It’s easy to think back to a show from your childhood with rose-tinted glasses. There are a whole host of tv shows from my childhood that I know would make me cringe if I watched them now. Captain Planet, Power Rangers (the original and any other version that has surfaced since) and maybe Bucky o’ Hare. I also know that there are three I would hope, beyond all others, would still hold up today, to an adult audience – The Real Ghostbusters, Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles (England was too weedy to have Ninja in the title) and Batman: The Animated Series.
I haven’t seen the first two since I was a kid but I had the pleasure of picking up both of the first two volumes of Batman: TAS on dvd and luckily, to a large extent, it doesn’t disappoint. I always remember it being the most accurate version of Batman from the comics that was on tv (or even in the movies for a little while). It is darker, more mature, plays on the fear and terror that Batman uses and never once makes him a camp, lycra wearing joke.
Upon watching the first episode for the first time in what must be at least thirteen years, I wasn’t disappointed. Nostalgia kicked in as the cool opening titles started and that amazing Danny Elfman theme made the action seem much more epic than it actually is. Then I found it was an episode with Man-Bat (one of the weakest Batman villains) as the bad guy and although I was slightly disappointed, all the other features were present, the amazing voice by Kevin Conroy, the coolest Batmobile (until the Tumbler) and the perfect mix of noir, futuristic elements and 1950s America style. It wasn’t amazing as an episode, but it was the Batman I wanted to see on-screen.
That is the biggest strength with the show. It takes itself seriously to the perfect amount. There are 28 episodes in the first volume, and although quality can differ hugely, on the whole, as a cartoon series, it holds up to a modern audience that want their Batman serious, dark and much more realistic than the camp 60s version or the awful Clooney version.
It is a cartoon but at times it almost forgets that kids are supposed to be its primary audience. Every episode will guarantee you an explosion, every episode will have a huge fight or great action set-piece, all things you would and should associate with a superhero programme aimed at young kids, but some episodes have much more mature storylines. The best example is the Two-Face origin story, a two-parter that’s first episode is more about Harvey Dent’s fight with his own mind and his rage issues than it is about Batman or a huge, silly super-villain story at all. In fact, for most of the episode, we watch Harvey Dent go crazy, not Batman beating up criminals or buildings exploding (although an explosion plays a huge part in the finale). It is a prime example of the shows biggest success, it was for kids but wasn’t aimed at kids and with a bit of altering, some episodes would easily hold-up in a prime-time, mature audience schedule.
Unfortunately, depending on who writes the episodes, we do get some more silly stories that are aimed purely at kids. A bad guy who owns an invisibility suit, a Joker episode where he plagues Batman with a Christmas themed scheme or one where kids hide an injured Batman in their basement from the Penguin are all examples of the more kid-centered and silly episodes. But these are off-set by episodes that use varying points of view to tell the same tale, are about redeemed gangsters or even tap into the history of Batman and his parents death. More mature storylines fit seamlessly into the kid show.
The way they treat the well-known villains is done brilliantly too. We get the purest and most recognisable versions of Batman’s villains. Scarecrow can be as scary as he should and alongside Mr Freeze and Clayface, gets a great origin story. The victory goes to probably the definitive version of The Joker. Mark Hamill voices a manic, dark and dangerous version of the character that can be as silly and serious as he needs to be depending on the episode. It’s his laugh and voice that most would associate with the Joker and if there was ever a chance of getting this version into a new film, even with Hamill playing him (I know, there are all sorts of issues with that), I think we’d get one of the best versions of on-screen Joker there have ever been.
Overall, although there was trepidation in revisiting such a huge show from my childhood, Batman: The Animated Series didn’t disappoint. The stories are great and balance the difficult line between kiddy and mature perfectly, resulting in a cartoon that could very well be ageless and timeless.
Best Episode – Two Face: A mature and brilliantly realised version of one of Batman’s most iconic villains.
Best performance – Mark Hamill as the Joker
Should there have been another season? – Yes, there are countless stories to be told here.
Season Rating – 3
(1 – Awful, 2 – Average, 3 – Good, 4 – Great, 5! – Must See)