BBP! Celebrates Batman At 75: The Noir Knight

Batman the Animated Series, or, the darkest cartoon ever made

Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) were wildly successful, making over $400 million in domestic box office between them. That was more than enough to get the DC brain trust thinking this Batman thing might have legs, or wings, or well, I’m sure they said something like that. They took a chance on first-time producers Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski and the just-launched Fox network, and kicked off the new DC Animated Universe with the gloriously dark Batman: The Animated Series (1992). What followed was one of the best animated series of all-time, one that mined the deep seam of film noir to create a look so uniquely distinctive, the creators dubbed it “dark deco”.

BTAS didn’t even have an opening title during its first run. What it did have was a fantastic opening sequence that immediately established the nightscape of this Batman vision, to the familiar strains of Danny Elfman’s Batman theme. The police blimps with their searching yellow lights conjured an older but out of time world, where Batman’s gadgets and the 40s stylings of Gotham’s buildings could coexist. The stark silhouettes and primal simplicity of the Caped Crusader fighting white-eyed thugs left no doubt that this wasn’t the Super Friends (1973), kiddo.

But I digress.

Timm and Radomski really had to fight for that ultra-dark look, the colours painted on matte black cells to create dominant fields of inky emptiness. They wanted, and got, real violence with fisticuffs and blood. Hoods fired real guns, as opposed to the eighties-style ray guns networks would only allow before. One key influence on the visual style of the show was the classic look of the original 1940s Superman animated series. They also borrowed liberally from the established canon of film noir, a film style dating back to the forties with classic films like Double Indemnity (1944), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Sweet Smell of Success (1958) and Touch of Evil (1958). This was the hard-boiled crime genre, originated in the fiction of Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain.

Classic titles for a classic noir: Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity
Batman the Animated Series went for the same noir style, with each episode having its own old-school title card

There are a few simple hallmarks of the film noir style. One of the first and most obvious is its distinctive visual style of silhouettes and stark lighting, called chiaroscuro. Originating long before in Renaissance painting, in film the technique had been predominantly developed by European cinematographers who emigrated to Hollywood to avoid the war. It was also cheap, needing only a minimal lighting kit to set-up, and translated fabulously on black-and-white film.

Silhouettes, stark lighting and dark space define the noir visual style, like here in The Big Combo (1955)

Batman the Animated Series used this style to striking effect, as in the opening sequence, or in the scene from the episode below when a heart-broken Mr. Freeze kneels before his cryogenically-suspended terminally-ill wife Nora.

The animated series adopted silhouettes and chiaroscuro-style lighting whole-heartedly

Film noir stories often centred around an uncaring detective hardened by his work. These stones of men would invariably find themselves drawn into a web of deceit by an alluring femme fatale.

The indifferent gumshoe and the sultry femme fatale: Out of the Past (1947)

Nothing like that ever happened in BTAS though.

The indifferent gumshoe and the sultry, wait a minute, it’s déja vu all over again!

Inevitably, the trail would lead to a deeply disturbing, sinister villain.

Great villains were key to film noir, like Richard Widmark’s Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death (1947)

Nope.

Or this familiar face, brilliantly voiced by Mark Hamill.

All these elements combined to give BTAS a remarkably sinister look, in keeping with the stories that were aimed at an audience older than just children.

Of course, the show’s producers struck gold several times over, with Kevin Conroy’s superb voice-work as the distinctly different personalities of Bruce Wayne and Batman, and Mark Hamill’s contributions as the gleefully maniacal Joker. Paul Dini wrote brilliant stories for the series, taking Batman into darkly emotional territory. And he cooked up the show’s best original contribution to the Batman universe, the Joker’s wonderfully addled sometime companion Harley Quinn.

Harley Quinn was the series’ great original contribution to the Batman universe

No really, someone give this woman her own series.

Of course, nothing lasts forever. Especially something good. Fox couldn’t resist meddling, and wanted to retool the series into something more kid-friendly. They brightened it up, toned down the violence, and gave Robin more prominent billing, even changing the title to The Adventures of Batman & Robin. The new format kept going for twenty episodes over the original run of sixty-five, but boy did they crash that party. Still, that first run is a landmark achievement.

My girlfriend, an avid Batman fan in her own right, turned me on to Batman: the Animated Series just a few years ago (I think I was spending an inordinate amount of time in nightclubs when the series first aired). It’s well worth the time of any bat-fan, if you want to spend a little time in the dark.

If you’re in Canada, you can find the first 65-episode run of the series on Netflix. Otherwise, it’s iTunes or DVDs!

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