Ranked: Batman TV Series
Oct 01, 2014
Last week FOX debuted Gotham, a detective series that takes place in the fictional titular city. Of course, the series is based on characters from DC comics' Batman, a character who first showed up in ink 75 years ago.
Gotham takes a twist on the Batman mythos by focusing on the early career of The Dark Knight's closest ally, James Gordon, a police officer who eventually takes on the mantle of Gotham police commissioner. In various retellings of the Batman origin story, Gordon plays a major role in tackling corruption within the police department and political infrastructure of Gotham, ensuring the criminals Batman takes down stay locked away. The TV series Gotham also takes place years before Bruce Wayne dons the cape and cowl, so we'll theoretically never see Batman in this series.
But it's not like Batman is a stranger to TV audiences anyway. Aside from the massively successful movie series from Christopher Nolan—not to mention an uneven series of films from the '90s—Batman has also seen his fair share of TV time slots, from prime time to weekday afternoons. Batman TV shows come in as wide a variety of tone and production as gadgets in Batman's belt. Some offer the best Batman on screen, others are bleak disappointments. Here we attempt to rank Batman's many TV incarnations. Where will Gotham end up on this list? By Cody Ray Shafer
Batman: The Animated Series / The New Batman Adventures
A staple of '90s after-school programming, Batman: The Animated Series picked up the neo-noir tone of Tim Burton's films and served as a nuanced foil to the over-the-top direction Joel Schumacher took the character in Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. Superior writing supported the angular and modern animation, and episodes relied on well-constructed detective stories. The series managed to explore the Batman characters like no film or TV series had by that point, and placed them in a dark, art-deco setting that borrowed from classic film noir tropes and gangster movies. It also introduced Mark Hamill as the Joker, a surprising career redefining role for the actor who previously was known only as Luke Skywalker.
The Animated Series is notable for several contributions to the Batman canon. Harley Quinn, the Joker's obsessive sidekick/girlfriend was introduced in the cartoon and became a favorite among fans. Her relationship with Joker is complicated and disturbing, especially for kid's show, but it's the kind of gritty twist that leaves a whole generation moaning about how much better cartoons were back in their day. Batman's foe Mr. Freeze was also given a new tragic origin story surrounding his search for a cure for his terminally ill wife, a story that added depth to an almost forgotten character and quickly adopted by comic writers and even Arnold Schwarzenegger's version of villain.
The show was revamped in 1997 as The New Batman Adventures, featuring the same continuity and voice actors, but taking place several years later and featuring a refreshed animation style.
Notable episodes: "Two-Face," "Heart of Ice," "The Man Who Killed Batman."
Before Tim Burton's revolutionary take on Batman in 1989, the Caped Crusader most familiar with audiences was Adam West in the notoriously campy TV series that aired from 1966-1968. The show echoed the post-Comics Code tone seen in the comics at the time, when regulations stripped Batman of his dark and brooding vigilante nature and propped him up as an upstanding, well-respected citizen who mostly solved riddles and stopped outlandish criminals from robbing banks. The villains are as well remembered as Batman and Robin, and for good reason. The Joker (Ceasar Romero), Penguin (Burgess Meredith), Riddler (Frank Gorshin), and numerous Catwomen (Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt, and Lee Meriwether) chewed scenery like cheap bubblegum.
Batman is still a staple of the colorful pop culture mined from '60s nostalgia. While the stories or characterizations don't really hold up, the show must be remembered for a definition of the character that lasted into the '80s, for better or worse. Adam West's portrayal, as ridiculous as it was, kept the memory of Batman alive long enough to survive the decimation to the comics industry caused by comic book panic. Long enough to be revived by more daring writers, anyway.
On its own, Batman still offers an otherworldly perspective on a popular character now synonymous with fear and intimidation. Adam West was neither of these things, but rather a James Bond in tights who didn't mind breaking into a dance number in the middle of a case.
There was also a 1966 theatrical Batman movie featuring the same cast. And then the 1977 animated show The New Adventures of Batman brought back Adam West and Burt Ward as the voices of Batman and Robin.
Notable episodes: "Hi Diddle Riddle," "Enter Batgirl, Exit Penguin," "The Joker Is Wild"/"Batman Is Riled."
After the success of The Animated Series, Warner Bros. wanted to continue the Dark Knight's adventures while pushing the story forward. Producers came up with Batman Beyond, a version of Batman that didn't take inspiration from the comics, but was a unique television spin. Here, Batman was a teenager named Terry McGinnis, in a cyber-punk Gotham City. A much older Bruce Wayne serves as a mentor to the new Batman, who takes advantage of new technology and Wayne's wisdom to keep Gotham safe in a dystopian future. Batman Beyond brings Kevin Conroy back from The Animated Series as Bruce Wayne, and draws on Frank Miller's groundbreaking Batman comic, The Dark Knight Rises, for inspiration on the aged superhero.
