Batman: The Animated Series
My Ten Favorite Episodes!I
've never really been what you would call a "Bat Fan".
Sure, sure, I grew up with the old Adam West show, and like all elementary school tykes, I was much enraptured by the Burton-fueled Bat-Mania that swept the nation during 1989. Yes, yes, I had a couple of the comics lying around, and I played the Bat-branded NES games that were released, and I am pretty sure that I decimated my 4 year old colon with that jagged-assed rice cereal that was kind of shaped like the Batman insignia (that, lets face it, more closely resembled bowties than anything else), but I was never what you would call a dyed-in-the-wool, full-fledged Batman fan boy.
Growing up, my superhero of choice was (and in case you are wondering, still is) Spider-Man. Keep in mind, this was the early 90s, WAY before the mega-million dollar Sam Raimi movies. In my world, Spider-Man was relegated to reruns of that 60s cartoon show and the periodic episode of Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends, which for those of you with good memories, will recall as being that one show with Iceman and a chick version of the Human Torch that sucked. Spider-Man, at the time, was not a ubiquitous presence like Old Pointy Ears, so in a way, my adulation of the red and blue bedecked Arach-Knight (God, how I hate it when people use that term) was something very special and counter-culture, in a blossoming kindergarten kind of way. That, and his Sega Genesis game and jumbo sized coloring books (would you believe I once owned a TWO foot tall one featuring Spidey duking it out with Dock Ock?) flat out kicked Batman's ass to kingdom come. This is fact.
I have a theory about the schism betwixt Bat and Spider fans, that being that a majority of Batman fans are Republicans while most Spider-Man followers are of the Democratic persuasion. I mean, it is kind of an obvious notion, really: Batman is a millionaire business magnate with furtive ties to big military, government and industry while Spidey is a relatively pacifistic, of-the-soil ambassador of mainstream media. It is kind of a latent, pseudo-Freudian take on the matter, but yeah, it probably has more merit than we initially think in regards to superhero preference.
Regardless of such socio-political psycho-analysis (jeez, who DOESN'T want to read about that on Retro Junk?), Batman, for whatever reason, just never did it for me as a youngster. The same wide-eyed awe that other children experienced at the mere mention of his moniker did not rouse such juvenile splendor in my corpuscles; I guess that I had yet to envision an incarnation of the character in a medium that truly, totally resonated with me.
And then, a little show called Batman: The Animated Series hit the airwaves.
Right off the bat (har-har!), that title jumped out at me. In the teaser promos that used to air on Fox Kids, I was positively struck by the Dark-Deco styling of the soon-to-air program. I mean, this was no mere cartoon: it was an animated series, therefore, something classier and more mature than oh say, Darkwing Duck or the Ninja Turtles. That was child's play, amigos and amigas: this newfangled Bat-Show was going to be an altogether different kind of programming.
Sure enough, B:TAS became a staple of my afternoon routine, effectively killing any and all interest I used to have in stuff like Rescue Rangers and Hey, Dude! B:TAS was the first cartoon I ever watched that made me feel older; it never talked down to me, and it never insulted my intelligence. It was a serious show that never pandered to its audience; in fact, I knew a number of kids that were absolutely terrified of the program, and a number of whoms parents forbade them from watching it. The producers of the show might as well have shoved a magnet up my ass and turned on a magnetic field, because an endorsement like that drew me to the show like ants to a picnic.
Eventually, B:TAS was given a SUNDAY NIGHT run, which I am assuming has to be some kind of first for a children s afternoon show. This eventually lead to the sheer genius programming trifecta of Batman, The Simpsons, and Married With Children on Fox TV, all within a three hour block of unadulterated greatness. For my money, that is STILL the greatest line-up in TV history.
The holy trinity of my third grade year.
There are many, many things that made B:TAS the DEFINITIVE mass media interpretation of the Batman figure, and a lot of that had to do with the series uncompromising bleakness. Thanks to the steady, respectful hands of Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, B:TAS was about as dark and adult as U.S. mainstream animation had gotten. At times, the show was tragic, heartfelt, thought provoking and enlightening: Not really what one would expect from the masterminds behind Tiny Toons, but that is not exactly a complaint from my side of the pasture.
Sure, the show transitioned over the years, including timeslot changes, name alterations, and perhaps most drastic, an aesthetic overhaul that occurred when the program jumped ship to the WB. That being said, despite all of these changes, it remained a top-tier program, a show that was not only invigorating and stimulating, but pretty damned cerebral, to boot. Today, I would like to examine the inert greatness of this phenomenal little series by counting down my top ten favorite episodes of the B:TAS run, the 22 minute installments that I deem most representative of the show's legacy.
