Thursday, September 6, 2012
The 20 Best Episodes of Batman: The Animated Series
In September of 1992, Batman: The Animated Series made it's TV debut and it blew the minds of kids and adults. Airing on the FOX Kids Network, Batman: The Animated Series was billed as a show for children, but it was perfectly suitable for adults to sit down and watch because it didn't pander or talk down to the audience. The show was dark, funny, and tragic all at the same time. It was a show that had something for everyone and is widely considered the best animated version of the Dark Knight. Heck, in some ways, the DC Animated Universe version of Batman is better than his comic book counterpart. Batman: The Animated Series is the show that kicked off the DCAU, which is gave way to shows like Superman: The Aniamted Series, Batman Beyond, Static Shock, Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. Even shows that are not part of the DCAU like Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Young Justice and Green Lantern: The Animated Series may not have existed if not for what Batman: The Animated Series did for TV and Warner Bros. years ago. In celebration of the series' 20th anniversary, here are my picks for the 20 best episodes of the series.
20. Beware the Creeper
Jack Rider has a near fatal encounter with the Joker while broadcasting at the same factory that turned him into the Clown Prince of Crime. A combination of Joker's laughing gas and the chemical vat that Joker fell into turn Rider into the Creeper, a hyperactive, acrobatic lunatic who's method's scare even the Joker. Voiced by Jeff Bennett, every line of dialogue to come out of Creeper's mouth is gold. Always with a smile on his face, the Creeper is just as good at fighting as he is with words, pulling off an off hand back on Batman of all people. The Creeper isn't a villain, but he's so crazy that it isn't hard to see why Batman and Robin are trying to catch him to put him in check.
19. Beware the Gray Ghost
Some madman is blowing up Gotham piece by peace but no one can figure out how the explosives are being planted. Batman believes there lies a connection to the Gray Ghost, an old TV show that starred has-been actor Simon Trent. Living in an apartment in Gotham, Simon struggles to find work because he's so closely associated with the Gray Ghost. When Batman tracks him down and enlists his aid in finding the Mad Bomber, Batman reveals to Gray Ghost that he has a mini shrine to him and that he was a big inspiration behind his being Batman. As Gray Ghost said in his own words "So, it wasn't all for nothing." Batman and the Gray Ghost find out how the bombings are being done, catch the bomber and things pan out quite nicely for Simon Trent when the original long lost Gray Ghost TV series gets a video release. Gray Ghost/Simon Trent is voiced by Adam West, yes, the same Adam West of the 1960s live action Batman TV show. Rather than poke fun and make jokes about the campy Batman show that west starred in, this is more of a tribute to the man that is done in very good taste. It's also the one time where Batman looks at figure in the shows (Gray Ghost) after being rescued and says "You?!" Seriously, the episode could be worth watching for that bit alone. The Mad Bomber was not only designed off of DCAU big wig Bruce Timm's likeness, he was also voiced by him.
18. On Leather Wings
This wasn't the first episode that aired, but it was the first produced and it was the first full episode that I'd seen. The Man-Bat is breaking into chemical labs, terrorizing people and tossing guards out windows. The cops blame Batman and seek to capture him. Batman finally confronts the man behind the Man-Bat, Dr. Kirk Langstrom. It's here that we get to see one of the coolest animated transformation scenes as Langstrom mutates into the Man-Bat and leads Batman on an incredible high flying chase through Gotham City. I still get awestruck every time I see Batman and Man-Bat fly atop that Gotham Police blimp. It's a stunning piece of animation. For a pilot episode, it holds up tremendously well. You see Batman doing detective work, swinging off buildings, eluding the police; all good stuff. This episode also introduces Commissioner Gordon, Detective Harvey Bullock, and Mayor Hamilton Hill, characters we'd be seeing much of throughout the series. There's also a quick appearance by Harvey Dent, tossing a coin, no less!
