Andy Carr offers a light history of the most iconic animated Batman, and a celebration of its staying power and influence.
Batman fans have suffered no shortage of Batman-centric media in any of the three decades since Tim Burton and Michael Keaton gave the world their singular, public perception-shifting vision of the Caped Crusader on the silver screen. 1989’s Batman, and its 1992 sequel, Batman Returns — alongside Frank Miller’s late-1980s comic-book contributions — would prove iconic-enough influences on the character that essentially all major Batmedia to follow would use at least one, if not all, of them as a template for look and tone. But none would build upon Burton’s aesthetic as obviously or successfully as the Batman of the DC Animated Universe (DCAU).
Where Miller’s Batman would force audiences to reconcile with the idea of a brutal, sociopathic vigilante like Batman in a more realistic world, Burton’s rendition highlighted the more gothically fantastical aspects of the mythos. Both shifted Batman into a darker place, but to different ends.
Artist Bruce Timm and writer Paul Dini chose to found their animated interpretation in Burton’s dark fantasy but imbue it with heavier noir stylings and a younger-audience bent. Their balancing act would prove the character to be an accessible vessel for children’s stories without sacrificing Burton’s darkness or Miller’s moral complexity. This convergence of weighty storytelling and all-ages appeal is what ultimately makes the DCAU’s Batman, for my money, the most perfectly realized iteration in the character’s long and rich history.
Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995)
Before its expansion to include movies and TV shows about Superman, the Justice League and other Batpeople, the DCAU — sometimes referred to as the Timmverse or Diniverse in honor of its creators — would begin humbly with the airing of Batman: The Animated Series (BTAS) in 1992. The series would adopt many of the stylings of Burton’s Batman — a city awash in black, densely packed with impossibly tall Art Deco skyscrapers, like a grimier take on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. BTAS would take this dreamy aesthetic a few steps further by putting characters in 1930s or ’40s clothing and cars but equipping them with modern and even futuristic technology. Throw a few blimps in the sky, and you’ve got a Batman who exists out of time and in a Gotham City that feels like a stop on your way to the Twilight Zone.
This timeless, otherwordly Gotham allowed BTAS to have its children’s show and eat it too. The absurdist, retro-future hyperbole of American urbanization helped its grim morality plays and tragic central characters feel familiar enough to resonate while remaining fantastical enough so as not to be bogged down by real-world parallels. To that same end, the series’ dark stories rarely, if ever, tipped into nihilistic territory — a common and often misguided indulgence of less effective “gritty Batman” stories. Instead, each sorrowful fable presented here is underpinned with hope and perseverance, as well as thoughtful lessons to be learned by Batman and / or the viewer.
The episodic nature of the series also gave the series room to explore every facet of Batman’s character and heroics. After all, Batman is traditionally depicted as a bit of a Renaissance Man among superheroes — he’s equal parts vigilante, detective, ninja, Halloween costume, scientist, father, son and friend. Due to the serial structure, BTAS could dedicate entire episodes to exploring one single aspect of the character. In “On Leather Wings,” he’s a brilliant detective and scientist who defies the orders of the police to help a man be more than a monster. In “Beware the Gray Ghost,” Bruce’s inner child is entranced by the opportunity to work alongside and help one of his childhood inspirations. “Almost Got ‘Im” and “Trial” seek to emphasize the effects Batman’s presence has on his adversaries. “Perchance to Dream” emphasizes Bruce Wayne’s desire for some kind of “normal” life without the cape. It takes watching just a handful of episodes to see how acutely Timm and Dini understood and optimized the power of the television format to explore every side of such a storied and multidimensional character.
Also unique to BTAS’s format, structure and audience was its balancing of tone. It mixed fun, frivolous adventure with thoughtful revelations of its characters’ traumas. In a single episode, children and adults alike could celebrate Batman’s triumphant victories over forces of evil while also pitying Bruce Wayne’s self-destructive methods of coping with his traumatic past. This range of emotional stakes also served to highlight the double-edged nature of Bruce Wayne’s double identity.
