The Enduring Appeal of Batman: The Animated Series

Paul Dini tells us what makes a great Batman story, his favorite Batman: The Animated Series episodes, and reveals one we never got to see.

Few people know Batman as well as Paul Dini, one of the architects of Batman: The Animated Series. And few incarnations of the Dark Knight are as beloved as that show, which over the course of its run defined the character for a generation, offering a perfect distillation of decades of Batman mythology. Any inventory of the greatest Batman stories ever told will likely include at least one episode of Batman: The Animated Series, if not more.

We were lucky enough to sit down with Paul Dini who still has plenty to say about the Dark Knight and his world.

Den of Geek: Why do you think that Batman: The Animated Series has endured the way it has?

Paul Dini: I think Batman: The Animated Series was unique in rhe fact that we, as creators, were given the rather rare opportunity to create the show as we wanted to see it done. We were told, “Make a show that you would want to watch yourself.” So, we did.

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The artists brought their A game and really rethought Batman’s world. And the writers, we reached inside ourselves to say, “Where can we bring out the humanity of Batman? Where can we make him dark? Where can we make him fun? How can we show Batman in a way that’s as vibrant as some of the better elements of the comic books at that time? He’s not just a cardboard character to us, he’s just not a cartoon superhero. Let’s make him a real character. And let’s make his villains as varied and as different as they can be.”

There is a certain sentiment among groups of fans that this is still the definitive take on Batman and his world.

Well, that’s very generous of them. That’s very kind. I mean, when you consider that there have been other versions of Batman [in] movies or TV shows. I would agree that Batman: The Animated Series rises to the top among the very best of those. If you’re studying the high water mark for some of the Christopher Nolan movies and some of the other interpretations of Batman I’d say The Animated Series is right up in the top. It’s certainly like when you look at Frank Miller, Neal Adams, The Animated Series, in our immediate league, we do ourselves pretty proud.

Are there particular episodes that you are especially proud of?

Well, I love the whole movie Mask of the Phantasm. I think that is probably one of the best Batman/Bruce Wayne stories ever. When Alan Burnett came up with a story like that, he made it dark and moving and it was a story very much about both Bruce and about Batman. And I think that’s always a big success. You never really want to relegate him to where he’s just a traffic cop sorting out the villains and things like that.

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As far as the series episodes go, “I Am the Night” was really good, “Heart of Ice,” “Almost Got Him.” There are a bunch of favorites that I have that I look at and I could watch again and again.

Do you feel there’s one particular piece of that that you would consider to be your legacy with Batman, or any of his supporting cast?

Probably “Heart of Ice.” I love Joker, I love Harley, I love writing them. They’re almost second nature to me. So a character like Mr. Freeze, personally, is a bit of a challenge because where else can you go with him? How deep can you get into the character? How can you craft a world around a character that hasn’t had much before?

I also like the relationship between Alfred and Batman. To me, that was doing some humor that seemed, yet, very true to the character. And I just felt that it was really saying Michael Ansara’s voices, Mark Hamill as Ferris Boyle, Kevin [Conroy], of course, as Batman. It was just a great one. I really enjoyed that one.

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Are there any stories that you wanted to adapt or wanted to play with in your time that you never got a chance to?

There were probably a few. There were stories I read as a kid, or as a fan later in reprints, that I thought were really good, that moved me in certain ways. And I would’ve loved to have played with some of those elements.

There was a Batman story that I really liked from way back in the forties about three brothers who each get a bulletproof vest, and how they’re gonna be The Bulletproof Gang. And how the bulletproof vest is responsible for each of their deaths. I thought, “That’s kind of a cool moralistic tale.” Batman’s in on it, and then it’s about how The Bulletproof Gang ultimately died because of the thing that was going to save them. And I thought, “God.”  

I like stories that have those weird little twists like that and have a very human angle to them. But when you’re doing a story about guys, gunfighters, you know gangsters with guns and robbing people, killing people and there’s just really no way to do that, even within the Batman animated world and make it palatable.

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But that concept sounds like it would’ve been right at home in that first season of Batman: The Animated Series!

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Yeah, we did episodes like that. Like “It’s Never Too Late” and “Crime Alley” and things that were more real world than the supervillains. It was that sort of thing that I liked a lot. That also tested Batman’s character a little bit, to put him against more actual criminals than the funny suit guys.

Are there unused Batman: The Animated Series scripts sitting in a drawer somewhere?

There’s at least one. It was written by Tom Ruegger, who was the executive producer on Batman, but he was also the creative head of Warner Brothers Animation at the time. He was also producer and one of the key creators of Animaniacs and Tiny Toon Adventures. And early on at Batman, he wrote a script called “The One And Only Gun Story” and it was about a gun that made its way around Gotham City and who owned it at different points. And it’s the gun that kills the Waynes, among other things. It’s about the pattern of what happens with that gun. It was a very good script, but a very strong and dark story, so that’s why ultimately it was never done. But it may surface someday.

It seems like that would be pretty timely right now.

Yeah.

And with digital distribution and things like the DC Universe streaming service, it seems like there would be opportunities to play with some of these concepts that might have been too out-there before.

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Yeah, well I think context is everything. And especially in a story like that. If you’re going to do a special episode that made a point like that, that would be a very good one to do if you were going to animate it and throw it into the mix. 

What do you think makes a truly great Batman story?

I think adherence to tone. It’s a very unusual animal, a good Batman story, and that is something that has elements of the fantastic, that does not laugh at the concept of a guy in the scary suit going out and scaring criminals and yet also allows for a good police story and it allows for a good villain story and a bit of heart and some humor. So, if you get that tone right, then I think you’re gonna get a good story. Once the audience believes in what you’re doing, they’ll follow you anywhere. If you’re doing it and you’re playing it too campy, like the ’60s shows would tend to do, or the villain isn’t believable or Bruce Wayne is too much of a klutz or something, you’re violating something that has a spiderweb delicacy. But if it all hangs together then you’ve always got a good story.

Batman: The Animated Series gets a deluxe Blu-ray release this October. You can pre-order it here. It will also be available, remastered in HD, on the DC Universe streaming service launching this fall.