On September 5, 1992, Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, and a host of talented writers and animators delivered what many people still consider to be the definitive interpretation of a towering pop culture icon with Batman: The Animated Series. Its unforgettable animation style and character designs, distinctive music, and cinematic approach to storytelling that often made viewers feel as if they were watching 22-minute movies made the series an instant classic, and its unique noir-influenced art deco style means that it has retained a timeless appeal. The series finally has a Blu-ray release, loaded with special features. You can order it here.
You may notice that there’s a disproportionate number of first season episodes on this list. Well, keep in mind that the show had a 65 episode first season, so that accounts for quite a bit. And while really, there are very few episodes of this show that we wouldn’t recommend, there was just so much groundbreaking animated brilliance in its earliest episodes that we can’t help but gravitate towards them.
So here are our most essential episodes of Batman: The Animated Series. What are yours? Let us know!
“On Leather Wings” – Season 1 Episode 1
When you’re not dealing with a heavily serialized drama, it’s rare that a first episode is all that “essential.” And even when you are, pilots are often not the best examples of what a show can and will grow into. And when you’re talking about animation, well, there’s rarely any reason to start at the beginning.
Ah, but “On Leather Wings” is different.
Kicking off an ambitious Batman cartoon at the height of the Dark Knight’s popularity with one of his lesser-known villains, the horrific and tragic (but goofily named) Man-Bat was a sign that this show wasn’t going to be quite what we expected. There’s an uneasy tension between Batman and the police. The horror movie elements of Man-Bat and his origin allow the show to lean heavily into its noir/art deco design. It might not be the best episode of the series, but it doesn’t get enough credit for shaking things up right out of the gate.
“Christmas With The Joker” – Season 1 Episode 2
This episode is outrageous, and an absolute holiday treat. It’s everything you could possibly want from a Joker episode. The Clown Prince of Crime escapes Arkham Asylum on a Christmas tree (!) and decides to host his very own deadly Christmas special. He even creates a parody version of “Jingle Bells” that would make Weird Al jealous.
The best thing about the episode though is the way it explores Batman’s always present paranoia. Despite the fact that all seems to be quiet in Gotham on Christmas Eve, Bruce is unable to take a break and enjoy some holiday cheer. Batman seems almost pleased when his archnemesis shows up to terrorize the city. This episode proves that a fight with the Joker is Batman’s ultimate holiday treat.
“Two-Face” – Season 1 Episode 10-11
Heh-heh. It was a two-parter.
Two-Face’s origin is a collection of gut-punches, one after another. Part of it comes from Harvey Dent having enough of a presence in the previous nine episodes. Not only was he portrayed almost like a brother to Bruce, but we even got to see him casually, yet obsessively, flip his coin. This is a huge step up from some of his other appearances in films the movies, where – casting differences aside – Harvey Dent was a guy that existed in one movie (1989’s Batman) and then was an established villain in another (Batman Forever) with no drama connecting the dots. Things were different with The Dark Knight, of course, but you could argue we didn’t get enough time to really get to know Harvey before his misfortune.
Nobody has more tragedy to his name than Two-Face in Batman’s world (even Clayface comes to show some acceptance of his condition in his later animated appearances) and seeing his initial fall hurts. With all the adult moments we laud the show for getting away with, the one that sticks out for me will always be how raw and uncomfortable Harvey’s behavior is when he’s defeated. His wife is capable of accepting Harvey’s blue chemical scars, but even she has to turn away in horror when Two-Face has a mental breakdown like a junkie unable to get his fix.
“I’ve Got Batman in My Basement” – Season 1 Episode 13
Some fans don’t really love this episode, but there’s a sort of childhood fanfic quality to “I’ve Got Batman in My Basement” that can’t be ignored. This episode caters to its audience’s biggest fantasy: being able to fight alongside Batman and stop the bad guys.
