When the pilot episode of Batman: The Animated Series aired on September 6, 1992 the show introduced itself, famously, with a somber, hyper-stylized depiction of Batman defeating two bank robbers. Opening credits of children’s cartoons normally did not tell stories and when they did, we were told everything we needed to know via the theme song. Paul Dini and Bruce Timm took the opposite approach: we were shown everything we needed to know and no words were used, not even a title card. The tone was dark; we didn’t need to be told this was going to be a Batman cartoon.
The pilot in question, “On Leather Wings,” opens with rumors of a bat-like menace in the city of Gotham. We soon discover that, whatever this bat menace is, it isn’t human. The menace could very well be Batman himself. Commissioner Gordon has his doubts that Batman could be behind any of the thefts, but his colleague, Detective Harvey Bullock, and the mayor both believe Batman has to be taken down. District Attorney Harvey Dent, serenely indifferent in his easy chair, flips a coin and tells Bullock that if Batman can be caught, he can make sure Batman stays in jail.
Previous Batman shows had made it abundantly clear that he is on the side of law and order. This time, we start in a city in which not everyone trusts that Batman is really a hero. His first battle is not with a mugger or super-villain but with the SWAT team sent by Detective Bullock to capture him. Being Batman, he eludes his would-be captors, even saving one of their number from a bomb blast.
Batman follows a trail that eventually leads him to the office of Dr. Kurt Langstrom, a scientist who has been experimenting with gene splicing and chemical enhancement - on himself. Langstrom confesses that his work has been more successful that he'd realized, that a creature has been growing inside of him, and this creature needs to be let out. On cue, Langstrom transforms into the monstrous Manbat and attacks Batman. As they battle across the city Batman tries to figure out how to wear down his flying adversary. The Gotham police, meanwhile, are divided between trying to help the Caped Crusade, or arrest him. The episode ends with Batman defeating Manbat and bringing the cured Dr. Langstrom back to his wife.
It would be difficult to overstate how revolutionary this episode was, let alone as a pilot for a kids' TV series. Even the visual style of the show was unprecedented. Black rather than white paper was used as the basis for most cel work. Combined with the beautiful Art Deco stylization and somber color palette, the show more than earned its legendary “Dark Deco” label. The darkness, of course, extended far beyond the visuals. Dr. Kurt Langstrom was not evil for the sake of being evil; he was swept up in the unforeseen consequences of a decision he thought was right. Langstrom’s will was bound by an apparently innocuous decision that would have sealed his fate were it not for Batman’s detective work and intervention. This may have been a Batman cartoon that would revel in mad scientists and monsters and thugs and super-criminals, but it was also one that would show us how not-very-different from us they were, how we could even become one of them. Langstrom's incriminating curiosity and ego would prove to be simply the tip of the iceberg.
Thanks to the series' long run, we would see Batman tangle with more than his usual 'gallery of rogues.' He would encounter nobodies, like the bitter ex-convict who kidnaps his daughter from his ex-wife (“See No Evil”). Sure, the Joker or the Riddler or the Penguin would provide challenges galore, but Batman would struggle in battles with common crooks as well. Occasionally, he would even be beaten by some of these foes, e.g. when he loses a battle of wits with the Riddler (“Riddler’s Reform”).
In his new book Supergods (Spiegel & Grau, 2011), Grant Morrison claims that there is nothing very original about Batman. Any one of the traits about his character, his story, and his look had been done before in the popular film and literature of the 1930s. Yet what Batman/Bruce Wayne lacks in originality he more than makes up for in soul and staying power (Supergods, page 18). What, precisely, is this soul and staying power? Some of it derives from his being the heroic opposite of DC’s other flagship character, Superman. If Superman is bright as day, deriving his power directly from the light of a yellow sun, Batman’s power moves in darkness and strikes without warning. He is the Dark Knight. Superman, famously, has superpowers, while Batman has nothing more than his will, intellect, and fists. Superman fastidiously devotes himself to Lois Lane. Bruce Wayne is the notorious playboy who can’t keep a stable relationship with a woman going. He has a notorious weak spot for 'bad girls', e.g. Catwoman. If Superman is the boy you wouldn’t mind your daughter bringing home to meet the parents, Batman is the weird, dark, brooding guy you wish your daughter saw less of. As Morrison so eloquently puts it, the populist working-class Superman and the grim industrialist elitist Batman only have one thing in common: they both agree killing is wrong (Supergods, page 26). Both heroes save lives as a way to honor the memory of deceased parents. Both men are orphans seeking to shield others from the evil, terror, and loss that they have suffered.
