Batman had long undergone a variety of makeovers from within the comics realm under the DC umbrella to the 1960s television show that introduced the infamous subtitled word balloons for action sequences. Even the late 1980s and early 1990s were getting into the act with two movies from Tim Burton in 1989’s Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns (both films starring Michael Keaton in the titular role).
On the cartoon front, Batman had never really arrived but that was soon to change in 1991 and September of 1992 with the help of developers Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski. The series immediately stood out for its design pattern nicknamed, “Dark Deco,” by producers (after its emulation of Noir and Art Deco). The series also was heavily influenced by Noir themes, the Batman films Burton had just directed, and various runs within Batman’s comic history most specifically titles that appeared during the 1970’s under the direction of writers Steve Englehart and Dennis O’Neil. Another immediate standout of the series was the opening introduction that many fans have proclaimed sums up Batman, the character, as perfectly as anything else strongly aided by the memorable theme from Shirley Walker.
With the introduction and background out of the way, let’s kick off the countdown!
Writer: Paul Dini
Director: Dan Riba
Animation Studio: Studio Juno
Credit to Wikipedia
The series itself was highly acclaimed for its ability to make characters sympathetic, especially villains in a rarity for cartoons of the time then. Mary Dahl goes insane after realizing her disorder will never make her age into a physical adult and kidnaps her more successful peers from her hit television show as a means of revenge.
Alison LaPlaca does a stunningly superb job voicing Mary Dahl aka Baby Doll throughout the episode helping showcase her bitter anger at her personal struggles and switching off with one of the most heart-wrenching moments in the series at the very end. Kevin Conroy and Loren Lester (Batman and Robin respectively) are both solid but this episode is largely focused on LaPlaca and her character for good reason. The ending scene manages to be bittersweet with the viewer greatly sympathizing with Mary despite her nearly killing her former cast members just a few scenes prior.
#4: Feat of Clay Part 1
Writer: Marv Wolfman & Michael Reaves w/Teleplay by Marv Wolfman
Director: Dick Sebast
Animation Studio: Akom Production Co.
Credit to dcanimated.wikia.com
Like most of the entries on this list, a sympathetic villain will usually emerge. Matt Hagen frames Bruce Wayne in the attempted murder of Lucius Fox but Hagen has found himself getting addicted to, “Renuyu,” a face altering substance created by his employer Roland Daggett.
Whilst being a two-parter, the first part in my opinion is superior for the characterization of Hagen as an actor past his prime trying to keep earning roles by going through any means necessary. Daggett, on the other hand, is merely trying to get Bruce Wayne out of the picture in order to take over Wayne Enterprises. Prior to his turn as Slade in Teen Titans, Perlman voiced Hagen whom would turn into Clayface after a pair of Daggett’s cronies would pour Renuyu all over his face. Perlman does his usual great job, managing to convey the desperation within Hagen while his partner Teddy Lupus (voiced by Richard Gautier) offers concern and worry over Hagen’s deteriorating state.
The animation is also solid for the most part with it being particularly effective in the shots of Hagen in the shadows, a well used tactic by the show’s animators and editors to hide dark or intense scenes in shadow while still being able to air them on television.
#3: Heart of Ice
Writer: Paul Dini
Director: Bruce Timm
Animation Studio: Spectrum Animation Studios
Credit to nerdist.com
Mr. Freeze, a former employee, starts stealing items from GothCorp to create a Freeze Ray in order to seek revenge on his former boss, Ferris Boyle as Batman remains in pursuit.
The episode is most memorable for altering the background history of Mr. Freeze, the first real sympathetic gem of a villain created in Batman: The Animated Series. The back story was so memorable in trying to revive his cryogenically frozen wife, Nora, that it has since carried over to the comics and even to movies such as Batman and Robin. The artwork is really well done with a lot of good contrasting between Freeze’s hideout and the general world outside along with his memorable costume and robotic look. The voice work done by Michael Ansara is particularly memorable as being flat and emotionless, lending an undercurrent of threat tinged with sadness and heartache.
Fun Fact: Mark Hamill voiced Ferris Boyle, his first role, and only got to voice The Joker after Tim Curry stepped down from the role.
#2: Perchance to Dream
Writer: Lauren Bright & Michael Reaves with Teleplay by Joe R. Lansdale
Director: Boyd Kirkland
Animation Studio: Dong Yang Animation
Credit to antiscribe.com
After pursuing criminals, Batman gets knocked out in a warehouse only to awake to a world that is everything he ever dreamed of. He is no longer Batman but just Bruce Wayne, with his parents alive and Selina Kyle ready to marry him. But, unfortunately for Bruce, he soon learns that sometimes the dream life is too good to be true.
The episode is rather dark but paints a unique picture of Bruce getting the life he’s always dreamed of where his parents aren’t dead and he can live without being Batman. The voice work by Kevin Conroy is great as he slowly begins to doubt his sanity when he sees an impostor Batman flying around and learns that the books in his library all contain garbled text. The animation is great with the scene on the tower at the end involving Bruce fighting “himself” (the impostor Batman) being a rather deep message for a children’s show especially in 1992. The end with Bruce committing suicide in an effort to see the real Mad Hatter is still jaw dropping but my favorite part is the reason. Mad Hatter is willing to give Batman the life he’s dreamed of just to get Batman out of his life. It’s a great reflection (on top of the later episode Trial) that shows the connection Batman has with his rogues gallery.
#1: Over the Edge
Writer: Paul Dini
Director: Yuichiro Yano
Animation Studio: Tokyo Movie Shinsha
Credit to rfmp.wordpress.com
An absolute smash of an episode. While fighting The Scarecrow, Barbara Gordon falls to her death in front of her father, Commissioner Gordon whom blames Batman and demands the entire police squad hunt him down as a result.
The episode is stunning for a multitude of reasons including expressing the idea of what it would be like for Gordon to find out his daughter is Batgirl, what would happen if she died, and how Gordon and Batman’s relationship would be altered. Barbara’s death and the way it was shot is particularly haunting as it was edited due to censorship and made even darker after the effect (albeit unintentionally until Yano and the crew realized the resulting shot was even better).
The intensity of the chase as Gordon hunts down Batman is really well done and well paced and the anguish in Bob Hasting’s voice can be felt along with his sad awareness that he can’t go back now after initially setting up the hunt and seeing it immediately go further than intended. There are some bits of humor in the news scenes but this is arguably the darkest episode in the series as it’s played relentlessly straight with tension and a searing sense that this is actually happening.
From the opening scene on, the episode is gripping and even the ending makes sense given the initial fight with The Scarecrow and his usual means of using his Scare Toxin to reveal the worst fears.
So there we have it, my Top 5 episodes of Batman: The Animated Series that must be watched. Thoughts? Comment below!
Credit to quadam.wordpress.com for feature image