The Batman has spread its wings and success over to HBO Max, opening up the movie to another segment of the general audience. The movie was a critical and commercial success, though the streaming platform has plenty of other solid Batman content available. In many ways, the early- to mid-’90s cartoon Batman: The Animated Series (BTAS) set the gold standard for how high the brooding superhero should be aiming for in any on-screen project.
BTAS perfectly balances the inherently whimsical nature of comic books with thought-provoking noir nuance. These episodes of The Animated Series, and by extension its sequel series, The New Batman Adventures (TNBA), are some of the best Dark Knight tales fans will find readily available.
Longtime fans of the DC Comics superhero and the show will surely tell you that Heart of Ice is the definitive Mr. Freeze story on top of being a great Batman story. Its legacy is palpable, as the popular iteration of the sympathetic villain that fans now know in comics, video games, and other mass media is the version that Batman: The Animated Series put together.
Before Paul Dini and Bruce Timm reinvented the character, Mr. Freeze was a joke villain from the Silver Age of comics. Heart of Ice turns Victor Fries into an imposing force and tragic character who is a monstrous product of corporate greed. His origin story of becoming what he is after a tragic accident that occurs while he’s trying to save his terminally ill wife has easily become Mr. Freeze’s most recognizable piece of lore.
The New Batman Adventures brought an all-time classic Batman, Joker, and Harley Quinn story to screen that remains an iconic part of the characters’ mythos today. Mad Love is an adaptation of Paul Dini’s one-shot comic of the same name, and it explores the psychologically complex and toxic dynamic between them in an immensely entertaining way.
Though Mad Love is primarily a Harley story, it perfectly highlights the most defining traits of all these characters by showing Joker’s rampant narcissism, Harley’s abused and obsessive psyche, and Batman’s signature way of pushing the villain’s mental buttons to escape even the most unlikely life-or-death situations.
Arguably the most psychologically trippy episode of BTAS, Perchance to Dream takes fans on a mind-bending journey through the traumatized mind of Bruce Wayne. It’s one of the most tragic, compelling, and fundamentally “Batman” stories ever told, as fans are given a glimpse into how the hero thinks when he’s at his most emotionally vulnerable — and there’s a gripping mystery at the plot’s core.
Bruce wakes up to find that his parents are alive and well, he has a great life, and he’s about to marry Selina Kyle. Something feels off, though, and he begins to doubt that his life could ever be this happy and gradually becomes more and more paranoid.
Beware the Gray Ghost is a heartwarming episode connecting Batman’s past with his present in a meta way. The days of the campy Adam West Batman are in the past, but the Kevin Conroy era pays homage to it in a fun and touching mystery surrounding a serial bomber committing crimes that mirror a former actor’s “Gray Ghost” character.
Batman teams up with the struggling actor to find the bomber, with the latter donning the Gray Ghost persona. The Gray Ghost is voiced by none other than Adam West himself, with the story’s resolution serving as a sentimental nod to the actor’s legacy as the “Bright Knight.”
There are several classic Joker-themed episodes in Batman’s ventures in the DC Animated Universe, and TNBA‘s Joker’s Millions finds Mark Hamill at his best in the title role. Tonal balance is something these shows balance masterfully, and this episode has just the right amount of comedic relief to fit this incarnation of the Clown Prince of Crime’s exploits.
The Joker had a bitter rivalry with a late mobster named Edward Barlowe, and the former finds himself inheriting his $250 million. However, after letting himself loose on a mad spending spree, he finds out that the bills were all fakes. The late Barlowe used this opportunity as a bitter parting shot from beyond the grave.
The legacy that the original The Laughing Fish story by Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers left behind is impressive in its own right, as the Joker’s scheme in this episode is just what it sounds like. The villain attempts to sell the public a genetically engineered fish, though, there’s always an ulterior motive with the Clown Prince of Crime.
Joker has laced these fish with a toxin so that he could infect anyone that would eat them, trying to contaminate Gotham’s supermarkets to execute this plan on a large scale. The Laughing Fish has been referenced in several pieces of Batman media, including a far more sinister take in writer Geoff Johns and artist Jason Fabok’s Three Jokers miniseries.
The New Batman Adventures episode Double Talk is a great entry because of how excellent a Gotham City success story it is. Ventriloquist and Scarface are — or is — one of the more obscure “villains” in Batman’s dense rogues’ gallery, and this interpretation of him in the DC Animated Universe makes him a great sympathetic character who has earned his redemption arc. Arnold Wesker developed dissociative identity disorder after seeing his mother murdered by the mafia and projected it onto the “Scarface” dummy.
Double Talk shows Arnold finally making strides to be released from Arkham and start a new life after Bruce Wayne sets him up with a job at Wayne Enterprises and an apartment. However, his old gang tries to manipulate his persona out of retirement, leading the Dark Knight put a stop to them and give Wesker the happy ending he deserves. This episode is also an exceptional showcase of Batman’s belief in redemption.
The Dynamic Duo of Batman and Robin have occasionally had a tumultuous partnership, and the episode Old Wounds explores the rocky father/son relationship through the lens of Dick Grayson — now Nightwing. The two didn’t leave off on a good note when Dick decided to go off alone to carve out his own identity, with him resenting Bruce to a degree for what went wrong between them.
Dick initially left after finding out Bruce kept Barbara Gordon’s identity as Batgirl secret from him, deeming him callous for this and how he operates as a superhero. In the present, however, he notices the wallet of a man he saved from Joker’s gang. More importantly, it shows that he had been a former member himself who Batman helped rehabilitate and set up with a job at Wayne Enterprises. The episode highlights both characters’ stubbornness, as well as their character growth, over the years.
Trial presented The Animated Series with an inventive premise, as it offers a direct rebuttal to the argument claiming that Batman is responsible for all the villains in his rogues’ gallery. The episode introduces the new district attorney, who’s vehemently anti-Batman, believing that his vigilantism is the reason the likes of Joker, Riddler, Two-Face, Poison Ivy, Mad Hatter, and more are wreaking havoc on the perpetually downtrodden Gotham City.
The twist comes when she’s caught in the middle of an Arkham Asylum breakout, where Batman is her only lifeline. The villains then hold a staged trial to sentence the Caped Crusader, with the D.A. forced to defend the superhero. She discovers, one by one, that these villains and their heinous crimes against humanity were born of their own twisted decisions.
Though it’s somewhat cheating, Two-Face Part I and II form an excellent two-part tragedy that’s impossible to separate. There have been multiple gripping Two-Face stories across Batman’s mythos, including writer Jeph Loeb and artist Tim Sale’s acclaimed The Long Halloween comic book and Christopher Nolan’s landmark The Dark Knight.
Two-Face Part I and II also use Harvey Dent’s tragic fall from grace and bleak evolution into a ruthless mobster as its core premise. It’s a heart-wrenching story, as watching Harvey’s tortured psyche unravel through his and Bruce’s eyes make it a powerful watch.
You can find these episodes and more Batman: The Animated Series on HBO Max.
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