#13

“Peek-a-boo”

Directed by Dan Riba

Written by Martin Pasko

The invisible man episode? You bet your ass, the invisible man episode! I’d put it at #1 if I thought the Almost Got ‘im and Heart of Ice crowd wouldn’t egg my house (just kidding, of course, #13 is just right). See No Evil, is one of the most personal stories, and undoubtedly the creepiest of the series. In fact, one producer was so disturbed by it that he objected to its release.

The first of three strict rules for the writers on the series was “no ghosts” so it’s surprising to see the episode begin with a first-person perspective shot that slowly drifts down a desolate street as a dog breaks the fourth wall and barks at camera– we are the specter. The camera drifts further until we pass through a window and enter a little girl’s bedroom. The child awakes when a calm voice calls her name, but when she opens her eyes no one is there except for her favorite stuffed doll… floating in midair. If the eerie title card and haunting score by Lolita Ritmanis & Shirley Walker didn’t get a grown-up to change the channel already, any kiddo still watching will DEFINITELY have nightmares now. The girl’s mom (a surprisingly strong albeit small part played by the fabulous Jean Smart) comes in to see who little Kimmy is talking to, but the ghost is gone and the little girl explains that she was chatting with her imaginary friend Mojo. Mom dismisses this and the scene transitions to a high-end jewelry store where we get a sci-fi explanation to the seemingly supernatural prologue.

There are some surprisingly mature themes at play in this episode (is there another kid’s show that brings up restraining orders?), but there are a few genuinely funny moments to break the tension of an almost overwhelmingly unsettling episode. Prime examples are like when a construction worker on his lunch break sees Batman shouting at no one at all or when Batman throws the door open to the jewelry store men’s room with such force that it knocks a patiently-waiting security guard out cold.

Andrea Romano’s decision to cast Family Ties‘ Michael Gross as invisible man Lloyd Ventrix is a stroke of genius. Not only does Gross give an outstanding performance, but hearing the voice of fatherly compassion for an entire generation of TV viewers come out of a character as vile as the deadbeat Ventrix makes this villain all the more disturbing. And if you think this episode is light on action, think again! It’s got it all! Dong Yang hands in some incredibly fluid fight sequences and one super-cool action scene involving a transparent car that gradually becomes more visible as the vehicle collides with trashcans and other things cluttering the sidewalks and alleys of Gotham.

Fun fact: Gross goes on to play Terry McGinnis’ father on Batman Beyond. The guy is just really good at playing dads both good and bad. He also excels at killing Graboids, but that’s a whole other discussion.

 

#12

“Look at the size of that cake, man!”

Directed by Boyd Kirkland

Written by Paul Dini

When you’re having a bad day, don’t take it out on other people. Charlie Collins learns this the hard way. This average Joe just got passed over for a raise right when his kid needs braces, and to make matters worse his wife is cooking meatloaf for dinner! So when a car cuts him off in traffic without giving a signal or an “I’m sorry” wave, Charlie gives chase and– in one of the best reveals of the series– sees that the driver behind the wheel is none other than The Joker. The reaction Joker’s smile gets out of Charlie is just SO GOOD. Joker wants a chat now and when he finally does get Charlie out of the car and all to himself, we get this foreboding moment lit by vehicle headlights alone. Rather than murder Charlie outright, Joker takes Charlie’s driver’s license and promises to contact him for a favor one day. Two years later he does just that.  Despite Charlie moving to a different state and changing his name.

Joker’s Favor is a clever idea for an episode and a great balance of the humorous and genuinely terrifying. Dini knows how to write the Joker’s violent mood swings better than anybody and you already know how good Mark Hamill is at vocalizing them! The episode also marks the debut of Harley Quinn and while her dynamic with the Clown Prince isn’t quite in full bloom yet her character design and Arleen Sorkin’s performance are already perfect.

 

#11

Directed by Dan Riba

Written by Paul Dini

Story by Paul Dini & Bruce Timm

Batman and the aggressive D.A. who opposes him are held captive in Arkham Asylum and forced to participate in a perverse imitation of a trial to decide once and for all if Batman is the one really to blame for Gotham’s freaks. Trial was in my top five for much of the time spent working on this piece. I was so certain it was going to stay there until I re-watched it and the next ten episodes in close proximity. What holds Trial back from my top ten is that there wasn’t enough of it. Its narrative did not get enough room to breathe and villains sitting in the background like The Riddler aren’t even afforded the opportunity to speak.

