The 10 Best Episodes of ‘Batman: The Animated Series’
With over a hundred episodes produced from 1992 to 1998, Batman: The Animated Series is commonly regarded as not just one of the greatest cartoons ever made, but one of the best depictions of Batman in any medium in the character’s 70-year history. Under producers Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm and with a note-perfect voice cast led by Kevin Conroy as Batman, The Animated Series racked up classic after classic, with stories that were marked by being truly accessible and exciting for all ages. It changed super-hero media forever, and created a legacy that continues today with Timm’s work on the new Green Lantern cartoon.
In short, it’s absolutely phenomenal and we love it. But even with the high standard of quality set by the series, there are some episodes that stand out beyond the others as the best of the best. So today, I’ve gone through the entire series to bring you ComicsAlliance’s picks for The Ten Best Episodes of Batman: The Animated Series!
Story: Jules Dennis, Richard Mueller & Sean Catherine Derek
Director: Boyd Kirkland
Any top ten list for something as beloved as Batman: The Animated Series is going to provoke its fair share of disagreement, and I fully realize that there are people who are going to count my opinion as absolutely worthless for giving one of the episodes that’s commonly regarded as the worst of the series a top slot over classics like Harley’s Holiday or the award-winning Robin’s Reckoning. But to be honest, there are two kinds of people in this world: Those who think Cool Hand Luke starring Batman is awesome, and those who don’t.
As much as you can decry this episodes as being a shameless, blatant… well, let’s just be nice and call it an homage to that film, as much as the sequence of events that follows Batman being conked on the head, getting amnesia and having to labor in a prison camp while his disguise somehow stays firmly in place, and as much as this really just boils down to a story that pits the world’s greatest crimefighter against a fat guy…
…those are all things I love about it.
The Forgotten is unique. It breaks almost every rule of the series. It’s not set in Gotham City, there’s no arch-criminal, there’s barely any actual Batman (most of the issue is spent with amnesiac Bruce Wayne), there’s a complete lack of logic in the fact that nobody recognizes one of the richest men in the world or puts things together when he goes missing and Batman shows up, and it even has scenes with actual sunlight. There’s a good reason why most fans of the series write it off, but it not only proves how adaptable the show’s version of Batman really was, it shows a crucial side of Batman’s character. The title of the episode points it out: The men who were abducted to work as slaves were forgotten by everyone — except Batman. He’s not just a billionaire who gets his kicks by putting on tights and punching out guys who want to blow up the water supply, he’s a man utterly dedicated to saving those around them from the criminals who would ruin their lives.
It’s heavy handed, it’s illogical, it’s goofy as all hell, but when Bruce Wayne remembers what he does and why he does it, and Conroy’s voice shifts back into his almost snarling Batman growl to tell the other prisoners “We’re getting out of here,” it also brings us one of the best moments in the entire series.
Over the Edge
Story: Paul Dini
Director: Yuichiro Yano
While we’re on the subject of stories that shouldn’t work, we have Over the Edge. Under normal circumstances, a story that ended with “but it was all a dream!” would be automatically consigned to the dregs, but here, it works.
Part of that just comes from context. Paul Dini’s script is working with a world that has already established dreams, hoaxes and imaginary stories as viable concerns, both in the larger tradition of super-hero stories and on Batman: The Animated Series specifically. The truly amazing Perchance to Dream, in which Batman battles his way out of an dream world because it’s quite literally too good to be true, had not only set up the rules, but provided the perfect context for what happens in this one.
But what really makes it work is its sheer brutality. Like The Forgotten, Over the Edge lives up to its title: Batgirl’s death leads Jim Gordon onto a grief-stricken path of revenge that sees him declare outright war on Batman, discovering his secret identity, destroying Wayne Manor, bringing down Nightwing and Alfred in chains. It’s the worst case scenario for the good guys, and it’s not the villains bringing them down, it’s that they turn on each other out of vengeance.
