September 5th 1992 was a great day in the history of humankind. The first ever Premier League season was in full swing, Snap!, Jimmy Nail and Billy Ray Cyrus were riding high in the UK music chart and Batman: The Animated Series was first broadcast. 25 years on, the music may have aged badly but Batman is as brilliant as it ever was. I’m not going to mince words here, Batman: The Animated Series is the best superhero/comic book TV show ever made. Not only that, it is also in the running for greatest animated show of all time.
It’s impossible to pinpoint what made this version of Batman’s escapades so good, because it did so many things expertly. The art style is perfect for recreating the gritty atmosphere of Gotham and was created by using light colours on a dark background, which was the opposite of what was standard for the time. This gave the show a film noir style that perfectly encapsulates the look and feel of the Dark Knight.
The writing on the show is first rate too, taking a darker, mature tone more akin to Tim Burton’s movies than the Batman of the 1960s. The reimagined backstory of Mr Freeze was so well written and heartbreaking that it was adopted by the comics as the official version, and a similar thing can be said for Clayface. The writers weren’t content to just work with the characters that had already been established in print and developed some of their own, one of which particularly shined. That character is Harley Quinn. Considering the cultural phenomenon the character is today, it may be a surprise to some that this is how it started for her.
One last thing I would like to praise before getting to some of the best episodes is the quality of the voice acting. It is well cast across the board, from Efrem Zimbalist Jr as Alfred to Ron Perlman as Clayface, but it’s Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill who steal the show. I can honestly say that Conroy and Hamill provide the definitive versions of Batman and The Joker respectively. Conroy hits all the right notes with both Batman and Bruce Wayne and Hamill’s portrayal of The Joker’s voice and, more importantly, laugh is unlikely to ever be bettered.
Okay, I think I have gushed enough about the show as a whole. It’s time to look at some of the standout episodes, something that was not easy due to how many great episodes there are. For this undertaking I rewatched all 85 episodes of the original run along with the feature length movies and it was a wonderful few days. I decided not to include the New Batman Adventures, even though it was later named Batman: The Animated Series Season 4 for its DVD release. I highly recommend it though as it is still excellent, with episodes such as Mad Love and Over The Edge being of the highest quality.
The list is in no particular order.
Robin’s Reckoning (Parts 1 & 2)
The first part of this episode won a Primetime Emmy in 1993 for Outstanding Animated Program, which shows how good this episode is. It shows the origin story of Dick Grayson’s Robin through a series of flashbacks interspersed into the modern day case that Batman and Robin are on, one that is linked to Robin’s past.
In addition to showing how Dick Grayson and Bruce Wayne came together because of the similar tragedies they suffered as children, it also shows how Robin and Batman are slowly growing apart. It is , at it’s heart, a story about loss, family and coming of age told through a superhero revenge tale. The writing is superb and it is one of the best examples of what made this show so special.
The Clock King
This episode is a great example of how this show took fringe villains and gave them a new lease on life. Prior to this episode, The Clock King persona was held by William Tockman but here he is renamed as Temple Fugate. This is a riff on tempus fugit, which is Latin for time flies. Outlandish dead language puns aside this is a great episode.
It tells the story of how one small thing can change your entire life. In this case it’s a conversation between Fugate and Mayor Hill. Hill suggests that Fugate should get out of his routine in order to lighten up, he does and it sets off a chain of events that end in Fugate becoming the Clock King and seeking revenge on the Mayor. This leads to him finding himself in the crosshairs of the Dark Knight.
It may be a show about Batman but it’s an episode about Temple Fugate.
Beware The Gray Ghost
This is one part homage to old black and white detective shows, one part appreciation of Batman legend Adam West. The plot is based around a series of bombings that take place that bear a striking resemblance to those featured on a show that Bruce Wayne used to watch as a child, The Gray Ghost. We get flashbacks to a young Bruce Wayne watching the episode in question but falling to sleep before finding out how the bomber was accomplishing his attacks.
This leads to Batman trying to find out what he can about the show, leading to him meeting the star of The Gray Ghost, Simon Trent, voiced by Adam West. At first Trent refuses to help Batman, wanting to be left alone, but in the end he realises that it is the right thing to do, having a career revival in the process.
The career of Simon Trent parallels that of Adam West, being typecast following his iconic breakout role. This is a story not about supervillains with wild ideas but one about normal people and redemption and it’s all the better for it.
If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?
This episode features the series debut of The Riddler, though he starts the episode as regular old Edward Nygma. If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich? starts with Nygma getting fired from his job as a game designer and being denied any profits from his popular ‘Riddle of the Minotaur’ game by his boss Daniel Mockridge. Bad idea.
Two years later, Edward Nygma has taken up the mantle of The Riddler and he is out for revenge, trapping Mockridge in a life sized version of the maze from his game. Batman and Robin are forced to complete the real life ‘Riddle of the Minotaur’ to rescue Mockridge, despite Batman’s sympathy towards The Riddler. It’s one of the best action sequences in the show.
