There are a lot of great reasons to check out DC Universe – Doom Patrol, Young Justice, Titans, the 1990s Flash show. But one of the best reasons to check out the service is the ability to have Batman: The Animated Series at your fingertips anywhere you can find an internet connection. And not just the animated series, but the remastered animated series – a truly gorgeous cartoon rendered in the best light possible. It might be past Batman’s birthday, but there’s no wrong time to dive into what is objectively the best cartoon ever and see how it holds up 27 years later.
We’re starting with episode 1, “On Leather Wings,” which aired on September 5, 1992. That was the first time we had the privilege of seeing the show’s truly iconic opening sequence, which establishes the serious, exciting tone of the series better than any before or since. Sorry, Batman ’66. The theme uses horns and cymbals to create a subtle, ominous atmosphere that establishes how dangerous Batman is, and then explodes along with the action in a crash of steel. It’s classical noir, but fresh and fitting at the same time. Sure, we can still remember the X-Men cartoon theme and the classic Spider-Man jingle, but Batman’s is without question the coolest, and sets a high bar for the show’s music to follow.
And this episode is a perfect introduction to what The Animated Series is all about. The beginning is a very good place to start in general, but here, it’s perfect.
The episode starts with two fakeouts. The first voice we hear is that of Kevin Conroy, the platonic ideal Batman himself, but it’s not as Batman or as Bruce Wayne. We see a pair of police officers in a police blimp talking about seeing something bat-shaped in the sky. The show knows we know who Batman is, and it plays with that by showing us… Man-Bat. This is a cartoon that aired on Fox in the afternoons after school, and yet it starts from a more confident and even respectful place than a lot of modern superhero movies. When the blimp pulls up into and through the clouds, the animation is stunning; this is work that was done by people who loved their jobs, and this is one of the first places that I feel like the remaster shows itself, though that applies to just about every frame of the show.
Batman has such a clean, classic art style that it still looked stellar on standard definition, but the jump to HD has modernized it in a way I wouldn’t have thought possible.
Immediately, the show is unafraid of playing with light and shadow. When it aired where I live, it followed on the heels of Tiny Toon Adventures, one of the most colorful shows on television at that time. Every episode was like cracking into a box of fruit snacks. But then Batman comes on and works in blacks, blues, and browns. Light and shadow. Every frame is crisp, from the facial outlines of a one-off guard to the Art Deco outlines of the window panes the Man-Bat throws him through.
It’s almost stunning that the show is willing to go minutes after the opening theme without showing the hero or any of Batman’s iconic villains. Instead, it takes the time to introduce us to some of the show’s crucial characters – two of them named Harvey. We get to meet Commissioner Gordon, Harvey Dent, and Harvey Bullock before we even see Batman himself. And man, they really animated the crap out of Bullock’s intro.
And again, the show is telling us what to expect. When it does finally show Batman, he’s not flipping, punching, or doing anything exciting. He’s reading the paper. He’s sitting at his computer. What a nerd. He’s a detective first.
And the complexity! Batman has a tenuous relationship with the Gotham police department. People aren’t sure of who he is, and they’re afraid of him. The Man-Bat gives the show a perfect inroad to show that Batman isn’t a hero in his world, but rather something suspicious and even scary.
We also learn quickly who Bruce Wayne is to Batman. It seems almost a given now that Batman is the primary identity and Bruce Wayne is the mask, but the show dives into that right from the beginning. We don’t see Bruce himself until 11 minutes into the episode, and when we do, he’s working for Batman.
Later in the episode, we see Batman put on his Bruce voice while wearing the batsuit, and it’s just strange. Bruce Wayne is who Batman pretends to be. I couldn’t help but notice how Batman even uses the Batman voice with Alfred, the guy who literally raised him from childhood. Kevin Conroy’s Batman and Bruce Wayne aren’t just the best renditions of either that we’ve seen (on small screen and large!), but the way the show employs each of them tells us so much about the character they’re creating.
Once we get past the mystery and into the truth of what’s happening – that Dr. Kirk Langstrom is turning himself into the Man-Bat, we get some other tidbits. As Langstrom describes his ideas to Batman, he passes behind some vials that twist and mutate his expressions as he talks, giving us that visual reinforcement that this dude is thinking some dangerous, twisted stuff, and then the show dives right into body horror with a transformation sequence. We also learn that Alfred Pennyworth is the chillest dude in Gotham when his ninja-son walks in carrying a mutated human-bat hybrid and he just asks, “Dinner for two, sir?” Ice cold, Al.
But that’s not before showing some of the show’s smooth animation on display. To capture the Man-Bat, Batman grapples onto his feet and the bat takes him on a tour of Gotham. It whips him into and over the same blimp as before and then takes him hurtling through a construction site, and here everything is crystal clear and silky smooth.
So we have a dark world of shadows and spotlights, featuring a complex character who isn’t chummy with the local authorities. We have fan favorite characters rendered perfectly in the very first episode and animated smoothly. What we don’t have is an origin story. No mentions of Thomas and Martha shoehorned in, no sepia-toned cuts back to Crime Alley. We’ll get there – you can’ avoid an eventual trip back. But this show is about Batman – not Bruce Wayne – and it knows it.
Tune in again soon for part 2 in this series. We’ll continue to dig back into Batman: The Animated Series as we re-watch the remaster to remind ourselves what made the series so special and why it looks so good. But if you need more BTAS commentary now, we have every episode of the series ranked from the worst to the best!
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