And unlike most stories that use the device, the fact that it all happens in Barbara Gordon’s dreams doesn’t detract from the drama — they add to it, and builds her character in an interesting way that before then, the show hadn’t really addressed. It reinforces the danger that she’s living with as a character. Not the physical danger of death or injury, but the emotional danger of the deception that comes along with hiding her identity from her father, and how it’s his trust in her and in Batman that’s at risk.
It’s an interesting exploration of character and consequences that doesn’t talk down to the audience even when it’s conveyed in sequences built on violence and shock value, a tightrope that only the best stories manage to walk.
Story: Kevin Altieri, Paul Dini, Bruce Timm and Joe Lansdale
Director: Kevin Altieri
Generally speaking, it’s a bad sign when Batman barely shows up in your Batman story, but Showdown is one of the most memorable episodes of the series, for a lot of reasons.
For one thing, it’s got one of the best set pieces, and that’s saying something. Owing to the influence of the Max Fleischer Superman cartoons and movie serials of the ’40s — which led to the beautiful aesthetic of the show’s title cards — an awful lot of Batman: The Animated Series was built around those dynamic, memorable set pieces. Even mediocre episodes like Prophecy of Doom, in which Batman fights a balding con man duping gullible rich folks out of their inherited millions (basically the opposite of The Forgotten), features that incredible scene where Batman fights a guy in a gigantic planetarium where Saturn had razor-sharp, damsel-threatening rings. Why the hell did this small-time confidence man have a planetarium deathtrap set up? Who cares, Batman punched a dude right through Uranus! That‘s amazing!
But I’m getting off the subject. In this episode it’s steampunk airships in the wild west raining cannon fire down on locomotives, which makes for a great visual — and despite the fact that the first frame of the opening credits had a blimp in it, it’s not the sort of thing you usually saw in the dark, art deco noir setting of Gotham City:
The second thing Showdown accomplishes is that it fixes one of the few problems with one of Batman’s greatest villains: Ra’s al-Ghul. The first rule of good writing is that you show instead of tell, but because Batman’s adventures take place in the present — whenever that present happens to be — we just have to take Ra’s’s word for it when he says he’s an immortal who’s been kicking around for 500 years. By this point in the series, we’ve seen him go into a Lazarus pit and come out a little stronger and a little more nimble, but that doesn’t show that he’s an immortal. He tells us and we go with it.
In this issue, even though it’s related as a flashback told by Ra’s, we’re shown everything, and made to understand that yes, this guy has been working these schemes for longer than Batman’s been alive. It both validates his claims and suddenly makes him scarier — if he was able to do everything he does in this episode a hundred years ago, what can he do with the resources that he has today? — and at the same time, the end of the episode also humanizes him, making him sympathetic.
That’s one of the things that The Animated Series excelled at — fleshing out the vilains just as much it fleshed out its heroes. There aren’t a whole lot of recurring characters on this show that don’t have layers crafted into their personalities, and the hint of pleading that David Warner gives to Ra’s al-Ghul’s voice when he speaks to Batman, his worst and most persistent enemy, adds an immeasurable amount to the character.
The most memorable element of this episode, though, is who acts as our protagonist in the absence of Batman: Jonah Hex.
Before The Brave and the Bold, before Justice League, before Superman: The Animated Series, there was Jonah Hex on Batman: The Animated Series, and our first hint of a larger animated DC universe beyond Gotham City. Even the Zatanna episode took place in Gotham, with Batman as the focus and a version of Zatanna that fit more easily into a supporting role — she was just a stage magician. Here, however, we have a fully-formed protagonist on his own.
Hex is a different kind of character than Batman — we know within the first five minutes that he’s a killer and a bounty hunter — but Lansdale’s script goes out of its way to draw parallels between him and Batman. It all leads to the creation of the fully shared universe that would arise later on in the franchises that would follow after Batman‘s success, all while telling its own grand adventure.
Almost Got ‘Im
Story: Paul Dini
Director: Eric Radomski
Almost Got ‘Im is unquestionably one of the most beloved episodes of The Animated Series, to the point where I’m sure there are people who won’t believe that I’m saying it’s only better than 102 others.