Nothing exemplifies that perfect calibration of the Batman-Bruce relationship better than voice actor Kevin Conroy’s tone-shifting when playing each identity. Plenty of Batman adaptations have understood the concept that Bruce Wayne is Batman’s mask even more than the other way around, but few actors have been able to portray it as vividly as Conroy; Bruce switching off his sunny rich-boy voice the moment he leaves a party, addressing Alfred in his gruffer Batman timbre sans cape and cowl, will always be among my favorite depictions of Batman’s view of Bruce Wayne as the façade — the implication that Batman’s voice is Bruce’s actual voice and the tone he uses in public is the made-up one. It’s such a simple choice that instantly articulates the crux of Batman’s dual identity. A Batman who sounds like he has throat cancer, or who uses digital modulation, will always pale in comparison to Conroy’s elegant vocal-posture changes.
You likely already know that this series also introduced the world to another all-time comic-book voice, in the form of Mark Hamill’s iconic take on the Joker — which, at this point, is most people’s default voice for the character in their heads whether they realize it or not. Hamill’s vaudeville musicality and exaggerated Mid-Atlantic accent lent the character a distinctive brand of mania, and his diverse range of laughs alone would have been enough to cement this version of Batman’s nemesis as the greatest. But the real power is in how Hamill plays his smaller one-liners and functional dialogue; his Joker could be legitimately funny and, in the same breath, sadistically chilling — a perfect foil to Batman’s stoicism and unrelenting sense of duty.
Many of the subsequent movies and series that would spin off from BTAS would maintain the most prominent elements of this interpretation of the mythos. Conroy and Hamill, along with others, would be carried over from project to project for decades, even in plenty of out-of-universe media. Most of the DCAU would continue to meaningfully expand on BTAS’s understanding of the character’s equal merit as both a vessel for moral quandary and an avatar for thrilling adventure.
If you want some notable samples of the series’ combined visual beauty and thematic gravity, I’d recommend the following episodes:
- Ep. 01: “On Leather Wings”
- Eps. 09 & 10: “Two-Face”
- Ep. 14: “Heart of Ice” (won an Emmy!)
- Ep. 18: “Beware the Gray Ghost”
- Ep. 22: “Joker’s Favor”
- Ep. 30: “Perchance to Dream”
- Eps. 32 & 33: “Robin’s Reckoning” (also won an Emmy!)
- Ep. 46: “Almost Got ‘Im”
- Ep. 49: “I Am the Night”
- Ep. 51: “The Man Who Killed Batman”
- Ep. 68: “Trial”
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
The animated series would receive its most high-profile expansion in the form of a theatrically released feature film one year into the series’ running. Mask of the Phantasm functions much like an extended episode of the show, giving us a more in-depth look at the man behind the mask and the life he could have had with once-lover Andrea Beaumont were it not for his crusade against crime. In greater detail, it forces our hero to reconcile his sworn duty with his selfish desires. The film also presents audiences with one of the series’ few completely original villains, the eponymous Phantasm.
The film’s thematic similarities to BTAS are absolutely one of its strengths, seeing as the best episodes of the series are among the greatest Batman stories ever told, even under the choke of the 22-minute format. Phantasm gets the opportunity to be a Timm / Dini Batman story told more intricately, over the course of more than thrice the runtime.
That being said, part of what made BTAS work so well was the way its many fantastic, succinct stories worked together to form a multifaceted portrait of the Caped Crusader across different adventures. It wasn’t so much the depth and detail of single episodes that cemented its iconic version of Batman as it was the mosaic of the character created by the entire series. An element of that is lost in Phantasm’s feature-length narrative, as the single story told across its runtime isn’t significantly deeper or more enlightening to Batman’s character than the best episodes of BTAS. On one hand, Phantasm does a commendable job capturing the series’ multi-dimensional nature all in one film, but the trade-off in a longer single story like this is the lack of variety — in settings, plot hooks and villains — that one would experience during three to four standard episodes.
