Batman: The Animated Series premiered on Fox Kids television on September 5th, 1992, and kicked off a phenomenon for DC and Warner Bros, resulting in a myriad of other series and animated features within the DC Animated Universe. Even after 21 1/2 years, Batman: The Animated series remains the high-water mark for the character, the franchise, and for animated action in general. Recently, the whole show was put onto Amazon Prime, and rewatching has made me remember why the show is as good as we all remember.
This series, Batman: Reanimated, will look at some of the best-loved and most interesting episodes of the series’ 80-episode run in broadcast order (as best as possible), and I’ll be talking about what makes them stand out, how the writers and animators made the villains compelling, and generally why everyone involved in the making of the show, from Bruce Timm and Paul Dini to Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, are now like gods among men.
To begin, let’s go to the beginning, with the very first episode produced for the show, “On Leather Wings.” While not technically the first episode aired (that goes to part one of “The Cat and the Claw,” which I’ll talk about in tandem with part two), this was the first in the regular daily time slot. It was written by Mitch Brian and directed by Kevin Altieri. The episode details the Gotham PD’s attempt to take down Batman while he himself investigates the sighting of a giant winged creature (mistaken for the Dark Knight) that has been terrorizing the skies over the perpetually-dour city. It turns out to be the result of genetic experimentation using bat DNA, which turns scientist Dr. Kirk Langstrom into a massive Man-Bat.
This episode is at once a rather strange place for the show to start and the perfect one. With such a wide array of well-known and beloved villains in the Batman lexicon, to begin with one as relatively new as Man-Bat, who debuted in 1970, might have been a bit of a risk. However, beginning with a villain who probably wasn’t on your average kid’s radar accomplished two things right up front: 1) it established Batman as the central figure and what kind of Batman he’d be; and 2) it showed that this series wasn’t beholden to any reality other than the one it created. A man turns into a giant bat; anything could happen.
The series look is dark and shadowy in a way that cartoons up to that point just weren’t, and the color palate gave it a definite look and atmosphere of its own. The Gotham Timm and company created was old and art deco, but also slightly futuristic and cutting edge, which allows the series to hold up even today. And the action was unparalleled. Simply look at the climactic scene which sees Batman and Man-Bat fight and you’ll marvel at the smoothness of the animation and the attention to every detail of the fight, from the flying through the air, to the glare of the police lights. It’s gorgeous.
Another aspect I really adore, getting back to the subject of Batman at the center of the program, is that this episode, like the series as a whole, actually deals with Batman solving crimes. It boggles my mind how many times in film and TV we’ve seen the “World’s Greatest Detective” not do any detecting. It’s a massive part of the character’s appeal, but this is one of the only series to actually show us how good he is at piecing things together. He finds out that bats are related to the sightings, and even goes to the research lab where Langstrom is working to ask questions. When, much later in the series, he meets R’as al Ghul, who always calls him “Detective,” it means something, because he actually IS.
This episode also introduces some of the Gotham City law enforcement officers. Obviously, we get Commissioner Gordon, but we also get Detective Harvey Bullock, a slovenly but devoted cop who wants to stop Batman at all costs. Obviously, Gordon doesn’t want that, and he and Bullock are at odds quite a bit. We get Mayor Hamilton Hill, who becomes a pretty regular character in his own right (usually kidnapped or threatened), and we also get Gotham’s district attorney, Harvey Dent. I’d completely forgotten about this, but The Animated Series actually introduces viewers to Dent long before he’s about to become Two-Face. It’s mainly a cameo in this episode, but he’s got his coin and he’s got his flashy suit. He shows up a few times in the series prior to his epic two-part transformation. I love that attention to detail. It’s about making them characters first and bad guys second.
And, finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the brilliant and baroque score by Shirley Walker. She did the music throughout the whole of the series and I’m sure I’ll mention it from time to time, but as this was the first episode I remember seeing, it’s this episode where the music made the most impact. It’s dark, haunting, exciting, and slightly magical in equal measure. It’s really a phenomenal bit of work and has become as indelible as the images and voice cast have become.
What a way to start! Batman: The Animated Series hit some incredible highs and took some amazingly brave chances in the kinds of stories it told, but without this episode, a solid opening to “silence the critics,” the brilliant and creative people might not have gotten an opportunity.
Next week, we’ll be taking a look at one of my favorite episodes ever, and one that won an Emmy Award, the debut of Mr. Freeze, “Heart of Ice.”