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A Look Back At 'Batman: The Animated Series' In Honor Of Its 30th Anniversary

By Brian Richards | TV | March 8, 2022 |

By Brian Richards | TV | March 8, 2022 |


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For many fans of Batman and his crimefighting adventures in the streets of Gotham City, this was the very first time they saw him in live-action form on their television screens.

This version of Batman, which aired on ABC from 1966 to 1969, and starred the late, great Adam West as Batman, and Burt Ward as Robin, is still beloved and held in high regard by many of those same fans. It gave us Batman and Robin fighting off nameless goons while accompanied by brief shots of onomatopoeia for every punch and kick that landed. (Which would later be imitated by none other than Radioactive Man) The Bat-Phone. Eartha Kitt as Catwoman. Batman fighting off an actual shark with a can of Shark Repellent Bat-spray. This scene of Cesar Romero as The Joker talking so much sh-t on the phone to Batman, only to realize that Batman is in the very same room with him. Robin’s many exclamations of shock: “Holy _____, Batman!” The Batusi. And of course, Batman trying his hardest to figure out just how to safely get rid of an active bomb.

It wasn’t until thirty years later in 1989 that the Caped Crusader was seen in live-action once again in director Tim Burton’s Batman, which starred Michael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as The Joker. It forever changed the way that everyone (from hardcore comic book fans to people whose only knowledge of Batman came from his earlier television show) viewed the character and the city he protected. It made Batman into a shadowy protector who said very little, and who was capable of making both his allies and his enemies extremely nervous. It gave us a Joker who was ridiculously over-the-top as only The Joker can be, and who took great pleasure in unleashing all kinds of murder and mayhem on everyone who crossed his path. It gave us a version of Gotham City that would make Travis Bickle himself feel overwhelmed with disgust before driving off in his taxi, never to return.

After the success of Tiny Toon Adventures, Warner Bros. Animation was interested in developing some additional cartoons to air on Fox. One of the ideas discussed was a show about Batman, which immediately grabbed the interest of writers Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm, who became excited about what they could bring to the table in order to make this happen and make it worth watching. From Vulture:

Eric Radomski: We never imagined they would hand over the show to us and let us make it. We thought, at a minimum, we might be art directors on it, to have some influence on what it might look like. But I don’t think either of us conceived that they would just hand the keys to the castle to us. But that first minute-and-a-half [pilot film to show what the cartoon was intended to look like and be like] ended up being the confidence that Jean [McCurdy, president of Warner Bros. Animation] needed to hand the keys off to us and say, “You guys know how to make this, so go off and make 65 of them.” We were both stunned. We were like, “How the f-ck are we gonna do this?”

Bruce Timm: Neither of us had ever produced a series before, so that was a big gamble on her part. There was a period in the early couple months of production where, literally, Eric and I didn’t know if we were gonna show up and find the locks changed on our offices. I mean, this had never really been done before for TV. What we wanted to do was quite a bit more adult than, say, shows like G.I. Joe or Transformers or He-Man. Those shows were deliberately designed for young kids, and nobody else. If you were 13, that was pretty much the cutoff point for a show like He-Man or G.I. Joe. But we wanted to do a show that would appeal to kids and also to adults, as well. Basically, we were making the show for ourselves.

That show became Batman: The Animated Series, which made its network television premiere on September 5, 1992, as part of the Fox Kids lineup.

Each episode of Batman: The Animated Series showed Batman encountering a different threat that placed the citizens of Gotham City in grave danger, and Batman (either by himself, or accompanied by his partner, Robin) doing everything possible to find out who is responsible in order to stop them and bring them to justice. These threats came in the form of villains who Batman was encountering for the first time at the start of their villainous careers: Pamela Isley, a.k.a. plant-obsessed bioterrorist Poison Ivy; former scientist Victor Fries, a.k.a. Mr. Freeze; superstar actor-turned-Mob enforcer Matt Hagen, a.k.a. the shape-shifting Clayface; the sesquipedalian Oswald Cobblepot, a.k.a. The Penguin; attorney (and former close friend of Bruce Wayne’s) Harvey Dent, a.k.a. Two-Face, and last but never least, the Clown Prince of Crime himself: The Joker.

