Warner Bros. // 1998 // 521 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Kerry Birmingham (Retired) // January 25th, 2006
"Yes, I admit it: I am Batman." -- Alfred, who is not Batman, to Barbara Gordon, in "Old Wounds"
Was there ever a finer time for Batman on film (or video, as the case may be) than on the animated series of the '90s? The comics had long recovered from the cringe-inducing POW! WHAM! BIFF!, Old Chum legacy of the '60s live-action TV show, but Batman had never quite lived it down in other media. As far as the big screen goes, Tim Burton had the right idea, but was ultimately too much like, um, Tim Burton, and the less said about the increasingly disastrous Joel Schumacher films, the better. No, Batman received no finer treatment than in this justly venerated series. This run of 24 episodes comprises the final episodes of this series, produced years after the initial run and released under the name Batman: Gotham Knights, later packaged with the contemporaneous Superman cartoon as The New Batman/Superman Adventures. The Dark Knight truly lived up to his name on this series. Naturally, it couldn't last.
The Batman origin should be pretty well known at this point: Rich little boy, parents killed by a mugger, little rich boy grows up to be big rich man, avenges while dressed as a bat. In the years since, he accrues a long list of seriously disturbed villains.
At some point between the previous seasons and this run of episodes, big things came to Bat-town: keeping in line with the comics, Batman (Bruce Wayne) and Robin (Dick Grayson) have a falling out, with Dick striking out on his own as the superhero Nightwing and Batman regularly endangering the life of a new teenage protege, Tim Drake, a younger, snider Robin. Along with Batgirl (Barbara Gordon), the "Batman Family" (I promise never to use that term again) defends Gotham City against said seriously disturbed villains in every episode.
* "Holiday Knights"
Three vignettes show the Batman Family (okay, I lied) taking on a series of villains like Clayface, Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, and The Joker during the holidays. By "Holiday" I don't mean "Christmas": Batman and Robin face The Joker on New Year's Eve.
* "Sins of the Father"
The story of just how Tim Drake, delinquent in training, became the new Robin.
* "Cold Comfort"
Mr. Freeze, without the woman he loves, takes it upon himself to destroy the things that the people of Gotham love. His plan, however, hides a terrible secret.
* "Double Talk"
Reformed villain The Ventriloquist gets a job and begins a quiet civilian life that begins to unravel when he begins to think that his old "boss," ventriloquist dummy "Scarface," has come back for him.
* "You Scratch My Back"
Catwoman gets Nightwing to help her bust a smuggling operation, but her motives may be less than pure.
* "Never Fear"
The Scarecrow develops a gas that removes all fear from its victims. When Batman is exposed to it, Robin must take charge.
* "Joker's Millions"
The Joker, flat broke, is surprised to learn he has inherited millions of dollars from an old gangster adversary. This goes badly for him.
* "Growing Pains"
Robin meets an amnesiac young girl on the run from persons unknown, but she has a strange connection to those hunting her.
* "Love is a Croc"
In the oddest villain pairing yet, monstrous Killer Croc teams up with diminutive lady killer Baby Doll, but Croc soon finds out the pairing may not be what either of them expected.
* "Torch Song"
An assault on a pop star leads Batman after serial arsonist Firefly.
* "The Ultimate Thrill"
Thrill-seeking mercenary Roxie Rocket comes to town, and she finds that nobody thrills her quite like Batman.
* "Over the Edge"
The worst happens: a hero is killed in duty, and the police come after an exposed Batman with a vengeance. Batman loses everything, and has a final confrontation with one of his greatest foes. Everything is, of course, exactly as it seems.
* "Mean Seasons"
A crazed ex-supermodel, under the guise of "Calendar Girl," sets out to destroy the people that she believes ruined her career
Batman fights an evil farmer. Yes, evil farmer.
* "Cult of the Cat"
Catwoman gets in over her head when she steals an idol from a cult of cat-worshippers, and things only get worse when Batman gets involved.
* "Animal Act"
Nightwing returns to the circus he worked in as a child to investigate a string of robberies committed by trained animals.
* "Old Wounds"
At last, the story of what happened to split up Batman and the original Robin, and how Batgirl came into the fold.
* "The Demon Within"
The auction of an antique artifact puts Batman in the middle of a supernatural conflict between magician Jason Blood and Klarion, the Witch Boy.
* "Legends of the Dark Knight"
Three kids recount the different stories they've heard of what Batman is really like...and they're all true.
* "Girls' Nite Out"
When Superman villainess Livewire escapes from custody en route to Gotham from Metropolis, it's up to Batgirl and Supergirl to stop her when she teams up with Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn.
* "Mad Love"
The story of The Joker's assistant and biggest fan, Harley Quinn, and the lengths she will go to for her man.
Love is in the air, as Bruce Wayne becomes the latest in a string of Gotham high rollers to get married in a hurry, causing Bruce to give up his Batman identity. As usual, everything is exactly as it appears.
* "Beware the Creeper"
An accident on the anniversary of Batman's first encounter with The Joker leads to the creation of a highly unlikely hero...villain...character.
* "Judgment Day"
The mysterious "Judge" is attacking Gotham's repeat offenders, and in his mind, even Batman is guilty.
