How Batman: The Animated Series changed the Caped Crusader

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Mar 25, 2021, 2:00 PM EDT (Updated)

Batman: The Animated Series debuted 25 years ago on Tuesday, starting what would become a major transformation for the Caped Crusader and the Gotham in which he lives. You couldn't have predicted that at the time, as the Dark Knight had re-entered the zeigeist just three years earlier, thanks to Tim Burton's Batman film, which gave the live-action version of the character the most cachet at the time (though Joel Schumacher would soon squander it).

Batman fundamentally changed when the series, even spoken of inside Warner Bros. Animation as simply "BTAS" (pronounced Bee-Taz). From his villains to the way he operated and the franchise's lasting sense of style, Batman would not be the character he is today without Batman: The Animated Series.

When Batman: The Animated Series debuted, people were still learning to take Batman seriously again. Sure, he had been reinvented through comic books in the mid-to-late 1980s, and we had the aforementioned feature film to close out the decade. But the specter of Batman, the 1960s live-action series starring the late, great Adam West, still hung over the character. Even Batman comics had been slanted to star a slightly zany figure who used over-the-top methods to get things done.

So when the public started seeing Batman as meticulous and stoic detective who got stuff done, it was almost like an entirely different character. The Batman of Bruce Timm, Eric Radomski, Paul Dini, and the rest of the creative team still had gadgets, and could still beat just about anyone (or any two or three or 10) in a hand-to-hand fight, but he had a new approach: patience, and a true willingness to sacrifice.

The tone was entirely different, too. In a sort of 1940s-with-modern-tech-slapped-on-top art deco world, you never quite knew exactly what era was supposed to be in – and you never much cared, either. It helped sell the timelessness of the stories. These are tales of a hero trying to eradicate crime, and those tales can fit into any era. It allowed BTAS to tell stories using a supercomputer called HARDAC, or tell a tale of a down-on-his-luck street criminal who almost killed Batman, and tell those equally well and believably.

That's something that almost instantly translated onto the printed page. From writers like Chuck Dixon to Grant Morrison to Scott Snyder, comic book scribes post-BTAS seemed to have this innate sense that Batman could be in any story at any time. Some of them, like Morrison, took this literally, sending Batman all over time and space and using some of the weirdest history of Batman as hard canon. Some, like Snyder, have told some of the most intimate, personal Batman stories in the character's entire history, while also revealing complex science fiction elements. That can all be traced directly back to Batman: The Animated Series and the sense of self it established for Batman's world.

Of course, the voice of Batman, Kevin Conroy, and the rest of the voice cast for this series also changed the franchise. There's a subtlety to Conroy's voice that is unmatched in any other portrayal of the character before or since. You can instantly believe in playboy Bruce, or in agonized Batman. You know when he's moved beyond playing a villain's game, or when he's hit an epiphany. That feeling is echoed all throughout the series, by Bob Hastings, Loren Lester, Arleen Sorken, and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (as Jim Gordon, Dick Grayson, Harley Quinn, and Alfred Pennyworth, respectively), and most notably Mark Hamill's Joker.

Like Conroy's Batman, there's such a range of emotion to Hamill's Joker that you could experience 20 aspects of the character in a single episode. The way those voices carry over into other experiences with the characters – come on, no child of the '90s doesn't hear those two voices to this day when reading a DC Comics story – shows how much influence the series had.

And it doesn't stop just at the Joker. Other villains were changed far more dramatically. Batman's rogues gallery is considered the best in the superhero business (yes, better even than Spider-Man or The Flash), and Batman: The Animated Series can be looked at as a major reason why. Harley Quinn was created for the series, and only came to comics later on. Characters like Clayface and Mr. Freeze were almost entirely reinvented on this series. Everyone knows the story of Mr. Freeze and his sick wife Nora, who he was trying to help when he became his supervillain self, right? Well, that version of his origin was new to the show, and carried over into the comics as a retcon. The empathy fans felt while watching "Heart of Ice," that origin episode, instantly made the character a thousand times more interesting.

Relatability became paramount when it came to the villains, whether it was Mad Hatter's desire to be loved and respected, Clayface's need to beat back the rages of time or Two-Face's desperate fight against his own dark side. Batman: The Animated Series didn't just take its villains seriously, it made them into people. Yes, they were sometimes people who could only live in the cold, could shapeshift into anything, or transformed into a flying human bat, but they were somehow still people.

Perhaps no villain was more transformed by Batman: The Animated Series than Ra's al Ghul. The Demon's Head was created in 1971, but 1992 saw a renaissance for the character thanks to BTAS and the graphic novel Batman: Birth of the Demon (incidentally, written by his co-creator Dennis O'Neil). Throughout the course of the series, al Ghul became more and more a true nemesis for Batman, often because he could actually get a step ahead of him (and the way David Warner addressed him as "detective" certainly helped that along). His importance in the overall story of Batman ballooned from there, and he the primary villain in The Dark Knight Trilogy, a trainer of a young Bruce Wayne in Gotham, and even a shared family member in the pages of the comics, as Damian Wayne was born of Bruce and Talia al Ghul, Ra's' daughter.

And so we thank Batman: The Animated Series for all it did 25 years ago to make the Caped Crusader into what he is today. He's a Batman we can take seriously but still find amusing. This Batman is one who can be as effective in a conversation with a young man who's just lost his parents as he can be in a fight with 20 ninja. This Batman fights for himself and others, for justice (and a little bit for revenge), trusts and loves, but feels the heavy pain of isolation in his journey.