‘Batman: The Animated Series’ Premiered 20 Years Ago This Week, Watch The Pilot Episode [Video]
It was yesterday 20 years ago that Batman: The Animated Series debuted on the Fox television network, setting off a chain reaction that would change the face of American TV animation and inspire a generation of viewers' love for not just the great characters of DC Comics, but also art, design, film noir, comic books and everything else that the now classic series synthesized into a weekly instructional on great storytelling and exquisite taste.
The pilot episode, "On Leather Wings," embodies nearly everything that would make Batman and its spinoffs so beloved by children as well as adults, and you can watch the entire thing commercial-free below.
Directed by Kevin Altieri from a script by Mitch Brian, "On Leather Wings" introduces elegantly everything that viewers needed to know about this new vision of Batman as devised by producers Alan Burnett, Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm. The first thing we see is a Gotham City skyline and police airship right out of Dean Motter and Paul Rivoche's 1980s retro-future masterpiece Mister X, amplified with intensely stylized music by Shirley Walker that invokes film noir and the unforgettable Batman film score by Danny Elfman. Similarly, computer and television screens are in black and white, vehicles (designed by Shayne Poindexter) are sleek and rounded, rather than angular or box-like; every piece of decor from the windows to the carpets features a lovely Art Deco design; gentlemen wear ties and blazers, ladies wear pencil skirts and their hair in bouffants; police are kitted out in old timey riot gear. Everything we see and hear establishes the nature of Batman as a timeless and sophisticated adventure serial beyond anything we've seen on television in years; maybe ever.
(The shots of the Man-Bat creature -- designed by Kevin Nowlan -- flying past the police officer's window and casting its mysterious shadow are so cool and memorable that they were replicated very meaningfully years hence, using Batman Beyond's Terry McGinnis in the "Epilogue" episode of Justice League Unlimited, which was written by Timm and Dwayne McDuffie and directed by Batman: The Animated Series' Dan Riba.)
Crucially, "On Leather Wings" straight away establishes the major players and conflicts in Gotham's legitimate infrastructure. Detective Harvey Bullock hates the Batman; Commissioner James Gordon likes the Batman and hates Harvey Bullock; Mayor Hamilton Hill will authorize any action whose results might play well in the press; and District Attorney Harvey Dent wants to see justice done. The tensions between these men are perfectly expressed in just one scene, and it will inform the series for years to come. That this dimension of the series was first out the door, as opposed to a supervillain, was certainly a risk, but a correct one.
As the episode progresses it reveals more and more about what viewers need to know about this ambitious new cartoon. It's sexy, scary, funny and smart. People in Gotham like to sneak off to make out. Bad things can happen to people, like getting thrown out of windows by monsters. Alfred and Batman aren't above sarcasm and wordplay, and the show isn't afraid of abusing the gluttonous Bullock and depicting some of Gotham's finest as just as terrified of Batman as its criminals. Batman spends just as much time gathering evidence and investigating leads as he does breaking people's arms. The show is also different; this is not the ceaselessly tortured Dark Knight of Tim Burton's films nor the goofy but righteous lecturer of Adam West's '60s television series. Other first appearances in this episode include the Batmobile and its grand exit from the Batcave, the distinctions between all but ditzy Bruce Wayne and the mega-competent Batman, and the grappling gun with its infinite uses.
With the character of Batman and the nature of the series firmly established, Altieri and his collaborators conclude "On Leather Wings" with a brilliantly animated chase that includes a beautiful tracking shot of Man-Bat and Batman flying around the very police blimp that opened the show, and later a second one through a grid of steel girders in an unfinished building. It couldn't have been cheap, and they were right to show off. The results are manifest.
We love Batman: The Animated Series, and most of us wouldn't be working on this site had it never existed. It's a trip to think that it's 20 years old, but we think you'll agree that "On Leather Wings" has barely aged a day. For more on Batman, check out these features:
- The 10 Best Episodes of 'Batman: The Animated Series'
- ComicsAlliance Reviews 'Batman: the Animated Series: Tyger Tyger'
- The Batman: The Animated Series Writer's Guide is Totally Awesome
- Ask Chris #78: Why The 'Batman: The Animated Series' Opening Is The Best Thing Ever
- The 14 Best Title Cards From 'Batman: The Animated Series'