Why Batman: The Animated Series Is The Definitive Depiction Of The Dark Knight And His Villains
Since he first started appearing in film serials in the 1940s, Batman fans have been blessed with many great movie and TV depictions of the Dark Knight, with recent blockbuster "The Batman" being but one example. As a hero without superpowers, Batman lends himself particularly well to pseudo-realistic interpretations of the Christopher Nolan kind. Villains like the Joker, Penguin, Catwoman, Two-Face, Riddler, Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, Ra's al Ghul, Scarecrow, Bane, Harley Quinn, and Killer Croc have all made the transition from comic books to live-action films. But some of them have turned out better than others, and Batman has an even deeper bench of colorful foes who have thrived best onscreen in animated form.
When "Batman: The Animated Series" premiered on Fox on September 5, 1992, kids were just getting back to school after the summer of "Batman Returns." For many, Danny Elfman's theme music and the show's one-minute opening sequence — where police blimps shine their spotlights down on a "Dark Deco" Gotham City and Batman tussles with criminals on the rooftop — became a fixture of weekday afternoons. While its time slot may have targeted kids, however, "Batman: The Animated Series" brought mature, downright sophisticated craftsmanship and characterization to its storytelling, ensuring its place in the TV hall of fame as one of the greatest shows of all time.
Batman's Case Files
The artwork of producers Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm helped furnish the visual aesthetic and character designs for "Batman: The Animated Series." Together with Matt Reeves and J.J. Abrams, Timm is now producing the spiritual follow-up "Batman: Caped Crusader," which was affected by the recent corporate shakeup at Warner Bros. and is currently looking for a home outside HBO Max.
Diving back into "Batman: The Animated Series" is like opening case files on a computer in the Batcave. The show holds a timeless quality, and the episodic nature of it ensures you can watch it at random, just as it was syndicated.
If Michael Keaton is the best Batman and Christian Bale is the best Bruce Wayne, then Juilliard-trained voice actor Kevin Conroy splits the difference, giving perfect balance to the square-jawed hero's dual identities. Until "The Batman," we had yet to see the World's Greatest Detective doing much actual detective work in the movies (and he still couldn't deduce that a bat is a rat with wings). Yet it's a common staple of his animated adventures, with Batman searching microfiche, interrogating goons and mob bosses, and having important breakthroughs in his efforts to solve cases.
Conroy nails the lower register of Batman's growl without overdoing it like Bale, and when he adjusts his pitch, his voice conveys a lightness of being for Bruce without reducing the billionaire playboy to a vapid daytime disguise. Episodes like "Appointment in Crime Alley" and "Perchance to Dream," which rank among the show's best, get to the heart of Batman's resilience amid personal loss. But maybe the best way to revisit his animated adventures on their 30th anniversary is to crack open some of those case files on his villains.
The King Of All Clown Princes
Long before "Spider-Man: No Way Home" put forth the idea of a superhero "curing" his villains, "Batman: The Animated Series" was there to build realistic psychological profiles for a compassionate hero who works through his childhood trauma constructively (through crimefighting) while other flamboyant personalities beside him break bad. In the Caped Crusader's first-rate rogues' gallery, some are tragic villains, failed by therapy or warped by an unhealthy relationship with pharmaceuticals. Others are incurable — and for Mark Hamill's Joker, who was born in a vat of chemicals ("Beware the Creeper"), laughter is the best medicine.
In a DVD featurette for "Batman: The Animated Series," Hamill said he approached the Joker's laugh "like a musical instrument" that would "illustrate his mood." The character's mercurial nature keeps him unpredictable, both frightening and funny. "The Laughing Fish" puts these qualities on display in an episode that adapts elements of more than one classic DC Comics tale, including Denny O'Neill and Neal Adams' "The Joker's Five-Way Revenge," which inspired the flashlight visual of Joker smiling next to a shark. Taking a page from Jack Nicholson's Joker and his Smylex gas, Hamill's Clown Prince of Crime exposes his victims to a toxin that leaves their faces contorted in a rictus grin — just before Batman administers the kid-friendly antidote, naturally.
