A Desert Island Batman
Posted: September 28, 2008

Bruce W. Timm changed television animation, and what we expect from superhero shows, when his Batman: The Animated Series premiered in 1992. He took the Dark Knight seriously, and presented him with verve and style. Here are ten episodes that feature the classic Bruce Wayne Batman from BTAS, TABR and TNBA. Show these to anyone who doubts the range and power of Timm's achievement with the character.

1. Heart of Ice: The classic Batman elements in seamless combination: there are fights and chases, yes, but also moral ambiguity. Victor Fries is an innocent man driven to despair by misfortune and malignancy; his is a villainy rooted in emotions that are all too recognizable because they are all too human. In this way the episode goes beyond the usual limits of the comic book genre and into a deeper moral realism.

2. On Leather Wings: Dark, foreboding and stylish, both in design and animation. Proof offered early in its run that the series had not only intellectual depth, but artistic muscle as well.

3. The Laughing Fish: A classic tale about the classic Batman adversary. The Joker is funny, ingenious, and murderous; Batman is clever, heroic and humane. Notable also for the skill with which Timm and collaborator Paul Dini adapted elements of two great comic book stories, "The Laughing Fish" and "The Joker's Five Way Revenge."

4. See No Evil: Another ambiguous baddie, but a common criminal instead of an archfiend. The series' commitment to a recognizable urban setting (and not just a stage for action and hijinks) gave it great moral credibility.

5. Almost Got 'Im: But sometimes you just want to have fun. This one gave us all we could want by simultaneously celebrating and sending up those great set pieces that have to cap off any comic book adventure.

6. Beware the Gray Ghost : A bow to the long history behind the character: Batman acknowledges its own influences (Zorro and Robin Hood) by having Batman acknowledge his (the Gray Ghost). It is also probably the most touching tribute one could give to Adam West, and anyone with a sense of history has to get chills while listening to him and Bruce Timm (as the insane fanboy collector) interact on the soundtrack.

7. The Man Who Killed Batman: The closest we've come to seeing the death of Batman, and a sensational demonstration of his abilities. By showing his interventions without ever showing him, we recover a sense of wonder at his martial skills; and what other cartoon would dare to go virtually its entire length without showing the hero?

8. Perchance to Dream: A "what-if" story that works on almost every level—visceral, psychological, philosophical.

9. Legends of the Dark Knight: A visual tour de force. The creators' knowledge and affection for comic book designs is abundantly evident, and their skill in putting it across through a different medium is astonishing.

10. Cat Scratch Fever: A bit of sour to emphasize the sweet. If you doubt that the above are great stories, and that the series as a whole is a wondrous departure from the norm, just watch this piece of dreck, perpetrated by a veteran of "standard" cartoon fare. This ugly, unpleasant and uninteresting waste of twenty-four frames a second is what the series could have been, and miraculously wasn't.

Finally, proof that Bruce Timm was the guiding and necessary force behind the series: He stands as collaborator (either on the story or as a director) on four of the nine, and was a prime agent in removing the person responsible for the tenth.

Essays: Index