Ask Chris #78: Why The ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ Opening Is The Best Thing Ever
Here at ComicsAlliance, we value our readership and are always open to what the masses of Internet readers have to say. That’s why every week, Senior Writer Chris Sims puts his comics culture knowledge to the test as he responds to your reader questions!
Q: So, how is the opening sequence of Batman: The Animated Series a statement of its intent? — @dhacker615
A: I’ll be honest with you, guys: I went fishing for this one. With all the episodes of Batman: The Animated Series that I was watching in order to put together ComicsAlliance’s list of the ten best episodes, I kept seeing that opening sequence over and over. And rather than getting bored with it or skipping ahead, I kept watching it and fixating on just how unbelievably good it is — not just in terms of beautiful animation, but in the sheer storytelling economy of being a perfect introduction to Batman.And when I say it’s the perfect introduction, that’s what I mean. My first thought — the one that I put on Twitter that got me started on thinking about it so much — was that it was comparable to the phenomenal origin story laid out on the first page of All Star Superman, but in retrospect, I was
wrong incorrect mistaken not entirely factually accurate. They both have an incredible economy of storytelling and language, and some beautifully drawn iconic imagery, but there’s a key difference in that the All Star Superman sequence is an origin.
With their four-panel, eight-word sequence, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely tell you where Superman’s from, why he came here, and why he’s a good guy. The Batman opening doesn’t do any of that. There’s nothing about his origin. No mugger, no gunshots, no cascade of Martha Wayne’s pearls, no bat crashing through the window, nothing. It doesn’t show you why Batman exists.
What it shows you is who Batman is and what he does. We’re not watching someone become Batman, the Batman of The Animated Series is already fully formed the first time he steps onto the screen. He’s Batman, in the present, already established as a crimefighter with villains and allies in place, and the opening reflects that. It’s an introduction.
And in that introduction, Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski were able to convey a truly incredible amount of information. In one minute, with no dialogue, no sound effects, without even giving you the title of the show, they tell you everything you need to know about Batman.
It might seem improbable. On Twitter, Chris Haley even went so far as to say that all you learn about Batman from the opening is that “he drives a dope car and beats up criminals,” but it goes far beyond that. And to prove it, let’s break it down, frame by frame, piece by piece, and see what we can learn about Batman.
All right. Imagine that you’re a kid in 1992, and you know absolutely nothing about Batman. Imagine that you’ve never even heard of this character, and that everything you’re about to see is something you’re experiencing for the first time. It’s an unlikely scenario, I know — it’s only three years after Tim Burton’s Batman was a massive hit, and the ’66 show had been in syndication for years — but purely for the sake of argument, let’s pretend we’re coming to the show completely cold and see what happens.
So what’s the first thing we see once the Warner Bros. logo fades? Blimps!
All right, I’ll admit that we’re off to a slow start as far as learning things about Batman, but right away, we’re introduced to the aesthetics of the show. The art deco buildings are a great visual indicators of the ’40s noir style they were going for, with the blimps giving it that touch of Fleischer-inspired super-heroic fantasy. Also, those red skies? Get used to ‘em. We’re not going to be seeing a whole lot of daylight in this show, so it’s a good thing we’re starting that now.
Six seconds in, and we haven’t learned anything about Batman yet, but we’re already getting familiar with the distinctive look and feel of the show, and with it, Gotham City. Granted we don’t know the name of it yet, but I’m just going to go ahead and call it that for efficiency’s sake. So let’s follow those spotlights down for the first people we see:
This is where things start to pick up. We may not know anything about Batman, but the visual shorthand here is obvious: Shifty-eyed, shadowy guys lurking around a bank in the middle of the night? Those are criminals. So:
FACT #1: Gotham City has criminals.
It’s a minor thing and it’s easy to take for granted — of course Gotham has criminals; everywhere has criminals — but again, consider that these are the first people we’ve seen, and that right before that, we saw three police blimps hovering in the sky. I hear a siren every now and then, but I’ve never even seen one police blimp. Admittedly, that’s because such things do not technically exist in the real world, but still. Without even realizing that there was a question (“Why are there so many police blimps?”), we’re given the answer: Crime exists, and we’re already given a clue that it exists to an unreasonable extreme.
