Ranking EVERY episode of Batman: The Animated Series

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Hard work pays off. In 1992, Bat-mania was at such a fever-pitch that people stole Batman Returns posters from public places and hung them in their homes before the movie’s release. There’s no doubt that Fox Kids! could’ve aired just about anything with the Batman name on it and cashed in on the craze. But, rather than make a quick dollar on a hot property, a group of like-minded artists and visionaries collaborated on something extraordinary. Their sincere effort led to the creation of something that paid respect to an icon. Something that would raise the bar for children’s animation so high that twenty-five years later only a select few have ever come close to that level of quality again. Hand-painted title cards, hand-drawn animation, a timeless art-deco aesthetic inspired by Fleischer’s Superman, original music performed by a  full orchestra, a cast comprised of the best voice actors of the age paired with stars from movies and television, and mythology built from the best elements of Batman’s portrayal in film and literature, with quality comics taking the utmost priority.

It wasn’t about selling action figures and breakfast cereal. It was about making good art that not only respected a classic character, but respected an audience comprised of both kids and adults. That’s why Batman: The Animated Series endures. It’s why on Tuesday, September 5th, 2017, your social media feed was ablaze with tributes to the most sophisticated children’s cartoon ever made. There’s a lot to be said for approaching something with sincerity. A lot. And to prove just, here’s an 18,000-word article ranking every single story from Batman: The Animated Series

The New Batman Adventures will be featured in its own separate article. The show aired on a new network, had a new name, and was animated in an entirely new visual style (no title cards anymore? bad move) so I’m treating it like its own distinct show. You’ll also notice that the countdown begins at #78 and not #85. While the series does have eighty-five episodes, I will be counting any two-parter as a single episode. Lastly, you will see the terms “TNBA” and “BTAS” used throughout the countdown as shorthand for “The New Batman Adventures” and “Batman: The Animated Series” respectively. 

#78

Directed by Frank Paur

Written by Michael Reaves

Story by Alan Burnett & Michael Reaves

You’ll certainly hate these masked one-percenters, but it’s not a “love to hate” sort of thing like you have with other Batman villains. From the moment you hear Warren the Fox say to a defeated security guard, “A valiant effort, old sentinel, but the game was ours before it began.” you’re hankering for Batman to knock the whole Trio’s collective lights out. But when their ‘uppance finally comes, the payoff just isn’t as satisfying as you want it to be. And, man, does it take Batman way too long to catch a band of privileged assholes in Halloween masks. He even has to call in Robin and gas up the Batwing!

Bruce is a man who uses his incredible wealth to do good in the most theatrical but unselfish way possible, and the Trio have always intrigued me as being the flip-side to that. They’re a group of guys using their wealth to do bad in the most theatrical fashion for no other reason than arrogance and boredom. This episode emphasizes the “boredom” motivation more so than arrogance and it makes for dull villains.  And having Bruce coincidentally hang out with the out-of-costume Trio at a country club to start of the episode is lazy, and we’ve seen “Bruce makes a new friend who turns out to be the new villain in town” all too many times in the comics.

A boring car chase and choppy animation complete with ugly facial expressions (that close-up of Becky in the cabin when she asks about her father… it’s like her face is made out of pudding) solidify The Terrible Trio‘s place at the caboose of the best-of list and I think it’s fitting that the snobs don’t get to ride with the first-class passengers!

 

#77

Directed by Boyd Kirkland

Written by Buzz Dixon

Story by Sean Catherine Derek

Selina Kyle breaks her probation so she can stop industrialist Roland Daggett from spreading a virus to Gotham’s citizens. Daggett intends to infect stray cats and dogs, who in turn will infect Gothamites, who will then need to buy a cure from Daggett’s own pharmaceutical company. Catwoman is more animal-activist than thief early in the series so it’s the abuse of strays that upsets her most.