It would also be very foolish on my part to leave out one important character from this conversation: Selina Kyle, a.k.a. Catwoman, who is more of an antihero than an unrepentant villain compared to the rest of Batman’s rogues gallery, and who finds herself having plenty of will-they-won’t-they sexual tension with Batman whenever they cross paths. They usually tend to cross paths because of Catwoman doing what she does best: stealing from others in order to live deliciously, along with her beloved cat, Isis. Which leaves Batman torn between wanting to kiss her, or kick her ass before taking her to the Gotham City Police Department in handcuffs. And sometimes, he would end up doing both.

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It didn’t take long for Batman: The Animated Series to impress both critics and audiences, as its quality and its love of the original source material was clearly evident in every frame throughout every episode. The incredibly smart writing. The beautiful artwork that made Gotham City look amazing, but also feel like a place that is shrouded in darkness no matter the time of day, and should be avoided at all costs (courtesy of the artwork being designed on sheets of black paper instead of white, and this combination of noirish imagery and Art Deco design was dubbed “Dark Deco” by the producers). The phenomenal music composed by the late, great Shirley Walker. All of those factors contributed greatly to how thrilling, and funny, and just plain fun it was to watch. For the moments where the Batmobile would roar through the streets of Gotham; Batman using his brains and brawn to fight his way out of one too many life-and-death situations; Alfred offering helpful advice to Bruce/Batman, and occasionally knocking some sense into him when he wouldn’t listen to reason; and the villains being delightfully wicked with their schemes that Batman would eventually shut down before hauling them off to Arkham, or waiting to fight them on another day when they manage to successfully evade capture.

One of the very best things about Batman: The Animated Series was its portrayal of Batman’s enemies, and how careful the show was to give you plenty of reasons to cheer Batman on as he fought to outwit them and take them down, while also making the members of his rogues gallery three-dimensional enough to make you feel sympathetic and even heartbroken about the paths that have been chosen for some of them. Some of the clearest examples of this: “Heart Of Ice,” the episode that introduced Mr. Freeze and turned him from an over-the-top mad scientist with a fondness for puns related to cold weather, to a heartbroken widower who has weaponized his grief and buried his humanity in order to lash out at the man whose greed and lack of empathy responsible for ruining his life (by causing a laboratory accident that resulted in Victor becoming Mr. Freeze and only able to survive in sub-zero temperatures) and taking away the possibility of him saving his wife, Nora. (That man, Victor’s former boss, was voiced by Mark Hamill before he was hired to portray The Joker.)

“Feat Of Clay,” showed how Matt Hagen was once a superstar on the big screen before a car accident (and one can’t help but wonder while watching this episode if it really was an accident) left him horribly disfigured and forced to work as an enforcer for Roland Daggett, the corrupt CEO of the company that provides the skin-care product that temporarily restores his looks. And when Daggett decided that Matt’s services were no longer needed, his two henchmen attacked Matt by forcing him to ingest gallons of the aforementioned skin-care product, turning into the grotesque, shape-shifting monstrosity that is Clayface.

“Two-Face” featured Harvey Dent not only struggling with his lifelong anger issues but his attempt at keeping those issues (and his therapist’s file discussing those anger issues in exact detail) a secret from the public during his campaign to be re-elected as District Attorney. When crime boss Rupert Thorne steals his file and attempts to blackmail Harvey, he only ends up unleashing Harvey’s wrath, and Batman’s attempts to rescue Harvey and stop Thorne only result in an explosion that leaves Harvey injured, horribly disfigured, and abandoning all hope of living a normal life before adopting the coin-flipping criminal persona ‘Two-Face.’ According to the show’s producers, the scene in which Harvey sees what his disfigured face looks like, followed by his loud and blood-curdling scream, and Grace, Harvey’s fiancée, seeing both sides of his new face for the first time before fainting in shock? It made one person in the audience cry when watching an advanced preview of the episode, and it’s not hard to see why.

