With another new animated Batman series in the works (Batman: The Caped Crusader), we figured it would be a great time to revisit the classic that has stood the test of time and remains to this day one of the absolute best superhero cartoons to date!
Created by Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, “Batman: The Animated Series” first premiered in 1992 and lasted 4 seasons (including “The New Batman Adventures”), spinning off into several other animated series throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s – Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, Static Shock, Justice League, Justice League: Unlimited, and Young Justice! Inspired by the style of the 1941 Fleischer Superman cartoons, the 90’s Batman series was a dark and faithful adaptation.
Batman: The Animated Series is, in my humble opinion, the absolute best version of Batman to date. Sure, the Tim Burton movies are great, Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy is a masterpiece of cinema, and the Arkham games are a lot of fun, but nothing has really captured the magic of the old school Batman comics quite the way that this show did. Not only did Bruce Timm and Paul Dini draw heavily from the source material, in some cases they streamlined and improved on some of the classic storylines and characters from the comics!
Unlike the campy Adam West series from the 60’s, this one took a darker and grittier look at Gotham, while still retaining the fun elements. Further, the voice talent on this series is incredible, including but not limited to Kevin Conroy as Batman / Bruce Wayne and of course, Mark Hamill as The Joker! And to top it off, the show was actually geared towards adults, while still being appropriate for kids, which is not an easy task.
The following list is 100% up for debate, so feel free to yell at me on Twitter @ErikSlader!
20. The Last Laugh
If you’re looking for a basic, good vs evil, Batman vs Joker storyline, this is it. Even though it’s technically the second appearance of Mark Hamill’s Joker (the first being “Christmas with the Joker”, which actually feels like it was released out of order because of the inclusion of Robin), this episode really does an amazing job introducing The Joker with a completely over the top plan to poison the city with laughing gas from a garbage barge. The situation becomes personal when Alfred succumbs to the Joker’s toxins and Batman has to find the antidote. “The Last Laugh” is only the fourth episode of the series, so you can tell the animators are still finding their footing, and it’s got some pretty silly moments (the robotic Captain Clown anyone?), but Batman and Joker are both handled perfectly, in large part thanks to the amazing performances from Conroy and Hamill.
I don’t think it’s controversial to say that Killer Croc is not exactly one of Batman’s A-list villains, but this episode makes a pretty good case for the character. I remember watching this one as a kid and being absolutely terrified by Killer Croc! Maybe it was just the fact that so much of this episode is shown in shadow, or maybe it was just the thought of being drowned in a sewer by a crazy shirtless guy with scales and sharpened teeth. Either way, it definitely stuck with me. It’s also a surprisingly grounded story, with an almost a noir like element through the lens of Harvey Bullock.
Speaking of grounded episodes with a film noir flair, one of the earliest episodes of the series gave us a beat cop’s perspective on “The Batman” when three officers are interrogated about what happened during a botched mafia bust, where the Caped Crusader showed up to save the day. The coolest thing about this episode is that we get three very different versions of what happened from Officer Montoya, Wilkes, and Detective Bullock. Bullock of course makes himself out to look like a hero, while Wilkes describes Batman like some kind of supernatural force.
17. Legends of the Dark Knight
Similar to “POV”, this is another episode where Batman is less of a character and more of a plot device, while different characters tell their versions of what they think Batman is. This time though, instead of three cops, we get some wildly different interpretations from a group of kids who add their own spin on the stories. This episode is basically an anthology of shorts, each with different animation styles and tones including a super cheesy Super Friends era dynamic duo and one heavily inspired by Frank Miller’s extremely gritty graphic novel, “The Dark Knight Returns”! It’s a lot of fun and really showcases just how versatile Batman is as an archetype.
16. Growing Pains
“Growing Pains” is one of the later episodes of the series from the final season where they revamped the art style and jumped ahead a number of years. Robin (Tim Drake) meets a young girl with amnesia. She’s being stalked by what he thinks is an abusive father, who turns out to be Clayface! What starts out as a seemingly run of the mill episode with a message takes a surprisingly dark turn when it turns out that ‘Annie’ is actually a piece of Clayface that he sent out as a scout, which then gained sentience. The episode ends tragically with (spoilers) Clayface reabsorbing and killing Annie, while Robin is powerless to stop him. This one hits hard.
