Batman the Animated Series celebrated its 30th anniversary this last week, so at the suggestion of smarter people who work on this site than me, it’s time for a more explicit ranking of the Top 30 episodes of the show, starting with 30-16.
Part II with spots 15-1 available here.
For my full writings on every single episode, movie and even the comic books set in the BTAS-verse, check out The Matt Signal.
- While I’ve reviewed all of these episodes already, 95% of these words are new!
- I ranked two-parters as individual episodes. Every time I did it, I acknowledged that it kind of hurts their overall standing compared to considering them a combined piece. Do I regret it? A little!
- Movies are counted as episodes.
- The New Batman Adventures episodes are included. Yes, I know it isn’t actually ‘Volume 4’ of the show as home releases like to categorise it, but whatever, it’s BTAS with a paintjob and some network mandates.
30) Feat of Clay Part II
You’d be forgiven for assuming Clayface rarely appears after his two-part origin because of how difficult he was to animate. While that probably played a factor, it was actually decided his appearance here would be more impactful if it was the last we saw of him.
The first part depicted the genuinely upsetting forcible transformation of struggling actor Matt Hagen into a hulking, amorphous villain, while this better paced conclusion sees him go full T-1000 and wreck shop with his shapeshifting abilities. It’s also much better looking than the first part, with excellent use of light and shadow, not to mention how incredibly fun Clayface is in combat.
Like many of the best episodes it has a tragic ending, with Hagen overwhelmed by a montage of his past film roles, which guest star Ron Perlman plays beautifully… before they do the ‘just kidding, he’s still alive’ thing at the end.
29) Read My Lips
Speaking of ‘The End… or is it?’ conclusions…
Villain-centric episodes are the most fondly remembered type in the show (as I literally measured in my Final Findings!), and while BTAS’ version of The Ventriloquist/Scarface doesn’t get as much love as Joker, Mr. Freeze or Two-Face, he’s way up there for me. This episode shows remarkable restraint in the reveal that terrifying mob boss Scarface is a dummy, waiting until the second act, employing clever blocking to make him appear normal-sized, and having he and his operator argue off-screen before we see them.
George Dzundza plays both characters and does a legitimately impressive job of sounding like two completely different people, which only enhances the character in my opinion. Characters are scolded for addressing Wesker instead of Scarface. The dummy sleeps in a huge lavish bedroom while Wesker lives in squalor. But perhaps the finest touch is that Batman claims Wesker is a rat, and even though there’s no way that can be true, Wesker’s personality disorder is so severe that he stands there and intensely interrogates himself. Wesker quietly carving a new dummy in Arkham is just the cherry on top.
28) Joker’s Favor
A superlative concept that doesn’t quite stick the landing, this episode centres around a random guy having a bad day and unknowingly cursing out The Joker. Everyone on earth expects the Clown Prince of Crime to take swift and violent action, but after menacingly stalking the schmoe, he instead states he’ll be in touch about how he can make it up to him.
TWO YEARS LATER, Joker forces the man to participate in an elaborate scheme to try and kill Jim Gordon, also involving the very first appearance anywhere for Harley Quinn. Naturally, Batman foils the caper and ultimately Joker is embarrassed by his own victim.
It’s a great showcase for Joker, particularly as he genuinely forgot all about the favour and didn’t even really need the guy to pull of his scheme; he does it all for the kicks. He openly admits he has no idea what he wants from the man, but he is 1000% sure he wants the I.O.U. anyway. Like all of my favourite portrayals of Joker, it refuses to say one way or the other if Joker is a hyper-aware mastermind or a force of pure improvised lunacy.
So why’s it this low? As I said, it’s a very strong idea, but the second half is much weaker. The scheme is underbaked, Batman wins a little too easily, and ultimately the competition is stiff.
27) A Bullet for Bullock
Given Batman’s towering cultural penetration, one of the most effective ways to use him is to shift the focus to another character and turn him into a background presence. It lets him seem even more hyper-competent, effectively teleporting in and out to save people at the last possible moment. That happens twice in this episode, and it owns.
The character who gets the focus is none other than prickly cop, Harvey Bullock, who makes a strong case for deserving more screen time. The plot of the episode revolves around him being so thoroughly unpleasant that it becomes impossible to tell who is trying to kill him, so Batman just has to play defence until the culprit reveals themselves. And boy do they reveal themselves, as Harvey’s landlord, Nivens.
