Today see the release of the highly anticipated Blu-ray box set Batman The Animated Series by Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. The discs arrived at my door today. I will be looking for a few bonus features and some random episodes to assess their audio/visual quality. Tomorrow, I will try to post that review along with my ten favorite Batman episodes: TASepisodes. For now, however, I want to talk about something worth repeating.
It is obvious that Batman Animated Series is the best Batman cartoon, and perhaps even the greatest superhero Renewed TV Shows (with all due respect to the CW’s DCTV or Netflix MCU series). Its 1992 success and its current popularity are the same. Its scale is what makes it stand out. Although it may have been a superhero show, its scale was seldom larger than life. It is this adherence to human-sized drama which has allowed it to age so well.
It’s not the most ambitious cartoon for kids (Gargoyles and Young Justice are two examples), the least violent (the cheerful Batman: The Brave and the Bold has much more onscreen violence), the most action-packed (The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes) or the most cynical of cartoons (Wolverine and the X-Men). It was a great example of what could be done, and it helped to set the stage for all that followed.
It showed that cartoons for kids could be taken seriously, have fun, and function as character dramas. Its uniqueness in the 1980s is what makes it still stand out today. Its pure realism and its life-sized storytelling are what I am referring to. While many cartoons before and after dealing with issues that could have a major impact on the world, Batman Animated Series has almost always kept its stories to scale.
It was rare that the world or even the entire city was at risk. Only the lives of a few innocent Gothamites and the reputation of those who tried to protect it were. The show also made it a point not to just focus on Batman and his fellow criminal fighters, but all Gotham citizens. The show wasn’t about Batman and all the villains that he faced, but also about everyday people who came across these colorful characters.
The show tried to tell eight million stories about this city. The villains and heroes were all normal people with normal problems, such as the low-level criminal who believes he accidentally killed Batman; the ex-typecast TV star who is now homeless; the disgraced doctor who illegally practices medicine for the brother’s mobster gangsters; the former model who was fired after she called to turn 30; or the Olympic athlete who abused an untested steroid to make him feel better.
Directors and writers made it a point of grounding even the most outrageously costumed villains with plausible and sympathetic motivations. Its version was simply a computer game developer who cheated out royalties. The Mad Hatter was a sick scientist who used his latest invention to make the object of his affections love him. Baby Doll tried to regain her childhood stardom, but it drove her insane. Let’s not forget about The Clock King. He is an OCD fanatic who seeks anal-retentive revenge for a single deviation that cost him his career.
These were not cardboard villains from comic books, but real people who were driven to madness or crime by tragedy and/or bad luck. The world of Batman. The Animated Series was dark and foreboding. It was full of real danger and a real menace. But its Gotham City wasn’t so ravaged by crime and misery Batman couldn’t make a difference. It was a children’s show so the violence was not overwhelming but aggressive. Yes, Gotham was dangerous and yes, criminals did occasionally lose their blood to pursue their goals. But these murderous escapades rarely took place right in front of us.
Although Mark Hamill’s iconic Joker was not making headlines by killing citizens or police officers in his featured appearances we knew that he was likely to be doing so in off-screen crimes we didn’t see (until the show moved over to the Kids WB, where we saw Joker murdering people). It was a powerful moment when a bit of lethal violence did make it onto the screen, such as the murder of Dick Grayson’s parents during the excellent “Robin’s Reckoning.” Fox’s censorship helped the show in two important ways, even though it was a biased one.
They made the show seem more real by not allowing Timm or company to use violence and carnage on the screen. Unlike comics and shows like Gotham, which often display extreme violence that would cause martial law or mass exodus, the Gotham City Batman: The Animated Series was safe and inhabited with the potential for even more. Kevin Conroy’s compassionate Bruce Wayne/Batman could make a difference in this city.
Network censors prevented the show from being too violent or action-packed. Instead of allowing for vehicle chases and fisticuffs, the producers and writers had to create real stories and characters. The show did not descend into “Batman meets up to a supervillain of today and they beat each other for twenty minutes”. Even the most absurd Harley Quinn comedy had a solid foundation and provided valuable emotional rewards.
It never forgot to make the most ridiculous plots real drama for those who were experiencing them. No matter how fast it was shooting or how large the explosions were, the show never forgot that it was *about something*. The show was true “adult” when it had that “something”.
It was not “adult”, but it was the darkest and most serious animated series of its day. No Batman: The Animated Series is adult by its intelligence and open dealing with the genuinely mature subject matter. The plots included divorce, patent law and insurance fraud, homelessness as well as class prejudice, age discrimination typecasting, prison abuse, animal test, and all kinds of mental illness.
The stories were not about alien invasions and doomsday scenarios but rather the real stuff of life. It wasn’t the only cartoon for kids that was dark, brooding, and dramatic, sometimes even violent. It is still a standout among the pack due to its quality and its small-scale storytelling. It is the most successful American action cartoon and the best Batman illustration in any medium.
The film shows Batman at his very best, while not ignoring the inherent darkness. It’s the rarest thing, optimistic film noir. A Batman we can admire and respect. As the 1960s TV series defined the character, it is a cartoon that can be passed down to the next generation. It is ‘our Batman’ for those who were lucky enough to see it growing up.