Thankfully, no shortcuts were taken in the polished presentation. Timm’s art style looks gorgeous on a higher budget, and composer Shirley Walker builds upon her musical soundscape from the show. The Phantasm itself looks and sounds stellar as well, evoking the Grim Reaper and Ghost of Christmas Future in its design. Each of the Phantasm’s scenes is basically atmospheric horror reined in just enough to be palatable for children. I do wish the film gave us more of its nightmarish villain, though, because the Beaumont-Valestra crime conspiracy that eats up the second act just isn’t nearly as compelling.
Still, Phantasm remains a passionately crafted, mature Batman story that’s perfectly in the spirit of the television series. It sadly failed at the box office, thanks to WB’s last-minute decision to release it theatrically and the resulting lack of marketing. Still, it’s difficult not to marvel at the rare instance of an incredibly mature children’s cartoon receiving an equally mature, highly praised feature film on the silver screen. Frankly, it gets Batman better than most of its bigger-budgeted and more successful live-action counterparts.
The New Batman Adventures (1997-1999)
BTAS would end its run on Fox in September 1995 after three years on the air. Two years later, Timm, Dini and BTAS producer Alan Burnett would develop The New Batman Adventures (TNBA), a reboot of the property with new art and a greater emphasis on the other members of the Bat Family: Nightwing, Robin and Batgirl. Despite its new, angular character designs and team emphasis, Timm, Dini and Burnett opted to maintain continuity with BTAS rather than start anew.
This is probably an unpopular opinion, especially among people who love BTAS and the DCAU’s Batman as much as I do, but I actually prefer TNBA’s character designs to the original series overall. Some of the elegant lighting and noir stylings of BTAS’s visual storytelling are lost (or at least reduced) in translation, but the look of the reboot remains incredibly faithful to capturing that same atmosphere, and I’m just a sucker for streamlined designs that move fluidly, in quick, sharp strokes. TNBA does just that, taking the best elements of Timm’s classic designs and allowing them to work in more dynamic motion.
TNBA only lasted for a year, which is probably one of the reasons it doesn’t quite reach the storytelling heights of its predecessor. But it benefits from highlighting one of Batman’s most intriguing dynamics — his role as mentor and father to young people as he brings them under his wing and trains them to fight his crusade alongside him. BTAS didn’t skip Robin or Batgirl entirely, but their appearances were more infrequent and specific to the adventure at hand. TNBA is largely built around this mentor / mentee dynamic and gives Batman’s protégés more agency, even calling out Batman’s shortcomings as a leader and a teacher on their behalf. It’s a surprisingly challenging follow-up to the original series — one that questions the abilities and judgment of its titular hero from the perspective of his allies.
The episode “Over the Edge” stands out as one of the best animated Batman stories, in either series, for its exploration of a nightmare scenario in which Batman’s crimefighting methods — particularly his obviously illegal and morally dubious recruitment of young, impressionable people like Barbara Gordon and Tim Drake — can have tragic ramifications for them and their loved ones. Also, “Old Wounds” deftly deals with Batman’s falling out with Dick Grayson that led to Grayson trading in the Robin mantle for Nightwing.
The Batman / Superman Movie: World’s Finest (1997)
In 1996, one year prior to the premiere of The New Batman Adventures, Timm, Dini and Burnett released their first non-Batman-centric addition to their world in the form of Superman: The Animated Series (STAS) — which would effectively begin the DCAU as a connected universe of discrete, coexisting characters and stories.
A year into STAS, and just a month after the premiere of TNBA, the Dark Knight would make a guest appearance on STAS in a back-to-back three-episode block, titled “World’s Finest,” which would later be marketed and released on home video as a movie event using The Batman / Superman Movie: as a prefix.
