Batman has a long, long history. In the 1960s he was mostly known as a campy television star, but in the ‘80s, the comics took a decidedly darker slant. In Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Batman is a bloodthirsty cynic on the warpath. He wears an armored suit, refers to Robin as his “soldier,” and beats people senseless. If this sounds familiar, it’s because this pivotal comic – and much of Frank Miller’s work on the character – has been the reference point for most recent Batman screen adaptations.
Batman: The Animated Series stands apart, existing in the shadow of the ‘80s comics and ignoring them in favor of other influences. There’s the influence of Tim Burton’s Batman films. The theme song – a variation on the Danny Elfman theme – promises moodiness and excitement, and in that, there’s a path that leads to the series’ other cinematic influences. The show was scored mostly by Shirley Walker, who’d worked with Danny Elfman on Burton’s 1989 Batman. Walker’s work on the score doesn’t just riff on the gothic tones set by Elfman; it also branches out into other directions, with organs and piano, stringed instruments and dark, majestic brass all bringing to mind alleyways, smokey rooms and car chases.
Each episode had its own score, which was unusual at the time, and points towards the showrunners’ goal of having every episode be a “mini-movie.” Some are dark comedies, others are mysteries, others tragedies. Head writer Paul Dini referenced Hitchcock and film noir, and aimed to have each mini-movie work within a three-act structure. The cinematic foundation – in the writing, the music, and the art – provides the series with an emotional core that allows its characterization of Bruce to stand apart in our collective memory.
Gotham City exists outside of time. Architecture, technology, and fashion are a mash-up of the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘90s. Art Deco buildings loom over black and red horizons, invoking the art of Hugh Ferriss. The moon is stark white, glowing with just enough light to make out a masked face. The walls of the cave, painted on black and shaded in blues and greys, are fantastically large. It looks lonely. Less like a superhero’s headquarters, and more like a place for a ghost to haunt.
Act 1: A Man
The show is largely contained to the streets and alleys of Gotham, so Batman isn’t watching over the world like an all-seeing god. The smaller scale means the character can function on a more human-to-human level. This version of Bruce is a father, and he laughs, sometimes. Here is Batman – a specter of hope and fear, lingering in alleyways and between street lamps. Here is Bruce Wayne, friend, father, child, man, abstraction. Existing as best he can. Voiced by Kevin Conroy, Bruce is sarcastic and lighthearted, while Batman is calm and intimidating. Both sides of him can be warm.
The show is not preoccupied with Bruce Wayne’s wealth or gadgets, but rather with the connections that he forms. While Nolan’s Batman films have scenes showing off the militaristic “tumbler,” the animated series has an episode dedicated to Batman protecting the mechanics who designed his car. And instead of a traitorous femme fatale, or a cold-blooded detective leading the narrative, there’s just Bruce and the people he wants to protect. He’s not made into a hero because of his technology, but because of his ability to endure, his talent for compassion, and his unfaltering determination. Strip the character of his gadgetry, and he is just a man who gives a shit. It’s the platonic ideal of Batman, a character who has morphed a hundred times over in the past eighty years.
BTAS is home to the platonic ideal of a lot of characters; people who have remolded themselves in hurt. There’s Harley Quinn, who is changed by toxic love rather than toxic waste; Arleen Sorkin’s performance evokes Judy Holliday as Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday (1950), instantly bringing to mind Billie’s wit and her suffocating relationship with an abusive gangster. Harley is lovably daffy and ultra-violent, a psychiatrist turned moll turned supervillain.
There’s Harvey Dent (Richard Moll), whose transformation is rooted in his anger — something that he fears and wants to hide. “There’s nothing wrong with getting help,” Bruce tells him when he reveals that he sees a therapist. But Harvey hates himself too much, fears his anger to the point it took on a life of its own, and Bruce is left as one of the only people who sees that, and cares.
There’s no investment in the idea of criminality here. Batman doesn’t think of each episode’s villain as enemies to obliterate because they commit crimes. Batman: The Animated Series is concerned with two things: identity and compassion. Episodes are studded with Batman’s common refrain of “Why?” Who are we, and why? How can we come to understand each other, recognize pain, and extend a hand towards one another? Bruce spends hours in his cave poring over textbooks and journals, looking for a way to help Two Face turn back into Harvey Dent. An episode is spent on Harley Quinn’s release from Arkham Asylum, on which Batman congratulates her. He wants people to heal, in the ways he thinks he can’t.
Bruce is concerned with who he is now, and who he wants to become. When Scarecrow manages to send him into a state of panic, it isn’t that night in the alleyway that he thinks of. Instead he thinks of his father and imagines that he would be disappointed in him. It’s enough to make him cower until a burst of self-certainty pulls through. To himself, he says, “I am vengeance. I am the night. I am Batman!” You would think he’d bellow it, an intimidating threat for anyone around to hear it. Instead, he says it quietly. He has to tell himself who he is, and who he’s decided to become. He doesn’t mourn who he was anymore.
