Editor’s Note: This year, the iconic Batman: The Animated Series turns 30 years old. “Return to Gotham” is a monthly column looking back at the cartoon that remains a touchstone of the superhero genre and one of the most iconic portrayals of The Dark Knight.
Batman: The Animated Series is a fun show for kids where a guy who is sad about his dead parents dresses like a bat and punches bad guys who each have their own silly gimmicks: Among them are Incel With Mind Control Hats and Guy Who Likes Riddles. It aired after school during its original run. During one early episode, the Joker literally sings “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells.”
It was also one of the most disturbing adaptations of the character’s story outside the comics, with episodes that rank among the damned creepiest from almost any kids’ show. There aren’t too many threads that connect these disparate episodes apart from them being freaky (there is an element of tragic villainy to them, as there is in nearly every single episode), but any year-long retrospective on B:TAS would be incomplete without mentioning them. And so, for any lovers of Spooky Season who have been interested in the show as it turns 30, here’s a handy episode guide of the creepiest stories from Batman: The Animated Series and, in some cases, from the entire history of Batman.
Just remember: This is a children’s show.
Heart of Steel and His Silicon Soul
For a creepy three-parter, Season 1, Episodes 39 and 40 (entitled “Heart of Steel”) and Episode 43, (“His Silicon Soul”) serve as their own almost-feature-length storyline. In “Heart of Steel,” prominent figures in Gotham begin to go missing, and Batman (along with a pre-Batgirl Barbara Gordon, ready to infiltrate a sinister robo-facility) discover that a massive supercomputer known as H.A.R.D.A.C. is kidnapping them and making robotic facsimiles of them.
This episode features creepy droid copies of Harvey Bullock and Commissioner Gordon, including a truly gruesome fate for the Robo-Bullock that should rank among the best examples of American cartoons going nuts with violence because it’s not technically toward a flesh-and-blood human.
After Batman blows up H.A.R.D.A.C. real good, the megalomaniacal AI returns in “His Silicon Soul,” this time in the guise of a Batman robot. It’s delightfully twisted: Robbers bust into a crate with the Robo-Batman inside it, waking it up. The robot fully believes it is Batman and Bruce Wayne, going so far as to stumble home to Wayne Manor when it’s injured. The misbegotten android, questioning his entire reality, seeks help from one of the scientists from the “Heart of Steel” episodes, Rossum. (As always, the creators delighted in their references and their casting: Rossum is voiced by William Sanderson, the guy who played the squirrely replicant creator J.F. Sebastian in Blade Runner.) We watch as the Robo-Batman loses his entire damn mind and becomes a creature of H.A.R.D.A.C., all the while voiced by Kevin Conroy and sounding just as human to us.
But, as it turns out, if you program a robot to perfectly mimic Batman, it’ll pick up more than kung fu and acrobatics. Bat-droids may or may not dream of electric Jokers, but they can’t bring themselves to kill organic Batmen. Tricked into believing he has committed murder, Robo-Batman flips out and sacrifices itself to stop a doomsday countdown. Chew on that while you’re doing your math homework.
Perchance to Dream
Season 1, Episode 26 begins like many a B:TAS episode, with the Batmobile tearing up the streets in hot pursuit of some shady looking characters. But when the chase proceeds on foot, somebody gets the drop on Batman, and Bruce Wayne awakens groggily the next morning at Wayne Manor where two things are very wrong: There’s no entrance to the Batcave behind the old grandfather clock in the study, and also Bruce’s parents aren’t dead.
“Perchance to Dream” has the pacing of a Hitchcock film and the terrifyingly unknowable stakes of a Twilight Zone episode. Not only is Bruce Wayne not Batman, but somebody else is Batman, collaring criminals right in front of the Wayne Enterprises building while Bruce’s fiancee (Selena Kyle! She’s not Catwoman!) comes to cheer him up. For the whole episode, you aren’t sure precisely what you’re watching or how it’s going to end. There are relatively few action beats in the episode, and it’s only at the end that you really get any feeling of Bruce being in actual physical danger. It’s disturbing for reasons utterly unlike most episodes in the show.
Of course, Batman figures out the truth. As it turns out, most people can’t read while dreaming, so there’s a reason Bruce reacts to the printed material of this dream world as if it’s all laid out in Comic Sans.
The thought of being suspended in a happy little lie is Grown-up Upsetting all on its own, but for my money the darkest part of the episode comes after Batman wakes up and demands answers from his would-be jailer, the Mad Hatter (the late, prolific Roddy McDowall). Hatter’s deranged response might be the most haunting part of the episode, and one of the rawest line readings in the entire show.
House and Garden
Season 2, Episode 6 starts off with a premise that shouldn’t surprise regular viewers of the show at all: A monstrous plant-creature is menacing rich men in Gotham, leaving them poisoned with some sort of plant-based toxin. Whoever could it be?? But when Batman jumps to the conclusion that Poison Ivy must be involved, Commissioner Gordon informs him that she’s actually reformed and living a tidy little suburban life with a husband and his kids. Batman evidently did not get the wedding invite. (The idea that Batman would not have some sort of knowledge of the last known whereabouts of any one of his Rogues Gallery was less absurd when this episode aired.)