The episode focuses on living with the decisions that you make, as even though Mockridge can’t be punished legally, he will be looking over his shoulder for the rest of his life, in constant fear that The Riddler will return to finish the job.
Harley and Ivy
After being given the boot by The Joker, Harley Quinn sets out to show him what he will be missing. She inadvertently runs into Poison Ivy and the two of them set out on a crime spree. It’s a mix of Thelma & Louise and an all female Bonnie & Clyde, and it is the start of the best, and most believable, friendship in the world of Batman.
The two of them become known as the ‘Queens of Crime’ and The Joker decides that he wants Harley back. He decides that he will go and get her, even though he doesn’t notice she has gone until it starts to effect him personally.
This is another episode that isn’t really about Batman. It’s about friendship, showing the times when the pair are just hanging out in long t-shirts, and the difficulty of trying to leave an abusive relationship.
Heart Of Ice
This episode shows the biggest, and best, character reinvention of the entire show. Prior to this, Mr Freeze was just your run of the mill mad scientist who happened to be infatuated with cold. This episode changed that, giving him a tragic, heartbreaking backstory in which his wife was killed after the CEO of GothCorp shut down an experiment that was keeping her alive. The level of this tragedy separated him from a large portion of Batman’s Rogues Gallery.
This episode explores how far someone will go to get revenge for the death of a loved one. It also shows that no matter how much Batman may relate to, and even agree with, the plight of someone, he will never allow murder to be the answer.
The writing on this episode is pretty much flawless, winning an Emmy for Outstanding Writing in an Animated Program, and the final scene of Freeze sitting in his cell in Arkham, apologising to his wife’s music box, is utterly heartbreaking. This interpretation of Freeze’s backstory was so good that it was retconned into the comic book lore.
Two-Face (Parts 1 & 2)
Yes, I know that there are a lot of origin stories on this list but that is because they were handled so well during the series’ run. This two-parter shows how District Attorney Harvey Dent, who had been established as a friend of Bruce Wayne, became Two-Face.
Part 1 reveals that Dent has split personality disorder and he is beginning to lose his control over it, a situation not helped by gangster Rupert Thorne threatening to expose Dent’s secrets to the public. This leads to Dent confronting Thorne where he becomes scarred, both physically and mentally.
Part 2 shows that Harvey Dent has become the villain Two-Face. He wants revenge and goes after Rupert Thorne’s businesses, forcing Batman/Bruce Wayne into having to stop his friend from murdering Thorne. It is another episode that shows that while the show could be appreciated by children it was also likely to take a more mature tone aimed towards adults.
Almost Got ‘Im
This episode doesn’t feature a villain’s grand scheme or a plot to destroy Gotham, it is just five of the Dark Knight’s biggest foes getting together to tell stories and play poker. Those present are Poison Ivy, Two-Face, Penguin, Killer Croc and Joker and each tells the tale of how they almost killed Batman.
The stories all involve outlandish schemes, from exploding pumpkins to crushing Batman with a giant penny, but it is Killer Croc’s story that takes the prize. It turns out he threw a rock at him. It was a big rock though. It’s a charming and funny episode that may well be the best in the history of the show. There is even a nice twist at the end. It really does have something for everyone.
I know that it is impossible for me to please everyone with a list like this so feel free to let me know what I missed and if you haven’t watched the show in a while do yourself a favour and do some binge watching. It’s the definitive show in the comic book genre and it will still be good in another 25 years.
A Bullet For Bullock – Detective Bullock is forced to ask for Batman’s help when he believes someone is out to kill him.
P.O.V – This episode is framed as three police officers recounting their memories of a failed drug bust. It has shades of Rashomon about it.
Joker’s Favor – A regular guy is forced to help out the Joker in one of his schemes after getting on his bad side. This featured the first ever appearance of Harley Quinn.
The Laughing Fish – Based on a comic story arc, this one sees Joker pump toxins into the Gotham water system that gives all of the fish a Joker-esque smile. It’s an odd one but it’s really good.
House and Garden – Poison Ivy is out of Arkham and has seemingly settled down with a husband and adopted sons but all is not what it seems. I find this to be one of the darker episodes of the show and it’s one I’m surprised doesn’t get talked about more.
The Man Who Killed Batman – This follows low level gangster Sid the Squid after he believes he has accidentally killed Batman, and his realisation that he is now a target himself.
Feat of Clay (Parts 1 & 2) – This is the show’s reimagining of the origins of Clayface, becoming a more complex character, and features a great voice performance by Ron Perlman.
Demon’s Quest (Parts 1 & 2) – This is the definitive Ra’s al Ghul story and is pretty much a direct translation of the comic book story.
Trial – This features Batman being put on trial by his rogues gallery and discusses the question of whether Batman creates his own villains.
Mask Of The Phantasm – The only reason that this didn’t make the actual list is that it wasn’t actually an episode but a feature length movie. It was originally meant to be a straight to DVD release but was ended up getting a cinematic release at the last minute and flopped because of it. It’s a shame too as it is the second best Batman movie ever.
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