The concept is marvelous! It’s easy to see why Trial was originally intended to be a movie before Alan Burnett pushed for Mask of the Phantasm. And he was in the right, Mask of the Phantasm did indeed prove to be a masterpiece, but unfortunately the pitch about “Batman on trial in the court of Arkham” got condensed into a mere 22 minutes when it should have been two parts or possibly the feature-length follow-up to Phantasm instead of Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero (in case you’re wondering where the films would have ranked on this list, Mask of the Phantasm would’ve been #1 and SubZero would’ve been #58).

My heart starts to flutter when I imagine an extended Trial— all those extra characters getting a chance to talk and maybe even take the stand, a subplot about Robin trying to infiltrate the asylum and rescue Batman– it would’ve been pure bliss. What we got ain’t too shabby, though. It’s #11 on the list for a reason! We still get some time to ruminate on questions like “Is Batman responsible for the creation of his villains?” and “Would Gotham be a better place without Batman?” Plus, the few voices from the impressive cast of characters who do get their fair share of screen time are used well enough and it’s cool to hear their perspective on events from past episodes. And District Attorney Janet Van Dorn (voiced by Stephanie Zimbalist, the daughter of Alfred Pennyworth actor Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) is an excellent foil and unlikely ally for Batman, and she was even teased as a potential love interest for Bruce! It’s unfortunate this pairing wasn’t developed in later episodes. I guess we can just assume Van Dorn was smart enough to move to another town after this mishap because she never appears on the show again.

 

#10

Directed by Kevin Altieri

Written by Denny O’Neil & Len Wein

Story by Denny O’Neil & Len Wein

Before The Demon’s Quest aired there was nothing else like it. It even opens with a disturbing teaser of Robin being kidnapped before we get a chance to see a title card! Just like Batman, the viewer is unprepared for The Society of Shadows. In the next scene, Batman learns his ward has been abducted but before he can formulate a plan a voice calls out from the dimly lit caverns of the Batcave. Out steps international terrorist Ra’s al Ghul (voiced by David Warner, who is as much the definitive Ra’s as Hamill is Joker and Conroy is Batman). He not only knows who Batman is, he’s broken into his lair. But he didn’t come here to fight. The Demon’s Head offers his aid, for he has lost his daughter to the same captors as those who stole Robin only he has a lead on their whereabouts. After enlisting the World’s Greatest Detective, Ra’s takes Batman on a globe-trotting hunt for the missing. But things are not all they seem to be.

Long before Batman Begins, Batman: The Animated Series introduced the world to The Caped Crusader’s most powerful enemy. The creation of Julie Schwartz, Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams, Ra’s al Ghul is part Fu Machu, part Bond villain. And while Christopher Nolan chose to keep out Ubu, any mention of Lazarus pits, and the motivation to see The Dark Knight marry Talia al Ghul, Batman: The Animated Series omits none of it. Ra’s original creator, the legendary Denny O’Neil flawlessly adapts his own comics (Batman #232 & #244) along with Len Wein so everything from the classic story is perfectly realized right down to the shirtless sword fight.

 

#9

“Without Batman, crime has no punchline”

Directed by Bruce Timm

Written by Paul Dini

A low-level mobster earns the fame and hatred of Batman’s enemies after accidentally offing The Dark Knight in a rooftop skirmish. Like with Joker’s Favor, there’s just something really enjoyable about watching an average Joe get sucked into Batman’s dark and twisted world. Especially when that world is so expertly illustrated by Sunrise and scored by Shirley Walker!

The episode is framed nicely, beginning and ending in the office of Rupert Thorne, where pathetic “Sid the Squid” sought sanctuary after experiencing the worst night of his life. Rupert has heard the rumors about Squid killing The Caped Crusader and wants to hear all about it, so Sid explains the series of events that brought him to this point. There are moments of triumph, like when everyone at the bar toasted to his victory over the Bat. Moments of heartache like when he overheard Bullock break the news about the hero’s death to Officer Montoya. And then… then Joker caught up to him and, boy, does that give us a great scene involving an impromptu funeral. It’s humorous, of course, but writer Paul Dini also takes special care to really dive into the complicated relationship between Joker and his archenemy by scripting a remarkable eulogy only Mark Hamill could perform so well.

