|Batman: The Animated Series/The Adventures of Batman and Robin/The New Batman and Robin Adventures/Batman: Gotham Knights/The New Batman Adventures
In the wake of Tim Burton's Batman (1989) a superhero renaissance was starting. Though it floundered and comic book sales are at an all time low as of this writing, it did give us some of the best superhero cartoons in animation history. The one that started it all in 1992 was Batman: The Animated Series. Produced by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, a team who had worked on Steven Spielberg's revival of the Looney Tune (with Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain, and Freakazoid), were given almost carte blanche in giving life to the Batman from the comic books. They largely succeeded, and there have now been a handful of spin-offs (Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, and Justice League, with a new Teen Titans series slated for a 2003 premiere) and feature length cartoons (Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, Batman & Mr. Freeze: Subzero, and Batman/Superman: World's Finest) in addition to the various titles (Batman: TAS, Gotham Knights, The New Batman and Robin Adventures, The New Batman/Superman Adventures, and so on) under which the animated Batman aired for the better part of seven years.
Batman: The Animated Series premiered on FOX with a sneak peek in prime time before joining their afternoon and weekend lineup. The first season of the show introduced a number of villains from Batman's 50-year comic book career, both well-known (such as the Joker and the Riddler) and not-so well-known (The Ventriloquist and Scarface, the Scarecrow, and Killer Croc), as well as Batman's allies, Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, and Robin the Boy Wonder. There were considerable stylistic differences from both the 1989 movie and its 1992 sequel, as well as from the 1960's series starring Adam West (which is still the most widely-known interpretation of the characters to this day). Adopting a visual style that spoke of a cultural mesh of the 1950s and the 1990s, TAS appealed to a wide audience, including children, comics fans and people who enjoyed the first two Batman movies.
Most of Batman's supporting cast and Rogues' Gallery that have always been a part of the story were joined by characters that had never left the realm of comics and even a handful of characters that first appeared on Batman: The Animated Series in one of its many forms:
Batman: Batman was presented in the form he took in the comics at the time. Having witnessed the murder of his parents, a young Bruce Wayne dedicated his life to fighting crime and ensuring that no one would ever have to suffer as he had. Having mastered a number of martial arts, criminology, the fine art of detection, thieving skills and engineering, Batman is crime's worst nightmare.
Alfred Pennyworth: Batman's loyal manservant, always available to make certain that Bruce doesn't get himself killed on his nightly crusade. A distinguished gentleman's gentleman, Alfred acts in his employer's best interests, and is skilled in medicine, disguise, and psychology. Alfred understands Bruce better than anyone, and infrequently acts as a social damper for Bruce's less-than-tactful dealings with his contemporaries.
Dick Grayson/Robin I/Nightwing: The first young man to be called Robin is Dick Grayson. When the series started, he was in his late teens and nearing his graduation of high school. As a young boy, he, much like Bruce, witnessed the murder of his parents, and was approached by Batman, who offered him an opportunity to take revenge. Dick and his parents were acrobats and trapeze artists for a traveling circus, and Dick took to the rigorous physical training to become Robin easily, and quickly joined Batman in his nightly patrols of Gotham City.
Later on, after Dick graduated from high school and went off to college, he chose a solo career and left Batman's side as Nightwing. He never strayed too far from Gotham, however, and was often available to help with a particularly difficult case.
Commissioner Gordon: Commissioner of Police, James Gordon formed an alliance with Batman, whose vigilante actions and status as an urban legend gave him the ability to go places and do things the police were legally bound against. Since Batman's identity was never known to him, his best method of communication was the Bat-Signal, a searchlight with a giant bat painted on it. When the signal is lit, Batman is able to respond to it from anywhere in Gotham and exchange information on the latest crime wave or escaped criminal.
Dealing with vigilantes is not all Gordon does, however; he is also a powerful leader to the Gotham City Police Department, capable of handling any type of police action efficiently and effectively.
Det. Harvey Bullock: Gordon's right-hand man is Harvey Bullock, one of the best detectives on the force and a two-fisted he-man of a cop. Unlike Gordon, Harvey prefers that policework be done by the police and that Batman and his charges stay as far as possible from crime scenes, though he does afford them a certain amount of professional respect. He's also an overweight loudmouth and something of a lazy oaf who prefers to leave the paperwork to his partner...
Officer Renee Montoya: A dedicated cop of Hispanic background. Montoya and Bullock work exceptionally well together, though not much of this is seen in the Animated Series. In fact, not much of Montoya's background is seen in the show, though more can be seen in the Warner Brothers webtoon Gotham Girls.
Barbara Gordon/Batgirl: As is suggested by her surname, Batgirl's alter ego is the adopted daughter of Commissioner Gordon. She's also a college student, works at a library, and has a brilliant logical mind. Her comic book counterpart also has a photographic memory and is now the wheelchair-bound intelligence agent of the superhero community, but according to Animated Series canon (which extends to Batman Beyond), she will go on to replace her father as Commissioner. It should also be noted that Batgirl is yet another of the Gotham Girls cast.
Tim Drake/Robin II: The orphaned son of a low-rent Gotham hood, Tim Drake joined the Bat-Family as the second Robin after helping foil Two-Face in the caper that cost him his father. He learned quickly and ultimately became a valued assett, though according to Animated Series canon, he will retire after a particularly jarring encounter with the Joker. Much like Batgirl, his comic book counterpart is different from his Animated self, in fact, considerably different. The comics version of Tim Drake is actually the third Robin (the animated personality actually more closely resembles the second Robin, Jason Todd), and he got the job through detective work (specifically, he discovered Batman's secret identity) rather than displaying a fighting spirit. The two versions of the character will share another similarity, however, when they both become the leader of the Teen Titans sometime in late 2003.
