Batman: The Animated Series did so many things so well that when they’re all on display at the same time, the results are some of the best pieces of superhero media ever produced: the slick “Dark Deco” designs that make it feel timeless, the moody atmosphere of action set against backgrounds that were painted on black paper, the nuanced and often sympathetic portrayals of the villains.
Those were the elements that defined B:TAS, and when you watch an episode like “Joker’s Favor,” “Almost Got ‘Im,” or “Heart of Ice,” it’s easy to see why they tend to be permanently installed at the top of so many lists of the show’s best episodes.
But there’s something else that Batman did that’s often overlooked in favor of memorable set pieces and harrowing arch-villains, something that often played out in those underrated episodes, stories that drifted away from Arkham Asylum’s cast of criminals. By occasionally shifting the focus to the regular people of Gotham City, The Animated Series created an entire world that was built for superheroes.
Long before Superman: The Animated Series or Justice League, before there was even the idea of an entire DC Animated Universe, B:TAS told stories that showed that heroes and villains didn’t exist in isolation, battling it out against the backdrop of a “realistic” world of toned-down consequences. Instead, it explored the logical consequences of what it meant to live in a world that was built on the foundation of Batman. And in the process, it paved the way for everything that would come after.
The easiest example of this comes in episode 55: “The Mechanic.” There’s a pithy Grant Morrison quote about how adult fans get caught up on details that ultimately don’t matter, summed up in one single sentence: Nobody puts air in the Batmobile’s tires. All we really need to know about the Batmobile — or Batman’s utility belt, or any other contrivance that helps to drive the plot — is that it’s there when Batman needs to get from one part of the story to the next. Any other details are just set dressing, and if you make them the focus of the story, it’s easy to get bogged down in minutiae and never actually get to the fun stuff.
B:TAS, on the other hand, literally addressed the question of who puts air in the Batmobile’s tires, and actually made it work.
It’s not really surprising that it would. The idea of Batman having an extended support network of people who owe him their lives is one that’s lifted from the Shadow, the pulp character that was a heavy inspiration (to put it kindly) on Batman’s earliest adventures — a fact that was obliquely referenced in Batman: The Animated Series itself. It’s one that fits well with the pulpy Batman of B:TAS, and it works well largely because the question of who builds the Batmobile leads quickly to an adventure that involves an ally being put in danger, one that gets beyond the core cast of Alfred or Commissioner Gordon.
It’s one of those rare stories where a question for which nobody really needed an answer actually ends up adding a cool new detail to the world, and it gives us something that we can easily expand to answer other questions, too. If Batman saved Earl Cooper and got an ally who was willing to spend his life making high-tech rocket cars without asking too many questions about where the money was coming from, then it’s pretty easy to apply that same logic to everything else that he keeps in the Batcave, too.
Of course, it also works because the Batmobile is one of the few bits of superhero paraphernalia that’s iconic enough to support an origin story — it’s probably worth noting that in show’s downright perfect opening title sequence, we see that thing from two different angles before we ever get a glimpse of Batman himself. A story about a tailor who supplied Batman with utility belts or a boomerang artisan probably wouldn’t have had the same appeal.
As for Earl himself, he only made one appearance on the show, and — like Red Claw and Baby Doll — he’s one of the Animated Series characters who never managed to follow Renee Montoya and Harley Quinn into the comics. Still, I like to think that once the Justice League formed and they needed someone to build a satellite headquarters, he was the one who got the call.
It doesn’t take quite the same tactic, but “The Forgotten” is another episode that deals with the idea of Batman interacting with average citizens, without ever getting within spitting distance of a supervillain.
I understand that it’s not one of the show’s more fondly remembered episodes, even by its creators, but I love it. Sure, it definitely deviates from the established format of the show, with an adventure that’s far removed from Gotham City, and Batman might actually spend more time out of costume in this single episode than he does in the rest of the series, combined. And of course, there’s Boss Biggis, a villain defined by being a fat dude named “Biggis” who is constantly eating fried chicken and sweating through his linen suit. That part’s not so great.
