Before The Clone Wars…before Rebels…there was The Dark Knight
Star Wars wasn’t my introduction to Mark Hamill. Strange as it may seem, Batman: The Animated Series was. I didn’t even realize it was Hamill until about halfway through the series. FOTF editor Phil Roberts recently talked about Hamill’s role as the Joker and that got me thinking about how Batman: The Animated Series played a pivotal role in making it more acceptable for adults to watch cartoons.
Batman: The Animated Series was dark, gritty, witty, action packed, and more. There seemed to be something for just about every Bat fan. True, it did have its drawbacks (such as a sometimes whiny Robin — see the later series The Adventures of Batman and Robin), but overall it was a fantastic show.
Prior to this, cartoons were all about being happy — they had a good moral message and showed the triumph of good over evil. The backgrounds were bright and happy rather than ominous and foreboding. Typically these shows had a band of kids or cute animals coming together to fight that week’s big bad. Think Dungeons & Dragons (CBS, 1983–1985), Star Wars: Ewoks (ABC, 1985–1986) and Mister T (NBC, 1983–1986). (Yes, there once was a Star Wars show about the cuddly little teddy bears that overthrew the Empire in The Return of the Jedi. Surprised me too…) Overall, one could classify these shows as campy with a villain/moral of the week. Everything was neatly wrapped up in one approximately 22 minute episode.
Then, on September 5, 1992, a darker and grittier show that appeared to have been made more for adults than children premiered on Fox Kids. Not only was it all that, but it also took its audience seriously. While there was still no real blood or gore, it literally pulled no punches and was unafraid to show its characters’ weaknesses — both physical and psychological — with them actually getting hurt by guns, swords and various other weapons.
In the episode titled “Feat of Clay Part 1” for instance, they have fictional actor Matt Hagen being forced to ingest copious amonts of a clay formula that he used to reconstruct his face after an accident — in a way that is not dissimilar to water torture. For a cartoon show, this was risky in how parents would feel about their children watching it. While the said sequence is only on-screen for a few seconds and only shown in shadow, I have seen feature length movies such as Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Rescuers Down Under and The Little Mermaid brought down by less.
By taking its audience seriously and being unafraid…no, brave enough, to go where other cartoons were too scared to go, Batman: The Animated Series was able to bring in older fans of the Batman comics. It showed both audiences and networks alike that cartoons could gain a wider fanbase, and thus market to more people — if they simply took their show seriously and understood exactly what their audience could handle. As long as the people in charge of making each episode were smart in how they did so, cartoons could actually be more than just children’s fodder.
This is not to say that the content currently out there for kids is bad (although some shows are — I’m looking at you Spongie), simply that not all of it has to cater specifically for them. By taking this chance and winning three separate awards, Batman: The Animated Series paved the way for future shows such as Young Justice, Teen Titans, Justice League, Gravity Falls, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Star Wars Rebels, Star vs. the Forces of Evil, Adventure Time and more.
Thanks to Batman: The Animated Series, more shows were allowed to take risks, to explore and recreate parts of their characters’ backstories they never thought possible. Stories got bigger and more intense while still remaining appropriate for kids of all ages. Somehow, this show managed to find that sweet spot that allowed preteens, teens and even adults to watch and talk about it with friends while feeling no shame in doing so. No longer were cartoons restricted to only young children.
So next time you’re watching an animated program, be it the revival of Young Justice (which I am really excited about), rewatching of The Clone Wars (which was slated to leave the streaming service Netflix US on March 7), Gravity Falls, Justice Legue, Star vs. the Forces of Evil, Adventure Time or anything else, please remember that it’s due to Batman The Animated Series that you’re able to do so without shame.
May the Force be with you…always.