TV Review – The Best of Batman: The Animated Series Part 1

With the success of 1989’s Batman and its sequel, Batman Returns, it was clear that Warner Bros. was going to cash on this newfound love for the Dark Knight. One of those ventures was Batman: The Animated Series, which aired on Fox before moving to the WB network for its final season. BTAS exploded on the children’s television scene as nothing else had before. This was not the Superfriends, or the other Hanna Barbara takes on Batman. It also wasn’t exactly a one-to-one match to Tim Burton’s vision of Gotham City. While the series was undoubtedly influenced by the Burton films, it also owed much to the Max Fleischer Superman cartoons of the 1940s. There’s even a strong vein of Hitchcock through the series with its emphasis on the darker aspects of the human heart as well as explorations of the subconscious mind.

During this series, you may notice the airdates don’t match with the episode order. This is because the production order ended up not being the same as how Fox aired the episodes. Additionally, they would show new episodes for a few Sundays in the fall of 1992, which also throws the airdates off. I have chosen to go with the production order to provide the best continuity for those episodes that warrant it.

On Leather Wings (Season 1, Episode 1)
Original airdate: September 6, 1992
Written by Mitch Brian
Directed by Kevin Altieri

On Leather Wings was the first episode of BTAS produced, and it is an interesting starting place. The opening of the episode has us above Gotham City, following a police Zepplin. A blip flashes across the radar screen, and then suddenly tearing past the window is a large bat-like creature. This creature attacks a series of pharmaceutical companies, and the blame is placed on Batman due to the monster’s appearance. We’re introduced to Detective Harvey Bullock, who wants mayor Hamilton Hill’s clearance to pursue Batman for this. Commissioner Gordon disagrees, but District Attorney Harvey Bullock gives the go-ahead while flipping his coin. 

Batman does some detective work finding hairs and an audio recording of loud screeches. As Bruce Wayne, he visits the Gotham Zoo and meets with Dr. March at the bat exhibit. March sees Wayne as wanting to exterminate animals he claims are infesting his chimney. But it’s March’s son-in-law Kirk Langstrom that catches Wayne’s suspicions leading to a finale that has Batman soaring through the skies tussling with Man-Bat. In trademark, BTAS style, the story ends but on a note of ambiguity about what happens next. Will Langstrom’s addiction to this bat serum surface again. It remains to be seen.

The decision to choose a Man-Bat centric episode rather than starting with the Joker or some other name recognized rogue was explained by series writer Bruce Timm. They wanted to deliver a combination of detective work, moody noir, and superheroic action. Man-Bat is a character whose stories fit that bill, so this episode is less about building up Batman’s rogues than introducing to the world and atmosphere of BTAS. The animation stands out immediately, with the episode focusing on Batman’s motion and the fluid flight of Man-Bat. This may not be the favorite of too many, but it encapsulates everything that made kids and grown-ups alike tune in to watch Batman.

P.O.V. (Season 1, Episode 7)
Original airdate: September 18, 1992
Written by Mitch Brian
Directed by Kevin Altieri

There was a concerted effort made by the writers of BTAS to show they weren’t going to tell stories that talked down to their audience. The series would provide visual thrills for the youngest children, but it worked best with upper elementary/middle school kids. P.O.V. is an episode that challenges children’s television’s narrative structures by taking a cue from Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon. Officer Rene Montoya and her rookie partner rush to the scene of a warehouse fire. This is where a sting operation was going down, led by Bullock, who had been watching a cartel’s movements. Everything that could go wrong does, and in the end, the three police officers are set before an Internal Affairs investigation to figure out what happened. Each one tells a slightly different story, with Bullock’s being the most outrageous and dumping the blame on Batman. Gordon is not ready to through Batman under the bus and questions Bullock’s version. Montoya realizes it’s up to her to solve the case, and she sets off on her own. This choice will cause her to cross paths with Batman, teaming up with him to take down the mobsters.

Aside from the fragmented plot structure, this episode also provides some wonderfully moody visuals. The Fleischer-Superman influence is powerful here in the finale where Batman and Montoya go toe to toe with the bad guys, delivering uppercuts, and lighting is used to elicit a noir-ish flare. There’s also a lot of a moral gray area, something traditional superhero shows certainly never touched on before. Bullock isn’t a villain, but he is undoubtedly an antagonist to Batman. He’s also a cop trying to protect the public while being a braggart and very arrogant. A character like that wasn’t seen very often in animated children’s shows before BTAS.

Two-Face (Season 1, Episodes 10 & 11)
Original airdates: September 25 & September 28, 1992
Written by Randy Rogel and Alan Burnett
Directed by Kevin Altieri

Of all Batman’s rogues, one of the most tragic has always been Two-Face. He’s one of the few whose origins aren’t about someone feeling wronged and simply wanting revenge. District attorney Harvey Dent is attacked and permanently scarred because he’s trying to do his job and stop organized crime in Gotham City. There’s no other villain in the series whose origins are told in real-time to evoke the level of sympathy I think most viewers end up feeling for Dent in this stunning two-parter. 

