Anyone who watched Batman: The Animated Series as a kid knew when it first aired that it was not like the other cartoons. As an avid Batman fan growing up, I was very excited for the show's release. I would race home after elementary school so I could sprawl out on the floor in front of the TV just as the opening sequence finished. Anyone else remember those good old days?
I tuned in religiously to watch Bruce Timm and Paul Dini's animated masterpiece. I was all about the capes, cowls, nifty gadgets, and the film noir aesthetics. I also soon found that I was equally intrigued by the deep, insightful, and tragic nature of the show. The feelings that episodes like "Heart of Ice" and "House & Garden" elicited were profound, unprecedented, and uncommon in other cartoon shows at the time.
Fast forward 24 years and the show's target audience is now in full-swing adulthood. While we may have changed, Batman is as relevant and thought-provoking today as it was back in the '90s. Of all the episodes between Batman: The Animated Series and The New Batman Adventures, several raised the bar for the series and had a lasting impact on the comic book world and our own. Here are six episodes that proved Batman: The Animated Series was much more than just another superhero cartoon.
1. 'Heart Of Ice'
Perhaps the most heartbreaking of episodes, "Heart of Ice" sees the bitter scientist Victor Fries (now going by Mr. Freeze) embark on a vendetta against GothCorp's CEO, Ferris Boyle. Boyle almost killed Fries and presumably killed Fries's terminally ill wife, Nora, after he discovered Fries using company resources to cryogenically freeze Nora while trying to cure her condition. The end result of the encounter left a grieving Victor mutated and unable to live outside of a sub-zero temperature.
Mr. Freeze is a seemingly emotionless villain completely fueled by vengeance. We see this in a few instances, like when he leaves one of his henchmen behind after shooting him with his freeze gun while trying to hit Batman. Mr. Freeze is a ruthless monster, much like how he was originally depicted in the comics. Often times, this is all that is required of a villain. However, Batman: The Animated Series goes beyond two-dimensional villains — a fact that is evident with Freeze. Mr. Freeze is not a man without feeling; he is where he is because he feels too much and that resonates with many of us.
It is no surprise that this poignant tale won the series a 1993 Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing in an Animated Program. The detailed and humanizing background story that the animated series developed for Freeze was profound enough that DC Comics brought Mr. Freeze back to life in the comics and implemented this new backstory.
2. 'House & Garden'
This episode certainly ranks as one of the darkest and most terrifying of the series. Poison Ivy has not only been released from Arkham Asylum, but she has married a doctor and settled down to help him raise his two boys. Meanwhile, wealthy Gotham bachelors are being attacked and poisoned, all with the same toxin. Batman naturally questions Ivy's innocence, but after visiting her at home and surveilling her, he believes she is being honest. He does, however, learn that Ivy's hyper-immune system left her unable to have children.
When Batman discovers that Ivy's stepsons should be girls, not boys, he returns with Robin to investigate. They discover the real Dr. Carlyle in a testing tub before noticing several plant sacks beginning to move. As Batman approaches, babies emerge from the pods, calling out the word mommy. Ivy shows up in her signature costume and pieces the puzzle together for the Dynamic Duo: She drugged Carlyle to trick him into releasing her from Arkham, then used his DNA to create a plant-based life-form version of him. Starting as infants, the replicas of Carlyle don’t last long before turning into fully-grown versions that then mutate into the brute plant monsters that have been robbing the bachelors.
"House & Garden" is equal parts horror and drama, making the episode an emotional ride. What makes this story particularly tragic is Ivy's admission that she wasn’t lying when she said that this really was the happiest she’d ever been. She was truly motivated by having a family, not money. Unfortunately, families cost money and this would-be housewife could not escape her old ways.
This is another instance of Batman writers providing villains with things they genuinely care about as an act of humanizing them. For Poison Ivy, this is the family and the life that she is incapable of truly ever having. As Ivy looks at her photo album on her escape flight out of Gotham, she sees her wedding photo and the emotional impact of the story hits home hard.
3. 'Growing Pains'
The New Batman Adventures brought more character-centric stories and ongoing drama than its predecessor (to say nothing of the change in art style). It also brought us the new Robin, Tim Drake. Younger than the previous Boy Wonder, Drake is still making his was through the emotional turbulence that is adolescence. In "Growing Pains," a rare, Robin-focused episode, Robin fights to protect Annie, a young girl suffering from amnesia who is being stalked by her father. A bond soon forms between the two, but then harsh reality comes into play. It turns out that Annie's "father" is Clayface, who created the girl from his own body to scout out the city. In the final confrontation, Annie leaps after Clayface to save Robin, and she is reabsorbed in the process. This is one of the most tragic scenes in the series as Robin is forced to watch someone he cared for give her life to save his.
Both Batman: The Animated Series and The New Batman Adventures are known for telling adult-oriented stories in a way that is appropriate for younger audiences. Even then, few episodes delve into the chaotic and emotional experiences of childhood as intensely as "Growing Pains" does.
