In 1991 Warner Bros. decided to follow up on the success of the 1989 Tim Burton directed Batman movie by commissioning a sequel; the even better Batman Returns (1992) and a dark TV counterpart aimed at the tween and teenage audiences to keep the momentum rolling. The result was the series that would shape all future Batman media to come, the brilliant Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995) created by the dynamic-duo Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski.
There are many things that make the show great, far too many to list here. A key factor was that, for the first time, the studio took the risk of making a super-hero show that was dark in both aesthetic quality and story tone. Burton had achieved this on the big screen, but those films received adult only certification. On the show Timm and Radomski found the perfect balance between content that was challenging while still feeling safe enough to pass the censors for kids TV.
Rather than going for the ‘monster of the week’ format seen in most superhero shows of the time, this series had story arcs that lasted multiple episodes and featured call-backs, references and recurring theme that required the audience to stick with the show week-after-week.
The shows villains were loyal to the comics and, as a kid, felt genuinely threatening. They looked and sounded menacing and evil and their plots for Gotham often resulted in loss of life (something not often seen on kids shows). While Penguin, Riddler and Scarecrow were all given ample episodes to terrify children and fight the caped-crusader, one pair of miscreants stole the show. A certain Joker and his brand-new partner Harley Quinn.
Voiced brilliantly by Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) and Arleen Sorkin, these two characters were completely reinvented for the series and these versions of the characters have gone on to be the template for all future portrayals. Although only heard and not seen the chemistry between the pair and their relationship to Batman (voiced by Kevin Conroy) is the palpable and by far the best in any form of Batman media.
Batman: The Animated Series trusted the audience’s maturity and their willingness to engage with a superhero show which was dark, moody, narratively complex and, importantly, one where the ‘good guys’ don’t always win. Fans and critics responded with overwhelming approval. Sadly Warner Bros. cancelled the show in the run-up to the release of the third Batman movie; Joel Schumacher’s Batman: Forever (1995) and its sequel Batman & Robin (1997). Both of those movies completely ignored the show, reverting Batman back into a one-dimensional character, where conversations were exchanged for poorly shot fight scenes and threatening villains replaced with a pun-spewing Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Needless to say, both films bombed. Hard. With both fans and critics feeling cheated by the reduction of comic’s darkest hero into a laughable yet unfunny cliché. Thankfully Warner Bros. acknowledged their mistake and by the end of ’97 a sequel to the animated series titled The New Adventures of Batman which continued the story of the original show. This was followed in ’99 by the more mainstream Batman: Beyond.
Since the show ended in 1995 an incredible 26 direct-to-DVD animated films have been released, a testimony to the enduring popularity of that great series. Even if you haven’t seen an episode you will know its influence. Neither Christopher Nolan’s 'Dark Knight' trilogy (2005-2012) or the excellent recently concluded series Gotham (2014-2019) could have happened without the animated series and for that we should all be thankful.