To clarify, I AM counting episodes from both the Fox and WB run, and just to keep the countdown a little more varied, I disqualified two-part episodes from contention.
Beyond that, any and all of the 80 plus episodes from the series' initial run are eligible for consideration: of those standout offerings, the following ten are the singular, superlative installations that I consider the absolute best of the belfry.
So, without further ado: (*AHEM...in my best Kevin Conroy voice*) Computer, begin analysis of the series' ten best offerings...
#10 Read My Lips
This episode really demonstrates the innate cleverness behind the shows script writing. B:TAS was the mass media introduction of a number of high profile comic villains that had yet to be portrayed in non-paper form; sure, everybody knew about The Joker and The Penguin, but what about Two-Face, Clayface, and Ras Al Ghul? Well, a majority of the people reading this right now were first introduced to the characters via their B:TAS incarnations. The writers behind B:TAS really had a knack for introducing and explicating established characters, and this episode may very well be the best example of such.
Read My Lips was written for the screen by Joe R. Lansdale, the same guy that would go on to write Bubba Ho-Tep (which in turn, was adapted into a phenomenal 2003 film). The episode starts off simple enough; the box office at the Gotham Garden is robbed, and Bats uses his scientific know-how to track down one of the offending crooks. Batman continues to hunt his quarry, eventually stumbling upon a warehouse, where it is revealed that the criminal mastermind behind the heists is, of all things, a ventriloquists dummy!
I'll give the script writers major credit for never taking the short cut route and giving Scarface a supernatural origin; rather, the Ventriloquist is just a nebbish invertebrate that hides behind a tremendous case of disassociative personality syndrome. The dialogue and pacing of the episode is very well done, with some truly hilarious lines throughout. I guess my favorite verbal exchange comes near the end of the episode, in which Batman throws his own voice to get the Ventriloquists dual egos to battle. After the puppeteer says that he could not have made the vociferation, Scarface retorts with "So what, you're a ventriloquist!"
The producers of B:TAS fought with censors to get a lot of things on the air, and Scarface was something of a transference of all that Standards and Practices ire. Since Scarface was nothing more than a piece of wood, his demise was always hilariously, violently over-the-top; his original death, I assure you is no exception.
And come on, you HAVE to love that classic horror movie ending (although for the life of me, I don't understand why any mental asylum would allot its patients surgical tools. . .)
#009 Mad Love
This was the shows swan song, and a damned high note for the series to go out on. Perhaps the series most beloved original creation was that of Harley Quinn; originally scripted as a generic moll for the Joker, Harley quickly become one of the shows most popular characters, and the script writers waited until the shows final episode to elucidate on her back story.
The episode begins with the Joker, not surprisingly, being foiled by Batman for the umpteenth time. This sends Joker into something of an egotistical furor, and in the process, he ends up kicking Harley out of his makeshift fortress so that he can concoct the ultimate death for Old Pointy Ears.
It's really amazing the number of double entendres the writers of the show were able to get away with; it is not often that you can view a children's television program and hear a reference to a whoopee cushion used as a sexual aide.
Anyway, this show examines the transmogrification of Harleen Quinnzel, a noted psychologist, into a costume wearing schizoid; it also demonstrates, in a very abstruse manner, the cerebral brilliance of the Joker, whilst simultaneously exhibiting something of an anti-misogynistic message for the kiddies to intake.
All in all, this is just a filling episode, with many memorable lines (including the Mark Hamil voiced Joker dropping perhaps the series only Star Wars reference) and what may very well be the best darned Joker-Bats showdown the series ever produced. It's very rare for a series to remain fresh and rewarding up until its final episode; with that in mind, the curtain closer for B:TAS was one of the best conclusions ever expressed on a cathode ray tube, animated or otherwise.
#008 The Man Who Killed Batman
Rumor has it that this episode was birthed when the script writers challenged one another to concoct an episode sans the appearance of Batman. As it turns out, that little challenge ended up spawning one of the series best episodes.
Sid the Squid is a small-time crook, trying to make his name in the crime game. One night, he is stationed as the lookout for a heist job, and sure enough, Batman shows up. Through a series of mishaps, Sid ends up throwing Batman off the roof of a building, where he plummets to his (seeming) death below. In the immortal words of one of the nameless cronies, "Sid just offed the Bats!"
