While the original Batman: The Animated Series is celebrating its 25th Anniversary this year, its successor The New Batman Adventures is marking its 20th anniversary. Airing two years after the end of the previous series on Kid’s WB, this show served as a continuation of the BTAS world. In congruence with the Superman series, it was produced by the same core group. Bruce Timm, Alan Burnett and Paul Dini all produced the series, and Shirley Walker and her team returned to deliver the score. Kevin Conroy, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Mark Hamill and the majority of the major cast all returned as well.
That’s it for the similarities. This iteration of Batman is different in several ways, from the completely redesigned look to the approach they took to the stories and tone. The series was much darker than before. Kids WB was more lenient on the producers in terms of allowing adult content to seep into the scripts. The hardboiled, noir-ish tone is gone, replaced with a more recognizable superhero/supervillain take. Most of the classic villains returned, with new ones in the form of Roxy Rocket, Firefly and Calendar Girl making their appearance. The status quo had changed as well. Where the former series mainly featured Batman with occasional assistance from Robin (less occasional in the final season under the The Adventures of Batman and Robin title), the conceit of the Bat-Family found in the current comic books had been a stipulation for the network to freshen the package of a new Batman show. To justify the recurrence of the supporting characters, the timeline moved forward two years. Dick Grayson became Nightwing, Batgirl learned their identities and became an official part of the team, and Tim Drake was adopted and became the second Robin. Thus, many episodes paired Batman with either Batgirl or Robin, and half a dozen episodes featured Dick/Nightwing.
Not everyone loves this version. The red skies and less ambitious stories tend to provoke feelings of nostalgia for the original series. A major complaint of the new designs is the infamous second Joker, who lost his ruby-red lips and jaundiced eyes (They returned for good starting with the film Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker). Nevertheless, new Batman episodes from the same production team was generally welcomed by fans.
There are only twenty-six episodes of the show, not counting the three-part World’s Finest crossover with Superman and the much later film Mystery of the Batwoman, so there are less episodes to pick from to stand out from the rest. Still, The New Batman Adventures is a worthy sequel series that had some truly great episodes to show for itself.
The following are the ten episodes that speak to the best of the series. They’re listed in airdate order.
This was the first of the new episodes to air, and it was surprising. An adaptation of the Batman Adventures Holiday Special from the animated comics, this is the only episode of either series to feature three separate vignettes, with the overarching theme being the Christmas holidays. The first features Harley and Ivy controlling a brainwashed Bruce Wayne into buying them expensive gifts. The second is during Christmas Eve, pitting Batgirl, Bullock and Montoya against Clayface. The third, on New Year’s Eve, has Batman and Robin stopping the Joker from killing people at Gotham Square.
Right away one notices not just the design changes, but the darker tone of the series, despite this being a relatively light-hearted Christmas special. Harley screams “OMIGOD OMIGOD OMIGOD!” at the presumption that she and Ivy might’ve killed Bruce. Joker actually murders someone. Batman hurls a Batarang at the back of his head and is shot on-screen. Everything happens quick enough so there’s little time to dwell on anything, but it ripples throughout.
We’re introduced to not only the new Robin, but the new designs for Joker and Commissioner Gordon. We’re not given any context for the series, so the sight of a single-bat Batman and a younger, smaller Robin had me thinking at the time that this would be a prequel show. But Gordon’s new design is decidedly older, almost sickly. Questions and intrigue abound, even if it would be answered with the following episode (Sins of the Father).
The new Mr. Freeze appears, fresh from his big-screen debut in the critically discussed Batman and Robin (but weirdly enough before the previous version in Batman: Subzero). Without his wife to fight for, Freeze has become completely without heart or pity. Jay Allman writes in the Animated Batman: “Where the old Freeze was a real person, bent on cold and implacable vengeance, the new Freeze is nothing but icy malice; the old was never cruel, the new is cruelty incarnate.” The result is a Freeze that’s completely unsympathetic. True he has nothing to live for, but he goes to great lengths to ensure that people will be too busy pitying their selves by destroying everything they love.
