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The Essential Guide to Batman: the Animated Series


 

This year Batman: the Animated Series (or BTAS) celebrates its 25th anniversary. A highly iconic and impactful series – probably THE most iconic and impactful series featuring the Caped Crusader – it’s found life in various permutations of its influence through several media portrayals of the character. From the succeeding live-action movies to the comics themselves, anyone who didn’t “grow up” with the show still grew up with the show if they came to know the Batman “post-BTAS”.

 

But time goes on, and the series is getting older and older. So for the uninitiated, the following is a list of what this author considers to be the ten most essential episodes of the animated series. In no particular order, this list is meant to display the series as best as we who watched it remember it. With 85 original episodes (not counting the additional 26 “New Batman Adventures” which will get a list of its own), there’s a lot of great, good and bad through its entirety. Most of the classics like “Almost Got’Em” and “Beware the Gray Ghost” are remembered fondly, and rightly so, but don’t expect them here. Personal favorites of mine such as “Time Out of Joint”, “House and Garden” and “His Silicon Soul” also aren’t listed. This is the essential episodes, the ones that anyone curious who’s not seen the series should not overlook. The combination of comic book adaptation fidelity and grounded modernization in storytelling exemplify why BTAS remains the best, truest interpretation of the Batman character nearly three decades later.

 

“If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?”

 

The introductory episode of the Riddler, this is in a long line of episodes that revamps the image of the character’s portrayal from the 1966 live action series. At the time, Frank Gorshin’s Riddler was the most popular villain of the main four (the others being Penguin, the Catwoman and Joker). His manic energy, theatricality and giddy laughter was replicated in the 1968 and 1976 cartoon series. He was hardly different in the comic books. While more obsessive and lethal than the media portrayals, Eddie Nashton/Edward Nygma’s costumed persona was remembered as a notable but jokey character.

 

This episode changed that. Returning to the slick business suit design of the initial Riddler episode from the 60s show, this version of the character is calm, cunning, and callous. An admittedly familiar plot in the series, Nygma’s origins involve his kidnapping and attempted murder of his former employee. Naturally Batman aims to stop him. But the character’s signature giggling is replaced with a cool confidence resulting in an intellect that barely acknowledges Batman’s presence. Credit goes to actor John Glover’s charming vocals, granting Nygma a sense of legitimacy that has kept fans yearning to see adapted in live action. For my opinion, all three Riddler episodes are entertaining on one level or another, but this is one where he gets away scot free, giving him a sort of aura that never carried over to the others. “Riddler’s Reform” is a better, more psychologically strenuous episode. But this one’s, darker.

 

This episode also includes Robin and is one of the best examples of how the show portrayed the dynamic between the famous duo. For decades, Burt Ward’s enthusiastic but obnoxious “Gosh, Batman!” portrayal was the one writers outside the comics went with. This episode shows the natural ease and contrasting Yin/Yang element between Bruce and Dick, particularly in the second act when the two are deducing Riddler’s identity in the Batmobile. Robin leans into his seat with his feet on the dashboard, using his own deductive reasoning, and calls Batman by his real name. It presents a realistic relationship that simplifies everything by having the characters behave like human beings.

 

The Demon’s Quest

 

Unquestionably, one of comic’s greatest villains and Batman’s most dangerous is Ra’s al Ghul. The only one to rival the Joker in dealing in grand stakes, he’s one of the few icons to come after the glut of characters created and established in the Golden Age. Created by Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams in 1971, the megalomaniacal “Bond-villain” figure made his dramatic appearance in the classic Batman #232 “Daughter of the Demon!”.

 

“The Demon’s Quest” part one is a direct adaptation of that story, with part two adapting Batman #244 “The Demon Lives Again!”. Like in the original, Robin is kidnapped and Batman is taken unawares by a mysterious foreigner who appears to him in the Batcave. From there the globe-trotting nature of the Batman stories of the 1970s gets a massive tribute, as Batman travels to Malaysia, Calcutta and Tibet, fighting swordsmen, panthers and eventually cultists. Because SPOILERS! Ra’s was behind it all.

