I think one of the two reasons why Bruce Timm’s iteration of Batman continues to be such a celebrated staple of animation is that Timm didn’t just take Batman seriously, he took his audience seriously. Before then, if you wanted to see an animated version of Batman, you had to watch Super Friends, or the Filmation series. Speaking as a person who enjoys Timm’s Superman more, it’s easy to say objectively the Batman: The Animated Series stands on its own in the annals of 90s animation and is still considered the standard by fans, right down to the voice actors.
Whenever I read a Batman comic, it’s Kevin Conroy’s voice that I hear in my head as Bruce and Batman, while Mark Hamill creepy cackle still echoes as Joker. That’s why this series is so astounding. You’d figure a show about Batman that took the source material seriously, was mature and complex, and didn’t always feature fist fights with massive Batman rogues would be a blip during the “extreme” 90s. And yet, Timm’s unique depiction of Gotham City, a mix of Frank Miller and Tim Burton, continues to thrill audiences and influence other animated series to this day.
Before Timm, Burton was really considered the man who got Gotham right. Timm seemed to approach his animated series by paying homage to every single creator that came before him, taking small bits and pieces for his own incredible new vision. The big obstacle during the creation of Batman: TAS was getting around the censors, as most 90s animated children’s shows were always under heavy scrutiny by censors and parents organizations. Among the main guideline for the series was that bad guys could not shoot guns that looked like real guns, sounded like real guns, or fired ammunition; hence the reason most bad guys in the series shot purple laser “Pew Pew” pistols.
Despite the heavy pressure by censors, Timm fought tirelessly to not only include fist fighting in his series, but actual guns with bullets. This is made abundantly clear in the iconic opening where Batman dodges gun fire from thugs, and knocks them out with two fists. Plus, how moronic would it have been if we learned Bruce Wayne’s family died from a laser gun? In either case, Batman: TAS sticks to the basics. Bruce, who was orphaned as a child after witnessing his parents murdered by a thug, has devoted his life to fighting crime as Batman, Gotham’s “Dark Knight.” By day he’s an millionaire and CEO for WayneCorp, giving dignity to the legacy of his mother and father, and trying to maintain his secrecy.
Voiced by the incomparable Kevin Conroy, Bruce is depicted as a man of much complexity and heartache who still battles his own personal demons. This inevitably seeps in to his personal life, as he experiences repeated relationship woes. The series introduced Batman’s famous rogues gradually with admirable pacing, not just giving them interesting new iterations, but also unfolding their origins for us. Luckily for fans, Timm is known as a major Batman fanatic and so his vision for Batman never strayed too far from the source material.
Surely the series could never be accused of being half-baked, with outstanding animation, brilliant production quality, and voice work that is absolutely mesmerizing. Timm’s Gotham was an amalgam of neo-noir and futuristic technology, as every element of the environment seemed stuck in a timeless period where fedoras and trench coats were high fashion, yet a few episodes found Wayne battling cyborgs and the merciless Mr. Freeze with his freezing gun. The elements all seemed to snap together well, forming a magnificent series that wasn’t just for kids who wanted to be a superhero. Many of Batman’s villains operated within very interesting shades of grey, and very few of them were definitely evil.
Timm transformed a lot of Batman’s rogues in to people operating on their own moral codes that, demented as they may be, were their own credo for either garnering revenge or striking down society in some shape or form. For instance Lyle Bolton (aka Lock-up), introduced in Episode 9, Season 3, was an abusive security guard at Arkham who thrived on inflicting pain on the prisoners. When Bruce and Arkham’s superiors are made aware of his abusive habits, there’s a very interesting debate made about what constitutes proper punishment and what is just inhuman. Surely the Arkham residents are maniacs, but do they deserve to be dehumanized by a sadist? Boltom eventually becomes a masked villain named “Lock-Up” committed to getting revenge on Batman for being the root of Gotham’s “open wound.”
There’s also Two Face who, deep down, really was a noble and beneficial element of society as Harvey Dent, eventually embracing his inner demons, and transforming it in to an outer monster for the world to see. You could call Two Face a villain, but evil? That’s up for debate. Especially with his excellent two part origin “Two Face.” The question is also carried over in to “Heart of Ice,” the brilliant introduction of Mr. Freeze, a bonafide made man with a thirst for vengeance whose own horrific genetic mutation, and desperation to save his sick wife becomes a matter of asking what’s villainy and what’s pure evil?
Artist credit: Cason Pilliod
Batman: The Animated Series is also notable for being the first in Timm’s massive arc that would stretch into Justice League Unlimited not to mention for introducing fan favorite character, Harley Quinn. The series lasted for four seasons on FOX Kids!, being rebranded as The Adventures of Batman and Robin in season two. After ending its run on FOX, the series carried over to Kids WB in 1997 and once again was rebranded as The New Batman Adventures, where the animation and setting were given massive overhauls in terms of style with sleeker, albeit less detailed, animation. The new remodeling was a source of debate for many years among fans, some of whom loved it, while others despised it. This new overhaul opened the series up to new characters including a more prominent role for Bat Girl, Nightwing and the introduction of a new Robin: Tim Drake.
When paired with Superman: The Animated Series, the show finished its run 1999, rebranded one last time as The New Batman/Superman Adventures. This new formula allowed for a closer synergy between the series, opening the door for a lot of crossovers and new villains to make their appearance. One episode even found Batgirl and Supergirl teaming up to battle Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn. It even set the stage for the meeting of Batman and Superman in World’s Finest, a three-part episode of Superman: TAS where the pair joined forces to battle Lex Luthor and the Joker.
During its run, the series spawned three animated movies: Mask of the Phantasm, Mr Freeze: Subzero, and Mystery of the Batwoman… the former two of which are quite excellent. It won numerous Daytime Emmy Awards, garnered a lot of critical acclaim, and produced a ton of merchandise and fast food tie ins. There were also several very entertaining video games based on the series, The Adventures of Batman and Robin.
The series even held its shadow over Batman: Arkham Asylum with a few of the old voice talent from the show, and alternate downloadable Batman costumes from the animated series available for play. In 2004, Warner released the series on DVD for fans, and it occasionally appears in syndication, most recently on the (now defunct) cable channel The Hub. It’s a very important turn in contemporary animation and really lent credibility to the idea that just because an animated show is marketed for kids, it doesn’t have to be sugary, obnoxious pabulum intended to sell toys. Batman: The Animated Series is art.