This week sees the release of the latest incarnation of The Dark Knight of Gotham. And although Batman V Superman may be a giant mess, Ben Affleck’s caped crusader is actually very good – the latest in a resurgent comeback generally attributed to Christopher Nolan’s movie trilogy.
But bizarrely, the grittiest and truest elements of Batman were first brought to life by a ’90s cartoon.
Running for two extended series in the middle of that decade, Batman: The Animated Series took the ideas hinted at in Tim Burton’s first two instalments of the film franchise and ran with them. Creators Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski were influenced by Burton’s Gothic undertones, but also brought a far darker edge to the character and the Gotham he inhabited.
While many look to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel as the template for Christopher Nolan’s and Zack Snyder’s grittier Batman, it was the Animated Series which first took Miller’s ideas and delivered them to a mainstream audience – winning Emmy awards and critical acclaim on the way.
Unfortunately, the Fox network were blissfully aware of what a good thing they had and pushed for a more ‘child-friendly’ take by the second series. But, for a short while, a cartoon gave us the blueprint to the future of Batman.
The art direction was stunning
A huge aspect of the show’s appeal was the distinctive look. Although Warner Bros outsourced the show’s first series to a number of different animators due to the sheer number of episodes, there were certain reference style points which made the show a distinctive break from anything that had come before.
The episodes opened with film noir style cards, the layout of Gotham City had a dark brutalist quality, the police officers used blimps and The Bat himself had a shadow-like presence – bright white eyes and a figure hidden by his black cloak. It was a by-gone era, but with modern twists.
Kevin Conroy gave Batman an old-school masculinity
Alongside the ’50s influence on the look of the show, this was also reflected in the voice casting. Kevin Conroy provided Batman with a deep, booming voice which suited the squared-jawed all-action hero completely.
The actor was the first to make a distinction between the voice of Bruce Wayne and his superhero counterpart (a move then taken on by Christian Bale).
Conroy would go on to become the definitive voice for the animated Batman, reprising the role in other series, films and video games.
The villains were more tragic, than terrifying
If you’re looking for the point where comic book villains became more than just crazed, power-hungry evil – then look at the Animated Series’ takes on Clayface and Mr. Freeze.
The series took minor adversaries from the Batman canon and gave them heart and soul. Clayface was a handsome actor, who had lost it all due to a corrupt cosmetic company in the ‘Feat of Clay’ two-parter, while Mr. Freeze was a scientist driven to crime by the death of his wife in ‘Heart Of Ice’.
They were flawed, let down by society and completely relatable.
It wasn’t afraid to be grown-up
Yes, this was the stuff of Saturday morning cartoons – but it didn’t fight for your attention. It wasn’t scared to be slow-paced, to be ponderous and show Bruce’s relationships as well as his investigation process.
Not all cartoons have to blare at you. The understated moments make the drama seem far more important.
Mark Hamill brought anarchy to The Joker
Yep, the most well-known secret about Luke Skywalker isn’t his robotic hand. Mark Hamill’s career away from the galaxy far, far away flourished in his role as the voice of Batman’s eternal foe.
While still playing up to his clown-like persona, there was a sinister edge to the show’s take on The Joker, and his crimes and schemes were anarchic and brutal.
Hamill’s shrill delivery and maniacal laugh were a great contrast to Kevin Conroy’s baritone Bat, and the two have been duking it out in various adaptations since.
It gave us Harley Quinn
The show was the very first outing of Harley Quinn, The Joker’s psychiatrist who developed into his mis-treated love interest and partner-in-crime.
The character proved to be a popular addition to the Batman universe and was eventually inducted into the Batman canon – now set to have her first live-action as portrayed by Margot Robbie in the upcoming Suicide Squad movie.
Not a bad legacy for a Saturday morning cartoon, huh?
Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is in cinemas from this Friday, March 25