Short for point of view, this episode centers around a botched sting operation. Three police officers, Bullock, Rene Montoya and Wilkes each tell their side of the story but Bullock's tale is very much at odds with Montoya and Wilkes. Bullock blames Batman for the failed bust and claimed Montoya and Wilkes were late. Montoya and Wilkes protest otherwise. After all three stories get told, they all end up suspended. If you have a good script and a great supporting cast, your story can carry itself without the title character being too involved and that's just what this episode does. Not only do we get three different individuals take on the story, we get their views on Batman. By this point in the series, we've already seen that Bullock does not care for Batman and it's painfully obvious that his part of the story is the lie, but we get to see what a capable fighter Bullock is, even when he isn't armed. Wilkes, being the rookie is very much awed by Batman and the way he describes his story has Batman come off as being more than human. Montoya knows Batman is only human, but is impressed by his skills and welcomes his help, even watching his back. I'm a fan of flashback episodes when they get done right and this one was done extremely well.
16. Growing Pains
When Kids WB wanted to do a Batman show, the same powerhouse crew that worked on Batman: The Animated Series was assigned the job. Though the series was called The New Batman Adventures, it was very much a continuation of the original series, but with a more streamlined look to match that of Superman: The Animated Series, which was on the same network at the time. Growing Pains is a Robin focused episode. At this time in the series, the Robin is Tim Drake and since he's only 13, well you know he's got more than crime fighting on the brain. A run in with a cute girl that needs help has Robin so preoccupied that he defies Batman's orders and goes off alone to help her. At the same time, a new crook is making the rounds in Gotham and he has inhuman strength. Said brute is somehow connected to Robin's crush. Robin names the girl Annie and she returns his affections. Unfortunately, things go south very quickly when Batman finds out the girl's father is Clayface. When Clayface fell off that cliff in the episode Mudslide, he was having trouble keeping himself together. He eventually came in contact with some chemicals to make himself whole again. In order to make sure things were safe, he sent a chunk of his body away, Annie and she gained sentient and amnesia from being away from him for so long. The reality that Annie isn't a real human being is crushing. Clayface nearly kills Robin but Annie sacrifices herself to save him, much to Robin's heartache. In his rage, Robin nearly kills Clayface but he's stopped by Batman's timely intervention. The police book Clayface on the robberies and ask if they can add anymore charges, Robin silently says "Yeah. Murder."
15. Shadow of the Bat Part I & II
Barbra Gordon was given a great amount of screen time in the two part episode, Heart of Steel where we saw she was quite the resourceful girl. She later appeared in I Am the Night. We she finally does became Batgirl she doesn't put on the suit just for kicks. Jim Gordon is being framed so she has a perfectly good reason for carrying out the actions that she does. But since she's new to the crime fighting gig, she isn't nearly as well versed in it as Batman or Robin. She makes some pretty big blunders that nearly get her killed but with help from the Dynamic Duo, she saves her father from Two-Face and the corrupt cop that sought to kill him.
Despite being human, Batman has a reputation for being a flawless individual. So it's quite refreshing to get an episode where Batman's instincts are wrong. It's a classic tale of Revenge when Killer Croc wants to pay pack three men that helped send him to prison, one of the men being Harvey Bullock, a man Batman doesn't have a high opinion of. Croc is portrayed as a cunning and ruthless criminal and this is without question his best episode in the entire series. Batman and Bullock still don't see eye to eye after this but they are both firm believers in justice and the law.
13. Feet of Clay Part I & II
Bruce Wayne is being sought by the police for a murder attempt on Lucius Fox, one of Bruce's friends and co-workers. The man who did the impersonation is Matt Hagen, a movie actor and a master of disguise. So why is he framing Gotham's most wealthy and eligible bachelor? As a favor for Roland Dagget. Dagget gave Hagen a putty-like chemical called Renu-you that could reshape his horribly disfigured face after he had an accident that would have ended his career. When Hagen outlives his usefulness, Dagget sent his men out to have him killed. Coming back to one of Dagget's labs to get more of the drug, Hagen is forcefully given an overdose that turns his body into a living mass of clay. Desiring revenge for what was done to him, Hagen now calls himself Clayface and his new found ability to shape shift allows him to take the form of any person as well as transform his hands into deadly weapons. Batman takes down Clayface using psychological warfare and when it appears that he died via electrocution, Batman, ever the sharp detective, conducts a test in the Batcave and finds out that electricity has no detrimental effects on Clayface. Hagen being a movie actor made a very convincing "scene," one so real that in Batman's own words "It fools us all." Clayface in the form of a woman, gives a maniacal laugh that assures us we have not seen the last of him.