The thing is, this isn’t a very good Freeze episode. It invites feelings of disgust and hatred, not understanding and interest. “Meltdown” from Batman Beyond is a much more successful exploration of the character. But this isn’t one to write off. While Freeze isn’t very fun, this is a solid “Batman” episode. We see more of the new life with Batgirl and Tim, including an amusing scene between the Dynamic Duo discussing due process. It’s the most explicit the family theme of the Caped Crusader’s life has been in the series. The animation isn’t terrific, but the climax involves a brutal fight between Batman and Freeze which is fun to watch.
The Japanese animation studio Tokyo Movie Shinsha (TMS) did a lot of work for BTAS, as well as a number of cartoons throughout the 80s and 90s. They animated episodes for Superman more consistently, and when The New Batman Adventures came along, they did work for that series as well. This is the first of their output, and it’s an instant classic. The Scarecrow begins taking fear away from people, resulting in wild, impulsive actions that endanger lives. He ransoms the cure, but not before inadvertently gassing Batman, who’s lack of fear pushes his methods over the edge. It’s up to Robin to stop both Batman and the Scarecrow before one of the kills the other.
For starters, Scarecrow returns with his third and best design. Completely scrapping the attempts to translate the look from the comics, Bruce Timm gave the character a hanged preacher look with a dead man’s mask. Jeffery Combs voices him, giving a calm, eerie tone that unnerves rather than monologues operatically.
The color scheme works well too, albeit indirectly. This is a scary episode, and the red skies are in constant view. A sense of urgency helps the idea that Batman could go overboard at any moment. Kevin Conroy shines as usual, giving a completely unattached tinge to his performance. Dialogue such as “Death is death. Does it matter who administers it?” is bone chilling coming from him to a villain.
Finally Robin really shines. Admittedly he was a bit bratty in his first few appearances, but the writers wrote Tim as a quick-witted, intelligent teenager who never shied away from doing the right thing. The usual conversation about Tim in this series is that he’s Tim in name only, embodying most of Jason Todd’s characteristics. I don’t fully agree. While the origin is definitely Jason’s, in this and other episodes Tim displays the intuition and independence that defined the character in the 90s. this story actually hearkens back to a Mike Barr story from the 80s that featured Jason Todd. In it, Jason is quickly kidnapped and can only hope that Batman saves him before he does something reckless. Tim in this episode acts like Tim in the Chuck Dixon comics would’ve done. Made the hard choices and approached fear with courage.
You Scratch My Back
Everyone loves Nightwing. From fans of the original Batman and Robin team to fans of the New Teen Titans to female and gay readers, Dick Grayson’s adult alter ego is more beloved to comic book fans than his original persona, although the opposite is more probable to mainstream fans of the 1960s series. Regardless, seeing Dick first appear in costume in “You Scratch My Back” in 1997 gave me the distinct impression that this series would more closely follow the comics. It’s to the point that Dick’s long hair is taken directly from the look he was sporting in between gaining the popular black and blue costume and receiving his own series. Nightwing only appeared a handful of times in TNBA, but he left enough of an impression that the mere hint of a silhouetted cameo in Justice League Unlimited was enough to get fans foaming at the mouth.
This isn’t much a love fest episode however. Dick’s annoyed at Bruce and Batgirl, who’s pretty much replaced him as Batman’s #2 from the days of the last season of BTAS. Moreover, he wants independence from the team while choosing to operate in Gotham. He finds a seeming partner in Catwoman, who informs him of a heist planned to steal jewels from South America. But she’s Catwoman, and can’t be trusted, and it’s only a question of when and how Dick will figure it out before the end of the episode.
The animation in this one is solid. Nightwing moves fast and hard, going against South American smugglers and a gigantic bruiser called El Gancho. A firefight in a penthouse where he and Catwoman escape a hail of bullets into a pool is especially fun to watch. But the real show is the tension between Dick, Bruce and Barbara. Batman doesn’t really show anything in the way of animosity towards Dick. He’s wary of Selina, who’s clearly bitter that they never ended together. Meanwhile Barbara shows pangs for the good old days when she and Dick were dating.
