I was inspired to finally begin watching the show by Kevin Smith’s Fat Man on Batman podcast. While I was aware of the show’s reputation for greatness, I did not begin until I heard the show, the early episodes of which were filled with creative and voice talent behind the show. I always knew Kevin Smith to be a big fan, and largely trusted his opinion when it came to Batman, and when I heard his hyperboly-filled talk of the show’s virtues that I jumped in, initially becoming obsessed with the Batman: The Animated Series intro before even watching the show. While I initially only intended to watch that original series, it became quickly apparent that my completist nature would not allow that.
I was not instantly impressed. On Leather Wings, the first episode I watched had Man-Bat as the cool, yet not overly interesting or dramatic villain. The first few appearances by the Joker, initially in Christmas with the Joker, were definitely fun, and Mark Hamill is consistently fantastic, but it was not yet the psychopath you love to fear. I’d be curious to review those early episodes again at some point, with the love I have for that version of Bruce Wayne now. It’s tough to say now when I became completely convinced of the show’s worth. Episodes like Nothing to Fear (first appearance of the line “I am vengeance. I am the night. I am Batman!”) and The Forgotten (Bruce Wayne surviving without his suit, gadgets, or even memories) had glimpses of what was to come. So did fantastic villain origins – the Two-Face two-parter and Heart of Ice.
The episode that made the show simply undeniable to me, however, came even later than that – though I was already thoroughly enjoying the it by that point. It was I Am the Night, written by Michael Reaves, which portrayed Batman in a dark depression, wondering whether he is doing any good. The amount of story that was told in those 22 minutes staggered me. Batman faces a villain, saves a kid from a life of crime, mourns his parents’ death, confronts the possibility that he is putting others around him in danger, and, of course, broods… All in the span of a standard cartoon episode. Here was animation that really went there. That was every bit as dark and complex as anything in the Nolan movies, if not more so for the added benefit of the remarkable sensitivity the show always had a knack for. The writers always knew just where to hit an audience member to produce a sudden burst of emotion, and nowhere in the show was that more apparent until that point than this episode. After it, I was hooked. I began watching the show with much more care, picking apart how the plots were constructed, and what these wizards were doing to transform me, a grown man, into someone who cries while watching a cartoon.
Also of special note were Robin’s Reckoning where Batman, enraged by the injustice done to his kid sidekick, goes darker and more brutal than I’d have ever thought possible in children’s animation. It also really showcased the special relationship that Bruce has with Dick – his desire to avenge Dick’s parents almost certainly reflects in no small part his need to avenge his own. In Trial, Batman is forced to face a court of criminals in Arkham Asylum, for being responsible for their turn to villainy. It puts to test the long-standing theory that he is indirectly responsible for the crimes he fights. I also enjoyed House & Garden, a truly creepy episode where Poison Ivy appears to have truly gone straight, despite crimes being committed that all lead to her. I don’t want to spoil it, but the moment of revelation of how Poison Ivy is doing it is chilling, to say the least. Joker’s Favor is probably the scariest Joker story of the show – where a man incurs a debt to the Clown Prince of Crime, and is then forced to carry out crimes for him.
The Man Who Killed Batman has very little Batman in it, and while you know that he couldn’t possibly actually be dead, watching the poor loser who thinks he’s, quite accidentally, killed the Caped Crusader struggle with the other big names in Gotham crime is interesting for several reasons. First, it explores the relationship the villains have with Batman, and the jealousy they have over the coveted position of being known as the person who finally took out the Bat. More importantly, it gets across the idea that any stray bullet, a single false move could end it all for Batman – being the best isn’t enough, when you’re consistently fighting against the odds.
I’m certain there are other favourite moments and episodes that people have that I didn’t mention it (such as The Demon’s Quest), and I’m not getting into The New Batman Adventures in this article yet. What stood out to me, however, where always the episodes where a new, unseen or under-examined angle of a familiar character is exposed. This does not mean that the other episodes aren’t fantastic – the entire show is consistently great genre television. There are more serious noir episodes, some with sillier or more fun, legacy villains. Even a fantastic episode where Adam West’s voice makes an appearance to hint at the character’s past. Throughout, the wonderful writing staff, led by Paul Dini, along with Michael Reaves, Len Wein, Alan Burnett, Gerry Conway, and the others shined throughout.
What made the show fantastic was more than just the story, however. I already talked about the creation of the visual style in the previous article on DCAU, and nowhere is it more apparent, than in this fantastic series. The voice acting also brings so much more to the show than I would have otherwise thought. Kevin Conroy is the voice of Batman, not only for me but for entire generations of Bat-fans, as he’s still providing the voice to the Dark Knight in the current Arkham video games. When I read comics, I hear his voice. Mark Hamill is similarly iconic as the Joker, bringing an unprecedented range and character to his laughs, ranging from silly and genuinely joyful, to incredibly dark and unsettling. Other members of the cast are, sadly, now passed away. Michael Ansara, who brought life to the famous Mr. Freeze line “It would move me to tears, if I still had tears to shed,” died just last year. This year, we lost Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. whose Alfred managed to be even more formal and drily funny than any other seen on the screen. And finally, just this week, the voice of Commissioner Gordon himself, Bob Hastings, left us at the age of 89.
While the entire DCAU is a wonderful accomplishment, and many of my favourite Batman episodes were actually from the re-branded The New Batman Adventures, none of it would have happened without the fantastic work on display in this show.