The relationship between Batman and Catwoman is the one saving grace of this episode. Sure, it’s nice to see the lesser-known Professor Milo (Treat Williams) thrown into the mix, but he gets very little to do here. Even the animation is clunky compared to other chapters. In fact, it was so bad that Bruce Timm dropped AKOM, the animation studio, after Cat Scratch Fever was finished (The Mechanic would be the studio’s final episode to hit the air).

 

#76

Directed by Kevin Altieri & Dick Sebast

Written by Jules Dennis & Richard Mueller

Story by Sean Catherine Derek & Laren Bright

There’s an alternate universe where The Cat and the Claw is a single episode and Trial is a two-parter, and you just know that the people there are a hell of a lot happier than us.

Catwoman and Penguin never got an origin story in BTAS, likely because the show premiered just a few months after Batman Returns (animated Penguin even looks like the DeVito version), which is a shame since the origin episodes are typically so fun. But even if Selina’s debut episode is going to skip how she became Catwoman, why didn’t we at least indulge in some kind of back story or motivation for Red Claw (voiced by Kate Mulgrew, “Red” from Orange is the New Black)? In addition to lacking depth, this vaguely eastern European terrorist (that looks sort of like Elektra) is missing a cool or creepy gimmick as well. Attributes like that (or lack thereof) make Red Claw the dullest villain of the series. Thankfully she’s not featured all that much in part one and we get some decent scenes between Bruce and Selina, plus a nicely shot rooftop chase sequence between Batman and Catwoman. Unfortunately, there is a part two.

 

#75

Directed by Frank Paur

Written by Jules Dennis & Richard Mueller

Story by Tom Ruegger

What if Oliver Twist‘s Fagin lived in the Gotham sewers and he kept a congregation of pet gators? Batman would beat the **** out of him, of course! The episode sees Batman hog-tie a gator and break another gator’s jaw, and those are cool pulpy moments. But outside of the man-on-gator violence, what is there? Well, there are a few cute scenes with Alfred trying to tame a street rat. But that’s it. So, if you want to experience “feels” as you watch the Caped Crusader rescue abused children, you’ll like The Underdwellers. If it’s 1992, and you’re six-year-old me, you’ll whinge about Batman not fighting someone cool and/or threatening like Clayface. And yes, a group of alligators is called a “congregation.”

 

#74

*Guitar riff*

Directed by Dick Sebast

Written by Len Wein (also based on his comic)

Story by Martin Pasko

This episode gets points for being an adaptation of a Len Wein and Neal Adams’ classic Batman #225, and for having some wicked Batman versus Werewolf action. However, the script lacks so much substance that creator Bruce Timm asked that extra electric guitar be added to the score just to liven things up a little. This episode is simply an excuse to see Batman punch a werewolf and that would be a fun enough way to spend your time except for the fact that most of the episode is devoted to flashbacks and exposition. The flashbacks focus on an unlikable and uninteresting athlete who will stoop to any low for Olympic gold, and the exposition from Professor Milo is pretty silly and culminates in the evil doctor swearing that the best way to cure werewolfism is to double-down with “Advanced Werewolfism.” *Guitar riff intensifies*

Lastly, the animation gets pretty rough outside of the wolf-transformation scenes (just look at the way the guard at the city zoo runs across the bridge in the opening scene). It’s easy to see why Timm wanted to move away from AKOM animation.

 

#73

Directed by Frank Paur

Written by Sean Catherine Derek

Story by Dennis Marks

Batman suspects that Bruce Wayne’s rich friends are being bamboozled. Never a big fan of cults, Batman investigates how a self-proclaimed mystic is predicting the future.

Sure, Nostromos isn’t a member of the rogues gallery but he has a costume, a large henchman who goes toe-to-toe with Batman, and his model replica planetarium is a pretty sweet lair, giving him all the trappings of a classic Batman villain. Which is kind of cool. Or at least it would be if the stakes were at least a little bit high or if AKOM studios could’ve drawn the climactic fight sequence with any consistency. Watch as the planets grow and shrink before your eyes, totally ruining an amazing set piece and what could have been a thrilling finale.

