One of the things that made Batman: The Animated Series an unrivaled ’90s superhero cartoon was its ability to cater to both kids and adult fans at the same time. It was a show that went much deeper with its storytelling than some of its lighter counterparts. Sure, there were plenty of villain of the week stories, but they were usually presented in ways that shed light on different aspects of Batman’s psyche, his mission, and the world around him.
In order to take such deep dives into the world of Batman, such as in the episode “Robin’s Reckoning” in which the Boy Wonder tries to find and kill the man who murdered his family, the show’s writers had to sometimes wade through darker waters than other superhero cartoons. The result of this approach has of course turned Batman: The Animated Series into a timeless classic.
If you’ve not watched an episode since you were in grade school but still love Batman, go back and give the series a rewatch. You’ll be surprised by how layered the stories are and how dark the show can be. Throughout its run, the series tackled stories about death, greed, poverty, and even subjects as specific as child slavery and animal cruelty.
I had a chance to speak with writer and producer Alan Burnett at New York Comic Con about the show’s darker take on a superhero cartoon. According to Burnett, Fox gave the show’s creators and writers the space to tackle darker stories and that the network was open to a cartoon that would “push the envelope.”
Still, there were a few times when Fox felt Burnett and his colleagues had gone a little too far with their take on the Caped Crusader.
“The only show that we never could really produce was that script about the gun that killed [Bruce’s] parents,” revealed Burnett. “That was just a little bit too much.”
The unproduced script was a retelling of Batman’s origin story from a very unique perspective: that of the weapon that killed his parents.
“We had a script, which was called, I think, ‘The Gun Story.'” explained Burnett. “And it begins with the creation of the gun, and it follows the gun through several people who use it, and finally getting to the person who killed the Waynes. And then it ends up getting melted down.”
Burnett concludes that the subject matter was just too much for Fox. It’s not hard to see why the network would have been wary about inadvertently fetishizing the gun that had made a boy an orphan. But hearing Burnett describe “The Gun Story,” it sounds like this could have been one of the groundbreaking episodes of a series that spent so much time deconstructing Batman.
There’s a reason so many of today’s creators, including longtime Batman scribe Scott Snyder and writer/artist Sean Murphy, regard Batman: The Animated Series as the definitive take on the character: it examined the Caped Crusader from so many different and unique angles. Even the often maligned “I’ve Got Batman in My Basement,” an episode Burnett describes as one of the few regrets he has about working on the series, showed the hero through the eyes of the Gotham City kids who admired him the most — kids my age who fantasized about fighting crime with their idol.
Then there’s the show’s companion theatrical release, Mask of the Phantasm, which shows Bruce’s struggle to compensate the life he’s never been able to enjoy with his war on crime. Mask of the Phantasm is often hailed as the greatest Batman movie ever made.
Burnett also described one episode that the show was able to get through Fox despite its subject matter. “Perchance to Dream,” a story we included on our list of the series’ essential episodes, needed some extra attention in order to go into production. In the episode, Mad Hatter traps Bruce in a dream where his parents are still alive, he’s engaged to Selina Kyle, and he was never Batman. Worst of all, someone else is running around as the Caped Crusader in his stead, despite the fact that Bruce remembers his time wearing the cowl.
Here’s the part that raised some eyebrows: in order to escape this dream, Bruce decides to jump from a belltower to his “death,” which he hopes will wake him up.
“Of all the things [Fox] would frown on, it’s suicide solving a problem,” Burnett said. “So I actually called them up and I said, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’ and they said, ‘Well, just be careful.’ And we were okay through the script and when we got to storyboard, it was a little bit too strong. And [Fox] went through with us on the storyboards to make it more abstract so that kids wouldn’t quite know what was going on, but the older viewers did. And it worked out fine.”
“The Gun Story” wasn’t the first episode to be deemed too taboo for Fox. In a 2015 interview to promote the decidedly darker Justice League: Gods and Monsters animated movie in which Batman is actually a vampire who feeds on his rogues gallery, Batman: The Animated Series co-creater Bruce Timm told me that he’d planned to turn the Dark Knight into a creature of the night while working on the show.
“One episode of Batman: The Animated Series, back in the day twenty years ago, we actually wanted to turn Batman temporarily into a vampire but [Fox Kids] wasn’t having any of that,” Timm explained.
Timm said he was inspired by a quote from Batman creator Bob Kane, who said that the Dark Knight was half Dracula and half Zorro, and that that was part of the appeal of the character.
“He’s dark and spooky-looking and he’s got that badass costume and the bat imagery. So I always wanted to go all the way with it and actually make him a vampire,” said Timm. “We never went as far as a design for him. But there was a character in the comics named Nocturna who is not really a vampire but she was vampiric. So I did do a design of her, but that was as far as we got. We had the idea, but Fox Kids said, ‘No way, don’t go there.'”
In the story, Nocturna, who was created by Doug Moench and Gene Colan as a burglar who is extremely sensitive to light, would have been reimagined as a vampire who would have bitten Batman and turned him into a bloodsucker.
“Bruce had drawn a hot model of her – but she’s a vampire, which would’ve involved bloodletting, which was a huge no-no for kids TV,” Burnett told The World’s Finest. Interestingly enough, Burnett mentioned an episode called “Silent Knight” in that interview as well, which would have been “a story without dialogue.”
Burnett also told The World’s Finest of another, much more questionable idea he had for the show: “I would have liked to have gotten more into Batman’s sex life, but of course that was impossible.”
In this case, perhaps it was for the best.
Whether they were good ideas or not, whether they pushed the envelope a bit too much, these episodes of Batman: The Animated Series demonstrate just how willing the show’s writers were to dive into unexplored territory (at least for a “kid’s show” – a term that almost shouldn’t apply to this series) in order to say something new about the character. At the very least, “The Gun Story” sounds like an episode us ’90s kids would have remembered as adults.