Where Batman is brooding, Hamill's Joker is boisterous. He's the homicidal yet happy medium between other cinematic Joker portrayals, marrying the best parts of them into the perfect character foil, who would surely have the last laugh in any Bat-villain tournament bracket. As Hamill put it, "Sherlock Holmes has his Professor Moriarty; Batman has his Joker."
The (Un)usual Suspects
The Joker admittedly has been done, and done well, in live-action. The same goes for his 1966 "Batman" and "The Batman" compatriots, Penguin, Catwoman, and Riddler, respectively voiced by Paul Williams, Adrienne Barbeau, and John Glover in "The Animated Series." Yet these versions hold their own and give each character extended play, not to mention a distinct musical feel courtesy of composer Shirley Walker's leitmotifs. In "Joker's Favor," for instance, whoopee-cushion whistling accompanies the Clown Prince of Crime. The "Home Alone"-like "I've Got Batman in My Basement" has a soundtrack that musically waddles when the bird-minded Penguin makes his entrance.
With Michelle Pfeiffer still fresh in the mind of 1992 viewers, Barbeau's animal-loving, morally grey-costumed Catwoman had the distinction of kicking off "Batman: The Animated Series" with the first aired episode, "The Cat and the Claw, Part I." She burgles from the rich and gives to the poor, and Anne Hathaway's Seline Kyle in "The Dark Knight Rises" has a similar attitude toward Gotham's wealthy elite. This wouldn't be the last time "Batman: The Animated Series" influenced the movies.
Riddler comes in further down the line, but his debut, "If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Rich?" reimagines him as a genius game designer exploited by a work-for-hire contract in a maze of cubicles. He sends Batman and Robin (Loren Lester) through one modeled after his game, "The Riddle of the Minotaur." Riddler's scheme to enact vengeance on his boss is echoed in Jim Carrey's slapstick 1995 portrayal, while Paul Dano's 2022 serial-killer version mirrors his tech-savvy side with "over 500" online followers.
These are the standard players, but the deeper you go, the more "Batman: The Animated Series" shows the untapped potential of the Dark Knight's full line-up of antagonists.
Men Who Are Bats
One thing that immediately sets "Batman: The Animated Series" apart from other movie and TV treatments of Batman is the way it embraces the creature-feature corner of the mythos. In the first produced (and numbered) episode, "On Leather Wings," the very first villain we meet is a monstrous inversion of our hero who undergoes a werewolf-like transformation to become a literal Man-Bat. "The beast knew what chemicals were needed to bring itself about," says Man-Bat's human alter ego, Dr. Kirk Langstrom (Marc Singer). With his face distorted behind beakers in his lab, Langstrom explains that he co-discovered a formula for a new species and started taking it—only to have it take over his life.
As Man-Bat, Langstrom flies high, robbing pharmaceutical factories, unable to suppress the monster within him or control his need for the formula. Since it's ostensibly geared toward children, the show calls it a "formula" instead of a "drug," but it's not the last time we'll hear that word or see a villain with an addiction that brings out his worst side. Meanwhile, the closest we've ever had to a live-action Man-Bat was a giant bat, designed by Rick Baker, in a deleted scene from "Batman Forever."
Humans In Monster Form
There are ways to make a "Batman: The Animated Series" villain like Clayface work on film that wouldn't require goopy CGI. You could have him be a master of disguise, peeling off "Mission: Impossible" masks, or even a techie in a digital environment, running deepfakes or posing as people via lifelike avatars. As it is, Clayface's powers are well-served by the animation farmed out to Tokyo Movie Shinsha Co. in the two-parter "Feat of Clay."
Unbound by physical realism, "Batman: The Animated Series" hews to a psychological realism whereby the monstrosity of each villain is merely an outer manifestation of their inner turmoil. Actor Matt Hagen (Ron Perlman, no stranger to playing comic book monsters), has a substance abuse problem. He's hooked on Renuyu, an addictive cream described as a "facelift in a jar." It's something he uses to self-medicate after being disfigured in an accident, left with a "face like putty."
