After my year-long sojourn back into one of the best animated television programs ever made, Batman: The Animated Series, my appreciation for the work of Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, Kevin Altieri, Boyd Kirkland, Michael Reaves and many more has somehow only gotten stronger. Though I confess I was getting pretty tired of reviewing episodes there toward the end, I never got tired of watching them. Those 85 episodes are the most perfect depiction of Batman and his nightly Gotham City war on crime that’s ever been put on screen, and this is including any of the films. The world was so rich and the storytelling was much deeper than you’d expect for a show aimed at kids. It didn’t patronize or condescend; it told stories that were exciting and scary and sad in equal measure, which is something few can boast.
To pick a top ten is quite a difficult thing. There are some phenomenal episodes in the bunch and only a handful of duffs. It’s also hard not to just pick the ones everybody says are the best, though I certainly can’t deny how good they are and will include them in the list as necessary. Generally, the episodes that I connect to the most are ones that actually allow the characters to shine and where the animation really impresses. Ultimately, these are the ten episodes that will give people the best cross-section of what the show was and what it could do when everything was firing on all cylinders.
10. “Read My Lips”
This is an episode I’ve always loved and probably one I’ve seen more than any other. It introduced Scarface and the Ventriloquist, a very weird pair of villains who are really just one crazy guy and his angry wooden dummy, both voiced by George Dzundza. Of all the psychotic and mentally unhinged baddies out there, a guy who can only express himself through a puppet, is subservient to said puppet, and who other people follow only because of the puppet has to be the most nutty. It also depicts a particularly violent end for Scarface, getting shot to pieces by one of his own henchmen’s Tommy Gun.
I always find these kinds of episodes interesting, where Batman is the central figure but he’s not the main character. In this one, following a botched police raid of a drug warehouse, Detective Bullock blames Batman’s interference, but Officer Montoya and a rookie cop remember it differently. We hear three different versions of the events and three different outcomes. Batman is little more than a cipher in this, a shadow that comes in and acts. We know Batman is acting properly, but we’re not really sure who’s to blame until the end.
8. Joker’s Favor
This is an episode I didn’t remember at all, but I’ve decided I love upon review because it introduces the Joker in terrifying style. After getting annoyed at everything, a regular schlub cuts off the Joker in traffic and then has to decide whether to get murdered (not preferable) or do the Joker a favor whenever he wants. After a couple of years, the Joker comes to collect, after the poor man has moved to a new city and changed his name. The sheer amount of menace the Joker’s grin conveys to this sad sack is astronomical and the insanity he creates in that man is even greater. The Joker can drive people to a lot of messed-up stuff and it’s fun to watch.
7. Feat of Clay
I’m a sucker for tragic villain episodes, and you’ll see that represented a few times on this list. This one has always made an impression on me, to the point where I thought Clayface was a recurring villain, but it turns out he only showed up once more after this. That’s how good his introductory story is. Matt Hagen is depicted as a drug addict, an aging actor who needs Roland Daggett’s experimental face cream to look younger, but it’s chemically breaking down his skin until he’s nothing more than a pile of sentient putty. A man turning into a monster for the sake of vanity. It’s a great story, and the animation is gorgeously grotesque.
I always love a good multi-villain story, and TAS had some amazing ones, but for my favorite I’ve chosen the one with the most villains per capita than any other. Based on the new D.A.’s calling out of Batman, the inmates of Arkham decide to put the Dark Knight on trial, being represented by that same D.A. Joker is the judge, Two-Face the prosecutor, and Riddler, Scarecrow, Harley Quinn, Killer Croc, Poison Ivy, and Mad Hatter as the jury. The verdict is one of the best scenes in the whole series.
5. Harley and Ivy
After this rewatch, I think the two characters I went from liking okay to downright loving were Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn. Paul Dini wrote the both of them incredibly well and they were some of the most complex characters in the whole run. Harley suffers from severe Stockholm Syndrome but is still amazingly upbeat, and tries to go straight a few times. Ivy is, I think, much, much smarter than Batman and would have succeeded in every scenario if not for her blinding hatred of men and her debilitating need to protect all plant life. All Batman has to do if he’s about to get defeated is toss a potted plant out a window and he’s free. Anyway, to represent all of their strengths, I chose this episode, in which the two bad gals of Gotham team up to prove that they don’t need no man, and Joker needs to be careful if he’s gonna mess with Harley again. So fantastic, and quite sad with Harley’s obsessive love for Joker.
Two-Face’s introduction is so great because the show’s makers went to the trouble of establishing Harvey Dent as a presence in Gotham City before he became a villain. He’s known to be Gotham’s District Attorney and is a friend of Bruce Wayne’s, even falling victim to Poison Ivy in her first appearance. The first episode of the two-parter is all about Dent’s tragic fall from grace and the second part takes place months later, with the newly-minted criminal trying to get revenge on mob boss Rupert Thorne, whose fault it was that Harvey was ruined, mentally, emotionally, and physically. Saddest of all, Harvey’s fiance still loves him but it’s too late for him, and he’s destined to be one of Batman’s, and the show’s, most prolific villains.
3. Robin’s Reckoning
They really nailed two-parters in Batman: The Animated Series and as good as any of them are, none are as heartbreaking or as relevant to our characters as this one which is half Robin’s origin and half Batman trying to shield him from the truth. While Robin in this series has always been more of a smart aleck than anything else, these episodes allow him to really get to the heart of his troubles. And since Batman’s despair and anger over the death of his own parents is shown only in snippets on the show (that was done in Mask of the Phantasm), this allowed the writers to deal with the issues of revenge and anger in a way that young people might connect with more.
2. Almost Got ‘Im
These top two choices won’t surprise anyone, but they’re the best so I’m not just gonna NOT pick them. It was a coin toss which was going to be number 1. Another entry in the Batman-lite kind of episodes, this shows what villains do on their downtime. Turns out, they just get together and play cards. Joker, Two-Face, Poison Ivy, Penguin, and Killer Croc sit down for a game of poker and each tell their own stories of how they almost killed Batman, each believing their story is the best. Croc’s is, of course, just him almost crushing Batman with a rock, but even he gets some good moments. While all the stories are flashbacks, they eventually start to bleed into the present and we find out the story is still going on. It’s a funny episode, an action-packed episode, and it illustrates just how awesome Batman truly is, even when he barely has any dialogue. It’s so much fun, I could watch this again every day for a year and probably not get bored.
1. Heart of Ice
There’s no overstated how much I adore this episode. It aired so early in the run and yet was still so much a part of the history of the show and of the Batman universe in general. Who was once a joke villain, Mr. Freeze became one of the saddest tragic-villains they did and Michael Ansara’s chilling (pun well intended) vocal performance is still astounding. Dr. Victor Fries was working on a way to cure his terminally ill wife when his greedy boss sabotaged his research, leading to an explosion and eventually Fries being doomed to a life of advanced strength and slowed aging, but without the ability to feel or touch. This version of the character proved so popular that Joel Schumacher’s terrible movie Batman and Robin reflected this change and the comics followed suit. When Freeze came back nearing the end of the series, he was sort of an anti-hero, illustrating how much the character had impacted the public. The animation is gorgeous, the writing is bittersweet, and the performances all nail it. This is absolutely my favorite episode of the series, even now.
And there we have it, friends! A whole year of Batman: The Animated Series. This was a very difficult list to make, and there are obviously tons and tons of episodes I love but couldn’t include here. Thank you all for reading these every week and for all the lovely feedback I have received.
And if you like things like this, don’t fret, because next year I intend to review every episode of Cowboy Bebop for a column I’m calling “Cowboy REbop.” Not a joke, a real thing.