If you’re looking for one of the (if not the) greatest animated shows of all-time, look no further than Batman: The Animated Series. The Warner Bros. Animation show that began the DC Animated Universe (DCAU) premiered in 1992 and spawned over a hundred episodes, plus Superman and Justice League series, among others. It gave Batman and Joker voices of a generation in Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill. In my estimation, it easily surpasses the films as second only to the comics in the Batman legend.
After a re-watch, I ranked the 25 best episodes from both iterations of the series, which ran from 1992 t0 1994 and from 1997 to 1999, respectively. A * denotes an episode that is part of The New Batman Adventures, which were produced three years after The Animated Series concluded.
Honorable Mentions: “Second Chance,” “P.O.V.,” “Mad as a Hatter,” “Heart of Steel two-parter” & “His Silicon Soul”, “Birds of a Feather,” “Mudslide,” “Eternal Youth,” “Dreams in Darkness”
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- 25. “Day of the Samurai”
- February 23, 1993
- Kyodai Ken
A fun look into Batman’s past training in Japan, complete with cool action and a streamlined plot, wherein the star pupil of Bruce’s former sensei is kidnapped by his rival Kyodai Ken. It is the companion/sequel to “Night of an Ninja” and the embrace of his ninja skills were heavily featured in the character’s League of Shadows training in Batman Begins. I owned the children’s book version of the episode as the kid, so my affection is partly sentimental, but it’s an effective, distinctive piece of storytelling all its own.
- 24. “The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne”
- October 29, 1992
- Dr. Hugo Strange, The Joker, Two-Face, The Penguin
Hugo Strange brings together Batman’s greatest nemeses after Bruce Wayne visits his resort where he extracts the darkest secrets of his guests for blackmail. It’s a plot that echoes the Riddler’s in Batman Forever. While a lone appearance, the early exposure for the seminal villain (a psycho psychologist whose claim to fame is appearing earler than the Joker in the comics and being the first to uncover Batman’s identity) would pay off when he returned as the main antagonist of the acclaimed video game Batman: Arkham City
- 23. “The Clock King”
- September 21, 1992
- The Clock King
Temple Fugate, driven to the edge by a lawsuit, becomes the Clock King to get revenge on Gotham’s mayor Hamilton Hill. The character gets a villainous revamp that makes him a better Riddler than the show’s actual Riddler. It’s a concise, character-based thriller. Fugate, for his chronological compulsion, is a credible antagonist. Upon a recent rewatch, I saw bits and pieces of Bryan Cranston’s Walter White from Breaking Bad in the interpretation. The character would return in the episode “Time Out of Joint” to continue his vengeful schemes against Hill.
- 22. “Joker’s Favor”
- September 11, 1992
- The Joker
The Animated Series managed to consistently think outside-the-box in regards to the Joker, like in this episode. When a normal citizen named Charlie Collins curses at Joker for his driving, so begins a two-year vendetta against the man to get him to do him a “small favor.” Even in animated form, Joker is force of nature who will enter your life and create chaos in it without a second thought. It also showcased the series’ tendency to use outside characters to provide new, inside perspectives on the characters, as they do in “The Man Who Killed the Batman” and “Lock-Up.” Also notable for being the first episode featuring Harley Quinn.
- 20 & 21. “The Demon’s Quest, Pts. 1 & 2”
- May 3 & 4, 1993
- Ra’s al Ghul
“Detective.” “Beloved.” Like Two-Face, many first impressions of certain villains came in this show. Ra’s al Ghul, with his death-defying Lazarus Pit and shadowy army of assassins behind him, got his introduction here, where he approaches Batman, along with his daughter Talia, about replacing him as the Demon’s Head. It’s the episode that brought the character beyond the comic pages, arguably paving the way for his portrayal in The Dark Knight Trilogy and ascension as one of Batman’s most dangerous adversaries.
- 19. “Perchance to Dream”
- October 19, 1992
- The Mad Hatter
The show found ways to revitalize characters but revitalize its protagonist as well. It did both in this episode, wherein the Mad Hatter tricks Bruce (and the audience) the majority of the episode with an alternate reality where his parents are alive and he was never Batman. The Mad Hatter had previously appeared in his relatively sympathetic origin hour “Mad as a Hatter,” freeing this episode to focus on Batman’s struggle. For that reason, I think it edges out as an episode and as a Batman story.
- 18. “Beware of the Gray Ghost”
- November 4, 1992
- The Mad Bomber
Before he was mayor of Quahog, Adam West played up his Batman infamy for drama as the Gray Ghost, the serial hero who Bruce watched growing up. An otherwise generic episode and generic antagonist are given depth thanks to the cameo, speaking all the more to its power. Batman has to track down the actor, Simon Trent, who played his childhood hero to catch a bomber imitating a villain on the show. It hit just the right balance of cheesy and heartfelt.
