Today Christopher Nolan’s final Batman film opens. He redefined the Dark Knight for cinemas with an anti-terrorism angle. Before Nolan, Frank Miller reshaped Batman with 1986’s “The Dark Knight Returns”. In one four-issue mini-series Miller changed Batman forever. Funny enough how this came a year after the cancellation of Superfriends and three months before Alan Moore’s Watchmen.
An epic two-part film adaptation of “The Dark Knight Returns” is coming to Blu-Ray this September. Batman will be voiced by Peter Weller (Robocop).
“The Dark Knight Returns” was a direct influence on Tim Burton’s landmark 1989 film, “Batman”. He had lunch with Miller and Alan Moore before he started pre-production on the film. The film made such an impact in media that the KAPOW’s and KABAMMM’s were lost forever. Suddenly the Batman shield was dropped and a sleaker, meaner, more vengeful Batman arrived in comics.
Along with this new wave, DC tried to transfer it over to mass media as well. DC got “The Flash” Television series going at CBS in 1991 and a little animated program called “Batman: The Animated Series” was ready for FOX.
BATMAN THE ANIMATED SERIES
The brain-trust behind “Batman: The Animated Series” came from Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski, who designed the series by closely emulating the Burton films and incorporating the atmosphere of the Max Fleischer Superman cartoons of the 1940s.
Casting proved to be challenging, first-time producers Timm and Radomski had a restricted budget. So they auditioned over 150 people for the role of Batman. Voice actor Kevin Conroy was told by his agent that Warner Bros. was developing an animated series and asked him to try out for the voice of Batman. Believing it would be like the 1960s Batman TV series, Conroy went in to audition. When he asked about the character, Bruce Timm explained to Conroy that this Batman was not like the 1960s version, but a more gothic story line similar to Tim Burton’s Batman. Conroy would become a valued member of the DC animated stable and become the most famous man ever to voice Batman.
“Batman: The Animated Series” didn’t have the Joker cast when they began production on the series. Mark Hamill had just come off a scene-stealing role as The Trickster (The Flash’s Joker) on the CBS live-action show “The Flash” in 1991. Hamill was brought on to do a guest starring role on BAS’s first Mr. Freeze episode “Heart of Ice” as corrupt businessman Ferris Boyle. The producers liked him so much they asked for him to read for the role of the Joker after their first choice Tim Curry dropped out.
The series changed many aspects of the Batman universe but it was more of an updating. Lost villains like The Clock King, The Ventriloquist and The Mad Hatter all became prominent villains in the series. Clayface and Killer Croc’s origins were updated and the series even created the unforgettable “Princess of Crime” Harley Quinn.
Right from the get go, this series was a monster hit. The series never aired in order and that was okay for the producers. The episodes kept getting better and reached a wider audience than just kids. It became a show not only adored by children but adults alike proving their was a market for animated shows aimed at an older audience.
Writers Paul Dini and Alan Burnett created some of the greatest episodes of the series 85 episodes, three year run. The series launched DC’s new animation wave that still endures to this day.
The first season consisted of a monstrous 65 episodes and when the series came back for a second 20-episode season Robin was added to the cast.
BATMAN AND BEYOND
Beyond the 85 episode run of BAS, the series came back three years later with “The New Batman Adventures” this time on the WB network. This 24-episode series, like the comics, saw Robin graduate into Nightwing and a new younger Robin step up. Batgirl also became a regular cast member.
The series would spin off into three Batman animated DVDs “Mask of the Phantasm”, “Subzero” and “Mystery of the Batwoman”.
Writers Alan Burnett, Paul Dini and producer Bruce Timm were asked what to do with franchise after the conclusion of “New Batman Adventures”. So they posed the question, what happens when Bruce Wayne gets too old and can’t carry on the mantle?
In 2019, Batman suffers a heart-attack and decides to finally hang up his mantle. By this time, all his friends have died, allies won’t talk to him and his sidekicks have moved on. So he closes the Batcave and retires.
Twenty years later, high school athlete Terry McGinnis is trying to protect his girlfriend from a lethal gang called The Jokerz. The battle ends after a high speed chase that finds Terry meeting face to face with Bruce Wayne (still voiced by Kevin Conroy) himself. A very reluctant and reclusive Bruce rejects Terry at first but they eventually forge an unlikely friendship and together they resurrect The Batman.
This new version of Batman lasted 52 episodes and spawned another direct-to-DVD movie, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker. The series saw the whole DC universe redone as it tried to uncover an alternate future and all the mysteries that come with it.
After the putrid stench of the Joel Schmacher Batman films, Batman Beyond was the only Batman series on the air until Bruce Timm decided to bring his whole animated universe together with “Justice League” in 2001. Kevin Conroy (Batman), Tim Daly (Superman) and Mark Hamill as the Joker all returned for the series. The series lasted 52 episodes and cemented the John Stewart version of Green Lantern in pop culture.
The series expanded it’s roster with the third and fourth season’s 39 episode run with “Justice League Unlimited”. The new roster enabled DC to pick and choose anyone from the DC universe.
THE FORGETTABLE BATMEN
Justice League concluded in 2004 and it was really the end of the Bruce Timm’s influence on DC animated series. The first Batman series out of the gate post-Timm was 2004’s “The Batman”.
Batman once again was given a makeover by artist Jeff Matsuda (Jackie Chan Adventures). This version of Batman was trying to keep to the gothic feel of the Batman universe but appeal more to children. Batman was 26-year old. (Which does beg the question, just how young are his side-kicks then?) Most die-hard Batman fans gave up after the second season and ran screaming for the hills when witnessing the dread-locked version of the Joker.
Surprisingly the show went on for 65-episodes and even had the extremely awful direct-to-DVD movie, The Batman vs. Dracula.
DC’s animated direct-to-DVD division was starting to boom during production of “The Batman” and Bruce Timm was focused on those projects.
The next Batman series out of the gate was “Batman: Brave & the Bold” which was inspired by the campy 1960s Batman while also incorporating the team-up flavor of “Justice League: Unlimited”. Drew Carey Show’s Diedrich Bader was the voice of Batman. The supporting cast included Aquaman, Green Arrow, Blue Beetle and Plastic Man.
The series did go all over the map trying to mine stories. Over 150 heroes and villains appeared in the series 65 episode, 3-season run. One favorite was when Batman first meets Aquaman (who in this series is very much like Bruce Campbell). Another is “Legends of the Dark Mite!” where Bat-Mite was switching between Batman’s costume and when he got to the Dark Knight Returns costume he calls it “too psycho”.
THE NEW ERA
The great superhero TV show seems to be lost right now. Green Lantern is pretty good. Young Justice is good but the silly season schedule is frustrating. Bruce Greenwood’s Batman on that show is bang on. Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes was the best superhero show on TV but it got cancelled. And Ultimate Spider-Man is the worst Spider-Man series ever! I have never given up on an animated series before the end of the first season, I did with this.
Early next year, DC’s new animated TV block DC Nation on Cartoon Network will debut “Beware the Batman”, a CGI-Animated show similar to Green Lantern. The show is created by Duck Dodgers writer Mark Banker and Handy Manny writer Michael G Stern. The series once again will change the look of Batman as his universe will have a similar tone to the Green Lantern series. Personally, I can’t say I am psyched for this show. For me it looks like a feeble attempt to cash in on the tidal wave that will be “The Dark Knight Rises” but I will say I will watch it before another episode of Ultimate Spider-Man.