Every episode is an example of how the show’s voice work is naturalistic and nuanced, but “House and Garden” is one in which the voice performances seem as if they’re in a completely different type of show. Most cartoons of the time would’ve featured a Poison Ivy with a kind of sinister undertone to her voice as she invites Gordon and Batman in to flaunt her totally not-suspicious new life as a homemaker. Instead, she comes off as sincere, even tender when she catches Batman spying on her during her completely innocuous routine.
But come on, you know she’s up to something. That something just so happens to be making plant clone children, who sprout from little pods in the basement as they plaintively call out “Mommy?” in the dark in human children voices. Before, in a matter of days, growing into clones of her husband, and then inexorably into hulking murder-plants, and then melting into goo and dying right in front of her.
How deeply into play-acting motherhood does Ivy go with them while they’re in the kid phase?? What do they get up to when they’re in the husband phase??? What, dear reader, did you and I just watch???!!!
See No Evil
B:TAS doesn’t really need to get explicitly into things like body horror to be at its most fearful. It doesn’t even need to have as elaborate a setup as “cloned plant children,” or “you are trapped in a dream world because the Mad Hatter is an incel.” Season 1, Episode 56 begins from a first person perspective, and it becomes clear the moment a stray dog starts snarling at the fourth wall that this isn’t just the camera tightening in on a lonely little house somewhere on the outskirts of Gotham. There, in her room all alone is a little girl whose imaginary friend can do things like turn on her bedside lamp and levitate her doll. She is too young to realize what we know right away: Her imaginary friend is neither.
Soon after, Bruce Wayne’s trip to buy some jewelry is interrupted when the store is robbed by some invisible phantom. Batman intervenes, but gets rocked by his unseen foe. The robber, we discover, is the girl’s father, he can turn invisible, and he isn’t going to let his estranged wife and daughter escape him under any circumstances.
“See No Evil” is a perfect B:TAS episode, the kind of self-contained story that feels like a mini Batman movie. It’s also just scary, with stakes no higher than the safety of one little girl. It’s a great retelling of The Invisible Man, with a villain whose menace the writers and actors clearly understand. But, invisible or not, the villain is just a man. Batman slaps the absolute shit out of him in an action sequence that goes just a couple extra, understated beats too long. It has the feel of an actual fight, one that ends in an actual creep getting his actual block knocked off.
Over the Edge
I don’t like it when comics decide to go for easy pathos and just kill off a bunch of characters in an alt-reality work, but it does say something about your world if doing so is the sort of thing that at least generates macabre interest. The show’s fourth volume, released as The New Batman Adventures, is the true final season of B:TAS, and in its 12th episode, “Over the Edge,” it steers sharply into that conceit.
We open on Wayne Manor under siege by Commissioner Gordon and the Gotham PD. Batman, Robin and Nightwing all manage to escape via boat, and Batman gets Nightwing up to speed on how they got there: In the course of foiling a plot by Scarecrow, Batgirl is killed. It is a harrowing scene: Thrown from a building, Batgirl lands on the hood of her own father’s squad car. We get the view from the inside of the car, something the creators mentioned as a means of taming the scene for the censors. I don’t think it dulls the pain of the moment even a little bit.
Gordon learns his daughter is Batgirl at the moment she dies in his arms, and he hurls tearful recriminations at Batman and vows to bring his vigilante crusade to an end.
The episode culminates in a legitimate fight to the death between Batman and Bane (the late Henry Silva), hired by Gordon, who has been forced out of his role as commissioner on the entirely reasonable grounds that his daughter was an unaccountable vigilante.
It was all a dream, of course. How could it not be? Yet it also ends with a sly moment between Gordon and his daughter, one in which the old cop seems to imply that he knows more about her night life than he lets on. The final season of B:TAS wasn’t as well-animated, and ditched some of the aesthetic that made the show famous, but it still dropped some of the most intensely written episodes of the whole run. “Over the Edge” was one of them.
There’s a limit to what a kids show can get away with, to how sharp the edges are allowed to be, or what the specific stakes are. B:TAS had to operate under those strictures during its entire run. It still managed to maintain not just an aesthetic of old-timey noir shows, but scary episodes that feel as if they came out of the storytelling traditions of that period. That they feel of a piece with all the other colorful and fun parts of the show is just another reason it’s one of the most successful adaptations of the Batman mythos ever.
Tune in next month for sharp suits, blazing typewriters, and an antipasto that’ll knock our socks off as we revisit Batman: The Animated Series’ noir-themed episodes!
Kenneth Lowe’s name is about to be all over town, to say nothing of his legs, and feet and spleen and head! You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.
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