It’s also worth noting that there’s an incredible trick the opening is pulling off with these two crooks: We never see who they are. Their faces are always hidden — even when they’re lit at the end, the light washes out their features. Every emotion they’re going to display over the next 48 seconds — and they’ve got a surprising range — is conveyed through their eyes and their outline. Even in this brief moment, we’ve got the jutting tough-guy jaw in the background and the narrowed, shifty eyes of the guy in front. We know all we need to, because the visual shorthand being used here is unreal in how efficient it is.
So, we’ve got crooks lurking around a bank in the middle of the night, so they’re probably going to bust in and rob it. That’s what we know to expect from this setup, right? They’re probably going to crack open the vault or maybe just take a couple of crowbars to the cash drawers, or…
Holy sh** they blew it up!
Everything about this setup, the criminals lurking in the shadows, the music, the very fact that it’s a bank leads us to expect that we’re about to see a robbery. Maybe the robbery already happened by the time we show up, maybe it was never going to happen, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that we don’t get what we expect. We get something far more dynamic, something far bigger, something that’s a step beyond what we know. So:
FACT #2: Crime in Gotham City is far more extreme than normal.
We don’t need to see single supervillain. The fact that two faceless, seemingly average crooks have taken things two steps further than our expectations have already shown us that in this world, crime is on the next level from what we’re used to. Now we know why there were three blimps looking for these guys. Things are dangerous.
So at 16 seconds, we’ve been introduced to Gotham City, in both its aesthetics and its problems. We have a setting. So where do we go from here?
We see what Chris Haley correctly identified as a dope car. We don’t know who’s in it yet, but thanks to some clever staging, we know that it’s pursuing the two crooks. Just before the bank explodes, they run off to the left, and in both shots of this vehicle, it’s moving from right to left, following their motions. It’s in pursuit.
But that’s not the only thing that we can learn from this. Think about this: There are a ton of recognizable, distinct elements and pieces of Batman that we could see in this opening. The utility belt, the cave, even the police contacting him with the Bat-Signal. These are things we could’ve been shown, but instead we get the car. Why? Is it just because it’s a a pretty sweet design that reinforces the Art Deco aesthetics that we’ve already seen? Partly.
But think about it. We know there’s a car, right? And presumably we’re familiar enough with cars to know that people drive them to get from one place to the next. We know this because we have cars — normal people, like you and me. So why show us that this guy has car? Why does Batman even have a car to begin with? Because he needs one.
Whoever this person is, he can’t fly. He can’t run at the speed of light. If he could, he wouldn’t bother with a car, no matter how sweet it might be.
FACT #3: Whoever is driving that car probably doesn’t have super-powers.
Okay, okay: That’s more of an assumption than a fact — you could have super-strength or telepathy or be bulletproof or something and still need a car to get around, but it’s the conclusion that we’re being led to by what we’re seeing. We’ll come back to this later, but if you need something definitive, how about this:
FACT #3a: He can, however, afford a dope-ass car.
Boom. A huge aspect of Batman, that he has no super-power other than the Wayne family fortune, made up of two elements that we’re introduced to in one shot. That’s why you see the car and not the utility belt or the Batcave. The car, as iconic as it is, conveys both of those pieces of information in the least amount of time. Specifically, about six seconds.
So speaking of cars, our next shot is a police car in pursuit of our two thugs, but by the time it catches up to them, they’ve climbed up a building:
Now, I’m not sure why they chose to climb a building. I mean, there are zeppelin cops up there. But really, it matters about as much as whether or not the crooks robbed the bank before they blew it up. The important thing is the visual shorthand.
The cops are literally at a dead end, and when the criminals climb up that building, they are literally above the law. This one doesn’t even need to be explained:
FACT #4: Criminals in Gotham are beyond the capabilities of the police.
One of the most important aspects of Batman is that he’s necessary. If the police could deal with the crime in Gotham, there wouldn’t need to be a Batman, so there wouldn’t be one. Heck, if Gotham City didn’t have a huge crime problem, Thomas and Martha Wayne wouldn’t have been killed. We don’t get that specific piece of information in this opening (it’s not an origin, remember?) but get what it means: Batman has to exist, because the law can’t stop these criminals.
