Film & TV

How ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ Broke The Mold 30 Years Ago

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment

Over 30 years ago on Sept. 5, 1992, “Batman: The Animated Series” (“BTAS”) took animated heroics to new heights — through the depths of character and story.

Produced by Paul Dini, Bruce Timm and Alan Burnett, “BTAS” revolutionized the animated medium and the superhero genre as a whole, proving both could be used to tell mature stories while still appealing to audiences of all ages and interests.

The show’s illustrations were drawn on black paper to emphasize a darker atmosphere. The setting mixes retro with modern as characters using computers and phones wear old clothing and watch blimps fly overhead. Subsequently, this gave the series a sense of timelessness, becoming coined as being ‘dark deco’ by series animators Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski. 

The original series gained its distinct style by drawing heavy inspiration from the theatrical Tim Burton “Batman” films in ‘89 and ‘92, depicting a weather-worn Gotham with stylistically eerie architecture. Yet the show didn’t market itself purely for adults, it was equally influenced by the Fleischer “Superman” animations of the 1940s, which were full of bright colors and dark penciling for contrast.

The end result of these combining inspirations was a setting that felt both noir yet lively — a tone cemented by Danny Elfman’s orchestral and jazzy soundtrack.

The voice acting has become nothing short of iconic as well. As Batman, Kevin Conroy manages to make a clear distinction between Bruce Wayne and the Caped Crusader through slight tone shifts and dialogue choices. Similarly, Mark Hamill, best known for playing Luke Skywalker, portrays the Joker as a jovial psycho-criminal. Hamill’s work perfectly depicts an utterly unhinged yet incredibly charismatic foil to Conroy’s brooding yet empathetic Batman. 

While earlier cartoons like “The Smurfs” or “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” mostly strived for charming entertainment, “BTAS” aimed to tell deeper narratives on the Saturday screen throughout its three-season run, spanning 109 animated entries.

Episodes such as “Robin’s Reckoning Pt. 1” and “Robin’s Reckoning Pt. 2,” “Perchance to Dream” and “Heart of Ice” told stories surrounding loss and the resulting grief and anger that follows.

The Emmy-winning episode “Heart of Ice,” which reinvented the comical Mr. Freeze into a tragic villain desperate for love, may serve as further inspiration for an upcoming sequel to “The Batman,” according to director Matt Reeves.

Other works inspired by the show include the Empire Award winner for Best Video Game “Batman: Arkham Knight.” Much of the original voice cast, alongside producer and screenwriter Paul Dini, contributed to the game series’ creation.

In the animated world, the success of “BTAS” spawned a litany of various spinoffs, such as “Superman: The Animated Series,” “Justice League: Unlimited” and “Static Shock.” Each is hailed as depicting the most developed versions of each character and building off the groundwork of “BTAS” with creative adventures and grounded themes.

At times, the series even dipped its toes into gothic horror. “On Leather Wings,” the first episode created for the show, begins with a ghostly sound design and a mysterious monster for Batman to investigate. “Feat of Clay Pt. 1” and “Feat of Clay Pt. 2” examined the perils of addiction and self-obsession, with a villain who’s vices result in dysmorphia, voiced by Ron Pearlman. 

Mental health became a recurring theme. “Two-Face Pt. 1” and “Two-Face Pt. 2” showed the tragic pitfalls of repressed anger and trauma. “Mad Love” illustrated the dangers of toxic relationships and manipulation by abusive partners. The episode also serves as both the origin story for the show-made villain Harley Quinn and the series finale of “BTAS.”

“BTAS” was never overly tragic or wholly dower. It still strove to be an inspirational showcase of good triumphing over evil through superheroics. “Christmas with the Joker,” “The Clock King” and “Beware the Gray Ghost” are some of the best examples of the series embracing its roots in depicting the Dark Detective at odds with his colorful rogues gallery.

The most impactful message the series conveys is to have hope and uplift others while finding ways to rise above personal demons.

“BTAS” has long been praised for being the most faithful and well-rounded adaptation of its character and it did so by finding the balance in paying tribute to the fun, the noir and the gothic stemming from the various adaptations in Batman’s comic source material.

Thirty years on and “BTAS” has yet to be bested in its brilliance, but it may still inspire audiences for another 30 years and more.

“Batman: The Animated Series,” rated TV-PG is available to stream on HBO Max.

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