Batman is more color palette than character, only defined by a few select bits of iconography and narrative details; that sketch is filled in by the tastes and preferences of the artist or director. One of the richest of these palettes is found in Batman: The Animated Series, often heralded as not just the Caped Crusader’s greatest cartoon adventure but one of the best adaptations of all time. It distills Batman and his adventures to their purest form, filtering through decades of comic-book and big-screen stylings to render a Dark Knight that feels full and a Gotham bathed in a gothic noir atmosphere.
So with The Batman heading to theaters on March 4, we’re revisiting Batman: The Animated Series. These twelve episodes fit most in line with the upcoming film and are sure to get you excited for Hollywood’s latest blockbuster stab at the property.
Batman: The Animated Series is streaming on HBO Max.
“The Cat and the Claw Part One/Two” (Season 1, Episode 1 & 8)
Batman’s relationship with Catwoman is well-worn territory, not just as a comic book storyline but as the backbone of three separate Batman films — The Batman is the latest. The two part episode “The Cat and the Claw” is built around it as well, creating a connection that Batman both longs for and feels uncomfortable with. It’s not a great pair of episodes (after the vibrancy of their Gotham City rooftop Will They/Won’t They, facing a generic terrorist organization ends up feeling pretty stodgy,) but it is a crash course in how vital the pairing has become to Batman mythology.
“On Leather Wings” (Season 1, Episode 2)
Every new incarnation of Batman allows for a reinterpretation of him, his world, and his connections to other characters. If it feels fresh and emotionally relevant, like we hope The Batman is, it doesn’t matter that Batman is a character that’s over 80 years old. It’s something that this episode of Batman: The Animated Series has in spades, deftly signifying who The Dark Knight is and how he relates to the world around him. By the end, we grasp everything we need to know about Batman in order to be excited for the series, rocketing it into television history.
“P.O.V.” (Season 1, Episode 13)
The Batman has a stacked cast from Gotham, including numerous members of the police department. It shares that aspect with Batman: The Animated Series, and the episode “P.O.V.” is a fine example of how peripheral characters can drive an episode just as well as Batman. Through an interview process with Harvey Bullock, Renee Montoya and a new officer Wilkes, we not only get to explore their differing personalities but their perception of Batman himself, a figure that straddles the line between urban legend and unofficial cop. It’s an original set-up for what could easily be uninspired children’s television.
“Prophecy of Doom” (Season 1, Episode 22)
A major plot point of The Batman is uncovering the corruption of Gotham City’s elite, including that of Bruce Wayne’s own deceased family. Batman: The Animated Series does not hold a high opinion of the rich and the affluent, and in many cases, like the Emmy-winning episode that introduces Mr. Freeze, “Heart of Ice,” they’re even more soulless than those locked in Arkham Asylum. “Prophecy of Doom” portrays them as a sort of mindless horde, driven even more mindless by an actual wannabe cult leader who seeks to profit off their ceaseless lust for wealth.
“I Am The Night” (Season 1, Episode 34)
Director Matt Reeves has stated that The Batman dives into “why he’s doing all of these things for the reasons that he thinks is right” and “I Am The Night” is a great examination of Batman attempting to reconcile with his own motivation. After Commissioner Gordon is seriously wounded, Bruce Wayne is thrown into despair. What if Batman isn’t actually effective at all? What if the entire life he’s constructed has just been a useless charade to cope with his parents’ death? “I Am The Night” forces Batman to dissect himself as he desperately searches for a reason to be.
“If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?” (Season 1, Episode 41)
The Riddler is a primary foe in The Batman, taking on a guise that seems at least partly inspired by the Zodiac Killer. His green garb in Batman: The Animated Series is much more comic friendly and kid-approved, but his personality retains a vengeful menace. In his debut episode, The Riddler is shown to be equal parts cunning and vindictive, as his entire shtick is concocted to get a one-up on all of those that would seek to torment him. Not just a purveyor of puzzles, he relishes the fear he’s able to instill from simply knowing more than you.
“Birds of a Feather” (Season 1, Episode 52)
The Penguin was a tricky character for Batman: The Animated Series, as a twenty-two minute action cartoon on Fox Kids was hard-pressed to find any immediate peril in an umbrella-wielding bird enthusiast. As such, one of his best episodes is “Birds of a Feather,” a story with little grand stakes other than diving into Oswald Cobblepot’s pathos. Like in The Batman, he’s a blustering crime boss desperate to rub elbows with higher power, a front that hides a pitiful sense of inadequacy and shame. Is he a criminal because his disfigurement allows for no better treatment from society, or is he just a squawking sociopath?
“Blind as a Bat” (Season 1, Episode 54)
Though there are aspects of The Penguin that are sympathetic, one can’t forget his capacity for cruelty. It’s on great display in “Blind as a Bat,” an episode title that spoils the main twist: during an accident with a military helicopter that his company created (Wayne has a long way to go from pure altruism,) he loses his sight. Penguin steals the copter, but he takes the most glee during the climax as he taunts the visually impaired Batman. Like in another episode “I’ve Got Batman In My Basement,” The Penguin seems happiest when bullying anyone weaker than him.
“Trial” (Season 2, Episode 4)
Batman films often use a revolving door system for villains - two show up, are defeated by Batman, and then exit. Two more appear and the cycle repeats. The Batman seems to abscond from this, building up a Gotham that’s already knee deep in classic staples. Batman: The Animated Series uses this tactic to great effect as well in “Trial,” in which Batman’s villains take Batman to a kangaroo court of their own and judge him for his role in their own malfeasance. It’s the narrative equivalent of dumping out all your action figures but honestly, some of them have a point.
“Riddler’s Reform” (Season 2, Episode 8)
One personal layer of nearly every costumed character in Gotham is vanity. Everyone from The Joker to Batman himself is concerned with their own bizarre brand of public relations. And it’s vanity that takes center stage with “Riddler’s Reform,” an episode that finds The Riddler seemingly going straight as a celebrity genius. However, his pride also reveals the unbreakable link that will always keep him tied to the criminal underbelly - If he can’t prove that he’s indeed smarter than Batman, well what good is anything? It’s the obsession that brought Riddler to the Rogues Gallery A List of The Batman.
“Catwalk” (Season 2, Episode 18)
Catwoman makes for a dynamic foil to Batman, but she’s also interesting when countering other characters that might not share the animal attraction she has with the Dark Knight. Batman: The Animated Series took full advantage of this with “Catwalk,” an episode that saw her team with, be betrayed by, and then attempt to take revenge on Scarface and the Ventriloquist, the puppeteering villain that was introduced in 1988, but seems straight out of Batman’s 1930s capers. “Catwalk” isn’t a grandly important episode nor is it a heavy one, but it proves that Batman can subsist on fun, episodic action.
Mask of the Phantasm
How do we know that Mask of the Phantasm, the Batman: The Animated Series tie-in film that hit theaters in 1993 and became a cult classic is important to The Batman? Well, Robert Pattinson, THE Batman, cited it as an inspiration. Phantasm might have been derided by critics just after its release as an underwhelming journey for the hero, but it’s a deeply emotional tale that serves triple duty as origin story, epic romantic tragedy, and ultimate showdown with the Joker. It drowns Batman in grieving angst, proving that you didn’t need a live action version for a satisfying adaptation.