Act 2: Justice
The man who killed Bruce’s parents is never seen in the animated series. He’s never even spoken of. There is no episode dedicated to Batman’s origin, no reference to an alleyway, or The Mark of Zorro, or pearls. What matters most is that we understand that at some point, something happened to Bruce. Something that made him transform himself.
His parents’ murderer is not who motivates him. Bruce is not turned into Batman by one man with a gun. It’s a self-motivated transformation, an exorcism of fear and pain that makes him into Batman. Bruce, in several instances across the Batman canon, will often speak of criminals as a whole class of people upon whom he has declared war, starting with his parents’ killer. But in BTAS, he doesn’t become Batman to hunt down anyone – he becomes Batman to stop other vulnerable people from getting hurt, often including the so-called villains.
He is determined to protect. Rather than a violent sadist, this version of Batman is optimistic to a fault. He trusts Harley Quinn when he probably shouldn’t, and roots for Harvey Dent’s recovery. It is never punishment that he desires.
In this show’s world, justice comes from helping and protecting others. Is it not just, to protect others the way you wish you’d been protected? Is it not just, to believe in second chances for ourselves? A lack of justice is a lack of understanding, and lack of protection; a lack of kindness for those who have been hurt. Bruce doesn’t hate and mistrust the world, he hates the pain he suffered, hates the pain he can’t stop seeing everywhere.
One character, Lock-Up (Bruce Weitz), is an abusive Arkham warden who is fired and reinvents himself as a vigilante jailer. In a nod to the colossal impact of Frank Miller’s work, Lock-Up is written the way Bruce was in the 80s — a fascist, wanna-be cop. Watching the news, Lock-Up seethes, “It all starts with the permissive, liberal media.” He is written in the show as Batman’s antithesis.
As he and the Caped Crusader fight, Batman’s voice is searing. “I was born to fight your brand of order,” and “I’ve seen how you treat your prisoners. Forgotten, and scared. Without hope or compassion.”
Lock-Up laments, “Can it be you actually care for those creatures?”
Of course, he does. That’s the whole point of Batman in this series. Somebody cares. He puts on the cloak and the mask, and he places a comforting hand on the shoulder of the scared and the hurt.
Act 3: The Night
In the Emmy award-winning episodes “Robin’s Reckoning Part I” and “Part II”, Bruce’s desire for vengeance boils over. It coats his mouth, coats every word he says. The episodes’ narrative is framed by flashbacks, switching from a present-day Gotham City guarded by Batman and his college-aged Robin (Loren Lester), to a past where Robin did not yet exist.
In these flashbacks, Dick Grayson (Joey Simmrin), child acrobat, is orphaned during a circus performance. A mobster cuts the trapeze ropes and he watches as his parents fall to their deaths. On-screen, the trapeze swings across the screen, his parents’ shadows floating by. Then, the audience erupts into gasps. A torn rope swings back into view.
Bruce Wayne is in the audience and offers to take the boy in, unknowingly kickstarting the development of Robin the vigilante sidekick. Robin in BTAS isn’t just a silly second banana, as in the 1960s show, or non-existent, as in most Batman films. Thematically, he is the reflection of Bruce’s trauma. Narratively, he becomes Bruce’s son.
Dick moves into Bruce’s childhood room. The bed is huge but is still swallowed up in the enormity of the bedroom, painted in slate gray and blue. A giant portrait of Bruce’s parents hangs over the fireplace. Dick sits on his too-big bed, alone. He eats dinner at a mile-long table, alone. Bruce is enraged, consumed with the desire to find Tony Zucco, the mobster who killed the Graysons over petty protection money. It’s as if he has regressed, emotionally sent back in time to when his own parents’ death was still fresh. He spends every waking moment hunting the man down, thinking this will cure Dick’s sadness. Then he’s reminded that for a little boy, a family means more than vengeance.
Batman’s great accomplishment in these episodes isn’t the apprehension of Tony Zucco. His achievement is giving up chasing Zucco to protect and care for the boy he’d just taken in, raising him into a young man who is happier than he was.
In one flashback, young Dick Grayson, newly orphaned and adopted, asks Bruce about his parents’ death. “Does the hurt ever go away?”
“I wish I could say it does. But it will get better with time, for you. That I promise,” Bruce replies.
The stories, no matter how sad, always seem impossibly threaded with hope. Kevin Conroy voices his character with so much warmth and certainty that it makes you sure that things will be okay. Even when Bruce admits in “Robin’s Reckoning” that things didn’t get better for him, his assurances feel sincere. He’s made it this far, and so will you.
Batman is a symbol of survival. Batman’s a power fantasy. For some, he can be a specific kind of power fantasy — the kind of power that means hurting others to feel good about yourself; a symbol of control over others, a tyrant rather than a protector. For others, he’s a power fantasy about wealth, a man with bottomless pockets to fund every technological whimsy one could have.
But in the animated series, he’s a fantasy of resilience. To take control of your life, to snatch it back from whoever dared to interfere. It’s a fantasy on the micro-level. He is vengeance, he is the night. It speaks to the desire to rip the night straight out of the hands of whoever made it terrifying for us. To not just be unafraid, but to be comfortable in our fears, and let them cloak us.
“Batman: The Animated Series” is streaming on HBO Max.