Media Matters: The Top Ten Episodes of Batman: The Animated Series
Before Batman: The Animated Series was set to premiere in September of 1992, I can remember tuning into Fox every morning at the same time to watch the same commercial for the series. This was long before the days you could play something over and over on YouTube, so I would sit as close to the screen as possible to analyze the 30 second spot and then set my watch to get ready for the next day.
Once it aired, the series itself did not disappoint. It featured an all-star cast, an orchestral score, distinctive art deco style, and a knack for telling mature stories without sinking to objectionable content. The original eighty-five episodes, airing from 1992 through 1995 and now available to stream for free through Amazon Prime, are universally held in high regard and often considered to be the most successful representation of Batman on film.
I’ve recently revisited the series with my son who, at two years old, is fascinated by all things Batman. While all 85 episodes are worth checking out, here is a list of my very favorite episodes.
10. Two-Face: Parts 1 and 2
Tim Burton’s Batman films were criticized for placing too much emphasis on their villains and relegating the Dark Knight to a supporting role in his own movies. Though it did a better job of finding the right balance, the Animated Series humanized much of Batman’s rogues’ gallery by introducing them with tragic origins stories.
Here Harvey Dent (a friend to Bruce Wayne instead of Batman) already struggles with dissociative identity disorders brought on by childhood drama. When a mob boss threatens to expose the District Attorney’s mental problems to the press, Harvey tries to retrieve his patient files and is scarred by an explosion after Batman shows up and a fight ensues. His disfigurement sends Dent over the edge. The darker personality asserting its dominance, he escapes from the hospital and sets out for revenge. Batman is desperate to save his friend and Dent himself longs to reclaim his humanity, but the burden of sickness and guilt are too much for them both. This two-part episode is, by far, the most touching portrayal of Two-Face’s tragedy outside of a comic book panel.
9. Heart of Ice
Another rogues’ gallery origin story, Heart of Ice transformed Mr. Freeze from a gimmicky one-note villain into a dangerous and misguided victim out for revenge instead of justice. One of the best-looking episodes in the series, everything from the production design to the character animation is on point. The clever ending is also set up early in the episode, serving to close a perfect loop on a very solid twenty minutes of storytelling.
Today, the Animated Series is often best remembered for introducing the thickly-accented former criminal psychologist Harleen Quinzell. The Joker’s misfit mistress has gone on to be one of DC’s most popular characters, even featuring prominently in this summer’s Suicide Squad. For whatever reason, episodes featuring both the Clown Prince of Crime and his main squeeze rarely managed to do both characters justice. “Harlequinade” is an exception to that rule – perhaps because it gives the Joker a grandiose scheme worthy of his arch-villainy.
When the Joker threatens to annihilate Gotham with a stolen nuclear bomb, Batman and Robin reluctantly turn to Harley Quinn for help. Watch for a riotous moment in the second act where Harley performs a song and dance number recounting her sick romance with the Joker and foreshadowing what, in retrospect, is an inevitable conclusion.
Two other Harley-centric episodes deserve an honorable mention. In “Harley and Ivy”, Quinn strikes out on her own after a particularly nastyfight with her “Puddin’”. She eventually teams up with Poison Ivy and the two take the town by storm as Gotham’s newest criminal duo. The episode features a fun feminist angle which, while not very deep, is endearingly subversive. The other, “Harley’s Holiday” is a sweet story about Harley first day of freedom after a stint in Arkham. Though she tries to walk the straight and narrow, events keep conspiring to land her back in chains. It’s touching to see Batman give her the benefit of the doubt and do his best to save her from herself.
7. Christmas with the Joker
While it is not as consistently spectacular as some of the others on this list, “Christmas with the Joker” is a great holiday episode that manages to make the Joker threatening but still keep the general spirit of the show light and entertaining. One of the best moments comes near the end when Shirley Walker’s score works the Nutcracker Suite into Batman’s musical theme.
6. Dreams in Darkness
The Animated Series always did a fine job with the Scarecrow and this is one of the character’s very best episodes. His scheme here would even inspire a good part of the storyline in Batman Begins. Watch for the standout moment when Batman, under the thrall of Scarecrow’s fear toxin, sees monstrous visions of his villains, each announced with a bombastic rendition of their musical motif.
5. Joker’s Favor
“Joker’s Favor” opens with a chilling scenario. Charlie Collins, a work-a-day nobody who decides he’s had enough of the world treating him like he doesn’t exist curses out the motorist who cuts him off on the freeway. Unfortunately for Charlie, the driver was the Joker and he is only willing to let the slightslide if Charlie will promise to do him a favor.
Ominous music, harsh shadows, and eschewed angles all serve to make this the Joker at his most menacing. A palpable sense of dread permeates the first half of the episode and it is only because the second half is not as strong that I have not placed this gem higher on my list.
Though she doesn’t play a pivotal part in the story and her relationship with the Joker is not yet solidified, this was also the episode that introduced Harley Quinn.
4. Feat of Clay: Parts 1 and 2
A thinly veiled addiction drama, “Feat of Clay” is one of the Animated Series’ most heartbreaking episodes. It serves as a solid introduction to yet another tragic villain, but the two-part drama truly distinguishes itself by how well it fleshes out every one of its characters – even those goons and henchmen in ancillary roles.
3. The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne
Hugo Strange is one of Batman’s least recognizable villains. Here he plays a nefarious psychologist who uses a machine that can read his patients’ minds to blackmail them with their darkest secrets. When he discovers that Bruce Wayne is Batman, he tries to sell the information to the highest bidder. The Joker, Two-Face, and the Penguin all pool their resources to pay his price, but each of them is in for a surprise.
2. Beware the Grey Ghost
This fantastic episode is a great example of the wonders these storytellers could accomplish in just a 22-minute running time. The casting director pulled off a major coup in getting Adam West to go meta and star as a failed actor who had been typecast in his role as a costumed superhero, the Grey Ghost. When a mad bomber launches a campaign of terror on Gotham that mimics an old episode of the Grey Ghost TV series, Batman tracks the star down and enlists his help. Everything in this episode works just as it should –pitting complex characters against an intriguing mystery accompanied by a sweeping musical score.
1. Almost Got ‘Im
“Almost Got ‘Im” usually appears near the top of everyone’s list of favorite episodes in the Animated Series. As the Joker, Two-Face, Poison Ivy, the Penguin, and Killer Croc all crowd around a table to play poker, they each try to one-up the other with the best story of the time they almost killed Batman. Each of the tales is presented as a thrilling vignette culminating in a final clever twist. Though it doesn’t feature the complex drama that served as a hallmark for the series, this humorous one-off is a perfect mix of comedy and action.
By Will Morgan