When I was about ten years old, I used to plop myself down after school in front of my ’90s-chic, wood-paneled TV set with a Capri Sun and the soft, moist remnant of the ham and cheese sandwich that I hadn’t finished at lunch, and not just watch, but absorb Batman: The Animated Series. The suspense! The drama! The musical numbers about domestic abuse! What more could a fifth-grader ask for?
Now Comic-Con, the impending rise of the Dark Knight, and, of course, Landon Palmer’s thoughtful exploration of the film serial and TV iterations of the Batman character in this week’s Culture Warrior, have made me especially nostalgic for the cartoon Caped Crusader of my youth – the guy who ended up ruining me for all other cartoon superheroes – so, I decided to revisit the series and examine it with fresh, grown person eyes (which actually means eyes that are increasingly crappy).
I’d certainly like to say that, back in 1992 when the show debuted as part of Fox Kids’ weekday programming block, I quickly and shrewdly noted that it was a groundbreaking piece of animation both in tone and style. At the time, however, I only had four years of education, so when I first watched Batman: The Animated Series, I just thought that it was really cool (or rather, “dope”) and then polished off the aforementioned soggy sandwich before playing Pogs or something. But without even fully realizing it, I think most kids were probably drawn to the cinematic quality of the show – watching Batman: The Animated Series was like watching a mini-movie every day.
In each episode, Batman squared off against familiar foes from the DC comic books that the series was based on, like The Joker (voiced by Mark Hamill) and new ones created specifically for the cartoon like Harley Quinn (the Joker’s lovesick sidekick). All of the action was set in a 1940s-inspired version of Gotham City. The drama that I alluded to earlier wasn’t limited to the interplay between Bruce Wayne and these villains, it was also in the soundtrack – the show opened with the same commanding Danny Elfman-composed theme from the Tim Burton Batman films – as well as the animation – the dark color palate, the looming Art Deco buildings that brought Gotham to life, and the way scenes were framed (the sort of oblique angles that are usually only encountered on the big screen).
Batman: The Animated Series always had cross-generational appeal because it was operating on a more complex level than most of its child-friendly contemporaries – adults and kids alike were tuning in during its original run, which ended in 1995. It’s considered by many to be one of the best animated shows all time (not simply one of the best kids shows, or superhero shows), so in re-watching now, the thematic depth present in most episodes isn’t surprising. The fact that this depth was achieved without preaching to young viewers, though, is impressive.
The show often depicted real human tragedy. But I’m not just talking about death, I’m talking about helplessness and desolation. In “Two-Face,” the celebrated two-part episode about golden boy district attorney Harvey Dent’s transformation in the infamous, dichotomously disfigured baddie, Harvey is in anguish and struggling to suppress his wicked split alter ego. He can’t stop his inevitable change and neither can Batman/Bruce Wayne, who wants to help him because of their friendship, but also because this situation reminds him of his inability to save his parents the night they were killed. Like Two-Face, many of Batman’s antagonists were grappling with dire emotional and psychological issues that were put on display and not just referenced as part of backstories, this was where their villainy was rooted, which made them sympathetic characters, and that, in turn, created all of this moral ambiguity – something that most children’s programs aren’t comfortable with.
In “Heart of Ice,” another series-defining episode, Mr. Freeze seeks retribution for his wife’s death as well as his own chemically mutated body by going after his slimy ex-boss, and it’s almost impossible not to side with him, even though you know his ass belongs in Arkham.
I wasn’t conscious of any of this narrative complexity when I was a kid, obviously (although I’m sure I must have appreciated it on some level), but it wasn’t necessary that I be. You can watch Batman: The Animated Series and enjoy the writing or the animation if that’s your thing, or you can just enjoy it for the action-packed Batman cartoon that it ultimately is.