we fell back in love with The Boy Wonder. In this story, we unravel Dick Grayson’s past, and how emotionally scarred he was by his parents’ murder. As fragments of that tragic day begin to resurface for Robin on a recent case, Robin starts to lose control of his emotions, his deference to Batman’s authority slowly eroding. The episode incorporates flashbacks that explain how Batman and Robin met, but it’s the end of the gripping two-parter that will show you just how wounded a character Robin really is. Robin’s Reckoning then went on to win a Primetime Emmy for “Outstanding Animated Program.” You try arguing against the Emmy committee’s decision — I dare you.

3. “Heart of Ice” — Although this is not my personal favorite episode of the show, it’s hard to dispute the majority of fans when they claim this episode as the series’ best. Not only was “Heart of Ice” an incredibly told origin story of Mr. Freeze, but for the first time it made Batman question whose side he was really fighting on. His loyalty to WayneCorps turns out to be a vicious alliance, causing one of the great misfortunes of a villain who shouldn’t really even be considered one according to this tale of love, loss, and unjust due process of law. “Heart of Ice” won the Daytime Emmy for “Outstanding Writing” for an Animated Series, making it one of two episodes that nabbed an Emmy for its narrative. This origin story of a villain who once seemed throwaway was mimicked by many comic book writers, even going so far as to retcon previous versions of Mr. Freeze in order to mirror Batman: The Animated Series‘ take on the anti-hero. It’s sentimental story is arguably one of the only decent things about Joel Schumacher’s repugnant Batman and Robin. Needless to say, all who watched this episode were moved beyond words.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_2w-eMg10cI

2. “P.O.V.” — As soon as I watched this episode, I remembered thinking that its narrative construction was unlike anything I had ever seen in an animated program before. Three different officers retold one scenario from each of their “points of view,” offering up an experience where you don’t exactly know which person is telling the truth, much less what happened during the case that led to the officers’ suspension. The framing of the episode, and the fact that The Dark Knight isn’t eating up the majority of the screen time, delivered one of the most unique television experiences I can remembering having as a child. Now that I’m an adult, and am familiar with Akira Kurosawa’s filmography, I realize this is a borrowed plot device from Kurosawa’s magnificent Rashomon. Does that diminish the originality and overall greatness of this landmark episode in television? Absolutely not, and I can’t recommend it enough.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K852fTzZW0k

1. “Two-Face” Parts 1 and 2 — This may not come as a surprise for those who read my Understanding the Character article on Two-Face. “Flawless” isn’t a word that I use often, but it can be applied here. Imagine a story that takes a solid friendship, a noble career, and a beautiful romance, and smashes all these wonderful components of life into millions of tragic pieces. That would be more than a dagger to the heart — it would be a katana to the soul. This is precisely the pain that the two-part episode of “Two-Face” causes. You witness a man’s descent into madness, something he has no control over because of an incident that deeply affected him in his childhood, and both you and Batman are helpless in stopping this path of inner destruction. Harvey Dent is a man whose job it is to help rid crime from Gotham, to make it a place that its denizens can be proud to call home. Instead, he becomes the very thing he fights against, and his turn is in many ways Batman/Bruce Wayne’s own fault. An extra layer of the tragedy was provided with a romance between Two-Face and his fiance, Grace, who both know by episodes’ end that nothing will ever be the same again. It’s perhaps one of the saddest conclusions to a story that I’ve seen, and you literally have your breath held the entire time while the two-parter is played out. Even predictably knowing where Harvey Dent’s path is headed doesn’t make watching this tale any less easier to stomach. No animated episode has ever affected me so profoundly, striking such an emotional chord that I still pray to this day that Dent finds some sort of salvation. If ever I needed to provide a single reason why Batman: The Animated Series was the best animated show of all time, this episode would serve as my proof.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W7dsqV70GLA

If I didn’t say it enough already, I hope you all know by now how much I cherish this slice of my childhood. Batman: The Animated Series truly lies in the upper echelons of animated storytelling, and yet even to this day it’s remained unusually underground. You have 85 episodes to get through in order to fully understand why many fans consider this adaptation of the Caped Crusader to be the most faithful and of the highest quality — yes, even more so than Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed film trilogy — so get to it! Please post your comments below, and I would love to hear from fans of the show what your top five episodes of the Emmy-winning program are as well!