If you have a sudden, burning desire to feel old, you should know that Batman: The Animated Series premiered 25 years ago yesterday. That's right. 25 years. Let that sink in. I'll come back when you've had time to properly evaluate your life choices.
Now, I've been an animation enthusiast since before I can remember. Cartoons were my first love. It's hardwired into my psyche and, to this day, an essential building block of who I am. As a child growing up in the 80's, I was essentially raised by the likes of G.I. Joe, Dungeons & Dragons, Transformers, Jem & the Holograms, Ghostbusters, and He-Man. And while I adored each of the aforementioned shows, for the most part, even the most brilliant of them still adhered to a fairly strict and routine set of rules enforced by the networks that - for lack of a better term - stifled their execution. Of course, we didn't know that at the time. That was just how it was done. That was all we knew. We had no idea we deserved (and could have) better.
And then September 5th, 1992 happened. And things were never the same.
Now, there's nothing that can be said about this show that hasn't already been said by people smarter and more eloquent than me, so I won't bat-beat a dead bat-horse here. But what I will say is this series altered - and I mean completely - the landscape of American television animation when it aired. Helmed by the now-legendary Bruce Timm, his vision for Batman: TAS - a dark, film noir crime drama set against an Art Deco-inspired but timeless backdrop - was revolutionary at the time. Add to this a powerhouse writing staff of career masters and personal heroes like Michael Reaves and Paul Dini, and the Batman AS was an instant and undeniable game-changer.
It delivered mature and sincere storytelling, complex and often tormented characters, sympathetic villains, superior art direction in the use of its heavy shadows and minimal, deliberate lighting, and a stellar voice cast of top flight talent flawlessly guided by the unconquerable Andrea Romano. Ask anyone who's seen it who their favorite Batman is and they'll probably tell you Kevin Conroy. Ask anyone who their favorite Joker is, and it's almost definitely Mark Hamill.
And while all due credit must go to the writers, directors, and voice actors, as stunning as this series continues to be, it could not have come together in the lightning-in-a-bottle fashion it did without the incalculable contributions of series score composer Shirley Walker (1945-2006). Shout-outs to her exceptional team as well, particularly Lolita Ritmanis, Michael McCuistion, and the late Harvey R. Cohen. Taking a cue from Danny Elfman's brooding, melodic 1989 score to Tim Burton's equally vital Batman, the music for B:TAS was powerful, playful when needed, nuanced, layered, and possessed a scope and a scale literally unheard of in television animation. The score remains a feast for the ears.
Utilizing a technique known as leitmotif, which assigns a theme to specific characters and places, and proudly displaying an entirely original soundtrack for each episode, the score became as much a reason to follow the show as the writing and acting.
The importance of this series cannot be overstated. Its influence is far-reaching and continues to shape the destiny of television and even feature animation to this moment. In near-biblical fashion, Batman: The Animated Series begot Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, which begot the Superman Animated Series, which begot the New Batman Adventures, Batman Beyond and its immensely satisfying feature-length followup, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker. The expanded universe made possible by the success of the Superman series gave rise to Justice League and subsequently Justice League: Unlimited, which featured the fearless culmination of everything learned and won and fought for since Batman: TAS premiered 12 years earlier, and cemented itself as a poetic and fitting sendoff for the Batman mythology.
I could devote a completely separate post to the number of DC and non-DC animated shows that only exist now as a direct result of this series' inception (I'm looking at you, Disney's Gargoyles), but that will have to wait. For now, let me just say thank you to the gifted and inspired individuals who brought Batman: TAS into our lives, perhaps unknowingly setting a number of us on the path to creating our own animated shows. Thank you for raising the bar when everyone else was trying to lower it, and thank you for shaping the stories we tell.