Batman: The Animated Series may be the greatest children’s cartoon ever made. Spurred on by Tim Burton’s 1989 film, it took a dark, nuanced approach to the superhero genre, which before was more tongue-in-cheek and campy. With outstanding animation, music, writing, and voice acting, it adapted classic Batman stories, re-invented old characters, and created new ones.
With eighty-five episodes in its original run on Fox Kids, plenty fly under the radar due to the fantastic quality of its best. While many of these episodes lack iconic villains, they still tackle heavy subjects and mature themes in a way children and adults can both enjoy and cry over.
10 “The Forgotten”
When Bruce Wayne (Kevin Conroy) learns that homeless people and volunteers at soup kitchens have been going missing, he dons the disguise of Gaff Morgan to investigate. He gets into a fight with some thugs and is knocked unconscious. When he awakens, he has no memory and is forced to work in a remote mining camp.
This episode can get a little preachy at times as it talks about the plight of the homeless, but it’s still good. It has a powerful dream sequence of Bruce shedding a tear as he’s unable to save everyone, which says a lot about his character. It also gives Alfred (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) something to do as he tries to locate Bruce.
9 “Paging the Crime Doctor”
Crime boss Rupert Thorne (John Vernon) is in need of heart surgery. Not wanting to go to the hospital, he enlists the help of his brother, Matthew (Joseph Campanella) who lost his license when he removed a bullet from Rupert without telling anyone. Since Rupert promised to get him back his license, Matthew kidnaps his colleague from school, Dr. Leslie Thompkins (Diana Muldaur), to aid in the surgery.
Matthew Thorne is an interesting main character: he is ultimately someone who wants to help others but is forced into a Faustian bargain by his brother. His struggle between loyalty to his brother and his conscious makes for solid drama, as does the reveal that he knew Bruce Wayne’s father, Thomas. This leads to one of the show’s most heartwarming endings.
8 “Mad as a Hatter”
Jervis Tetch (Roddy McDowall) is a scientist at WayneCorp who has developed microchips that can control creatures’ minds. He has a crush on his secretary, Alice (Kimmy Robertson), and attempts to woo her when she and her boyfriend break up. When they get back together, an enraged Jervis uses his technology to kidnap Alice and send innocent people to fight off Batman.
The Mad Hatter is often overlooked among Batman’s rogues, but this interpretation is one of the strongest. McDowall’s performance adds a layer of sophistication to the character and can shift between sympathetic and terrifying. The Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland imagery is used to great effect, particularly in the climax, where Tetch dresses up his victims in costumes, which adds a layer of surrealism to Batman’s battles.
Ra’s al Ghul (David Warner) kidnaps a resident from a Gotham City retirement home. He leaves a tape for Batman, which details a story from 1883 when the transcontinental railroad was being built. Ra’s and his partner, Arkady Duvall (Malcolm McDowell) planned to destroy the railroad but first had to deal with the bounty hunter Jonah Hex (William McKinney), who was hunting Duvall.
“Showdown” is a fun episode that shows the writers don’t always need Batman. Hex and Duvall make for enjoyable one-off protagonists and antagonists with their conflicting personalities and talented voice actors. Their climactic battle ends on an airship, which is one of the most exciting action sequences in the show.
A sting operation fails, costing the Gotham Police two million dollars in cash they used as bait. An enraged Lieutenant Hackle (John Considine) interrogates the officers involved: Detective Harvey Bullock (Robert Costanzo), Officer Renee Montoya (Ingrid Oliu), and Officer Wilkes (Robbie Benson). At Commissioner Gordon’s (Bob Hastings) assistance, the officers give their accounts of what happened.
“P.O.V.” is a small-stakes story that shines a light on the police characters in Gotham City. Each of their accounts, and their individual views on Batman, help to showcase their varying personalities and approach to police work. The focus on the police over Batman also helps to flesh out Gotham City from a ground-level perspective.
5 “Dreams in Darkness”
When Batman stops an attempt to infect the water supply at a health spa, he is infected by a gas that causes him to experience vivid hallucinations. He is given an antidote, but it will knock him out for a few days, so Badman puts it off. Suspecting the Scarecrow (Henry Polic II), he heads to Arkham Asylum, but crashes due to another hallucination and is administered to Arkham as a patient.
“Dreams in Darkness,” is the best Scarecrow episode of the show. He is used more insidiously than before, operating from the background while letting Batman succumb to his hallucinations. Said hallucinations all stand-out thanks to their brilliant animation and the creative ways they delve into Batman’s fears.
4 “It’s Never Too Late”
Arnold Stromwell (Eugene Roche) is an aging crime lord concerned with the disappearance of his son and a gang war with Rupert Thorn (John Vernon). He demands a meeting with Thorn, which his rival intends to use to kill Stromwell. Fortunately, Batman was aware of the ambush and saves Stromwell, so he can convince him to step down peacefully.
Themes of redemption and moral choices are ever-present in this episode, which is all the more impressive since this is Stromwell’s only appearance. It is structured similarly to It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol, with Batman taking on the role of the spirit showing Stromwell what will happen if he doesn’t improve. Interspersed are gorgeous flashbacks of Stromwell’s childhood trauma, which leads to a poignant exchange at the end.
3 “Birds of a Feather”
After serving his time, the Penguin (Paul Williams) decides to reform himself. Though his criminal friends are quick to abandon him, he finds a new one in Veronica Vreeland (Marilu Henner), a wealthy socialite who hopes to gain attention by hanging out with the former criminal. The Penguin genuinely comes to care for his friendship with Veronica, but when the truth comes out, he slips back into his villainous ways.
This episode is a textbook example of how this show humanized its villains. Penguin’s struggle mirrors that of real people released from prison who want to change but aren’t given the chance. Veronica also goes through her own arc, growing past her elitist attitude, which allows her to see the humanity in Penguin, albeit too late.
2 “A Bullet for Bullock”
While walking home, Harvey Bullock is nearly run over by a masked figure. Due to his past, he doesn’t go to the department for help, so asks Batman to help him find his assailant. As Batman does some digging, Bullock continues to do his job and comes to terms with how many enemies he’s made.
This is one of the best film-noir-inspired episodes of the show, and its music won an Emmy for Outstanding Music Direction and Composition. Bullock is a wonderful character and his interactions with Batman highlight how nuanced he is. Despite his many shortcomings, he is a good cop who wants to make the city a safer place.
Mary Louise Dahl (Alison LaPlaca) is a former child actress with a rare condition that prevented her from physically maturing. She starred in a sitcom called “Love That Baby,” but quit after they introduced a new character, Cousin Spunky (Jason Marsden) to bring up ratings. Unable to develop a serious career for herself, she returned twenty years later to kidnap her cast mates and force them to re-create her sitcom family.
“Baby-Doll” is a testament to the creative forces behind the show. They took what should have been a silly concept and made both a sympathetic villain and an emotionally gutting third act involving a hall of mirrors. Between the tears are fun references to classic sitcoms, from Gilligan’s Island-looking henchman to references to Cousin Oliver Syndrome.
Next: The 10 Best Animated Versions of Batman, Ranked