Of the two Nightwing centered episodes, this is the better one. It’s better animated and there’s a stronger emotional core to work from.
Unquestionably the best episode in the series. Most people will call “Over the Edge” or “Legends of the Dark Knight” as the greatest of all time, but “Growing Pains” has a fragile heart put on display so earnestly that neither come close to it.
Robin runs into an amnesiac runaway who he calls “Annie”. He tries to help her remember her past and escape her father, who Batman is after for a string of robberies. Soon it’s revealed that the man is Clayface, which begs the questions as to what Annie’s connection is to him.
TMS does the animation. The writing, by Paul Dini and Robert Goodman, is superb. It’s a mystery story, but the mystery is just a tool to show Robin’s affection for Annie. It’s not an overwrought “BUT I LOVE HER” type of presentation. They’re relationship is defined by his tireless efforts to help her, with no help from either Batman or Alfred. But the moos of the story is a creeping sadness encroaching upon an increasingly dark story that falls to the depths of the Gotham sewers. There’s relatively little dialogue in the episode. It’s not so little that it’s noticeable, but chase and action scenes push everything to the side and let the episode play visually. That may not sound like much, but watch the sequence where Tim looks for Annie through the slums of Gotham, solemnly observing homeless families to the tune of somber piano music. It makes moments of quiet delivery like Batman’s sudden “Oh my God.” and the final line “Yeah. Murder.” More effective, enhancing the story that much more.
Over the Edge
Automatic gunfire. Batman and Robin sprinting through the Batcave with the GCPD hot on their tails. Gordon calling Batman by name. The Batmobile destroyed and Alfred arrested. This is only in the first five minutes. The “Heart of Ice” for TNBA in terms of popularity and remembrance, this is an undyeable classic that every Batman fan needs to see.
Apparently while fighting the Scarecrow, Batgirl fell off a building, landed onto the squad car of Commissioner Gordon and died in his arms after calling him “Dad”. A grief-stricken Gordon unleashes the full powers of the police department on Batman, resulting in Nightwing’s violent apprehension. With the identity of the Caped Crusader now public, members of the Rogues Gallery come forward and demand millions of dollars for restitution from physical abuse. Finally, during Barbara’s funeral, Batman is found and beaten by Bane, released from Blackgate by Gordon himself.
Sike! All of that was a dream.
Many people genuinely dislike the reveal, which prompted Timm in the Director’s Commentary to ask why anyone would want that to be real. I can understand both perspectives. While the reveal never bothered me personally, it’s hard to imagine an end for the Dark Knight to get better than this. TMS returns and animated some nice chase scenes including a high-speed boat chase between Batman and the police. There is a final twist at the end which stays in the real world, but I still recommend this episode for the viewing experience alone. That nobody dies shouldn’t be a deterrent to witness one of the most dramatic episodes of the entire history of Batman in animation.
One in an annoyingly long line of Nightwing origin stories, I would argue that when all are assembled and examined together, this comes out as the best. As an adaptation of the events in the Batman: The Lost Years miniseries explaining what happened between The Batman and Robin Adventures (the last season of BTAS) and The New Batman Adventures, this presents the explanation of not only how Dick left the role of Robin, but why he and Bruce have such tension throughout the series. In pursuit of the Joker, Batman ends up roughing up a henchman in front of his wife and son. Dick, then Robin, witnesses the scene and angrily abandons the interrogation, determined to get away from his mentor. Everything comes to a head when Bruce invites Barbara into the Batcave, revealing their identities and that he knows hers as Batgirl. Dick doesn’t appreciate missing that conversation and sees it as Batman manipulating everyone. He punches him out and leaves Gotham.
