This season, Batman fights "The Judge." This is NOT Judge Kerry Birmingham, who in that situation would crumple into a tiny ball and weep softly to himself with his eyes closed tight, wishing so hard that the scary man would just go away, why won't he go away, WHY MUST HE STAY HERE TORTURING ME SO WHEN I JUST WANT HIM TO GO AWAY?!...What was I saying?
Our reviews of Batman: The Animated Series, Volume 3 (published June 30th, 2005), Batman: The Animated Series, Volume 1 (published July 28th, 2004), Batman: The Animated Series, Volume 2 (published February 10th, 2005), Batman: The Animated Series: Secrets Of The Caped Crusader (published November 10th, 2004), and Batman: The Animated Series: The Legend Begins (published April 23rd, 2002) are also available.
"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.
Facts of the Case
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"
• "Sins of the Father"
• "Cold Comfort"
• "Double Talk"
• "You Scratch My Back"
• "Never Fear"
• "Joker's Millions"
• "Growing Pains"
• "Love is a Croc"
• "Torch Song"
• "The Ultimate Thrill"
• "Over the Edge"
• "Mean Seasons"
• "Cult of the Cat"
• "Animal Act"
• "Old Wounds"
• "The Demon Within"
• "Legends of the Dark Knight"
• "Girls' Nite Out"
• "Mad Love"
• "Beware the Creeper"
• "Judgment Day"
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.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
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.
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