Despite its influences, Batman Beyond broke with most Batman trends by offering a completely unique story and gave writers a new character to work with. Terry's arc as a troubled teenager who steps into responsibility following tragedy has been compared to Spider-Man more than Batman's own origin, but nevertheless is well respected among fans. Since it looks like Warner Bros. plans on perpetually resurrecting the Caped Crusader, Batman Beyond might be worth revisiting.
Notable episodes: "Return of the Joker," "Out of the Past," Rebirth, Parts 1&2."
Batman: The Brave and the Bold
Just as Batman: The Animated Series served as a dark alternative to the campy mid- to late-'90s Joel Schumacher films, Batman: The Brave and the Bold is the cartoony, retro yin to Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy's yang. Brave and the Bold paid loving homage to the Silver Age Batman (the watered down version similar to Adam West's incarnation) and adapted it for the modern Cartoon Network audience. The result is a sometimes hilarious, sci-fi-action Batman that wrestles with aliens, fights alongside equally ridiculous super-friends, and delivers as many clever one-liners as punches.
It's not nearly as sophisticated as The Animated Series, and is obviously tailored for a younger crowd. Despite its lack of seriousness, it is a fantastically fun take on Batman. Bruce Wayne is rarely, if ever, relevant to the story, and most of the villains are pulled from the pages of long forgotten comics that otherwise would have been left to obscurity. Which isn't a criticism, but actually one of the show's more clever elements. Also, the appearance of Bat-Mite, an imp-like fifth-dimensional being obsessed with Batman, allowed the show to occasionally break the fourth wall and reflect on itself.
Notable episodes: "The Rise of the Blue Beetle!" "The Super-Batman of Planet X!" "Legends of the Dark Mite!".
Beware the Batman
After concluding Brave and the Bold, Cartoon Network jumped right in on their next Batman cartoon, a darker, CGI series called Beware the Batman. Focusing on Batman's early years-as if that's never been done before-Beware the Batman took liberties with some characters, like introducing Alfred as a gun-wielding retired secret agent, and discarded others altogether. Though the series should be commended for bringing underrated characters like Anarky and Deathstroke to the screen, a Batman without Joker isn't destined for much greatness.
Cartoon Network inexplicably pulled the plug on Beware the Batman after only one season. The series still boasts some pretty cool animation, but perhaps the over-the-top violence and action was a little much for a replacement of the cartoon antics of Brave and the Bold.
Bonus: Dum Dum Girls performed the intro theme song for Beware the Batman.
Notable episodes: "Hunted," "Tests," "Epitaph."
Warner Bros. followed up Batman Beyond with a series of Justice League cartoons, and when it came time to give Batman his own show again, we got The Batman. Unlike Batman Beyond or Brave and the Bold, The Batman tried to rehash the success of The Animated Series without offering anything new to the storytelling or visuals. The episodes relied heavily on action scenes, and tried to dress up the look of the characters with an edgy redesign that wasn't exactly well executed. It's still watchable, however, unlike our final entry.
Notable episodes: "A Matter Of Family," "Artifacts," "Batman vs. Dracula."
Birds of Prey
The concept behind Birds of Prey is intriguing enough on paper. It unites a team of female superheroes to pick up where Batman leaves off in Gotham, focusing on The Huntress, the daughter of Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle/Catwoman. A feminist approach to superheroes (in comics and film) is desperately needed, but Birds of Prey simply wasn't up to the challenge. It was plagued by poor production, uninteresting storytelling, unresolved backstories, and underdeveloped characters.
Like Gotham, Birds of Prey leaves Batman's presence to a bare minimum. But the problem with Birds of Prey was that it couldn't leave Batman alone. The world the characters inhabited was shaped by Batman, making his absence even more noticeable. It's difficult to try to base a series off of established characters, only to attempt to abandon them without any decent explanation. Thus, Birds of Prey's only interesting moments come as references to the Batman mythos, yet its plot moves in a completely different space, apparently detached from its own reality.
Its intriguing then, that FOX would decide the same approach with a new Batman-based series, even if it is a prequel instead of a not-to-distant future tale. At the very least, Birds of Prey can offer a warning of how not to do a show in Batman's world without him. Hopefully Gotham can avoid Birds of Prey's fate of cancellation after only 13 episodes.
Notable episodes: "Pilot," "Devil's Eyes."