In 1990 Warner Bros. was looking to capitalize on the huge commercial success of Tim Burton’s Batman, which had been a box office smash in the summer of ’89. They were gearing up for the sequel, which would eventually drop in 1992 as Batman Returns, but wanted something in the meantime to keep Batman on the minds of the folks. So they hired the team who made Tiny Toon Adventures to make a Batman cartoon.
The result, called Batman: The Animated Series, The Adventures of Batman and Robin, and The New Batman Adventures at various times throughout its run on Fox Kids and then KidsWB, was hailed by comic geeks and even some normal people as a triumph, a home run, some even called it the definitive interpretation of the character.
Those people were wrong. It wasn’t anywhere close to that good. But that’s the subject of tomorrow’s article. Today is about giving the show its due and highlighting the episodes Bruce Timm and his merry band of animators got right. I am pleased to present to you
The Five Best Episodes of Batman: The Animated Series
“Heart of Ice.” Everybody knows this one. This is Paul Dini’s retelling of the origin of Mr. Freeze, taking one of Batman’s blander, more nondescript rogues and transforming him into a tragic, tormented character whose crimes are motivated by a desire to avenge his wife. The geeks were already onboard by the time this episode won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing in an Animated Program, but the award made some other folks sit up and pay attention. Before “Heart of Ice,” Paul Dini was a veteran animation writer best known for penning some of the better episodes of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe for Filmation; after “Heart of Ice,” he was Fanboy Jesus. Like the series as a whole, this episode’s quality has been overstated through the years. It’s not one of the best Batman stories ever told. But it is probably the best episode of this show, and certainly the most influential — not only did Dini’s retooling of Mr. Freeze carry over into the comics, it also kicked off the ongoing trend of rehabilitating lame villains into major league badasses, a trend also known as Geoff Johns’s entire fucking career.
“Mudslide.” Clayface was another villain from the comics who had suffered from neglect and misguided tinkering from 50 years worth of writers and artists. The animated version is a combination of the original Golden Age Clayface, a disgruntled actor, and his Silver Age successor, a muddy, shape-shifting hulk. Clayface’s debut in the animated series, the two-part “Feat of Clay,” is one of the show’s high points, but the real must-see Clayface episode is “Mudslide.” Here we find Clayface rapidly losing his molecular cohesion, forced to wear a molded plastic suit to keep from falling apart. The ending provides the series with one of its most memorable visuals, as Clayface falls off a cliff into the water below, and we see the silhouette of his body beneath the surface, dissolving away in the current. The real reason I chose this as one of the five best, though, is because it contains, within a few seconds of each other, the two oddest cultural references in the history of the series. Clayface’s partner in this episode is a woman, Dr. Stella Bates, through whom Batman is eventually able to track him down. His investigation, Batman helpfully explains, revealed that Dr. Bates used to own a motel . . . A few seconds later, Dr. Bates is inadvertently injured in a struggle, causing an enraged Clayface to fall to his knees and scream “Stella!” A Psycho reference, backed up by a Streetcar Named Desire reference, both complete non sequitirs. It had never happened before in the show, and as far as I’ve seen, it never happened again.
“Baby Doll.” For years this was my favorite episode of the entire series. It still might be. I watched it again preparing for this, and it more or less held up to my memory of it. Baby Doll is a woman with a genetic disorder that leaves her with the appearance of a young child no matter how old she gets. She stars for years on a sitcom built around her precocious Webster-, Arnold Drummond-like character, but when the show is cancelled she has some trouble moving on. Her attempts at serious acting are thwarted by her condition, which leaves her perpetually typecast as Baby Doll – a hindrance when you’re trying to play Lady Macbeth. So she, like Emanuel Lewis and Gary Coleman before her, goes totally fuck bonkers, and kidnaps her former sitcom co-stars, the idea being she wants to recreate the fake happy childhood she had on TV. It’s her final confrontation with Batman that makes the whole episode — cornered in a hall of mirrors, she sees her reflection distorted to make her appear like a full-grown adult. “It’s me,” she says, reaching out to touch the glass, “the real me.” Realizing that it actually isn’t the real her, but just a wacky mirage, she shoots out all the mirrors and surrenders to Batman, tearfully hugging his legs. There are no big cartoon explosions or supervillain slugfests, just an interesting, emotionally complex villain and a satisfying story. I don’t ask much.
“Growing Pains.” I was surprised to find how good some of the New Batman Adventures episodes were when I watched them again recently, since I remembered that whole run as being a horrible, embarrassing failure. And most of it is. But one or two (okay, two) of those later shows are among the best stuff Timm and Co. ever did. The first one is this one, “Growing Pains,” which is — spoiler alert — another Clayface episode. Robin meets a young girl with amnesia and tries to help her find out who she is and where she’s from. She turns out to be a scout sent out by a weakened and disoriented Clayface — a piece of himself he dispatched to make sure he would be safe from the cops. Robin, who kinda has the hots for little Mini-Clayface, isn’t too thrilled. It sounds goofy . . . it is goofy, but it’s also a very well told story. The girl, who Robin sees as a separate person with her own right to exist, eventually rejoins Clayface. When the bad guy is finally captured and being taken away by the cops, they read off the charges against him. Robin sullenly suggests adding one more: Murder.
“Mad Love.” One of the happy results of the success of Batman: The Animated Series was that it inspired DC to publish a similarly styled comic book, The Batman Adventures, that was way, way better. Some of the best Batman stories of the 1990s were published in Batman Adventures and its successor, The Batman and Robin Adventures. One of those — in fact, the one which Frank Miller called the best Batman story of the decade — was a one-shot by Bruce Timm and Paul Dini called Mad Love. When the animated series went back into production as The New Batman Adventures, adapting Mad Love for the show was a no-brainer. So, this is the episode of the animated series that is adapted from the comic book that was inspired by the animated series that was based on the comic books. And it’s one of the best episodes of the series. It suffers compared to the comic book, but it’s really a miracle, and a tribute to the strength of the story, that I like it at all in either version. The story revolves around Harley Quinn, one of the most loathsome and irritating characters to ever appear as a regular in a Batman series. I can’t tell you how much I detest this character, and the more fanboys jizz in their shorts over her, the more I hate her. But more on that tomorrow. Here, she anchors one of the best episodes of the show, definitely the high point of the New Batman Adventures run. So congratulations, Harley. I guess even a blind, shrill, obnoxious, stupid, inexplicably popular squirrel finds a nut now and again.