Sunday, September 09, 2012

Nostalgia Theater:
Two Decades of Batman: The Animated Series

Wow, Talk about a personal timewarp.

Twenty years ago this past Wednesday, Batman: The Animated Series premiered on Fox Kids, where it remained a weekday afternoon mainstay for many years. It wouldn't be an exaggeration at all to say it changed the face of all American animation in its wake forever and always. Commissioned by Warner Bros. animation to tap into the popularity of the then-ongoing Tim Burton Batman movies, The Animated Series took some cursory cues from Burton's unique vision of the Bat-verse, but it blazed a stylistic and tonal path all its own, one that all takes on Batman in the years since have paid homage to in big ways and small.

I still remember the weight of anticipation before the show's debut. The last time Batman had graced animation, he was voiced by Adam West as part of 1985's Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians. That was an eternity ago, and well before Burton completely reinvented the popular perception of DC Comics' Dark Knight. By fall of 1992, there had been an all-encompassing hype machine accompanying the release of Batman Returns the previous June, which just served to prime the pump for the impending arrival of the Batman's animated iteration. When it finally premiered, under the "Fox Action Theater" banner, it looked like this:

This. This was like nothing we'd ever seen before in kidvid. The mood. The look. The fact that they didn't even bother with a title in the opening. Heck, the title itself! This wasn't a Batman cartoon, this was an Animated Series. And while composer Shirley Walker used Danny Elfman's theme music from the Burton movies, that's pretty much where the similarities ended. As envisioned by producer Bruce Timm, the Gotham City of the animated Batman was a world of perpetual night where the '30s, '50s, and '90s lived alongside each other. While critics lauded Burton for his "serious" take on a character, this was a true Dark Knight...and a full decade-plus before Christopher Nolan made his way to Gotham.

And it wasn't just the unique, stylized designs that made Batman: Animated memorable. It was the tone and tenor of the stories, which plied to full dramatic effect the dark origins of the character (helped along by the brilliant voiceover work of series lead Kevin Conroy, who has now logged more hours playing Batman than any other actor), while bringing partner Robin (Loren Lester) out from under Burt Ward's shadow, and giving an air of menace and tragedy to Batman's legendary gallery of rogues that had never been attempted before and hasn't been matched since, even in Nolan's ballyhooed Dark Knight trilogy. 

With memorable voicework by actors like Richard Moll (Two-Face), Adrienne Barbeau (Catwoman), Ron Perlman (Clayface), and of course Mark Hammill (the Joker), Batman's villians were boiled down to their most iconic, indelible forms. The jokey, one-liner-spouting Mr. Freeze that we saw Arnold Schwarzenegger play in 1997's Batman & Robin live action feature is a sad parody of the animated version voiced by Michael Ansara in the episode "Heart of Ice," and if you thought Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent was a tragic figure in 2008's The Dark Knight, watch The Animated Series' "Two-Face" two-parter to see where they took some of their cues.

Batman: The Animated Series aired on Fox until 1995 (with its second season rechristened The Adventures of Batman & Robin) for an impressive 85-episode run. Afterwards, the show landed at the new Kids' WB network, where a new batch of 24 episodes was commissioned under the title The New Batman Adventures, with the original voice cast intact but new character designs from Timm & Team (the second series is on DVD under the Animated Series title). During the Fox run, it also spawned the theatrical feature Mask of the Phantasm in 1993, which didn't do so well at the box office, but whose popularity on home vid led to a series of DC animated movies that continues even today.

In addition, the sustained popularity and success of Batman directly created what's popularly known today as the "DC Animated Universe," a series of interconnected cartoon shows all set in the larger DC Comics universe. There was Superman in 1996, the far-future spin-off Batman Beyond in 1998, and the culminative Justice League, which launched in 2001 and lasted until '06. Although Batman has gone on to headline a variety of different animated shows since The Animated Series ended, the fact that we're still talking about the '92 version today (and likely will for a long, long time to come) is a testament to its timeless take on a timeless character.


Asif said...

My goodness! I lived for the Batman Animated Series back in my childhood years. Some of the best written material ever for children when you look back.

Zaki said...

I'd argue that it wasn't written exclusively for children, but rather an audience that INCLUDED children, and that made all the difference...especially when you compare it with the majority of cartoon shows before it.

Brian H said...

Watching that opening takes me back. I remember anticipating this show and knowing it was going to be exactly what I'd hoped it would be when I first saw those images accompanied by that music. This was appointment television for 12-year-old Brian.

Zaki said...

I have a feeling it was appointment TV for most young boys during that time!

Anonymous said...

Great article! Really enjoyed watching "Batman: The Animated Series" back in the day. Superb animation, plots, and characterization. This is definitely one of my all-time favorite cartoons, and the animation style/tone/vibe has never really been matched, IMHO.

When it premiered in Fall '92, it was hot on the heels of the excellent, dark "Batman Returns", that had come out in the Summer. It seems like the dark feel/tone to the Tim Burton films "inspired" the animated series to some extent; another inspiration may have been some of the '70's Batman comics, which brought the character back to his dark "roots".

Zubair Islam said...

Holy Cow, didn't know Mark Hamill the original Luke Skywalker, was the voice of so many "Jokers", in cartoons and in Video Games