There can be little doubt that Batman: The Animated Series was a landmark achievement — for animated television shows, for Batman, and for storytelling in general. It was possible because of the 1989 Tim Burton-directed Batman as well as Warner Bros. developing its own animation division — Tiny Toon Adventures cleared the trail for the animated Dark Knight in many ways. The plentiful reasons why the show was so different from anything that came before it (and was allowed to be) are discussed at length in a new documentary, The Heart of Batman.
The documentary is the crown jewel in a new Blu-ray set devoted to the show, which is itself a thing of beauty. There are little treasures around every corner of the feature-heavy release, and that's not even considering the fact that the entire run of the series (as well as Batman: Mask of the Phantasm and Subzero) comes included. For those who didn't (or haven't yet) sprung for the DC Universe service, this is a first chance to see this seminal work of art in HD, and that alone is worth it.
How much of a difference does the HD rendering bring to the show? Bruce Timm's "dark deco" approach sings in high definition, and the silhouetted glory of his Gotham has never looked better. The show mostly lives in darkness, to the point where it was actually drawn on black paper. As the documentary shows, the art style was all about "pulling the drawings out of the darkness" instead of the other way around.
To give you a feel for the difference at work, take a look at this SYFY WIRE exclusive video that will show you a side-by-side comparison:
The greatness of the show really comes down to having the right people at the right time. Bruce Timm went from a storyboard artist on Tiny Toons to suddenly having his own show, as well as what would soon become a signature style. Executive Producer Jean McCurdy was a hero in moving it forward (she pretty much created Warner Animation), and brought on former Super Friends writer Alan Burnett as executive producer. He didn't want this to be anything like his previous Batman-related show (he talks in the documentary about being the one who wrote the unfortunate "shrinking superheroes" episode), and he needed assurances. "I'd have guns and I'd have fistfights," he says, and soon McCurdy was able to coax him away from Disney, where he was, as she says, working on "one of the duck shows."
Mr. Freeze: According to Timm, Burnett saved the show, and gave him his ultimate noir dream. Series writer Paul Dini said that "he put all of the pieces together," and by that, he's talking about the show's emphasis on story. Everyone loved the artwork and designs from Timm and company, but as Timm says, "the art is useless if the story isn't any good." A wonderful example of this is how the show dealt with Batman's glorious rogues gallery, changing some of them forever. Perhaps none of them were changed as much as Mr. Freeze.
Timm didn't have many artists working with him during the early days of the show, so he decided to cold-call comic book artists that he admired and ask them if they wanted to do some designs. None other than Hellboy creator Mike Mignola received one of those calls, and he designed a new look for Victor Fries, one that evoked Lon Chaney. The character had always been treated as something of a joke before, but all of a sudden that started to change. Once Timm saw the new look, he thought, "What if we took a character like that and added emotional depth?"
That's exactly what he got when Paul Dini came onboard, brought in by Alan Burnett. His first episode on the show was the one that introduced the new Freeze, the seminal episode "Heart of Ice." Freeze never had a backstory before, and Dini gave him a rather tragic one. According to voice director Andrea Romano, Freeze and the rest of the villains had more depth because they weren't just stealing historical monuments for the fun of it anymore — "they found a why, and they let us know the why." Dini stayed with the show from that moment on.
Getting the casting right: Romano goes on to say that because viewers could now relate to the villains, the endings of many episodes were bittersweet. That's perfect for Batman, and perfect for the noir world that they were building. Romano's casting for the show is widely celebrated (and rightly so), with Batman himself, Kevin Conroy, saying that "the real secret of the show was the casting." Romano made the unusual choice to look for actors with stage experience, which is what Conroy had — before being cast, he was a New York theater actor. When he came in the room to audition (and promptly nailed it), Romano describes it as "that eureka moment that you hope for."
Conroy seemed to get the character right off the bat (whoops) as well, noting that "Batman is who he became... the role he plays for the world is Bruce Wayne. That's the performance." With Conroy cast and everyone breathing a sigh of relief, Romano went about casting the rest of the show— originally Tim Curry was cast as the Joker (and had actually recorded a bit), but one of the producers didn't like his take. Romano is clear that she didn't want to recast, but she had no choice. That's when someone had the idea for Mark Hamill, and it then became a question as to whether they could get him.
Hamill recalls that the audition script very clearly had "don't think Nicholson" printed at the top, which was a relief to him. As Romano says, "he walked in, and he was incredible." Once Dini heard the signature cackle, he simply said, "that's it." The show also introduced the Joker's henchwoman Harley Quinn, who was created because Dini wanted a role for his friend Arleen Sorkin. Harley would go on to attain super-stardom, and though she was created specifically for this show, she now pervades the comics, the movies, and everything else. Take a look around any convention floor and count the Harley Quinns— it'll take you a while.
Recording together: One thing that Romano insisted on doing (whenever possible) was to have all of the actors in the same room when recording, all so she could get their reactions to each other. They were often able to accomplish this, with all of the actors around Romano, all sitting at a microphone — all except for Hamill, that is. He was the only actor who always stood, and as Loren Lester (Robin/Dick Grayson) noted, he always knew when it would be a Joker day because there would be a standing microphone in the room.
The results are clear to see/hear. Romano calls the series "a big paradigm shift," and McCurdy fully realized that they had struck gold. As she says, "it isn't hard to recognize when something is working." The people at DC were equally thrilled, because for once there wasn't an animated series out there that they felt like they needed to apologize for. If it wasn't already clear, it certainly is clear now — the world of animated television was changed forever by this show. Between a genuine love of the material, the drive to take it seriously, and even using a full symphony orchestra to record an animated TV score (something never done before) written by the dearly departed Shirley Walker, this show broke the mold and re-formed it completely. Thanks to Timm, McCurdy, Burnett, Dini, and a small army of brilliant believers, the Caped Crusader was able to fly like never before. The ramifications are still being felt today.
Batman: The Animated Series in now available in Blu-ray HD. If you are a fan of the show and you don't feel the slightest urge to grab it as soon as you can, then you yourself may have a heart of ice.