Monday, September 3, 2012

Celebrating the legacy of Batman: The Animated Series 20 years later: Why Batman:TAS is still the best.

This week will be 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 will be the first in what I hope are a handful of essays detailing the long-term legacy of the Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski's groundbreaking animated saga. Today as we celebrate the first unofficial premiere, let me make this official pronouncement.  Batman: The Animated Series is the best interpretation of the Dark Knight Detective in any medium, ever. Yes, you read that right. Brilliantly written, flawlessly acted, gorgeously rendered and superbly crafted, Batman: The Animated Series is the best piece of long-form art concerning the character of Batman ever concocted.

It is better than the original Bob Kane/Bill Finger comic books, it is better than the Neal Adams/Denny O'Neil 1970s revivals, it is better than better than "Knightfall", "No Man's Land", "Hush", or even the near-perfect post "No Man's Land" arcs written by Ed Brubaker (Batman), Greg Rucka (Detective Comics) and Devin Grayson (Batman: Gotham Knights).  It is better than any of the live-action Batman films, no matter how much I adore the first two Tim Burton Gothic fantasies or the first two Chris Nolan crime epics.  It is better than any cartoon that came before or since, even as Batman: The Brave And the Bold molded itself into a glorious celebration of the comic book history of its central character.  It is better than the 1960s Batman television show, even as I admit that the now-derided camp classic was both a faithful interpretation of, if not improvement on, the 1960s Batman comics and a vital part of keeping Batman's legacy alive during the 'make mine Marvel' years.  Twenty years after its premiere, Batman: The Animated Series, which ran on weekday afternoons or Saturday mornings on Fox Kids from September 1992 to September 1995, and then for another two years on Kids WB as The New Batman Adventures from September 1997 until September 1999, remains the defining portrait of The Caped Crusader.

When we read the comic books, we hear Kevin Conroy's perfectly modulated vocals.  When we think of the Joker, no amount of Heath Ledger's targeted anarchy or Jack Nicholson's wanton slaughter can dispel Mark Hamill as the voice in our heads.  Aside from those two justly celebrated triumphs, the show contains the defining portraits of a number of iconic Batman characters, from major villains like Mr. Freeze and The Mad Hatter (Roddy McDowell, in one last great character part before he died in 1998) to seemingly minor supporting characters like Leslie Thompkins and Harvey Bullock.  It made The Riddler (John Glover) into a deadly serious threat while making The Scarecrow, I dunno, *scary*.  It made Harvey Dent (Richard Moll) into the nicest, funniest, friendliest guy around only to gut-punch us when he finally became Two-Face.

But more than just offering the best interpretations of certain major and minor characters, Batman: The Animated Series was the perfect 'happy medium'.  Putting aside the fact that the show was uncommonly good most of the time, putting aside that it kicked off an entirely separate DC universe, it was a perfect distillation of all things Batman in a show that nonetheless blazed its own trail and established its own (somewhat loose) continuity.  It was a perfect introduction to the entire Batman universe, bringing viewers in contact not just with popular characters like The Joker and Alfred but with ones that had never been portrayed outside of the comics, such as The Ventriloquist and Rupert Thorne.  It existed not merely to comment on the comic book continuity but to create its own separate universe.    

For audiences who already loved Batman or audiences who had little-to-no frame of reference, it was everything good about the character.  Batman (voiced by Kevin Conroy of course) was a champion of the innocent, a man with compassion and decency who put justice over vengeance.  He was a dark and brooding figure on the outside, willing to dangle criminals over rooftops and in front of traffic, but we never felt that this Batman would cross any kind of moral lines (unless he was doused with anti-fear gas, as happened in the late-in-the-game "Never Fear").  Batman was almost always the smartest, fastest, toughest, and most morally upstanding person in the room.  Yet he was more-than-willing to admit error ("Vengeance may be deliciously sweet, but what that boy needs right now... is a friend.") or show perhaps undue mercy when the situation called for it ("I ran into [Batman] once, forced me to turn my life around.  Now I've got this great job, even Mr. Wayne knows me.  Never too busy to stop and ask how my boy's doing.").

Bruce Wayne was as much a force for good in Gotham as Batman.  Despite occasionally playing the klutz in public, he never so tarnished his reputation for the sake of hiding his secret identity that he negated his ability to do great and important things as Bruce Wayne as well as Batman.  Yes, you could point to various comic book issues from the last 20 years ("24/7" from Gotham Knights, "Favorite Things" from Legend of the Dark Knight, etc) that highlight this version of Batman, but it was always only a matter of time before some editorial edict forced the character to return to his "He's a psychotic asshole and we didn't realize Frank Miller was being satirical" interpretation.  And you could pick bits of the movie series and even the 1960s Batman show that highlighted bits and pieces of the ideal Batman, but Batman: The Animated Series was frankly consistently better than the film series or the 1960s television show (which peaked during the first half of its first season) and highlighted this interpretation throughout its entire run.

Film Crit Hulk wrote an essay last year basically asking "Why do we like Batman?"  Basically it was a commentary on the fanbase who reveled in the darker, harsher sides of the Batman world without acknowledging what it was commenting on (IE - those who hold up Frank Miller's extremist satire The Dark Knight Returns as a true presentation of the character).  The truth is that I shouldn't technically like Batman all that much.  I'm explicitly opposed to vigilantism in all of its forms, and no amount of social niceties can disguise the fact that Batman by definition is a violation of due process and certain civil liberties.  The answer to Hulk's question can be found in a generation who grew up on Batman: The Animated Series.  The show showed off the very best possible Batman and put him smack-dab in a series of uncommonly intelligent and thoughtful character plays. The world of Batman: The Animated Series was a flawed and messy one, filled with dark criminals and sometimes hopeless citizens.  It was the best of all worlds, a dark and brooding Caped Crusader who nonetheless was a true hero at all times.  He represented the ideal that Christian Bale prattles on endlessly about in the Chris Nolan films even as those films existed to shoot holes in his idealism.

The world of Batman: The Animated Series is indeed a best-case scenario fantasy, a fantastic television show that delivered in all technical and artistic arenas.  It was moving, funny, exciting, suspenseful, and occasionally educational.  It is overall, the very best presentation of the Batman mythos that we have yet seen in any artistic medium.  Just one reason for that is that it presents us with, as Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, would say, "Best Batman ever".

Scott Mendelson

Next time: A look at the unsung heroes of Batman: The Animated Series.

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