A police blimp floats in a dark crimson sky, its lights trained on the city below. Two criminals sneak in front of a closed bank before its entrance is blown apart in flames. The Batmobile fires up, racing through the streets of Gotham. Batman is hot on the heels of the bank robbers. The police chase after the robbers, but they aren’t able to catch them. But Batman is. He pins them down on a rooftop, glaring at them before physically taking them down in the blink of an eye. Punches, kicks and weapons aren’t able to slow the Bat. The night ends with the henchmen tied up, knocked out and ready to be arrested. Meanwhile, Batman stands above the city he protects, cape whipping in the wind.
That is Batman. That is a prime, perfect example of the character we love. It’s also the opening to every episode of Batman: The Animated Series. The show, which started in 1992, changed the world of Batman forever. From its riveting introduction to its look to the changes it made to the lore, The Animated Series has made an impact on Batman and changed the character forever. What about this show struck a chord with viewers? Why does it have such a lasting power with even the most die-hard fans? Simply put, what made The Animated Series so special?
The thing that first stands out about TAS is its unique, iconic look. Batman still looked like Batman, Alfred still looked like Alfred, The Joker still looked like The Joker. But the color scheme, art deco design and the minimalist costumes set the tone for the entire series and many other shows that came after. It was simple, old-fashioned and yet felt so new. Batman wasn’t loaded down with extra layers and realistic rubber padding. Instead, his suit was slim and basic. The Joker went back to his classical mobster feel, wearing a pressed purple suit with his hair slicked back and a flower on his collar. The essence of other characters was captured perfectly but never overdone, it was always straight forward.
The design of the Gotham was new by being old. Like Tim Burton’s films, TAS sent Gotham back to the past. This was a city stuck in time, never moving out of the American art deco period of the 1930s and 40s. There were computers and robots and other technological marvels, but they remained true to the time period. The same went for cars, clothing, televisions. This was a Batman that was set in the present, but somehow also remained in the past. You would look at TAS and see something never done before and something that truly set it apart. It was like looking into a dark, alternative America that never was. One that also happened to feature a billionaire flying around in a cape.
The complete commitment from the writers and artists made this choice work brilliantly. It was quite a gamble, setting a childrens show in the past. Yet it succeeded and added to the unique heart and soul of the series. It was an example of the show knowing what it was and never compromising that.
The look wasn’t the only thing that made The Animated Series so special. The show dove headfirst into mythology and character and wasn’t afraid to change things. Mr. Freeze’s origin story was tinkered with, for the better. It was so good, in fact, that it became part of the official DC canon. The same goes for Harley Quinn, who didn’t even exist before The Animated Series came around. They created her and she was such an exciting new character that DC added her to the comics and the rest is history. The show was brave enough to make changes it believed in and add characters it was proud of and it paid off. The current Batman landscape would be a different — and weaker — place if it weren’t for the series.
Casting on The Animated Series also adds to its legendary status among fans. The most notable casting choices from the show were Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as The Joker. To think of a world without those two playing these parts seems alien and inconceivable. The work of Conroy and Hamill has had such an impact on Batman and The Joker that its transcended just the show and lives on in movies and video games too. In fact, to many, Conroy and Hamill are The Joker and Batman. Being able to so completely consume these legendary characters after decades of adaptations speaks to the power and genius of the casting. They set a high bar for all performers who came after them, including actors appearing in live-action films.
The most enjoyable aspect of The Animated Series from a fan’s standpoint was the show’s pride in its comic book roots. This was a series that fully embraced where it came from, it didn’t shy away from the fact that, at its core, the story of Batman is fantastical. A grown man using gadgets and gizmos to fly around dressed as a giant bat: that’s something that just doesn’t happen in the real world. While many filmmakers have since created movies and shows that place these heroes in very real world situations, The Animated Series leaned into its comic book pulpiness. It embraced the big blimps and robots and high-flying adventures that would have no place in so many “gritty” tellings of Batman. It wasn’t silly, though. It didn’t get as out there are The Brave and the Bold and certainly not as madcap as the 1960s Batman series. Yet it didn’t shy away from the over-the-top comic book extravagance. Any show that features a man who transforms into a literal bat in its pilot is a show that isn’t afraid of being like a comic book.
Its look. Its performances. Its identity. All of these elements and many more added up to create something truly special, something that stands the test of time. If you were to ask a Batfan for a perfect example of what Batman is, The Animated Series would probably be their top answer. No other show has quite captured the essence of the character, the world he lives in and the villains he battles. There was no weak link in The Animated Series and it gave viewers week after week of a comic book come to life. As movies focus more and more on gritty realism and shared universes, its seems unlikely that we’ll ever see something like Batman: The Animated Series again. Even if we did, nothing could come close.