Renuyu comes from pharmaceutical king Roland Daggett (Ed Asner), who keeps Hagen supplied with the experimental new product, which "can perform miracles even plastic surgery can't." When Daggett's henchmen force an overdose on Hagen, the man of a million faces turns into a shape-shifting clay monster whose thoughts become transformations. Thinking himself functional and healthy(?), Clayface boasts, "I figured out how to manage this thing pretty good," right before Batman confronts him with the video-monitor ghosts of his former acting self.
Even with Clayface running amok, "Batman: The Animated Series" finds time to explore the mentality of low-level enforcer Germs (Ed Begley Jr.), who turns doorknobs with a handkerchief and is afraid of setting foot in a hospital with sick people. Fleeing Batman, Germs runs into a room with "infectious disease specimens" and is soon living his worst nightmare.
Faces Of Tragedy
As good as "The Dark Knight" was, and as much as the narrative may have structured itself around Harvey Dent, Heath Ledger's Joker stole the show there. While the film was in development in the 2000s, there was talk that Dent might not turn into Two-Face until a potential third Christopher Nolan movie. Aaron Eckhart's character could have benefited from such treatment because, in his zeal to save nothing for the sequel, Nolan crammed Two-Face's whole criminal career into the third act before killing him off.
"Batman: The Animated Series" gives Richard Moll's Harvey Dent more room to breathe, both before and after he's Two-Face. In "Pretty Poison," his character development runs parallel to that of Pamela Isley, a.k.a. Poison Ivy (Diane Pershing), a PhD botanist with a "plants are people" fetish. She doesn't take kindly to anyone bulldozing over endangered wild roses. Dent is smitten with Isley, but she poisons him with a kiss that sends him into a coma.
The "Two-Face" two-parter gives Dent a new fiancée named Grace and a tragic supervillain origin that would inform Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's "Batman: The Long Halloween." He becomes one of the show's most compelling characters, an ally-turned-enemy haunted by dreams of his dark side and incapable of keeping up the front of a squeaky-clean district attorney.
When Harvey puts his anger management issues on public display, crime boss Rupert Thorne (John Vernon) looks to dig up dirt on him, observing, "All men have something to hide. The brighter the picture, the darker the negative." In secret, Harvey sees a psychiatrist, with the lightning offering a flash of what he will become when his Big Bad Harv personality takes over and he adopts a yin-yang suit and Tommy gun as Two-Face.
Not Just A Boy's Club
Created by Paul Dini for "Batman: The Animated Series," Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin) made her first media appearance in "Joker's Favor," which frames the Clown Prince of Crime through the eyes of a civilian who makes the mistake of telling off the wrong grinning driver in traffic. The vulnerable schlub perspective, picked up later by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo's "Joker" graphic novel, squeezes maximum menace out of the Joker while setting up his relationship with Harley.
Like Margot Robbie's Harley, Sorkin's version of the character is emancipated from that abusive, manipulative relationship in the girl-power episode, "Harley and Ivy," the first of her many pairings with Poison Ivy. They, Catwoman, Batgirl (Melissa Gilbert), and other characters help keep the treehouse co-ed.
"Mad Love" explores Harley's origin as Dr. Harleen Quinzel, a buttoned-up intern at Arkham Asylum with an "attraction to extreme personalities." In their therapy sessions, the Joker unlocks her repressed fun-loving side. She falls in love with him, her Hannibal Lecter-esque patient, even as he lies about his backstory like Heath Ledger's Joker (with his multiple-choice past straight out of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's "The Killing Joke").
"Mad Love" was the final episode of "Batman: The Animated Series" to air under its "New Batman Adventures" redesign for The WB. It also has Joker threatening Commissioner Gordon (Bob Hastings) with dentistry by way of a power drill, and even winking at Hamill's role as Luke Skywalker with a "Star Wars" pun. ("May the floss be with you.")
What A Croc
Unlike Man-Bat and Clayface, Killer Croc grew up looking the way he does. He started out as a carnival sideshow attraction, then became a pro wrestler, before settling into a life of crime. Throughout the series, we also see him depicted as a sewer monster ("Vendetta") who fraternizes with circus people ("Sideshow") similar to Penguin in "Batman Returns."