This is a really well-done episode that exemplifies and elucidates on the criminal hierarchy of the Gotham underworld. Eventually, Sid runs to Rupert Thorne, the unquestioned crime kingpin of the town, for protection. Why is that, you may say? Well, there is at least one deranged, face-painted rogue traipsing about Gotham that is none too pleased with the revelation of Batman's demise; The Joker's "reward" for Sid the Squids offing of Batman? That's right, he wishes to kill the man that killed Batman. Wow, talk about meta, huh?
Of course, Batman cant really be dead; he eventually does make a triumphant return at the end of the episode, but not before we can have some of the series most entertaining verbal exchanges. Personally, I guffawed at the Joker's insistence that his gang order Chinese after kicking a coffin into a mixer of sulfuric acid.
I really, really liked the ending to this one, although in later viewings, it kind of becomes obvious what Sid's fortunes are in prison once his fellow inmates find out that he didn't REALLY kill Batman. Humorous, relatable, well paced, and humanistic. . . this is B:TAS in indelible top form.
#007 Harley and Ivy
That darned Harley just cant catch a break from her leading man, can she? Once again, she has been booted from the Joker's company, and to show him up, she decides to pull off the heist job that he could never accomplish.
As it turns out, Harley wasn't the only thief in the night however, as a certain green-thumbed ginger also decided to rob the museum at the same time. Before long, Harley and Poison Ivy become a Thelma and Louise type couple, dubbed as the Queens of Crime by the Gotham City press. The Joker's reaction to the headline may very well be one of the funniest moments in B:TAS history.
This episode just lays on the fan service; as the instigator of the fabled, TATU-esque friendship betwixt Harley and Ivy, there is certainly some, uh, subtext in this one. Its also a hoot to watch the two hold up men's centers and shackle Batman to a vacuum cleaner (which Ivy states is a symbol of domestic subjugation). At one point, I believe Harley and Ivy had their own spin off in the works, yet sadly, such never came to full realization; the contrast between Ivy s ultra fem-lib demeanor and Harley s hopeless dedication to the Joker never ceases to amuse.
No there, really aren't any deep, philosophical issues explored in this episode. Rather, it is just a standout single offering that is a reminder that, hey, we are exploring comic book fodder, after all. Yeah, grim and grimy is cool sometimes, but at heart, these things are supposed to be fun, and without question, this has to be one of the most entertaining episodes of the entire series run.
So, lets see: we have subtextual lesbianism, The Joker being his normal crazy ass, and some of the shows most delicious and delectable character exchanges; oh yes, this is a damned enjoyable episode, no doubt about it.
#006 Almost Got 'Im
This is one that is on EVERBODY'S top ten list, and for good reason. For starters, this episode piles pretty much all of the top tiered Bat villains into a single narrative (although the appearance of Killer Croc on said list should be a major clue as the episodes eventual outcome.)
The storyline here is simple: a gaggle of Batman's greatest foes gather for a card game to discuss the closest they had come to capturing the enigmatic protectorate of Gotham. Poison Ivy talks about the time she almost offed Bats Green Goblin style (whilst simultaneously throwing a few barbs at old squeeze Harvey Dent) and Two-Face explains just how that damned giant penny made its way into the Bat Cave.
This has to be one of the funniest episodes of the series: between the Penguin s peers decrying his excessive (and often, grandiloquent) verbiage and Killer Croc's yarn (hey, it was a pretty big rock, after all), this episode had me guffawing more than any other installment of the series.
Admittedly, the conclusion (involving a harebrained Joker scheme and a throw away appearance by Catwoman), is pretty trivial and dragging, but the road leading up to it is fairly involving and entertaining.
Really, this is an episode designed exclusively for B:TAS fans, from the references to previous episodes to the blink-and-you-will-miss it in-jokes (like Two-Face pouring half and half in his coffee). This is the series at its absolute most fun, and easily one of the most enjoyable slivers of 22 minute animation created in the 1990s.
#005 Perchance To Dream
Hey, another episode crafted by Joe R. Lansdale. That guy kind of rules, in case you have not yet noticed.
This episode takes full advantage of the old brain-in-a-vat motif; sure, we all know that Batman is trapped in a dream from the get-go of the episode, yet such thematic shortcut taking does not hamper the effectiveness of the episode in the slightest. In actuality, this may be one of the series most heart-wrenching episodes.
One morning, Bruce Wayne wakes up and to his absolute shock, his parents are suddenly alive. He has no worries to speak of anymore; his job is secured, and he is engaged to his long time girlfriend. In other words, Bruce Wayne is finally given the opportunity to live his dream existence.