The episode won an Emmy for the music, which dips more into jazz, befitting of a detective story, but it’s Robert Costanza’s always excellent portrayal of Harvey that is the true audio delight for me. His bitter reluctance to even work with Batman pays off his characterisation throughout the show, and his utterly confounded reaction to learning somebody would hold a grudge against him for non-cop reasons is phenomenal.
26) Batgirl Returns
In a lot of ways this is a proof of concept for The New Batman Adventures, which was explicitly a team-up show, with a member of the Bat Family accompany Bruce on almost every mission. BTAS spent 65 episodes building an incredibly strong roster of supporting cast members (and villains), with Melissa Gilbert’s Barbara Gordon one of the best, and it was time to let them shine. She only suited up as Batgirl twice in the original run of the show, and both were extremely memorable.
Smartly, they paired Babs with Adrienne Barbeau’s popular take on Catwoman, who is so much more fun as a villain than a quasi-hero, and the two actors nailed the brief, effortlessly portraying their difference in experience. The pair form an unlikely but surprisingly effective partnership to take down Roland Daggett (remember him?), with Selina seeming to genuinely develop a soft spot for Batgirl, but still tricking her and escaping in the end.
They also seemed to realise Robin kind of sucks in BTAS, turning him into a secondary foil who tries to tell on them to Bruce (who is in Paris), and constantly criticises the two women. The next time we see Dick Grayson, he’s the brooding, mulleted Nightwing, and a more fun version of Robin would debut.
For some, Bane’s authentic character design is a hurdle. That included the show’s producers, as he was a relatively new creation and they thought he was a little… gimmicky.
That didn’t stop them from delivering a powerful showcase for the brute that is probably still his best non-comic appearance. Yeah, I said it, Tom. Henry Silva portrays Bane as latino and proud. He’s an enormous slab of beef, but a suave one, and there are even some hints at his supreme intelligence, which every adaptation of him between this and The Dark Knight Rises opted to skip in favour of the big dumb strong guy routine.
The episode sets Bane up beautifully, raising the stakes as it goes before a surprisingly satisfying payoff. The Batman vs Bane fight scene is excellent, telling a story with the choreography, as Batman silently uses trial and error to try and find a hole in the brute’s armour. It’s truly a shame he would only make two more appearances, but at least they’re both fantastic.
24) You Scratch My Back
Our first New Batman Adventures entry on the list, on the surface it’s a simple case of sexual tension between Nightwing and Catwoman, but dig a little deeper and it’s a fascinating window into the complex relationship dynamics of Batman and his allies.
See, Barbara Gordon was in a relationship with Dick Grayson and still carries a torch for him. But he’s older and edgier now, and starts to get the hots for Selina Kyle… who might just be flirting with him to make Batman jealous. It works, as he warns her to stay away from Dick, who objects as he wants to be his own man. He even reveals a tracking device Bruce planted on her, sending Bats on a wild goose chase. Naturally, Catwoman betrays him as she had her own motive all along… and Bruce and Dick claim they were faking their tension all along. But they clearly weren’t. It’s genuinely juicy as heck.
It’s also Nightwing’s debut and they work overtime to show off how much cooler he is than when he was Robin. Loren Lester continues to potray him, and suits this broody douchebag version far better than when he was trying to take over a decade off his voice to play a wise-ass, stick-in-the-mud teenager. He really shines when trying a little too hard to seem grown up, particularly compared to Selina’s openly provocative demeanour, which clearly intimidates him.
The villain sucks and it’s a visually frustrating episode due to the colour choices and whatnot, but that can’t take away from how well the character relationships sing.
23) Torch Song
It sucks that we’re likely never going to get to see Brendan Fraser’s take on lesser-known villain Firefly, but we’ll always have this surprisingly great episode. The pyromaniac was planned for BTAS, but fire was a big no-no for Fox, so he had to wait for TNBA, which aired on WB Kids!
Apparently, the show had a lot of fire ideas pent up, because they do an excellent job of conveying the danger and intensity of a burning building on multiple occasions. You’d think going to the same well four times would mean diminishing returns, but between the animation and audio design, and how refreshing it feels for Batman to be in a situation he can’t punch his way out of, it really works. Each escape is narrower than the last, and it lets them do the whole ‘let the villain escape in order to save a bystander’ thing.
