Judge Maurice Cobbs watched all these episodes of Batman, and then he had to go to the batroom.
Our reviews of Batman: The Animated Series, Volume 4 (published January 25th, 2006), 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.
"My admiration for you is well founded, Detective."—Ra's Al Ghul, "The Demon's Quest, Part Two"
The single most delightful aspect of this deservedly acclaimed series is its accessibility—it's a show that everyone can enjoy. In his long and illustrious history, Batman has been presented in many different styles and with many different interpretations, and Batman: The Animated Series captured them all beautifully. So it's not at all surprising how well these episodes hold up a decade later, in spite of the increasingly sophisticated television animation that has emerged since this series made its debut—and it's interesting to note that these animated episodes hold up much better over time than any movie incarnation of the character to date.
Facts of the Case
Warner Bros. presents the final 29 episodes of the Emmy award–winning Batman: The Animated Series on DVD—also known in later episodes as The Adventures of Batman and Robin. Kevin Conroy returns as the voice of Batman, secretly multimillionaire industrialist Bruce Wayne, who made a vow over his parents' grave to combat the sort of evil that caused their deaths. Featured more prominently in these episodes (though not in every one) is Bruce's ward Dick Grayson, who aids Batman in the guise of Robin (Loren Lester). Also aiding Batman in his war on crime are Bruce Wayne's faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) and Police Commissioner James W. Gordon (Bob Hastings). And a new hero makes her debut as well—Batgirl (Melissa Gilbert), who is actually the Commissioner's daughter Barbara.
Although the creators behind Batman: The Animated Series are quick to point out that without the Tim Burton movies this show might never have been made, their Batman quickly established its own identity separate and distinct from Burton's stylized but substantially empty movies. Where those movies focused on only a very narrow vision of the character more in keeping for Burton's penchant for quirkiness and oddity, this show instead opts for a more classic vision of the character—and has the time and luxury to indulge in the kind of characterization and development that the movies could not seem to achieve.
Integral to that characterization is the acclaimed voice work done by Kevin Conroy, who made Batman live in a way that no other actor before him had. Chosen out of over 150 possible candidates, Conroy's resonant baritone is so perfectly suited to the character that it seems almost absurd to suggest that Batman could have had any other voice. It's a voice that conveys much with only small alterations in tone and inflection, making the contrast between the friendly, outgoing Bruce Wayne persona and the basement tones of the Dark Knight both distinct and believable. He would also find ways to bring new dimensions to that voice in the Batman Beyond series that would follow, which would finally win this talented performer recognition in the form of an Annie nomination.
Conroy is backed up by an able supporting cast: Loren Lester has always been wonderful as Robin, reminding us why the character is essential to the Batman mythology, and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., brings just the right mix of concern, compassion, and dry humor to Alfred. Bob Hastings, as far as I know, has never been properly appreciated for what he brought to the role of Jim Gordon; unlike practically any other version of Gordon outside of the comics, Hastings's Gordon does much more than just say, "Thanks for saving the day, Batman!" He plays the Commissioner as a tough but honest cop trying to do an impossible job in a nightmare city, and his voicing of the character (coupled with the excellent writing, of course) establishes James Gordon as a more complete character than the one portrayed by Pat Hingle or Neil Hamilton (or Ted Knight, in that '70s cartoon). As an interesting side note, Hastings was also the voice of Superboy in the 1966 Filmation cartoon.
Returning in the role of Barbara Gordon is Little House on the Prairie star Melissa Gilbert, but here she finally assumes the mantle of Batgirl in the two-part episode "Shadow of the Bat." Although she appears in only a few episodes, they rank among the stronger episodes of the series, and they certainly pave the way for Tara Strong to assume the voice duties on the series that would follow. Plus, a featurette, "Gotham's New Knight," explores the character's history and the decisions that were made regarding her introduction into the series. Insight on the behind-the-scenes atmosphere of Batman is available through the relaxed and enjoyable commentaries included on three episodes; "Read My Lips" and "Harlequinade" feature standard-style commentaries, while "House and Garden" offers some new-fangled "video commentary," which provides a small inset box in the lower right-hand corner of the screen that actually shows Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, Boyd Kirkland, and moderator Jason Hillhouse as they discuss the episode—frankly, aside from the opportunity to see these creators make faces, this feature adds little.