When Batman is attacked by a giant vulture named Scrap, a group of kids decide to help the Caped Crusader hide out from the Penguin and his henchmen, who are searching for the very valuable Vonalster Fabergé Egg. It’s up to these junior detectives to hold off the Penguin while Batman recovers in their basement. What follows is the closest BTAS ever got to a Home Alone spoof. It’s pretty much everything we ever wanted as kids.
“Heart of Ice” – Season 1 Episode 14
This isn’t just an essential episode, it’s arguably the essential episode. Batman: The Animated Series did a tremendous job of distilling everything great about Batman and his world down to the absolute essence, making everything both instantly recognizable and still fresh and new at the same time. But “Heart of Ice” which comes from the core BTAS creative team of Paul Dini (writer) and Bruce Timm (director) went the extra mile.
You see nobody gave a damn about Mr. Freeze before “Heart of Ice.” The character had a mere handful of comic book appearances, and his biggest claim to fame was being played by three different actors on the 1966 Batman TV series. “Heart of Ice” gave him a tragic backstory, a terrific and creepy new design (from Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, no less!) and an unforgettably eerie vocal performance from Michael Ansara. All future Mr. Freeze stories, in comics or on the screen, now take their cues from this episode.
Other Batman: The Animated Series episodes create stories from an alchemy of established Batman mythology. “Heart of Ice” is the established mythology.
“Beware the Gray Ghost” – Season 1 Episode 18
The early ’90s was a time when fandom was knee-deep in the (incorrect) belief that the 1966 live-action Batman series was a best forgotten relic and unlike what Batman should be and all that darkness worship. Yet it was the animated series, which itself enveloped Batman in darkness and seriousness that fully embraced and appreciated what Adam West did for the franchise in his three years of campy brilliance. West’s role of Simon Trent in this episode not only plays off of West’s obvious frustrations with only being known as the classic Caped Crusader, but celebrates him for being the champion who made Batman: The Animated Series even possible.
The Batman corner of the DC Animated Universe is not a happy one. The hero is emotionally broken, his enemies are tragic, and the status quo won’t allow for anyone to be fixed. Yet Simon Trent is that glimmer of hope, not only as inspiration for Batman’s style as a heroic noir swashbuckler, but for the way his life shines on after realizing his own worth. Not only does the episode end on a high note for Trent, but the Gray Ghost is shown to be a staple in that world’s pop culture all the way into the Batman Beyond timeframe.
Simon Trent’s legacy lives on in more ways than one.
“Feat of Clay” – Season 1 Episode 20-21
“Feat of Clay” is actually the first time we see Lucius Fox and Roland Daggett in animated form, but that’s not what makes this an essential watch.
Batman: The Animated Series was built on quality and strong, visual storytelling and this two-parter does a great job showing that off. In fact, it’s a good double-feature with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles episode “Enter Mutagen Man,” which came out a year earlier. Both episodes feature a sympathetic, hideous monster with similar origins and very similar abilities. The Turtles episode paints over the body horror with humor while Batman: The Animated Series lets its freak flag fly.
Matt Hagen’s origin story as Clayface is just so damn horrific, from the character’s understandable desperation pre-and-post-transformation to the animation quality and direction. The way he moves and morphs made the episode something we were too afraid to watch, but too fascinated not to as a kid. There’s so much about it that remains utterly chilling, up to and including the Thriller final shot.
Meanwhile, Mutagen Man permanently transformed himself into a male model and started dating April O’Neil, so yeah.
“Joker’s Favor” – Season 1 Episode 22
“Joker’s Favor” is a super tightly written episode. It features an everyday schlub named Charlie Collins who has a moment of slight road rage that causes poor ol’ Chuck to cuss out another driver. Sadly for the paunchy, balding Collins, that other driver just happens to be the Joker. What follows is a series of events that sees Charlie spiraling into the Joker’s world of twisted madness.
