Return to Gotham: How Batman: The Animated Series Built an “Expanded Universe”
DC Comics’ most successful adaptations literally began and ended with Batman.Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Animation TV Features Batman the Animated Series
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.
Superman: “That man won’t quit as long as he can still draw a breath. None of my teammates will. Me? I’ve got a different problem.”
It is sometimes hard to believe how this monthly column—preplanned since December of last year, and focusing on a show that is 30 years old—can somehow be relevant to our current entertainment discourse. Sometimes it’s because Batman’s corporate owners are still allowing great things to be made starring long-running characters from the show. This month, though, Batman’s (new) owners are making headlines for being absolute ding-dongs.
Thirty YEARS ago!
Speaking in a Batman: The Animated Series retrospective feature, Bruce Timm, one of the creative leads on the show, said that one day he was approached by somebody at Warner Bros. animation division with an opportunity: Did he have any ideas for a DC comics character to adapt to a cartoon? Warner Bros. owned the rights to do so. Timm said he blurted out “Batman!” without skipping a beat, met with approval from whichever suit had brought it up, and then immediately went to his office, shoved a bunch of Tiny Toon Adventures work off his desk and began creating B:TAS. The show got the greenlight not long after.
It was a good time to be slinging Batman merch, what with Tim Burton and Alan Moore and Frank Miller giving Batman’s cinematic and comic incarnations a shot in the arm. Still, it seems hard to believe even Warner Bros. could have guessed that the show’s spinoffs would be airing 13 years later, and every entertainment pub on the internet would be singing the show’s praises three decades on. Discovery is the corporate entity that now has the inestimable honor and responsibility of owning the rights to the gold mine that is DC comics adaptations. And yet it seems that they, too, are ignorant to the fact that DC already made a “universe” 30 years ago and that some of its architects are actually still around writing movies for Warner Bros. (which Discovery is canceling!!!).
This is, I swear, a column about Batman: The Animated Series, but this installment is running mere days after the announcement of the slaughter of the Batgirl movie. It would be tough to ignore it as we talk about how B:TAS’ successful run kicked off one of the longest continuous stories in the history of comic adaptations (Marvel’s “cinematic universe” is now arguably as long or longer, depending on how you reckon it).
Batman was a constant during that run, a run that Warner Bros./Discovery/whoever have been flailing around for since 2013’s Man of Steel without even knowing that’s what they want. Kevin Conroy’s caped crusader ushered that saga in and was there in its final moments (was there, truly, in the last scene that occurs in the continuity). For any Discovery execs who might be listening, there are some things we might learn from the DC Animated Universe, as it was called.
B:TAS’ run was nearing its end in 1996 when the same creators were given license to tackle another of DC’s superheroes. I wrote about how the show’s first spin-off, Superman: The Animated Series, could be a master class in bringing a classic superhero up to date for an eager generation of new viewers. The show’s debut winked knowingly at fans of B:TAS, of course: During the three-part pilot, Martha Kent suggests that her adopted son take a more open approach to his super-heroics,v lest he be received like “that nut in Gotham City.”
(The scene itself is a microcosm of the show’s solid characterization of Clark, who is visiting his parents like any adult son who has moved away to the big city. His parents keep a scrapbook of headlines about his heroics. He refers to his biological parents as “Jor-El and Lara,” and we can see that while he’s taken their wisdom to heart, they’re strangers to him. He’s uncomfortable at the thought of people calling him “Superman.”)
And it wasn’t long before the show made the crossover connection explicit, with Batman and Superman’s villains occasionally menacing each other. It made both shows feel bigger: We now knew Batman inhabited the same world as Darkseid and Lex Luthor, and Superman inhabited the same world as the Joker. Importantly, it established some of the characters that would bring the whole saga to a close in later years.
Batman Beyond entered into production while B:TAS and S:TAS were still in production—it’s a wonder the creators got any sleep during that time, as much of the teams were the same on all three shows. It advanced the timeline 50 years, and cast Kevin Conroy once more as the elderly version of the same character from the earlier shows. Long past his prime and beaten down by the ceaseless fight against crime in “Neo Gotham,” Bruce takes on a young protege (Will Freidle), anointing him as a new Batman for a new age.
