Forget The Dark Knight – Batman: The Animated Series is still the screen version of Batman to beat

“Who’s your favourite Batman?” That’s the question on many comic book fans lips, following the recent release of the teaser trailer for Matt Reeves’ 2021 flick The Batman, which offered the first proper look at Robert Pattinson in the titular role.

This fleeting glimpse has generated plenty of excitement, but it’s also reignited one of comic book fandoms’ most passionate debates, as comic book fans passionately advocate on behalf of their current cross-media Caped Crusader of choice. As you’d expect, names like Adam West, Michael Keaton, Christian Bale and Ben Affleck have all been thrown into the mix…along with another, less recognisable contender: Kevin Conroy.

If Conroy has you drawing a mental blank, it’s because he’s primarily a voice actor best known for portraying Bruce Wayne (and his pointy-eared alter-ego) in Batman: The Animated Series, which turns 28 this month. Yet Conroy still consistently beats out Hollywood A-listers on “Best Batman of all time” lists – largely because his performance anchors arguably the most satisfying comic book adaptation ever committed to the screen.

That’s a big claim, but when you tally up the sheer number of brilliant creative choices the show’s architects Bruce Timm, Eric Radomski, Paul Dini and Mitch Brian made when determining how to translate the Batman mythos to another medium, it’s one that’s pretty easy to defend, too. However, the team behind Batman: The Animated Series did more than just perfectly capture the essence of this beloved, decades-old pop culture icon – nothing to sneeze at, on its own – they shattered preconceived notions of what kids’ entertainment was capable of at the same time.

Defining a hero, redefining Saturday afternoon cartoons

See, before Batman: The Animated Series aired in 1992, audiences only had two main takes on the Dark Knight to choose from, outside of the comics. There was the paternalistic do-gooder of the campy 1960s TV show, or the brooding avenger who headlined Tim Burton’s darker (but arguably no less camp) 1989 blockbuster film.

Batman: The Animated Series offered a middle-ground: here, Batman was both a creature of the night and unambiguously heroic; neither tongue-in-cheek authority figure nor borderline-psychotic vigilante. What’s more, he was first and foremost a detective, something that big screen depictions of the character have tended to soft-pedal, before and since – even in Christopher Nolan’s brilliant Dark Knight trilogy.

In short: Timm, Radomski, Dini and Brian gave youngsters a version of Batman that embodied all the best aspects of the character – and they loved it. It wasn’t just kids who enjoy the show either; Batman: The Animated Series received widespread critical acclaim and developed a devoted following among older viewers, including the Batman comic book writers and artists themselves!

This led to several characters and concepts introduced in the cartoon cropping up in the comics, and slowly, Batman: The Animated Series started to leave its mark on the future of the mythos across a variety of media. Harley Quinn is the best example of this phenomenon; created by Dini and Timm, the Joker’s long-suffering girlfriend has featured prominently in comics, movies, and video games ever since.

However, beyond Harley, the addition of Hispanic female detective Renee Montoya to the all-white, all-male ranks of the Gotham City Police Department and the stunning reimagining of C-list villain Mr. Freeze as a compelling, tragic figure are also enduring creative flourishes that point to the show’s lasting legacy.

Yet the most impressive thing about Batman: The Animated Series almost 30 years later isn’t how faithfully it portrayed its hero and his world, or even how much it influenced the overall franchise in the years since it debuted. It’s how high the show raised the bar for Saturday afternoon cartoons, superhero-themed or otherwise.

For starters, there’s the animation quality; unlike the cheaply produced quasi-toy commercials in vogue at the time, the show was a feast for the eyes. Gotham City was brought to life using a striking art deco-inspired style dubbed “Dark Deco”, blood red skies blanketing the timeless, shadowy metropolis below; its fluidly animated denizens realised as minimalist caricatures: square-jawed, barrel-chested men and hour-glass shaped, full-lipped women.

Then there’s the voice acting. Casting director Andrea Romano assembled a spot-on roster of thespians lead by Juilliard graduate Conroy who delivered nuanced performances far removed from the wooden heroes and one-note villains of Batman: The Animated Series contemporaries – particularly Mark Hamill, who remains many fans’ all-time favourite Joker.

Of course, all of this would mean nothing without quality storytelling to back it up, and fortunately, this was something Batman: The Animated Series had in spades. Although Timm, Radomski, Dini and Brian – along with other writing staff like Alan Burnett, Martin Pasko and Steve Perry – never lost sight of their target audience, they were ultimately telling the kind of stories that would appeal to them.

This led to frequent clashes with the network censors, but the struggle was worth it: Batman: The Animated Series was arguably the first Saturday afternoon cartoon that didn’t talk down to kids. Heck, some these scripts were so sophisticated and mature in their approach, with a little tinkering, you could easily pitch them as a live action series aimed at adults!

A challenge worthy of the Dark Knight himself

So really, it’s not hard to see why Kevin Conroy will forever remain the version of Batman newcomers like The Batman’s Robert Pattinson have to beat – and I can’t say I envy them.

I don’t much like the idea of being in shoes of someone like The Batman’s director Matt Reeves, either; in fact, trying to top Batman: The Animated Series from storytelling perspective sounds even worse than actually donning the cape and cowl!

Because distilling the Dark Knight’s entire 81-year history into one, universally beloved performance is one thing. But spinning a Batman yarn so good that you raise the standard for an entire category of entertainment at the same time? Even the famously fearless Caped Crusader might baulk at that challenge…

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