Sounds like a fun little tale, and it is, but “Joker’s Favor” is even more legendary because it features the first appearance of Harley Quinn. The moment Harley sashays on screen, one can’t help but be captivated by the motley criminal. The instant one hears the voice of Arlene Sorkin bring Harley to life, one is smitten by her Brooklyn twang and her screen presence. With every subsequent appearance, the brain trust behind the show began to flesh out Harley as a character, but it all began here with one of the best written and intense Joker episodes of Batman: The Animates Series’ entire run.
“Fear of Victory” – Season 1 Episode 24
This show took a while to find its feet when it came to the Scarecrow. His second appearance on the show already featured a creepier redesign (but not as creepy as the one to come), for example. But while villains are often at the center of why we’re still writing about this show, in this case, it’s something else entirely.
This was the first episode broadcast featuring Robin. Yes, “Christmas With the Joker” is technically episode 2. But that didn’t air until November (the show premiered in September). Keep in mind that in the early 1990s, Robin wasn’t exactly all that cool. He was still absent from the movies, and pop culture’s general impression of him was either Burt Ward’s pun-slinging Boy Wonder or that the character was, in the comics, dead (the average viewer made no distinction between Dick Grayson and Jason Todd).
So the fact that a third of the season focused on a solo Batman, with the understanding that we’d eventually meet a college aged Robin was a big deal. And when we finally did meet him, voiced with aplomb by Loren Lester and rocking the modern comic book redesign, the primary colors broke the visual tension. And like everything else this show did, it absolutely nailed why The Dynamic Duo are such pop culture icons.
“Perchance to Dream” – Season 1 Episode 30
What if Bruce Wayne never became Batman and instead lived a separate life from the Caped Crusader? In “Perchance to Dream,” Bruce gets everything he ever wanted. His parents are still alive, he’s the billionaire head of Wayne Industries, and he’s engaged to Selina Kyle, who isn’t Catwoman in this reality.
Except things are a little strange in this happy reality and Bruce remembers his real life as Batman. With an homage to Alfred Hitchcock‘s Vertigo, Bruce discovers the truth behind his new life away from Batman. This one has a great twist!
“Robin’s Reckoning” – Season 1 Episode 32-33
We never had a comprehensive re-telling of Batman’s origin on this show (thank heavens), but we did get the two-part “Robin’s Reckoning.” An absolutely flawless update of Dick Grayson’s origin story from 1941’s Detective Comics #38, “Robin’s Reckoning” also incorporated elements from other, recent Robin origin re-tellings, using a modern frame to tell a classic story.
Far from the boy scout Boy Wonder image that was the prevailing sense in pop culture at the time, “Robin’s Reckoning” brought a little tension to Bruce and Dick’s relationship, with Dick’s understandable anger about the death of his parents even hinting at elements of the Jason Todd version of Robin. Whenever anyone tries to float the (wrong) idea that Batman stories are better without Robin, be sure to sit them down with this one.
“The Laughing Fish” – Season 1 Episode 34
This episode is one of the earliest direct-ish transpositions of Batman comics to the screen, adapting “The Laughing Fish” by Steve Engleheart and Marshall Rogers, and the all time classic “The Joker’s Five Way Revenge” by Denny O’Neill and Neal Adams. It’s also a hoot.
Any episode written by Paul Dini and directed by Bruce Timm is a good one, but what makes “The Laughing Fish” a classic and emblematic of something great about the series as a whole is how it goes long on the absurdity of the Joker. His plot here is to brand the hell out of a bunch of fish, trademark them, and then get rich because he also cornered the market. When he can’t get the trademark, he starts trying to kill people at the…I suppose it’s the Gotham City Patent Office, I guess, who won’t give him the trademark. Mark Hamill’s Joker is legendary, one of the greatest voice acting performances of all time, but what made the Joker of Batman: The Animated Series our favorite version of the character is how they threaded the needle on his persona. He’s equal parts dark, evil, chaotic, hilarious, absurd, ridiculous and brilliant.