The rub, however, lie in the notion of Batman: Although Wayne is satiated, what becomes of the Caped Crusader. As it turns out, there is indeed someone vaulting around the township, dressed in the same regalia Wayne once donned. Inertly, Wayne should be enthused, but even with all the recent fortunes, there is something lacking in his conscience, a certain mandate that is not being fulfilled. One eve, Wayne grows tired of his cloying being and decides to track down this new Bat-figure, and the end result is one of the saddest and most humanistic conclusions in the history of animated television.
This, effectively, is what made B:TAS the absolute best animated offering of the 1990s. No other cartoon had the ability to dig this deep with the philosophical import, to explore its characters and their psyches in such thorough detail. There are very few adult-oriented programs that hit material this hard with such utter steadiness; Perchance to Dream is demonstrative of the sure-handedness of its writing staff, and a high water mark for a series that is exemplified by so many superlative offerings.
#004 I Am The Night
If you ever wanted to see just how cerebral and adult the show could be, then this episode is absolutely required viewing. There are no outlandish villains in this episode, nor are there any grandiose plots to foil. The villains of this episode are your run of the mill drug runners, and the plot that almost sends Batman to his demise is the specter of self-doubt.
During a routine drug bust, Commissioner Gordon goes down; this sends Batman into something of an existential dilemma, and I am not kidding when I use that precise terminology: At one point in the episode, he even quotes Nietzsche!
Ultimately, this is a very deep and reserved look at out shortcomings as humans; how long until our agendas and our goals become us, and how are we to ever distance ourselves from the ideologies we have become symbiotic with? In all of the episodes of the series, this episode is the closest Batman gets to throwing in the towel permanently. It is apparent that Batman's greatest adversary is not a tangible caricature in goofy get-up, but the demons that haunt his every waking moment.
Eventually, Batman must put an end to his pondering to save Gordon from the hands of some hired goons that wish to finish the job they started earlier. This episode contains the absolute most poignant character exchange I ever heard on the show, involving a fleeting moment with Doctor Thompkins: Dr. Leslie Thompkins: You seem quieter than usual tonight.
Batman: Every year I come here and wonder if it should be the last time, if I should put the past behind me, try to lead a normal life.
Dr. Leslie Thompkins: Santayana says, Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.
Batman: He also said a fanatic is someone who redoubles his efforts while losing sight of his goal.
This is NOT your typical, brainless cartoon, a series of uneventful animations strung together to placate hyperactive youngsters. This episode makes a very profound statement about the human condition, and is among the most heartfelt episodes in the history of American television. I assure you, that last statement was anything BUT hyperbolic in context.
#003 Over The Edge
If you can overlook the quasi-cop out ending, this is about as close as the series got to being a non-stop, edge-of-your-seat thriller. And in that, it is a damned exceptional narrative, to boot.
The story wastes not time at all with the kicking of the ass: the episode begins with Batman making a daring aquatic escape as a police raid storms the Bat Cave. Bats almost gets capped by a policeman, as Alfred takes down a cop to allot Wayne's escape. From that rousing opener, the episode NEVER lets up.
As it turns out, the Bat Family was doing battle with The Scarecrow, and in the process, Batgirl is killed. Gordon, obviously outraged by his daughter's death, uncovers the truth behind Batman and begins an all-out assault to bring his daughters unintentional slayer to justice. Honest to God, the dialogue in this episode is just so EFFING hardcore, and the little comical jabs the episode sneaks in are pretty darned funny (like all of the Bat-Villains filing a class action lawsuit against Wayne after his alter ego is uncovered).
It is really difficult watching the breakdown of Gordon and Batman's friendship: its apparent that neither man wants to be enemies with the other, but the circumstances leave no other options. Still, Gordon is a man fueled by vengeance, and he will not rest until Batman is apprehended. . .even if he has to break every legal bond he ever believed in.
I will not ruin the surprise ending for you, but since the main villain of the episode was the Scarecrow, that should give you a pretty big idea of what the twist actually is. That being stated, up until the concluding shot of the episode, this is a rip roaring rollercoaster ride, featuring the series best fisticuffs and action sequences. Also of note is the representation of Gordon s "Batman Killer", whom utters some of the nastiest barbs ever permitted on a children's program. This is unquestionably B:TAS doing action at its absolute superlative peak.
#002 Legends of the Dark Knight
The best episode of the shows short-lived WB run is an episode that, rather fittingly, acts as something of a retrospective on the myriad incarnations of Batman that have come and gone throughout the medium. For hardcore Bat-fans, this may very well be the ULTIMATE animated take on the character.