The episode’s secret sauce was Firefly’s ex-girlfriend, a famous singer called Cassidy. She’s fun, she’s flirty and she sounds believable, both as a famous singer and as terrified of her stalker. Throwing herself at Batman and then insulting him when he rejects her is a fun touch, while her lingering trauma at the end is shockingly bleak.
22) Girls’ Night Out
While Batman appeared in every other DC Animated Universe show, this was the first and only time guest characters appeared in BTAS/TNBA, as Supergirl comes to Gotham to try and recapture Livewire. Kara teams up with Batgirl, while Livewire forms a trio with Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, hence the title, as there’s basically no Batman in the episode.
The series was better than most when it came to sexism and other #problematic content, but giving the spotlight to five strong female characters was still nice, even if the ending lets it down in that regard, as the heroes celebrate the tiniest modicum of praise. Still, Livewire is electric, pun intended, with Lori Petty putting in one of the best guest-shifts in the history of the show, and her powers blended well with the fighting styles of the others for some creative fight scenes.
They might have tried to do a smidge too much, with Harley left out in the cold a little, but Batgirl and Supergirl forming a fast friendship and comparing lives is tremendous fun.
21) Two-Face Part I
If you consider two-parters to be a singular entity, this probably feels way too low. It is what it is. I have nothing but good things to say about it either way, including that this was the first truly great episode of the whole show.
By firmly establishing Harvey Dent as a character – and Bruce’s friend – before his transformation into Two-Face, it makes his downfall all the more tragic. We take for granted now that Harvey always had multiple personality disorder, but that was a BTAS original, baby! The episode depicts his struggles keeping the ‘Big Bad Harv’ persona in check in the midst of a high-stress political campaign, and highlights how controversial it is for a man in his position to seek therapy, which unfortunately still rings true thirty years later.
Between his dream sequences and the general animation touches, such as Harvey’s adjusted posture when changing personalities, and playing with light and shadow to obfuscate Two-Face’s appearance, it’s a visual treat that most people vividly remember to this day.
We’re also treated to the always-effective trope of an action sequence that isn’t from Batman’s POV, as we only get glimpses of the Dark Knight in action as he swoops in and out beating up arms dealers.
20) Perchance to Dream
Many speculate about what Bruce’s life would be like without the death of his parents and his decision to become Batman. This episode tackles exactly that, with a confused Bruce proving Agent Smith right years before The Matrix released, rejecting a perfect life where his parents are alive and he’s married to Selina Kyle. Compelled to investigate the mystery – and arguably sabotage his own happiness – Bruce confronts Batman atop a clock tower in a pretty gnarly scene. Of course it’s all revealed to be a dream-state forced on him by Mad Hatter, but he breaks free by sheer force of will. It’s like What If…?, but not some of the worst shit you’ve ever seen in your life.
While the idea of being unable to read in a dream because the two things come from different parts of the brain is actually false, it’s still undeniably cool for Bruce to figure out the truth by opening books only to find gibberish all over the pages. I also like the wrinkle that Tetch claims he was genuinely trying to give Batman a happy life, willing to do anything to keep him away, rather than just ya know, killing him. We Stan an unorthodox villain.
Those with long memories and good ears can pick out Mad Hatter’s theme throughout the episode, hinting at the big reveal long before it happens. Cute.
19) The Man Who Killed Batman
I mentioned earlier how effective it can be to write Batman as a character everyone else is reacting to, while handing the POV over to somebody else. Well how about an episode where our hero ‘dies’ in the first five minutes?
This started as a bet between Paul Dini and Bruce Timm and turned into an incredible piece of writing but an even better showcase for direction, an unsung element of animation. Sid the Squid’s retelling of how he ‘killed’ Batman is staged beautifully, with a series of accidents appearing like Sid is kicking the Dark Knight’s ass to onlookers, and a fall from a rooftop that is utterly unbelievable but totally believable.
Joker’s eulogy is the most memorable scene in the episode, and Mark Hamill said it was the thing that made him truly understand Joker for the first time. It’s all very Heath Ledger saying he wouldn’t know what to do without Batman, but twenty years earlier, as Joker gives up on a jewellery heist halfway through and punishes Sid rather than rewarding him. Plus, Harley’s rendition of Amazing Grace and playing the kazoo was performed by Arleen Sorkin in a single take, and that’s adorable.
The ending isn’t as satisfying as you’d like as nobody would believe Batman was actually dead, and Bruce pretending to be dead was all so that he could prove Rupert Thorne, a famous mobster, was behind mob activity. Still, Sid gets to be a legend in prison, and that’s cute.
