RE:Animation – Batman the Animated SeriesThe Dark Herald
“One thing and one alone keeps Gotham from drowning in a sea of corruption and despair. It is a grim being cloaked as much in mystery as he is in shadows. Like a bat he dives out of the night to feed on Gotham’s evil. To some, he is merely a legend. To others, he is a dedicated, driven avenger. And to criminals, he is their worst nightmare. He is … BATMAN.” – Introduction to Batman the Animated Series, Writer’s Bible
In 1989 anybody going to a multi-plex started seeing posters in the Upcoming Movies case that starkly displayed a bat sigil in a gold oval against a black background, with the release date of June 23rd underneath it, and nothing else. No text, no cast credits, no title, and none of those things were needed. We all knew what the film would be about.
What we didn’t know was if it was going to be any good or not. There was no reason to believe it would be. Christopher Reeves run as Superman had ended disastrously two years before. Superman IV had been terrible in every way available to it. The film was so cheaply made that Canon films was (not unreasonably) accused of embezzling the production money Warner Brothers had given it and it had indulged its stars political activism with a strong anti-nuclear message. It crashed, burned and looked like it was the end of superhero films.
So, there was initially a lot of skepticism on the part of comic book fans about a Batman movie. Then we started hearing things that did nothing to assuage concerns.
We heard Tim Burton was directing. And our reaction was; the Beetlejuice guy? He directed Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, what the hell is doing directing an action flick?!
Then we heard that Michael Keaton was starring as Batman. And our reaction was; HIM? Keaton is a skinny as a rail comedy actor. Okay, a pretty good one but he doesn’t look like he could take on a buffed-up flea, let alone Killer Croc.
Finally, we heard that Jack Nicholson was playing Joker. And our reaction was: Fuck yeah! I’m totally in. I’m going. No question.
Well, Nicholson delivered, and the Prince songs were great, even if everything else was pretty much what we were expecting it to be. Batman (1989) was a Tim Burton movie. The action scenes were terrible. The look of it was dark, dank, and weird. I never did buy Keaton as Bruce Wayne, let alone Batman. Kim Bassinger as Vickie Vale was an inexplicable casting choice for this kind of a movie.* The project was originally greenlit as a live-action version of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns but the moment Tim Burton was in the saddle he chucked it on the grounds that he hates superhero comics.
We would have to wait sixteen years before we finally got a real Batman movie.
However, we only had to wait three years for the greatest all-time animated version of Batman.
Paul Dini’s Batman the Animated Series launched on Fox Kids in 1992. Stylistically, it was heavily influenced by the Burton Batman, at first but it quickly muscled that garbage out of the way to become its own thing.
The opening scene started with the old Warner Bros. logo which then faded into twin spotlights resembling eyes. The image resolves itself into that of a blimp. A police blimp.** As silly as the GCPD blimps were in theory, they served as a very effective call back to Batman’s early days in the 1930s. A time of poverty and desperation. The faceless bank robbers we see in silhouette, also fill that mold, thus reinforcing the initial image. They are wearing three-piece suits and wide-brimmed fedoras, and would obviously be appalled by very the concept of knocking over a bank in anything other than proper business attire.
However, I should stress that while there was an impression of 1930s New York City, the series didn’t take place in any specific post-1920s decade. It was sort of the 20th century in general. This series also put the gothic back in Gotham City. The artwork gravitated to old New York City, its primary aesthetic was art deco. The cop cars, the Batmobile, the office buildings even the Gotham City Jail all leaned heavily into this. But while Burton’s Batman was also heavily influenced by Deco it was clearly meant to evoke unease or even horror. Dini’s Gotham City used art Deco to achieve clean, minimalist elegance.
The art was daring and innovative. The artists started with a black background, instead of white, the goal was to interpret night is an impressionist style. At the same time, it evokes the works of 1920 Art Deco genius J.C. Leyendecker. The series artwork was also rebelling against the 1980s fashion of extreme detail work as typified by G.I Joe, in keeping with the Deco motif everything was as simplified as possible. It was a deliberate call back to Fleisher Studios Superman serials of the 1940s.
Batman the Animated Series was a pretty dark vision for a kid’s show. Dark kid shows were not generally done back in the 1990s but they were able to get away with it because of the Burton movies. And it was indeed a kid’s show, albeit one that adults rarely missed.
The death of Thomas and Martha Wayne follows the usual back story, of the murder in the ally after going to the movies. There wasn’t really much detail given to life stories. I am not certain the show animated their deaths, I couldn’t find any footage. Although, there was one episode where Bruce (under the influence of the Scarecrow) wakes up one morning to find his parents living at Wayne Manner.
It has been repeatedly observed that Superman is Clark Kent’s secret identity, meaning that Clark is the real person and that Supes is just his public persona but that with Batman the opposite is true Bruce Wayne is the public face and Batman is the real person. This wasn’t quite the case with BAS. Usually, Bruce Wayne is portrayed as a dim playboy. He is known as a wastrel who is never up before noon. He is disconnected from the running of his company. He was the kind of guy who “just could NOT be Batman.” In those versions, Wayne is just an act. Bruce was approached very differently in BAS. He wasn’t just a rich playboy. He was clearly intelligent, hardworking, and very active in the management of Wayne Enterprises. I don’t recall it being made explicitly clear (again, kid’s show) but it appeared that Lucius Fox was the CEO and that Bruce Wayne was the chairman of the board.