 

What the various comic stories of Ra’s lack is the immaculate vocals of David Warner. One of the highest caliber actors to every walk into the recording booth, Warner’s air of superiority and elegance bring the madman to wonderful life with his soliloquies of world peace, his demonic laughter upon emerging from the Lazarus Pit, and his relaxed ambivalence when listing the numerical statistics for how many lives will be lost once he enacts his plan.

 

The Man Who Killed Batman

 

This episode was once described by producer (and for this episode, director) Bruce Timm as a Will Eisner story. A shlubby, wimpy guy named Sid the Squid has seemingly done the impossible: killed the Batman. All the hoods in Gotham want to deify him, or take a piece of him. Boss Thorne grants him an audience to congratulate him personally. But the fireworks really get going when the Joker sneaks Sid out of jail to know for himself if his greatest nemesis has truly gone to the big Batcave in the sky.

 

The plot is amazing. While not the snappiest episode in terms of animation, this kind of story is so unexpected and off-kilter form your basic action cartoon that it serves as a masterclass in basic screenwriting. The most memorable and best scene is the funeral scene Joker gives to Batman, while Harley Quinn plays a rendition of “Amazing Grace” on her kazoo. Mark Hamill’s performance was so electric that his movements in the studio gave Timm his storyboard concepts on the spot.

 

Pretty Poison

 

Like the Riddler’s introductory episode, this first entry for Poison Ivy isn’t as well told as “House and Garden”. Alternatively, I maintain the character has never been done better. Around the time of this episode, Ivy was given some interesting stories in the comics by the likes of Neil Gaiman and John Francis Moore. They both portrayed her fragile psyche and her deadly potential. This however gets down to the nitty gritty. A pre-two-faced Harvey Dent is madly in love with one Pamela Lillian Isley. When he suddenly falls into a coma, best friend Bruce’s investigations as the Batman brings him to the hothouse of Ms. Isley, who reveals herself to be quite insane.

 

I argue this to be the best Poison Ivy story because the character has never been more remorseless, diabolical, and bloodthirsty. Having read many her stories throughout the years thanks to the recent Batman: Arkham-Poison Ivy collection, I wonder if the character’s obsession with plants was an invention by the series. Up until that point, she was mainly obsessed with poisoning people and seducing Batman. Here, her crazed love of all things flora really gives her an edge that reflects in the Hitchcockian score that accompanies the hothouse fight. Diane Pershing’s breathy, unsympathetic performance isn’t as polished here as it would be later, but her delivery of Ivy’s ruthless dialogue still lands.

 

This is also one of those suggestive episodes that is always fun to see slip by the censors. Ivy kisses people to kill them, and her Venus flytrap monster resembles vagina dentata.

 

Heart of Ice

 

Frequently hailed as the best episode in the series, it’s the one everyone mentions over the others. Formally jokey cold-related character Mr. Freeze famously gets revamped courtesy of Paul Dini, from an outline originally pitched in the series bible with Bruce Timm and Mitch Brian. Freeze is a villain so cold he lacks emotion, but that’s only brought on by the source of his origin which involves the death of his wife.

 

It doesn’t sound as intense on paper. However, the episode is an uncompromising battle of ideals between the hero and antagonist. Jay Allman of The Animated Batman wrote that “”Vengeance” is Mr. Freeze’s theme. “Justice” is Batman’s. The result is a double fugue as each composes variations on his own theme and comments upon the other’s. Freeze is pitiless but not cruel—he incommodes Batman when he could have killed him—while Batman is hampered by his own scruples. They comprehend each other perfectly and judge each other with generosity, but they can come to no agreement. Though they are both against Boyle—the man in the middle, innocent yet culpable, uncomprehending yet laden with guilty knowledge—they cannot unite.”

