The fans of Gotham City’s most famous vigilante prefer different incarnations of the Dark Knight for different reasons. Some people like to be ironic, and claim that the 1960′s Batman TV series and film (starring Adam West) were their favourite, despite it being universally ridiculed for its’ high dose of camp. Other people relish the dark and gritty Tim Burton films, Batman and Batman Returns, for their unique style. Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever catered to a more colourful 90′s culture, while his sequel Batman and Robin found fans in people who like cheesy one-liners. Then, of course, Christopher Nolan’s addition to Batman’s on-screen saga garnered incredible enthusiasm from fans and initiates alike for removing the cheesiness and replacing it with drama in a more realistic tale: Batman Begins. His sequel, The Dark Knight is favoured by many as the best Batman movie for its’ complex plot and thematic significance. However, there is another deserving candidate for the best depiction of Batman on screen in the television show Batman: The Animated Series. Volume one of this outstanding series has been released on DVD in Australia for some time, bringing with it the one of the strongest senses of style I have seen in a western cartoon. The problem is volume two hasn’t been released in the years since.
Starting in 1992, Batman: The Animated Series was designed for children’s programming; however it contains numerous qualities to impress anyone who takes animation seriously. This is not just a children’s show, but a worthy addition to the Batman name and the superhero genre overall. The series chronicles and interprets various aspects of Batman lore as well as presenting original stories in short 22 minute episodes, with some of the more complex plots spanning two episodes. Each story involves Batman (voiced by Kevin Conroy) investigating and fighting crimes perpetrated by the various super villains and mobsters of Gotham City. Although this initially sounds like it could get repetitive over the 28 episodes in volume one, it rarely does. This is because episodes are varied in their approach and have different elements of interest to the viewer. Stories may focus on the origin of a super villain, while others cover the psychology of Bruce Wayne (Batman’s identity). Episodes can be funny, mysterious or dramatic and occasionally told from different perspectives.
Familiar faces from the Batman universe make regular appearances, without being overused. Bruce Wayne’s dry witted butler Alfred assists in keeping the dialogue flowing from the lonely Dark Knight without stealing the limelight, like Robin might. Robin does appear, but only when necessary, volume one is about Batman, rather than his adopted hero family. Subsequently, any supporting characters in an episode have more time for development, which helps in particularly dramatic episodes. Several of the rogues’ gallery of Batman villains make their appearance in this volume, including the Joker, Two-Face, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, Clayface, Mr Freeze and the Penguin. Most of these characters work well, although the Penguin and Poison Ivy aren’t as strong as the other villains.
The Joker appears in several episodes, each acting as a sort of manic break from the more serious ones. Mark Hamill (of Luke Skywalker fame) voices the Joker brilliantly, juxtaposing his manic sense of humour and practical jokes with evil, more so than any other portrayal of the character on-screen. Die hard fans of Heath Ledger’s psychotic version of the character might cringe at this idea, but after accepting Hamill’s interpretation, the Joker becomes a lot of fun. The Animated Series adds even more to this enjoyment with the introduction of Harley Quinn, known to many fans as the Joker’s “girlfriend” – if you could call her that. Harley Quinn is an utterly charming villain, with her unfaltering love for “Mister J” (her name for the Joker) and his extreme version of a good time. Arleen Sorkin voices Harley, with a strong and characteristic Jewish accent, making the character instantly recognisable.
Stories involving the Joker and the introduction of Harley Quinn are not the only highlights from this volume. The Animated Series version of District Attorney Harvey Dent’s transformation into his alter-ego Two-Face is astonishingly good. In this version, Harvey Dent’s multiple personality disorder is set up strongly, making his transformation into a maniac very fluid and satisfying – trumping The Dark Knight’s version of the origin story easily, albeit with less thematic weight. However, it is episodes like this, in the series, which broaden the audience from children to adults.
There is also a lot of talking in some episodes for a children’s show, which means it either respects younger viewer’s intelligence, or expects a broader audience – either way, it works. The overall style, in fact, seems like something designed for an adult over a child. The show is very moody with high contrast, spot and back lighting. Gotham City also looks very classic, but also very gothic and mysterious at times. In fact, in one of the special features on the volume one DVD, Producer Alan Burnett describes the program as “Dark Deco”, by which he means dark Art Deco. In this Gotham city, there is a ‘Chrysler building’ on every corner. Ultimately, it feels like a style adults would enjoy, but it is an interesting move to bring it to children as well.
The music is also orchestrated throughout each episode, bringing a strong sense of drama or excitement to each piece; thankfully it doesn’t change to bad rock music when it’s time for Batman to bang some heads. My only disappointment with the music was that it does become repetitive if you watch too many episodes in succession.
There is little to dislike about Batman: The Animated Series, it retains a mature sensibility, while being suitable entertainment for most children. It’s also nice to see another quality traditional animation, in our current era of computer generated content. If you like superheroes, animation or feel nostalgic about 90′s children’s programs, you will probably find something to enjoy here. It’s just a shame Warner Brothers haven’t released the second volume in Australia, given that the first is such high quality programming.
Volume one of Batman: The Animated Series can be found as a box set including special features, while episodes from it can be found on separate DVD’s, which are more widely available.