The LEGO Batman Movie is out (buy your tickets here), and in celebration, we’re going to spend the week looking at the lighter side of the Dark Knight.
Batman has been around for ages, delighting kids and developmentally stunted adults like yours truly in comics, TV and film for nearly 80 years now, but his life as an animated character is surprisingly young. Unlike Superman, who showed up in cartoons as early as 1941, it took the Dark Knight nearly 30 years to show up in a cartoon, and even then, his first animated appearance was the credits for his live action TV series of the '60s.
Done to resemble the Dick Sprang style, the animated opening of Batman is as iconic as the show itself:
When Batman ended after a 120 episode run in 1968, fans didn’t have to wait long for the world’s greatest detective to show up on TV again. Before the end of the year, Batman got his own cartoon series… well, he shared it, but he was top billed. The Batman/Superman Hour, the follow-up to The Superman/Aquaman Hour (yup, Aquaman got his own animated series before Batman. I bet that still fills Aquafans with pride) featured the voice work of Olan Soule as Batman, Casey Kasem as Robin, Jane Webb as Batgirl, and Ted Knight as pretty much everyone else. Each episode consisted of two Batman stories along with Superman and Superboy stories. After 34 episodes, the show came to an end, no doubt due to contract negotiations falling apart (I heard that Batman was a real diva).
With their own animated series over, Batman and Robin did what all has been do, they degraded themselves by showing up in some lowbrow comedy, like Groucho Marx in Skidoo. In 1970, the animated versions of Batman and Robin popped up in three episodes of the first season of Sesame Street. In 1972, the Dynamic Duo showed up in two episodes of The New Scooby-Doo Movies and wouldn’t you know it, the episodes were big hits.
Batman and Robin went on to join a new show, a show that would run for nine seasons over thirteen years, Super Friends. With this success would come a controversy that would shake the worlds of comics and cartoons to their core. If this was an episode of Behind the Music, we would go to commercial on that note, but this is an article, so I’ll just include the opening for the first season of Super Friends...
For many fans, Super Friends was the introduction to the heroes of DC Comics. Along with Batman and Robin, kids of all ages were able to see Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, those annoying teens with the dog, those annoying alien teens with the monkey, that Japanese character created to make the show feel more diverse but he was really a pretty bad stereotype, and the racially insensitive Native American who I suppose, based on his name, was an Apache, though he looks more like Burt Lancaster in Apache than an actual Apache.
The show went through many names, six to be exact, but the premise was pretty much always the same; the bad guys would come up with a plan, and the Super Friends would put a stop to it. The animation was never very good, and the plots were paper thin, but for untold amounts of kids, including comic book creators like Mark Waid, these cartoons opened them to a world they didn’t know existed. Sure, the character often showed off powers they didn’t have, like how they could all breath in space and somehow Flash could fly, but the shows were fast and fun and when they told stories directly from the comics, they were usually pretty faithful. They did change the origin of Giganta, but as Mark Waid and fellow comics writer Geoff Johns point out on the commentary for Challenge of the Super Friends, the animated origin of the Wonder Woman villain is much better than the comic book version.
While Super Friends was a big hit on ABC, CBS saw a chance to cash in on some of the superhero love as well, and they aired The New Adventures of Batman and Robin in 1977. This series, lasting just sixteen episodes, brought back Adam West and Burt Ward from the '60s live action series to voice the Dynamic Duo. For a little twist of humor, the show included Bat-Mite, an imp from the fifth dimension who has an obsession with Batman.
For Super Friends, Olan Soule once again supplied the voice of Batman for seven seasons. Adam West, famous for playing Batman in the '60 live action series, came in to do the voice for seasons eight and nine. Casey Kasem was Robin from start to finish. It was in the final season, when the show had dropped the Super Friends moniker and became The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians that something… funny happened. For the first time ever, Batman’s origin would be told outside of the pages of a comic. A Saturday morning kids show would showcase the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents. The episode titled The Fear featured Scarecrow using a fear transmitter in order to cause havoc in Gotham. Batman is able to fight off the effects of the transmitter until he finds himself in Crime Alley, a place he hasn’t been to since he was a child when his parents were murdered. Overcome with emotion, Batman quits fighting crime.
It sounds like, and is, a pretty cool episode, but the issue comes not in the story so much as in the words used to tell it. At one point, as Batman is reliving his origin he kinda uses a phrase usually connected to a different character.
