It seems like there will always be new Batman cartoons and new movies offering up new approaches to the character. And DC Comics will keep doing crazy new crap to Batman like pretending he’s dead when he’s really back in caveman times. The sad truth is that the pinnacle of Batman storytelling has already been reached, and anything that follows has been and will be but a shadow of perfection. The perfection of which we speak is Batman: The Animated Series (and its later incarnations), the mid to late-1990s cartoon that managed to distill the best elements of the Batman universe and remold them into a story that was engaging, darkly beautiful and simply perfect in just about every way. Batman was dark, serious and the greatest detective in the world, yet not overbearing and retained a sense of humor when appropriate. The origins of Batman and his villains and allies were perfected into their purest form, and the stories took place in a coherent universe. Although it was a cartoon, the show didn’t pander. A high achievement, Batman: The Animated Series has many excellent episodes. These are, in our opinion, the creamiest of the crop.
15) The Clock King
Most people remember the Clock King as one of the typically ridiculous villains-of-the-week from the Adam West Batman series. Bruce Timm and Paul Dini gave the character new life and real menace in this episode, in which time-obsessed efficiency expert Temple Fugate follows some advice to break away from his regimented schedule for a longer lunch break, and ends up having his life ruined after a series of mishaps causes him to be, ironically, late to a court date. Years later, he shows up as the Clock King to get revenge on the man who gave him the bad advice, now the current mayor of Gotham City. The Clock King comes damned close to killing Batman and end up battling him on a giant clock face as the minute hand ticks down to potentially squash the kidnapped mayor.
The Animated Series wisely introduced District Attorney Harvey Dent in early episodes as Bruce Wayne’s friend before an acid explosion turned Harvey into the villainous Two-Face. This very dark two-part episode is an early example of how the DC Animated Universe (DCAU) could be appreciated by kids, but was really tailored to an older audience. Harvey’s transformation wasn’t just because he was disfigured; he had already shown signs of possessing a separate personality consumed by rage and the accident just sent him over the edge. Looking back now, this episode is similar to the Two-Face storyline presented in the film The Dark Knight.
Forget that dumb brute Bane was portrayed as in the awful movie Batman & Robin. The Animated Series stayed closer to the comic books by making Bane a cunning, intelligent ex-con who was one of the strongest foes Batman ever faced, thanks to the steroids – Venom, I mean – that he shoots into his veins. The battle at the end of this episode was excellent. Robin goaded Candace, the conniving minx who was Bane’s accomplice, to tussle and she was happy to oblige, almost handing the Boy Wonder an embarrassing defeat. And Bane replicated the scene from the comic books where he lifted Batman up and prepared to swing him down, breaking his back; but in this version, Batman at the last second stabs the Venom control switch with a Batarang, causing Bane to get so gruesomely pumped up that he almost explodes. See, this is why the DCAU Batman is even better than the comic book version!
12) Perchance to Dream
Bruce Wayne awakes to find himself in the life he would have lived if his parents never died. He’s just a millionaire playboy; somebody else is Batman. Most importantly, Bruce got to live his whole life with his mother and father. Naturally, Bruce flips out, leads the police on a wild goose chase and decides to kill himself. Some people are just never happy. The episode has a twist ending that, while predictable, ends up involving a different Bat-villain that you might have expected. And Bruce’s realization of why things aren’t right is nicely done, too.
11) Beware the Gray Ghost
This episode is true bliss. Adam West, the beloved Batman from the 1960’s series, voices Simon Trent, a washed-up actor who once played the Gray Ghost, a Sandman-like character who hugely inspired Bruce Wayne’s creation of the Batman persona. When a crazed toy collector (a sad but true parody of those of us who obsessively collect action figures) begins recreating crimes from an episode of the presumed lost Gray Ghost series, Batman enlists the help of his childhood idol to solve the case. It’s nice to see Bruce actually enjoying his work and pretty much using the case as an excuse to meet Simon Trent. He even kind of reveals his identity to Trent while Trent is promoting the release of the Gray Ghost episodes (of which he had copies stored in his closet). Trent seems pleasantly amazed that his former character has lived on in such a way, which mirrors how this episode is a big tribute to Adam West.
10) If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?
