Batman: The Complete Animated Series Blu-ray Review/Comparison (originally published 2018)
These days, television animation is aimed at adults as often as it is children, but, not too long ago, it was seen as strictly kid’s business. As the ‘90s rolled around and [i]The Simpsons[/i] took over primetime, Saturday mornings and weekday afternoons began to rise above the ultra-formulaic toy commercials of the previous decade. A new generation of channel executives, showrunners, producers, writers, and artists opted to assume that children were more than extensions of their parents’ wallets and studios started the long, slow stroll towards the prestige television animation that we see today. Fox’s aforementioned yellow-skinned sitcom family set the tone early, alongside Nickelodeon’s Sunday morning Nicktoons block (Doug, Rugrats, Rocko’s Modern Life, and Ren & Stimpy), and revamped classic Warner Bros. characters/concepts, namely Tiny Toons and Animaniacs. One of the most high-profile cartoons of the era, Batman: The Animated Series, was destined to be a hit, because it was riding the boffo box office coattails of Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), and was based on the exploits of one of the two or three most prominent comic book franchises of all time.
Theoretically, it was this built-in popularity that allowed the creative staff – which included Bruce Timm, Eric Radomski, Paul Dini, Alan Burnett, and Dwayne McDuffie, among others – to take unique creative chances. The character designs, based largely on Timm’s illustrations, refused to adhere to the established models of early ‘90s comic books or cartoons, opting instead to adapt the burly figures and clean lines of Dave Fleischer’s 1940s animated Superman serials. In turn, Radomski’s backgrounds and props took on the Art Deco appearance of Fleischer’s shorts, while the greater atmosphere was tinged by the moody Gothic noir popularized by Burton’s films. The results were an impossible blend of disparate elements and anachronisms that somehow felt like an entirely natural stage for the characters. Eventually, much of the look was reconfigured to fit a larger universe, including a sister show in Superman (1996-2000), a future-set spin-off in Batman Beyond (1999-2001), a superhero team-up series in Justice League (2001-2006), Static Shock (2000-2004), the first superhero show built around a predominantly black cast, and an oft-forgotten spin-off that was spun-off of that future-set spin-off called The Zeta Project (2001–2002). Still, the crux of the style remained and the creators never dialed back their impressionistic instincts.
Batman: The Animated Series was also more adult-oriented than most kid-aimed animated shows, at least once the creative staff hit their stride (I’d personally mark episodes 10 and 11 – Two-Face parts 1 & 2 – as the point that the show shifted from interesting to great). The term “dark” usually implies scary, violent, and tonally dark content, of which there was plenty (though perhaps less than you remember), but what really set Batman: The Animated Series apart from other “mature” content wasn’t its S&P-bending use of firearms (most other shows at the time were forced to use fictional laser guns), occasional bloodshed, or barely-concealed fetishistic kinks – it was its willingness to slow the pace and dig into complex and ambiguous emotional stakes. This quality threatened to devolve into self-parody when, in the wake of the acclaim garnered by the show’s reimagined Mr. Freeze. Though a few too many of Batman’s villains were reintroduced as tragic losers, the strength of the best reimaginings certainly earned their place in the ongoing Bat-canon. In the grander scheme, Batman: The Animated Series helped set a smart tonal precedent for not only animated action shows, but for all mainstream superhero/comic book adaptations, up to and including the live-action blockbusters of today.
The shortest version of this part of review is: the HD upgrade is fantastic. It absolutely blows the DVDs out of the water. If you love this show and can afford the collection, you really should buy it. Or maybe wait for the inevitable non-Limited Edition version. Or perhaps get a subscription to the DC Universe streaming site. I’ve included a whole bunch of caps from this new 1080p remastered collection (top) and the original DVD (bottom) for the sake of comparison and they really speak for themselves. Here ends the short version.
