This week is the 20th anniversary of the premiere of Batman: The Animated Series. In its weird way, the show actually had three 'premieres'. The first episode, "The Cat and the Claw part I", debuted on Saturday morning, September 5th, as a quasi-sneak preview of sorts. The next day saw the official premiere, in primetime no less (Sunday night at 7pm) where Fox debuted the official pilot episode, "On Leather Wings". Then came the first official weekday episode, Monday afternoon at 4:30pm, which was no less than "Heart of Ice", which to this day stands as not only one of the best episodes of the series run, but a shining testament to all that Batman: The Animated Series did right both in terms of the Batman mythos and the entire medium of childrens' action shows. This is one of an ongoing series of essays detailing the long-term legacy of the Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski's groundbreaking animated saga. Today, for the final essay of this series, I will examine the one defining feature that makes it stand out above all those that came before or since.
20 years later, it is not the most narratively ambitious kids cartoon (Gargoyles), the most explicitely violent (the seemingly light and cheerful Batman: The Brave and the Bold has far more onscreen violence and sometimes shocking carnage), the most relentlessly action packed (The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes), or the most cynical (Wolverine and the X-Men). But it paved the way for everything that has followed in its hollowed footsteps. It proved that kids cartoons could take themselves seriously, play for keeps, and exist as real character dramas. But what makes it stand out then is still what makes it stand out now. I speak of its pure realism and it's life-size storytelling. While other cartoons that came before and many that came after deal with world-changing stakes, Batman: The Animated Series almost always kept its stories explicitly to-scale. The world or even the city was rarely at stake, merely the lives of a few innocent Gothamites or the reputation of those who would attempt to protect the city. More importantly, the show made a point to focus not just on Batman and his circle of fellow crime fighters but on all of the citizens of Gotham. It wasn't just about Batman and the villains he encountered, but as much about the everyday normal people who crossed paths with these colorful figures.
There are eight million stories in this city, and the show did its best to tell every one of them. Be it the random low-level thug who thinks he accidentally killed Batman, the typecast former television star on the verge of homelessness, the disgraced physician who illegally practices medicine for his brother's mobster cohorts, the former model who was tossed aside after she had to gall to turn 30, or an Olympic athlete who cursed himself by experimenting with an untested steroid, the various heroes and villains were normal people with normal problems. The writers and directors made a point to ground even the flashiest costumed villain with plausible and sympathetic motivations. The Riddler was merely a computer game designer cheated out of royalties. The Mad Hatter was a heart-sick scientist using his newest invention to trick the object of his affections into loving him. Baby Doll went mad trying to recapture her former child-star glory. And let's not forget The Clock King, an OCD fanatic driving to his own brand of anal-retentive vengeance over a chance deviation that ruined his career. These weren't cardboard comic book villains but three-dimensional human beings driven to madness and/or crime by tragedy or random bad luck.
The world of Batman: The Animated Series was a dark and foreboding one, full of real danger and genuine menace, but its Gotham City was never so battered down by crime and misery that Batman couldn't make a real difference. Perhaps due to the fact that it was a kids show, the violence was aggressive and omnipresent without being overwhelming. Yes Gotham was a dangerous city and yes the criminals occasionally shed blood in pursuit of their goals, but said murderous escapades usually didn't take place in front of us. The Joker wasn't popping off citizens and police officers left-and-right in his featured appearances, but we damn-well knew he was killing people just off-screen in crimes we didn't get to see (until the show moved to the less-strict Kids WB, after which we actually saw Joker murdering people). Hence when the rare bit of lethal violence made it onscreen, be it the murder of Dick Grayson's parents in the superb "Robin's Reckoning", the blink-and-you-miss it executions of Two-Face's henchmen in "Two Face" part II, or the 'how did they get away with that?' scene where The Penguin drowns an associate in a giant whirlpool in "The Mechanic", it packed a punch. In a skewed way, the censorship over at Fox actually improved the show in two ways.
First, by not allowing Timm and company to fill the screen with violence and carnage, they actually made the show more realistic. Unlike the comics, which often presented a level of violence so extreme (Two Face blowing up a nightclub and killing 200 people in "Two Face", The Penguin attacking with a flock of birds and killing over 1,000 people in "A Penguin Affair", 20 cops being blown up by a random Joker bomb during "Knightfall", etc.) that it would probably cause martial law and/or mass exodus in real life, the Gotham City of Batman: The Animated Series was dangerous and somewhat corrupt, but still inhabitable with the potential to be even greater than it was. Also, by not allowing the show to be too violent or too action-packed, it forced the writers and producers to craft real stories and three-dimensional characters in lieu of non-stop fisticuffs or vehicle chases. The show never descended into 'Batman meets up with a super villain of the day and they beat the crap out of each other for 20 minutes'. Even the goofiest Harley Quinn comedy was rooted in character and contained worthwhile emotional pay offs. The show never forgot to treat its most absurd plots as real life drama for the characters who were living through them. It never forgot to be *about something* no matter how fast the fists were flying or how big the explosions happened to be.
What that 'something' happened to be is what made the show truly 'adult'. The series wasn't adult because it was the darkest, most serious, and most violent afternoon animated show of its time. No Batman: The Animated Series was adult in nature by virtue of its intelligence and its frank dealing with genuinely adult subject matter. The show's plots concerned divorce, patent law, insurance fraud, homelessness, class prejudice, age discrimination, typecasting, prison abuse, animal testing, and all manners of mental illness. Its stories revolved not around alien invasions or doomsday scenarios, but around the stuff that real life is made of. And it was not the last kids cartoon to be dark, brooding, dramatic in nature, and sometimes violent. But it still stands outside of the pack by virtue of not only its quality, but its life-size and small-scale storytelling. It is the best American action cartoon ever developed, and it still remains the best interpretation of Batman that has existed in any medium. It shows Batman at his best while never turning away from the inherent darkness of the character. It is that rarest of things, optimistic film noir, a Batman who we can respect and admire. It is a cartoon to be passed down from generation to generation, as defining a piece on the character as the 1960s television series. For a generation lucky enough to grow up watching it, it remains 'our Batman'.
So to answer the question Film Crit Hulk posed late last year, I love Batman because I grew up watching Batman: The Animated Series. So thank you to Bruce Timm, Eric Radomski, Paul Dini, Alan Burnett, Shirley Walker, Andrea Romano, Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Bob Hastings, and all the rest. It wasn't all for nothing, not for me nor for a generation of like-minded fans. The Batman of Batman: The Animated Series was my 'hero'. He still is...