Mary Louise Dahl, a.k.a. “Baby-Doll” was a character who was first introduced not in the original Batman comics, but in this episode of Batman: The Animated Series, which is also titled Baby Doll. A successful child actress on the television series Love That Baby who was unable to find the same level of success as an adult due to systemic hypoplasia, an extremely rare medical condition that prevented her body from physically aging, resulting in her permanently looking like a five-year-old girl, and her attempts at being a serious dramatic actress being ridiculed by critics and by the general public. With the help of her ruthless right-hand woman, Mariam, Baby-Doll kidnapped her Love That Baby co-stars in an attempt to recreate their time together on the set of their show when she was her happiest and most successful. Batman and Robin swooped in to rescue them, and Baby-Doll’s confrontation ended with her lashing out at Batman for taking away her chance to be happy and normal again. Good luck not shedding any tears during the final scene, in which Baby-Doll breaks down in tears, and Batman comforts her as best he can as she says, “I didn’t mean to.” Which is her cutesy and well-known catchphrase from Love That Baby, but is incredibly saddening to hear when Baby Doll finally utters it with sincerity.

One of the very best episodes that Batman: The Animated Series aired was all about the villains (specifically The Joker, Two-Face, Penguin, Killer Croc, and Poison Ivy) and their unsuccessful attempts at taking down Batman for good. It was far from poignant like the aforementioned episodes, but it was absolutely delightful (if only for Killer Croc’s incredibly weak contribution to the discussion, and everyone else’s reactions to it). The episode? “Almost Got ‘Im.”

Baby-Doll wasn’t the only original villain created to appear on Batman: The Animated Series. When Paul Dini was preparing to write the episode “Joker’s Favor,” he wanted to introduce someone who Joker could interact with, and who would make him look even more funny and scary and egotistical. He decided on a female henchperson who would be reminiscent of the molls that appeared in the Adam West Batman series. Someone who was bubbly and funny, but also had attitude and was just as capable of bringing the pain as The Joker, even when she was getting on his nerves.

That someone was Harleen Frances Quinzel, a.k.a. “Harley Quinn.”

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Harley Quinn proved to be a very popular addition to the show, and appeared in several episodes, including “Harley and Ivy,” where she became very good friends with Poison Ivy, leading to the two of them to become partners-in-crime.

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Her popularity grew far beyond Batman: The Animated Series, and Harley Quinn would not only go on to appear in the one-shot comic The Batman Adventures: Mad Love, and Batman: Harley Quinn (which also gave us this classic cover illustrated by legendary artist Alex Ross) followed by her very own comic book series, as well as in the comic-book series Gotham City Sirens, in which she would team up with Poison Ivy and Catwoman, and who now has her own animated series airing on HBO Max. (Harley is voiced in this series by actress Kaley Cuoco.) She would then appear in live-action, first on the short-lived WB series Birds of Prey, where she was played by Mia Sara and who only appeared as Dr. Harleen Quinzel; a brief cameo appearance on Arrow where she was voiced by Tara Strong, but played by Cassidy Alexa and not referred to by name; and most recently, in the films Suicide Squad, Birds Of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), and The Suicide Squad, where she was portrayed in all three films by Margot Robbie.