18) Batman & Mr. Freeze: Sub-Zero
Originally intended as a straight-to-video tie-in to Batman & Robin, the live action movie bombed so hard that Warn Bros. sat on this completed film for over a year. Unsurprisingly, it’s much better.
Bringing back one of the show’s most popular villains, the movie sees Freeze kidnap Barbara Gordon as she is a match for his wife Nora’s rare blood type. It’s pretty straightforward from there, with Babs trying to escape and the dynamic duo arriving to save the day. Freeze ‘dies’, Nora is rescued and later revived, sad/happy ending.
So what’s special about it? Well, nothing really, it’s just much better looking than the show thanks to an increased animation budget. This results in a cool chase sequence with Freeze and Robin, a dope montage with Batgirl fighting thugs while Jim Gordon and Dick talk about her at a party, and the grandeur of Freeze’s oil rig base bursting into flames. The base makes for a great location, with a multi-level game of
cat and mouse Bat and Polar Bears unfurling and an exciting rescue.
What lets it down is the use of its runtime, particularly the time between the kidnapping and the rescue. Bruce and Dick play detective, and some of it is pretty cool, but it all ends up feeling a bit contrived and you’re just waiting for the obvious next step.
17) Sins of the Father
Hey everyone, Jason Todd is here! Wait, it’s Tim Drake? But… his criminal father, streetwise sensibilities and snarky attitude! Okay… Tim Drake it is, I guess! (Paul Dini later wrote Jason into the BTAS continuity via a comic book, but it’s an awkward fit given they transplanted Jason’s personality onto Tim’s but didn’t really change Jason’s much either). It should also clearly have been the first episode of The New Batman Adventures as it has major ramifications on the continuity of the show, but alas.
Anyway, Batman accidentally reveals his identity to the young Tim while saving him from Two-Face, and with no other choice but to take him to the Bat-Cave, ends up with a new Robin by the end of the episode. Even if it goes against the comics, Tim’s story is well told and you quickly develop more sympathy for him than we ever had for Dick Grayson, with Mathew Valencia playing him shockingly well given he was 15 at the time and all child actors are bad. Plus I’m a sucker for setting things up and paying them off, as Tim’s prized possession, a Batarang he collected from the scene of a fight, used to take the villain down at the end.
The episode also helps establish the new status quo, with Batgirl elevated to main sidekick and the erstwhile Dick returning from his long absence at the end. All of this would be expanded in a comic book mini-series called ‘The Lost Years’ which is pretty decent.
BTAS had a lot of killer endings to episodes, but this might be my low-key favourite.
Mary Dahl is afflicted with a rare medical condition that causes her to look perpetually like a small girl despite being in her thirties. Life was good for her when she was the star of a hugely popular sitcom, but has been decidedly less kind since it went off the air, so she resorts to kidnapping the former cast and forcing them to return to their old roles at gunpoint. It’s super messed up in a way only animation would allow, as this ostensible child terrorises everybody, and even gets the better of Batman & Robin repeatedly.
Her size and outward-presenting status as an innocent little girl lets her turn most situations to her advantage in a totally believable way, such as losing Batman in a crowd and out-manoeuvring him in an abandoned funhouse. In fact, in the end, Bruce does nothing to defeat her, rather a house of mirrors warps her reflection so much that she gets a glimpse of the adult body she has been deprived by reality. Psychologically shattered, she fires her gun wildly before crying and hugging Batman’s leg, cursing him for not allowing her to pretend. Alison LaPlaca’s performance as Dahl is perhaps the finest guest appearance in the show’s history, effortlessly able to slip in and out of the intentionally grating cutesy little girl voice while also imbuing what could be a joke character with a staggering amount of tragic pathos. This episode would not be possible in live action, and you’d lose LaPlaca’s voice work in a comic, so it truly is an example of what BTAS brings to the Bat-table.
In addition to The Matt Signal itself, Matt has also covered all of the Batman movies alongside Mike Thomas in the podcast series The Tape Crusaders.
Matt also presents Marvel Mondays, which continues its coverage of She-Hulk: Attorney at Law.
Finally, there’s There Will Be Movies, in which Ben Phillips and I present 25 of our favourite films of a chosen decade. Volume 4 is all about the 80s, and this week’s episode is Gremlins!