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Mumbling Kitsune: A Very Animated Batman
Over 15 years later, Batman: The Animated Series remains unmatched
By Nadia Oxford
July 20, 2008
Probably no other superhero has the staying power of DC's Batman. It's true that Superman might be a bit more recognisable or that the X-Men might be a bit more thrilling thanks to their teamwork and inner-member drama. But Batman easily lays claim to several generations' good memories thanks to a consistent streak of high-quality movies, comic books and television shows.
(Excluding Schumacher's mislabeled horror film, Batman and Robin. That goes without saying.)
Some fans might suggest that Batman's most memorable moments didn't actually take place on the big screen, but rather the small screen. Inspired by Tim Burton's work with the franchise, Batman: The Animated Series is a rare cartoon that transcends countries, influences all who view it and remains a celebrated series over fifteen years since its debut.
A Memorable Gotham
The Simpsons proved that a prime-time animated cartoon could be a hit. With the rise of anime still years away, Warner Bros was willing to try its luck with an animated series developed in-house. The '90s were a fertile time for “adult” cartoons; though only a few retained a significant following, new ideas abounded. Batman: The Animated Series is one rare example of a '90s cartoon being remembered and even celebrated beyond its run.
Its reputation was hardly undeserved, either. Cartoons did reach a new audience in the '90s, but a huge swath of parents still regarded them as children's entertainment. With growing concerns about the violence exhibited in cartoons, Batman: The Animated Series had to work around sensitive times and still appeal to its older audience.
All things considered, it did so remarkably well. Batman elevated itself far above most children's cartoons with its art style; to date there have been few cartoons that have given such significant thought to its backdrop. Gotham City as its presented in Batman: The Animated Series isn't just a jumble of computer-generated tall buildings that fades into the back of the memory with every other concrete superhero haunt. Instead, Gotham is a mix of the past and the future. Men wear suits and fedoras and drive '40s cars, but technology exceeds the era by leaps and bounds. There are shadowy corners and filthy ghettos where drug pushers thrive, but where downtrodden families also struggle to do the best they can with their lives.
Very Animated Series
The show's animation style is certainly unique, but it deserves to be remembered most for its story. Batman: The Animated Series never talked down to its audience. In fact, while Batman's classic foes all strut through Gotham and made their presence well-known (Mark Hamill will forever be remembered as one of the series' best Jokers), he was just as likely to battle someone the dark side of regular human beings: corrupt businessmen, mob leaders, characters who sometimes even take a backseat to Batman himself in order to be fleshed out more thoroughly. Though Batman himself never seriously hurts anyone or seriously hurts himself, villains come after him with machine guns—not the wussy “laser guns” wielded by most '90s era bad guys. Writers Bruce Timm and Paul Dini respected their audience and trusted viewers to be able to follow a hero who didn't yell out his intentions and bring the kids up to speed every ten minutes.
Death of an Orchestra
Despite the heavy criticism cartoons face today, there are still some cartoons that are competently written. There are still some cartoons that are beautifully animated. But if the death of Batman: The Animated Series should be mourned, it should be its gorgeous, orchestrated soundtrack by Danny Elfman. Orchestrated music in cartoons was a rarity during the show's run and now it's almost certainly dead forever. Each character in Batman: The Animated Series has his or her own theme (particularly the villains), and more astonishingly, each episode also has a carefully composed theme that suits the locale and tone. Though most episodes are brooding, there are several laughs to be had; the animated Joker is far more funny than horrifying, and his unmistakable theme reflects fun, albeit twisted fun.
Batman: The Animated Series is simply a brilliant combination of music, mood, writing and animation that no other studio ever quite touched again. One or two vital ingredients always seem to be missing even in high-quality imitators like The Justice League: the writer might get nervous and insist on narrating, or the music is a lot of computer generated noise instead of something that's been pored over. Nevertheless, Disney's dark Gargoyles cartoon has a significant fanbase, as does The Big O—a unique mech-based anime that's heavily inspired by Batman's Gotham City.
The hype behind The Dark Knight has also given birth to Batman: The Gotham Knight, a miniseries that supposedly brings Batman back to his animated roots. How well does it succeed? We'll take a look next week.