15. Dreams in Darkness
Another episode with a loving homage to the film noir genre, this one even has a flashback narration from Bruce after he’s been locked away in Arkham Asylum! (with his mask still on for some reason) Long story short, this one involves the Scarecrow driving Batman insane so that he can’t stop him from unleashing his fear toxin into Gotham’s water supply. Bruce must face his fears, escape Arkham, and fight his demons in order to save the day! It’s a classic.
14. The Riddler’s Reform
The Riddler has always been one of my personal favorite Bat-villains, and this series has perhaps my favorite version to date. Voiced by John Glover, this Edward Nygma is a calm, calculated, criminal mastermind with style, and an unfortunate compulsion to leave clues that only Batman can solve. There are a few really great Riddler episodes, including his origin story in “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?” and “What is Reality?” where Batman and Robin are forced to beat Riddler in a virtual reality game to save Commissioner Gordon’s life, but the best one? “The Riddler’s Reform”. Edward Nygma seemingly gives up a life of crime, vowing to turn over a new leaf and gets a fresh start working as the mascot for a toy company. Batman is the only one who refuses to believe that he’s changed, and he’s right, because of course he is. The best part though? Batman’s daring escape from a seemingly impossible death trap!
13. Harley and Ivy
Unlike literally all the other characters on the show who were first introduced in the comics, Harley Quinn was actually first introduced in this series! Debuting in the Season 1 episode, “Joker’s Favor”, Harley Quinn (voiced by Arleen Sorkin) started off as just another one of the Joker’s henchmen (err, henchwoman?), but quickly became a fan favorite and is now one of DC’s most popular characters! But it wasn’t until this episode that Harley really stepped out of the Joker’s shadow and became her own character. After breaking up with her puddin’, “Mr. J.”, Harley becomes roommates with Poison Ivy and the two join forces as the new “Queens of Crime”, eventually crossing paths with Officer Montoya, Batman, and The Joker! Both Harley and Ivy are great characters on their own, but their odd couple chemistry together is really something special. This episode also inspired the “Harley and Ivy” comic and later the “Gotham City Sirens” series starring Harley, Ivy, and Catwoman!
12. Girl’s Night Out
Another great female-centric episode following “Harley and Ivy” was “Girl’s Night Out” – where Batgirl (Barbara Gordon – played by Tara Strong) teams up with Supergirl (Kara Zor-El) to take on Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy, and their new friend, Livewire! Hilarious shenanigans ensue.
11. The World’s Finest
This three-part-crossover-episode event was later released as “The Batman / Superman Movie”, not to be confused with the later animated follow-up “Superman/Batman: Public Enemies”, or “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”. “The World’s Finest” basically proved that a Batman/Superman crossover could work if done right. As a kid, I was a huge fan of both animated series, so this was pretty mind-blowing at the time (and then my teenage brain was further blown by the “Justice League” animated series a few years later). The basic story is Lex Luthor (voiced by Clancy Brown) hires The Joker to assassinate Superman (voiced by Tim Daly). The Joker and Harley Quinn steal a jade dragon statue from an antique shop in Gotham that turns out to be made of kryptonite which prompts the Dark Knight to head to Metropolis to try and warn the Man of Steel. The two heroes don’t exactly see eye to eye, both figuring out each other’s identities, but eventually decide to put aside their differences to team up. There’s so many great moments throughout: Batman pulling some Kryptonite on Superman, Bruce Wayne dating Lois Lane, and Mercy Graves fighting Harley Quinn!
*It was also followed up by another amazing crossover episode on Superman: The Animated Series called “Knight Time” where Robin (Tim Drake) has to team up with Superman *disguised as Batman* to save Bruce from Brainiac! It’s hilarious to see Clark trying to fool Gordon into thinking he’s Batman, and then later completely kicking Bane’s ass with ease. Both of these crossovers are required viewing!