Harvey Dent is making a big name for himself, drawing the ire of crime boss Rupert Thorne. Thorne sets about blackmailing Dent after discovering his psychological records. It appears the district attorney has a split personality that comes out when he becomes enraged and violent. The personality is called “Big Bad Harv” and first appeared when Dent was a child and felt tremendous guilt about retaliating against a bully. Thorne tells Dent he’ll stay out of the boss’s way or the information will be leaked. Dent snaps, and Big Bad Harv emerges. The meeting conveniently takes place in a generic chemical factory and, despite Batman’s attempts to save his friend, Dent is scarred.

The second part follows the newly born Two-Face, who gets revenge on Thorne while becoming a criminal himself. It’s that first part that really hits hard. Richard Moll (Night Court) delivers a fantastic performance as Dent and Two-Face creating two very distinct voices, so we understand when each is speaking. While Dent is sympathetic, the writers and artists also work to make him a terrifying, horror type of character. Even before the accident, the rage shown by Dent when he slips makes him someone you wouldn’t want to spend much time around. That iconic moment at the end of the first part when Dent’s fiancee Grace shows up to visit him in the hospital still hits hard. The lightning flash and the close-up reveal of Dent’s new visage causing Grace to faint is straight out of a classic Universal monster film.

Heart of Ice (Season 1, Episode 14)
Original airdate: September 7, 1992
Written by Paul Dini
Directed by Bruce Timm

Speaking of sympathetic villains, Mr. Freeze became on in BTAS, which influenced the comic book writers when they dealt with the character. One of the many times the animated series shaped the way the comic book universe functioned for the better. The episode starts with Batman mulling over a series of heists focused on GothCorp, all carried out by a man with a freeze gun and his henchmen. As Bruce Wayne, he visits GothCorp CEO Ferris Boyle to understand why this is happening. All Boyle does is brag about his upcoming humanitarian award. 

Batman heads off Freeze at one of the GothCorp locations, but the villain leaves behind a partially frozen henchman to play on the Dark Knight’s desire to help. The two have a rematch at the gala honoring Boyle, where Batman learns the truth. Victor Fries was a research scientist for GothCorp and used company resources to put his terminally ill wife, Nora, into cryogenic stasis, giving her time for a cure to be developed. Boyle discovered this misuse of funds and Fries’ hidden lab bringing security with him. Fries begs him to not turn the equipment off as it would kill Nora. Boyle refuses, and an accident occurs that exposes Fries to these subzero chemicals. Now he wears a special temperature-controlled armor to keep himself alive and wants revenge for Nora’s death.

What really makes this special is it’s the first episode pairing director Bruce Timm and writer Paul Dini. Timm is basically responsible for building the modern DC Animated Universe, starting with BTAS. Paul Dini has contributed to some of the best animated series from the 1990s & early 2000s and served as the story editor for ABC’s Lost. Additionally, Tim is responsible for creating Harley Quinn, whose popularity has soared far beyond what he initially imagined. This is also the episode that got Mark Hamill cast in the show. Tim Curry was originally set to voice the Joker, and Hamill was hired to do a one-off as Ferris Boyle. Curry dropped out, and the production team loved what Hamill did so much they auditioned him the Joker, who has become one of his iconic roles.

Beware the Grey Ghost (Season 1, Episode 18)
Original airdate: November 4, 1992
Written by Dennis O’Flaherty, Tom Ruegger, & Garin Wolf
Directed by Boyd Kirkland

Young Bruce Wayne watches his favorite television series, The Gray Ghost. It’s an obvious Shadow analog about a masked crimefighter taking on the evil-doers of his city. In this episode, The Gray Ghost takes on The Mad Bomber, who uses remote-controlled cars to drive explosives into the city’s important buildings. Jump to present-day Gotham City, and someone is using the same M.O. to attack. Batman recalls the episode from his childhood but learns all the prints were destroyed in a studio lot fire years earlier. The only person who could help him fill in the gaps is Simon Trent (Adam West), who played the Gray Ghost.

When we meet Trent, he’s learning about another gig he’s failed to book from his agent. This leads to Trent selling more props and costumes he’s held onto all these years. He greets Batman with anger and resentment, just wanting to be left alone. Batman’s words cut deep, though, as he talks about what an inspiration Trent and the Gray Ghost were to him. Before long, Trent is donning his character’s costume and attempting to help Batman stop the Mad Bomber and uncover their identity. 

This is, of course, a notable episode because Adam West not only played Batman in the 1966 live-action series, but he voiced the character in the 1977 animated Hanna-Barbera series as well as The Super Power Team: Galactic Guardians. This story’s meta-level is apparent, having an old masked crimefighter acknowledged as an influence on the other. There’s also the recognition that The Shadow was undoubtedly a precursor to Batman.

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