As for Sid himself, Matt Frewer does an impeccable job capturing the nervousness and anxiety of the nebbish protagonist, and Timm’s storyboards plant the perspective at high angles and fill scenes with looming shadows so the audience feels just as small as Sidney! You’ll experience many emotions while watching The Man Who Killed Batman. From the slapstick comedy of Sid’s fight with Batman to the horror of confinement in that coffin, this episode is quality entertainment from beginning to end.

Spoiler
Just wanted to add that Harley playing “Amazing Grace” on kazoo is one of my favorite moments from the series, and the episode also holds a special place in my heart because it’s just so damn satisfying to finally see Rupert Thorne get his comeuppance in the finale.

 

#8

Directed by Dick Sebast & Kevin Altieri

Written by Marv Wolfman & Michael Reaves

Story by Marv Wolfman & Michael Reaves

Bruce Wayne is framed for the attempted murder of Lucius Fox by the disguised Matt Hagen (Ron Perlman), a disfigured movie star who uses an addictive substance that restores his face and gives him the ability to shape it to resemble anyone he wishes. Or, more appropriately, anyone his supplier, Roland Daggett (Ed Asner) wishes. After botching the murder of Fox, however, Hagen is cut off from use of the RenuYu cream entirely. Desperate for more, he tries to steal a batch from Daggett and only succeeds in taking his situation from bad to worse. Gotham’s newest freak is born, and Batman’s race to clear Bruce Wayne’s name sends him on a collision course with an enemy unlike anything he has ever faced before.

Michael Reaves and legendary comic book writer Marv Wolfman reinvent Clayface by drawing inspiration from several different comic incarnations (have you ever visited the character’s wiki page? It’s a laundry list of failed attempts) to give us the unrivaled take on Batman’s most powerful shape-shifting villain (sorry, Cornelius). Not only did they give him the best power set, but they gave Matt Hagen motivation with emotional weight behind it.

Feat of Clay would’ve had a better spot in the list if it wasn’t for AKOM’s lazy animation in Part I, which features inconsistent faces, bland backgrounds, and a Batwing that grows and shrinks depending on where it needs to be (amazing sound design here, though). Feat of Clay, Part II, on the other hand, puts the “Animated” in Batman: The Animated Series. TMS gives us what is inarguably the best-looking episode of the entire series. And it’s not just the wicked shape-shifting effects (jaw-dropping, absolutely jaw-dropping), it’s the little touches too like the eerie green glow on Dagget’s face when he’s inspecting the production line. The attention to detail is astounding, and I wish I could see this chapter projected on the big screen. Its cinematic look deserves cinematic treatment.

 

#7

“I was willing to give you any life you wanted, just to keep you out of mine!”

Directed by Boyd Kirkland

Written by Joe R. Lansdale

Story by Laren Bright & Michael Reaves

Was Batman and the war on crime nothing more than a bad dream? Bruce wakes up to a perfect world in which his parents are alive, and he’s engaged to the lovely Selina Kyle.

Perchance to Dream derives its title from Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy in which the prince wrestles with whether or not to kill himself… So that little detail alone should inform you that you’re in for quite the heavy tale. It’s Batman: The Animated Series‘ spin on Alan Moore’s classic “For the Man Who Has Everything,” a heart-breaker that mines deep into Bruce’s innermost desires. In addition to brilliant writing and direction that would make Hitchcock proud, Perchance to Dream is also Kevin Conroy’s finest work. The actor pulls triple duty as Bruce, Batman, and Thomas Wayne, but it’s Bruce who is the real focus of the episode. Conroy pours everything he’s got into an emotional performance that captures the character’s desperate yearning for the dream to be real.

 

#6

Directed by Boyd Kirkland

Written by Garin Wolf & Tom Ruegger

Story by Dennis O’Flaherty & Tom Ruegger

A sentimental episode that’s all the more emotional now that we’ve lost the great Adam West. A series of bombings around Gotham remind Bruce of a storyline from his favorite childhood TV program, The Gray Ghost. In his hunt to find a copy of the episode Batman meets the actor who played his childhood hero, Simon Trent, dejected and living in poverty. Batman brings the actor into the investigation and even admits him to the Batcave in order to prove that the role of Gray Ghost meant something– it inspired a real life hero in Batman.

