It can be argued that the superhero genre of movies and TV is stale because they keep recycling the same characters and stories. While it’s true that most shows of this genre use heroes and villains that were created from the 1930s-1960s, I think the reason that these characters keep reappearing is that they and their villains have compelling stories that keep the audience interested. Batman is a prime example of this. I’ve always liked his character because his stories are not a straight-up good vs. evil dichotomy. It’s always more complex than that, and I think that keeps the character grounded in reality (well, as grounded in reality as any superhero can be).
We can find many examples of how these complex characters are simplified when made into animated kids’ shows, in order to keep the plots easy for the target audience to understand. However, I think Batman: The Animated Series does a good job of that, while still staying true to the gritty, dark nature of Batman and confronting the ethical struggles he faces while doing his job. That is the main strength of this show, and it is evident as early as the fourth episode, “Nothing to Fear,” in which Batman confronts his own fear of disappointing his dead parents. Another notable moment at the beginning of the series comes in the sixth episode, “The Underdwellers,” in which Batman exposes a criminal mastermind who enslaves orphan children and forces them to work in the sewers and steal things for him. At the very end, the Sewer King asks why Batman saved his life after apprehending him, to which he responds, “I don’t pass sentence. That’s for the courts. But this time, this time, I am sorely tempted to do the job myself.” That doubles as a powerful moment, and sets the series up for greatness.
The moral ambiguity of Batman’s existence is also explored in the series. While Batman does a great service to Gotham City by fighting crime, the methods by which he goes about it are sometimes questionable. The people of Gotham are often put off by Batman’s vigilante nature (though the above quote demonstrates Batman’s own belief in the rule of law very well), which is alluded to in the pilot episode “On Leather Wings.” In addition, Batman often employs questionable methods to bring in criminals, such as when he takes in Rupert Thorne, notorious crime boss, in for questioning in the episode “Vendetta.” He grabs Rupert, using him as a human shield in order to prevent his goons from firing at him, then jumps off the side of a building with Rupert in tow. While nobody dies or is hurt in the end, one could debate whether or not Batman was descending to the the villains’ level by doing so.
Batman: The Animated Series also features origin stories of several villains, which humanizes them to a degree, and enables the audience to understand why they act the way they do, even if they do not agree with their actions. This takes the show even further away from black-and-white moral dilemmas, and makes it even more interesting. For instance, the episode “Heart of Ice” explores Mr. Freeze’s origins as Dr. Victor Fries, who had constructed a cryogenic machine designed to keep people stricken with terminal illnesses in a state of suspended animation until a treatment could be found. Fries’s test subject was his wife, but the head of his lab stopped the project, killing his wife and causing a freak accident which turned him into Mr. Freeze.
There are only two main weaknesses of the show in my mind. First, the character of Robin. In my opinion, Batman works best alone. His character traits and the nature of his story lend themselves to his being a lone wolf. Later episodes integrated Robin into the plots more, and I’m not sure that was a good idea. While Robin is occasionally an effective foil for Batman, I felt like he sometimes got in his way and didn’t add as much to the series. That said, I haven’t seen a lot of his episodes yet, so my opinion could change once I dig into the series more.
Second, the show oddly misses the boat with the non-villians’ character development. Batman’s origins (though well known) aren’t addressed a lot, and the audience doesn’t know much about the characters around him either. This could be a result of the show’s shorter episode length or the desire to keep things simple for the target audience, but I feel like it would’ve made the show better if they’d fleshed that out more.