Throwback Thursday: ‘Batman the Animated Series’ at 25 years

“Throwback Thursday” is a recurring segment that celebrates the anniversaries of some of my favorite media from long ago and reflects on its impact and influence.

Though my youthful expression and demeanor may not show it, I was born in the mid-1980s, which means that the majority of my childhood and adolescence was spent living in the ’90s. Now if you ask different people what they think the best decade was, their answers will vary depending on when they were born, if only because our life experiences are individual, and we cannot know anything else. That being said, I have the utmost privilege of having grown up during the undisputed heavyweight champion of pop culture decades, especially as a youth. From the string of now-legendary Disney animated films like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, to can’t-miss Nickelodeon programming like All That and Legends of the Hidden Temple, to even the world-famous Harry Potter book series, there was no better time to be a kid than during the ’90s.

One particular programming block that I could rely on to always entertain me was Fox Kids. Airing throughout the entire decade before declining in the early 2000s, a young Pierre would be eager to rush home from school or wake up early on Saturday mornings to watch Fox Kids shows. Classics like Animaniacs, Tiny Toon Adventures, X-Men, The Tick, and Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, among so many others, were all a part of the programming. However, there was one show in particular that in the end, when it comes to influence and legacy, would stand head and shoulders above all the rest.

On September 5, 1992, Fox Kids debuted Batman: The Animated Series. For TV viewers my age and beyond, we had been bombarded with the image of the 1960s Batman series starring Adam West–an image of bright, neon shades and floating action words. For a long time afterwards, that was the only portrayal of the Caped Crusader that we knew. Then came the Tim Burton-helmed films Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), which presented a version truer to the hero’s depiction in the original comics. Batman: TAS looked to take influence from those films and run with the idea. When it premiered on Fox Kids, it was unlike any of their other programming. It was overtly dark in tone, color, mood. Gone was the camp of the ’60s, replaced with mature storytelling and fresh takes on villains imbued with a sense of tragedy and humanity.

As a child, I was completely gripped by the complexity of the characters and the storylines. I appreciated the idea that a lot of times, it wasn’t as cut-and-dry as good defeating evil. I’ll never forget the sadness I felt with the two-part episode featuring Clayface, a villain who was really a victim of bad circumstances and corrupt people taking advantage of him. One of the appeals to me of Batman as a character was that it wasn’t always about him outpunching the bad guy. Most times, the fights were more complicated than that, with the World’s Greatest Detective using his intellect to outwit his opponents. Still, even with a resolution, the writers weren’t afraid to make the viewer feel some lament.

One of the most memorable moments of the series came from one of the best and most popular episodes. “Robin’s Reckoning” was another two-parter that centered on Batman’s young partner, Dick Grayson, aka Robin. In this episode, Batman discovers the whereabouts of a criminal named Tony Zucco, whom we discover in flashbacks is the man responsible for the death of Robin’s parents when he was younger. Ordered to stay behind in the investigation, Robin becomes enraged, obsessed with finding Zucco first and exacting revenge upon him. And when he did find him… Man, I’ll never forget the emotion, the rage that Robin displayed. It was a side of him that we had never seen before in the series. These episodes were responsible for the show winning the Emmy Award for Outstanding Animated Program, and it was well deserved.

The production team from Batman: TAS went on to create a number of beloved animated series in the same universe, including Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, and two Justice League series. A feature-length film, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, was also released in theaters in 1993, and despite the brilliance of Christopher Nolan’s film The Dark Knight, there’s still an argument to be made that Phantasm is the best Batman movie created. The series’ influence continues to be felt even today. One of the show’s original characters, Harley Quinn, has since crossed over into the comics series and other forms of Batman media, becoming an immensely popular character in its own right. And the voice performances in the series are now iconic: Even now, 25 years later, Kevin Conroy still continues to voice most of Batman’s animated appearances, even appearing in the acclaimed Batman: Arkham video game series. And just as I could argue about the greatness of Mask of the Phantasm, I could also say that every modern portrayal of The Joker, either animated or in film, owes some thanks to the show’s villain as portrayed by Mark Hamill. The man once primarily known as Luke Skywalker managed to create a master of a villain that is all at once whimsical and deadly, insane and savvy, with a laugh that can haunt a person for decades. This is the role that invigorated a career for Hamill as a voice actor.

As decades have gone by, many actors, writers, and directors have managed to leave their mark on the legacy of Batman, a timeless character that will no doubt continue to gain legions of fans as generations pass. But for fans like me, Batman: The Animated Series will always be the definitive take on the character. And when I hear that iconic theme song begin to play, I know I’m always in for a good time.

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Video and images courtesy of Warner Bros.

What are some of your favorites episodes and memories of Batman: The Animated Series? Share them in the comments below!

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