 

#5

Directed by Dick Sebast

Written by Randy Rogel

The story begins simply enough, Batman and Robin pummeling a few gangsters at a construction site. A pretty routine evening, I’m sure. But during a typical hang’em-upside-down interrogation a thug gives the name Billy Marin and Batman loses his cool in the one moment in my entire weeklong-marathon session that literally gave me chills. Who the heck is Billy Marin? Robin wondered the same thing, especially after The Dark Knight grows distant and commands his sidekick stay in the cave for this mission. But a quick search on the Bat-Computer gives Dick Grayson the answer, Billy Marin is an alias for Tony Zucco, the man who murdered Dick’s parents. Robin mounts his cycle and heads out to find Zucco before Batman, and if he does get Zucco first, he’s going to kill him.

This Emmy-winning episode full of flashbacks to how Dick Grayson came to live under Bruce Wayne’s roof and train with The Batman has been turning anyone who doesn’t give a damn about The Boy Wonder into a die-hard Robin fan for decades. The deeply emotional story explores mature themes about vengeance versus justice (you’ll see that one a few times in this top ten), showcases incredible direction and animation accompanied by a transcendent score by Carlos Rodriguez, and the voice acting from Lester,  Conroy, Joey Simmrin as young Dick Grayson, and Thomas F. Wilson (Back to the Future‘s Biff Tannen) as Tony Zucco is impeccable.

 

#4

“This could cause a stampede to pork…”

Directed by Bruce Timm

Written by Paul Dini

Bruce Timm directs a Paul Dini script that combines “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge!” by Denny O’Neill & Neal Adams with “The Laughing Fish” by Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers. Do you have any idea how much I hate myself for not sneaking it any higher on the list? I’ve lost sleep!

What makes a plot like The Laughing Fish (chemically altering fish to share your distinctive features, and copyrighting them to profit from commercial fishing) work is that at the center of the absurdity is a very, very, scary and resourceful man. If Colonel Sanders can earn a living from chickens that don’t have moustaches, then surely Joker is entitled to a little something, right? Be careful how you answer because everyone who tells Joker “no” in this episode gets attacked in increasingly clever and horrifying ways. The script is smart and funny, the vocal performances are sublime, the music flawlessly shifts from slapstick to suspense thriller, and the animation is smooth as silk.

By fusing two classic Joker tales into one, and presenting them in the gorgeous BTAS aesthetic with a little Harley Quinn thrown into the mix, Dini and Timm craft pure Joker perfection that encapsulates the Clown Prince’s dangerous and comedic qualities.

 

#3

“Wherever you are, whatever you’ve become, I will save you. I swear”

Directed by Kevin Altieri

Written by Randy Rogel

Story by Alan Burnett

Two-Face marks Harvey Dent’s downfall, one of the most important moments in all of Batman lore beautifully realized on screen for the first time. For maximum impact, the show introduced Harvey as a companion early on in the series so we truly get a sense of what Bruce and the city of Gotham lost when Dent’s mental illness took hold.

Night Court‘s Richard Moll gives an incredible performance as both Harvey and his alter-ego Two-Face (also called Big Bad Harv), and he gets the opportunity to frighten us with the latter’s terrifying voice as soon as the episode begins with an utterly haunting nightmare sequence. Artfully done, the scene illustrates the current landscape of Dent’s mental state as we watch a panicked Harvey running from an inescapable figure cloaked in shadow who taunts “It’s time” as the ever-so-spooky Two-Face theme music grows louder and louder.

Rather than sprinting to the accident that will birth Batman’s most personal foe, Batman: The Animated Series‘ pace is slow and deliberate and so you savor every moment of build-up. Kevin Altieri even withholds Batman from us during a police raid that The Dark Knight intervenes in. The Caped Crusader dispatches the thugs inside single handedly and the single hand is literally all we see. The only other reason we know Batman is responsible for helping out the GCPD and Harvey in their campaign against mob boss Rupert Thorne is because of the iconic music and a variety of brilliantly executed reaction shots from the goons cowering inside and the folks in awe outside. It’s a great scene, but bittersweet since we know it is the last time we’ll get to see Batman, Gordon, and Dent cooperating together. What follows is scene after scene in which Harvey’s mental state begins to falter under the stress of his upcoming election and frustration with the impotence of law and order in a city where the judges are on the take. And when Harvey’s buttons are pressed his actions are so scary that his therapist pleads with him to check into a psychiatric ward.