 

It’s a very straightforward, linear work that never strays from its somber mood. There are several comedic moments, including lines from Alfred, the newscasts and the valet at the awards ceremony, but the entire affair matches the theme of the episode. It’s as cold as a winter’s midnight, and just as sad.

 

The Laughing Fish

 

This is the show’s darkest episode. It’s brutal. It’s frightening. It’s based on not one, but two of the best Joker stories of all time (Batman #251 “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge!” 1973 and “The Laughing Fish” and “The Sign of the Joker” from Detective Comics #475 and #476 respectively), and outdoes them both. It’s so intense, I couldn’t watch it as a kid.

 

Joker poisons the city’s fish with his laughing toxin and schemes to gain the copyright to fund his “happily hedonistic” lifestyle. The paper pushers he goes to enact this plan meekly respond that fish is a natural resource that cannot be copyrighted. So Joker threatens them to change their minds by midnight and later 3.am or they’ll die. Despite Batman and the GCPD’s best attempts (including a very comic book move of Batman switching costumes with a guy that really should’ve have worked in this show but does), the Joker gets away with his threats with shocking efficiency. Okay, they don’t actually die in this episode, but it’s a fate worse than death as they’re stricken with the horrible rictus-smiles that were a hallmark of the Joker way back in Batman #1 from 1940.

 

For this episode, the Joker’s classic theme was replaced with a mournful, horror-tinged duo of violins and piano. The result is very unnerving. It evokes the feeling of a funeral that threatens to kill another person at a moment’s notice. Nevertheless, this is the best Joker episode because of Mark Hamill’s gleeful performance. His actions are scary, making the character scary, but Hamill is hilarious. Classic Joker bits like the announcing of his murderous intentions (again, from his first appearance that’s also found in The Dark Knight) are given more shades of humor than the scenes displayed in the original comics. His interplay with Harley is less like an abusive lover and more like a boss and his hench-wench, especially the commercial they shoot when Harley admits to disliking fish. There’s also the welcome presence of Bullock in the story, who was a few years away from being created when the comic was first written. His brusque, non-nonsense approach coupled with his disdain for Batman gives the episodes a tiny bit of relief. Otherwise this episode would be drowning in mood more so than it already is.

 

Finally this contains my personal all-time favorite moment of the series: Batman abusively backhanding the Joker after everything the Clown Prince had put him through.

 

Two Face Part 1

 

Director Kevin Altieri braggadociously proclaimed this to be better than anything that the comics had done with the character at the time, which is a bit subjective. It’s not as though the psychoanalytical ingredient to Two-Face was invented by the animated series. Heck, the name of his fiancée Grace came from a then-recent issue of Secret Origins. But the superior mood of the episode is incontestable. As mentioned in “Pretty Poison”, Harvey Dent appeared in a couple of episodes before. His zealous nature to bring down the mob gave way to a tenuous grip on sanity, which had been wearing down since childhood. When his past is exploited by Boss Thorne, the result is one of the scariest transformations in the show. Oh sure, it had been previewed earlier by a scene in which Dent saw a psychiatrist and we got to see “Big Bad Harv” attempt to murder her, but the subsequent scene is Dent giving into his evil side. He lost the battle for his mind, and it leads him to ruin.

 

Maybe throwing acid in a guy’s face was too much for Broadcast Standards and Practices to stomach in 1992, but being half-blown up isn’t much nicer. This is another depressing – but – fun episode that culminates in a horrifying scream once the transformed Dent sees his destroyed face. Like Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill and the rest, Richard Moll IS Two-Face. His two voices are completely indistinguishable from each other, and the result is the best version of the character to date.

 

Robin’s Reckoning Part 1

 

The second of the Emmy winning episodes (Heart of Ice being the first),the claim to fame for “Robin’s Reckoning” is the artistic, ingenious way it got around the censors in showing Dick Grayson’s parents fall to their deaths. That’s been documented a dozen times over. What I leave with are two things: the unrivaled animation and the intense emotion.