Like just about every other villain in this series, the Riddler debuted in much more menacing form than a lot of viewers were used to. A corporate executive makes a bad decision when he cans Edward Nygma, designer of the popular “Riddle of the Minotaur” video game, and denies him any of the profits. Nygma later resurfaces as the Riddler and begins threatening and stalking the executive, instilling in him a terror that will seemingly last to the end of his days. The thrilling ending has the Riddler trying to defeat Batman and Robin in a life-size amusement park “Riddle of the Minotaur” maze, complete with a flying hand, fire-breathing dragons and a giant minotaur robot. On a side note, it seems a lot of the villains in this series were forced down the wrong path by corrupt corporate bigwigs or other figures of power.
9) Legends of the Dark Knight
If you’re a Batman comic book aficionado, this episode is your wet dream. A group of kids imagine what Batman is like in person and the two vastly different versions presented are taken wholesale from the printed page. One kid’s vision of Batman & Robin looks just like colorful Dick Sprang artwork from the 1950s and includes Golden Age craziness such as the Dynamic Duo battling the Joker with giant musical instruments. The second tale is a retelling of the Batman vs. Mutant Leader storyline from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight, imagined by a kid who looks just like the female Robin in that story and plays the Mary-Sue role in her fantasy. As an added bonus, one of the kids (who is standing under a “Shoemaker” sign) acts a bit fey and muses about Batman having tight rubber armor, both a nod and a slight to reviled Batman & Robin director Joel Schumacher.
8) Harley & Ivy
Harley Quinn finally breaks away from her abusive servitude to the Joker and hooks up in a true partnership with Poison Ivy. Harley then shows up her old boss by terrorizing all of Gotham with Poison Ivy in a huge crime spree. This episode is notable for starting the entertaining friendship between Harley and Ivy that persisted throughout the animated series and was such a natural fit that it carried over into the mainline DC comic books. The duo seemed to enjoy hanging around each other in abandoned hideouts day and night wearing nothing but long t-shirts, which caused some viewers to wonder if Harley and Ivy were closer than just partners in crime.
7) Over the Edge
This series had a lot of crazy scenarios that were just dreams or hallucinations. Thankfully, most of them were done really well. “Over the Edge” was so, erm, edgy that it’s hard to believe it even aired. It starts out with Batman and Robin getting chased from the Batcave and shot at by Commissioner Gordon and an army of police. Alfred and Nightwing get arrested. If all that wasn’t mind-blowing enough, it turns out that Gordon is pissed off because Scarecrow pushed Batgirl off a ledge and she died broken and bloodied in her father’s arms, all depicted horrifically on screen. Gordon, who uncovers Batman’s identity on Batgirl’s computer, then frees Bane from prison and tasks him with eliminating Batman. Bane and Batman battle to the death, with Bane seemingly fried to death by the Batsignal. Gordon and Batman then plummet off Police HQ to their deaths. Imagine if that had been the series finale. Thankfully, it wasn’t, as Batgirl had just been gassed by Scarecrow and dreamt the whole thing. But that didn’t stop it from being awesome, especially when you think of the kids watching it for the first time that didn’t figure out the whole thing was a trip until the end.
6) Heart of Ice
The character most successfully and dramatically reinvented in the animated series was Mr. Freeze. Previously, the character has just been another generic mad scientist with a “cold” theme. This episode turned him into a tragic figure, driven mad and mostly heartless after his corporate boss terminated the cryogenic experiment that was keeping his beloved wife, Nora, alive. His former boss pretty much deserved Mr. Freeze’s wrath, but Batman of course had to stop Freeze. The last shot of the episode, with Freeze sitting in an Arkham Asylum cell and apologizing sadly to a music box depicting his wife, was heartbreaking. It was the moment most of us knew that this series was something special.
5) The Ultimate Thrill
Bruce Timm and Paul Dini created some original characters for the show that went on to become part of the regular DC comic book universe, the most notable being Harley Quinn. Another character they created hasn’t been as prevalent in later media but really shown bright in this episode – Roxy Rocket. Roxy is a former stuntwoman whose addiction to thrills eventually got her blacklisted from films because her crazy, dangerous stunts became uninsurable. Still an adrenaline junkie, Roxy began flying around Gotham on with a rocket between her legs and committing robberies, even engaging in a daring escape from the Penguin and his goons. She was obviously turned on by Batman and giving him chase, and the culmination of their encounter pushed the censors to their limits. When Batman lands on Roxy’s rocket, aims it at a wall and plays chicken by seeing who will jump first, Roxy is depicted as having an orgasm right then and there, especially when Batman grabs and her and jumps off to their seeming deaths. Roxy was one sick babe, and it was great.
