Today marks the 25th anniversary of arguably the greatest and most stylish superhero cartoons ever made—Batman: The Animated Series. Bruce Timm's and Eric Radomski's TV series was a revelation in its day, an early taste of "prestige TV" for the after-school crowd, and a complete shock if your only other exposure to the World's Greatest Detective came from Adam West's 1966 burlesque.
I'm hard-pressed to name another adaptation that had as much influence on its comic book progenitor as TAS did, with the possible exception of the "Marvel Cinematic Universe"—although that influence has always felt more like an example of forced corporate synergy than the kind of inspiration Batman provided to later runs of the DC comic.
There are the obvious ways that The Animated Series changed the Batman comics, like with the addition of major characters like Harley Quinn and queer Latinx cop Renee Montoya. But The Animated Series is really the foundation for a lot of the best work in the Batman comics universe of the early 2000s, with key writers like Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka both citing the show as a major influence.
One of the most celebrated series in Batman Comics, the brilliant Gotham Central police procedural, is taking a lot of its cues from the portraits of terrified cops and burnt-out detectives that we saw in TAS. Over the course of its run, Batman: TAS found satisfying stories and character arcs for oft-maligned sidekicks like Barbara Gordon / Batgirl and Dick Grayson / Robin, and I might argue that you don't get to the modern versions of those characters without the cartoon.
And then, of course, there's the fact that the Arkham Asylum game was in many ways an extended episode of The Animated Series, written by series veteran Paul Dini and featuring most of the same vocal cast including Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, and Arleen Sorkin.
I worry a little bit for the show's legacy as Bruce Timm's declining output quality increasingly raises questions about his vision for those characters and their universe. But for three years in the mid-90s, Bruce Timm and an incredible set of writers including Alan Burnett and Paul Dini brought to life one of the most striking visions of Gotham ever put on screen, and filled it with some of the most memorable Batman stories ever told.
If I had to pick a favorite episode I'd probably cheat and cite the Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, movie which is still the best version of Batman's early days as a crime fighter and features Hamill's most convincingly creepy performance as the Joker. It's also got an incredible score from the great Shirley Walker that gives the film a weight and grace that even the regular TV series couldn't match.
But if we're sticking to actual episodes of Batman: The Animated Series, I think it's a toss-up between "Beware the Gray Ghost" and "Robin's Reckoning". "Robin's Reckoning" is a great origin story for Robin and a touching coming-of-age moment for the character, as a chance to get revenge on the guy who murdered his parents puts Dick Grayson at odds with his mentor. It provides depth and humanity to Bruce, Dick, and Alfred, as they try to navigate their complicated relationships at a fraught moment.
But for sheer meta-genius, "Beware the Gray Ghost" is hard to beat. It's a story about the double-edged sword of nostalgia, and the meaning our childhood heroes have for us as adults. In "Gray Ghost", Gotham is being terrorized by a criminal who uses weaponized gadgets from an old Hollywood serial about a Batman-like character named the Gray Ghost. It was Bruce Wayne's favorite show to watch with his father as a child, and he seeks out the original actor— played by Adam West himself—to figure out who might be behind the crimes. And of course the actor he meets has become a bitter, disappointed man who cannot seem to escape his most memorable role.
One moment in particular sticks with me. A flashback to young Bruce sitting next to his father's chair in their living room, his face lit by the strobing light of the silver screen as the camera tracks around him to take in a moment of perfect and familiar family bliss: a loving father, and a beloved toy, and a costume to go with the show. It is a haunting portrait of Bruce Wayne before his destiny catches up with him.
Batman: The Animated Series didn't just understand Batman, it understood how people related to different versions of the character, and what they needed from these stories. To this day, my favorite Batman comics are those that feel like they're a spiritual continuation of the work that a great children's cartoon began.
For those of you who were fans of the show, what's your favorite episode?