Batman: The Animated Series was hand-drawn, hand-painted, composited/recorded/shot (whatever your preferred verb is) onto 35mm film, then scanned onto tape in SD for broadcast. It was probably also edited in SD, as most TV shows were in the ‘90s. Unlike the latter Timm/Dini/Burnett/McDuffie series, Justice League, there was no HD-ready transfer hanging around, waiting to be ported over to Blu-ray – every single frame of all 109 episodes had to be rescanned from the 35mm negatives. Conversely, modern film and TV animation is usually a completely digital process, even when it is hand-drawn and key-framed. Shortly before that, animators digitally inked and painted their pencilled drawings. This process dates back to the late ‘80s and entered the television animation mainstream in the late ‘90s. I had assumed that the final season, which streamlined/changed some of the character models, was a digital production. However, according to my preparatory research, Warner Bros. Television Animation didn’t switch to digital processes until episode 27 of Batman Beyond, Eyewitness, which aired in January of 2000 – more than two years after the final episode of Batman: The Animated Series premiered (technically, this means WB could do the same thing they’ve done here with about half of Batman Beyond and all of Superman: The Animated Series).
The hard work didn’t end with the HD scans – everything has been cleaned up and re-graded as well and the results are framed at the appropriate original 1.33:1 aspect ratio (unlike too many HD TV re-releases, which are cropped & chopped at 1.78:1). Apparently, Timm was worried that the increased resolution of 1080p would prove ultimately detrimental to the series, because the creators/animators had accounted for SD covering up some of the flaws. The truth is that the DVD transfers were famously quite dusty, to the point that the creative staff poked fun at some of the more common artifacts during their commentary tracks, making specific note of a white dirt fleck that appeared on Batman’s upper lip during the opening titles. On top of this, all of the transfers were interlaced and early season episodes were particularly ‘comby.’ Even if WB wasn’t going to do a complete overhaul, a simple upconvert/de-interlacing would’ve been nice.
As to Timm’s fear that HD would reveal too many imperfections, well, that’s more complicated. Most fans can probably agree that flaws are part of the charm of hand-drawn animation, so the fact that we can now see stray line art, uneven brush strokes, and shifting cells is actually the opposite of a problem. On the other hand, I imagine that some will reject the cleanliness of it all. For the most part, this is the kind of nonsense nostalgia I personally don’t care about, but there is a difference between a movie being presented as it was meant to be seen in theaters and a formerly fuzzy television series being sharpened and de-artifacted into something different. All things considered, this is a mostly ideal balance between clarity and the established, sometimes gritty look that Timm/Dini/Burnett/McDuffie developed. The folks behind the restoration haven’t smoothed over textures with DNR, as seen in some of Disney’s worst archival releases ([i]Sword in the Stone[/i] being the biggest offender), nor have they oversharpened and blown-out artifacts, as seen in bad animated SD-to-HD up-converts. There’s some grain and a few dirty spots – enough to prove that there was a 35mm source – but not so much that it gets in the way of the tidiness and punched-up colors. The easiest criticism is that the brightness levels do vary a bit from episode to episode and, in some cases, shot to shot. This is a minor kvetch, though, because the hue qualities are practically identical to their DVD counterparts and those all-important black levels aren’t grayed or bluish.
There are a lot of episodes to cull here and I haven’t watched them all yet. If I run into something that obviously contradicts what I’ve said here, I will update this review. Also note that the non-anamorphic DVD caps (bottom) will appear larger on this page due to their lack of black bars and the site’s page set up. I have resized each to match the Blu-ray caps (top) vertically. To compare each directly, please click on the images to enlarge them.
Each episode is presented in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio for the first time and its original stereo sound. Everything here matches memories of the original TV broadcasts, just with a bit more oomph. For instance, you don’t really notice how many echo/reverb effects the sound designers used to convey space until you listen to the clearest versions available. About half way through the second season (which was really the show’s third year on air), things shift a bit into a Pro-Logic-style mix, complete with ghost center and surround channels. The change is consistent following the episode The Lion and the Unicorn through the regular series finale, Batgirl Returns (which actually aired first, because the air dates for the show were all over the place). Things switch back to true two-channel stereo for the final season. I do not know if this is an accurate representation of the original mixes. In addition, a random smattering of episodes are a bit aurally softer than others, to the point that they’re verging on muffled. I suppose some of the original tracks were just in rougher shape than others.