Most fans tend to emphasize how different Batman and Superman are. I would suggest that what both the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight have in common is that they, despite the fantasy trappings, boast a vestigial connection to Judeo-Christian ethical imagination. Siegel and Shuster were Jewish, and few writers of the last 70 years have failed to touch upon the overtly WASP-ish nature of Bruce Wayne.
One of the perennial debates among Batman fans centers on his refusal to kill. Batman has arguably the most notorious 'rogues gallery' in the history of comic books. With no small amount of help from the 1960s television show we can name the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler, and Catwoman. We might even be able to name the Scarecrow, Poison Ivy, Mr. Freeze, and other villains with a little more effort. Almost all of these villains are ready and willing to murder. Ra’s al Ghul has plotted global genocide so many times you might understandably assume that Batman would make the world much safer by killing the man. Yet Batman stalwartly refuses to kill. Why?
Surprisingly, the refusal to kill does not stem from his characteristic darkness. Bruce Wayne is often a downbeat and grim fellow, even in his humor. In the episode “Christmas with the Joker,” Dick Grayson, on vacation from college, tries to talk Bruce out of going on patrol on Christmas Eve to search for a recently escaped Joker:
Robin: Okay, I’ll make a deal with you. If we go out on patrol and Gotham is quiet, with no sign of the Joker, we come back here, have Christmas dinner, and watch It’s a Wonderful Life.
Batman: You know, I’ve never seen that. I could never get past the title.
At the end of the night’s battle with the Joker Bruce finally watches the classic Christmas movie. He won’t agree with Robin that it’s really a wonderful life, but he dryly grants “It does … have it’s moments.” Despite continually coming up against a seemingly endless tide of corrupt politicians and mobsters, so deeply embedded in the life and industry of Gotham City they can never be fully rooted out, Batman continues his war on crime, apparently indomitable.
Yet in the episode “I Am the Night” we see Batman slumped in his chair in the Batcave confiding to Alfred that a tired body can heal but a tired soul may not. Here is Batman, in a kids show, doubting the value and validity of his own mission. He could even have a gentle debate with a friend about futility and purpose, trading quotes from the works of philosopher George Santayana. This was quite a contemplative Batman for a kids show!
The overriding passion to honor his father and mother is not only the source of Bruce's strength, but also his Achilles heel. We learn that Bruce is plagued by the fear that the work he does as Batman doesn’t ultimately save lives or stem the tide of evil. Worse, as he discovers in his first encounter with the Scarecrow (“Nothing to Fear”), he is sometimes afraid that his parents, were they alive, would be ashamed of him and everything he has done. He doubts the rightness of his methods and the sanity of his self-appointed mission to kick the teeth out of crime. We can see time and again in Batman: The Animated Series how Bruce is driven by an inconsolable sense of loss tinged with grief, anger and fear. He has seen and felt what it is like to be helpless before evil… so why does he refuse to kill the most evil people he meets?
One of the most intriguing answers to this question came much later in the annals of Batman. In the comic storyline, “Under the Red Hood," Batman explicitly states that the problem with killing as a solution is not that it’s too hard but that it’s too easy. Kevin Conroy’s Batman in Batman: The Animated Series would no doubt agree. Yet I would suggest that one of the only ways to make sense of Batman’s refusal to kill hinges on his belief that life, all life, even the life of the most depraved and irredeemable person, is still sacred. A Christian would say that Batman recognizes that even the Joker bears the image of God, and that murder is wrong because it involves destroying the image of God within that person.
And so Batman’s battle against crime continues. Batman: The Animated Series may have a proudly dark sensibility, but it is not morose. Yes, Batman fights bad guys, he scares the scary. He takes his crooks to jail (or Arkham). Yet he also appeals to what is left of their better instincts, if any are left. He even offers super-villains mutated by ghastly accidents ways to cure them. He gives petty thieves a chance to repent and reintegrate into society (see “Old Wounds”). And remember, in the series pilot, “On Leather Wings,” Batman takes a cured Kurt Langstrom not back to the police for imprisonment, but back to his wife. This is a Batman who refuses to assume that a person who is broken is automatically past help or redemption. A Batman that you might even say refuses to play God. Batman understands the darkness inside him and how easily that darkness can take over and intertwine itself with what appear to be the noblest motives. A compassionate superhero, in other words. But what is the difference between Batman’s quest, spurred on by a mixture of grief, wrath, fear, regret, and memories of loved ones and that of his enemies? To answer this question we will have to look at his enemy Victor Fries.