12. Never Fear
The Scarecrow's MO has always been instilling fear into people. In this episode, he develops a drug that actually takes away people's fears. People living without fear. Sounds like a good cure, right? Not when people do things they normally wouldn't do like swing hundreds of feet above the city and nearly get themselves killed. Batman goes undercover to investigate when he gets infected with fear cleansing drug. Batman tells Robin he can handle the drug's influence, but his actions quickly prove otherwise. With all fear removed, Batman is stripped of his moral code and doesn't think twice about killing. As frightening as Batman was without killing, he's even more scary when he does show a willingness to kill. This is shown through Kevin Conroy's excellent voice acting skills as he careless leaves a thug to die and he would have, had Robin not intervened. There's a very good scene where Robin ties Batman up and relieves him of his utility belt, stating that Batman is out of control. Batman tells Robin that he is acting like a loose canon and that Robin will be in charge of this operation. Robin almost unties him, but stops when he realizes that Batman would never allow any of his partners to call the shots. As Batman says to Robin at the end of the episode when he's cured, "A little fear can be a good thing."
11. Mad Love
It was mentioned a few times throughout the series that Harley used to be a doctor at Arkham before she went loony. Based off of the one-shot comic of the same name, this episode recounts how Harley fell in love with the Joker and went from Harlen Quinzel to Harley Quinn. We all know that the Joker is a monster but his treatment of Harley in this episode pushes it even further. Wanting to have Joker all to herself, she captures Batman and intends to use one of his traps to kill him. Batman, seeing no other way out of the situation, gets her to call Joker so he can witness his demise. Joker is furious, backhanding Harley and then pushing her out a window. The confrontation between Batman and Joker is one of the most violent seen in animation, right on par with the one in Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker. And after all the pain the Joker has caused Harley in this one episode alone, she comes running back to him after he leaves a note telling her to "feel better." This is an abusive relationship at it's worst.
10. The Man Who Killed Batman
One of my favorite things about Batman: The Animated Series was it's willingness to cast the spotlight on other characters. In this cast, the light goes to a little nobody called Sid the Squid. Sidney wants to make a name for himself in the underworld so he gets in on a drug run shipment. Posted on lookout duty (and as punching bag), Batman shows up, a tussle ensues and Batman falls off a building and into an explosion that seemingly kills him. Sid goes from a loser to the most famed criminal in Gotham in short time, but quickly learns that fame isn't all it's cracked up to be. He meets up with the Joker who is none too pleased that he killed off his arch nemesis. Just as Sid seemingly ended Batman's life, the Joker intends to end his. But it turns out Batman has been alive the whole time. He swung away just before the explosion and tailed Sid to find out who was behind the drug shipment, Rupert Thorn. Sid still gets sent to prison for being an accomplice, but since he almost killed Batman and made a sap of the Joker, he finally gets the big shot status he always wanted.
09. Two-Face Part I & II
Before this episode had aired, Harvey Dent had already been an established character that was a close friend of Bruce Wayne. In the comics, acid gets thrown in Harvey's face and it sends him spiraling down the path of a dangerous criminal. Writer Alan Burnett came up with the idea to give Harvey serious problems long before half his face had a brush with acid. What kinda problems? The split personality kind. When Harvey was a kid, he was the victim of an school bully. One day Harvey had enough and slugged the guy one. The bully ended up in the hospital, not for the punch but for other medical reasons entirely. Harvey still felt guilty about what happened and ever since that day, he would always repress his anger, which led to the start of his other personality, Big Bad Harv. We actually see Big Bad Harv take over Harvey numerous times in Part I. Big Bad Harv speaks in a very deep voice and is very quick to anger, no surprise since Big Bad Harv is the manifestation of all those repressed negative emotions. During an intense session with his shrink, there's a flash of lightning that shows what Harvey will become by the end of Part I. I can remember watching this episode for the first time on a Friday afternoon as a kid and in the instant the lighting struck, I could clearly see the visual form of Harvey's bad side and it was creepy. Instead of acid, half of Harvey's face is scared when some electrical wires fall into a chemical vat. The bandages come off of Harvey's face and the scene is a little bit reminiscent of the Joker's transformation in the 1989 Batman film. Except Harvey doesn't see the humor in it. In reaction to his face, Richard Moll, Harvey's voice actor, lets out what has got to be one of the most horrific screams I've ever heard. Part II has Batman trying and ultimately failing to save his old friend, who, by this point has been totally consumed by Big Bad Harv. It's a harsh reminder that heroes can't save everyone, no matter how hard they try.