Batman: The Animated Series has drawn from the comic book history a great plethora of villains, far more than any review could possibly hold without extensive research, and I do enough already. So a brief list of the more notable villains is all you get:
The Joker: No list of Batman villains would be complete without the Joker on the top. The dynamics of the character's relationship with Batman have been explored so many times in so many ways, but his non-comic book expressions are always distinctly archetypal. From Cesar Romero, who portrayed him as a campy villain in a world of campy villains to Jack Nicholson's wonderfully mad portrayal, none has been as perfect as Mark Hamill's voice and the character model designed by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm. In Animated continuity, the Joker is a monster with a sense of humour (though standards of decency have prevented this homicidal maniac from ever killing anyone). The Joker is simply a lunatic who lives to bring chaos and torment Batman.
Two-Face: One of Batman's most tragic villains, Harvey Dent had a great life until he got on the bad side of a mob kingpin. Caught in an explosion, his face was badly scarred in a bizarrely symmetrical fashion. Overcoming his deformity only briefly, Harvey developed an obsession with duality, which is expressed with his scarred coin. Dent makes his decisions by developing two possible plans - one good, one bad - and deciding by a flip of the coin. To kill or not to kill, to steal or not to steal, Harvey's entire decision-making process is distilled down to a boolean variable: the coin.
Mr. Freeze: Batman's other most tragic villain, Victor Fries (pronounced "freeze," of course), was a chemist trying to develop a cure for his wife, who became the victim of a fatal disease. While searching for her cure, he placed her in a cryogenic tank, keeping her in suspended animation. After a crime-induced laboratory accident, Fries is knocked into the cryogenic mixture (which bare skin is not intended to do) and emerges dependant on lower temperatures to survive, so he designs a suit that can simultaneously sustain him in normal or warm temperatures and perform as a weapon, with its attatched freon pistol. In addition to a number of episodes of the show, Freeze was also the villain in the direct-to-video release, Batman: Subzero.
Harley Quinn: Created by Paul Dini and voiced by Arleen Sorkin, Harley Quinn is (if her name doesn't give it away) the Joker's girlfriend. Harleen Quinzell (I know, I know) was the newest resident doctor at Arkham Asylum. Her goal was to write a book about the Joker's psychosis and retire before she turned thirty. While interviewing him, she fell in love with him, and some time later it was found out that she had been helping the Joker escape. Quinn was fired, and returned to the Asylum in a colorful costume to break the Joker out again. Since then, she's been by his side; his getaway driver, his enforcer, and his moll. Quinn has also spent a great deal of time hanging out with Poison Ivy (Harley and Ivy -- get it?), and the two of them are among the cast of the Gotham Girls webtoon.
Catwoman: Selina Kyle is a world-class burglar (you know what kind). She has a love-hate relationship with Batman (she loves him, but hates it when he arrests her), has worked on both sides of the law, and... Well, she loves cats. She is a noted animal rights activist, and has gone "straight" a number of times. She's also been kidnapped infrequently as bait for Batman (apparently his coldness to her doesn't fool anyone), but she's made a name for herself as a sister doin' it for herself in the Gotham Girls webtoon.
Poison Ivy: Pamela Isely loves plants. She is immune to poison, has the ability to control plants and is a genetic biologist specializing in plant DNA, which allows her to breed giant, mutant, sub-intelligent plants. She likes plants. She dated Harvey Dent before his accident (intending to kill him) and, as mentioned above, has taken a liking to Harley Quinn, though she has no love for the Joker. Once again, she can be seen hiding from Batgirl with Harley Quinn in the Gotham Girls webcomic.
Critical Review: I think it's been made pretty clear that I love Batman: The Animated Series. It's also clear that I read comic books, and appreciate a show that accurately reflects the characters I enjoy. In spite of some of the changes made, I feel the show adheres to the spirit of Batman.
Paul Dini and Bruce Timm are brilliant. Not only are all the shows they've worked on before and since enjoyable (Tiny Toon Adventures, Superman: The Animated Series, Justice League), but the love with which they perform their craft is admirable and should be the standard by which all other cartoons are judged. I'm not looking forward to Teen Titans for a number of reasons, but the biggest is that they aren't involved.
A word about the voice talents involved in the show: genuine talent has passed through the Batman:TAS cast. I can't think of many people better suited to providing Batman's voice than Kevin Conroy, and Mark Hamill's Joker is not only perfect, but doesn't sound a thing like Mark Hamill, which is impressive. Adrienne Barbeau did a wonderful Catwoman, and Arleen Sorkin... Well, in all honesty, Paul Dini claims to have modeled Harley Quinn after her, so that's not a fair comparison (for those who don't know her by name, she played Calliope Jones on Days of Our Lives and co-hosted America's Funniest People with Dave Coulier for two years). The likes of John Vernon, Roddy McDowall, David Warner, and Paul Williams (yes, the guy who wrote the theme of The Love Boat. Don't laugh; he made the Penguin seem like an actual good villain, which he hasn't been... Ever) have graced the show, providing voices for villains and supporting cast, and as wonderful as they have all been (and as much fun as it is trying to pick out voice actors), the show didn't need them. It was good enough as it was (though Mark Hamill's presence would be missed).
One thing to remember is that Batman: The Animated Series has gone by a number of names, and the lot of them are each as good as the next. The visual stylings changed when Superman: The Animated Series debuted, resulting in the Joker becoming even scarier-looking, Bruce Wayne having a hollow look in his eyes (which was very appropriate to the character) and more. Don't let the look fool you, it's the same show, and it's just as good, if not better.
- Michael Albright