4) Robin’s Reckoning
This two-part episode is a straightforward telling of Robin’s origin and his pursuit – both as a child and as an adult – of the man who killed his parents. It was nothing fancy and there were no gimmicks; it was just an excellent tale of loss, revenge and moving on, and the characters felt very human and real. The sadness in Robin’s story is palpable and the story is a perfect example of how this series had distilled and refined the best aspects of Batman. In fact, the story was more adult and touching than just about anything seen in the Batman films, and that includes the Christian Bale series. It’s no wonder this episode won an Emmy.
3) Growing Pains
Robin, the Tim Drake version, meets a cute girl who has amnesia and is on the run from a brute who claims to be her father. It turns out that the man chasing after her is Clayface and that the girl is a piece of him that had broken off and become sentient. Clayface wants her back and the girl ends up sacrificing herself to save Robin be letting Clayface reabsorb her. When Clayface is arrested, the distraught Robin tells Batman that murder should be added to the villain’s crimes. The concept is so heady and horrific, and shockingly so, that it’s yet another example of the levels of sophistication this show was able to achieve.
2) Mad Love
When Batman: The Animated Series evolved into The New Batman Adventures, the art was changed to a slicker style and more stories focused on Robin, seemingly in an effort to appeal more to kids. However, the stories, like “Growing Pains” and “Mad Love,” became darker, more violent and more prone to innuendo and other adult themes. In the beginning of this episode, Harley tries to get the Joker’s attention by dressing in slinky lingerie and asking Mr. J if he wants to rev up his Harley. Ignored yet again by her unrequited love, Harley impressively proves her mettle by luring in and capturing Batman, then dangling him over a tank of piranha that, from his perspective since he’s upside down, appear to be smiling. Joke, outraged that Harley has outdone him, responds by shoving her out a high window. While she survives, it was a brutal and shocking act. And Harley, the poster girl for “battered wife” syndrome, goes right back to him the moment he sends a trite note apologizing for the incident. What makes it even more tragic are the flashbacks revealing how Harley, formerly a psychologist at Arkham, fell under the Joker’s spell while he was just using her to escape. Bonus: The Joker, played by Mark Hamill and posing as a dentist, utters, “May the floss be with you.”
1) Almost Got ‘Im
This episode packs in so many villains, storylines and jokes that it’s hard to believe it’s only one 20+ minute episode. The premise is the simple but delightful idea that Batman’s villains all get together now and then to play poker and bitch about how their shared nemesis always gets the upper hand. In this case, Poison Ivy, Two-Face (who is none too happy to see his ex-girlfriend, Poison Ivy), the Joker, the Penguin and Killer Croc share and compare the times they almost “got” Batman. Each tale told is more ridiculous than the one before it, with the villains using creative yet laughably convoluted ways to try and finally kill off Batman. Poison Ivy uses exploding pumpkins; Two-Face ties Batman to a giant penny (the one later seen in the Batcave) and flips it; the Penguin traps Batman in his “Aviary of Doom” with poisonous hummingbirds; Joker takes over a talk show, blasts the audience with laughing gas and straps Batman to an electric chair that is activated by laughter; and Killer Croc… uh… throws a big rock at Batman. The ending has a great twist and even Catwoman shows up and tries to “get” Batman in her own way. Add in Harley Quinn, and this is pretty much the most you could ask for in a singular installment of Batman: The Animated Series.
Robert Bricken is one of the original co-founders of the site formerly known as Topless Robot, and its first editor-in-chief, serving from 2008-12. He brought the site to prominence with “nerd news, humor and self-loathing” as its motto, raising it from total internet obscurity to a readership in the millions, with help from his savage “FAQ” movie reviews and Fan Fiction Fridays. Under his tenure Topless Robot was covered by Gawker, Wired, Defamer, New York magazine, ABC News, and others, and his articles have been praised by Roger Ebert, Avengers actor Clark Gregg, comedian and The Daily Show correspondent John Hodgman, the stars of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Rifftrax, and others. He is currently the managing editor of io9.com. Despite decades as both an amateur and professional nerd, he continues to be completely unprepared for either the zombie apocalypse or the robot uprising.