Our Favorite Episodes from Batman: The Animated Series

Our Favorite Episodes from Batman: The Animated Series

For children of the 90’s, especially comic book fans, Batman: The Animated Series came along at the right time and would become an important era in the Caped Crusader's long and storied legacy. "From the team that brought you Tiny Toons," they said, but all I heard was "new Batman cartoon," so I could care less who made it quite frankly. The show's into starts on a huge WB logo that turns into a police blimp scouring the city with huge beams of light. The camera pans down to reveal a bank. BOOM! The bank's entrance is blown wide open: a robbery! No words the entire time, just action that holds your complete and undivided attention. Like most great iconic pop art characters, Batman is recognizable in silhouette and needs zero introduction. From the word "go" this series is running full steam ahead. Again, no words, just a visually spectacular Batmobile speeding into Gotham to stop the would be robbers. The criminals stand no chance as Batman dispatches the baddies with ease leaving them tied up for the police to apprehend. The final shot is the Dark Knight on a rooftop standing ever vigilant over the city as lightning splits open the night sky, emphasising the demon that ruins sleep for many villains.

Fade to black, episode starts. My jaw was on the floor! What a simple yet bold introduction displayed with such confidence. You know exactly who this is it, all the while blasting that Danny Elfman Batman theme from Tim Burton’s film. For the next few years, audiences were taken for an amazing ride that spawned more DC animated series for television and direct-to-video movies that continue to this very day. Here, we celebrate our favorite episodes and why they matter to the show and to Batman’s lore as a whole. (While I am here: a special shoutout to Andrea Romano, American casting director and voice director. She truly is the secret ingredient in this entire affair.)

On Leather Wings
Season 1, Episode 1

This was the very first episode aired for the Animated Series and it remains one of the best in the entire run. Just a stunning debut with fluid animation done on black backgrounds, while still managing to be vibrant even in night scenes. The first villain we come across is not a huge fan favorite like Catwoman or The Joker. Instead we get Kirk Langstrom, also known as Man-Bat.

Thing about Man-Bat is, he's a werewolf type, a man that actually transforms into a batlike monster under certain conditions. So, of course this leads to confusion in the Gotham City Police Department. Is this vigilante really that scary and demonic or is this a case of mistaken identity? Regardless, the GCPD wants Batman arrested, except for Commissioner Gordon, of course. Gordon believes this vigilante fights for the greater good. Tangling with the police and Man-Bat in one episode made for great entertainment but I was stunned at how never once does the show betray what makes Batman so special. Seriously, Batman at one point goes out of his way to save the life a cop who tried to mow him down with a submachine gun only moments earlier. Also, his relationship is spot on with Alfred Pennyworth, his trusty butler/father figure who cracks his dry British humor at the vigilante, completely unmoved by Wayne’s masked creature-of-the-night alter ego. Slid in for good measure is a “Hey! What's up, doc?” homage that feels like a thank you to the Looney Tunes run that paved the way for all Warner Brothers animated fare. Batman uses detective work to save a bad guy, salvaging the finale of the episode from being a boring punchout. It's worth it for the exchange between Langstrom and Batman just to see Langstrom walk past several beakers and flasks in a science lab, his reflection rippling and warping as he walks past, taunting Batman. The animation team is just showing the hell off.

Season 1, Episode 7

Off course, Noir driven episodes such as these will honor and steal from the classics. So why not lift from the master himself, Akira Kurosawa, and do a Rashomon riff? Three of Gotham’s finest, Bullock, Montoya, and a green rookie, are in deep shit as a sting to catch a mob boss goes south. Interrogated by the higher-ups, each cop is allowed to explain their version of the way things went down. Bullock says his backup was late so he had to rush in alone, while also blaming Batman for interfering. Montoya claims she and the rookie were on time and it was Bullock who jumped the gun, blitzing in early, botching everything and having his bacon saved by Batman. The rookie simply saw Batman kick a lot of ass, staring dumbfounded. Of course within these three statements are your lies and your answers. This take on an old story method is fun in this setting because it respects Kurosawa's classic while still remaining true to Batman. This episode plays on his myth: the barely seen creature that shows up when criminals think it’s safe to be shady, only to have their plans and bones crushed. This is especially true when the rookie describes Batman dropping criminals. “It was incredible! The Batman threw out his hand and sparks flew from his fingertips.” This weird description only fuels the boogie man story surrounding the notorious vigilante. By the end of the episode, we see Batman using good, old fashioned deducing to conquer the baddies, extracting the only truth that happened during that botched sting. This episode is a wholly rewarding love letter episode to Kurosawa.