“Cat Scratch Fever” – Season 1 Episode 36
BTAS produced many great Catwoman stories throughout its run, but none of them can match “Cat Scratch Fever.” After Catwoman’s pet cat and accomplice, Isis, runs away from home, Selina desperately searches for her in the streets of Gotham.
When she finally finds her beloved cat, she discovers that Isis has become feral. Catwoman quickly unearths a plot by the dastardly businessman Roland Daggett to infect animals with a virus that makes them feral in order to sell the antidote for millions of dollars. While his scheme is pretty convoluted, Selina’s love for her cat is not. This turns out to be a heartwarming episode in the end.
“Heart of Steel” – Season 1 Episode 38-39
Two things about “Heart of Steel” stand out. The first is casting William Sanderson as the guy who built HARDAC, the AI that makes “duplicant” copies of Gotham residents. Sanderson was J.F. Sebastian in Blade Runner where he helped design replicants. That casting decision made it click that the team behind this show was excited about its place in the greater nerd ecosystem.
The second standout is the voice acting. Much has been written about how incredible Kevin Conroy is, but the way he goes between Bruce Wayne voice and Batman growl is fantastic here. At one point he jumps from dark detective to chipper playboy when Lucious calls, and later when he finds Alfred unconscious he goes the opposite way. It adds to the visuals in a way that can’t really be described, but it’s wonderful.
“If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?” – Season 1 Episode 40
It’s hard to believe that a villain with as large a pop culture footprint as the Riddler could ever be neglected, but it’s true. In 1992, the Riddler’s stock wasn’t terribly high with comic book readers, appearing infrequently in the comics, but regularly on TV reruns of Batman ’66, with the legendary Frank Gorshin in the role.
But few knew Riddler’s origins, and they’re told succinctly in this episode, years before they got the big screen treatment in the unforgivably irritating Batman Forever. “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich” nods to Riddler’s first comic book appearance, adds some appropriately “modern” touches, and decks Ed Nygma out in a sharp, Gorshin-esque jacket, hat, and cane combo.
There are surprisingly few Riddler episodes of this show, so enjoy them where you can.
“Almost Got ‘Im” – Season 1 Episode 46
Batman: The Animated Series perfected the short form animated superhero story. Many episodes did more in 22 minutes and change than some superhero movies do in two plus hours. That’s why “Almost Got ‘Im” stands out as extra special.
In this unforgettable anthology episode, Poison Ivy, Penguin, Two-Face, Killer Croc, and Joker each tell an intense short tale of the time each came the closest to killing Batman. Each mini story is framed by a noir-soaked poker game as the episode combines powerful action, superheroics, classical crime fiction tropes, and humor to underscore the special bond between Batman and each of these villains. The episode is underscored by a last second reveal with Croc that is as hilarious as it is enduring. Plus, writer Paul Dini throws in a Catwoman denouement that makes this already perfect episode even more perfect.
“The Man Who Killed Batman” – Season 1 Episode 51
Another Dini/Timm episode, “The Man Who Killed Batman” is more about Gotham’s underworld than it is about Batman, one of a handful of episodes like it. They’re all really good.
Sid “The Squid” Debris is a nebbish, low level hood in Rupert Thorne’s organization. During his first heist in the field, he stumbles his way through a confrontation with Batman, and it looks (to him, to his coworkers, and to the rest of Gotham’s underworld) like Sid manages to kill the Bat. So then a whole bunch of people try and kill Sid. He’s not really a revelatory character in any way but that he provides us with an everyman view of Batman’s world, but it’s so well fleshed out that it still ends up being an engrossing half hour.
“Harley and Ivy” – Season 1 Episode 56
It’s like Thelma and Louise but with Bat villains. “Harley and Ivy” sees the first teaming of DCU BFFs Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy. It’s a rollicking, hilarious episode that introduces one of the most enduring friendships in modern comics. Since this episode, Gotham’s most poisonous lady and the clown princess of crime have been inseparable in the hearts and minds of fans. It was also one of the first episodes where Harley gets to shine outside of the shadow of the Joker.
