Nostalgic Review: Batman The Animated Series

In honor of the twenty-fourth anniversary of Batman:  The Animated Series’ premiere, I thought I would take a look back at the infamous mid-1990s cartoon.  Yes, the official date was yesterday, but it was Labor Day.
Writing is labor…so shut up.
So back to the show…
The argument is as old as time in the Geek Universe…what is the best adaptation of Batman and his world?  Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns?  Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy?  Ben Affleck’s upcoming vision of Batman in Snyder’s DC Universe?  That movie I shot as a preteen in the backyard?
That backyard masterpiece aside, Batman:  The Animated Series was one of the best adaptations of the character to ever grace the screen, big or small.  It masterfully mixed Tim Burton’s dark cinematic vision of Batman with a fun tone found in the comics.  The dark visuals and somewhat mature themes would be mixed with comic book quips, crazy storylines and colorful characters.
Most DC Animation fans will ask the same thing whenever a new animated film is announced:  Is Kevin Conroy voicing Batman?  There is a palatable disappointment whenever the answer is no.  Conroy was the definitive animated Batman…and possibly one of the best portrayals of the character in general.  He brought a deep understanding of the character’s flaws and strengths in nearly every line he speaks.
There was a difference between Batman and Bruce Wayne, at least early in the show.  Everyone knew that Batman is the gruff crime fighter while Bruce Wayne is the rich play boy.  And this is done perfectly simply by the way Conroy changes the voice between the two identities.  Conroy didn’t need a voice changer like Ben Affleck.  Or a comically gravelly voice like Christian Bale.
The change in voice was so subtle.  Yes, Conroy deepens his voice, but it was also the way he spoke.  Batman is more direct, confident.  Wayne was more loose, friendly and even a little inept.   As the show went on, the line between Batman and Wayne began to blur and Conroy adapted to the change perfectly.  The older Batman in the last seasons of the show was more cynical and grizzled.  He didn’t care to put up that facade anymore.
Equally as important is Batman’s arch nemesis, The Joker.  Mark Hamill’s portrayal of the Joker is second only to Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight.  Some have said that Hamill’s character is over the top and they would be right.  But it fits this version of the character.  He’s a sociopath and an agent of chaos…why would he be subtle and relaxed?  And Hamill’s crazed Joker was the perfect opposition for Conroy’s stoic Batman.
For me (And possibly many casual fans), The Animated Series was the first time The Joker had a strange, symbiotic relationship with Batman outside of the comics.  In The Man Who Killed Batman, the Joker was sad when he learns of Batman’s death.  Granted much of that is due to his own desire to kill Batman, but this was not the only time.  It added a layer to their story that many had never seen before and made the Joker’s psychosis even scarier.
The Joker wasn’t the only character to receive royal treatment.  Mr Freeze was given a heartfelt and tragic origin story in Heart of IceClayface and Killer Croc are truly monstrous in their iterations.  Catwoman was the anti-hero that Batman couldn’t resist.  And of course, the show was the birthplace of Harley Quinn.  Yes, Harley existed before she was a Hot Topic sex object.
This was probably the best Robin of any adaptation.  For one thing, they finally gave him pants.  And they removed that annoying gene that most Graysons are known for.  But more importantly, The Animated Series fleshed out the relationship between Batman and Robin.  At several points, we saw the conflict that developed between the two.  In later seasons, we actually saw Robin turn into Nightwing.
Batgirl/Barbara Gordon is also great in her appearance here, becoming a hero in her own right.   She was smart and fully capable.  We’ll forget about the latter seasons desire to pair Batman and Barbara up in “that way.”  Eww.
Visually, Batman: The Animated Series incorporates Tim Burton’s art deco, 1950s film noir style into a comic book world.   Because the show’s storylines could go anywhere the animators imagination could, it was a good idea to ground the show in a gritty reality.
The art design of the characters was almost always unique.  The design of Batman was great, using the classic grey and black color scheme.  The Joker’s long angular face was disturbing, even more so with the toothy grin permanently etched on that face.  One of the more jarring transformations for any character was The Scarecrow.  Before the character was simply a man in a scarecrow mask, but then the animators gave him a weird toothy grin, vacant white eyes and even a noose around his neck.  It was truly frightening…and showed how the show would continue to evolve.
That may be the greatest achievement Batman: The Animated Series.  It evolved and become more mature.  It was almost like they knew its audience was getting older.  Throughout most of the show, the writers and producers never took the audience for granted.  They never felt the need to talk down to us or shove in a “message” episode.  It’s one of the reason…maybe the chief reason…why the show still holds up today.
Now where’s the Mask of the Phantasm sequel?!?!
Score: 10 out of 10