BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES – Top 10 Episodes

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Reviewing Batman: The Killing Joke prompted a little nostalgic look back at where I fell in love with Warner Bros. Animation and its take on the Dark Knight – Batman: The Animated Series. I watched some of my favorite episodes again, and the magic is still there. For people my age, this will forever be the definitive version of Batman.

Originally premiering in 1992, Batman: The Animated Series broke the mold on supposed “children’s programming.” Supervising Producer and series stylist Bruce Timm and his crew created a show that was more layered than anything seen before then. They were bolstered by the unbelievable success of Tim Burton’s first Batman film three years earlier, and sought to elevate the material to a more mature place, just as Burton had done.

The art is gorgeous – from the animation to the backgrounds. It has a timelessness that never goes out of style. There’s a blend of the old world in the streamlined art deco design and black-and-white televisions, and the new world with supercomputers and awesome vehicles. Even the episode title cards were absolutely beautiful; a prime example of minimalist design, yet it brilliantly conveys the story to follow.

The voice acting is so good. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill were perfect as the voices Batman and the Joker, respectively. They are still, in my mind, the quintessential interpretations of these characters.

The stories told were powerful. Bruce Timm said that his approach was to treat these 22-minute stories like mini-movies, with quality storytelling and clear character motivations. Episodes touch on heavy themes of good and evil, fighting the good fight, revenge, grief and guilt in a way that is understandable to children, but still very engaging for adults. In fact, the series was so good that it was actually presented in primetime in addition to its weekday afternoon time slot!

My re-viewing of some episodes made me really think about making a top 10 list. However, this task was very difficult, as there is something in virtually every episode I enjoy. But after some thinking, I believe I’ve narrowed it down.

enhanced-buzz-22852-1359137563-710. “It’s Never Too Late”
Written by Garin Wolf
Based on a story by Tom Ruegger
Directed by Boyd Kirkland

When I first saw this episode as a kid, I thought it was the most boring of them all. There was no flashy villain from Batman’s infamous rogues’ gallery to threaten the Caped Crusader. As I grew older however, I realized how powerful of an episode this was. Not every show needs a super-villain to be interesting, and smaller stories can be just as powerful as large ones, if they are done right.

The story was simple, and centered on a war between two aging mob bosses, and Batman’s efforts to stop the violence. Batman was simply a catalyst for the drama, and the story slowly focused on one of the mob bosses and the psychological demons that haunted him. The characters were so well realized. The themes covered surprisingly mature subjects like aging, forgiveness and guilt. As the title suggests, it’s never too late to forgive and start down a better path in life.

enhanced-buzz-28361-1359137350-39. “Bane”
Written by Mitch Brian
Directed by Kevin Altieri

I first encountered the villain Bane in the Knightfall comic book storyline, in which he literally broke Batman. I found him fascinating in that he was as intelligent as he was brutish. In this Animated Series episode, similar to the comic, Bane comes to Gotham to take on Batman using both his intense study of the Dark Knight and his physical enhancements courtesy of the chemical known as Venom.

Bane is wonderfully realized, topped off with a fantastic vocal performance by Henry Silva. But what makes this episode stand out the most is the animation. The sequences where Bane juices himself up on Venom are some of the best-animated scenes I’ve seen on television. The muscles bulge with grotesque intensity. The best of these sequences comes at the end, when Batman damages Bane’s connection to his precious Venom. The regulator goes haywire and Bane is trapped in a horrific overdose that can be hard to watch. It’s a satisfying sequence, seeing a villain so haughty and self-assured brought down by the very thing he depends upon to aid him.

enhanced-buzz-14655-1359137307-218. “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?”
Written by David Wise
Directed by Eric Radomski

One of the core strengths of Batman: The Animated Series was that it took characters from Batman’s rogues’ gallery that I once dismissed in the past as corny or gimmicky and gave them new life and new layers. A fine example is the Riddler – an annoying trickster in other incarnations like the 1960s Batman television series – but now a formidable foe, maybe even a bit scary. John Glover gives the Riddler a wonderful pomposity, like a narcissistic Shakespearean actor psychotically obsessed with puzzles and riddles.

This episode is the origin story of the Riddler – a brilliant but arrogant computer game programmer named Edward Nygma. The Riddler desires revenge against his former boss for firing Nygma and taking the credit for a video game Nygma created. It’s an interesting twist because Batman and Robin actually sympathize with Nygma. But even the slimiest among us warrant mercy and grace. The end of the episode is one of the most satisfying, with the boss scared sleepless by the notion that his tormentor is still out there. The staging of the scene is as unsettling as any tense Hitchcock moment.

enhanced-buzz-19176-1359137734-17. “Read My Lips”
Written by Joe Lansdale
Based on a story by Alan Burnett and Michael Reaves
Directed by Boyd Kirkland

The more serious tone of The Animated Series enabled its creators to explore more mature issues with Batman’s villains. The series really delves deep into just how mentally unstable and clinically insane most of these characters actually are. Case in point is the villain of this episode, or should I say villains. Batman faces a foe that doesn’t realize he is one.

The villain is Scarface – a murderous ventriloquist dummy as mob boss manipulated by the meek and mild Arnold Wesker. Batman exhibits a great deal of sympathy toward Wesker, and deservedly so. Wesker is a prisoner of his own twisted mind. The final sequence is really heartbreaking, with Wesker screaming in agony as Scarface is accidentally shot to pieces. What is also exceptional here is the voice work of Scarface, done expertly by character actor George Dzundza. He voices both Scarface and Wesker, which is astonishing. They’re very distinct voices.

enhanced-buzz-22502-1359137372-116. “Deep Freeze”
Written by Paul Dini
Based on a story by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm
Directed by Kevin Altieri

I enjoy this episode on many different levels. It continues Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s brilliant reinvention of Mr. Freeze – a gimmicky villain who now had a clear motivation and an unbelievable amount of pathos. We honestly feel for Freeze, and his plight to heal his wife.