08. Harley and Ivy
After a falling out with the Joker, Harley gets the boot and meets up with Poison Ivy. With Ivy, Harley seems to be a better crook than she was with the Joker, taking the name with Ivy "Queens of Crime," much to Joker's disbelief. There's strong hints of an abusive relationship here between the Joker and Harley it gets fleshed out further in Mad Love. It's nice to see Harley distance herself from the Joker and stand up for herself with some help from Ivy. Why do Harley and Ivy work so well together? Harley's the wacky criminal henchgirl and Ivy is the femme fatal. These two couldn't be anymore opposite. I think the mesh together because of their differences. That and Ivy really does treat Harley as a friend and a person, unlike the Joker, who in Ivy's own words is just "one big forgiving doormat" to him.
07. Perchance to Dream
Bruce finds himself in a world where he isn't Batman, he's engaged to Selena Kyle and his parents are alive and well. It's the life he's always wanted. He's happy. Naturally, Bruce suspects something is terribly amiss and in his heart, he knows it's all a lie. An attractive lie, but still a lie, nonetheless. After doing some digging, Bruce finds out that he's living in a dream world through a device constructed by the Mad Hater. A strong indicator that it's a dream is Bruce's inability to read anything in his dream world, but more than that, it seems that Bruce's nagging conscience knew it was all a fantasy. I know it sounds unfortunate, but Bruce was never meant to be happy and placing him in a world where he has everything he wants is surely going to be at odds with that. Easily one of the best "dream" episodes in all of animation.
06. Over the Edge
Why is Gordon in the Batcave? Why is he shooting at Batman and Robin? Why is Alfred getting arrested? What's going on here?! These are questions I asked myself when I saw this episode years ago, but even as these curiosities tugged at me, I was so enthralled by what was going on. Batgirl is killed by Scarecrow (on screen and quite brutally, I might add) and Gordon finds out that Barbra is Batgirl seconds before she dies in his arms. Gordon declares war on Batman, seeking to end his crusade by any means. Nightwing gets arrested, Batman tells Tim to leave him while he goes it alone and Gordon even unleashes Bane on the Caped Crusader, who quickly turns on Gordon, wanting to kill Batman instead. The fight between Batman and Bane is one of the best seen in all of Batman's scuffles with his rogue's gallery. Since Batman has lost his "family" he sees no reason to keep his moral code. "A fight to the death?" Bane asks him. And Batamn replies "It makes no difference now." As fantastic an episode as this one is, it gets a lot of heat for being a dream. Batgirl isn't dead, but she gets a dose of Scarecrow's fear toxin where she sees her worst fear, her father and Batman at each other's throat's because she never told him about her dual identity. The end of the episode hints that Gordon knows that his daughter is Batgirl and that he supports what she's doing. I really don't have a problem with this episode being all just a dream. If Barbra had really been killed, fans would have been rioting in the streets. So a dream episode, yes, but one that's done oh so well.
05. Heart of Ice
Batman: The Animated Series not only did wonders for animation in general but for Batman comics as well. Harley Quinn was such a terrific character that she became part of comic book cannon. Mr. Freeze, a largely forgettable Batman villain that was originally called Mr. Zero was re-imaged into a tragic figure due to an accident. While conducting an experiment to find a cure for his cryogenic frozen wife Nora, Victor Fries is pushed into a collection of chemicals by his boss Ferris Boyle. The combination of chemicals leaves him unable to survived in anything less than sub zero temperatures as well as killing his emotions. Like most Bat villains, Freeze is out for revenge against what was done to him and his wife, whom he believes is long gone (she's still alive as we learn in Deep Freeze). Freeze really doesn't see himself as the bad guy here, even though he intends to kill a building full of people just to get vengeance on Boyle, who, quite honestly, has it coming after what he did. This version and story of Mr. Freeze was so well received that his origin was rewritten for the comic books to match that of this episode.