Which plays directly into the next shot:
It’s very, very important that we’re getting their reaction shot first. We’ve just seen that the law is completely powerless to bring these guys down, but now, in the very next shot, there’s something that terrifies them. Look at those dudes! They’re recoiling and wide-eyed, the jutting jaw and confidence of their first appearance is gone. If they’re not afraid of the cops, then what could inspire that kind of fear?
FACT #5: Whatever we’re about to see, criminals are terrified of it.
It’s almost as though criminals, despite seeming to have all the power in this city, are actually a superstitious, cowardly lot. So what are they so afraid of?
Ladies and gentlemen, 35 seconds into this opening sequence, we meet Batman. We don’t know his name yet, but the way we meet him is brilliant. He drops out of the sky, so we have another visual metaphor added to what we’ve already seen: if the criminals are above the law, then Batman is above them. If cops are five, then crooks are six. If crooks are six, Batman is seven.
The way he drops out of the sky is genius, too: It’s done so that he looks like a bat, with his cape flapping around him in this beautiful fluid motion as he lands. And if you didn’t know anything about Batman, you’d assume that he was flying above them and dropped down — if you didn’t already know that he drove there in a car, which we know is his because it has the same lines and blue-black color scheme as his cape. See how it all comes together?
It’s the close-up that gives us our next crucial piece, though. For one thing, we see that he’s a person in a mask and not some demonic creature, so I feel justified in calling this guy “Batman” even though we’re never going to learn his name in this sequence. But more importantly is that awesome moment where he narrows his eyes. He’s not just there to stop these guys…
FACT #6: Batman hates criminals.
It’s not just a matter of wanting to uphold the law — there’s an emotion at the core of what we’re about to see, and it’s not a happy one. So we have Batman, who does not like these guys, and the criminals who fear him.
Now, there’s a lot in this scene that happens very quickly, and it’s all very, very significant. First, the criminals pull out guns, so we know that for all the fantasy of police blimps and art deco hot rods, there is something that we can immediately recognize as a deadly weapon. More importantly, this action means that Batman has to react, and right now, we have no idea what he’s going to do. Is he going to draw his own pistol and have a rooftop gunfight? By conventional logic, he’d certainly be justified; the bad guys are the ones who escalated the situation by drawing their pistols first.
But instead, Batman pulls out…
Well, I don’t know what that is yet. Looks kind of like a boomerang but with weird spikes all over it. What I do know is that it’s not a gun.
Quick sidenote before we move on: How awesome is that right hand? It’s huge! It would ruin your day to get punched in the face with that thing.
Anyway, so this thing Batman just threw at these dudes is definitely not a gun. But maybe it’s some other kind of weapon, like a throwing star. Maybe this Batman guy is like a ninja, who uses his own deadly weapons to take out criminals with extreme prejudice. Let’s see!
Okay, so instead of taking out the men, Batman targets the guns, taking them away from the criminals. Huh. That’s interesting, he must really not care for firearms. Otherwise he just would’ve used that crazy bat-boomerang thing (bat… arang?) to knock out the criminals. Maybe there’s something specific about guns that’s significant to this character.
Take all that together, what do we now know?
FACT #7: Guns exist and they are used by criminals.
FACT #8: Batman does not use guns. He doesn’t seem to like them much either.
FACT #9: In lieu of a gun, Batman uses other weapons to fight crime.
The thing with the guns leads to something else that’s really interesting, but it’s not fully formed yet, so let’s move on to what happens next:
And what happens next is that Batman cold wrecks one of those dudes. I love the reaction from the other thug, and the fact that this look of pure shock and terror is the most we ever see of him as a person. He has made some mistakes, and he realizes this now.
But the focus is on the other guy, the one who gets taken out. Batman puts him on the ground in one move while flipping through the air, and the crook does not get up again. So now we know something else:
FACT #10: Batman is awesome.
