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Animated 'Batman' offers up the definitive Caped Crusader

August 5, 2004
By Franklin Harris

Batman has changed many times across the decades. He has gone from grim avenger to smiling Superfriend, from the Dark Knight Detective to "The Dark Knight Returns" and from campy caped crimefighter to the world's most dangerous man. But after thousands of comic books, five feature films (with a sixth on the way), one live-action TV series and several cartoons, one version stands out as the definitive Batman.

Stylish art deco designs help distinguish ''Batman: The Animated Series'' from other superhero cartoons.
Copyright © Warner Bros.
Stylish art deco designs help distinguish ''Batman: The Animated Series'' from other superhero cartoons.
That version is "Batman: The Animated Series," which aired for 85 episodes beginning in 1992. The first 28 episodes are now available on DVD.

"Batman: The Animated Series" Vol. 1 is a four-disc set pitting Batman against his most formidable foes, including the Joker, the Penguin, Catwoman, Mr. Freeze and the Scarecrow.

Debuting the same year as Tim Burton's second Batman movie, "Batman Returns," "Batman: The Animated Series" capitalized on the public's eagerness to accept a darker, more serious Batman, far removed from the comedic Batman portrayed by Adam West and the non-threatening Batman of "Superfriends." This was a Batman firmly in touch with his dark, gothic roots.

Many people had a hand in making "Batman: The Animated Series" a success, but the two names most associated with the show are Paul Dini and Bruce Timm. Together, they created a model Batman, one that would go on to influence how other creators would approach the character.

Dini and Timm never talked down to their audience. Except for having to comply with broadcast standards for children's television, "Batman" might as well have been aimed at an adult audience. This is the kind of approach that made Marvel Comics such a huge success in the 1960s, when Marvel Editor-in-Chief Stan Lee's rule was to write for the college crowd.

One thing "Batman: The Animated Series" did that earlier superhero cartoons did not was flesh out its villains, portraying many of them as tragic figures. The best example of this is the episode "Heart of Ice," in which Mr. Freeze launches a crime spree in order to avenge his wife.

Batman has always had the best rogue's gallery of any superhero, and Dini and Timm play to that strength by perfectly matching voice actors to villains. The results speak for themselves, whether it is Adrienne Barbeau as a sultry Catwoman, actor/songwriter Paul Williams as an erudite Penguin or Mark Hamill as a whimsically sinister Joker.

Of course, it would be criminal for me not to mention Kevin Conroy's excellent work as Batman/Bruce Wayne and Efrem Zimbalist Jr.'s memorable Alfred.

But the real star of "Batman: The Animated Series" is the show's look. Each episode is like a 1930s or 1940s movie, complete with old-style title cards. Gotham City is a maze of art deco architecture bathed in shadows, a style the show's creators refer to as "dark deco."

The result of all of this retro design is a timeless quality. Batman has access to computers, lasers and all of the latest technology, but Gotham's skyline is filled with zeppelins and telephones have rotary dials. Dini and Timm's approach is effective because while Batman has evolved through the years, he is still, at heart, a 1940s-style pulp crimefighter, like the Shadow or the Spider.

"Batman: The Animated Series" Vol. 1 features commentaries by Dini, Timm and producer Eric Rodomski on two episodes, "Heart of Ice" and the premiere episode, "On Leather Wings."

The box set also includes test footage used to sell Warner Bros. on the series, interviews with animators and comic-book creators about the history and influence of Batman, a "tour of the Batcave" and previews for other Warner Bros. superhero DVDs. The set retails for $49.98.

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