It seems sacrilege to pick just one favorite superhero when we have a plethora of great ones throughout pop culture, but Batman (or at least the Bat family) might just be my personal favorite. The Bat is just so cool and iconic while still evolving with each generation. We have less than a month until The Dark Knight Rises comes to the big screen (squee) and as a diehard Batfan and a lover of all things cartoon, it seemed the perfect time to look at four Batman cartoons of the last 20 years in what I’m calling Batman Month! And since my analysis of the other three cartoons will most definitely include comparisons to this week’s cartoon in one way or another, I knew I had to start with Batman: The Animated Series. And herein lies the problem — I love this series so damn much that it’s very hard to concisely write in one article all the amazing things about it. I’ve had to organize my love of this series into sections so that everything gets covered. Let us begin.
The animation of B:TAS took children’s programming to another level. It was simply stellar then and more than 20 years later the art is still strong. It borrowed from 1920s and 1930s styles to create a classic look that wouldn’t look dated in the years that followed. In fact, the only thing that really seems dated in the show is some of the technology (the computers are very 1990s), but considering it’s been over two decades since the show started, that’s still pretty good. And while digital animation has made cartoons much more crisp and even, it’s still a delight to watch this show and see how much of a wonder the animation was for the time.
And the character designs themselves! This ties into the writing and the voice acting of course, but what classic character designs on this show. They weren’t trying to be edgy and they weren’t trying to be too kid friendly. The classic example is the Riddler (who shamefully had just a handful of episodes) — unlike his previous renditions, this Edward Nigma is calm and calculated with just enough smarm and his costume completely embodies that by keeping with the early to mid-20th century bowler hat and suit. This is the only version of the Riddler I saw as a kid that didn’t seem to be Joker-crazy and his design fit that to a T.
The Voice Acting and Sound Design
I’ll be talking about the main bulk of the voice performances character by character, but the voice acting overall is absolutely dynamic. So much of this is thanks to legendary casting director Andrea Romano, who is also responsible for casting a large majority of my favorite cartoons, including Avatar: The Last Airbender, Animaniacs and two more of the cartoons featured later in the month (oh, and the video game for the third). It’s also the cartoon ballsy enough to use the gorgeous and dramatic Danny Elfman Batman score as well as a full orchestra for music within the show. Kevin Conroy, the voice of Batman for the series, has told a story about when Mark Hamill and he did some redubbing of altered lines once the show was first animated. Seeing the opening title sequence for the first time with that booming score, both of them were speechless. Even when I watch the episodes today, the music mixed with the stunning animation continues to move me.
Sorry Christian Bale, sorry Michael Keaton … Kevin Conroy will always be my Batman. Conroy gives two amazing performances since he’s equally fantastic as Batman and Bruce Wayne … most actors get one or the other. This was once of the first times when Bruce as Bruce was really likable, but his Batman is still so intimidating. Apparently it was Conroy’s choice to have two distinctive voices for Bruce and Batman and man, does it work. In addition to that perfectly Batman voice, all the aspects of Batman’s talents are here — the ninja warrior, the silent monster in the night, the protector of the innocent and, of course, the detective. In this show, he is the perfect balance of intimidating while still be kid-friendly enough to be marketed to kids. The show absolutely never talked down to its audience, which is probably why older comic fans took to the show so well.
Mark Hamill as the Joker … what can I say? He is stupendous in the role. In the same way Batman was genuinely intimidating, the Joker was genuinely homicidal while still getting on kid’s television. There’s such a melodic up and down to the tone of his voice that is both hilarious and also chilling. Still one of my favorite episodes is when the Joker thinks that Batman was killed by a low level thief. Once he realizes his play buddy is gone, the Joker holds a memorial for Batman/a killing party for the murderer. It’s that wonderful mix of sadism and silliness. Yes, Mark Hamill is my favorite Joker and it’s no wonder they paired him up again with Conroy in the hit video games Arkham Asylum and Arkham City.
B:TAS brought us two beloved female characters in the DC universe. The first was Officer Renee Montoya, who was featured in multiple episodes and has transitioned into the comic canon because she’s a badass despite being on the more respectable side of justice. Of course, the other new character was Harley Quinn, the main henchperson and sweetheart of the Joker voiced by Alreen Sorkin. In a lot of ways her relationship with the clown is the definition of an abusive relationship (he throws her off a building at least once and she keeps coming back for more), but you also get that this is the only kind of person who would willingly be with the Joker. I think she’s won the hearts of fans because of her genuine passion for chaos and her man. And yet despite being part of the comic relief for most of the series, the episode “Mad Love” takes a more serious look at just how sad the character is and how much the Joker manipulates her. It’s a far more complex character than anyone expected her to be.