The year is 2005 and the cinema-loving world is lapping up one of the year’s greatest big screen blockbusters. Christopher Nolan’s re-imagining of Gotham City and its most famous son is rightly considered a modern classic by some as praise a-plenty is heaped upon it. Many claim the film to be the best, most effective screen interpretation of the DC Comics figurehead to date and that it perfectly captures the spirit of the graphic novels that inspired it – namely Batman: Year One and Batman: The Long Halloween.
While I’m certainly not going to deny any of the above – Batman Begins was my favourite film of 2005 and remains one of the decade’s finest efforts for my money – I do take issue with the notion that Batman Begins is the greatest screen interpretation of the darker side of the world’s greatest detective. For me, that honour has to go to a television series that aired over ten years before Nolan’s effort and ran for over 80 episodes. It was also a series that cemented the notion that cartoons aren’t just for kids.
Batman: The Animated Series was, and remains, an exemplary body of work. Running for three years between 1992 and 1995, the series was clearly inspired by a variety of previous incarnations of the Bat, including Frank Miller’s work and even Tim Burton’s 1989 movie. Indeed, it was surely the rampant success of Batman which paved the way for an animated series in the first place. Burton’s Batman was a dark, brooding film that gave audiences unfamiliar with the folklore an insight into the tortured soul of Bruce Wayne and the grime and grit of Gotham City. What Burton started, Batman: TAS continued to great effect.
The highly stylised animation of the show marked it out as different from anything else on television at that time for children. It seemed to be set in an America from the 30s and 40s, art deco designs and film noir very much the order of the day.
Buildings adopted long, sweeping curves juxtaposed with strong lines and square shapes. Cars harked back to the beauty of the art deco period with stylish and streamlined vehicles, none more so than the Batmobile itself which remains the finest interpretation of it yet. The ferocity and power under the hood is obvious and yet it manages to retain a beauty that no other version has matched. It even outdid Burton’s effort, on which it was so clearly based.
Aside from the strong, memorable animation itself the show delivered a maturity that was unexpected given its morning airtime. Dealing with the drama and psychology of the characters as much as the action, it delved into the ethos of the Batman universe more than any other screen adaptation. This is partly because of the long runtime of the series, giving it the opportunity to cover all of Batman’s major and more peripheral villains.
From the Joker to the Clock King, they were all covered, and brilliantly so. Take an episode like the memorising, award-winning Heart Of Ice. In no other cartoon show would you have witnessed such a grown-up and touching portrayal of a villain. Typically, action cartoons were all about the hero finding themselves taking on someone in a variety of situations but always winning out. What was wonderful here was that the action was almost secondary to the heartfelt story of how Mr Freeze came to be and how he was driven by his love for his dying wife. Watching this again makes Arnie’s cinematic interpretation of the character all the more ridiculous and it demonstrates how the show’s writers had a real respect for the intelligence of the young viewers watching the show. They knew that children could handle complicated, thoughtful stories and that there would be a desire for more if given the chance.
When it came to the action, though, the show didn’t hold back. This was a series that featured guns, bombs and frights by the bucketloads. Commissioner Gordon is even shot in one of the episodes and appearances from the likes of Scarecrow and Clayface meant that younger viewers with a penchant for the more dramatic, scarier storyline wouldn’t be disappointed. There were no laser guns or fantastical swords fights here. This was a universe similar to that portrayed by the likes of Scorsese and Ford Coppola.
The show could have been very different. The audio commentary on the DVD boxset for the very first episode – the ambitious On Leather Wings – suggests that studio Warner Bros was a little unsure about the show’s all-too-dark direction at first, but the success of Burton’s film helped pave the way for the series’ look. The rest is history.
During the course of the series, Batman was joined by the Boy Wonder – introduced properly with the two-parter Robin’s Reckoning – and was helped in his crime-fighting duties too by Commissioner Gordon, John Prescott-alike Harvey Bullock and Officer Montoya, created specifically for the series. All were strong characters and all lent much believability to the Batman universe.
This was aided further by the, frankly, outstanding voice talent. Kevin Conroy is the voice of Batman for me, so much so that I was delighted that the developers of Arkham Asylum managed to nab him for vocal duties for the game. Mark Hamill famously voiced the Joker, but he was ably supported by the rest of the cast, meaning he, by no means, stole the show.
Best of all, Adam West, himself, turned up to voice fictional hero the Gray Ghost in the episode of the same name.
The cast’s commitment to the cause means that the show’s cinematic leanings were further enhanced (Danny Elfman’s title sequence – later developed further by Shirley Walker – doesn’t hurt, either) and what we were left with is one of the best, if not the very best, superhero animated series ever made.