As an escaped convict, Croc finds acceptance at an idyllic freak farm, where a boy with flippers tells him he can be himself and not feel bad or have people stare at him. He shows signs of reform when he passes up the chance to steal $50,000, but then his past, personified by Batman, catches up with him. We soon see that, for Croc, being himself means being a petty crook, driven by emotions like greed and the desire for revenge against Batman, Harvey Bullock (Robert Costanzo), and anyone else who wronged him.
Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, known for his role as Mr. Eko on "Lost," did appear under makeup and a hoodie as a cannibalistic Killer Croc in "Suicide Squad." He was a supporting character, though, and it feels like "Batman: The Animated Series" is the only place where Croc has received his full due.
In "Almost Got 'Im," the show even gives Croc a seat at the card table with other heavy hitters like Joker. They gather at the Stacked Deck Club, where the episode stacks story on top of flashback story, allowing each villain to recount the time they almost killed Batman. Croc has the best line — "I threw a rock at him!" — and even better, it turns out he isn't the real Croc, but Batman in disguise.
From Lame To A-Game
Another standout "Batman: The Animated Series" episode is the Emmy-winning "Heart of Ice," which rescued Mr. Freeze from the slums of the C-listers and made him a rich, sympathetic villain like Two-Face. Victor Fries (Michael Ansara) is a scientist left in a frigid emotional state after a cutthroat CEO nixes the life support for his cryogenically frozen wife. "Unforgiving ice" rules his actions, freezing people out (it's a coping mechanism, and gives Batman the sniffles), until chicken soup for the soul defeats him.
This portrait of Mr. Freeze changed how he was depicted on celluloid and the comic book page. It's just a shame the average moviegoer might associate the character more with Arnold Schwarzenegger's punny performance in "Batman and Robin," a flick even director Joel Schumacher apologized for.
The Mad Hatter (Roddy McDowall) is another villain "Batman: The Animated Series" legitimized, so much so that he topped our poll of the villains fans most want to see in live-action. In a show that spelunks the human psyche like a regular old Batcave, Hatter's first episode, "Mad as a Hatter," sees him turning people into mind-controlled puppets and pawns when he's otherwise powerless to win their respect or manage his unrequited love for a co-worker named Alice.
The Ventriloquist (George Dzundza), first seen in "Read My Lips," is a man with dissociative identity disorder whose dummy, Scarface, has such a forceful personality that you almost wonder if the doll isn't truly possessed. Though just a one-off, "Fire from Olympus" also makes a meal out of Maxie Zeus (Steve Susskind), a delusional smuggler who nurtures a Greek god complex after a stress-triggered breakdown. He finds a home among the inmates of Arkham Asylum—where we all belong.
There are so many stellar "Batman: The Animated Series" episodes, like the kangaroo-court villains bonanza "Trial" and the Adam West showcase "Beware of the Gray Ghost," that to really do it justice, we'd need to do a full series rewatch and review. Even within this overview, however, a pattern emerges. Bruce Wayne puts it into words as he stands over his badly burned friend Harvey Dent in the hospital, saying, "I'm more worried about the mental scars."
Harvey's backstory as a kid who locked up his anger after lashing out as a bully is just one example of how the series took the mindset of its characters seriously, engaging kid viewers as mini-adults. In the same way the ever-changing Scarecrow (Henry Polic II) uses people's fears against them, "Batman: The Animated Series" wields psychology as a storytelling weapon.
If we had all the time in the world, there's a ton of other characters it would be worth talking about, such as Ra's al Ghul (the late David Warner) and his life-prolonging Lazarus Pits ("The Demon's Quest"). However, like the time-obsessed Clock King (Alan Rachins), we might risk missing our court date that way. Then, we'd probably — clock pun intended — wind up vowing revenge and tying the mayor to a clocktower's hour hand, to be crushed to death unless Batman could save him.
Even obscure "Animated Series" villains like Clock King come with motives and an M.O. that have some basis in recognizable mental reality. "Batman: The Animated Series" puts a fantastical turn on human psychology, but by rooting itself in the truth of the mind above all else (even the laws of physics), it left us with the most definitive, all-encompassing take on the world of Batman that has ever graced the screen.
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