To say that the show's creators have a healthy respect for the source material is an understatement—longtime fans of the Batman comics (such as myself) will notice defining influences drawn from Neal Adams and Norm Breyfogle, Alan Grant and Denny O'Neil, even Bill Finger and Dick Sprang. Not that the comics are the only place from which influences are drawn; this series gleefully references everything from Hitchcock to Indiana Jones to The Adventures of Robin Hood and Lawrence of Arabia, giving the show a very classic feel while making the characters fresh and new, and injecting a healthy dose of their own flavor into the mix. Little character touches are tossed in that few animated series would bother with: Batman's exasperated sigh that it's going to be "one of those nights" after catching a police dispatch about a villain, or watching Robin dispatch a crew of gangsters while using a pair of fresh fish as improvised nunchucks, for instance, or Batman's unlikely—but touching—emotional connection with Harley Quinn in "Harley's Holiday." And of course, there are plenty of in-jokes aimed at die-hard comics fans—for instance, the cameo by TV comic Harry Loomis in "Make 'Em Laugh" will probably ring a bell with some, no matter how far he is from Metropolis.
"It takes more than a costume and an attitude to do this work."—Batman, "Shadow of the Bat, Part Two"
But it's more than just being faithful to the comic books—remember, the 1960s Batman was faithful to the comic books. It's being faithful to the essence of the character, something that no other version of Batman has yet successfully achieved (I'm writing this before having seen Batman Begins, so we'll see). It's very easy to make Batman too much of one thing or not enough of another, to focus too much on one aspect of the character while ignoring others. The creative team behind Batman: The Animated Series never fell into that trap; their openness to new ideas and their insistence on sticking to the things that make Batman Batman are a one-two combination that makes for pretty darn entertaining television. Plus the striking "dark Deco" visual design, which makes it distinct from practically every other animated show on television, and Shirley Walker's stirring musical cues
There's also a fine line that Dini, Timm and Co. are walking with Batman, because they manage to keep things kid-friendly without skimping on the action; here, the action progresses logically from the story instead of being the centerpiece of conflict that the stories are built around. That and little details, like the fact that Batman and Robin are dodging real bullets, that they are often in real danger, that the heroes can be hurt—and are from time to time (in "The Terrible Trio," Robin gets a broken leg, and in "Blind as A Bat," an attack by The Penguin leaves Batman temporarily blinded)—add a bite to the show without letting it become ultra-violent.
One high point of the series is continuity, which allows for that marvelous character development; rather than restricting themselves to a series of episodic but interchangeable clashes with a villain of the week, the creators instead pick up on threads from previous episodes in order to bring depth and emotional investment to the characters they've established. A brilliant example of this is "Second Chance," which revolves around Batman's efforts to reform the tragically scarred former district attorney Harvey "Two-Face" Dent (Richard Moll, Night Court)—plans that go awry when Harvey is kidnapped by his "worst enemy." The fine line that Catwoman walks between her conscience and her criminal tendencies is further explored in episodes like "Catwalk" and "Batgirl Returns." And the emotional suffering of Victor Fries (Michael Ansara) is further explored in "Deep Freeze," showing that there may still be some level of compassion left in the frozen heart of this tragic villain. This tendency to make the villains more than just two-dimensional punching bags for the heroes is another ingredient that contributes to the overall high quality of the show.
"Another fine super-villain made possible by a grant from the Wayne Foundation."—Robin, "Lock-Up"
Speaking of villains, several return to menace the citizens of Gotham: The Riddler (John Glover, Smallville) makes his third appearance in "The Riddler's Reform," the Clock King (Alan Rachins, L.A. Law) returns in "Time Out of Joint," and Batman chases Killer Croc (Aron Kincaid) into the wilderness outside Gotham in "Sideshow." Also returning is Roddy McDowall as the Mad Hatter, Paul Williams as the Penguin, and Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn. Of course, no mention of this series' guest stars could possibly be complete without mentioning Mark Hamill (Star Wars) as the Joker, with character-defining performances that blow pretty much every other incarnation of the character out of the water, including Jack Nicholson's. And it's just another testament to the quality writing of this show as well as Hamill's acting ability that they were able to drive home the chilling sadism of the Joker while still maintaining kid-friendly status.
