It’s not uncommon for the reputation of famous series, particularly fantasy ones, to go through cycles. The initial reaction to Spider-Man 3 was purely average before the film plummeted into becoming shorthand for “This is what a bad movie looks like.” Ten years later, it would receive a retrial and now sits in the pantheon of the Actually Not That Bad. The same thing happened with The Phantom Menace, which began its lifespan recognized as the blockbuster crib death of George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels before being viewed as a weird yet extremely ambitious film today.
In fact, the only superhero series that seems to have escaped the inevitable back and forth of popularity and backlash is Batman: The Animated Series the 1992 FOX cartoon that many (including this author) claim to be the best distillation of the character and his mythos ever seen on screen. As every other famous Batman incarnation succumbs to the whims of the “fandom,” BTAS stays strong. Even the Batman film released the same year, Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, would be seen as an exercise in effectively grim pathos (and a public relations disaster for Warner Bros) only to seem old hat in comparison to Christopher Nolan’s timely, metaphor-laden Dark Knight trilogy, and then rise again in esteem due to its brazen artistry.
So why has BTAS eschewed this cycle? Aside from the fact that it is, as anyone who’s seen it will attest, a really good show, it’s also the series that would blend the macabre Art Deco Gotham City of the recent Burton films with a film noir-ish sensibility, making it look unlike any other show on TV at the time. After the 1980s, a decade when most cartoons mainly served as extended commercials for corresponding toy lines, Batman’s adventures were pulse-pounding and iconic. Heck, it’s the series that made Mr. Freeze interesting, and the one that birthed the character of Harley Quinn, who shot up the ranks of identifiable DC Comics characters in a way not seen since the 1940s.
It also wasn’t a series that would take a long time to amass its esteem. Batman: The Animated Series was very much beloved in its day, smashing ratings and winning Emmys, including one for “Heart of Ice,” the episode that made Mr. Freeze a bad guy to weep over. It was even promoted to prime time on Sunday nights, where it dueled against CBS’ 60 Minutes. No superhero cartoon before or since has been awarded that kind of reception, and in the nearly 30 years since its debut, it has remained both a go-to reference for Millennial nostalgia and a masterclass in animated storytelling.
Part of this critical steadfastness likely has to do with the fact that it’s hard to find a Batman series since that captures its lead character and his world with such power. Its follow-up series, The New Batman Adventures (airing on The WB), had most of the same creative team, but a design overhaul meant that it lost what made a lot of BTAS so aesthetically unique. Several other Batman-focused series on the WB also tried to make their mark. A reboot, The Batman, was exciting Saturday morning fare, but its anime-inspired antics and lighter tone led it to be harshly compared to BTAS upon its launch. Batman: The Brave and the Bold was a thoughtful and often very funny team-up show, but its juxtaposition against the Bush-era allegory of the Dark Knight films coming out at the time meant it lost all those who demanded something a little grittier from their Caped Crusader. And finally, while Beware the Batman remains deeply underrated, its CG animation was a sticking point for fans since the start, and its early demise and lackluster marketing combined to deny the series any kind of traction for finding an audience.
Despite the fact that they all have their different charms, these series sit in the shadow of BTAS like crooks discovering Batman’s looming figure on a rooftop above. It also doesn’t hurt that BTAS has nostalgia built into its foundation. Created to serve the same purpose as the Fleischer Studios Superman shorts from the early 1940s—a translation of iconography devoid of any distracting fluff—BTAS’ setting is out of time entirely. Batman has a massive computer, but the police fly around in airships. Plots are pulled from films like 1938’s Angels with Dirty Faces and 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers and references are made to 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire.
The Batman villains that emerged in the comics in more recent years, like Ra’s al Ghul, Man-Bat, and Scarface, are all filtered through a lens of classic Universal Monsters poignancy. Even Bane, who was introduced in the comics during BTAS’ heyday with a luchador mask, gets this treatment: at two points in their fight, Batman performs a hurricanrana professional wrestling move on his hulking opponent, completing Bane’s transformation into someone akin to ‘50s stars like Blue Demon and El Santo.
This grounding in the stylings of Golden Age Hollywood, a period that most of BTAS’ original fans would have been born long after, renders it impossible to truly replicate. It’s a far cry from The Batman, which featured his first Bat signal device on what looks like a smartphone, or The Brave and the Bold, which was a universe and time-hopping adventure. And as Batman films work to maintain relevance in an age of shared universes and sweeping franchising strokes, BTAS’ genius is even more apparent. By seeming so out of place among the entertainment landscape (certainly today’s and even in the one in which it premiered), its quality is locked in forever.
Recently, it was announced that a team of J.J. Abrams, director Matt Reeves, and BTAS creator Bruce Timm would be teaming up on Batman: Caped Crusader, a cartoon that, according to Timm, is “more BTAS than BTAS,” as it leans into its noir roots. An admirable effort for sure, but as we’ve seen before, a high bar to leap. Because there’s really only one Batman: The Animated Series.
Batman: The Animated Series is currently streaming on HBO Max.
Daniel Dockery is Senior Staff Writer for Crunchyroll. You can follow him on Twitter.
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