Most '90s cartoons will inspire nostalgia in anyone who grew up watching them after school and on Saturday mornings. But one of the greatest animated shows of all time was Batman: The Animated Series, an amazing cartoon that combined the neo-noir of Tim Burton’s two forays into the bat-chise with the pulpy detective work of the comics. This series was without a doubt the best Batman on television, and likely the greatest Batman of all time. When you think back on all the revivals of Batman, and how many different Bruce Waynes audiences have had to deal with, it’s not hyperbole to state that the animated Batman series was the closest representation to the Batman of the comic books. The Batman of The Animated Series was sleek and stylized without being silly.
Was Batman: The Animated Series the best cartoon ever? It’s certainly up there in terms of production design and story. There was obvious care placed on this program that audiences hadn’t seen in an animated series before, and likely won’t see for a long time. Remember, in the early '90s cartoons were still specifically being made to sell toys. While Batman was no different, it strived to be something more than a 25 minute commercial. That’s only one of the reasons that Batman: The Animated Series was one of the greatest cartoons ever made.
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It's The First Tonally Nuanced Cartoon
This is a hard nut to crack for hour-long shows aimed at adults, let alone for a children's show that has less than 30 minutes to get the audience from point A to point B. This feat grows exponentially larger when you're telling a story about people dressed like bats, penguins, clowns, or Matthew Lesko. The fact that the writers of Batman: The Animated Series were able to keep the show light enough for children who were watching after school and dark enough to please older fans is a testament to their abilities with the craft of storytelling.
Ya' Boy Mark Hamill Anchored The Series
Since the original run of Batman: The Animated series there have been many Jokers, both in live action and animation, that have come along and to put their own spin on the iconic character. Some actors made their portrayals genuinely interesting, and they tried to do something that would build on the legacy of the character, and then are guys like Jared Leto who bummed everyone (except for your cousin who still shops at Hot Topic) out.Mark Hamill is an oasis in a desert of bad voice acting, and over-the-top screeching. His Joker is playful, but absolutely menacing when he has to be. And at times there's a lower register to the Joker's voice that feels like Hamill is channeling late-period Tom Waits.
The Audience Finally Gets To Meet The Rogue's Gallery
Rather than spend almost 100 episodes bouncing Batman back and forth between the Joker and Catwoman, The Animated Series made excellent use of the Dark Knight's rogue's gallery by building long running narratives with characters like Two-Face (whose transformation from white knight of Gotham to seedy underworld boss we see in full), to introducing audiences to villains like Clayface and the Man Bat. Everyone gets at least a couple of chances to shine, and some of the villains even get their own storylines. It's also worth noting that The Animated Series is the only version of Batman that gives Poison Ivy a relatively interesting story, even if it is still based around seduction via plant life.
They Didn't Pull Their Punches
The one thing you don't expect to see on an animated program running at four in the afternoon is death. Unless of course you're watching Batman: The Animated Series; in that case, you're going to see a few people die. Joker kills at least one person by poisoning them to death, and The Phantasm from the excellent Mask of The Phantasm straight up murdered people with statues. The Animated Series is a show that never shies away from the darkness that surrounds the Batman mythos, and the reason that it's so popular is because it leans into serious storytelling in a way that so many "serious" cartoons fail to do.
The series' followup movie, Return of the Joker, was created as a means to bridge the gap between the original series and Batman Beyond. In the released version, Joker dies when he is pushed into an electrified puddle. In the uncut version, however, his death is much more horrifying.
Tim Drake, AKA a child version of Robin, is psychologically and physically tortured by the Joker. As the Joker tells Batman how he abused Robin, the audience sees Tim dressed as a mini-Joker, clearly psychologically cracked, approach the two as they fight. Joker tells Tim to finish the punchline, but instead of shooting Batman, he shoots the Joker and breaks down in hysterical sobs after the fact.
The ending never made it on the show, though. Just before its release, the Columbine massacre happened. Writer Paul Dini explained on Kevin Smith's podcast Fatman on Batman how that – combined with the graphic nature of the ending – left it on the cutting room floor:
We were given carte blanche to write and make the movie we wanted and then the death scene of the Joker...was a very strong scene, implying Joker tortured Robin, who was a minor, to the breaking point, it's real strong stuff. What happened was, as we got close to the release, people were wondering if this... would traumatize kids. It ultimately came down to, even though this wasn’t going to air on Kids WB, for whatever reason we had to show it to one of the executives at Kids WB, and she said “I’m not going to run that, I’m not going to promote it…you’ve got a kid picking up a gun and killing somebody, I can’t promote that on my network.” At that time they needed it for promotion…they needed to get Kids WB on board to advertise it, to promote it.