Batman calls himself “The man with no fear”. Comic nerds caught this quickly; Batman was stealing Daredevil’s thing! Matt Murdock, the blind crimefighter, is the man without fear, not Batman! What a scandal! In truth, no one cared, but when I saw this episode sometime during my college years, I thought that shit was hilarious, and I still kinda do.
With the end of the ninth season of Super Friends in 1986, Batman took a break from animation to get in shape for his cinematic rebirth with Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989. The steady stream of Batman visiting the children of America every Saturday morning paid off; the movie made over $250,000,000, becoming the biggest hit of a year that saw the return of Indiana Jones, Marty McFly, and Peter Venkman to theaters. It became impossible to hide from the Bat and his vile villains as they filled up toy store shelves, appeared on endless t-shirts, and snuck into the bedroom in the form of posters and bedsheets. Even Bob the Goon got a toy!
Warner Brothers wanted to capitalize on the success of their newly reborn brand, and while Tim Burton and Michael Keaton got to work on Batman Returns, WB animation was looking for a fresh take on the animated adventures of the Dark Knight. They turned to Bruce Timm, an animation master who had most recently worked on the WBs biggest animated hit in ages, Tiny Toons. Timm, with background painter Eric Radomski, created a proof of concept short titled "The Dark Knight’s First Knight" to show Warner Brothers how they wanted to handle Batman. The short was dark, far darker than any American cartoon had been in ages; Radomski painted his backgrounds on black paper and Timm based the looks of the characters on the Burton films and the old Fleischer Superman cartoons. The look and animation style was unlike anything that had been used for a children’s cartoon, but Warner Brothers took a chance and ordered 65 episodes. Batman: The Animated Series premiered on September 5, 1992, and with it came the DC Animated Universe, even though no one knew it yet.
The show was a critical and commercial success from the start, with special attention going to Bruce Timm, writer Paul Dini, voice director Andrea Romano, and the voice cast which included Kevin Conroy, Melissa Gilbert, Marilu Henner, Richard Moll, Ron Perlman, Adrienne Barbeau, and Mark Hamill as the Joker. Hamill was a late addition to the show, replacing Tim Curry who the production team worried was a little too creepy in the role. Supposedly, this shows a bit of Curry’s version of the Clown Prince of Crime, but I can’t 100% verify that...
In one episode, Joker’s Favor, Paul Dini wanted to do a bit where Joker jumps out of a cake, but everyone thought it would be too weird, so he changed the script to make it a woman who comes out of the cake. Dini’s friend Arleen Sorkin, an actress on Days of Our Lives had once been in a dream sequence on the soap opera where she was dressed like a jester, and Dini wrote the part for her. The character, acting as Joker’s sidekick, was only supposed to appear in the one episode just to pop out of a cake. Before they started animating the episode, the decision was made to go back to having Joker jump out of the cake, so the sidekick was shifted to pushing the cake into the room.
The production team fell in love with the character, and over the last 20 years, Harley Quinn has become one of Batman’s most recognizable foes, appearing in the comics and played by Margot Robbie in Suicide Squad.
Along with the series, Warner Brothers ordered a direct to video Batman animated movie. The production offices went to work and writer Alan Burnett handed in the script for Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, a story that showed the first love of Bruce Wayne’s life, and the ramifications that came from it. Early into production, Warner execs were impressed by what they saw and decided to release the movie into theaters before hitting the video market. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm played in over 1000 theaters, but the film's tone, which was darker than the series, upset parents. The film failed to cover its budget during the theatrical run, but home video sales would turn it into a success.
Batman: The Animated Series was a huge success, and Warner Brothers wanted to do the same thing with Superman. While Superman: The Animated Series never hit the critical heights of Batman, it did have some solid stories and it helped grow the DC Animated Universe; between the two shows, heroes like Flash, the Demon Etrigan, Green Lantern, and Doctor Fate showed up in animated form for the first time in decades, or for the first time ever.
After 85 episodes, Batman: The Animated Series ended production, and a new Batman animated series based on a concept by Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, and Alan Burnett began. The idea was simple and cool; in the year 2019, Batman suffers a heart attack during a mission and hangs up the suit for the last time. In 2039, Bruce Wayne lives alone in Wayne Manor, a life of dark memories and failed ambitions. When high school student Terry McGinnis gets into a fight outside Wayne Manor, Bruce shows up to shoo the kids away. Bruce suffers a second heart attack and Terry brings the old man into the house. There, Terry discovers the Batcave and, after some arguing, becomes the new Batman. Batman Beyond, featuring a young Batman in a slick costume and an amazing opening credits sequence, focused on the darker sides of the Batman mythos, looking at Bruce Wayne’s destroyed life and the damaged lives of those he fought and loved. Batfans took some time warming up to the idea of a teenaged Batman, but when they did give the show a go, they found that it fit well into the Batman mythos. The show even created a spin-off with The Zeta Project. In recent years, the Batman Beyond concept has made its way into the comics.