Be a Clown
Season 1, Episode 9

Obvious stuff out of the way first: Mark Hamill’s take on The Joker is always going to be considered one of the best vocal performances in the history of cartoons. Simply put, he was born to play the role. His various ways of projecting demented laughter, combined with a true understanding of the character, made his episodes stand out. In Be A Clown, Mark Hamill gives us some amazing reminders as to why The Joker is so dangerous. The Joker sneaks into a birthday party disguised as a (wait for it) clown. This birthday however is for the Mayor’s son and Gotham’s elite is in attendance. So, as one does, The Joker places an explosive candle on the birthday cake at a child’s party in an effort to jazz things up. Thwarted by Bruce Wayne, he escapes the party to his carnival lair but does not realize he has a stowaway, the mayor's son. Oblivious to how dangerous The Joker is, the kid simply wants to learn magic from this clown who gives him more attention than his social ladder-climbing dad. Batman, of course, scrambles to save the child and is treated to some Houdini-level deathtraps. The setting couldn’t be more perfect as the battle finds its way atop a rollercoaster screaming at full speed, a setting that would later be immortalized in the SNES game The Adventures of Batman and Robin. You know that overused gif of Batman being creepy as fuck behind some bushes giving you a thumbs up? Now you know where it comes from. Incredible material for a season one entry, and they would only get better as the show progressed.

- Rockie Juarez

Beware the Grey Ghost
Season 1, Episode 18

What might otherwise be a one-off, forgettable episode of the series, is elevated to meta-commentary and sentimental torch passing by the episode’s guest star: Adam West himself. The villain Mad Bomber in this episode’s story is merely copying old episodes of a Grey Ghost television show, bombing targets for the attention it brings to the old show and, as we learn, its underselling vintage merch.

Bruce, you see, watched the old serials starring his hero, an obvious prototype for the same heroism he’d go on to perform as Batman later. The hero worship here is heartfelt and sincere, but never overdone. When the man who played Grey Ghost, Simon Trent, dons the costume once again just to track down the Mad Bomber at Batman’s behest, it’s a real treat. Trent and Batman use similar methods and lines of thought to track down the man hoarding Grey Ghost merchandise just to resell it for a profit.

There’s a deep message in the climax about the dangers of thoughtless, context-free nostalgia, and just how destructive being an obsessive and recalcitrant kind of geek, like the Mad Bomber, can be. The episode ends on a touching moment of the kind of nostalgia The Animated Series surrounds itself with: motivated optimism.

If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?
Season 1, Episode 40

This first appearance of the Riddler shows Edward Nygma, for all his brains, thinking rather small. His entire plot, instead of focusing on personal wealth or fame, is merely to get revenge against his former employer. Daniel Mockridge made a fortune for his game company on the back of Nygma’s for-hire game design, and then fired Nygma when he sued for royalties.

As he always does, Riddler treats Batman as an afterthought. He learns quite quickly to never count out the intellect of a man who had 20 years to study martial arts, liberal arts, travel the world, grow his immeasurable family fortune, and devise ingenious gadgets.

The real meat of the episode is in the “Riddle of the Minotaur” amusement park which Wayne Enterprises was seeking to purchase. Winding their way through a life-sized version of the maze Dick Grayson was playing in the Batcave’s computer version of the game, the Dynamic Duo save each other from trap after trap, all modeled on cryptids and philosophical concepts from antiquity. The music, action, and editing truly shine in this episode as the clock ticks down to Mockridge's execution by a robotic minotaur.

While the plot is ultimately smaller in scale than you might expect for all its spectacle, If You’re So Smart’s impact is still incredibly personal: the finale sees the Riddler escaping without a trace, “for months,” says Bruce. We close not on Wayne Manor; rather, we close the episode with Mockridge, still with his fortune from the sale to Wayne Enterprises, but racked with paranoid fear that Nygma will return. In leaving his grand spectacle of spite against Mockridge unfinished, Nygma haunts his thoughts far more deeply.

The Lion and the Unicorn
Season 2, Episode 9

This episode sees Alfred Pennyworth, the Wayne family’s trusty butler, called away on personal business. Alfred’s “cousin,” Frederick has asked him to attend to a very sensitive matter back in England. A matter so sensitive, in fact, he leaves in the night with naught but a note and some scattered dishes to mark his absence. When he is tracked down by two toughs hired by The Red Claw, an international terrorist, Bruce and Dick track him down with the help of what’s left of the British Intelligence Service who know about his location.

What makes this episode truly special is that, while Bruce believes Alfred only ever served “desk duty” for British Intelligence, Alfred shows himself to be far more capable, even in his more elderly age. Alfred shows just how well-trained and keen his mind is when Red Claw injects him with truth serum for a missile launch code. Knowing he’s going to eventually give up the code, he begins feigning feeling too doped up, reciting nonsense pieces of old nursery rhymes to buy time and disguise the true code he’ll eventually give away. Amidst the threat of torture and death, Alfred Pennyworth stands his ground, such as he’s able, and proves himself at least an intellectual equal to the Dark Knight himself.

- Sean Beattie

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is now on Blu-ray

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