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The writing and the artwork are hugely important parts as to why Batman: The Animated Series worked so well and fired on all cylinders, but it wouldn’t be nearly as great as it was and still is, if not for the actors who provided voices for each character, and who were guided by legendary casting director/voice director Andrea Romano in sounding so powerful and unique that it’s nearly impossible to imagine these characters sounding like anyone or anything else. Diane Pershing as Poison Ivy; Richard Moll as Two-Face; the late Michael Ansara as Mr. Freeze; Ron Perlman as Clayface; Paul Williams (yes, that Paul Williams) as Penguin; John Glover as The Riddler (who would then go on to portray Lionel Luthor on Smallville); the late, great John Vernon as Rupert Thorne; the late, great Ed Asner as Roland Daggett; David Warner as Ra’s al Ghul; Henry Silva as Bane; Adrienne Barbeau as Catwoman; Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn; the late Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. as Alfred; the late Bob Hastings as Commissioner Gordon, Robert Costanzo as Harvey Bullock; Melissa Gilbert as Barbara Gordon, a.k.a. Batgirl; Loren Lester as Dick Grayson, a.k.a. Robin, a.k.a. Nightwing; Matthew Valencia as Tim Drake, a.k.a. Robin II; and of course, Mark Hamill as The Joker. Who not only replaced original casting choice Tim Curry for reasons that still remain unknown and unclear after all these years, but who impressed the hell out of Romano and the producers by showing what he was able to do as the Joker, and prove that there was much more to him than saving the galaxy with a lightsaber in hand as Luke Skywalker.

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As for the voice of Bruce Wayne, a.k.a. Batman: It was a long and difficult process that nearly resulted in Timm and Romano casting other actors who could get the job done, even if they weren’t all that impressive and memorable while doing so.

And then, they met an actor named Kevin Conroy.

Bruce Timm: We got to the point [after listening to 500 voices, auditioning 120 of them, and narrowing it down to about four or five actors] where we were so desperate that anybody who would walk through the door, even if it was for a different part, we would say, “Oh, by the way, would you be interested in playing Batman as well? Because we can’t find our Batman.”

Andrea Romano: So I asked my roommate — he was a casting director — I said, “Any actors you know?” And he said, “You know, there’s this wonderful actor who has a lot of stage experience, and a lot of TV and a lot of soap-opera experience, and his name is Kevin Conroy.”

Kevin Conroy: I learned early on after getting out of Julliard that a lot of theater actors did voice-overs to supplement their income, but I had never done animation. [My agent] just called me one day and said, “Warner Bros. is looking for voices for a new show they want to do, and they’re not looking at the traditional voice-over people. They want to look beyond that. They’re looking at theater actors and film actors, because this is gonna be very dramatic. Would you wanna go in?” I said, “Sure, sounds like fun.” So, amazingly, Batman was the first animated audition I ever had. I had no preconceptions about the character, either. Bruce Timm said, “What do you know about Batman?” And I said, “Well, I know the Adam West show from the ’60s.” He said, “Oh, no, no, that’s not what we’re doing! Forget that!” He had to explain to me the Dark Knight legacy and how dark this character was: “He’s avenging his parents’ deaths and he’s got these dual identities.” I said, “You’re describing an archetypal hero, almost like a Hamlet character.” I was putting it in terms of stage roles that I was familiar with. I let my imagination go and I just went to [Batman voice] the darkest, most painful place in my voice [returns to normal voice] and it just came out. I saw them get very excited in the booth.

Bruce Timm: Out of the blue, this guy whom none of us had ever heard of before walks in. All the women in the room were like, “Oh, he’s dreamy,” because he’s really good-looking. And we kind of told him what we were looking for: “Kind of like Michael Keaton, but kind of not. We want to play, definitely, a distinct difference between his Bruce Wayne voice and his Batman voice.” We had him read both Bruce Wayne dialogue and Batman dialogue and, right out of the gate, without any extra direction from us, he just nailed it.

Andrea Romano: Kevin opened his mouth, and Bruce and I had such a eureka moment, where we looked at each other and went, “Oh, my lord. Not only is the voice there, but he so understands this character and the distinction between Batman and Bruce Wayne!” And we did want there to be a very clear distinction, but we wanted it to be subtle. We didn’t want it to be really overt.

Kevin Conroy: For me, the key for playing the character and the Batman sound is that the Batman persona is not the disguise. The disguise is Bruce Wayne.

Bruce Timm: Everyone in the booth looked at each other and went, “I think this is the guy.”