10. Beware the Gray Ghost!
While it’s not a very action-packed entry, “Beware the Gray Ghost” is one of the most heartfelt episodes of the entire series. The episode follows an older actor, Simon Trent (played by Adam West!) who used to play a masked vigilante called ‘The Gray Ghost’ – a character that partly inspired a young Bruce Wayne to become a crimefighter himself! Right as Trent hits rock bottom, a series of bombings start happening around Gotham City that mirror the events of an episode from ‘The Gray Ghost’, so Batman recruits his childhood hero to help him stop “The Mad Bomber”!
“Batman & Mr. Freeze: Sub-Zero” was the second animated series Batman movie, following “Mask of the Phantasm” (more on that later) and developed on the classic Mr. Freeze episode, “Heart of Ice” (more on that one later too). Mr. Freeze is desperate to save his wife’s life after an incident in the arctic, she needs an organ transplant, and Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) is the only viable donor, so he kidnaps her and a surgeon to do the procedure. Luckily, Dick Grayson (Robin) is dating Barbara at the time and was there when Mr. Freeze shows up, so Batman and Robin jump into action, eventually tracking down Mr. Freeze leading to a fiery climax on an oil rig! With the right balance of action and emotional stakes, this is definitely the gold standard for Batman and Robin adventures. Plus, I’ve always liked Dick and Barbara as a couple, kinda wish they’d done more with that. Somewhat ironically, this came out just one year after the notorious live action “Batman and Robin” which featured George Clooney as Batman and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze – “Sub-Zero” was far superior in every way.
8. The Laughing Fish
There are a lot of truly great Joker episodes throughout this run, from “The Man Who Killed Batman” to “Joker’s Millions”, but one of the most iconic one’s is “The Laughing Fish”! Adapted from the storyline from the Detective Comics storyline by Steve Englehart, with elements from Denny O’Neal and Neal Adams’s “The Joker’s Five Way Revenge”, this episode follows Batman as he tries to untangle a mystery surrounding an insane scheme by The Joker attempting to trademark a mutated brand of sea food! It all leads to an epic confrontation at an aquarium, where Batman has to fight off a shark! Once again, Mark Hamill absolutely delivers.
7. Perchance to Dream
By far one of the most deep and introspective episodes is “Perchance to Dream”! It’s also easily the best Mad Hatter storyline in Batman lore to date. Bruce Wayne wakes up to a world where his parents are still alive, he’s engaged to Selina Kyle, and (gasp!) he isn’t Batman!? It’s all too good to be true, but Bruce can’t shake the feeling that something’s not right. In a twist worthy of The Twilight Zone, Bruce realizes that he’s trapped in some kind of dream state because he’s unable to read the newspaper, and the only way to wake up from the dream is to… commit suicide?! Bruce climbs to the top of a bell tower during a storm and confronts “Batman” who rips off his cowl to reveal the Mad Hatter who monologues at him about the nature of reality. Ultimately, Bruce sees through the charade, wakes up from the mind control trance, and punches the crap out of the Mad Hatter before continuing to be Batman.
*The story was somewhat similar to the premise of an awesome Alan Moore comic called “For the Man Who Has Everything” (that was later adapted as an amazing episode of “Justice League: Unlimited”) – which was about Superman being trapped in a trance by a sadistic parasite called the Black Mercy, that feeds off of a person’s deepest desires – in Kal-El’s case he saw an alternate life where Krypton never blew up…
6. Over the Edge
“Over the Edge” is one of the craziest, most intense episodes in the entire series! Batman and Batgirl face off against Scarecrow (with a seriously creepy re-design btw) that ends with Barbara Gordon falling to her death – in front of her father, Commissioner Gordon! A grief-stricken Gordon blames Batman for her murder and vows revenge! Batman, Robin, Nightwing, and Alfred are on the run from the police, and a desperate Gordon decides to recruit one of Batman’s most dangerous enemies, Bane! Turns out of course that (spoilers) it was all a hallucination from the Scarecrow’s fear toxin! Still, even with that twist at the end, the way the episode plays out, with how serious everything is handled, it was genuinely shocking.