At the same time, it’s an episode that directly addresses one of the major criticisms of Batman as a character: that he’s quite literally a rich man who spends all of his time beating up the mentally ill. It’s a shallow reading, but the idea that Batman is protecting people is easy to lose in the sound and fury of an over-the-top action-adventure story. To put it bluntly, it’s kind of hard to seem like a champion of the common people when you’re a millionaire who drives around in a rocket car.
Here, though, we have Batman going undercover to investigate missing homeless people, and winding up trapped alongside them, suffering from amnesia in a forced labor camp. I’ll admit that the amnesia might be a little hacky, but the scene where “Gaff” finds himself locked in a sweatbox and finally gets his memory back, when Kevin Conroy turns his Batman voice back on and kicks his way through a steel wall? That is awesome, and no amount of Cool Hand Luke comparisons can make me think otherwise.
Even the fact that Biggis, for all his considerable flaws, isn’t one of Batman’s regular villains helps to underscore the themes. When it’s the Joker out there poisoning the water supply, there’s this idea that Batman has to be the one to fight him because it’s his villain. Biggis, on the other hand, is just some dude. There’s no personal investment for Batman — the story doesn’t even take place in Gotham City. The only reason for Batman’s involvement is compassion, leading him to take down a villain without any of the equipment that he can afford with Bruce Wayne’s fortune, fighting on behalf of the most overlooked and vulnerable members of society.
Speaking of the Joker, the single best example of the how the superheroics of the Animated Universe interact with its more mundane components comes from “Joker’s Wild,” another highly underrated episode.
On paper, calling it “underrated” might seem like a stretch. It is, after all, a story with Batman’s most famous arch-nemesis, written by Paul Dini, the story editor responsible for some of the show’s best episodes. And yet, it’s never really mentioned in the same breath as stories like “The Laughing Fish” or “Harlequinade,” both of which are justifiably regarded as some of the show’s best.
I suspect that has something to do with the fact that the Joker’s not actually the villain of the piece. That honor goes to real estate magnate Cameron Kaiser, who opens up a Joker-themed casino and claims that any resemblance to any actual murder clowns is completely coincidental. The Joker, of course, is so enraged that he decides to break out of Arkham Asylum and blow the whole place up — which turns out to be Kaiser’s master plan all along.
That’s what I love about it: at heart, this is a story for children where the plot revolves entirely around insurance fraud. It’s a superhero version of insurance fraud, that still involves Batman fighting the Joker on a giant roulette wheel — but it’s still about a guy trying to cash in on a real estate scam. It’s a brilliant exploration of how the things that define “crime” in Batman’s world can get mashed up with the kind of corporate crime that we see here in the real world. That’s a genuinely brilliant premise, even before you get to the part where the Joker takes a job as a blackjack dealer and recognizes Bruce Wayne, but only from reading about him in the papers.
That’s the kind of approach that Batman: The Animated Series excelled at, but even by the show’s final season as the redesigned New Batman Adventures, the DC Animated Universe was moving away from those smaller stories. The closest you got in that show was “Legends of the Dark Knight,” where a bunch of kids share their ideas of what Batman’s really like. Even then, however, the emphasis wasn’t on the kids as much as it was on seeing the different art styles on display — especially getting an animated version of a scene from The Dark Knight Returns in the years before DC and Warner Bros. actually did a full version of it.
By the time Superman and Justice League rolled around, there just wasn’t room for that kind of story. That’s not a knock on those shows, either, it’s just a function of the way that the DCAU progressed from its focus on a single character to an all-encompassing universe. There’s a long way from punching out Boss Biggis to fighting Darkseid for the fate of the universe, you know?
But it’s also important to note that Superman and Justice League — and even The New Batman Adventures — didn’t have to do those kind of stories, because B:TAS had already done it. It’s easy to argue that of everything that came after, Batman Beyond was the one project that did, but the high school setting and Spider-Man style approach to teenage superheroics gave episodes like “Terry’s Friend Dates A Robot” a completely different feel than what they were building on from B:TAS. The foundation was already there, ready for stories that could form a cohesive whole — because we’d already seen a world where superheroes and the regular people around them were inextricably linked.
Chris Sims is the former senior writer of the Eisner Award-Winning ComicsAlliance. He has written comics for Marvel Comics, Dynamite Entertainment, and Oni Press.