The episode begins, quite oddly, with a bunch of kids talking about the Batman mythos. This leads to one of the greatest verbal jabs ever launched by the show (not to spoil, but if you hate Joel Schumacher, you will LOVE the first part of this episode). Anyway, the story arc is as follows: the kids are following Firefly around, and in the doldrums, discuss their different takes on the titular character.
The first story is very much a throw back to the old Dick Sprang comics of the 40s, featuring a Joker that is more cloying and goofy than sinister and depraved. Ultimately, this comes off as a pastiche of the old Adam West camp-a-thon, although it is more of a loving tribute than a scathing indictment of its inert ridiculousness.
The second story, however is MUCH different, and pretty much THE reason why this episode is ranked so highly. All I am going to say is this: FRANK MILLER'S THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. . .IN ANIMATED FORM.
No spoilers here: this five minute vignette is probably the closest we will ever get to seeing a live-action take on the vaunted mini-series, and hardcore comic fans are sure to fall in love with this segment. Amazingly, the censors allowed the show to maintain some particularly nasty one-liners from the comic. . .and man, how awesome is it to hear Sam Fisher himself as the aged Dark Knight?
Simply put, you MUST see this episode. Like, now.
...And my number one, all time favorite episode of Batman: The Animated Series is...
Ahem, drum roll please!
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#001 Heart of Ice
"This is how I shall always remember you: surrounded by winter, forever young, forever beautiful. Rest well, my love. The monster who took you from me will soon learn that revenge is a dish... best served COLD."
To this day, the opening line to Heart of Ice, rather fittingly, sends a chill down my spine. B:TAS has had many accolades thrown its way, but perhaps the greatest praise one can attribute to the show was its ability to transform goofy, B-level characters into authentic, nuanced character. I always found it somewhat ironic that a childrens show, based on a comic book, contained more genuine character development and relatable pathos than most adult-geared series. Whereas B:TAS routinely transformed second-rate characters into formidable foes and foils, the revisualization of Mr. Freeze is without question the shows greatest achievement, transitioning a bland gimmick villain into perhaps the most tragic character in the entire Bat-universe.
This is an episode that excels in the intangibles: no other episode in the series stings the viewer as deeply as this one, and perhaps no other episode demonstrates the blurry lines of justice as much as this installment. This episode totally makes you forget that you are watching animated figures: Heart of Ice was the very first time I watched an animated program and felt a genuine emotion for the characters on display.
This is not only the best-written episode of the series, but one of the best episodes of ANY television series in U.S. history. Its simply impossible to hear lines of dialogue like this and not feel authentically moved: Mr. Freeze: Tonight, I mean to pay back the man who ruined my life... our lives.
Batman: Even if you have to kill everyone in the building to do it?
Mr. Freeze: Think of it, Batman. To never again walk on a summer's day with the hot wind in your face and a warm hand to hold. Oh yes, I'd kill for that!
I could go on and on with the superlatives, but I will truncate my opinions and simply state that this is incontestably the DEFINING episode of the series that changed American animated television forever. Apparently, the opinion is a rather popular one, as the writers of the show likewise claim this episode to be the single outstanding moment of the series. Poetic, sensitive, reserved, tragic and intellectual: these are the hallmarks of B:TAS, and this is the episode that serves as the series veritable zeitgeist in regards to all of the above mentioned traits. There is simply no doubt that Heart of Ice is B:TAS most shining moment of triumph.
ll right, so what have we learned today? Well, for starters, B:TAS ruled. I think that one is pretty much a given. At the same time, however, I think that reflecting on the inert greatness of the superlative 90s offering demonstrates just how far animation has sunk in the last fifteen or so years: there really aren't any story-driven, intellectual cartoons out there for kids anymore, as such has been supplanted by generic anime-influenced action-fests that lack either fulfilling narrative OR character development. B:TAS was really the first of its breed, and in many ways, the last of its kind as well; in that, I feel indelible sorrow for the children of today, for they will never know the sheer joy of a show directed towards them that DOESN'T pander to them.
That stated, it isn't a total downer, though; all eighty plus episodes of B:TAS are readily available on DVD, and who knows? Maybe one day, Timm and Dini may get another crack at intellectualized animated programming. Regardless of what the future may bring, one thing is ineffaceable: B:TAS was one hell of a show, and one that shall forever stand the test of time.
- - - James Swift
is a 23 year old author from the metro Atlanta area. His first book How I Survived Three Years at a Two-Year Community College
, is currently available from I-Universe Publishing. Hey! Why don't you order a copy or two for the holidays from iuniverse.com/Bookstore/BookDetail.aspx?BookId=SKU-000142908