5. Mad Love
Adapted from from Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s excellent Eisner Award winning graphic novel of the same name, “Mad Love” is the secret origin of Harley Quinn! In one of the final episodes of the series, we finally get to see how the Joker manipulated Dr. Harleen Quinzel into breaking him out of Arkham Asylum and falling in love. It’s both funny and heartbreaking, wild and thought-provoking. The comic was brilliant on it’s own, but this adaptation lovingly brings it to life.
4. Heart of Ice
Another tear-jerker of an episode is the Emmy Award winning episode, “Heart of Ice”! At the time, Mr. Freeze was often considered a throwaway joke of a character, that all changed thanks to this episode. They completely reworked his look, backstory, and character motivation. Now instead of just being another cold-themed villain, Dr. Victor Fries was a scientist who was desperately trying to cure his wife, Nora of a deadly disease, but something went wrong during a freak lab accident while trying to cryogenically freeze his wife, causing him to need sub-zero temperatures to survive! Meanwhile, Batman must face off against the wrath of Mr. Freeze, while he’s also struggling with a case of the common cold!
3. Almost Got ‘Im
I think it goes without saying that Batman has one of the best rogues galleries in the history of comics, so it’s usually pretty awesome to see said rogues team up to take down the bats. Sure we’ve seen team ups like this before in “The Long Halloween”, “Batman: Hush”, and even “Lego Batman”, but I’d argue that they all pale in comparison to this episode. The Joker, Two-Face, Poison Ivy, the Penguin, Harley Quinn, Catwoman, and Killer Croc all make an appearance in this one! Not to give away to much, (because if you haven’t seen this yet, you should really go do that) Gotham’s greatest supervillains are all having a nice little poker game where they each take turns sharing their near-triumphs over the Batman with more and more elaborate death traps. Turns out though that the Joker has an ace up his sleeve (metaphorically), but one of them isn’t who they seem!
The tragic origin of Two-Face is one of the best storylines from the Batman mythos, and this is without a doubt one of the best versions of this tale. District Attorney Harvey Dent is trying to clean up organized crime in Gotham City when mafia boss, Rupert Thorne decides to blackmail him with knowledge of his secret split personality. Harvey confronts Thorne at his chemical plant where the resulting confrontation ends in an explosion that scars half of Dent’s face! The incident causes Dent to have a psychotic break, leading him to become ‘Two-Face’. While Batman attempts to stop Two-Face, Bruce desperately tries to come to terms with his guilt over not being able to save his friend. It’s a brilliant two-parter with a heart-wrenching cliff-hanger, and an ending that leaves hope for redemption…
1. Mask of the Phantasm
Easily one of the best Batman entries of anything ever, “Mask of the Phantasm” isn’t just one of the best animated Batman movies to date, I’d argue that it’s still one of the best Batman movies – period.
When Gotham’s mob bosses start ending up dead, a mystery surrounding the vengeful vigilante leads Batman to dig into his past and the woman who almost caused him to give up on his life of crimefighting. Turns out that the last gangster on the Phantasm’s hit list is the clown prince of crime, culminating in a climactic battle between Batman and the Joker, ending with a twist so clever that I don’t want to spoil it.
The story flashes back and forth between the present and the past, weaving a story of Bruce’s doomed love and embracing his destiny as the Dark Knight. In the same vein as “Batman Begins” and “Batman: Year One”, this is one of the quintessential Batman origins!
Batman: TAS was later followed by the futuristic sequel series, Batman Beyond which introduced Terry McGuiness, a young apprentice trained by an elder Bruce Wayne who takes up the mantle of the Bat. Then in 2004, the series got a radical reboot with “The Batman”, which reimagined the Dark Knight’s rogues. Batman: The Brave and the Bold debuted in 2008, geared towards a younger audience while the computer animated Beware the Batman took an edgier approach in 2013.
The legacy of Batman: The Animated Series lives on once again with the recent announcement of a new animated series coming soon to HBO Max: “Batman: The Caped Crusader” from Bruce Timm, J.J. Abrams, and Matt Reeves (the director of next year’s “The Batman” starring Robert Pattinson)! Although not much is yet known about this new show, it appears to be a spiritual successor to the original trailblazing 90’s series that started it all.