Editor’s Note: This year, the iconic Batman: The Animated Series turns 30 years old. “Return to Gotham” is a new 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.
The kids who rushed home from school to catch the next episode of Batman: The Animated Series were keenly aware they were seeing something special. The show is remembered as setting a new high bar for art direction and aesthetic in a kids’ show, but it wasn’t just the visuals that were so striking. Batman was also a delight for the ears, from Shirley Walker’s nuanced, fully orchestrated musical compositions to what was perhaps the series’ most potent weapon: Its incredible and unconventional voice acting talent.
There is a lot to be intuited about a show—any show, animated or live action—if you turn it on and then walk out of the room, just far enough away that you can hear the tone and quality of the actors’ performances but can’t quite discern the actual substance of the dialogue. Try it with an episode of The West Wing and then with an episode of The Big Bang Theory or Two And A Half Men, or anything with a laugh track, and you will have a much clearer impression of the tone of any of these shows than you might if you, say, muted the TV and only watched the action. Try it with Harley Quinn or Star Trek: The Lower Decks and even if you can’t hear the details (and even if there is no laugh track), you always know exactly who is talking, what they’re feeling, and when they are delivering a punchline. (For contrast, I felt much less of this quality from the show Invincible recently, even though I liked it a great deal. Scenes of BIG VIOLENT EMOTION had this quality, but I felt like not a lot of the quieter ones did.)
Batman: The Animated Series sounds like no cartoon that came before it, and (partly by virtue of the fact that its voice director went on to direct basically everything awesome) so much of what has come after in children’s animation seems to have taken a page from it. At times Kevin Conroy gives his Batman a deeply sinister quality; at other moments it’s a stoically vulnerable one. And, of course, the show used the contrast between Conroy’s performances as Batman and Bruce Wayne to highlight the character’s duality.
Then, too, there’s the show’s other major asset: Mark Hamill’s portrayal of a character for which he is now, arguably, just as famous as the farmboy-turned-mystic-warrior in Star Wars.
“His laugh should be like a musical instrument,” Hamill said in the Voices of the Knight behind-the-scenes featurette that came out with the show’s DVD release. “It could be ominous and intimidating, it could be gleeful and with wild abandon, but I didn’t just want to have one rote laugh.”
Of course, the entire voice cast of the show is incredible, and voice director Andrea Romano is much of the reason why. The quality of the voices is not overblown or silly—they are very consciously not ’80s cartoon voices, which were very, well, cartoony. At one point, in a flashback to Dick Grayson’s first traumatized days settling in at Wayne Manor, the 10-year-old future Robin just cries as he talks to Bruce Wayne about his pain, and it’s a quiet, natural scene, with no exaggeration. The show recorded voices with actors seated together in the same studio, acting and reacting to each other. It gives the performances a lived-in quality, with a naturalistic feel throughout. At its best it feels, for lack of a better way of describing it, like you are hearing adults being adults, rather than adults putting on a show for the benefit of younger viewers.
But the actors also knew how to go big. The show is also filled with moments that go harder than any kids’ show has a right to.
So what could be a more perfect setup for an episode than one in which some of the show’s most distinctive voices are all literally seated around a table, bouncing their performances off of one another? The series’ 35th episode, “Almost Got ‘Im,” is framed as a film noir poker game in a shadowy, jazzy dive somewhere in Gotham’s seedy underbelly. The players just so happen to be the most prominent members of Batman’s rogue’s gallery: the Joker, Two-Face (Richard Moll), the Penguin (Paul Williams), Killer Croc (Aron Kincaid), and the fashionably tardy Poison Ivy (Diane Pershing). (In a nod to series continuity, Two-Face and Ivy snipe at each other immediately: They used to date.)
In between hands, the villains try to one-up each other with stories of how they almost got Batman, and the episode becomes a series of short vignettes featuring the Dark Knight outfoxing or outfighting them. (Except for Croc. Nobody wants to hear about the time he tried to hit Batman with a rock—a detail that only becomes funnier in context with a throwaway line in an episode we’ll get to later.) It is simultaneously one of the show’s most fun episodes, not just because it features these villains skipping to the climaxes of their various capers, but because it’s a sparkling showcase of the deep bench of voice talent, with Catwoman (Adrienne Barbeau, an iconic portrayal even when you hold her up next to Eartha Kitt and Michelle Pfeiffer) and Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin) showing up late in the episode. Throughout, the villains trade barbs, jeering at each other for their exploding Halloween pumpkins, giant pennies, and in one case, an “Aviary of Doom!”
“Almost Got ‘Im” is one of the episodes I might reach for if I wanted to introduce someone to the show. Like a lot of great ones, it has pretty much every strength the show has to offer front and center: The noir trappings and stark lighting of the card game are again perfect uses of the show’s distinct art direction, a framing that feels new while nodding to the time period that gave rise to the character. The villains’ individual personalities and foibles shine through, and their one-off engagements with Batman all fall into an exact sweet spot between high stakes and hilarious camp that should be the goal with every Batman story. We are given object lessons in why Batman is far cleverer than his opponents, and why the Joker is more dangerous than any of the other villains.
The episode then pivots on an unexpected twist that brings the action around to the present, and ends on an intimate scene between Batman and Catwoman, silhouetted in heroic proportion against the moonlit night of Gotham City. The writing is unbelievably efficient, such that this 22-minute episode with five action set pieces still finds room for a quiet denouement between two characters. In a show that has so many other things to recommend it, it’s clear the creators knew how important their cast was.
Tune in next month, as Return to Gotham examines Batman: The Animated Series’ tragic villains.
Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.
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