Note: beware of possible spoilers below…
*After last’s week big bowl of negativity, I want to talk about something a little more enthusiastically. I was originally only going to discuss Young Justice this week, but the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to talk about the history of some of the history of DC adaptations from the modern age of comics onward before getting down to the meat of things. Unfortunately this means little mention of any adaptation pre 1980s. Sorry Adam West fans. Due to the sheer amount of things I want to discuss, this particular article will be split into two parts. I just couldn’t leave things out.
*All the emboldened adaptations I discuss are ones I consider personally important and will also have watch recommendations written with them…
11 years after Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) proved that superheroes were a highly profitable big screen venture, Tim Burton’s infamous Batman (1989) changed the face of not only the superhero genre, but also the blockbuster industry as a whole. Copious amounts violence and disturbing imagery, a gorgeously gothic style and an iconic score combined to make a movie that audiences the world over flocked to in droves. But of personal interest to me is the thing that came afterwards. I’ve always found DC to have more critical success with their animated adaptations rather than their live-action versions, but in-fact many of these critical successes in that format come down to coherent, effective writing and presentation. Let’s begin then with a big one.
Batman: The Animated Series
On 6th September 1992, “On Leather Wings”, the first episode of Bruce Timm and Paul Dini’s Batman: The Animated Series aired on television. It introduced us to an animated version of Batman that was more in line with the version seen in Burton’s film and Bob Kane’s original comic than anything seen before it (I’m looking at you 1960s Batman). Utilising influences of art deco, noir and some of the gothic visual cues found in the 1989 film, as well as 1980s Batman comics, like (surprise, surprise) The Dark Knight Returns, the show presented viewers with a rich, beautifully haunting look into Gotham city and its inhabitants. Batman became a symbol of fear for criminals, Bruce Wayne transforming into a businessman of great wit and assertiveness compared to previous renditions. This series introduced the world to Harley Quinn, Mark Hamill’s quintessential Joker, Kevin Conroy’s Batman and countless other memorable characters and performances, all clearly expressing a keen love for the source material they originated in while placing unique new twists on them.
For many, including some of the most dedicated comic enthusiasts, Batman: The Animated Series remains the definitive, most well-realised interpretation of the Dark Knight to appear in any format, page or screen. Its stories, though still airing on children’s television, hardly shied away from mature aspects of the character like fear, complex personal tragedy, mental illness, addiction, sexuality, corruption, and violence, but never became outlandish, keeping individual stories tightly contained into one or two twenty-minute episodes with sharp, often darkly witty writing that seemed more skewed towards adult audiences then children. Batman: The Animated Series also established the DC Animated Universe, something that will prop up again later on in this article.
Why the series, and so many of its individual stories, succeed as adaptations is because they take the audience’s established knowledge of what is a not just a character, but a pop-culture icon, and build on it, creating a universe full of dastardly rogues, shady criminals, and downright monsters, that remain to this day iconic. It added to Batman lore, with Harley Quinn later being added to the comics. It modernised Dick Grayson’s Robin for general audiences, paved the way for other DC adaptations and brought in strong female heroes and villains like Batgirl and Catwoman that had serious roles. It even spawned a plethora of spin-off series and films. To this day, Batman: The Animated Series remains, to me at least, not only one of the most important and greatest animated series ever to air on television, but one of the greatest TV series of all time.
The show is mostly episodic, so can be enjoyed in almost any order, so several episodes that everyone should see before they die include:
- “On Leather Wings”: A glorious, compelling introduction to the Dark Knight of Gotham and the Man-Bat.
- “Two-Face”: the introduction of one Batman’s most tragic villains is starkly harrowing and undeniably gripping.
- “Almost Got ‘Im”: An exemplary masterpiece of clever writing and construction, this iconic episode features interactions between many major villains over a game of poker, each with a story of how they almost caught the Batman.
There are many more I could name, but these are just a few of the best. Remember before how I mentioned the DC Animated Universe? Well this was a project of Bruce Timm, one of Batman: The Animated Series creators, to expand this style of adaptation to other heroes, most notably, Superman, whose own Superman: The Animated Series began airing in 1996. This is another classic that gave a stark, more grounded depiction of the character and garnered similar critical success, even bringing in other major DC characters like the Flash and Green Lantern in some team-up episodes. The series also crossed over with Batman: The Animated Series, as they were both part of the same fictional universe. Speaking of which…
This show takes the concept of ‘putting a new spin on things’ to a whole other level. Set many years after Batman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, follows Terry McGinnis, a teenager who is taken under the wing of an elderly Bruce Wayne to be the new Batman in a future Gotham City. Channelling everything about the first Bruce Timm Batman series and dashing in healthy doses of dystopian sci-fi and Blade Runner homages, this series epitomises the use of adapting a comic in a completely unique way. Batman Beyond is an original concept that sprung from the minds of Bruce Timm and Paul Dini and was incredibly dark for a children’s show, further building on the themes established in the earlier series while adding its own, such as cyberpunk culture and the social conflicts involved in technological advancement.
*Moment of unprofessionalism. If you haven’t seen Batman Beyond before, watch the show’s intro and tell me you’re not interested. Go on! I dare you! Moment of unprofessionalism over.*
This is the series that I watched as much as I could growing up. I mean, it’s Batman in the future. How is that not automatically the coolest thing ever? But having revisited it years later, I began to truly appreciate its complexity and maturity. The series showed audiences a very different kind of Batman, one new to the responsibilities and risks of crime fighting and the effects it can have on the people in someone’s life, as well as the person themselves. It was a bold show that took many creative risks, especially since it began airing at a time when competing Marvel animated series were becoming more light-hearted in contrast to their relative maturity throughout the 90s (see X-Men, the classic 1992 series). Batman Beyond’s stories stood out more than any other animated series airing at the time and even if not all of them were as memorable as others, they still demonstrated a tremendous amount of style.
Like its predecessor, Batman Beyond is mostly episodic, but at least watch the first season in order as there is an ongoing story in those episodes. They’re also all worth watching as well, though the show’s highlights for me are easy:
- “Rebirth”: Featuring tragedy, obsession and gripping writing, these episodes not only give us great origins to the main cast of the series, but also introduce a fantastic new villain to the DC mythos.
- “Dead Man’s Hand”: Many members of the series’ cast are teenagers and this episode perfectly captures the effects the Batman lifestyle has on Terry’s social life in a meaningful and heartfelt way. He meets ‘someone new’, but ends up getting a little more than he bargained for.
- “The Call”: This two-parter is great because it features a very aged version of the Justice League, as Terry is inducted into its ranks. A true treat for DC fans.”
Batman Beyond also features a punchy, atmospheric soundtrack that blends incredibly well into its setting and the series eventually spawned one of my favourite DC superhero films, The Return of the Joker, which as you would guess, features the return of the classic villain to haunt Bruce and Terry in 2039. It was the first Warner Brothers. Family Entertainment film to be rated PG-13 and had to heavily censored for its original TV broadcast, proving how DC could still find both critical and commercial success with mature, intelligent and stylised narratives.
Next week I’ll get to my favourite DC adaptations and touch on some of the live-action works like Superman Returns, Green Lantern and Greg Berlanti’s Arrowverse…