Seriously: The fluid movement, the quickness, the agility. If crime in Gotham is a step beyond crime as we understand it, then Batman is a step beyond people as we understand them. But not so far beyond that the other thug doesn’t at least try to take a swing at him:
Again, even with just a silhouette and the shape of Batman’s eyes, they’re able to convey a contempt for the thug’s punch in this brief moment. Just the posture as he watches the fist sail by — it all reinforces the idea that Batman’s a superior fighter, which continues into the next shot, where the thug tries three more times to hit Batman before Batman finally takes him out with exactly one punch.
But the fact remains that the thug tried to punch him, just like they tried to shoot him. Why? I mean, this guy just dropped out of the sky, disarmed two thugs and wrecked a dude in the span of ten seconds — why doesn’t the remaining criminal just start running? Because he has a chance. He at least thinks he does — he fights instead of running because if he can land that punch, if he can get off a gunshot, it’ll do something. We don’t see bullets bouncing off Batman’s chest and we don’t see him take a punch to the face without reacting, we see him removing the guns from the equation and dodging fists. So now we know…
FACT #11: Batman is not invulnerable. He can be hurt.
The trouble is actually getting the chance to do the hurting, and that’s not something these crooks are capable of. So Batman knocks them out, and it’s a quick cut to the police showing up. There’s no indication of how much time has passed, or what the cops are going to find, and since we don’t know anything about Batman other than what we’ve seen, we’re not sure what to expect either. Dead bodies? Batman drinking their blood and turning them into his vampire thralls? Are they going to have vanished without a trace, with a cryptic sign to warn others that they might share their fate?
It only lasts for a second, but there’s suspense created in cutting away to see the police running towards the scene. And then the reveal:
The two crooks. They’re alive; they’re sitting up and the one in the hat is turning to look at the cops, and they’ve been tied up and positioned, clearly left for the police. This isn’t something that happens instantly, so we know that Batman had to take some time to do this, which means he could have spent that time doing anything else. Since this is what he chooses to do, we have our final lesson:
FACT #12: Batman doesn’t kill the people he fights, he leaves them for the police.
There’s also a nice touch of one of the cops seeming surprised by this, which indicates that while Batman might be on the side of the law, he doesn’t necessarily work with it. But since the guy could also just be impressed at seeing Batman effortlessly take those thugs in a matter of seconds, it’s hard to say. I’d be stoked about it too.
So with those guys taken care of, we finally actually see Batman for the first time:
The whole opening builds to this moment, and by the time it gets to it, we already know this guy. Every single shot over the course of the last minute has been a choice, everything we’ve seen has told us something.
So what do we know? We know that this guy is a crime-fighter who probably doesn’t have any super-powers. At the very least, he can’t run faster than a car and if you punch him, he’ll feel it. We know that he doesn’t use guns, and instead relies on being an incredible fighter who uses other means to deal with his enemies. We know that he’s violent, and that he hates crooks, but he doesn’t kill them and instead hands them over to the justice system. We know he exists because there’s unchecked crime in this city that the police just cannot fight by themselves, even if through extraordinary means. Also, he drives a dope car.
We do not know the names Bruce Wayne, Gotham City, or even Batman, but we know all of that, because of the elegant choices that the creators have made in crafting this introduction. We know everything we need to know about Batman, who he is and what he does, without a shred of origin, purely through the visual storytelling we’re given. There’s not even any text — the entire sequence contains exactly two words: “POLICE” and “BANK.” That’s it. But the volume of information they’re able to convey, well, just scroll up.
Total elapsed time: 57 seconds.
It all happens in less than a minute. And there’s other great stuff about it too: The lack of credits and the fact that it’s done with the same style of animation (albeit usually a hell of a lot better) as the rest of the episode means that it doesn’t just feel like an opening, it plays out like the first part of the story. This is what Batman’s doing in the minute before whatever you’re about to see. And the music? Perfect.
I’d put it up against any opening from any other television show, or even any film, and I’m confident that it would hold its own in terms of economy of storytelling, style, and setting the mood, if not outright blow anything else out of the water. It is, and I say this without any of my usual exaggeration, nothing short of a masterpiece.
That’s all we have for this week, but if you’ve got a question you’d like to see Chris tackle in a future column, just send it to @theisb on Twitter with the hashtag #AskChris, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with [Ask Chris] in the subject line!