Harley and Ivy team up to escape the pursuit of the GCPD, Batman, and the Joker. Each moment on the lam sees Harley and Ivy grow closer and now their bond is the stuff of legend. During the episode, Poison Ivy declares that, “No man can take us prisoner!” and this battle cry defined the unbreakable friendship between the pair. Those words proved prophetic, too, as its Renee Montoya who ends up bringing them in. Montoya doesn’t get much face time in B:TAS, and “Harley and Ivy” serves as her finest hour as well.
“Shadow of the Bat” – Season 1 Episode 57-58
Animated Batgirl is a badass. Barbara Gordon was actually first introduced in “Heart of Steel,” where she was super clever and dressed in Yvonne Craig’s Batman ‘66 color scheme. “Shadow of the Bat” is her proper introduction as Batgirl, when after her father is framed for taking bribes by Two Face and Otter from Animal House, she decides to pose as Batman at a rally to try and score her dad bail. The rally goes wrong and Barbara is forced to fight, and through the rest of the episode, she just can’t stop kicking ass.
It would be ridiculous but for another great feature of this series: the fights are decidedly low-fi, but well staged and meaningful. In the recent animated movies martial arts and speed and complicated fight choreography sometimes take precedence over using the fight to tell the story. In Batman: The Animated Series, everything happens at a pace your eyes can follow, rather than having Batman take out a room full of hoods with nothing but the power of his shaky-cam.
“His Silicon Soul” – Season 1 Episode 62
This is a follow up to “Heart of Steel.” The last Duplicant made by HARDAC was actually a copy of Bruce Wayne/Batman, and when that copy comes to life, it struggles to reconcile its two prime commands: to rebuild HARDAC using the Bat-computer, and to be as realistic a replacement for Batman as possible. This, of course, eventually causes the robot to shut down, but not before there’s some good fighting between him and fleshy Batman, and a discussion of the existential core of Bruce Wayne’s mission as Batman. In a lesser show, this would be one of the standout episodes. It’s not one of the best of this series only because there are so many other amazing ones.
“Showdown” – Season 2 Episode 13
First off, “Showdown” is written by master storyteller Joe R. Lansdale, the man who created Hap and Leonard, Bubba Ho-Tep, and authored award winning novels such as The Bottoms, Sunset and Sawdust, and The Drive-In. So go read yourself some Lansdale.
In “Showdown” Lansdale has the brass balls to craft an episode of B:TAS almost without Batman, instead taking place in the Old West and featuring the animated debut of one Jonah Hex! In this flashback episode, Hex runs head first into the legacy of Ra’s Al Ghul as Lansdale explores the deep and always fascinating history of the DCU. “Showdown” explores the history of the Demon’s Head and gives depth and meaning to the master villain’s legacy. “Showdown” is visually stunning and just so darn different that it stands out as a must-see episode. While Batman does appear in a framing sequence, “Showdown” is a pure weird Western tale that is as intense as it is unlikely.
“Harley’s Holiday” – Season 2 Episode 16
We didn’t even need to rewatch “Harley’s Holiday” to remember its best part, or what made it one of the most special episodes of the entire show. This episode was a testament to this team’s approach to Batman and his entire rogues gallery.
In some form or another, there was Dini/Timm Batman on television through the entire ‘90s and early aughts. It’s worth remembering that at the same time in the comics, the dominant paradigm in Batman comics was still largely influenced by Frank Miller’s take, that Batman was a damaged boy trying to compensate for the death of his parents by overcompensating and controlling everything around him. That idea was definitely still there for Dini and Timm’s team – see what happens to Batman when the Black Mercy goes around his chest in JLU’s “For the Man Who Has Everything” a decade later – but the dominant conception of Batman and Bruce Wayne in Batman: The Animated Series was full of compassion. Animated Batman is the kind of person who will fight through hordes of people and wreck his own car to keep someone who has tried to kill him multiple times from losing control of herself. He’s the kind of guy who will shake his villain’s hand when they’ve shown improvement, and who will bring her the dress she bought but lost to reassure her and tell her that it will get better.
