Batman: The Animated Series. Truly a landmark in both animation and the adaption of comic books into another medium. Possibly the only cartoon that fans of the original Batman character can look at and not only take on any changes made in their favourite characters, but even embrace them and maybe even prefer them over how they were originally portrayed in the comic books. Batman himself is played to perfection by Kevin Conroy (Despite some perhaps only satisfactory performances to start with, he really gets into the part in future seasons) and his cast of secondary characters, from the boy wonder Robin and his butler Alfred to Commissioner Gordon and Harvey Bullock are all used when appropriate to great effect, not being left out of the spotlight for too long but also not getting in the way when they're in it.
However where the show really shines is in its portrayal of Batman's colourful rogues gallery, as a hero is only as good as his villains after all. The cartoon had its fair share of episodes with original villains and some without any flagship villains at all, but those that did are always the ones people remember and cherish, as well as look forward to. In this article I'm going to look at some of the Dark Knight's many foils, but please don't get annoyed if I skip over your favourite rogue; I will do a future article, and even if I skip over them then, don't think I'm doing it out of spite, as it's possible I might have simply not seen the episode or consider them substantial enough to include. So without further ado, let's bring on the bad guys:THE JOKER
You can't have the Batman without the Joker. The comedy to the dark knight's tragedy, the Joker is without a doubt the most popular Bat-villain around, and surprisingly the one with the least developed past. We simply know that he was a criminal knocked into a vat of chemicals by Batman, who survived only to find his face was now chalk-white, his lips bright red and his hair dyed green. This unhinged him completely, the man practically forgetting his own past and forging a new criminal identity for himself as the clown prince of crime.
Not the most moving of origin stories (it's not even shown in the series, only mentioned in some form or another), but with the Joker that's not what you're expecting. With the Joker you're just prepared to see him go crazy and bring out every gag and gimmick you could think of in his pursuit to destroy Batman and get away with some loot while he's at it. In the animated series, the Joker is played by Mark Hamill. Mr. Skywalker himself would be the last person you'd think of to play such a devious, evil character, but he pulls it off so perfectly that nowadays people can't imagine anyone else doing the job.
The Joker's portrayal in the cartoon seemed to move from very good to mediocre quite easily, since sometimes his plots and ploys were a bit too Adam West-esque to work in this new serious environment and his jokes far too corny even by his standards(Such as in "The Last Laugh", which is still almost worth watching just to see Batman go medieval on an android sailor and hear the Joker spout the immortal line "You killed Captain Clown!"). But when he was used well, he was used VERY well. One outstanding episode is "The Laughing Fish", an adaption of a late seventies comic book storyline where the Joker poisons Gotham's fish with his Joker Venom in hopes that their new smiles reminiscient of his own(even though fish don't have teeth, nevermind big ones...) will let him copywrite them and become rich in the process. When things don't go to plan, he threatens the copywrite executives with lethal force, so Batman has to both protect the execs and follow the Joker's trail. Such a wacky premise actually works surprisingly well, and the actual deaths of the executives from the comic is sidestepped with Batman giving them an antidote to the Joker's poison just in time.
Another noteworthy episode is the Joker's debut, in "Joker's Favour", where the clownish villain threatens an average nobody Charles Michael Collins that curses him on the freeway into performing a little "favour", taking his drivers licence and waiting several years before calling him up on it. He blackmails the now relocated Charlie into helping him kill Commissioner Gordon, and things turn sour when the night comes and Charles needs to find a way to alert Batman and get himself out of it. The Joker does what he does best and dances carefully over the line between being too comic and too deadly, a line which is often crossed on either way in the comic books where he is sometimes portrayed as much too deranged and psychopathic (even for him) or too comical to the point where he can barely be considered a threat. Overall, the Joker is definitely one of the stand-out rogues in Batman's animated gallery with very good reason.HARLEY QUINN
Harley is a bit of an oddity, as she was added into the show despite never having appeared in the comic books beforehand, and somehow became a fan-favourite and was actually incorporated into the comic afterwards. Created by Paul Dini (a writer who is known for writing many of the most remembered episodes), Harley Quinn is the Joker's "hench-wench" who first appeared alongside him in "Joker's Favour" (albeit mostly in the disguise of a police-woman or otherwise out of costume) to at as someone a bit more interesting than just another lumbering thug on the Joker's side, as well as adding a bit more comedy at times where the clown prince himself had to be slightly more serious. She proved popular and appeared in most of the other Joker episodes, even recieving some of her own afterwards.