There were 24 credited composers on the show, but the key contributors were Michael McCuistion, Harvey Cohen, Lolita Ritmanis, and Shirley Walker. Walker, who had worked as an orchestrator and conductor for Batman (1989) composer Danny Elfman (whose original title theme was readapted for the animated series), set the tone with major themes and was, more or less, the godmother of all DCAU music. It was also the first show of its kind to use a full orchestra, which makes all the difference on these lossless tracks.
The Heart of Batman (1:38:27, HD, Disc Ten) – This well-produced brand-new, feature-length documentary is broken up into three parts: Season of Darkness, Musical Interlude (literally a musical interlude), and Season of Light. It includes interviews with much of the surviving creative team and loads of newly scanned, full HD production art (backgrounds, storyboards, character sheets, animation tests, et cetera). Discussion covers everything from pre-Batman children’s programing, through early inception, challenging studio traditions, development, production, connections to the Fleischer Superman (which was apparently kind of an accident until producers pointed it out to Timm), other design inspirations, writing, casting, voice direction, music, and the show’s legacy.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (Feature-Length Film) – My screener was only the ten discs that contain the series and the final bonus-only disc, but this is a great movie and a worthy inclusion, especially if you don’t already own the Warner Archive disc.
Batman and Mr. Freeze: SubZero (Feature-Length Film) – See above
On Leather Wings with Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski.
Heart of Ice with Paul Dini, Timm, and Radomski.
Robin’s Reckoning, Part One with Timm and Radomski
Heart of Steel, Part Two with Timm, Radomski, and Kevin Altieri
Almost Got ‘Im with Timm, Radomski, and Dini
Harley and Ivy with Timm, Radomski, and Boyd Kirkland
Read My Lips with Timm, Dini, Michael Reaves, Boyd Kirkland, and Shirley Walker.
Harlequinade with Timm, Dini, Walker, and Radomski
Over The Edge with Timm, Dini, Glen Murakami, and James Tucker.
Critters with Timm, Dini, Dan Riba, Murakami, and Tucker.
Legends of the Dark Knight with Timm, Dini, Riba, Murakami, and Tucker.
Intros for On Leather Wings, Christmas with the Joker, Nothing to Fear, The Last Laugh, and Pretty Poison (SD, Disc One)
The Dark Knight’s First Night Pilot Promo (5:03, SD, Disc One) – The original 1991 promo reel hosted by Timm and Radomski.
Batman: The Legacy Continues Retrospective (18:03, SD, Disc Two) – DC writers and Batman staff recount the series’ legacy.
Tour of the Batcave (2:49, SD, Disc Two) – Musical mini-vignettes concerning the things you’d find in the Batcave.
Robin Rising: How the Boy Wonder’s Character Evolved (8:24, SD, Disc Three) – A look at the series’ versions of Dick Grayson and Tim Drake (who has a bit of Jason Todd in him).
Gotham’s Guardians: The Stalwart Supporting Characters (10:15, SD, Disc Three) – The writers/producers discuss the series’ supporting protagonists.
Voices of the Knight (8:08, SD, Disc Four) – Actors Mark Hamill, Kevin Conroy, Adrienne Barbeau, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., and casting director/performance director Andrea Romano chat about voice acting.
Gotham’s New Knight (7:40, SD, Disc Five) – The creators and artist Alex Ross discuss incorporating Batgirl into their show.
House and Garden video commentary with Timm, Kirkland, and Dini, moderated by Jason Hillhouse (22:18, SD, Disc Six) – Apparently, it wasn’t possible to re-apply the picture-in-picture footage to the new HD transfer.
Arkham Asylum: Examine the Top-Secret Case Files of the Dark Knight’s Many Foes (27:41, SD, Disc Eight) – Mini-featurette explorations of various series villains: Introduction, Clayface, Harley Quinn, The Joker, Mr. Freeze, The Penguin, Poison Ivy, Ra’s Al Ghul, The Riddler, Scarecrow, Two Face, Ventriloquist & Scarface
Concepting Harley Quinn (1:28, SD, Disc Ten) – Dini briefly discusses inventing the character
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Full-sized .jpg versions can (currently) only be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab.