The Batman Animated Series: A look back at the Caped Crusader’s cartoon collection
April 1, 2021
When you get right down to it, Batman is more or less the ultimate teenage fantasy. He got money, an awesome car, is in peak physical and mental shape, has an on and off relationship with a cat burglar lady, and oh so incredibly edgy.
Even putting all of that aside, out of all of the superheroes out there, Batman is probably the one whose moral and emotional conflicts I find myself most consistently interested in. On top of that, he’s always backed up by what I would easily describe as the best rogue’s gallery of any costumed crime-fighter. Batman is a character and a franchise that I am pretty deeply invested in.
So, how do I show my appreciation? I could talk about comics, but I’d be fairly out of my depths, given the fact that I haven’t read nearly enough Batman to make a definitive judgment in that regard. I could talk about the movies, but that would probably devolve into another oration about how wonderful and amazing “The Dark Knight” is, and dear Lord, we do not need another one of those. And honestly, I don’t think that would be the best way of showing how much I appreciate the character and the world that Bob Kane and Bill Finger created. So, what would?
Well, I mean, the title kind of gave that away, didn’t it? Yes, today we’re taking a look at the five animated series the Dark Knight has had over the years, those being “Batman: The Animated Series,” “Batman Beyond,” “The Batman, Batman: The Brave,” and “Bold, and Beware The Batman.”
There are two reasons I felt the need to write this. For one, I feel like these shows played a large part in the reason I love this character so much, and two, I don’t think these shows get the attention they deserve. For those wondering, I am lumping in “The New Batman Adventures” as part of “Batman: The Animated Series” since it has the same actors, writers and exists in the same timeline. Really, the only difference is the animation. So, without further ado, let’s get started.
BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES (1992-1999)
Coming off the heels of two mega-successful Tim Burton-directed Batman movies, this show very easily could have been a cheap imitation of the films that essentially only existed to sell merchandise. However, showrunners Paul Dini and Bruce Timm not only put in far more effort than they needed to, but they also managed to make one of the greatest television programs of all time in the process.
On an aesthetic level alone, the show is phenomenal; with heavy artistic influence from noir and the Fletcher Superman cartoons of the 1930s, it created a unique and gorgeous visual style that was all its own. Additionally, Hollywood composer Shirley Walker provided what might just be the best orchestral score I’ve heard in any piece of visual media: textured, lush, and capturing the emotion of every scene near perfectly. Additionally, the show had outstanding voice acting, with Mark Hamill stepping in to provide what may well be the definitive Joker performance (yes, better than Ledger or Pheonix, and yes, I will fight you on that.) And if that wasn’t enough, Kevin Conroy also steps in to provide what may well be the definitive Batman performance.
On an aesthetic level alone, this show is well above par. But to top it off, it was incredibly well written. True, the show could be a bit inconsistent in quality, and not every episode is particularly phenomenal, but when the show writers got it right, they made not only some of the most entertaining television that you will ever see, but also some of the most genuinely dramatic, emotional, and tragic well. Everything from the heartbreaking reinvention of Mr. Freeze’s backstory in “Heart Of Ice” that would go on to become canon in the comics, to the several amazing villain team-ups such as the hilarious “Almost Got ‘Im” and “Trial,” to episodes like “Baby Doll,” which manage to combine humor with tragedy seamlessly.
In my view, the best episode of the show was the last episode aired, “Mad Love,” in which the backstory of the Joker’s maniacal girlfriend Harley Quinn (who this show invented, by the way) is finally revealed, in an episode that is practically note-perfect from beginning to end.
Despite never getting a proper series finale (although with an alleged revival on HBO Max, that might be about to change), “Batman: The Animated Series” became one of the most successful cartoons of the ‘90s, and its influence paved the way for another two decades of superhero cartoons. And while many came close, not a single one was able to capture what this show captured, and honestly, I’m not sure that they ever will.
BATMAN BEYOND (1999-2001)
Right on the heels of the conclusion of “Batman: The Animated Series,” Warner Brothers Animation decided to create a sequel series completely different from its predecessor. Set in the then distant year of 2019, “Batman Beyond” tells the story of an aging Bruce Wayne who has given up both the CEO position of Wayne Enterprises and Batman with most of the show’s villains long gone. However, after Derek Powers, the greedy new CEO of Wayne Enterprises, orders the father of a Gotham youth named Terry McGinnes killed, McGinnes ends up dawning the Batman mantle and becomes Bruce’s successor.
The show on paper reads like a cyberpunk Batman fanfic, and that’s more or less how it plays out. With a few exceptions (Mr. Freeze, Bane, Ra’s Al Ghul, and the Joker, who appear in the movie), most villains are gone, so this new Batman has a new rogue’s gallery. These villains include the Royal Flush Gang, a five-piece crime family where every member dresses as a card in a poker royal flush, Spellbinder, a psychiatrist turned criminal who presents people with optical illusions, and Derek Powers himself, who after a freak accident becomes infused with radioactive skin.
The show was not nearly as deep or dramatic as “Batman: The Animated Series,” with most of the episodes being about the same quality with few standouts (in stark contrast to “Batman: The Animated Series,” where the standout episodes are the main reason to watch in the first place.) But even still, it’s an excellent show, and above all a unique one. Terry McGinnis, who in a lot of ways resembles Spider-Man more than the Caped Crusader, is very likable, as was the standard for the time for the protagonist. The old Bruce Wayne is more or less exactly what you’d think he would be: cantankerous, bitter, lonely, and cold, but with a heart of gold underneath all that.
The show had a fairly solid cast of villains (even if none of them quite reached the level of Batman’s traditional rogues gallery) and several solid episodes as well. The best one was probably “Dead Man’s Hand,” which is about Terry McGinnis falling for the new girl in town. Melanie, who, without giving anything away, essentially serves as his own equivalent to Catwoman. In conclusion, while I wouldn’t put “Batman Beyond” in the same camp as “Batman: The Animated Series,” or even other superhero cartoons like “Teen Titans,” it’s still definitely worth watching for anyone interested.
THE BATMAN (2004-2008)
With the animated “Teen Titans” show being a massive success outside of the previously established DC Animated Universe discography, Warner Brothers decided it was time for a new animated Batman series with new writers, art style, tone, and voice actors. I’d be lying if I said I thought it was as good as the previous two shows. Granted, it’s far from terrible, and as far as children’s action shows, you could do worse.
However, compared to everything that came before it (Batman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, Superman: The Animated Series, Justice League, and Teen Titans), it just feels underwhelming and less impressive than it should be. It definitely feels like a modernization of the more timeless animated series. Still, in turn, it lost a lot of the personality and uniqueness that made shows like “Batman: The Animated Series,” “Batman Beyond,” and even shows like “Teen Titans” that were running around the same time so special.
The writing is generally decent (particularly in regards to this show’s version of Clayface, which I would call at least on par with the animated series version), but I don’t think I could find you a single episode of this show that came even close to matching the emotional weight of the best episodes of “Batman: The Animated Series.” And while the voice cast is excellent (particularly voice acting legends Kevin Michael Richardson and Tom Kenny as the Joker and the Penguin), the villains didn’t feel anywhere near as well developed as those in the animated series.
Overall, it’s a good show, and one I do enjoy watching from time to time, but I couldn’t even dream of it holding a candle to the animated show. If you were to watch an episode from it, I’d probably recommend “Two Of A Kind,” this show’s introduction to everyone’s favorite clown henchman Harley Quinn, as written by Paul Dini, the man who created her.
BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD (2008-2011)
I’ll admit something; “Batman: The Animated Series,” “Batman Beyond,” and “The Batman” are the only three shows based on the Caped Crusader that I’ve actually sat down and watched in great detail. The last two shows based on the Caped Crusader, this and “Beware The Batman,” are shows I have never seen before. In the case of this show, it’s largely because while I do appreciate the sillier, more Adam West-influenced side of Batman, it’s never really been the side that’s interested me. But, I sat down and decided to watch some of the highest-rated episodes of the show on IMDB. And I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised.
While this is far from the best cartoon based on the Caped Crusader, it’s probably the funniest, with a tone reminiscent of “Batman: The Animated Series” and more akin to a less adult version of “Harley Quinn” or “The Tick,” in terms of its loving satirization of the campier, more silly side of Batman. And much of its satirization was not only funny but also surprisingly clever, such as the finale “Mitefall!” where the characters have to prevent the show from jumping the shark at the hands of a burnt-out fan who wants something more serious to take the show’s place.
My favorite episode I saw of the show was probably “Mayhem of the Music Meister,” a musical episode starring Neil Patrick Harris that managed to both be hilarious and contain some surprisingly good musical numbers. So, in the end, while I wouldn’t call this a great show, I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who likes the sillier side of Batman, and really, anyone who wants a good laugh, even if I prefer the more serious side of this character.
BEWARE THE BATMAN (2013-2014)
And now we get to the final show on this list, “Beware The Batman,” which, due to its lack of rating success, is probably the last Batman cartoon we will see in a while. In many respects, this show is the most distinct of the Batman cartoons, even more than “Brave Of The Bold ” was. It’s the only show to be computer-animated rather than hand-drawn and the only one to have a continuing story arc. On top of that, it also lacks a lot of the Caped Crusader’s traditional rogue’s gallery (with no appearances from the likes of the Scarecrow, Mr. Freeze, Penguin, Riddler, or even the Joker.)
Upon watching the first few episodes of the show for the first time, I can say that the show is… okay. It’s about on the same level of quality as “The Batman,” with a bit more intrigue but a few more noticeable flaws. While the animation itself is very well done, I’m not a huge fan of the designs, particularly those of many of the main characters, who tend to look more like figures you’d see in the background.
On top of that, I feel that the show loses something from not having a lot of Batman’s major rogues gallery in the show. The show has some advantages over “The Batman,” namely that it’s written a lot better. I’ve only seen the first few episodes, and as I watch more, maybe the show will improve, but I see it as solid but not particularly remarkable.
And there you have it. Every single animated show the Caped Crusader has ever been a part of. Looking back on it, only two of them I would call particularly exceptional, but I don’t think I would call any of them bad, and all of them have some level of intrigue. If you’d ask me to rank them, I’d probably say:
- Batman TAS
- Batman Beyond
- Batman Brave and the Bold
- Beware The Batman
- The Batman
But even the weakest of those shows does have good things to offer, and I’d still recommend it to those very curious about the Caped Crusader.