Also, remember how we said the fights in this show were great because they weren’t always about ninja flipping around and kicking the hell out of each other? Well, in this episode, Robin uses fish as nunchaku. Sometimes they’re great for other reasons.
“Over the Edge” – Season 3 Episode 12
You should know within the first couple moments that “Over the Edge” is going to be a “cheating” episode. Having Commissioner Gordon hunt down Batman, call him Bruce Wayne, and blame him for the death of Batgirl isn’t going to stick unless this is the final episode and the writers are in a real Mighty Max kind of mood. No, there’s obviously more to the story.
This episode is sometimes described as a “what if,” and that muddies up the point of what it’s really about. This tense and brutal story isn’t about what would happen, but the out-of-character actions of people imagined by an unreliable and pessimistic writer. The idea that Batman would fight Bane to the death in light of Batgirl’s death or even that Gordon would leave Barbara’s casket at the funeral because he’s that thirsty for revenge are a little too extreme. And that’s the whole point.
Batman fighting Bane on a rooftop isn’t the big climax to the conflict. No, the actual climax is a post-dinner discussion between family members. Kind of a big contrast to such a crazy episode.
“Legends of the Dark Knight” – Season 3 Episode 19
Fitting that one of the final episodes of Batman: The Animated Series is a love letter to Batman comics history. This episode focuses on a group of kids – one of whom is clearly Carrie Kelly, the Robin from The Dark Knight Returns, and one of them is an uncomfortably sexually stereotyped Joel Shumacher – telling stories about what they know about Batman, before getting caught in the middle of a fight between Batman and Firefly. The stories they tell are homages to classic Batman eras: one, a tale of Batman and Robin taking on the Joker at a music museum in the style of Dick Sprang’s golden age art; and the other is pretty much The Dark Knight Returns up to the fight with the mutant leader in the mudpit.
The art is the real star in this episode. There’s a lot of care and love put into reproducing the rubberiness of Sprang’s golden age work (and Michael McKean’s Joker is great). Similarly, while they don’t get the scratchiness of Frank Miller and Klaus Janson’s art from DKR, they do get the hulking enormity of the characters, something reinforced by Michael Ironside using his best Darkseid voice to play Batman. If you’ve read any of these books, you will be hard pressed to find something not to like in this episode. Also, props to the cast and crew for crediting Bill Finger, Dick Sprang, and Frank Miller and making sure to leave Bob Kane off the list.
“Mad Love” – Season 3 Episode 21
“Mad Love” is where the Harley-ssance truly began. Originally, “Mad Love” was a 64 page graphic novel published in 1994 written by Paul Dini with art by Bruce Timm and Glen Murakami. It won the Eisner award for Best Single Issue and became one of the most beloved Batman stories of all time. In 1999, Dini and Timm, adapted the “Mad Love” comic into an episode of B:TAS with the same title. The result was ian instant classic.
Before “Mad Love,” Harley Quinn was a fun and beloved part of the animated DCU and other than a few shining moments in “Harley and Ivy” and “Harlequinade” to name a few, she was mostly just background color. “Mad Love” changed all that. In the comic and the animated episode, Dini and Timm present the tragic origin of Harleen Quinzel, brilliant psychologist whose life was changed forever when she met and fell in love with the charismatic Joker. “Mad Love” broke traditional animated storytelling ground by focusing on Joker and Harley’s abusive relationship and its sexual nature. “Mad Love” took Harley from a one note sidekick to one of the most tragic women in comics.