Either way, it’s expertly crafted on just about every level, right down to the way it was animated. Right from the opening sequence, in which the villains are introduced solely by close shots of their hands as they play poker, and it’s a testament to how sharp and distinctive the designs were that you can identify them by such a small piece.
And then there’s the big reveal at the end, where Batman’s shadow emerges from Killer Croc’s body as a light swings back and forth over him. There’s a similar reveal at the end of a previous episode, The Cape and Cowl Conspiracy, and it’s done well there, but this sequence — credited in the DVD commentary to animator Glen Murakami — blows it away in terms of sheer style. It’s just this perfect example of the visual language of comics translating to animation in one beautifully memorable sequence.
It’s also hands-down one of the smartest episodes. The premise alone is a brilliant inversion on the traditional formula, having the bad guys casually hanging out telling their stories, in which Batman is their villain. I imagine it was pretty tough to pull off, too — it’s a 22-minute cartoon that manages to tell stories with four villains, plus Catwoman and Harley Quinn, plus a surprise reveal that makes the second time you see it even better than the first.
It all comes back to the set pieces, and it’s there that Dini shines, with his animated origin for Batman’s giant penny that sets a tone of slapstick Silver Age fun, then transitions smoothly into the Joker gleefully electrocuting Batman and attempting to chop Catwoman into actual cat food.
It’s the perfect blend of genuine, threatening danger and lighthearted fun that worked so well for the series, and it’s only underscored once you get to the point where you realize that Killer Croc’s rock-stupid lines and pratfalls were all just Batman in disguise, showing the bad guys how dumb he thinks they are while doing the most villainous thing of all: Luring them into a trap.
Like I said, it’s a fantastic inversion of expectations, right down to Batman responding to Harley Quinn’s taunts of only being able to capture her or save Catwoman — the classic love-interest-in-distress trap — by casually turning off the deathtrap and pasting her one.
Unlike some of the other episodes on this list, Almost Got ‘Im doesn’t add anything to the show’s grand mythology, with the possible exception of the rarely seen moment of Batman enjoying himself. All of its pieces are already in place when it starts, from the established relationship between Poison Ivy and Two-Face to the sexual tension between Batman and Catwoman, and nothing really changes at the end. But it takes all of those pieces and puts them together so well, with stylish animation and enormously clever touches, and ends up making one of the most perfect episodes of the show.
Story: Paul Dini
Director: Kevin Altieri
To say that Harley Quinn was the breakout character of Batman: The Animated Series is underselling things quite a bit. She was hugely popular with fans, and for good reason: She’s at the center of some of the show’s best episodes, from the slapstick, relatively uplifting comedy of Harley’s Holiday to the miserable tragedy of Mad Love. But of all the Harley-centric episodes, Harlequinade does it the best.
It doe severything you want a Harley Quinn story to do, and it does it with the absolutely perfect setup of having Harley and Batman team up in order to stop the Joker from blowing up Gotham City with an atomic bomb — a plot that would be flat-out ridiculous in most cartoons, but works perfectly with this show’s concept of the Joker.
Just from that, you’ve got the buddy-cop comedy that comes from contrasting Harley’s giddy enthusiasm with Batman’s grim, eye-rolling exasperation with her — Conroy’s subtle frustrated sighs and furious orders to behave are the perfect foil for Arleee Sorkin’s delivery — but as the episode goes on, it gets deeper. It has those same notes as Harley’s Holiday, where you want her to succeed and get away from the Joker, but with that same note of heartbreak because you know she can’t that shows up again in Mad Love, but combined into something better.
And, just to cap things off, it’s the only episode of Batman: The Animated Series to feature a genuinely hilarious musical number, in the form of a catchy tune about domestic abuse from 1946 called “Say That We’re Sweethearts Again.”
Batman slamming his forehead into a table while Harley sings will never not be hilarious, and the same goes for the Joker’s Snoopyesque World War I Flying Ace routine at the climax of the episode.