I’m reminded of Pretty Poison and that scene in the café where Harvey describes Bruce’s playboy lifestyle to his date while we the audience witness the real Bruce in full Batman uniform thwarting a prison break. Harvey didn’t know that Bruce had secrets, and while the scene was played for laughs it feels rather sad now because we realize that we were just as oblivious about the true state of Harvey Dent. All we ever saw was the dashing DA charming the ladies and acting valiantly when confronted by Gotham’s most sinister. But while Bruce found an outlet for his inner turmoil by traveling the world and ultimately donning the cape and cowl, Dent buried his hatreds down deep where they festered and grew into something too great and terrible to be concealed.

Now, I’ve already nearly reached 600 words and I’m not even halfway through part one of this two-part episode. I think that’s proof enough that there’s a lot to Two-Face worth celebrating. It’s tragic, thought-provoking, and cinematic not just in channeling classic gangster flicks but a 50s horror vibe in its second half as well. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Two-Face, however, might be that as chilling as it is, it somehow manages to end on the positive note that– despite everything– Batman will always believe in Harvey Dent.

 

#2

Directed by Bruce Timm

Written by Paul Dini

Heart of Ice is another instance, like Feat of Clay, in which the series does more for a character in 22 minutes than decades of comics ever did. Paul Dini reinvents Mr. Freeze as a sympathetic figure with a deeply emotional motivation and a demeanor that is as icy as his supervillain gimmick. Everything Mr. Freeze says sounds wonderfully poetic and is either heartbreaking or bone-chilling, depending on whether he’s threatening the life of someone who stands in his way or if he’s fondly remembering his wife Nora. His dialogue is delivered with conviction by actor Michael Ansara who somehow infuses a calm, almost monotone voice with an undeniable and constant fury.  The bright red eyes of Mike Mignola’s sleek, retro robot Mr. Freeze design stand out vividly against the cool colors of the mechanical suit and are the one visual clue to the burning rage Freeze carries with him always.

Despite being somewhat hurried in production and requiring the aid of multiple storyboarders, Heart of Ice is visually remarkable with its prominent winter imagery and obvious Fleischer influence in regards to the technology on display. And, oh, how I wish all cave scenes were only lit by the glow of the Bat-Computer, that looked really great. Co-creator Bruce Timm masterfully directs the episode as well, giving the tragic and suspenseful twenty-two minutes the nuance of a full-length film. Heart of Ice is excellent and it’s easy to understand why it won an Emmy and remains everyone’s go-to “prove your friends wrong about cartoons being just for kids” episode.

 

#1

Directed by Eric Radomski

Written by Paul Dini

It’s poker night with Penguin, Two-Face, Poison Ivy, Killer Croc, and The Joker, and conversation turns to who came closest to defeating the Dark Knight. Each rogue narrates their own fun vignette highlighting their finest deathtrap as well as Batman’s daring escape, which makes for an incredibly quick and satisfying narrative structure with high-stakes setup and payoff coming again and again in waves. But it’s not simply about clips showcasing a diverse cast of villains mixed in with the series’ most playful dialogue, there’s something much greater at play here in Almost Got ‘im, a reason that gives the cute concept dramatic weight– and the reveal will make you want to stand up and applaud.

I alternated between Almost Got ‘im and Heart of Ice countless times while putting this list together (Two-Face even sat on the throne for a few hours). I could never settle on which one deserved it more, but I almost always knew it was down to these two. Ultimately I picked Almost Got ‘im because while I do certainly champion Batman: The Animated Series for taking Gotham so seriously, its greatest strength wasn’t its dark and deeply psychological approach. The series would frighten, it would thrill, it would make me want to cry, but it also knew how to make me laugh. Batman: The Animated Series proves that when adapting The Dark Knight you don’t have to commit to childish camp or R-rated grit and misery exclusively. You can have it both ways. Batman can balance it all and be all the better for it, and Almost Got ‘im is a shining example of just that.


If you actually made it this far, thanks for reading. And if your favorite episode didn’t climb as high as you would have liked, don’t feel bad. If we all agreed on what the best episode was, oh what a boring community of fans we would be…

I’m Andrew Asberry, and if you want me to come back and rank The New Batman Adventures some day, just say the word.