Yup, it’s time again for another animation retrospective, and since it’s Batman Month, let’s do Batman’s modern animation history.
Now, some of you may wonder why I’m calling this a “modern animation” retrospective. Well, unlike my previous retrospectives on Sonic and Spider-Man, Batman has been in far too many animated shows, and honestly, a large chunk of the early ones were basically the same thing: Batman and Robin in fun silly adventures. Even his time on the SuperFriends was similar to shows where it was just him and Robin. It was only after Tim Burton’s film adaptions that we got an animated Batman who was closer to the comic, and from then on, Batman series have always strived for some kind of quality adaption of the Dark Knight while maintaining their own identity. So, without further ado, Batman’s animation history of the modern age!
Batman: The Animated Series
With producers Bruce Timm and Paul Dini at the helm, this series was basically the Batman show we always wanted as kids. Dark, moody, but still accessible for the young as well as the adult. Part of this was due to the great writing that adapted classic stories and characters for a more modern time, and part of this was due to the spectacular voice cast, including people like Mark Hamill as the Joker, Ron Perlman as Clayface, and Kevin Conroy as Batman himself. Hell, the voices from this series have become the voices I hear in my head when I read the comics. Set in an art deco-noir Gotham, it was a timeless show, and hell, even the lesser episodes are still really well-done. This by far was the bar that all superhero shows would have to match to achieve greatness.
The New Batman/Superman Adventures
Honestly, this was just the last season of Batman back-to-back with the Superman animated series. But it was significant, since we got updated Batman characters and designs, and because it started to open up the idea that we were dealing with the entire DC universe now. By far, the highlight of this iteration of both shows was when Superman and Batman crossed over, like in the three-part World’s Finest story about their first meeting, or the episode Knight Time when Bruce Wayne goes missing and Superman steps up to be Batman when Gotham needs it. Overall, not much of a change in the storytelling, just opening up more possibilities with DC’s entire universe.
This, in theory, should never have worked. The story goes that Warner Bros. asked the production team of the previously mentioned series to make a show starring a teenage Batman. So, rather than just make Bruce Wayne a teen, they set it in a Blade Runner-style future, made Bruce (still played by Kevin Conroy) a retired, bitter old man, and gave the mantle of the Bat to a teenage hardcase named Terry McGinnis (Will Friedle). It should not have worked, but it did. Terry was a great hero, not as brilliant as Bruce was in deductive reasoning, but just as talented a fighter as well as a hero. Thankfully, the show kept the appearances of old foes of Batman to a minimum, focusing instead of introducing new enemies for the Dark Knight of Tomorrow to face. Of particular note in this franchise are the episodes dealing with Terry’s nemesis Blight (a walking nuclear meltdown), Inque (a shapeshifting liquid-like femme fatale), and the straight-to-video movie Return of the Joker, where Terry had to face the greatest foe Batman’s ever had, and piece together why the original bat-team broke up. If possible, watch the uncut version. It’s worth it.
Justice League/Justice League Unlimited
This was the last of the DC animated universe series (I consider Unlimited to just be seasons 3 and 4 of Justice League). Conroy reprises his role of Batman (in what I think may be his best design so far), teaming up with Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern John Stewart, Martian Manhunter, Flash and Hawkgirl to save the world from major threats. Batman was always in the show, but when he was, he was awesome. This was the culmination of the DC universe in animation, and was a great way to end this particular version of Batman. Of note in that regard is the episode Epilogue, which connects tons of dots between this series and Batman Beyond.
This was an interesting one. Rather than try to emulate Batman: the Animated Series, they went in an original direction. When the show starts, Bruce Wayne (voiced by Rino Romano) has only been Batman for three years, and has significantly decreased crime in Gotham. But when his first supervillain appears in the form of the Joker, it’s a sign that things are changing for how crime works in Gotham, and the new Dark Knight is going to have to adapt as the foes keep coming. A lot of people wrote this show off for not being like the last series, or for its focus on martial arts action (well, one of the staff was well known for his work on the series Jackie Chan Adventures). Fact is, we got to see something that’s rarely shown for Batman: his growth from just being a guy in a suit beating up thugs to a full-fledged superhero who can fight monsters and aliens. As each season came and went, it kept building its own legend, eventually adding Batgirl and Robin to the cast, and the final season dealt with Batman being part of the newly-formed Justice League. Honestly, I think this series gets too much hate. It was a great saga that tracked the changes in Batman’s career in a fun and action-packed way. If you can, watch a few episodes. It may surprise you.
Batman: The Brave and the Bold
Okay, what happens when you take the concept of The Brave and the Bold (DC’s comic that had two different heroes teaming up in their stories), all the zany and over-the-top stories and style of the Silver Age, and the sheer memetic insanity of how Batman is so awesome compared to all other superheroes, and merge them together? You get this highly entertaining, fanservice-filled love letter to not just Batman’s history, but the history of comics in general. With Diedrich Bader taking the role of Batman, each episode saw our hero team up with another character from DC’s rich history, often engaging in adventures straight out of the Silver Age (but played straight), and often demonstrated the sheer over-the-top preparedness we associate with Batman. Honestly, if you’re not just fan of Batman from all his different periods of comics, but just comics in general, this show is one to watch.
Well, that’s it for Batman’s major animated series. When the new series Beward the Batman starts next year, you know I’ll have an opinion to share about it. And remember, Batman Month is still going strong. Tune in soon for another grand article.