And again, it’s that comedy that makes the sadness of Harley’s relapse into loving a man that was about to blow her up with an a-bomb — even if it’s done in the form of a goofy Honeymooners reference — have an emotional weight to it that her other appearances just don’t match, no matter how hard they try to recapture the feeling of this one, or how enjoyable they manage to be in the process. It’s rare for any series to do an episode where the main character steps aside to take a supporting role to let a minor character shine, and for it to be done this well is downright unheard of.
The Man Who Killed Batman
Story: Paul Dini
Director: Bruce Timm
The Man Who Killed Batman is one of those perfect high concept plots that sells itself to the reader immediately, just on the strength of the title and the image that goes with it. The very idea that Batman could die is unthinkable — the show itself is named after him, so even the kids the series was aimed at would have a hard time buying that he actually died — but the fact that it’s some wide-eyed, lemon-shaped goon cowering underneath that title immediately makes that question irrelevant, and replaces it with “okay, well how did this guy do it?”
And the rest of the episode lives up to that title, using it as a springboard to tell a story that’s almost unbelievable in how clever and sharp it is. Everything about the episode is designed to increase the reputation of both Batman and the Joker. We learn from the very beginning that the regular criminals of Gotham City have pretty much resigned themselves to Batman’s presence and given up on attempts to kill him themselves and decided to take a completely different set of tactics — Sid the Squid is brought in by his “pals” for the sole purpose of slowing down Batman while he beats the crap out of him. And when he actually does kill Batman — or at least, when he seems to — everything changes around him.
The best bits of the episode, though — and this will come as a surprise to no one — are from the Joker.
The genuine sadness that the Joker feels at Batman being killed takes a layer of his character that shows up in the comics and translates it to the small screen version with a beautiful economy, and the same goes for his rage that someone else managed to accomplish it. The scene where he quietly tells Harley to put the loot back because there’s no point in committing crimes without Batman — the only time in the series where Mark Hamill’s voice drops out of the high-strung, theatricality that he ususually uses for the Joker — is just remarkable.
In the end, it all comes back around to building Batman into a towering, mythical figure. It’s not just that he explains how he survived with the blunt “I swung away before it exploded” in the casual, off-hand style that anyone else would use for “I went to the grocery store,” it’s how he makes his entrance. Everyone believes that he’s dead, but then gunshots — deadly to a lesser man but less than an inconvenience for him — and then he just cold into a man’s house, dossn’t even break stride as he disarms him with a shuriken, and then starts throwing a crime boss through the furniture.
And it’s not even for our benefit we see all this happening — presumably, if we’ve been watching this show, we already know Batman is a badass. We’ve seen him as the hero in every episode. But here, and this is what makes this episode remarkable, seeing Batman the way the criminals see him: Unstoppable. Ruthless. Terrifying.
It’s also worth noting that Dini manages to pull off a script that gives almost everyone a happy ending. Batman’s alive and well in Gotham City and punching out crime boss Rupert Thorne, so he gets what he wanted, Sid the Squid goes to prison with the reputation that he always wanted, and even the Joker gets to fight Batman again, which is exactly what he wanted. And we get a phenomenal piece of television.
Story: Paul Dini
Director: Boyd Kirkland
If The Man Who Killed Batman is the perfect illustration of why Batman is so terrifying to the crooks of Gotham City, Joker’s Favor is the other side of the coin: An incredible story of why the villains are so terrifying that Batman is necessary.
When the focus is on Batman, it’s easy to lose sight of the tension that’s being created. Again, the set pieces the show used so well come to mind: Once you’ve seen Batman survive a deadly roulette wheel or the Maze of the Minotaur or Sid the Squid’s explosion or a Death Planetarium, day after day, week after week, it becomes routine. We start to know that there’s nothing they can really throw at Batman that can stop him, and the fiction, the illusion of danger, becomes fragile.
