With the 25th Anniversary of Batman: The Animated Series recently passing, it’s a good time to remember and reminisce about its significant contribution to superhero cartoons. Specifically, it changed them for the better.
Superhero cartoons carried the stigma of being cheesy-though-entertaining adaptations of comic book stories, with shows like Super Friends and Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends being accepted as the standard for them. This changed with Batman TAS, whose producers realized kids — mainly young boys — could handle a cartoon with a more mature tone, complete with a moodier Bruce Wayne/Batman.
The series launched after Batman’s popularity was renewed with Tim Burton’s 1989 theatrical adaptation, and started broadcasting alongside sequel Batman Returns. It contained similar themes to them, albeit slightly toned down for the afternoon cartoon audience. The 70s comic book run was also a source of inspiration, a more fitting one considering the comparative ease in transferring comic stories and art styles to animation rather than live action. That it’s well remembered today is a testament to its continued popularity, and those who were among the target audience in the early 90s look back on it with plenty of nostalgia — me included.
It’s actually more well-remembered than the Burton films, thanks to the benefits the TV medium offered over cinema. The production team, primarily led by co-creator and artist Bruce Timm and writer Paul Dini, adapted several comic book stories with light modifications wherever necessary, or made due to the target audience.
The team had plenty of inspiration from stories featuring Batman’s sizable and colorful Rogues Gallery, most of which were faithfully replicated for the show. Gun-toting villains like Deadshot were cut from TV, but it never felt like anyone was missing. In fact, the portrayal of the villains was better than the comics in some cases; the biggest was Mr. Freeze’s, whose tragic backstory made for the show was so well done that it was incorporated into the overall canon. The show also breathed new life into the Mad Hatter.
The series also had original villains who worked well in contrast with Batman, thanks to good writing and characterization. It’s hard to remember that the overwhelmingly popular Harley Quinn got her start here, where she was originally intended to be a minor villain before she took off with viewers and the production staff. TAS-original villain Baby Doll was also remarkable, though to a considerably lesser extent. Rupert Thorne also counts, despite being based off comic book mob villain (and Batman Begins villain) Carmine Falcone.
It’s a pity some content was altered due to scenes on the storyboards going a bit too far for a kids’ show, but in most cases, they didn’t hold it back from reaching its potential. In fact, several scenes were made more impactful thanks to the edits. Meanwhile, other scenes were surprisingly unaltered, like too many to mention from the Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn team-up episode “Harley and Ivy” (which elicited “should I be watching this” reactions from me as a child — I was so innocent). They were less restrained with PG-rated movies Mask of the Phantasm and Sub-Zero, the former of which is heralded as the best Batman movie of the 90s for good reason. It also just released on Blu-ray in July.
TAS also had a unique and more difficult approach to animation. Since Batman’s adventures mostly occurred at night, the show was animated on dark storyboards, which did a better job reflecting the mood. They switched to a more traditional animation style with The New Batman Adventures after the show jumped from Fox to WB, to adopt the same techniques used with Superman: The Animated Series for crossovers. The new techniques allowed for the animation to be more fluid, and WB was laxer with their editing standards, but the old style was missed.
The voice talent for TAS significantly contributed to its memorability, to the point that some actors are still associated with the franchise. It’s been over two decades, and Kevin Conroy is still considered the main voice of Batman. The same goes for Mark Hamill as the Joker, even though he’s drifted away from the role recently.
The superb acting was thanks to voice director Andrea Romano bringing out their talents, particularly in how she recorded the sessions. Unlike many other cartoons (and overall voice acting sessions), where actors record their lines in a separate booth at different times, all the actors were placed in one room so they could actually talk to each other. This resulted in improving the voice acting flow. It was even better when accompanied by music from Shirley Walker. There are too many good tracks to choose from, but Mask of the Phantasm’s title theme remains my favorite. Polygon posted a great article about her contribution to the series.
It’s a shame fate wasn’t kind to either of them. Romano was forced to retire early at the end of July after optic neuropathy left her blind in one eye, and Walker died in 2006 due to complications related to a stroke. Fortunately, their contributions will live on.
Though it’s been 25 years, TAS is still perfectly watchable today. There’s a good reason why many modern DC-related works try to recapture its greatness, like various recent animated movies and the Batman Arkham games, though their stories aren’t on par even when they involve some original staff. We may never get another animated superhero series on par with the likes of TAS and other DC Animated Universe shows, but at least we can cherish the lengthy period where we did get them.