It was okay. But as usual, some of the most interesting episodes are the ones that tie directly into legacy villains from B:TAS. Mister Freeze, cursed with immortality, returns to menace Gotham once more, and Ra’s al Ghul, thought to be dead, comes back in a truly ghoulish fashion for a final bout with the two Batmen. And of course, the feature-length Return of the Joker was Mark Hamill’s last, most terrifying word on the iconic character he created.
Two big things happened to the DC Animated Universe as the 2000s began: Warner Bros. debuted Justice League, and comic writer Dwayne McDuffie started to write for the shows. Justice League established other heroes alongside Batman and Superman, finally expanding the world of the shows to explicitly encapsulate the whole of the DC Comics world. As for the late, revered McDuffie, it’s hard to overstate the effect he had on DC Comics’ stories, from the page to the screen: Characters he co-created, like Rocket and Static, are still showing up in DC’s animated shows today.
Justice League was so popular that after two seasons it spawned a rebranding, Justice League Unlimited, in which the creators finally threw all caution to the wind and incorporated every last cape and mask in DC canon. If you were jonesing for storylines starring Huntress or The Question, Black Canary or Green Arrow, the show had you covered. But crucially, Batman never really gave up the limelight, even when put up against so many other characters with ridiculous powers and costumes. Conroy’s Batman was still the show’s most formidable character, a foil for the League as much as a guiding member of it.
The last episode of Justice League Unlimited, “Destroyer,” pits the entire expanded cast of the League (even Vigilante, for pete’s sake) against a wholesale invasion of Earth by Darkseid, the snarling alien overlord who had been menacing humanity since Superman: The Animated Series. It builds to a climactic duel between Darkseid and Superman, which is to be expected: They needed to finish the show off with a truly titanic threat, the sort of thing that sounds like a job for Superman.
But Batman is a part of that scene, too:
Superman’s monologue is one that’s made its way into the nerd canon. He feels like he’s in a world made of cardboard, he tells Darkseid as he proceeds to mop the floor with the alien tyrant. Superman must always pull his punches, treat even his deadliest enemies with kid gloves just because he subscribes to the naive belief (one Batman shares) that life is sacred and killing people is for losers.
It’s a righteous rant that manages to add an interesting dimension to a character who, while iconic, is by nature fairly static. In looking back at the history of the DCAU, though, it also reads to me in a slightly different way. Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, Dwayne McDuffie, and the many other creative leads who shaped the DC Animated Universe were always pushing the envelope somewhere: Art style, storytelling technique, subject matter. You could tell that they wanted to incorporate darker and more challenging material, or wanted to really open up the floodgates to the wildness and weirdness of DC’s century of comic book stories.
With Justice League Unlimited, it finally felt like they’d gotten there after 14 years of steadily building a roster of heroes and a world for them to fight and win and love and lose in: Like the network had finally let them tell stories with Gorilla Grodd or Etrigan without quibbling over the salability of the whole enterprise. The show was, as Superman might say, a rare opportunity for them to cut loose and show just how powerful superhero narratives could really be. May as well celebrate by rezoning downtown Metropolis with Darkseid’s face.
After saving the world, the Justice League gets ready to spring into action one last time, rounding up some of the criminals who cooperated with them to stop the invasion. The last scene is the whole roster running toward the camera, a last bit of pageantry to send the show off. The last group could only be the big three. Clark, Bruce and Diana head out one last time, but notice how the symbol on Batman’s chest is the last wipe to credits. The most complete adaptation in DC’s history really did begin and end with Batman.
It’s been 16 years since the curtain fell on the DC Animated Universe, a storytelling endeavor that ended just a couple years before Iron Man hit theaters in 2008 and ushered in a completely new age in superhero adaptations. In the intervening years, Warner Bros. has found itself stumbling behind, trying to rush out a grandiose crossover universe on the silver screen and in the process constantly hitting dead ends and false starts. Maybe somebody at Discovery will accidentally scroll over to the DC hub on HBO Max and stumble upon these shows they already own that provide the perfect blueprint on how to do it right.
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