Editor’s Note: This year, the iconic Batman: The Animated Series turns 30 years old. “Return to Gotham” is a new monthly column looking back at the cartoon that remains a touchstone of the superhero genre and one of the most iconic portrayals of The Dark Knight.
The Warner Bros. logo fades into the image of a police blimp from some strange Art Deco alternate world. The camera tilts down, down, down into the dark streets of a severe, 1940s-style city. Some shifty-eyed men in silhouette slide out of frame just a moment before a bank’s storefront goes up in flames. As they flee, we see a mile-long black car hidden in a deep cave, its rocket engine roaring to life before it tears out into the night.
The criminals outrun the police, but as they run across a rooftop they stop short, eyes wide in shock. A dark mass lands on the rooftop before them. We catch a shadowy glimpse of its face just long enough to see two eyes slowly narrow. They pull guns, but the dark figure hurls a boomerang that knocks the weapons from their grips. He dives into one, leaving him insensate on the ground. The other throws punches at the shadow, but it oozes out of the way of them before its own fist lays him out.
The police are baffled to find the two robbers bound and unconscious. The camera tilts back up, our view climbing to the top of a skyscraper where the shape stands in silhouette against a dark red sky. A bolt of lightning cuts across the sky to reveal him: Batman.
That unforgettable opening—its understanding of the character, its iconic reimagining of his look and the style of the grim city where he fights crime, the orchestra rising in dark triumph—is probably one of the main reasons Batman: The Animated Series, at 30 years old, is still one of the most referenced and fondly remembered incarnations of the more than 80-year-old character. (Speaking in the retrospective Voices of the Knight about his first session alongside Mark Hamill doing post-production dubbing, Batman actor Kevin Conroy recalled that he and his costar were struck dumb by the opening.)
It is not an exaggeration to say that the show kicked off a renaissance in cartoon shows, that it laid the groundwork for nearly two decades of animated shows set in the DC universe that shared Batman’s continuity, and that it inaugurated the actors who to date have portrayed the Dark Knight and his sinister nemesis the Joker more than any other men. It is not overstating it to say that B:TAS ushered in a new age of the character for a generation.
What was it about a ’90s cartoon, created by some of the same folks who made Tiny Toon Adventures of all things, that has so stuck with people (beyond the simple statement that it’s pretty good)? Before talking about those iconic voiceover artists, before discussing its mature treatment of Batman’s villains, before diving in to its grandiose approach to making—as creator Eric Radomski characterized it—20-minute episodes that have the feel of feature-length movies, any examination of the show has to start with its art style. The Art Deco/Expressionist nightmare of Gotham City and the square-jawed hero who protects it were unlike anything audiences had seen in a kid’s show.
“As dark as I can do the show, this is the way I would play it. I’d love to have characters move in and out of the shows, at night. You’d only see elements and fill in the gaps. That’s the perfect approach to Gotham City.” — co-producer Eric Radomski in Batman: The Legacy Continues
Watch Batman: The Animated Series and you will only rarely see a blue sky. Wayne Manor, Gotham City Hall, Crime Alley, are all rendered as stylized, soaring Art Deco masses that would make Ayn Rand proud. They’re the kind of edifices that look inspiring during the day but utterly sinister at night. That “Dark Deco” style, as writer and producer Alan Burnett has called it, extends to everything from the cars and Bat-gadgets to its black-and-white radios and TVs. The goal, Radomski said in The Legacy Continues featurette, was to make the show look timeless. Dini described the thought process behind the visual design as being like what might happen if the 1939 World’s Fair simply hadn’t ended, and people were still using such design sensibilities in the 1990s.
The show’s first episode, On Leather Wings, is not one of the show’s best or most memorable. Some kinks in actors’ performances are still getting worked out, and you can tell it’s the first time the animation studio has put its hand to this particular art style when you compare it to episodes that aired soon after. It’s nonetheless the show’s triumphant proof-of-concept, cementing the style and techniques that made B:TAS something special.
To start, a man-sized bat creature is terrorizing Gotham City, stealing from chemical laboratories. Naturally, some people (including Robert Costanzo’s boorish Detective Bullock) think it must be Batman. The real Batman is having none of this, and so begins investigating, both as the Dark Knight during the nighttime and the billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne during the (equally dark) daytime. Eventually, he discovers that the zoologist Kirk Langstrom (Marc Singer) is the one who is transforming into a freaking were-bat every night, and the two take to the sky for a sweeping, bloody fight. Batman knocks the Man-Bat’s block off and then uses his genius brains to cure Langstrom of his horrid mutation.
It’s a simple, straightforward story, but it looks incredible. Batman evades heavily armed SWAT teams and dives out of exploding buildings, Commissioner Gordon huffs and yells at people, and Langstrom cackles as he morphs into a monster. All of it is happening in a Gotham City that looks like an even more heightened version of Tim Burton’s skewed megalopolis in 1989’s Batman.
What’s clear by the end of “On Leather Wings” is that this style, even though it was something totally new for a children’s cartoon, was perfect for this iteration of Batman. And 30 years later, it’s why a generation still imagines Gotham City as a mass of towering, sloped skyscrapers under a red sky patrolled police blimps and a lone, grim silhouette.
Tune in next month, as Return to Gotham examines the voices that brought Batman: The Animated Series to life.
Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.
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