Harley Quinn is actually no more than a lovesick fool, someone who is constantly pining for her "puddin'" the Joker and never wanting to leave his side, not realising that he is just using her love as a cheap and easy way of keeping an extra pair of hands around him at all times. It wasn't until "The New Batman Adventures", a continuation of the series, that she really got an origin story in the episode "Mad Love"; she was Dr. Harleen Quinzel (convenient), a psychologist whose favourite patient just so happened to be the Joker, so much so that she fell in love with him and then became a criminal herself so as to be by his side. It is obviously somewhat more complex than that, but that's the general gist of it. The other half of the episode is taken up of Harley Quinn's attempts to capture Batman and earn "Mr. J's" love once and for all. The true highlight comes when Batman confronts Harley about her convictions towards him and makes his attempts to persuade her, resulting in her almost breaking down crying before dismissing his claims.
Played by Arleen Sorkin, Harley has more of her own little exploits under her belt, including her shacking up with fellow femme fatale Poison Ivy (more on her later) after taking enough of the Joker's abuse (but her pining continues even afterwards) in "Harley and Ivy". They go on a crime spree which hits the newspapers, proclaiming them the queens of crime until the Joker reads up on it and becomes desperate to get Harley back, not for her love but to just regain his mantle. Batman is practically a footnote in this episode, simply a catalyst in the beginning to get Harley to split up and someone at the end who saves the day and restores the status quo... somewhat. This doesn't detract from the episode at all, nor does it from any other episodes where Batman is not predominantly featured. Sometimes even the main character needs to let someone else have the spotlight for a while...THE PENGUIN
Arguably Batman's number two best-known villain (neck and neck with Catwoman, of course). The Batman:tAS team were however not allowed to adapt the typical, aristocratic form of the Penguin from the comics (which I will admit I don't really care for) and instead the Danny DeVito mutant Penguin from Tim Burton's "Batman Returns" film. However they were obviously fans of the original's personality, making the gruesome little bird quite charming and eloquent in his speech patterns and his view of himself. I think this would have worked well if they had played it differently; a man who considers himself one of the bluebloods, but is forever shunned for his grotesque appearance which forces him to try and steal himself some respect in whatever way possible. Unfortunately he instead hung around in the sewers and abandoned warehouses with only a couple of dimwitted thugs and a pet vulture by his side.
The Penguin is unfortunately one of the few mis-steps of the show, his episodes tending to be rather dull or ridiculous in comparison to the more colourful exploits of other villains. One such episode is "The Mechanic", where the Penguin blackmails the man who fixes the Batmobile into rigging it with a remote control (yes, like he does in both the movie and a few times in the comics). It answers a few questions that weren't really asked in the first place but is otherwise rather unfulfilling, except for an unintentionally funny (it was a joke, but I found it funny for the wrong reasons) moment at the end where the Penguin, while cleaning license plates, reads one out with the unfortunate number "1 BAT 4U". It's just such a ridiculous line and the way Paul Williams says it (who otherwise plays the part very well) can't help but stifle either a giggle or a groan. The episode also suffers from bad animation, the Penguin being inconsistent in every scene.
"Birds of a Feather" is a decent Penguin caper, where he thinks he has found love and acceptance in high society with Veronica Vreeland. Little does he know that she only wants him for his novelty, everyone else being quite disgusted or bemused by his antics but also being the talk of the town afterwards. Seeing him realise he is being played for a fool and then exacting his revenge, having his heart thoroughly broken by someone who is in fact just beginning to warm to him (not to mention his odd foray into heroism while going straight), is certainly better than one of his first episodes "I've Got Batman in My Basement". Renowned for being one of the worst Batman:tAS episodes, it involves some kids taking care of a drugged Batman by taking him (you guessed it) into their basement while he is being chased by the Penguin. It culminates with the kids using Batman's gadgets to booby-trap the house in a way that looks like it's straight out of Home Alone with barely a budget or any imagination, the Penguin actually blowing off a sofa exploding with "These commoners have such cheap furniture!", and then with a fencing duel between Batman and the Penguin... with a screwdriver. The whole episode is a train wreck that just keeps getting worse and worse...CATWOMAN
Finishing the big three Bat-villains we have Catwoman, Batman's on-again off-again love interest and possible equal who, like the Penguin, just can't catch a break when it comes to stories. Her debut in "The Cat and the Claw" is rather weighed down by unneccesary details and a plot that over-rides what many think the episode should've just been; Batman and Catwoman engaging in rooftop chases and one-on-ones during her robberies. The episode is in two-parts, and is one-part too long; it involves Bruce Wayne (Batman's alter-ego if you're not "in the know", which I doubt many people here aren't) falling for Selena Kyle, Catwoman's alter-ego, despite the fact Selina is actually smitten with Batman, who is in fact on the trail of Catwoman (confused?). The introduction of an original character, the female terrorist "Red Claw" and a plot involving Selina campaiging against the use of an animal reserve for somesuch and some kind of plague virus and... I don't even know any more. The episode felt so sluggish and boring after most of it "developed" that I can barely remember most of the details. It was just painfully mediocre.
