I recently acquired all four boxed sets of Batman: The Animated Series at a yard sale for $20. (It’s ok to be jealous.) Needless to say, I have since been watching the crap out of those DVDs. I’m sure most of you remember the show, but if you’re like me, you haven’t seen it since you were a kid. Well, I’m here to tell you that the show is just as good as you remember; nay, better. In fact, I come to you today with a bold proclamation: that the animated series version of Batman is the best version of Batman there is, and if you disagree, you are wrong.
I should probably mention up front that I don’t fully understand how arguments work.
Disclaimer: I will be comparing animated Batman to the more current and popular interpretations of Batman, since I shouldn’t have to explain why Adam West’s Batman or the Batman from Batman and Robin aren’t as cool. You should have no problem accepting that.
Animated Batman vs. Film Batman
Christopher Nolan’s Batman films are, in my opinion, the biggest reason for Batman’s surge in popularity in recent years. What makes them so unique is the movies place the Batman mythos in a recognizable and realistic setting. Gotham feels like an actual city, the characters are three-dimensional with understandable motives, and even Batman’s innumerable gadgets are explained and rooted in as much (pseudo)science as is necessary to make them fit into the reality of the movies. Before the Nolan films, I don’t think we as fans truly understood how extraordinary the concept of Batman actually was, but the films made a man dressed as a bat seem not silly, but threatening, understandably frightening to criminals, and cool as hell. Gotham is a real-world city inhabited by an outlandish vigilante, and that’s what makes him work. But, as awesome as the film version of Batman is, the character’s realistic confines are what gives his animated counterpart the edge.
Batman is many things: a billionaire, a world-class combatant and athlete, a brilliant detective, an accomplished actor—the peak of human potential in almost every way. He deserves to be, too, as he’s dedicated his entire life to being something more than a man. But, the films, with their decision to keep things as realistic as possible, focus more on Batman’s combat prowess and less on his other skills. His gadgets are invented by someone else, he does little to no detecting, the only acting he does is keeping up Bruce Wayne’s playboy persona, and he is about as intelligent as you’d expect someone who went to a good school to be. Animated Batman, though, is constantly creating and utilizing new devices, displays Sherlockian levels of observation, regularly employs complex disguises and characters, and, apparently, possesses diverse and esoteric knowledge of a large number of subjects. Is he less realistic? Yes. He is also way more fun. With so many diverse aptitudes, animated Batman’s character allows for him to be placed in a much wider variety of situations, broadening his story-telling potential. Just look at it from the perspective of a villain: film Batman will throw you off balance psychologically and then physically incapacitate you. Animated Batman will deduce the location of your lair based on a picture you had on your desk, reverse-engineer a vaccine against your deadly neurotoxin, and then when you unmask him after catching him off guard in a fight, it will actually be your henchman underneath the mask, because surprise! Batman has been masquerading as your henchman this entire time! Does it make sense? No. Is it awesome? Of course! Plus, it makes for a way better story to share with the other inmates.
Animated Batman vs. Comic Book Batman
Comic book Batman is great. I obviously haven’t read the entire Batman comic catalogue, but I have read many of the more seminal graphic novels along with Scott Snyder’s current run in Batman (and if you’re not reading it, you’re doing yourself a disservice—it’s fantastic). Over the years, there have been some truly outstanding Batman stories in comics, and why not? It’s the medium in which the character was born, and regardless of your personal feelings about his popularity, four of the top ten comics sold last month were Batman titles. As comic book fans, we can’t get enough of Batman, and the writers and artists who create his stories are happy to oblige us. But, reading modern Bat-comics, one thing that becomes painfully clear is that there is no room in Batman’s life for any state of being that strays too far from grim and brooding. Other characters may occasionally inject a note of levity into the stories, but Batman? Nope; he’s too busy being serious.
Not so in the animated series. Now, don’t get me wrong, Batman is plenty stern in the show, as Alfred and Dick are always happy to point out. His character is fundamentally the same, but animated Batman isn’t afraid to have a little fun every now and then, and often at the expense of the criminals he’s after. It’s not uncommon for him to crack a little smile as he dangles a mob boss over the edge of a skyscraper, which isn’t really my kind of practical joke, but hey, everyone’s got their thing. And, while he’s a long way from phrases like “egad” and “old chum,” animated Batman dishes out his fair share of one-liners. It doesn’t even feel corny when he does, it just feels right. If a criminal’s plan is crumbling around him, and he’s frantically trying to escape while muttering to himself that there’s not enough time, it’s no less pants-crappingly terrifying if Batman emerges from the shadows growling, “You’ll have all the time you need…in prison!” than if he does it silently. That’s still scary. After all, this is Batman’s job, and everyone does whatever they can to keep themselves sane at work. Speaking of which…
Animated Batman vs. Our Perception of Batman
Two weeks ago I attended a panel at WonderCon entitled “What’s the Matter with Batman?” during which psychologist Robin Rosenberg explored the issues with which Batman was potentially afflicted. She worked her way systematically through disorders like PTSD, depression, OCD, and dissociative identities, presenting the characteristics that a patient would need to exhibit in order to be professionally diagnosed with these mental problems. And, her conclusion in regard to every one of these illnesses was that Batman did not meet the qualifications: in short, there was actually nothing wrong with Batman. My friends that were with me and the majority of the people in attendance were understandably upset by this pronouncement, but I found it interesting. Rosenberg wasn’t saying that Batman was completely fine, just that a person could have issues and problems without being classified as mentally ill. In our hurry to dole out diagnoses, we sometimes forget that just because you like to keep everything in its place doesn’t mean you suffer from OCD. Most of us have baggage of some kind; it’s part of being human. And, I got to thinking about someone else who had always seemed fairly well-adjusted, all things considered. Yep, you guessed it: animated Batman.
In the animated series, Bruce Wayne is not simply Batman’s public persona, but a real person. He goes on dates, because he’s interested in someone, not just because he needs information from them, he has friends outside of the Batcave, and he even puts in a full day at the office from time to time. Yes, at night he dresses up as a bat and fights insane clowns and shape-shifting mud monsters, but he doesn’t let that get to him. I lost faith in humanity after just one month of working in the food service industry, but after everything he’s been through, animated Batman remains principled, noble, and heroic. He was a role model to me as a kid, not just because he’s an awesome superhero, but because he’s an awesome human being. He genuinely cares about the people he’s saving, and, with a couple of exceptions, about the villains he’s fighting, as well. How many of us can say we’re that big of a person?
So, that’s what I’ve learned from 20-something hours of Batman: The Animated Series. That, and also that every citizen of Gotham should carry a gas mask at all times, because, seriously, about 85% of the episodes feature some sort of gas attack. Adapt or die, people!
Disagree? Keeping in mind that you’re still wrong, feel free to let me know in the comments!