 

The look of this episode is perfect. Spectrum Animation went out of business doing this series, but its best efforts can be found in this, Heart of Ice, On Leather Wings and the final two entries on the list. Batman and Robins colors are darker. The camera goes between being lightning-quick to inexorably paced. Batman’s never looked creepier. The silent fight on the mobster’s front lawn is a feast for the eyes (and ears, praise also to the sound editing). But it’s the emotion which drove this to win awards. A constant failure of writers’ imaginations when concerning the Batman and Robin dynamic is that Bruce and Dick are the same in their beginnings. Bruce is present at the circus the night the Flying Graysons die and relives his own trauma. He takes Dick in, initially out of protection, but makes it his mission to do for Dick what he couldn’t do for himself and find his parents’ killer. But where does that leave Dick, the actual victim? Is he crying out for vengeance, or wrestling his own feelings of guilt and grief? The best scene in the episode (and the one that needed to be in Nightwing #0 (2012) when it borrowed from other scenes) is Bruce talking to Dick about their feelings. It’s a scene that can be entirely divorced from the trappings of a Batman story, and simply shows the drama of two survivors. It’s what connects Batman and Robin and it’s what the story comes back to in part two.

 

Vendetta

 

If “Robin’s Reckoning” is the best looking episode of BTAS, this one is knocking on its door. Beyond its unbelievable animation, this is one of the more noir-ish episodes of the series. It introduces Killer Croc and features Harvey Bullock, but it’s an episode that plainly shows Batman being awesome. For detective fans out there, we see scenes of the Dark Knight following leads, stealing police files, threatening mobsters and generally being sneaky. Typical stuff, but it’s done so well that this should be the standard.

 

When people recall the animated series, this is what they remember. Not this episode specifically, but the imagery and direction. The mature themes like police investigation and crooked cops. Batman looking scary. Honesty, most of the episodes don’t look this good. The first 65 were mostly animated by Dong Yang, a decent studio that went on to get better throughout the succeeding seasons. Most infamously, the studio AKOM did some of the worst episodes like “Cat in the Claw part.2”, “Clayface part.1”, “Cat Scratch Fever” and killed the momentum of others like “Joker’s Wild” and “What is Reality?”. So if you go in with “Vendetta” thinking that this is the standard, know that it’s unfortunately the exception. But this still exemplifies the series at its best. It’s a simple detective story. In terms of plot, most of the others are better. But it gets across the idea of Batman so well that a random one like this is still better than virtually every other film adaptation.

 

Mask of the Phantasm

 

In my opinion this is the best the series ever got. Its theatrical story meant that the censors were more lenient on it being a “PG” rated film (PG in the early 1990s, much different than today), so imagine the elevator doors of the Shining opening with gallons of blood gushing from them. This is a dark, violent story that involves itself with romance and ends in tragedy. Because of course it does, it’s a Batman movie.

 

The Phantasm is never named in the film. From what I’ve heard it was a last-minute title decision. But his look is so haunting and cool that’s it’s a miracle he wasn’t used later in the actual comics (Phantasm did return twice in the animated comics). Contrary to popular claim, this is not based on Batman: Year Two. Sure, he looks like the Reaper with the skull and claw, but like Blight from Batman Beyond being Dr. Phosphorous and Spellbinder being…Spellbinder, it really is a new character. Simple, effective, and killing mob bosses. Such a straightforward idea that there’s no room for limp animation or commercial breaks, so Phantasm comes and goes in the movie’s best scenes. When he’s not there, we get scenes of Batman’s investigation, the Joker’s mania, and the mother of all police chases. The film ends with a terrific Dick Sprang homage where Batman and Joker fight over miniature props and references Thunderball, but there’s not a moment out of step in this brisk, action-packed masterpiece.

 

Agree with this list or have episodes which are more essential? Feel free to comment below!

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