4. 'Mad Love'
"Mad Love" is a hard-hitting look at Harley Quinn, a character who illustrates how fast and profoundly an addiction can manifest itself. Once the brilliant Dr. Quinzel, it took very little time for Harleen to meet the Joker and become Harley Quinn, his clinically insane lover. Mad Love examines Harley's addiction to the Joker and the destructive nature of their relationship. Both the strength of Harley’s obsession and the extent of the domestic abuse in their relationship is unforgettably depicted.
In the narrative, Harley reflects on her first meeting with the Joker, while simultaneously plotting to eliminate her competition for his attention: Batman. Harley succeeds where the Joker can’t when she captures and completely disarms Batman. This emasculates and irritates the Joker who, as a result, belittles Harley, assaults her, and attempts to kill her.
Beaten and broken, Harley finally realized the true nature of her relationship with the Joker. Yet, the Joker manages to win her over again, and her moment of clarity is extinguished by love and addiction. Why would the Joker reach out to her after trying to kill her? Perhaps, despite everything, he established a bond with Harley even he couldn't sever. After all, who else could love the Joker?
5. 'Over The Edge'
From the get-go, "Over the Edge" feels like a nightmare. Commissioner Gordon heads the Gotham City Police in pursuit of Batman, who he knows now is Bruce Wayne. The reason for the chase? Gordon discovers his daughter is Batgirl right after the Scarecrow knocks her off a rooftop and she lands on the hood of Gordon's car. Later, the Commissioner uses Barbara's computer to unmask Batman and all his secrets.
Declaring war on Batman and his team, Gordon and the GCP take down Alfred and Nightwing. With Batman proving too difficult to be caught, Gordon turns to Bane to catch him. As one would expect, Bane has no intention of keeping Batman or Gordon alive. Just as Bane turns on Gordon and sends he and Batman to their deaths, Batgirl wakes up to learn it was all a dream induced by the Scarecrow's fear toxin. The dream motivates Barbara to disclose her secret identity to her father.
The end of the episode left fans wondering what exactly Commissioner Gordon knows. After waking, Barbara tells an understanding Batman that she has to be honest with her father. In a tender moment together, Barbara begins to explain that she has a job that her father may not like or approve of. Commissioner Gordon waves away her concerns, telling her that he is proud of her and trusts her. Some have taken this as a suggestion that he already knows his daughter’s secret identity.
The episode can feel a bit like a betrayal when it becomes clear that most of it happens in Barbara's mind. Up until that point, this exhilarating installment of the series felt like it might have actually been the series finale. The episode pulled out all the stops, showing us that, while the series changed networks, it had not lost any of its intensity.
6. Batman Beyond: Return Of The Joker
Though it is not an episode so to speak, the flashbacks in Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker reveals a story that changed the emotional landscape of Batman: The Animated Series forever. When the Joker returns to Gotham City years after his death, the new Batman, Terry, begins looking into Bruce Wayne's past for answers. Commissioner Barbara Gordon shares with Terry the horrific events that lead up to the Joker's demise.
The Joker’s last attempt to destroy Batman went beyond simple killing. He went after his family, specifically Robin. After Harley Quinn lured Robin into a trap, the Joker took him hostage and tortured him for three weeks. During that time, the young Robin told Joker everything he knew about Batman. When Batman and Batgirl finally found Robin, he had been psychologically traumatized to the point that he had lost touch with reality and believed he was the Joker and Harley's son.
In the abandoned and partially demolished Arkham Asylum, Batman and the Joker go head to head in their most vicious fight. As part of his plan to completely undo Batman, the Joker hands Robin a gun and demands he shoot Batman. Robin goes rogue at the last second and kills the Joker instead.
Though he died, the Joker came out on top. His death destroyed Robin and, eventually, Batman's team. Before long, Bruce is working solo again and, as he gets older, he eventually retires as we see in the introduction to Batman Beyond. It took a long time, but the events of Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker paved the way for Bruce, Tim, and Barbara to finally begin healing.
The flashbacks provided the most intense and emotionally trying events ever presented in the Batman: The Animated Series universe. Beyond child abduction, the Joker tortured and brainwashed Robin with electricity and a wide selection of tools. There was also a moment that some fans waited a long time for: The Joker confronts Batman knowing who he really is. In an eerie scene where the Joker plays a slideshow that illustrates how he tortured Robin, he berates Batman in his narrative: “Behind all the sturm and batarangs, you're just a little boy in a playsuit crying for mommy and daddy. It'd be funny if it weren't so pathetic. Oh, what the heck? I'll laugh anyway.”
While each episode in the series brings its own unique contribution to the larger story of Batman, these six are a few of the most creative, emotional, and game-changing of the lot. Batman: The Animated Series and its predecessors never talked down to its audience; the show's creative team gave us real stories and characters we could identify with. Pushing the network envelope at many turns, Batman brought us an unprecedented animated experience that is well worth re-watching.
What is your favorite Batman: The Animated Series episode? Tell us in the comments below.