But in this episode, the focus shifts to someon elese, someone who’s the diametric opposite of Batman. Charlie isn’t the exceptional billionaire crimefighter, he’s just a dude who wants to get through a traffic jam. He’s the everyman. He’s us. And when he becomes the target, we become the target, and suddenly the Joker’s scary again.
You can’t hide from the Joker. He’ll find you. He’ll kill your family. There’s nothing you can do to stop him, because you’re just some dude and he’s the most terrifying criminal mastermind in a city of criminal masterminds. And you never know what he’s going to do, or when he’s going to do it.
As much tension as there is in the Joker effortlessly cutting through the Witness Protection Program and the sinister threat that goes along with it, the best part of this entire episode is when Charlie finds out that all the Joker wants from him is to hold a door open for Harley. It plays right into the unpredictability that makes the Joker such a great villain, and acts as a false resolution that makes the next twist — that he’s leaving Charlie to be blown up along with Commissioner Gordon — hit even harder. It’s a murder set up like a joke — setup, escalation, punchline, kicker — that fits his character perfectly.
Joker’s Favor gives us an adventure with comedy and tension that conveys two crucial ideas. First, that while Batman himself is the indomitable, unstoppable crime-fighter, the people around him are not. They’re fragile, and the things that he deals with on a daily basis are unimaginably dangerous to him. It changes the stakes — Batman doesn’t “lose” by coming to harm himself, he loses by by failing to stop others from coming to harm. That’s where the tension is in this episode.
The second idea spins directly out of that, subverting it for the surprise when it’s not Batman who defeats the Joker, but Charlie himself. And if Charlie’s us, then we beat the Joker. It might verge on pandering, but it’s an incredibly satisfying and pretty inspiring ending. Plus, the Joker’s melodramatic terror and cowardly running to Batman for protection is a genuinely funny visual, and an incredible contrast with his menacing actions earlier in the episode. It only reinforces the theme of the Joker’s unpredictability, and does so in a phenomenally enjoyable way.
Heart of Ice
Story: Paul Dini
Director: Bruce Timm
If there’s one defining strength of Batman: The Animated Series, it’s the humanity that it gave to its characters. It’s not just that they were well-rounded, it’s that they felt like real people that viewers could identify with. Characters like Ra’s al-Ghul and Poison Ivy weren’t just unrepentant bad guys, they were people with legitimate complaints taken to an extreme — much like Batman himself, but with a morality skewed to destruction while his was built on protection. And in Heart of Ice, took that idea and applied it to Mr. Freeze with an award-winning skill.
The fact that they were able to do this at all is impressive. The fact that they were able to do it with a blue man in a robot suit and a bubble head who gets defeated by chicken soup is mind-blowing. Dini and Timm provided what is unquestionably the definitive take on Mr. Freeze, making him a character whose emotionless evil is a facade that hides a brutal, sympathetic tragedy.
The fact that he leaves one of his own henchmen to his fate after his legs are frozen solid is the perfect way to characterize Mr. Freeze as a ruthless, unfeeling monster, and in a lesser show, that would’ve been where it stopped. But as Heart of Ice continues, it becomes clear that Freeze is anything but — he attempts to deny himself his emotions because he can’t take the pain of them. Even the way he phrases it himself is, if you’ll pardon the expression, chilling:
“You beg? In my nightmares, I see my Nora behind the glass, begging to me with frozen eyes.”
This isn’t a man who doesn’t feel. It’s a man who feels too much, and that’s the most humanizing element of all.
Even the fact that Batman catches a cold in this episode — which leads to both a ridiculous pun and a gag ending that are completely forgiven both because of how fun they are and what surrounds them — gives us a piece of vulnerability for the character that we rarely see.
Story: Alan Burnett and Randy Rogel
Director: Kevin Altieri
Heart of Ice got a lot of press (and an Emmy award for writing) and it deserved every bit of it, but in terms of crafting a villain with humanity, Two-Face is even better.