Batman/Bruce Wayne have been portrayed by many actors: Lewis Wilson, Adam West, Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Christian Bale, Will Arnett, David Mazouz, Ben Affleck, and most recently, Robert Pattinson. There are Batman fans who have their favorites and their preferences. But if you ask many of them who in their mind is the quintessential Batman, whose voice and persona as both Batman and as Bruce are pitch-perfect, and who says and does all of the things that they need/want/love to see Batman doing onscreen, whether it’s battling his enemies; looking after his colleagues and employees at Wayne Enterprises while ensuring that his vast fortune is used to help lift others up rather than keep them down; bonding with his friends and teammates, despite the fact that he admits that he is really not a people person; and doing everything that he can to prevent anyone else from experiencing the same levels of pain and loss that he once did as a child: the answer that will usually be given (and who will usually rank the highest when comparing different versions of The Caped Crusader) is Kevin Conroy. (And not surprisingly, Keaton’s version often comes second.)

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Batman: The Animated Series received numerous Annie and Emmy nominations during its run, and it took home four Emmys for Outstanding Writing in an Animated Program (for “Heart Of Ice”), Outstanding Animated Program (For Programming One Hour or Less) (for the episode “Robin’s Reckoning, Part 1”), Outstanding Music Direction and Composition, and Outstanding Sound Editing - Special Class. And its success would result in the creation of other animated shows set in the world of DC Comics, which would go on to be known as the DC Animated Universe, a.k.a. the DCAU. Superman: The Animated Series, which starred Tim Daly as Superman/Clark Kent, Dana Delany as Lois Lane, and Clancy Brown as Lex Luthor, whose visual design in this show has resulted in many a debate to this very day on whether or not this version of Lex is Black.

This then led to the three-part episode “World’s Finest,” in which Batman and Superman meet for the very first time, and who don’t like each other all that much, before putting their differences aside to team up against The Joker and Lex Luthor who are also working together.

In 1999, Batman Beyond premiered on The WB as part of their Kids WB lineup. Set in a futuristic version of Gotham City known as Neo-Gotham, it featured an elderly Bruce Wayne who was no longer physically able to continue as Batman, and ended up recruiting teenage Terry McGinnis to follow in his footsteps and wear the new and improved Batsuit as the protector of Neo-Gotham.

2001 saw the premiere of Justice League, in which Superman realizes that as powerful as he is, he needs help in protecting the Earth from any and all threats. So he approaches Batman, Wonder Woman, Hawkgirl, The Flash, Green Lantern, and Martian Manhunter about forming a super-team to work together in keeping the planet safe from harm whenever necessary.

Three years later, Justice League Unlimited premiered, which saw the Justice League with a much bigger lineup of superheroes working with the original seven members to protect Earth and the rest of the universe.

The success of Batman: The Animated Series also led to Warner Bros. asking the producers to develop a feature film based on the show, one that could be released in theaters. The film was Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, and despite its box-office failure, it grew in popularity once it was released on home video. It is still considered by many fans to be the best Batman film ever made, in any medium.

Batman: The Animated Series has left behind a legacy as a cartoon that told great and memorable Batman stories that could rival any of the classics that have long been immortalized in comics form like Year One or The Dark Knight Returns. It took its source material and its content seriously, but not too seriously that it forgot how to have fun, or resorted to making fun of the characters it was telling stories with. It was a show that cared about being something more than a 30-minute commercial for toys that kids would then beg their parents/guardians to buy for them, but about being the kind of show that both kids and adults could watch and enjoy. It has inspired both the fans who watched it at home, and its own writers and producers who crafted each episode of Batman’s onscreen heroics. (FYI: If you haven’t read Paul Dini and Eduardo Risso’s graphic novel Dark Night: A True Batman Story, in which Dini wrote about a violent mugging that nearly killed him, and about his physical and mental recovery that involved both real-life friends and the mental imagery of Batman and his allies and his enemies acting as angels and devils on Dini’s shoulders, I strongly recommend that you seek it out and read it.) Not just by showing him go toe-to-toe with his enemies every night and refusing to give up, no matter the size of the threat, but by also showing us that when it comes to Batman and the criminal element that he encounters? Sometimes, an act of kindness and mercy in a place like Gotham City really can be a revolutionary act.

Batman: The Animated Series is now streaming on HBO Max.