This episode also goes into meta territory with its clever riff on Walt Disney. The story involves Grant Walker – a theme-park-building billionaire looking to use Mr. Freeze as a means to freeze himself and live forever so he can keep building his utopian city of tomorrow. This is a play on the project Disney was working on at the end of his life – EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) – as well as all the rumors of his body being cryogenically frozen after his death.

enhanced-buzz-27733-1359137330-35. “The Mechanic”
Written by Randy Rogel
Based on a story by Steve Perry and Lauren Bright
Directed by Kevin Altieri

This episode answered one of the questions I always had about Batman when I was a kid: where does he go when the Batmobile needs a tune-up? Earl Cooper is Batman’s personal mechanic, and not only designed the Batmobile, but keeps it in tip-top shape. In the story, Cooper is threatened by the Penguin, and his loyalty to Batman is put to the test.

Another reason I love this episode is its attention to the Batmobile itself. Drawing heavily from the Batmobile from Batman (1989), The Animated Series is my favorite incarnation of this iconic car (the Tumbler from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. Its sleek design is both futuristic and retro, blending in with the aesthetic of the series itself.

enhanced-buzz-19224-1359137808-34. “Heart of Ice”
Written by Paul Dini
Directed by Bruce Timm

In this, his first appearance in The Animated Series, a freak accident transformed Dr. Victor Fries into a frozen, emotionless monster. Now Batman must stop him before he enacts his plan of revenge on a corrupt businessman Freeze holds responsible for the supposed death of his wife.

This episode made Mr. Freeze one of my favorite Batman villains. He never appealed to me in any other form, especially the horrible 1960s TV series. Paul Dini and Bruce Timm gave him a thoughtful backstory, and elevated him to being a more complex and tragic character. Freeze was now a grieving husband, masking his pain in a (sometimes literal) wall of ice. Michael Ansara delivers a great performance as Freeze, conveying his almost robotic demeanor and buried emotion.

enhanced-buzz-14510-1359137643-73. “Two-Face”
Written by Randy Rogel
Based on a story by Alan Burnett
Directed by Kevin Altieri

The Animated Series gave more dramatic life to some of Batman’s more notorious enemies. This is no more true than for Two-Face. In some ways, this tale of Harvey Dent’s descent into madness is the darkest episode of the series (technically two episodes, but one story).

Richard Moll is so good here as the voice of Harvey Dent / Two-Face. While most TV fans know him as Bull Shannon from the sitcom Night Court, Moll delivers such a dramatic performance. His distinct voices are excellent. It’s almost scary at times, as in the intense scene with the psychiatrist. But where this story gets most of its dramatic weight is from the relationship between Harvey Dent and Bruce Wayne. Despite his transformation into a monster, Bruce still hasn’t given up on his good friend, and tries very hard to redeem Harvey.

enhanced-buzz-28429-1359137566-142. “Beware the Gray Ghost”
Written by Garin Wolf and Tom Ruegger
Based on a story by Dennis O’Flaherty and Tom Ruegger
Directed by Boyd Kirkland

This is one of the most meta episodes of The Animated Series. Batman helps his childhood TV hero stop a madman whose crimes duplicate an episode of that show. What makes this such a charming story is that the voice of Simon Trent / the Gray Ghost is none other than Adam West – the actor who portrayed Batman in the 1960s TV series.

The show’s core theme is about the impact of entertainment on our lives, even something as trivial as a TV character. Fame is also explored, with Trent resenting his Gray Ghost persona – seeing it as a hindrance in getting more meaty roles in his faded career (ironically, much in the same way as former Batman Michael Keaton’s character in the Oscar-winning Birdman). It also shows the dark side of fandom, personified by The Mad Bomber (who is voiced by Bruce Timm, in another meta touch).

enhanced-buzz-13913-1359145567-71.”The Laughing Fish”
Written by Paul Dini
Based on the Batman comic story by Denny O’Neil and Steve Englehart
Directed by Bruce Timm

My favorite episode of Batman: The Animated Series is based on an actual story from the Batman comics. The Joker seeks to go “legitimate” by making money on fish that sport his infamous grin – made possible from a toxin he put in the water. When the copyright office refuses to give him what he wants, the Joker targets the paper-pushers until he gets his way.

The brilliance of “The Laughing Fish” is really in its mastery of mood. Bruce Timm gave this episode a wonderful noir feel, coupled with a Hitchcock-inspired visual irony. This is a very grim, at times unsettling, story – and the preponderance of smiles (be it from the fish or the Joker’s victims) is ironic because smiles are usually pleasant things. The music adds to the Hitchcockian theme, as there are many melodic send-ups to the classic Bernard Herrmann scores from Psycho and other Herrmann/Hitch collaborations. Vocally, this is probably Mark Hamill’s best episode as the Joker. His laughs are absolutely terrifying.

Batman: The Animated Series was a show ahead of its time. It proved that television aimed at younger audiences could deal with mature themes and appeal to both children and adults. It’s a concept that I feel has been largely lost on today’s kids’ programming.

If you haven’t seen The Animated Series, I emphatically suggest you find it either on DVD or streaming and watch some quality animated storytelling. If you have seen the show, what do you think of my list? Were there other episodes you think should have been on here?

Originally posted on Reel World Theology.

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2 thoughts on “BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES – Top 10 Episodes

  1. Pingback: Top 10 of 2016 | The Film Avenger

  2. Pingback: Blu-ray Buyer’s Guide – July 25 | The Film Avenger

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