Since his creation and first appearance in Detective Comics #27 in 1939, Batman has become a popular character. At a time where superheroes were wearing bright, colourful outfits, inspired by Superman, Bob Kane’s creation stalked the night in shades of black and grey. Batman is a stark contrast to Superman. When DC brought seven heroes together to form the Justice League, Batman was the only one without powers. Superman and Wonder Woman have their innate abilities, but young readers could imagine themselves becoming Batman, barring the incredible wealth.

The character would appear through the years since 1939 in movie serials, animation, television, and film. The 1966 Batman series wound up being the Batman for a generation despite the comics taking a darker turn. The Tim Burton-helmed Batman in 1989 corrected that impression, introducing the concept of the Dark Knight to a wider audience.

No superhero is complete without a gallery of rogues, a line up of recurring villains to vex the hero. Batman’s gallery often reflect the Bat himself in someway. The Penguin is an outcast from the high society Bruce Wayne risks if his secret is revealed. Catwoman represents what Bruce is giving up to be the Batman. The Riddler is Batman’s intellectual match, only brought down due to a need to have the intellect acknowledged. The Joker is almost Batman’s opposite – colourful, deadly, capricious. Most of the rest of Batman’s rogues have an obsession of some sort – the Clock King with time, Poison Ivy with the environment, Two-Face with duality, and the Scarecrow with fear. Those without an obsession often have a tragedy, such as Mr. Freeze and the loss of his wife. Superman deals with threats to the Earth’s existence; Batman deal with threats to his own sanity.

The 1989 Batman and its 1992 sequel, Batman Returns, drove a renaissance in viewer demand for more Batman. Warner Bros. Animation responded in 1992 with Batman: The Animated Series. The animated series took the tone of the Burton movies, using a version of Danny Elfman’s theme for the opening and end credits. The animation in the opening credits matches the mood of the music, with use of colour and shadows to evoke a sombre yet heroic theme.

Batman: the Animated Series opening credits

The series starred Kevin Conroy as Batman/Bruce Wayne. and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr as Alfred. Zimbalist replaced Clive Revill after the third episode when the latter had a previous commitment. Rounding out the core cast are Bob Hastings as Commissioner Gordon, Robert Costanza and Detective Bullock, and Loren Lester as Robin/Dick Grayson. The rogues gallery includes Paul Williams as the Penguin, Richard Moll as Two-Face/Harvey Dent, Adrienne Barbeau as Catwoman/Selina Kyle, Roddy McDowell as the Mad Hatter, David Warner as Ra’s al Ghul, Michael Ansara as Mr. Freeze, Ed Asner as Roland Daggett, Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn, and Mark Hamill as the Joker. As can be seen, the cast was filled with solid, established actors.

The series didn’t back away from tackling serious moments. Despite arguably created for children, B:tAS tackled serious storylines from the comics. Harvey Dent was introduced as the district attorney in Gotham City and a friend of Bruce’s, making several appearances before becoming Two-Face. His fall and Bruce’s reaction to what happened was treated appropriately, with no rolling back of what happened to Dent. Likewise, “The Heart of Ice” took Mr Freeze, a mad scientist in the comics at the time, and gave him a tragic backstory where he loses his beloved wife to a accident in a cryogenics lab, leaving her frozen and Freeze trapped in a cryosuit. “The Heart of Ice” won the 1993 Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Writing in an Animated Program.

B:tAS could have its lighter moments. The first episode featuring the Joker, “Christmas With the Joker”, began with the alternate version of “Jingle Bells” being sung with great gusto by Hamill. However, the series captured the essence of the Joker, where the audience would be able to laugh at the villain’s antics, then feel bad for laughing. The Clown Prince of Crime is a psychopath, not caring whether anyone is hurt by his antics. “Christmas With the Joker” is also notable for the Joker managing to complete one of his goals against Batman, namely, hitting the Dark Knight with a cream pie.

The series adapted several stories from the comics, throughout the character’s back issues. Elliot S. Maggin adapted his own story, “The Cape and Cowl Death Trap!”, as “The Cape and Cowl Conspiracy”. Marvelous Marv Wolfman and Len Wein also contributed, though not adapting their own works. While there were restrictions on what could be shown, due to being children’s programming, the mood and feelings of the adapted works came through.

The animation of B:tAS is a master class of how to use colour and shadow. While Batman might “only work in black and sometimes very, very dark grey,” to quote The LEGO Movie, the rest of Gotham doesn`t. The Joker is a contrast to Batman, so is decked out in garish colours. Light and shadow set the mood of episodes, with Batman lurking out of sight only to step out from darkness. Gotham itself is a mix of Art Deco and film noir, with airships patrolling the city, cars and trucks resembling vehicles of the Forties. Same with fashion and even the body armour of the SWAT teams; the inspiration comes from the Thirties and Forties. There is gilt in Gotham City, and Bruce Wayne travels in those circles.

As mentioned, B:TA has a solid cast. Kevin Conroy is both Batman and Bruce Wayne, using a shift in his voice. His Batman has a gravelly voice, deep, while Bruce’s is much chipper. Conroy’s Batman is stoic, stern, but when someone he cares for is hurt or worse, the anguish comes through. Conroy’s voice also changes for when Batman/Bruce is with someone who knows his secret double life, playful with Alfred, serious with Robin/Dick, but not guarded. Conroy continued to play Batman in the series following, including The Adventures of Batman and Robin, The New Batman Adventures, Justice League, Justice League Unlimited, and Batman Beyond, becoming the voice of Batman for multiple generations. His portrayal of Batman was such that, when Conroy volunteered to help in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 terrorist attack destroying the two World Trade Center towers. He worked in a kitchen to help feed the numerous first responders working in the rubble, and his reciting of the “I am vengeance” speech brought the responders closer together. Here is the story in his own words.

One voice bringing people together.

The series’ music plays a strong role in setting the mood of the series and individual episodes. Several characters have their own themes, beyond Batman. The Joker has a jaunty tune that clashes with Batman’s, but will pick up sinister undertones and discordant notes as an episode continues. The Penguin’s theme has elements of flightiness before becoming brasher, almost mocking Batman’s theme. The effort put into making each episode’s score unique elevates the series.

One element that B:tAS can model for Batman movies is how to balance the hero and villain. One of the problems of the Batman movies is that the colourful villains outshine the title character. Some actor/character combinations, such as Jack Nicholson as the Joker in the 1989 film, make it easy for the villain to steal the show. Mark Hamill’s Joker comes close many times. The writing and Kevin Conroy show that Batman isn’t colourless, despite the shades of black and grey.

Batman: the Animated Series demonstrates how to adapt a popular character, one that is in theatres and fresh in the minds of audiences, without losing the character’s essence. With the series taking inspiration from both the comics and the then-recent films, Batman: the Animated Series builds on the story of Batman and, for many people, the definitive Batman outside the comics.

This article was originally published at THE REMAKE ZONE.

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