In this rollicking action-adventure, Batman makes a business call to Metropolis to help Superman take down the unlikely partnership of their respective nemeses: the Joker and Lex Luthor.
Being Batman’s second “movie” outing, it’s worth noting that World’s Finest is not the emotionally weighty character study that Phantasm was. But frankly, as the first meeting of DC Comics’ two most iconic characters in this universe, it doesn’t need to be. Not only was STAS far less concerned with gloomy tragedy than BTAS, it was also better at delivering high-flying action, and World’s Finest is no exception. Likewise, the banter and power plays that result from the titular duo’s growing pains as they reconcile their opposing approaches to crime-fighting make for a lovable game of superhero one-upmanship, neither becoming a tedious conflict in itself nor distracting from the stakes at hand.
There’s no need for lofty philosophical debate this early in their relationship, so World’s Finest largely avoids it in favor of both heroes pulling out all their best moves to navigate vicious robots, brutish thugs and lots of explosions. Each one is a pro at what he does, respectively encountering (for the first time in their careers) another pro with wildly different techniques for doing the same thing. Clever action setpieces abound, like Batman protecting Lois Lane from an attacking spider-bot in the printing room of the Daily Bugle.
Fun action and an antithetical collaboration of their archenemies are all this story needs to prove the obvious: Despite their differences, Batman and Superman make a great team.
Plus, it’s a riot to watch Bruce and Clark compete for Lois’s favor.
Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero (1998)
After several years without a true feature appearance, Batman landed an original home-video release, SubZero. Sillier, cheaper and more frivolous than Mask of the Phantasm, SubZero didn’t quite make the cultural waves of its predecessor — though it got far more airtime on the VCR in my living room as a kid.
Mr. Freeze was the perfect choice for an extended adventure, though fans of the Emmy-winning BTAS episode “Heart of Ice” were probably disappointed to find this story lacking the same emotional heft.
The plot centers around Freeze kidnapping Batgirl (without realizing she’s Batgirl) because she’s a compatible donor for a blood transfusion to save his cryogenically frozen wife, and it’s played fast and loose with little regard for logic or detail. Also, Batman gets relegated to, like, fourth lead, behind Freeze, Robin and Batgirl, which is a bummer. On the other hand, Freeze has slightly anthropomorphized pet polar bears and an adopted Inuit son named Koonak. Hell, yeah.
There are a lot of strange, but ultimately fun, choices in this one. It’s got a lot of kinetic action and returns the characters to their original BTAS designs, which is fun to see rendered through animation technology that had a few years to advance. The integrated 3D animation in some sequences is a little ugly, but I’ve seen far worse from even more recent releases.
I’m not sure SubZero really advances the characters or world of the DCAU in any meaningful way, but it’s a good time. Next!
Batman Beyond (1999-2001)
In time for the new millennium, Batman went future. And hip. And edgy. And, honestly, really cool.
As a continuation of Bruce Wayne’s story in a fresh new setting, Batman Beyond told the story of an aging Bruce Wayne and the spry, snarky college kid, Terry McGinnis, who would rise to carry on his mantle. Set roughly 40 years after the events of BTAS and TNBA, Beyond had the opportunity to extrapolate on the mythos well beyond what was available for adaptation in the comics. McGinnis’s gallery of rogues would contain a healthy mix of brand-new original villains and successors to old ones. The long-gone Joker has inspired the Jokerz, a rag-tag gang of clown-themed thugs. The new Batsuit has more in common with Iron Man than Batman, featuring jet boots, wings, invisibility and all sorts of built-in tech that wouldn’t fit in Bruce’s old utility belt.
But the spirit of the character is maintained. Terry’s sharp attitude might evoke Peter Parker more than Bruce Wayne, but he’s cut from the same cloth as his predecessor. After his father’s murder, Terry stumbles upon the Bat Cave and steals the suit, ultimately forcing Bruce Wayne to assist him in using it and taking out the city’s worst criminals. Together, they’re able to carry on the crusade Bruce had to give up years ago for a lack of physical ability.