This run of episodes featured extensive redesigns, new personnel on the animation front, and a more subtly juvenile tone in the switch from Fox to the WB, proving that you really can't go home again. This isn't to say that this Batman is completely neutered. Even under the auspices of The WB, the writers still manage an occasional off-color joke or reference; how censors let Harley's seduction of The Joker ("Wanna try some of my pie?") through or allowed Roxie Rocket to scream orgasmically as she and Batman straddled a giant, er, rocket, is beyond me. While possibly indicative of the sick minds of the producers (well done, lads), if nothing else it shows how expert the production staff had become at doing children's entertainment in a way adults could enjoy.
It's this sensibility that makes the majority of these episodes such a treat. Batman lost a lot of his edge when the series transitioned into Saturday morning fare, but even the most kid-friendly episodes of the series are always palatable to adults while catering to its audience with minimal condescension. Somehow, it all manages to work, treading a fine line and mostly getting away with it. There's more than a couple of duds here -- "Chemistry," "Cult of the Cat," and "Beware the Creeper," featuring a suspiciously Jim Carrey-esque Creeper, spring immediately to mind. But these episodes are overshadowed by the sweet but suspenseful "Double Talk," the absurd "Joker's Millions," the comic book homage "Legends of the Dark Knight," and "Mad Love" (Harley, despite having since appeared in the comics, has never really worked except in this series, where a decidedly less homicidal Joker would actually tolerate her). These are personal favorites from a strong collection of episodes, and while it doesn't live up to its own precedent, it's still one of the finest portrayals of a superhero on the TV -- or any -- screen.
Sound quality is acceptable, and the extras suffer only in that there's not enough of them. The commentaries, by series masterminds Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, and other regular contributors to the series, are rife with banter and technical tidbits to please the animation nerds (which is to say I enjoyed them immensely). Unfortunately, the commentaries appear only on "Over the Edge," "Legends of the Dark Knight" -- prudent choices both -- and the much-reviled "Critters" (they reason that they should comment on an unpopular episode; for the record, it's not THAT bad. Still, you know: evil farmer.) The "Interactive Arkham Asylum" is really just a series of featurettes spotlighting Batman's villains, with interview footage of the production staff, episode clips, and model sheets. It's an interesting look at the production process, and goes a long way towards explaining the rationale behind the redesigns, even if you can't appreciate them in themselves. Individual episodes open with the original Batman: The Animated Series title sequence, though the "Play" (All) option does allow you to choose between that and The New Batman/Superman Adventures opening.
With this incarnation of Batman appearing only in sporadic Justice League episodes hereafter and The Batman currently creating its own canon, these episodes were both the last hurrah and the beginning of the end for Batman's best incarnation not on a comic book page.
This season collects none of the animated feature films (a "movies collection" seems likely in the future), nor does it contain any of the crossover episodes that belong to Superman proper, such as the Ras al-Ghul episode "The Demon Reborn" or the excellent episode in which Superman must impersonate Batman.
Having a more extensive superhero cast also dilutes the appeal of Batman somewhat. That a professed loner like Batman would have such an extensive support system has long been one of the great ironies of the comic books, and like the comic books, there are plenty of times when you wish Batgirl or Nightwing or whoever would just get out of the way and let Batman be Batman. In the comics, you have the option of reading Robin or Nightwing in their own book. Here, forced to divvy up screen time and often whole episodes between them, the cast feels a bit busy. It's hard to wonder how Batman's going to get out of something when rescue is just a batarang throw from off-screen away.
For the most part, the redesigns fall flat. One sees the aesthetic sense in paring down characters to the least amount of angles and lines, but it often feels as if this search for economy was at the expense of good design. Be it the gaunt Commissioner Gordon, the goth Catwoman, or the ultra-purple Joker, most of the redesigns are just ghastly. Slightly modified versions of Batman himself, Harley Quinn, and a few others work well, but of the drastic redesigns only Scarecrow is an improvement (and creepy, brr).
Likewise, the animation quality, while still good, appears to have taken a hit. The switch in animation houses wasn't a prudent move, as things move noticeably less smoothly and Gotham seems to lack the shadowy atmospherics it had in earlier episodes, possibly a function of changing networks (and target audiences).
Those looking for pristine transfers will be disappointed. Every episode is littered with scratches and grain. There's a certain wistfulness at knowing this was probably among the last of modern animation produced on film cels (as opposed to digital), but that doesn't mean Warner couldn't have sprung for some clean-up of the transfer. Batman in general and this series in particular deserve better.
Batman: The Animated Series: In a world where "The" Batman looks like he was hit in the face with a frying pan and the Teen Titans are stuck in anime hell, accept no substitutes.
Hold on, let me flip a coin...not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2006 Kerry Birmingham; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
Running Time: 521 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Interactive Arkham Asylum
* Commentary on "Over the Edge" by Producer Bruce Timm, Writer/Producer Paul Dini, Art Director Glen Murakami, and Storyboard Artist James Tucker
* Commentary on "Critters" by Producers Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, Director Dan Riba, Art Director Glen Murakami, and Storyboard Artist James Tucker
* Commentary on "Legends of the Dark Knight" by Producers Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, Director Dan Riba, Art Director Glen Murakami, and Storyboard Artist James Tucker
* Batman: The Animated Series -- Volume 1 Review
* Batman: The Animated Series -- Volume 2 Review
* Batman: The Animated Series -- Volume 3 Review
* Batman: The Animated Series -- Secrets of the Caped Crusader Review
* Batman: The Animated Series -- The Legend Begins Review