It’s not an exaggeration to say that, 25 years ago, a cartoon about Batman transformed the boundaries of what was considered possible when bringing a comic-book hero to a new medium.
A quarter of a century ago, on this date, Batman: The Animated Series made its debut on TV screens across the world. I remember watching pilot episode “On Leather Wings” with a bunch of friends when the show made its debut, and being shocked at what I was seeing. Right away, Batman: The Animated Series felt like the comics I’d been reading for decades. The lightweight choreography of bygone shows like Super Friends was nowhere to be found. The drama and action had heft here; we saw Batman, his allies, and his villains get physically and emotionally hurt.
Batman: The Animated Series drew on the psychological complexities and tonal breadth that creators had layered onto Bruce Wayne and his alter ego since his 1939 debut. The existence of stakes and consequence—teeming in every title card, voice performance, animation frame, and musical score— gave the show a broader emotional palette than anything that preceded it. Even the two Tim Burton movies that came out before the show didn’t quite plumb the potentialities of tragedy and triumph the way the animated series. Below is a list of some of my favorite episodes and thoughts on how they showcase what was best about the series.
“Heart of Ice”
This is the one where I got just how much this show could accomplish with the Bat-mythos.
A villain who was a C-list joke in comics became a gothic figure to rival the show’s main character, a man who’d suffered devastating loss he didn’t bring onto himself. Every time Victor Fries showed up after his debut, he felt like someone who audiences could feel sympathetic toward, even while knowing that they shouldn’t.
As a huge fan of the very idea of Robin, I really enjoyed how the show displayed the partnership between Dick Grayson and Bruce Wayne.
Robin joked and Batman grunted in response, all in a way that showed familiarity and affection. And, despite being familiar with the Boy Wonder’s origin story, watching the frayed rope of the Flying Graysons’ swing into frame made it sting even more than the first time. When Batman makes his plea for Robin not to give into his darkest impulses, it showed that the series creators could make the slippery idea of a kid sidekick feel worthwhile, and I knew that one of my favorite characters was in good hands.
Like “Heart of Ice” before it, the two-part origin story for Harvey Dent showcased how Batman: The Animated Series drew on a variety of influences to realize their versions of the Bat-mythos’ long-lived characters.
These episodes channeled the melodrama of film directors like Douglas Sirk and the dread of old-school Universal monster movies. When Harvey becomes Two-Face, it’s the climax of one man’s battle against his own self, a struggle which becomes laid bare for the whole world to see in gruesome fashion.
“Almost Got ’Im”
The classic animated series’ biggest achievement was the fact that it successfully found a way to execute comedy in Gotham City without making its main character a punchline.
This mini-anthology episode, centered on near-miss tall tales told by the Dark Knight’s Rogues Gallery, never felt less dramatic than others. It mined the absurdity of all these characters’ existence for a wry irony, to the point where it seems like even Batman is in on the joke. As the episode ends, Catwoman wonders if she and Batman could ever have a life away from all the criminal-and-crimefighter chaos. When she turns around, the Dark Knight’s already swing off into the night. She can’t get him any more than the other villains could, because he doesn’t want to get got.
No character felt one-note on Batman: The Animated Series. Killer Croc might be the butt of a joke in “Almost Got ’Im,” but the pain was palpable when he had a fragile sense of belonging shattered in “Sideshow.” Even a mainstay like the Joker got spun around to reveal new facets, as seen in his dysfunctional relationship with Harley Quinn. And, thanks to Eric Radomski, Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, Andrea Romano, and their creative cohort, audiences got to Bruce himself express longing, doubt and fellowship in a way that felt fresh for a mainstream iteration of Batman.
This was a Caped Crusader where the storytelling possibilities felt deep and rich, a ripple effect that emboldened every other superhero movie or TV show that would follow. Voice actor Kevin Conroy famously intoned “I am the night. I am vengeance. I am Batman” in the episode “Nothing to Fear.” Batman: The Animated Series was a landmark TV show that made you believe that he was those things and could be so much more.