He is the vengeance, he is the night, he is the single greatest on-screen incarnation of Batman of all time. The classic cartoon Batman: The Animated Series has a timeless quality to it that keeps it feeling essential even a quarter-century after its debut. For many people, myself included, the groundbreaking, Emmy Award-winning series remains the quintessential portrayal of the Dark Knight thanks to its iconic storytelling, film noir-meets-art deco aesthetic, and Bruce Timm’s inimitable art style.
In order to celebrate the Batman that Gotham City truly deserves, we’re running down the best Batman: The Animated Series episodes of all time.
“What is Reality?”
Did you know that the Riddler only appeared as the primary villain three times during the entirety of Batman: The Animated Series‘ run? The show’s creators wanted to use him more. But as it turns out writing riddles is really, really hard. Thankfully, they wrote this virtual reality-filled funhouse of an episode in which the Riddler puts Batman through the wringer in all sorts of elaborately designed, trippy murder-traps. Most importantly, it’s a case study in how the only thing preventing the Riddler from actually getting away with his schemes is the Riddler himself. His drive to show everyone in Gotham just how clever he is will always be his downfall.
“Over the Edge”
Anyone who is close to Batman is a target for the scores of psychotic lunatics that want him and his loved ones dead. “Over the Edge” asks many questions: What if Batgirl died? How much of the blame can and should be laid at Batman’s feet? How would it affect one of Batman’s staunchest allies, Commissioner Gordon? This pitch perfect episode asks all of these questions in a tense, thrilling story that pits Batman against the Gotham City Police Department and threatens to tear the Bat-Family apart. Sure, it ultimately reverts to the status quo, but the bleak look into what could be when your secret identity collides with your actual identity is a truly haunting hypothetical.
The Clown Prince of Crime has rarely seemed more sinister than in “Joker’s Favor,” and that is saying something considering the psychotic pedigree of this character. When an average Joe named Charlie Collins cuts off the Joker in traffic, he winds up in a deadly game of car-and-mouse that ends with him exchanging his life for a favor that the Joker can redeem at some point down the line.
Flash forward to two years later where Charlie has a new identity, a new life, and is living far away from Gotham in a brand new city. But not even that can keep him safe. The Joker ultimately tracks him down and pushes him to his psychological breaking point, illustrating how a chance encounter can ultimately ruin your life. Speaking of which, this episode also introduces Harley Quinn, whose life was basically ruined when she met the Joker at Arkham Asylum. You know, time is a flat circle and all that jazz.
“Mask of the Phantasm”
Is this cheating? Well, it’s my show, so who cares. Regarded by some as the best Batman movie ever made, this feature-length animated series episode finds Batman blamed for the murders of a series of mob bosses, which are actually being perpetrated by a new vigilante named the Phantasm. This new, cruel crimefighter is basically the murdery mirror image of Batman. It’s a dark, haunting, and ultimately heartening film that puts both Bruce Wayne and Batman under the microscope, examining why Bruce became the Dark Knight in the first place and what it cost him.
“Almost Got ‘Im”
An episode so good they turned it into an actual card game. “Almost Got ‘Im” is a nearly perfect piece of Batman television, featuring the Dark Knight’s greatest rogues–Joker, Two-Face, Poison Ivy, Killer Croc, and Penguin–playing poker as they try to one-up each other with stories of how they nearly bested the Batman. It’s weirdly touching because in spite of their constant attempts to try and murder Batman, you realize that he is the glue that keeps their psychotic family together. My one complaint? Two-Face basically erases Penny Plunderer from history, which is about as rude as it gets.
“Harley and Ivy”
Like chocolate and peanut butter, Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn are a nearly perfect combination. And this episode is proof positive. When Harley Quinn gets fired by the Joker, she teams up with Poison Ivy to paint the town red, and the two set out on a quest to become Gotham City’s queens of Crime. If nothing else, it laid the groundwork for Gotham City Sirens. Which is great because this episode shows kick-ass ladies kicking ass together is exactly what the doctor ordered.
“Feat of Clay”
With the ability to take on any form, Clayface is a truly chilling villain. There’s just something deeply unsettling about shapeshifters, but in “Feat of Clay” you learn that Clayface is far more sympathetic than his sinister, goopy exterior would suggest. Beneath that murderous mud-mound was a drug-addicted actor named Matt Hagen whose dependency on an experimental face cream to hide facial scars he incurred in a car crash led to the complete breakdown of his genetic material. In essence, his vanity ultimately consumed him, leaving him utterly unrecognizable, and quite literally turning him into a monster.
The corruption of Harvey Dent and his slow descent into madness and villainy has provided narrative gold for many Batman writers over the years. But the one-two punch of this two-part Jekyll and Hyde story on Batman: The Animated Series did it best. The storyline is iconic thanks in no small part to Bruce Timm’s decision to make Two-Face look like a terrifying half-man, half-evil-fish hybrid, like he was Ursula’s cousin or something. It still makes me uncomfortable to this day, and I can guarantee you that Tommy Lee Jones has watched this episode and said “Oh goddamn it” at least once.
“Heart of Ice”
No list of greatest Batman: The Animated Series episodes would be complete without “Heart of Ice.” The Emmy-winning episode put the tragic tale of Mr. Freeze into the spotlight. While many people remember Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bafflingly quippy portrayal of Mr. Freeze, B:TAS painted Victor Fries as a wretched, pitiable figure whose quest to cure his terminally ill wife led to a life of crime. This bittersweet series of unfortunate events not only claims Nora Fries’ life, but leaves Victor unable to exist outside of sub-zero conditions. For what is ostensibly a children’s TV show, this is a truly remarkable piece of writing and remains one of the best Batman stories ever told.
“The Demon’s Quest”
Ra’s al Ghul is one of the Dark Knight’s greatest foes. Not only because he leads the deadly League of Assassins and is a global threat. But also because of his fiendish intellect and virtual immortality thanks to the Lazarus Pit, a green goop jacuzzi that makes his skin baby-smooth and, you know, preserves his infernal existence. But what separates “The Demon’s Quest” from a standard Batman story is the mutual respect and admiration that exists between Ra’s al Ghul and Batman, as well as the undeniable chemistry between Batman and Talia that he can seemingly never act on. It’s a fascinating look into what could be for Bruce Wayne if his one true love was anything else than his insane, one-man crusade against crime in Gotham City.
“I Am The Night”
Is Batman really making Gotham City a better place? Or is he directly correlated to the ever-increasing number of violent psychopaths and murderers that stalk its fair streets? It’s a question that many writers have wrestled with over the years, And one that sinks Batman into a deep depression in “I Am The Night.” In this episode, Batman must deal with the fallout after Commissioner Gordon is critically wounded during a raid on a crook named the Jazzman, who in spite of his goofy moniker turned out to be a real ruthless bastard, going so far as to try and murder Gordon in his hospital room. That may seem like a real dick move, but what’s even worse is pushing Bruce Wayne to his breaking point and making him question his entire purpose in life. And that is precisely what happens over the course of this landmark episode.
Featured Image: Warner Bros.