This episode isn’t perfect. The Lost Years miniseries worked because it’s an expanded view that takes place over issues and years between the shows, not just a twenty-minute episode. A two-parter might’ve strained the story’s potential, but it would’ve made the events feel less truncated. But in terms of Nightwing origins, it’s a solid version that keeps everyone in character and straddling the line between sympathetic and short-sighted.
Batman’s actually not much at fault here. True, everything he does just ticks Dick off more and more, prompting him to leave, but the moment he exposes their identities to Barbara shows that he still cares for Dick despite everything. It is fun however to see Dick mouth off to Batman at nearly every turn, ending in a punch that feels like a long time coming. It’s dramatic, even melodramatic, but does more than enough to serve as a bridge between shows and provides a foundation for the new status quo. And the ending is nice as well.
Legends of the Dark Knight
BTAS rarely indulged in fan service to the various versions of the character. It was a confident, forward thinking series that wasn’t interested in getting by with callbacks and shout-outs. TNBA operated the same way. So when this episode debuted, it was one of the biggest love letters ever given to the character. A story unwittingly like a Frank Robbins story from the 1970s, three children argue as to what the true Batman really is like. One boy talks about the night his uncle met the Dynamic Duo and the Joker, leading into a 50’s style Dick Sprang inspired retro story. The girl in the group insists that Batman is “real old. Like about 50.” And that Robin is a girl. Cut to the cover from “Hunt the Dark Knight” and a sequence showcasing Frank Miller Batman and Carrie Kelley Robin battling the Mutants. In the end, they get to watch the real Batman fight it out with Firefly before continuing to disagree on which version fit him best.
The fun is all in the references. This is before Batman: Brave and the Bold and before the Dark Knight Returns two-part adaptation, so this was a direct chance for the producers to give their hand at recreating what came before as close as they could. And it’s a blast. Touches like the Joker’s weird humor and Mutants standbys Rob and Don giving color commentary are what make this episode great.
Beware the Creeper
There were a number of silly episodes between both TNBA and Superman, and most of them were funny. The best one, “Knight Time”, counts only as a Superman episode. So, in its place is “Beware the Creeper”, a veritable Looney Tunes episode that refuses to take itself at all seriously.
Reporter Jack Ryder films a television special at Axis Chemicals on the Joker, unaware that the Clown Prince is present and waiting for Batman. During the inevitable fight, Joker knocks Ryder into the vat of chemicals, transforming him into the yellow skinned wacky man who calls himself the Creeper. This Freakazoid-esque lunatic jumps around town vowing get revenge on the Joker, but not before hooking up with Harley Quinn.
The star of this episode is Jeff Glen Bennett. The voice of Johnny Bravo, Dexter’s Dad from Dexter’s Laboratory and later, the Joker from Batman: Brave and the Bold, his comedic timing and sense of maniacal energy fuels the entire episode. Everyone plays off him as a straight man, including the Joker, who’s brought to his knees by his antics.
There are other nice touches including a Three Stooges inspired trio of Joker henchmen and Harley’s outrageously suggestive attempt to show her appreciation for the Joker, but it really is all about the Creeper. He never appears again, only in backgrounds in Justice League Unlimited, but this one-time performance is one that must not be missed.
An adaptation of the Eisner-Award winning one-shot by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, the depiction of Harley Quinn’s tragic origin story is every bit as sordid and sad as it was in the original. Some of the edges are smoothed over, such as Harley sleeping her way through college, smoking herself thin when worrying about the Joker, and her cartoony fantasies, but the important bits remain.
After a failed attempt to kill Gordon, Joker kicks Harley out (again) when she doesn’t demonstrate an understanding of how obsessed Joker is at bedeviling and killing Batman. She recalls how she used to be Dr. Harleen Quinzel, psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum, and was seduced by the Joker into breaking him out. Hoping to get back in his good graces, she captures Batman on her own and hopes to deliver him to the Joker, who shows jealousy and anger at someone stealing his fun. It all ends in a violent fight that leaves everyone hurting.
Got an episode you’d recommend for a newbie? Comment below!