A constant and endless echo of the Fleischer Brother’s brilliant Superman cartoons from the 1940s, Batman: The Animated Series, which ran from 1992 until 1997, is an often glorious evocation of the world of the iconic Dark Knight. Steeped in art deco designs and black shadow patterns, the Gotham City of the series finally seems a fitting depository for the brooding vengeance of Batman and his tortured obsessions as well as the waves of crime and the various schemes of a parade of lunatic costumed villains. Voiced by Kevin Conroy, this Batman is a far remove from both Adam West’s campy genius and the positively chipper caped crusader from Hanna Barbara’s day glow Super Friends. Conroy manages to convey the hero’s grim determination and tight lipped suffering without descending into growling and ranting, striking a fascinating vocal difference between Batman and Bruce Wayne—as one of the commentary tracks indicates, Conroy believes that Bruce Wayne is in fact the fabricated identity, a face worn for the public—that suggests the extent of the vigilante’s haunted bifurcation. Producers Bruce W. Timm and Eric Rodomski didn’t feel the need to reinvent the character as much as return to the stalking gothic “vampire” of Bob Kane’s original vision, and though it could be argued that the series lost some momentum near the end of its run, even the episodes of less than perfect standing have a seductively noir-ish appeal. While proclaiming a cartoon to be “dark” or “sophisticated” often smacks of an odd need to achieve an imaginary “adult” legitimization, it is undoubtedly true that the series was unusual fare for weekday afternoon programming. It had a range of feeling and a visual sensitivity that will mark it not only as a striking interpretation of the super hero tradition but as one of the great animated series of all time.
While all of the individual cartoons in the set maintain a fundamental standard in terms of quality, there are differences to be found between some of the programs in terms of stylistic aspects such as detailing and fluidity of motion. Episodes such as “Heart of Ice,” “See No Evil,” and “Pretty Poison” are markedly more visually compelling than their fellows, and one is reminded that the episodes were farmed out to different animation companies of varying abilities for production purposes. That being said, all of the shows look just fine; what is of particular note, however, is the sound. Sound effects, from the roaring of the Batmobile’s turbine engine to the whipper whirling of Batman’s Batarangs, have been given fuller body and dimension while the consistently impressive musical scores, one of the finest aspects of the original series, can now be fully appreciated for all of their surprising depth.
There are actually a few pleasant extras included in the set, particularly a featurette presenting interviews with the cast and crew about the series’s development and production. One gets a chance to watch everyone, from noted comic book writers Mark Waid and Geoff Johns to the voice of the Joker, Mark Hamill, wax poetic on the “brilliance” and continuing influence of the series, and a chance to watch the original short that Bruce W. Timm and Eric Rodomski created as a way to “pitch” the series to the studio. There are also commentary tracks on two episodes, “On Leather Wings” and fan favorite “Heart of Ice,” performed by producers Bruce W. Timm, Eric Rodomski, and writer Paul Dini.
The only complaint that might be leveled at this set is that rather than being a season collection, it is a “volume one,” and therefore allows for the inclusion of certain episodes, particularly featuring the Joker, that technically appeared later in the series run, only, one assumes, for the seeming appeasement of the fans. This is unfortunate as it robs the viewer of the chance to appreciate the program’s natural progression and that several of these latter episodes feature a noticeable decline in terms of visual quality. Other than this, the set is really quite nice and, given the rabid love so many fans have for the show, this set will undoubtedly fly off the shelves.