I think the biggest difference between Burton’s films and Dini’s series was Batman himself. Burton’s Batman is a broken creature, he stalks the night because he is driven by a thirst for vengeance that will never be quenched. Dini’s Batman on the other hand wasn’t hunting criminals in the night because he needed to hurt and punish them, ultimately, he was pursuing this mission to make his city to be a better place. Burton’s Batman was less than we are but Dini’s Batman was being more.
Dini was also very clever in how he dealt with Batman’s biggest legacy problem: Robin. When the comic books first started to blow up big in 1940, there was a belief among the publishers that since the vast majority of comic book readers were boys they should introduce boy heroes for the audience to identify with. Just about every hero had one. Green Arrow had Speedy, Superman had Jimmy Olsen and Batman had Robin. Okay, fine for back then but by the 1990s it was, “quick call whatever superhero that fights against child endangerment!” Burton had sidestepped the issue by not having Robin in his movies at all. However, Dini’s version of Batman was a lot truer to the character, and historically speaking you can’t have Batman without Robin. Consequently, in episode 24, Fear of Victory we meet Robin for the first time and he’s already in college. There are occasional flashbacks to a much younger Robin but for the most part, the more awkward questions aren’t brought up.
This series was clearly a high priority for Warner Brothers because they were willing to spend decent money on it. Every episode had its own original score which was unheard of for a TV cartoon in those days. The voice actors were top of the heap as well. Kevin Conroy was a Julliard graduate who did mostly theater and a little TV work to supplement his bottom line. His agent talked him into auditioning for Batman because they were looking for non-traditional voice-over actors. Batman was his first time doing voice work. What really sold Conroy to Dini and Timm was that he understood and delivered the different voices needed for Bruce Wayne and Batman, getting them both right, was where they had been running into trouble.
What sets Batman apart from the rest of the heroes is his deep bench of villains. It’s not just that there is a bunch of them. Batman has the fundamental limiter of having no superpowers. Consequently, his enemies can’t have much in the way of superpowers either or he will just have to call Superman whenever somebody rough shows up. So, if your superhero’s antagonist can’t be defined by his powers then he has to be defined by whatever has left him warped in mind and body. That makes for a very lush and verdant writer’s garden. Batman’s villains are the most intriguing and deeply layered characters in all comics.
And Dini dove deep into them. Now I will be the first to admit that Condiment King wasn’t all that great but Clock King proved to be surprisingly formidable, he was an enemy that was entirely dependent on his wits making him an excellent foil. Mister Freeze had been second-tier because there has always been a ton of villains with instant freeze powers, but Dini gave him a heartrending backstory of trying to save his wife from a terminal illness, that always was his primary goal but lab equipment ain’t cheap which brought him into conflict with Batman.
Ra’s al Ghul was comparatively new as a villain in the comics but he had proven to be a fan favorite, so he was brought into the series and was chillingly voiced by David Warner. He was more interesting than Batman’s usual villains, something of Moriarty character, granted, one that was hundreds of years old. Al Ghul and Batman respected each other, there was almost a frenemy relationship between them.
Joker himself was the best of the villains. He was originally based on Jack Nicholson’s portrayal but shortly began to resemble the version from Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. The producers first cast Tim Curry in the role but by the time they had the third episode he’d done in the can they knew he wasn’t what they wanted. But it turned out that one of the guest voices was pretty close to exactly what they wanted. Suddenly, Mark Hamill was being remembered for something other than Luke Skywalker. The Stanislavski Method emphasizes complete immersion by the actor in any given role but the truth is, that Method performances have been pushed to the side in favor of creating memorable caricatures, which Hamill absolutely nailed with Joker. He displaced Jack Nicholson’s performance and in someways outshines Heath Ledger’s portrayal.
Joker presented a unique problem for Dini. Unlike the rest of Batman’s enemies, Joker could not be humanized, if you tried he’d stop being Joker. So Dini came up with the solution of putting a human face on the suffering he causes to someone who loves him. Harley Quinn was based on a battered wife that Dini knew personally. Quinn had all the hallmarks, she was always making excuses for him, always trying to see the better man beneath the surface, who really isn’t there in the case of Joker. She was the most layered character to come out of Batman the Animated Series. She made the jump to the comics and she was absolutely ruined there. What made Quinn compelling was that you kept hoping she would find a better life for herself. But then she did and became instantly generic crazy girl heroine. The friendship she had with Poison Ivy was turned into a sexual relationship because as everyone knows, women can’t just be best friends. They have to have sex, it’s a law of the universe. Particually if they are cartoons.
Batman the Animated Series was only on for two seasons totaling a mere 85 episodes but in that brief time, it established itself as one of the greatest superhero shows of all time. It has been repeatedly praised for its mature content, striking artwork, superb acting, and excellent writing.
It also performed the vital task of overshadowing Tim Burton’s films. Batman the Animated Series became an entire generation’s Batman, the version that everyone agreed on was the right one. It set a standard of audience expectations that is still very much in place today. Every new Batman that comes along will be weighed against Paul Dini’s version for the foreseeable future.
Not bad for a Fox Kids show.
Okay I’m done here.
*The more explicable-in-a-Tim-Burton-movie; Sean Young, had been the original choice, but she broke an arm and had to be recast with whoever was available at the last minute.
**It turns out there actually are police blimps but they are a recent innovation.