Selina's animal acitivism is often played up in the episodes she appears in, often to the point where it gets kind of annoying. Take "Cat Scratch Fever" for example, which involves her looking for her missing cat Isis and then stumbling upon a plot to infect Gotham's strays with a disease that will spread throughout the city, then marketing the only cure for a high price. The whole episode is rather boring and average, and at the end when Batman lowers Isis down in a blanket-covered basket down into Selina's window just seems far too... cuddly for Batman. Ironically the best episode she appears in that I've seen is one where she is barely on-screen until the end, "Almost Got 'Im", which involves Batman's rogues gathering for a card game where they exchange stories about their attempts to kill the Dark Knight. She appears in the Joker's story and at the end where she is rescued from Batman, and has a little moment with him where she wishes they could have a relationship "without masks". Otherwise, the show was rather heavy-handed in its treatment of Catwoman, who maybe should have focused on the jewel-thief motive as opposed to too much animal activism. Isn't Poison Ivy's environmental activism enough?POISON IVY
The third female Bat-villain on the list, Poison Ivy is Pamela Isely, a rampant environmental activist who loves plants more than humans, willing to wipe out all of humanity just to preserve Mother Nature. Using her sexuality and a collection of poisons, toxins and pheremones, she is able to charm just about any man into her arms and can just as quickly stab him in the back. Unfortunately, like many of the villains I've mentioned so far, Pamela kind of falls flat since not many writers are able to handle her correctly or in an interesting way. She made her debut in "Pretty Poison", where she woos District Attorney Harvey Dent (who would later become Two-Face, who I will mention in a sequel article) and then poisons him in retaliation for him almost completely wiping out a rare species of plant five years ago when he began the construction of a new penitentiary for Gotham. Unfortunately the story has very few twists and turns, resulting in it being no more than a casual romp which culminates in Batman battling Ivy and her extremely suggestively-shaped venus flytrap mutant...
Poison Ivy returns in "Eternal Youth", where she lures industrialists to her Eternal Youth spa and then has them turned into trees. In her attempts to get Bruce Wayne to join her little grove, she only manages to snare his butler Alfred and his love interest Maggie (who is never seen again, not surprisingly). Batman must then rescue him when the whole deal turns sour. Despite not being a fan favourite, I thought the episode was at least an improvement over "Pretty Poison". The concept is perhaps too bizarre for its own good, but there is at least some decent moments such as the climax battle between Batman and Ivy and gives Alfred a bit of the spotlight, whether you consider that a good thing or bad thing being up to you.
As previously mentioned, Ivy also teams up with Harley Quinn in "Harley and Ivy", but even then she isn't the main focus; apart from the fact she pretty much leads the heists the pair go on and tries to snap Harley out of her love-sickness for the Joker, she isn't an integral part of the story other than egging Harley on. You're just watching and waiting to see if Harley gets back together with her Mr. J again. One problem I always had with Poison Ivy in the series was her voice; Diane Pershing does a breathy, over the top performance which tends to make me cringe. Whether it works for you or not is something you need to see for yourself. Apparently one of Ivy's better appearances is in "House and Garden", which I admittedly haven't seen. I'll just take their word for it for now.
So we come to the end of part 1. I know I have been increasingly negative with most of the villains I have reviewed here, but don't let that give you the impression the show is bad; heck, you might even enjoy some of the episodes I've insulted here, and this isn't even scraping the bottom of the barrel. There's still plenty more villains to cover, and I'll be sure to do so in a future article.