 

#72

Directed by Frank Paur

Written by Sam Graham & Chris Hubbell

A couple of children spot a vulture in the sky and follow it to a bird seed factory where they find Oswald Cobblepot and a pair of his henchmen celebrating the theft of a Fabergé egg. Batman appears, but the kids are a distraction and our hero gets hit with a blast of toxic gas from Penguin’s umbrella. Thanks to the kids, Batman manages to escape in a fun sequence where little Sherman and Roberta struggle to drive the Batmobile (and nearly trigger a variety of scary-looking and definitely-lethal weapons in the process). They somehow get Batman back to Sherman’s house, and hide him away in the titular basement. All kinds of shenanigans follow.

Look, I know this episode has a bad reputation. Some might even be surprised it made it this far in the list, but I think it’s a cute concept. So there. The problem with I’ve Got Batman in My Basement is that while it’s an entertaining children’s cartoon– it is nothing more. It doesn’t transcend the easy-to-dismiss label of “children’s entertainment” the way the majority of the BTAS catalog does so effortlessly. It’s not smart, it’s not emotionally resonant, and it’s not particularly thrilling. In fact, it’s derivative of Home Alone, but not anywhere near as funny or action-packed. And Penguin and company are way less of a threat than The Wet/Sticky Bandits.

 

#71

Directed by Boyd Kirkland

Written by Diane Duane, Philip Morwood, & Steve Perry

For six minutes and thirty seconds, you’ll be treated to a brilliant, Alfred-centric episode that digs deep into the butler’s surprisingly bad-ass past. And then Red Claw shows up.

Yes, just as we see Alfred at his most interesting (and voice actor Efrem Zimbalist Jr. rewarded with a chance to truly shine) Red Claw incapacitates him, and everyone’s favorite gentleman’s gentleman spends the rest of the episode tied to a chair. There are a few fun moments inspired by 60s espionage actioners, but mostly The Lion and the Unicorn is just one big missed opportunity.

 

#70

Directed by Frank Paur

Written by Cherie Wilkerson

Story by Randy Rogel & Michael Reaves

An ape-man abducts Selina and takes her away to mad Doctor Dorian’s island hideaway where he transforms her into a genuine cat-woman and potential mate for his creation, Tygrus. It’s about as far away from street-level Batman that the series ever gets, but on the plus side we get a fun rumble-in-the-jungle fight sequence between Batman and the mighty Tygrus, and the episode closes with Conroy reading from William Blake’s famous poem. Fun fact: Batman: Arkham Knight featured a Tyger, Tyger Easter egg with a poster for a film titled “Dr. Dorian’s Island of Mutants” that even resembles the episode’s title card.

When you take a step back and look at her whole trajectory, Selina has one heck of a weird journey in BTAS. First she fought some Russian terrorists, then she battled an evil pharmaceutical company, and now she’s getting turned into a cat! Two of those stories required Batman to track down an antidote to cure her of some strange condition, and one of them is Tyger, Tyger, BTAS’ take on The Island of Doctor Moreau. I don’t know why it took this series so long to simply focus on Selina the cat burglar…

 

#69

Directed by Kevin Altieri

Written by Michael Reaves

Perhaps the most over-the-top episode of Batman: The Animated Series, Avatar sees Batman travel across the globe to stop Ra’s al Ghul (again) only this time Ra’s is trying to resurrect a mummy. It’s an Indiana Jones-style pulp adventure with all the elements of a feature-length story squeezed tightly into a mere 22 minutes. That’s not to say I wish it was a two-parter, just that it has enough material that they could’ve pulled it off if they wanted. It’s fast-paced and silly, but the animation by Studio Junio is top-notch, and it’s refreshing to have these out-of-Gotham chapters mixed in for variety’s sake. The high point of the episode is definitely the dialogue-free opening sequence, a tension-filled flashback perfectly scored by Carlos Rodriguez. However, bringing in a real-life mummy pushes the series’ fantastical elements way too far. Tales like this fit in nicely for The New Batman Adventures, Justice League, etc. but the sorcery of Avatar sticks out like a sore thumb compared to the rest of the BTAS catalog and it definitely pales in comparison to all the other Ra’s al Ghul episodes.