If moms and dads were upset with Mask of the Phantasm, I can only imagine how pissed they were with the Batman Beyond animated film. Unlike Mask of the Phantasm, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker didn’t get a theatrical release. What it did get was an unrated version. The story focuses on Tim Drake, one time Robin, now haunted by his adventures with Batman. When he was a child, Tim was captured by Joker, as Joker tends to do with Robins. Joker brainwashed Tim, turning him into a mini-Joker. The Joker’s plan of having the brainwashed Tim Drake kill Batman when Tim turns the gun on the evil clown and pulls the trigger, killing him. 30 years later, the Joker has resurfaced, and Terry McGinnis needs to stop him.
Return of the Joker was Batman Beyond at its best. Focused on the failings of Bruce Wayne and the damage a vigilante life can have on a person, the movie was a tonal shift for Warner Brothers Animation - it showed them that fans were open to going darker.
With the end of Batman Beyond and Superman: The Animated Series, the production team decided to push their limits and created Justice League. The series focused on DC’s best known superteam, consisting of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, and Hawkgirl. The show started off rough as the writers and directors had to come up with reasons why Superman couldn’t just do everything himself, but it found its footing in the second season, which was also its last. Justice League was replaced with Justice League Unlimited. Where the first show centered on the seven heroes, this new version boasted a team of over 50 heroes. Justice League Unlimited gave Bruce Timm and his team a chance to not only tell amazing superhero stories, but to tie together everything they had been doing since Batman: The Animated Series had premiered over a decade earlier. Justice League Unlimited gave an ending to multiple stories from Superman: The Animated Series dealing with Lex Luthor, Brainiac, and Darkseid. It also let Timm give an ending to Batman Beyond - the series had been unexpectedly canceled with the fourth season. Over 14 years, Timm and his team created a superhero universe the likes of which had not existed before. Marvel would one-up them with their own live-action cinematic universe a few years later.
With the end of the DC Animated Universe, Warner wasn’t willing to let Batman sit idle. As Christopher Nolan worked on Batman Begins, Warner Animation started on The Batman. The series, which ran for four years, was not a big hit with Batman fans. The character designs were vastly different than what had been done in the past, and while the style was very clean and fresh, old school Batfans weren’t into it. One common complaint was that the show felt more like a 30-minute commercial to sell toys which it kind of was, but so are most cartoons.
The Batman was followed up by Batman: The Brave and the Bold, a lighter toned series that teamed up Batman with a wide variety of superheroes including Blue Beetle, Plastic Man and Green Arrow. The show ran for three seasons and was a real blast. Just good fun. After that came Beware the Batman, the first Batman cartoon completely computer animated. The show was intended to be a return to a darker Batman, but it never caught on. It was canceled after one season.
Remember how I said Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker showed Warner Brothers that they could go darker with the straight to video stuff? Boy did they. Since 2008, Warner Brothers has released over 20 straight to video animated movies featuring Batman that are for a more mature audience. These movies are based on stories from the comics and the quality ranges from “OK, I guess" to “pretty bad”.
In 2014, the world was reminded that Batman could be fun with his role in The LEGO Movie. This version of Batman is a bit of a boob with a big ego. He writes songs about how dark and brooding he is, only likes to use black Lego pieces, and he seems to not be very good with a batarang. This take on the Dark Knight, voiced by Will Arnett, was a huge hit with fans and kids alike, leading us to now, the release of The LEGO Batman Movie.
Last year, WB released Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders, an animated movie featuring Adam West and Burt Ward as the voices of the Dynamic Duo as well as Julie Newmar as Catwoman for the first time in decades. The direct to video movie is a sequel to the '60s live-action series was both a critical and commercial success. A sequel, with William Shatner as Two-Face, is due out later this year. Batman is also part of Justice League Action, an animated series lighter in tone but filled with action.
I’m sure we’ll see a lot more of this animated version of Batman. And I’m sure we’ll get loads of other animated versions as well. Batman is as popular as he has ever been, and Warner Brothers is looking to exploit the brand as much as they can.