Yesterday, Aren alluded to the series of animated television shows and a movie produced in the early nineties by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm as “arguably the definitive take on Batman.”
I agree. Perhaps caught up in the cinematic wonder that are Christopher Nolan’s films it is hard to believe that a series produced for children’s Saturday morning cartoons and a low-profile animated film release perhaps best capture the legend of the dark knight, but they do.
In one of the first episodes of The Animated Series (hereafter, TAS), “On Leather Wings,” we are thrown into a mystery of a mysterious bat-creature who is being hunted by the police. Only a ways into the episode do we learn that it is not Batman who finds himself being hunted by the police. The episode manages to highlight the underlying fear of bats that makes Batman work, Batman’s outsider status among Gotham crime-fighters, and his fundamentally just nature, as he manages to help return Dr. Kirk Langstrom back from his Man-Bat mutated form, understanding his Jekyll and Hyde situation.
Suffice to say, it’s complicated stuff for a child. My experience watching the episode with a six-year-old boy my wife and I were babysitting was one of constantly having to answer questions: Why are the police after Batman? Because they think he committed the crimes. Did he? He didn’t. Is Man-Bat a bad guy? Not really, but sort of. Yet, the episode is completely engrossing for a child, without dumbing things down for him or her.
The series as a whole proceeds likewise, piecing out key bits of the Batman mythology – Joker, Alfred, the Wayne’s murder, Catwoman, Dick Grayson’s Robin, until part way through the series one has a fairly solid understanding of who Batman is, why he does what he does and who his friends and allies are. In “Christmas with The Joker,” a telling character moment unveils as Dick tries to convince Bruce Wayne to watch the Christmas classic It’s A Wonderful Life. Incredulous that Bruce has never seen it, Dick receives Bruce’s explanation: “I could never get past the title.” It’s a somber, revealing moment in a episode that otherwise highlights the Joker’s more insanely playful side, without muting his menace.
The series also benefitted from some wonderful voice acting. Kevin Conroy’s Batman/Bruce Wayne sounds perfect as Batman, neither too gruff nor too cheery. And he handles the Batman to Bruce transitions better than anyone (despite my love for the Nolan films, I do get a kick out of Bale’s Bat-growl). The supporting cast is fantastic as well, including guest stars such as Ron Perlman as Clayface and Roddy McDowell as the Mad Hatter. Of course, Mark Hamill’s Joker is clown prince not only of crime, but of the voice actors in Batman’s rogues gallery. Hamill’s performance is not a celebrity guest appearance but proof Hamill’s late-career blossoming as one of the premiere voice-actors in the business. He disappears so completely into the role that I still get stunned reactions when I mention that Luke Skywalker himself is my favourite Joker.
The distilling of Batman’s character and storylines isn’t the only thing that makes the series iconic, it’s also Bruce Timm’s character designs that make the series so memorable. Drawing on film noir as well as the old Fliescher brothers Superman cartoons from the 30s and 40s, Timm’s Batman is timeless but not outdated. It’s purposely difficult to pin down when exactly in the twentieth century the series is set. The angular style suits the Batman design well, while the minimalism translates well into an animation system where much of the actual animation is done overseas without much last minute input from the show runners. Thus, simplicity is a benefit. The show’s take on Gotham is dark, never sunny, a perfect labyrinth for Batman to prowl though never reaching the absurdity of some renditions (Burton or Schumacher’s for instance).
The show had one theatrical spin off, 1993’s Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, which told the tale of one of Bruce’s early loves, Andrea Beaumont, his early days as Batman, and a present day menace, the Phantasm, who is knocking off Gotham’s mob bosses.
The film was a flop at the box-office (taking only $5 million on 1500 screens over Christmas 1993 ), but it’s a mature take on Bruce’s motivations for being Batman, perhaps only rivaled by Batman Begins for the way it delves into his originating trauma and what keeps him going. Of course it also featured Hamill’s Joker at his most deranged and dangerous.
The animated film drew in part on sources such as Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, but it’s sophisticated romance and refusal to stick the happy ending (of course, how could it if Batman were to remain Batman at the end) made it more satisfying than any Batman film that proceeded it.
The legacy of the series was strong. Warner Brothers home video released one more direct to video film in the series style, Batman: Subzero, telling the story of Victor Freeze once again, a character whom TAS had rescued from being a gimmicky “ice” villain and resurrected as a tragic figure.
1999’s Batman Beyond and the 2000 film, Return of the Joker, pushed the world of TAS into the near future, aBlade Runner-like Gotham of flying cars, where an aging Bruce Wayne teaches young Terry McGuinness to be the new Batman. Surprising the series worked quite well, and Return of the Joker was a fairly satisfying take on the return of Batman’s greatest villain.
Dini and Timm would go on to lend their talents to re-imaging Superman and the Justice League for Warner Brothers animation. It is to them that DC owes the success of their animated television shows.
For me, TAS and Mask of the Phantasm remain indelible pieces in shaping my understanding of Batman, and remain the benchmark by which I judge other renditions of the character. Even today, despite my love for Nolan’s Batman films, it is Kevin Conroy’s voice I hear when I read the comics. And it is TAS that I will turn first – not any other filmed or printed version of the legend – when it comes time to introduce my own son to the legend of the dark knight.
 For a unparalleled look at the making of the series and its legacy, see the fantastic 1998 book Batman: Animated by Paul Dini and Chip Kidd. Full of production sketches and more, it outlines the production of the show and the challenges faced by the creative team to keep it true to their vision.
 Box Office Mojo
Batman: The Animated Series
Various directors, writers, and creative teams over 110 episodes, including Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, and Eric Radomski, and Alan Burnett; based on the DC comics characters credited to Bob Kane (with respect to Bill Finger); featuring the voice work of Kevin Conroy, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Bob Hastings, and Mark Hamill.
10 out of 10
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
Directed by Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm; screenplay by Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko, and Michael Reaves based on the DC comics characters credited to Bob Kane (with respect to Bill Finger); featuring the voice work of Kevin Conroy, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Dana Delany, Stacy Keach, Abe Vigoda, and Mark Hamill.
9 out of 10