There's a good argument that Batman's as unstable as the crooks that he fights against. I'd like to argue that maybe you need someone that isn't fully balanced to deal with such nut jobs. This episode has Batman standing trial for supposed crimes committed against his rogue's gallery. They all say he created him and it's up to District Attorney Janet Van Dorn to prove his innocence. Janet isn't the biggest fan of Batman's exploits, but since both her life and Batman's are on the line, she has no choice but to defend him. It's great to see so many of Batman's villains in one episode and Janet managed to convince the jury that Batman wasn't responsible for their creation and he's found not guilty. But since these guys and gals are all slime, they decided to kill Batman and Janet anyway. No surprise there.
03. A Bullet for Bullock
Someone has been trying to scare Bullock into leaving town. When that doesn't work, they resort to trying to kill him. Spooked, Bullock enlists the aid of Batman. This is the most onscreen time Batman and Bullock have shared together and they play well off of each other. That's quite an accomplishment when you consider that neither one of these guys can really stand each other. Bullock thinks that the man out to get him is Vinnie the Shark, someone he once put away that's now free. Turns out that it's actually Bullock's landlord, Nivens. Bullock kept his apartment so filthy and was so rude to him that he snapped. Without question, this is my favorite episode to center around Bullock, one of my favorite members of Batman's supporting cast. Even though Bullock and Batman don't like each other, they work great together when they bring down Vinnie and his gang. This is actually an adaption of Detective Comics #651, right down to the title of the story.
02. The Demon's Quest Part I & II
Until I saw this episode, I'd never even heard or Ra's Al Ghoul, one of Batman's biggest and most dangerous enemies. Created in the 1970s by Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams two of the most names in comics to work on Batman, Ra's Al Ghoul made his comic book debut in Batman #232 in a story titled Daughter of the Demon. This episode is adapted from that story and it was even written by the same writer, Denny O'Neil. After a night out of crime fighting, Robin returns to his college dorm, but he's ambushed by a gang of intruders and taken captive. After an extensive two day search, Batman still has no leads to Robin's whereabouts. Batman gets some unexpected visitors when Ra's Al Ghoul and his servant Ubu somehow managed to get into the Batcave. Ra's daughter, Talia was abducted the same night Robin was so he offers to assist Batman in finding them. Their journey takes them all across the world but in the end, Ra's was the one who kidnapped Robin. All of this was staged to test Batman to see if he was worthy of becoming Ra's heir and becomes Talia is very much in love with Batman. Batman does not agree to Ra's terms because they involve killing nearly half the planet's population to preserve the Earth. Because Ra's has been alive for over 600 years he's not only wealthy and brilliant, he's highly skilled in numerous forms of combat. In many ways, Ra's is Batman's equal and that's one of the things that makes him such a compelling adversary. He truly does care about the Earth and wants to keep it going, but has no qualms about whipping out a good chunk of Earth's inhabitants, which is what places him at odds with Batman. Both parts oft his episode are just so strong that I'm in awe every time I watch them. And Ra's accepting his defeat and falling into the Lazarus Pit like a boss? Classic. Despite the fact that Batman refused to be Ra's heir, he did return Talia's feelings.
01. Almost Got 'Im
I kinda feel like the Nostalgic Critic placing this one at the number one spot, but it's just such an incredibly strong episode. The Batrouges are sitting around a table playing guards, each recounting tales about how the almost killed Batman. The very idea of these guys chilling out like that is great but the stories they tell and their interaction between those stories is what makes this episode such a fan favorite. Poison Ivy almost kills Bats with exploding pumpkins, Two-Face nearly gets him with a giant Penny (the same one in the Batcave), Penguin tries to do Batman in with a cleverly constructed trap in his "aviary of doom" that involves birds, "Killer Croc" throws a rock at him, and Joker tries to fry Bats with an electric chair powered by laughs from a late show audience. There's actually some plot points behind Joker's story because Catwoman saved Batman and he hasn't been able to find her since that night. Suspecting that Joker knows something, Batman goes undercover as Croc and the reveal that he's been sitting at the table with the rouges the entire time was very surprising to me when I first saw this episode years ago. There's even a very nice visual that show's Batman's shadow mixed in with Croc's as a light swings over him. This episode deserves every bit of praise that it gets.
It was not easy making this list. Coming up with the episodes and placing them in order was extremely difficult. There are a TON of worthy episodes that I left out and I feel terrible for not acknowledging them. But if I gotta narrow it down to 20, well, what you see here is it. What are your faves?