This past September 5th marked the 25th anniversary of the premiere of Batman: The Animated Series, arguably the best adaptation of the character ever rendered for the screen, large or small. Much has been written about the show’s technical level of achievement, it’s design aesthetic, great voice work and it’s character development. In the course of analyzing the show, it’s often pointed out that it’s the clear descendent of the great Fleischer Studios (and later, Famous Studios) Superman shorts of the 1940’s. While this is undeniably true, there is a related fact that often goes unmentioned: Why wasn’t there any other cartoon of note in this genre produced between these two—why does the developmental evolutionary line run uninterrupted from a show produced in the forties to one made fifty years later?
I don’t mean to suggest that there weren’t great animated shorts and shows in the ensuing years because there many—but the majority of the best work was found in comedic cartoons where the great creativity was focused on clever gags and crisp writing (think of classic Looney Tunes or Tom and Jerry‘s). While there were several good action/adventure cartoons made in the intervening decades, there weren’t any great ones produced to the level of those Superman shorts, until the animated Batman appeared in 1992. Much like its predecessor, what made Batman: TAS stand out, was the loving care and attention paid to every element of the show. There was an unmistakable elegance to each aspect of the collaboration that shone through.
First and foremost, it was treated as a serious show, not one expressly created solely for the entertainment of children. The program had a very particular look that was a conscious and deliberate fusion of art deco design and film noir sensibilities, albeit with modern technology and gadgets which all somehow always seemed to look as if they were designed in the 1920’s as well. The look was known as “Dark Deco” by the producers, and though they are rightfully credited with creating and beautifully wielding this aesthetic, it is unabashedly reminiscent of the look of those earlier Superman shorts: While the designers and animators in the forties were looking forward in time through the lens of the design aesthetic of their era, imagining exciting and terrifying technologies to come, the creators of Batman: TAS were looking back with nostalgia at the supple and sleek lines of an earlier period long passed. Viewers were always aware that they were watching something that simply didn’t look, sound or feel like anything else on television. In fact, though the show was produced to capitalize on the success of the Tim Burton Batman films, it went beyond those movies to create something that one couldn’t see anywhere else. Gotham, as it was rendered in the show, was as “real” a place as any presented elsewhere on television, live action or animated. In fact, despite the fanciful design and look of a city that existed outside of any particular era, the Gotham City of Batman: TAS was more vivid and grounded in an easily recognizable reality than many portrayals of existing cities are in live action shows. A particularly striking example is the live action show Gotham, which doesn’t present as immersive or lively a portrayal as its cartoon predecessor; it could be set in any generic, cliche “hellhole” of a city… we only know it’s specifically “Gotham” because that’s the name of the show.
Initially, Batman: TAS moved at a steady, measured pace. In fact, the introduction of each of Batman’s famous rogues was done in two part episodes. This afforded the writers the freedom and space necessary to fully flesh out these characters and render them more fully than one might expect from the typical animated show. Despite their sometimes enigmatic behavior, viewers generally understood the villains’ motivations—which went beyond the mundane, trite tropes usually associated with these types of stories. And given the depth of the characterization presented in the scripts, it’s no surprise that the talented voice cast delivered the nuanced performances they did. For many fans, Kevin Conroy is the definitive Batman, Mark Hamill embodies the Joker as much as the late Heath Ledger did—so much so, that he is as renowned for the part as much as he is known as Luke Skywalker. When you take into account that these actors only had their voices to work with, it makes what they achieved all the more remarkable. That these performances are remembered so fondly is a testament to the incredible quality of the acting.
Another hallmark of the show was the fluidity of the character animation. Drawing (as opposed to casting the part of) Batman meant that he could move with a speed, grace and power that no human could hope to emulate. And the animators took on this challenge with relish. Here also they took cues from those classic Superman shorts, whose great draftsmen went out of their way to depict every muscular strain, subtle gesture, and powerful leap and bound of the Man of Steel. So too did the Batman of The Animated Series move like a panther at times, or merge into the shadows in ways no human should be able to—and yet it was rendered in a way that made it all seem plausible.
More importantly and vividly, when Batman fought, the viewer could feel every blow he landed, or absorbed. This cartoon portrayed the intrinsic violence of the stories more realistically in many ways than the live-action depictions have. It made the stakes seem more real: There was a physical and emotional weight to the conflicts that ground them in reality. Batman didn’t seem invulnerable or infallible, and so he was often in danger. And by the way, censors be damned, people fired guns in a show watched by kids! Once again, this hearkens back to those classic Superman shorts, where the hero was often in real danger and didn’t seem nearly as indestructible as he did in the comic books, or later on in the George Reeves TV show or subsequent films. Creating a more realistic tension, putting the characters at risk, made what happened to them feel as if it actually mattered and served to draw the audience in emotionally. The stories in both series were memorable in part because we never really knew how our heroes would survive the latest tale. It’s rare to find a show whose stories are so indelibly and fondly recalled as those classic Superman and Batman efforts are.
But why did it take so long between these two creations?
Perhaps part of the answer can be found in what happened after Batman: TAS premiered. The show eventually went through a change of networks—from Fox where it had debuted, “home” to the CW, owned by Time Warner, corporate parent company of DC Comics—as well as a character redesign. Along the way there was also a tightening of the tempo of the individual episodes, not necessarily to the detriment of the quality, but reflective of a subtle change that altered the focus of the show.
Where the original series had been centered more around methodically delineating and exploring the characters, the redesigned show was more attuned to the plots of the individual stories, which were intricately and tightly paced. It’s a delicate distinction, but an important one nevertheless. Batman: TAS was initially character driven, but it evolved into a show which was story driven, which made it easier to spin off other shows like it. It wasn’t that the show became formulaic, nor that the quality of what it generated (Superman, Batman Beyond, Teen Titans, Justice League and the subsequent Justice League Unlimited) was poor, far from it. In fact, given how little time (21-27 minutes) the creators had in order to tell a complete and compelling story, there are few examples in the history of television writing to rival their ability to do so: No action or interaction, line of dialogue or moment, could afford to be wasted, and so by necessity the writing took on a leanness that kept things moving at a deliberately brisk speed.
Along the way, Bruce Timm, one of the masterminds behind the original show (alongside Eric Radomski) and its many spinoffs, was also given the keys to the DC animated film kingdom, and many of his efforts have been excellent.
There is tremendous quality in the many shows and films that spun off from the original Batman:TAS. However, in many ways the “gold standard” the creators set with the first show is still the bar all others have to aim for—just as in many ways, the criminally under appreciated Batman: Mask of the Phantasm feature animated film they produced is arguably the best Batman movie ever made, but I digress…
Fifty years before Batman: The Animated Series premiered, the Fleischer Studios caught lightning in a bottle and set the standard for a super-heroic animated show, only to have that great achievement finally equalled those many years later.
We can only hope it won’t take fifty years until we see their like again.