The first two episodes of Beyond were packaged as a home-video “movie,” much like World’s Finest. It tries to do a lot in 40 minutes — depicting the end of Bruce’s crimefighting career, Terry’s origin as a troubled teen and taking up of the Bat-mantle, and establishing new villains and a new world for our new hero. As episodes converted into a movie, it doesn’t work quite as well as World’s Finest, but it clearly wasn’t designed to be a self-contained story so much as a jumping-off point for a brand-new chapter in the Batman mythos. And it absolutely succeeds at that. Just watching this movie made me want to rewatch the whole series. I didn’t, for time, but I should.
I’ll always love Bruce Wayne’s scenes in these first two episodes of Beyond. Opening the show with his final time donning the suit, and then bringing him back into the fold through Terry’s eyes, as a bitter old man who gave up on his cause, was the perfect way to cement the notion that this is an important continuation of the mythos. Terry is a pretty cool protagonist, too, especially in how his fiery attitude and confidence contrast with Bruce’s stoic resolve. It’s not unlike the Batman-Robin dynamic, except if Bruce was forced to sit at home and let Robin run the show.
Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2000)
Easily the best proper feature in the DCAU aside from Phantasm. I might even prefer this one. This time around, Terry’s crime-fighting saga is brought face-to-face with Bruce’s past, back from the grave. A new Joker has appeared in Gotham decades after the supposed death of the original. He looks and sounds just like the original. Bruce’s tech even confirms, against all logic, that it’s the same old clown. The question is how, and what does he want now? Unfortunately, Terry’s short on answers, because Bruce refuses to talk about his dark past with the Clown Prince of Crime.
Barbara Gordon, now following in her father’s footsteps as Gotham’s police commissioner, is able to fill in the gaps for Terry and for the audience. Her retelling of the Joker’s final scheme will always be the iconic highlight of this film. She describes to Terry, in harrowing detail, one of the darkest nights for her, Bruce and Tim Drake. That flashback alone, smack-dab in the middle of the second act, is some of my favorite animated Batman storytelling of all time and shows us likely one of Bruce’s greatest regrets.
The future-set A-plot is no slouch either, packing in loads of fun action alongside a meaningful, emotional reconnection for the Bat Family. The returned Joker is more efficient, ruthless and angry than ever, cutting down on his trademark frivolity in pursuit of quick and decisive destruction. Hamill turns in possibly his best-ever performance as the character; practically every one of his maniacal laughs and one-liners is an all-timer. Joker’s sharper edge likewise complement’s Terry’s, and the two have a fun and appropriately different showdown than any that occurred when Bruce wore the mask.
Terry, unfortunately, gets a bit sidelined from the emotional core of the story and serves more as a functional plot-mover. But he also acts as the audience lens for these new emotional revelations about the legacy characters, and, in the end, bags himself a sweet moment of vulnerability from Bruce. But mostly, he just does cool Batman Beyond stuff, like flying, being an edgy kid and pissing off the Joker with his snarky attitude — all of which is great fun.
The ones we don’t talk about:
Mystery of the Batwoman (2003)
I’d prefer to tell you that after Batman Beyond ended in 2001, the awesome Justice League series aired, ran for several seasons, featured some really great Batman moments and then gloriously brought a close to the DCAU.
Unfortunately, I set out to write a comprehensive look at the entirety of Batman-centric DCAU content, so I have to talk about these two — the ones that nobody talks about because nobody likes them.
Mystery of the Batwoman was another home-video release, intended to continue the storyline from The New Batman Adventures set prior to the falling-out from the events of Barbara Gordon’s flashback story in Return of the Joker. It’s also the first Batman film in the DCAU to notably lack heavy involvement from Timm, Dini and Burnett. Curt Geda, who directed Return of the Joker under the screenplay and production guidance of the original three, seems to struggle in their absence.