Along with familiar returning baddies like the Joker, Two-Face, and Catwoman, some classic Batman villains and a few inspired guest stars make their animated debut in this collection—most notably, the Dark Knight crosses swords with the 600-year-old ecoterrorist and would-be world conqueror Ra's Al Ghul, perfectly voiced by David Warner (Cast A Deadly Spell), picking up a story thread from the earlier episode "Vertigo." Ra's presence also provides the framework for a Western tale from the late 1800s featuring everybody's favorite grizzled old ex-Confederate bounty hunter, Jonah Hex, in a story by Joe R. Lansdale (Bubba Ho-Tep). Also appearing for the first time are the ventriloquist's dummy turned crime boss called Scarface (George Dzundza) and the steroids-fueled strongman turned contract killer called Bane (voiced by the late, great Henry Silva, Johnny Cool). And all I can do is tip my hat at this crew for finding a clever way to include a cameo from Bat-Mite (voiced by Pat Fraley, from BraveStarr and G.I. Joe) in the episode "Deep Freeze." Bat-Mite! Unbelievable.
Equally impressive is the collection of guest stars that make appearances on the show, from reliable character actors like Dick Miller and Jeffrey Jones (Ed Wood) to TV regulars like Stephanie Zimbalist, JoBeth Williams, and John de Lancie. Star Trek's Nichelle Nichols gives voice to the vampiric mummy queen Thoth Khepera in "Avatar," Tim Matheson is Barbara Gordon's love interest in "Shadow of the Bat," and Ed Asner returns as corrupt businessman Roland Daggett. Additional guest stars include Marilu Henner, Micky Dolenz, Joe Piscopo, Hector Elizondo, Bill Mumy, Peter Scolari, Brad Garrett, Malcolm McDowell, Adam Ant, Kate Mulgrew, Elizabeth Montgomery, and Senator Patrick Leahy.
This collection also introduces a few new villains for Batman to match wits with, like the deliciously tongue-in-cheek Mary Louise "Baby Doll" Dahl (Alison La Placa, The John Larroquette Show), a former child television star with a growth-retardant disease who goes off her rocker while trying to recapture her glory days; you may have thought that TV cast reunions were scary, but this one is murder! We are also introduced to Grant Walker (Dan O'Herlihy, Robocop), an oddly familiar multibillionaire theme-park mogul who manipulates Mr. Freeze (Michael Ansara) into making his rather Bond-villain-esque master plan possible. One of these new characters, the renegade security expert who calls himself Lock-Up (Bruce Weitz, The O.J. Simpson Story), actually managed to make the leap to the comics—like fan favorite Harley Quinn before him.
"Nice guys like you shouldn't have bad days."—Harley Quinn, "Harley's Holiday"
Perhaps the thing that I like best about this series is that it is not afraid to challenge the popular perception of Batman as a "disturbed" individual. Far from being the distracted psychoneurotic of the Tim Burton movies, and also not embracing the campy excess of the 1960s series, Batman: The Animated Series establishes Batman as a classic hero in every sense of the word. For that reason, this show's creators have delivered the most definitive interpretation of the character on film to date, the standard by which all others must be judged—as a friend once succinctly put it, "The best of all possible Batmans."
By embracing, rather than being embarrassed by, the many different facets of the character established since Detective #27, the creators have left themselves with a wide range of stories to choose from: They can do classic superhero-style stories like "Make 'Em Laugh" and "The Riddler's Reform"; noirish tales like "A Bullet For Bullock" and "Read My Lips"; Indiana Jones–ish adventures like "The Demon's Quest" and "Avatar"; more comedic stories like "Harley's Holiday" and even '50s sci-fi throwbacks like "House and Garden" or "His Silicon Soul." This presents a Batman that fans of all ages can enjoy, without pandering to the alienated, sociopathic image of the hero that too many fans unfortunately tout as the "true version" of the character. Nothing could be further from the truth, and Batman: The Animated Series isn't afraid to say so.
Not that the series is infallible—occasionally, the odd weak episode does manage to creep into the mix, like "Blind as a Bat" or "Fire From Olympus," which features one of the worst characters ever created for Batman's rogues' gallery: Maxie Zeus, who suffers from the delusion that he is the embodiment of the king of the Greek gods. Also, this collection features "The Terrible Trio," generally regarded as one of the weakest episodes of the series, but I like it nevertheless—no matter. Even the few worst episodes of this series are worth watching at least once, and the best episodes are fun no matter how many times you've seen them.
This set represents the last 29 episodes of the series; after a brief hiatus, the show was retooled with newer, more sleek character designs and repackaged with Superman as The New Batman / Superman Adventures. I hope that there are plans to release those 24 episodes, even though some of the magic of the series was lost—despite greatly improved designs for characters like the Penguin and Batgirl, and fan-dream episodes like "The Demon Within," "Mad Love," and the Superman team-up "World's Finest." Still, when I think of the perfect film incarnation of the Dark Knight, I always turn back to this series, even over ten years after the fact.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "Gotham's New Knight" Featurette
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