The origin of Two-Face — done, of course, in two parts — succeeded not just because the episodes themselves are great, but because the larger show itself had taken the time to establish Harvey Dent as a character in previous episodes. He’s portrayed unambiguously as one of the good guys — he’s even the unsuspecting victim in the episode that introduces Poison Ivy — all of which leads to the idea that he’s someone Batman has to save. So when we finally get to his tragic fall and his rebirth as a villain, it not only has more emotional weight because we know Harvey Dent — or at least, we think we do — it’s one of the few times that we see Batman fail.
Based purely on that setup, Two-Face had a lot going for it, but the way the episode itself played out took things to the next level. There’s an amazing brutality in the crime story at the heart of it — the good man being brought down by the city full of corruption, as much at war with the darkness in himself as he was with evil around him, the fact that his happy ending is taken away from him, that he can never be with Gilda even though she still loves him, every bit of it is gut-wrenching.
And that’s before Batman is even involved in a story that reflects his own tragic origin and the old chestnut of the duality in himself. It tests him on a mental level that brings a level of moral ambiguity that the average super-villain plot never reaches. Batman has to turn against his own friend –a friend to both Batman and Bruce Wayne — to protect someone he hates, because he’s devoted to a higher ideal.
If Batman: The Animated Series is marked by never talking down to its audience, then this episode is the best example of how. It’s a story with no happy endings: Everyone loses, and because their story continues, they all have to live with that.
Story: Dennis O’Neil
Director: Kevin Altieri
Let’s get this out of the way right up front: There is no episode I could’ve chosen as the best that everyone who loves Batman: The Animated Series would agree with, and I’m well aware that for some fun-loving sticklers, picking a two-part episode that’s nothing more than a strict adaptation of a story from the comics is doing a disservice to all the episodes that were unique to the show. Whatever episode you’re thinking of that I forgot about, believe me, I considered it.
But The Demon’s Quest is perfect.
There’s a reason the comics this episode is based on are considered to be some of the best Batman stories ever printed, and The Demon’s Quest is a perfect translation. It’s not just a showcase of everything that’s great about Batman, it’s a showcase of everything that’s great about adventure fiction, period.
There are exotic locations. Clever detective work. Thrilling action. Danger. Doomed romance. Plot twists. A villain that, more than any other opponent that Batman faces over the course of the series, is shown to be his equal on every level, from wealth to skill to sheer cunning. It’s an episode that shows what Batman is up against, and builds on the idea tha the’s not only devoted to fighting against crime and evil, but fighting for justice and life. And when he kisses Talia at the end, then leaves her alone to return to Gotham City, we see how devoted he is to his mission, above his own interests and happiness.
We never need to be told that Batman is dedicated, or that Ra’s is ruthless, or that there’s a connection between Batman and Talia — we learn it all through the grand action of the story.
And then there’s the technical aspects of it. Ra’s al-Ghul and Talia are beautifully designed, and David Warner’s voice, with the refined menance that it brings to the part, fit him perfectly. Ubu’s design makes him simultaneously a threatening physical presence and an incredible source of comic relief, and the reveal that it’s not the gigantic musclebound bodyguard that presents the threat, but the slight, older man in crisp suit is an incredible reveal that makes Ra’s seem even more threatening by contrast.
The action moves from one thrilling set piece to the next, all rendered in some of the best animation on the series, buidling to the iconic confrontation between Batman and Ra’s, a duel set against a backdrop of flames, as the world explodes around them.
Forget about adamantium, y’all: That is the hardest metal known to man.
The character, the humanity, the drama, the action, the music, the animation — everything about this episode is perfect. It adds to the characters while defining them, and it takes something that was already great and brings it to the screen in a way that feels uniquely exciting — which is exactly what the series as a whole did. It’s the perfect example of how the show built on, added to and in some ways even defined a character and his world that had already existed for half a century, and does it so perfectly well.
It’s everything that’s great about the entire series boiled down to one single adventure, and that’s what makes it the best.
(Special thanks to ToonZone‘s extensive gallery of title cards and screenshots)
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