 

#68

Directed by Boyd Kirkland

Written by Jules Dennis, Richard Mueller, Sean Catherine Derek

If you’ve ever said, I bet Batman sure would’ve whooped ass if HE was in Cool Hand Luke, have I got the episode for you!

While volunteering at a rescue mission, Bruce learns that many of Gotham’s homeless have been vanishing. Instead of investigating as Batman, Bruce disguises himself as a hobo named Gaff Morgan in order to draw out the mysterious abductors. Quite uncharacteristically, Bruce gets distracted while confronting a couple of goons and takes a blackjack blow to the back of the head. When he wakes up, Bruce finds himself imprisoned in a gold mine’s chain gang somewhere out in a desert that’s apparently located just outside of Gotham. Oh, and he has amnesia now too! There is a decent subplot about Alfred trying to find Bruce that proves a nice change of pace for everyone’s favorite butler, and you’ll get a laugh out of watching him attempt to pilot the Batwing! The episode’s most redeeming quality, however comes from the dream sequences in which Gaff Morgan’s subconscious fights to bring Batman back to the surface. Those scenes are spectacular. It’s just a shame that when Morgan wakes up we’re back in Monument Valley with the rotund Boss Biggis, a villain so bad that he thinks shutting off all the lights in the mine will give him and his thugs an advantage over Batman. Yes, that Batman.

The Forgotten is heavy-handed and illogical, but it’s also Cool Hand Luke starring Batman and that’s a fun half-hour of television. I genuinely enjoy every episode of the series from The Forgotten on down on this list, which made ranking the next sixty-seven installments quite the task…

 

#67

Directed by Frank Paur

Written by Elliot S. Maggin

Based on Detective Comics #450, and penned by the same author, The Cape and Cowl Conspiracy sees Batman take a very convoluted approach toward manipulating a poor man’s version of The Riddler to confess to stealing some bearer bonds. This was an episode I loved as a kid, but upon a recent viewing I kept asking “Why would he do that?” or “Why didn’t he just do this?” or “A hologram? Really?”

There’s no great sense of urgency to the action or emotional weight to the storytelling, but we get an all-too-brief performance by John Rhys-Davies out of it. Batman escaping from Josiah Wormwood’s deathtraps is entertaining enough, and the episode does pay off with a killer ending.

 

#66

Directed by Kevin Altieri

Written by Randy Rogel

Story by Steve Perry & Laren Bright

Batman and Robin totally crush the front end of the Batmobile while chasing the Penguin and have to take the iconic car into the garage for repairs. We’re introduced to mechanic Earl Cooper and his daughter, who get to work fixing Batman’s ride but don’t quite finish the job before a very Coleman Reese-like (Yay! A Nolan reference!) character steps in to ruin everything. Arnold Rundle, a salesman, notices that a tiny garage is ordering car parts that could only be used to fix something as awesome as the Batmobile and so he sells this info to Penguin, who promptly flushes Rundle down a sewer drain to show his appreciation. Rundle never gets a follow-up scene either, so we can actually assume this dude was one of the show’s rare casualties (Yay, again!).

The rest of the episode is essentially a repeat of the Batman Returns scene in which Penguin controls the Batmobile, but intercut with flashbacks to how Earl and Batman became friends. Since AKOM studios does a poor job animating the action sequences and we never even see Earl on the show ever again, this episode isn’t as rewarding as it should be. The flashbacks are the best part, I really like Earl as a character, and Penguin is legitimately threatening when he murders Rundle. However, it’s not enough to get grown-up me to put a childhood favorite ahead of any of the next sixty-five installments!

The countdown continues on page 2

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