On Jan. 1, 2021, every episode of the acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series arrived to HBO Max, ported over from the 25th anniversary remastered Blu-ray release of the entire series and two feature films. And that means that there’s no better time than now to look back through the seminal 1992 cartoon show and pick out the episodes that were the best at being Batman.
There’s an entire generation of adults now who were first introduced to Gotham City through the work of Bruce Timm, Eric Radomski and Paul Dini — and from there, to the wider world of DC Comics in animation, with Superman: The Animated Adventures, Justice League and Justice League Unlimited (not to mention Static Shock and Batman Beyond). It’s obvious why DC decided to recently revive the series in comic form.
But Batman: The Animated Series had even more going for it than a slew of great writers, designers and animators. It had producers who fought for permission to allow its crooks to use real guns, not the improbable laser weapons of its contemporary action cartoons. It had a bonafide, groundbreaking film composer, equipped with a full orchestra, to craft its music. Legendary casting director Andrea Romano picked actors whose voices now inhabit the heads of millions of people, even when they’re reading Batman stories on the page.
So for the show that defined Batman for a generation, let’s look at the best of it. Here are picks from Ben Kuchera, Jenna Stoeber, and Polygon’s resident Batman expert, me.
“Beware the Grey Ghost”
Kevin Conroy is one of the few bat-actors who pulls off an amazing Bruce Wayne and an amazing Batman, and my favorite episodes were always the ones where we see Batman’s humanity. Not Bruce Wayne’s, but Batman’s. Listening to Conroy do the Batman voice while expressing thankfulness and sincerity is a joy, and Adam West playing a serial hero who inspired the “real-life” Batman was an inspired turn that could have been mawkish, but wasn’t. Batman is meant to be a force of nature who seems unstoppable, so the times in the show he expressed genuine anger or heart felt special to me. This is one of the best ones. — Ben Kuchera
“Almost Got ‘Im”
Ask any five people to list the best episodes of Batman: The Animated Series and at some point they’ll name “Almost Got ‘Im,” but just because it’s an expected answer doesn’t mean it’s not a correct one.
This is the episode where Poison Ivy, Two-Face, Killer Croc, Penguin and the Joker sit around, play poker, and talk about the time they very nearly almost finally killed Batman — seriously. It’s a rare anthology episode that doesn’t rest entirely on its own conceit, delivering a secret identity reveal that flows into a tense in-the-present-day climax and caps the whole show off with a perfect romantic twist on the theme. —Susana Polo
“Robin’s Reckoning,” parts 1 and 2
Even before the show upgraded him to Nightwing, Batman: The Animated Series depicted Batman and Robin in the twilight of their partnership, but in “Robin’s Reckoning,” the creative team shows us its dawn. The two-part episode covering Robin’s origin story, Dick Grayson’s quest to avenge his parents’ deaths and Batman’s attempt to keep his adopted son from doing something he’ll forever regret won the series its first primetime Emmy Award.
Also, who can resist one of the earliest examples of Western animation referencing the motorcycle slide from Akira? —SP
Horror is at the core of a lot of the animated series, but none struck so close to home as “Baby-Doll.” For an eight-year-old, an episode about a girl who never got to grow up was nothing short of pure nightmare fuel. The last shot of Mary Dahl standing before the funhouse mirror, looking at the adult version of herself that can never be, lingers in ways few other minor-villain stories manage. — Jenna Stoeber
Every episode of Batman: The Animated Series that focuses on Harley Quinn is a great episode of Batman: The Animated Series, bar none.
The fun of “Harley’s Holiday” is largely in the form of her accidental rampage of (mostly) good intentions and her budding friendship with Veronica Vreeland, the socialite that she accidentally kidnapped. But the episode is also about how Batman genuinely cares about his rogues and their rehabilitation — no matter how many mistakes they make on the road to putting their lives back together. —SP
“Over the Edge”
While The New Batman Adventures is, by any proper metric, simply a continuation of Batman: The Animated Series, the show did have some changes. There was the art revamp, most obviously, but Adventures also introduced a new Robin and gave Batman’s family of crimefighters a greater share of screen time — including Batgirl.
“Over the Edge” is a harrowing vision of Barbara Gordon’s deepest fear: that she’ll die on the job without ever telling her father that she’s Batgirl. Step by awful step, we see how easy it would be for the Bat-family to be destroyed by their greatest ally, and we come away with a new appreciation for the relationship between Batman, Batgirl and Commissioner Gordon. —SP
“Legends of the Dark Knight”
Lest you think “Almost Got ‘Im” is the only anthology episode in the series, meet “Legends of the Dark Knight,” the one where a trio of Gotham teens tells each other what they’ve heard about what Batman’s really like. “Legends” might not have the charming twists of its predecessor, but it makes up for that in paying homage to two of the great eras of Batman storytelling that have come before it.
Gary Owens, voice of Space Ghost, takes the role of Batman in a pastiche of Dick Sprang’s work in the Golden Age of Comics. Minutes, later the show shifts at least two complete gears into a direct adaptation of a scene from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns — complete with Michael Ironside’s Batman growling, “This isn’t a junk heap ... it’s an operating table, and I’m the surgeon,” as he breaks the Mutant Leader’s knee. —SP
“Girl’s Night Out”
Imagine: Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy and Livewire against Batgirl and Supergirl. A slapstick comedy-of-errors team-up, this episode delivers on its premise and then some. Barbara and Kara’s friendship is one of the great world-building subplots that bridges the Batman and Superman animated series, and it’s a joy to see all these powerful divas duke it out. — JS
Famously, Harley Quinn was created as a throwaway character for a first-season episode of Batman: The Animated Series, but the folks behind the show liked the idea of the Joker having a ditzy girlfriend so much that they kept her. About a year after her first appearance, Dini and Timm won an Eisner Award for their one-shot comic story The Batman Adventures: Mad Love, which explored the tragedy of her origin story for the first time.
The rest, including the “Mad Love” episode of The New Batman Adventures; Harley’s 1999 debut in DC Comics canon; Margot Robbie’s turn as the character in Suicide Squad; and a hundred million cosplayers, is history. —SP
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