Batwoman features the basic art style and character designs from TNBA but ditches the moody lighting and meaningful visual storytelling for flatter, brighter scenery. It’s honestly kind of ugly. Likewise, the care for meaningful storytelling and deeper themes is disregarded.
The plot is bland and doesn’t really add anything to the lore or characters. There’s a Batwoman who’s running around Gotham giving Batman a bad name, and he needs to figure out who she is. Three new women also enter Bruce’s life at the same time, and he begins to think the Batwoman could be any one of them. That’s about all that’s worth recounting. It’s an extraneous Batman animated feature purely for the sake of it. It’s bare-bones, typical superhero-adventure stuff, which would have been fine, I guess, if that stuff maintained the unique approach to visual action of its predecessors. It doesn’t.
Batman and Harley Quinn (2017)
I imagine Batwoman effectively killed studio or audience interest in DCAU Batman stories for a while, and after Justice League came to an end, so did that universe. Until 2017.
Batman and Harley Quinn was announced as Bruce Timm’s return to his original version of the character. His TNBA art style was brought back, through modern digital animation, and these would be versions of the characters we hadn’t seen in a long time.
The catch: This ain’t your momma’s Batman cartoon.
Yes, this entry in the DCAU would, inexplicably, feature more adult content — cursing, blood, sexual innuendo and farting. You read that right: Harley Quinn drops a few stink bombs on Batman and Nightwing in the cabin of the Batmobile.
She also fucks Nightwing.
While he’s tied to her bed against his will.
And he only kind of (?) gives consent.
And then Batman walks in on them.
I dunno. This whole movie is really poorly conceived, from top to bottom. Timm’s script is full of bizarre, heavy-handed and uneven politics. There are two literally back-to-back and full-length musical numbers. We get Batman ’66-style onomatopoeia reading, “Ow, my balls!”
If Mystery of the Batwoman was the forgettably bland and inoffensive afterthought of the DCAU’s Batman, Batman and Harley Quinn is the one truly terrible entry — a throbbing pustule on the underbelly of an all-time great adaptation of Batman. Why it wasn’t just presented as an original, standalone story using Timm’s art style is beyond me. The characters’ behaviors here bear almost no resemblance to their counterparts in the 1990s and 2000s. The tone is entirely different. Unless you’re a major Batman or DC Animated fan, you probably didn’t even know this existed. Just forget I told you.
Fortunately, Batman and Harley Quinn’s temporal and tonal distance from the rest of the DC Animated Universe’s Batman stories are enough to make it a shruggable footnote in the history of the character. There are enough rock-solid, even downright phenomenal Batman stories in the DCAU to cement it as one of the most iconic visions of the character ever realized.
Bruce Timm and Paul Dini’s perfect balance of levity and darkness, and tragedy and triumph, offers a more engaging, well-rounded, exciting and stylish version of the Dark Knight than most big-budget movie adaptations have been able to. I love Nolan’s The Dark Knight as much as the next guy, but the DCAU deserves credit as, at the very least, its equal — perhaps even its superior as an all-around adaptation of the character.
In fact, TDK pairs pretty perfectly with DCAU Batman to offer the best of the character’s capabilities. Maybe next time you get a hankering to watch Nolan’s films again, tee up with some episodes from Batman: The Animated Series, or double-feature Batman Begins with Mask of the Phantasm for a Batman Origins Mega-Morality Play. Or pair TDK with Return of the Joker, for a Clown Prince of Crime Double-Header. The possibilities are endless.
Or, you know what, just watch the damn cartoons. You’ve seen The Dark Knight enough. Batman’s many DCAU appearances make up some of the best Batman storytelling of all time, and the animation and writing hold up incredibly well.
Curl up and enjoy one of the greatest cartoons ever made. Be a kid again. Batman’s cool.