Much is made of the style of Batman: The Animated Series. A mixture of film noir and art deco that the producers called “dark deco,” the visuals and cinematic grammar of the 90s WB series are simultaneously classic and innovative. To achieve this look, the animators would begin with black paper instead of white, so that the basic aesthetic was always cloaked in darkness—all light had to be added.
Batman frequently blends in with the black background, a shadow in the night. He uses his cape to shroud himself from his prey, but his outfit isn’t all one color. To characterize Batman’s appearance as all black would be a mistake—one that fails to see the notes of blue and yellow in his costume or the fact that most of it, aside from the cape, is gray. This allows Batman to alternately blend into and stand out from his environment, fulfilling two necessary functions with one design choice.
This lighter, varied color scheme would sound almost apocryphal nowadays, since modern incarnations of Batman are so obsessed with the color black. This design choice is representative of Batman’s narrative function: unlike the Batman in The Animated Series, these Batmen fulfill exactly one role. As monochromatic as the night, they are mirthless executors of vigilantism. Which, in theory, is fine. But when adaptation after adaptation characterizes Batman the same way, we begin to see the faults in this simplistic portrayal. And we start to see a familiar pattern emerge.
Batman scowls as the Joker laughs. The Joker has done something unspeakable, harmed innocents in some gleefully cruel way. Batman has captured the Clown Prince of Crime, but he cannot exact the gruesome punishment he wishes on the Joker because of his “one rule,” which forbids killing anyone. And so Batman scowls as he does the only thing he can: he sends the Joker to the asylum, even though he knows it’s only a matter of time before the villain escapes again.
How many times have you watched this scene?
Even if you have only a passing interest in Batman, I’d bet it’s more than once. This tense faceoff (usually) ends in Batman merely sending the Joker back to Arkham Asylum and it rarely, if ever, yields much of a narrative punch. The writer clearly thinks of it as a haunting stalemate that stresses the immorality of killing for any reason while acknowledging the temptation of the crime fighter to do just that, but in actuality it is merely a limp cop-out from that moral question and it never promotes character development or deeper examination.
We get to this scene by forcing Batman and the Joker to fulfill one role each. Batman never smiles in these adaptations, because he must become the superhero, just as the Joker never commits goofy, small-time crimes because he must become the supervillain. One represents justice and order, the other violence and chaos. The clash between these two titans, an unstoppable force and an immovable object, is built up to be the greatest, truest conflict in the world. But the problem is we’ve seen this conflict before, we know it ends in a draw, and we didn’t find it too interesting the first time.
Batman doesn’t work in a world of absolutes. He’s not a perfect superhero, and attempts to turn him into an “unstoppable force” lead us down these same tired narrative paths. When you force Batman to embody something as singular and abstract as “order,” his confrontation with the Joker becomes a tale of fascism vs. anarchy. A wealthy, educated man inflicting his ideals on the citizens of “his” city through violence is already a moral gray area at best; if he’s portrayed as an unsmiling brute that never compromises in his pursuit of his own idea of justice, Batman becomes something less than a superhero. He becomes, even when up against a foe like the Joker, merely the lesser of two evils.
This is where the writing of The Animated Series shines. Batman is not a relentless, unstoppable force as in later adaptations, but he’s not a goofy in-joke, either. Bruce Timm and the rest of the Animated Series writers knew they didn’t have to arbitrarily stick to one emotional tone, or dilute Batman into one side of a metaphorical argument. Just like any human being, he can be more than one thing. He’s equally capable of cracking a lighthearted joke as he is of shouting verbal abuse at a criminal. Like modern Batmen, he can close himself off emotionally, but unlike them he also demonstrates remarkable sensitivity and love for his inner circle. Sometimes he lives up to his status as a legendary crime fighter, other times he gets beaten in a fight by a two-bit nobody. Other adaptations stick to one tone throughout–or as Gordon Willis would have said, they “put both feet in a bucket of cement and leave them there for the whole movie.”
Other adaptations like to make the point that Batman isn’t the costume—Bruce Wayne is. This may seem like an intriguing analysis to a teenager, but The Animated Series takes a subtler approach—it recognizes that Batman and Bruce Wayne are two sides of the same coin, two halves of one identity, two equally valid costumes. Batman emphasizes this by frequently talking about both Batman and Bruce Wayne in the third person. His identity encompasses both of them and neither of them; he has enough personality for his two alter egos, plus a few others.
Modern Batman adaptations love to have characters ask Bruce how he gets through his emotional trauma to be such an incredible hero, and in these adaptations he tends to respond with a meme-inspired joke about his immense wealth. Or if they don’t want to make jokey-jokes, these current adaptations might give us a flashback to the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne, a scene modern viewers have suffered through approximately four million times.
The Animated Series made a point of never showing us that scene. Even in the 90s, they knew it was overdone. Instead of showing us the source of Bruce’s trauma and then never confronting it again, they actually have him contend with it within the stories themselves. Bruce Wayne constantly worries his parents wouldn’t approve of his actions, but his grief only enters the story when it’s thematically relevant. In most episodes, it’s never mentioned as other sides of Batman’s personality are explored.
Batman isn’t one thing, and he never should be. He can work as an ultra-serious harbinger of justice or as a campy farce, but he can be more than either of those. He has the potential to be a multi-faceted character, if only writers could see past what they think of as his defining traits. Batman: The Animated Series understood that Batman had to be varied in both aesthetic and character to carry this series as long as it went—a monochromatic superhero that saw the world in black and white would never have been able to do the same. He needed depth, he needed nuance, he needed to exist in shades of gray.