From the outstanding voice cast to stories that cut straight to what The Dark Knight is all about, there’s no disputing Batman: The Animated Series‘ status as the best superhero cartoon of all time. However, it might also well be the best-animated series – period. And here’s why.
Before 1992, superhero cartoons were largely designed for children and to sell merchandise, such as toys. Shows like Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends and even The Adventures of Batman provided lighthearted entertainment for the younger audience with uncomplicated storytelling. They hit the expected beats of showing off the villains of the week and the heroes defeating the odds, but they never dug deeper into what made these characters compelling and three-dimensional people.
Speaking to Warner Bros.’ Popcorn & Shield, the co-creator of Batman: The Animated Series, Bruce Timm, explained how the team kept children in mind when creating the show, but it was never strictly for them. He said:
“It wasn’t talking down to them. I always just thought to myself, when I was a kid some of my favourite shows were The Man From U.N.C.L.E. You look at them and there’s not a lot of action in them really, but it was kind of cool and it was certainly a little more adult, but I enjoyed that. And The Wild Wild West had great action sequences and stuff in it. And it’s certainly not really a ‘kids’ show.”
Before Batman: The Animated Series, most Batman cartoons played off the Dark Knight as someone who lives like playboy Bruce Wayne during the day and dressed up like a giant bat to fight crime at night. There was always a clear separation between the two identities without too much fuss or frill. Batman: The Animated Series takes it further, showing the burden that Bruce carries as he struggles to honour his fallen parents. At times, the audience gets the impression he doesn’t want to be Batman anymore, but he continues to do it because of his sacred vow to Thomas and Martha Wayne.
For this to succeed, Kevin Conroy created three personas and distinct voices for the character. The first is the gruff Dark Knight, who frightens enemies and strikes fear into their hearts when they see him. The second is Bruce Wayne, who disarms people with his unmistakable charm and friendliness at public gatherings and galas. And the third is the unmasked man who sits in the cave and speaks to Alfred Pennyworth and Dick Grayson honestly. In essence, the third voice is actually the real version of the character since it has no mask.
Batman: The Animated Series is one of the first adaptations after Tim Burton’s Batman to actually look at the comic books and dig deeper into the psyche of this complex character. It plays off the conflict and inner struggle of Bruce Wayne and who he wants to be.
Batman: The Animated Series never shied away from looking to the source material for inspiration. While it didn’t adapt the comic book storylines exactly as they transpired, it used the bits and pieces that made sense for the story the show was trying to tell. Interestingly enough, the showrunners also looked to Frank Miller and Alan Moore’s Batman stories for influence.
Considering how dark tales like The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight Returns are, they don’t exactly sound like the perfect match for an animated show that still needs to cater for kids, right? However, writer Paul Dini explained to Vulture how the creative team used influence in a specific way. He said:
“We wanted to ask, ‘What is it like to hear gunshots in an alley and have a shadow fall over you?’ And that’s a way around some of the restrictions, because [the network] can say, ‘Make sure you don’t see any violence.’ And it’s like, ‘All I heard was gunshots in an alley, and somebody falling over.’ And the executives were like, ‘Well, we can’t really object to it, but boy, the image that paints in your mind!’”
It’s no secret that Batman: The Animated Series took a lot of influence from Tim Burton’s Batman. Considering how it was the apex of comic book movies at the time, it made sense. The showrunners also made use of Danny Elfman’s score and took the lead from there in terms of crafting the show’s sound.
What the showrunners decided against, though, was using Burton’s Gothic aesthetic for the animated series. They wanted an old-school New York look with more traditional Art Deco architecture. They felt this gave it more of a natural elegance, but there was also another reason for it. Speaking to Vulture, the show’s co-creator and background painter Eric Radomski said:
“That birthed this timeless feel, where it felt very authentic in a ’40s setting, but it was contemporary story lines that we were telling. We could see mobsters and ’40s vehicles and dirigibles – and yet Batman had technology that was way beyond that time period.”
They dubbed this Dark Deco – and this look still holds up to this day. So, they were definitely onto something in terms of creating an aesthetic that stands the test of time.
Kevin Conroy. Mark Hamill. Loren Lester. John Glover. Ron Perlman. Batman: The Animated Series knew how important it was to get the right people to bring these larger-than-life characters to life. While there are many shows that have succeeded in this regard, it’s a testament to the series’ quality how many fans view these voices as the definitive versions of the characters – even three decades after the show first aired.
Speaking to Bleeding Cool, the voice director for the show, Andrea Romano, explained the secret to success here: It was about finding good actors for the roles. As she explained, it’s easy to teach animation techniques, but she can’t teach them acting. She also loved working with actors who wanted to see how far they could take the characters. She said the following:
“Think about the Joker and how broad that had to go for Mark – he had to really take it over the top. I always prefer it when an actor goes too far, and let me pull them back, rather than saying, ‘More, more, go farther.'”
Batman: The Animated Series didn’t prove to be the last great Batman cartoon. In fact, many of the shows that came afterwards were really good – including the futuristic spin-off Batman Beyond. However, what the series succeeded in doing is carving out its own legend into pop culture. For many fans, they will not hear anyone else but Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as the voices of Batman and Joker, respectively. While others will point to certain episodes such as “Heart of Ice” as the definitive stories about characters such as Mister Freeze. Without a shadow of a doubt, Batman: The Animated Series shaped and played a large role in the Dark Knight’s legacy.
While there have been numerous calls for a revival of the show, it has never happened. It might be even harder now after the passing of Conroy since it wouldn’t feel the same without him in the lead role. That said, DC has continued the series through the comic book Batman: The Adventures Continue. The likes of Paul Dini and Alan Burnett have returned to create stories set in this universe while also expanding it to include characters like Deadshot, who never appeared in the original programme.
There aren’t many shows that remain relevant three decades after their release, but Batman: The Animated Series continues to be the gift that keeps on giving. It defined and redefined the Caped Crusader for generations, and it deserves to be acknowledged for being the greatest of all time.
Sergio Pereira is a prolific and recognised journalist and writer from Johannesburg, South Africa. His expertise encompasses the topics of comic books, film, television, and video games. For over 16 years, he has built up his reputation and knowledge in entertainment journalism by writing for and learning from the world's largest publications.
Sergio is also an accredited Rotten Tomatoes reviewer and has interviewed numerous celebrities, such as Andy Serkis, Ben Barnes, Idris Elba, Letitia Wright and Frank Miller. He is the author of the highly rated fantasy comedy novel The Not-So-Grim Reaper and numerous short stories. In addition, he is the co-writer of the South African crime drama film The Lifesaver. As a regular columnist, he contributes to Looper, Grunge, Screen Rant, Ranker, CBR, SYFY WIRE, IGN Africa, Thought Catalog and Fortress of Solitude.
For Sergio, all he wants in life is to see the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles eclipse the Justice League as the greatest heroes of all time. Then, he will sleep peacefully.