- 15. “Growing Pains”*
- February 28, 1998
Clayface was one of my favorite parts of The Animated Series. Between the sympathetic writing and Ron Perlman’s voice, the one-note character became a villain with dimensions, while maintaining his aura of menace (and intense body horror). While I love his introduction in the series (more on that closer to the top), this episode, focused on Robin’s relationship with a street orphan named Annie, is simply unnerving, with a bleak ending.
- 14. “The Man Who Killed Batman”
- February 3, 1993
- The Joker, Harley Quinn, Rupert Thorne
The Animated Series was simply great at subverting Batman tropes and creating a living, breathing universe beyond its brooding titular hero. Here, we see Gotham through the eyes of Sid “The Squid” Debris, the lowliest of the lowlifes who somehow is the one to “kill” Batman. He spends the episode bouncing between mobster Ruper Thorne and the Joker about his role ending the Dark Knight, somehow surviving each life-threatening encounter along the way. “Nobody’s that lucky or stupid,” Thorne sums up at one point.
- 13. “On Leather Wings”
- September 5, 1992
The first episode of the show is a great episode of television by itself. Instead of a marquee villain, it gives life to a lesser-known character in Man-Bat aka Dr. Kirk Langstrom, mixing in the signature empathy and tragedy that would make this one the most vibrant depiction of the Dark Knight and his rogues in the entire Batman franchise.
- 12. “Mad Love”*
- January 16, 1999
- The Joker, Harley Quinn
The Animated Series episode depicting Harley Quinn’s origin story is an adaptation of writer and creator Paul Dini’s one-shot comic “The Batman Adventure: Mad Love” co-written by Bruce Timm. It has shades of two episodes further on this list, “Robin’s Reckoning” and “Harley & Ivy,” the former for exploring a character’s origins and the latter for setting the seeds of Harley’s development as an character. It further showed how Harley could conceivably be as dangerous a villain as the Joker, as she is unbound by his crippling obsession with the Batman.
- 11. “Trial”
- May 16, 1994
- The Joker, Harley Quinn, Two-Face, The Riddler, Poison Ivy, Scarecrow, The Mad Hatter, The Ventriloquist, Killer Croc
One of the biggest villain showcases on the show, “Trial” involves the rogues working together to kidnap Batman and put him on trial for allegedly causing all of their mental and legal turmoil. Beyond the thrill of seeing familiar faces, from Joker to Mad Hatter to Poison Ivy to Ventriloquist, in one place, the show never loses sight of its goals. It uses these characters to express something new, to go deeper into each of their minds and, by virtue of the fact Batman’s villains brilliantly reflect his psyche, the Dark Knight’s as well.
- 9 & 10. “Robin’s Reckoning, Pts. 1 & 2”
- February 7 & 14, 1993
- Arnold Stromwell, Tony Zucco
This Eisner Award-winning two-parter is the spotlight for Dick Grayson aka Robin, as the Boy Wonder reckons with his origin and his desire for vengeance. By focusing non-costumed mobsters, it gives the full focus as Batman’s sidekick to flourish as a character after appearing As far as Robin origin stories from the 90s, this pair of episodes blow Batman Forever out of the water.
- 8. “I Am the Night”
- November 9, 1992
- Jimmy “The Jazzman” Peake
This episode is notable for its focus on Batman and his struggle to keep superheroing when all his enemies bounce out of jail and his allies bounce into danger. The villain is a random gangster who so happens to hold a grudge against Commissioner Gordon, critically injuring him in the line of duty. It helps put the focus on Batman and his internal battle as he is pushed to his breaking point.
- 6 & 7. “Feat of Clay, Pts. 1 & 2”
- September 8 & 9, 1992
The introduction of Clayface in the series was equal parts Cronenberg and Scream. Matt Hagen is a disfigured actor, a situation Roland Daggett took advantage of to get him addicted to his experimental facial reconstructive cream Renuyu. He forces him to commit crimes, putting him square between the crime boss and Batman. While undeniably egoistical, vain, and selfish, it’s hard not to sympathize with Hagen.
- 5. “The Laughing Fish”
- January 10, 1993
- The Joker, Harley Quinn
The first Batman: The Animated Series episode I saw was a videotape with “Christmas with Joker” and this episode. While the former is a fun if forgettable and generic entry, this one has everything: genetic modification, sharks, and the legality of patents. It also has one of Joker’s many “deaths,” this time seemingly eaten by a shark.
- 4. “Heart of Ice’
- September 7, 1992
- Mr. Freeze
If anything legitimized Batman: The Animated Series in it early days, it was this Emmy award-winning episode. Besides Harley Quinn, arguably the show’s greatest achievement was revamping Mr. Freeze’s into an immensely-popular anti-villain, an icy soul with buried feelings and a frozen wife he pines for. It’s an exquisite example of the show’s expert pairing of emotional resonance with energetic action.
- 3. “Harley & Ivy”
- January 18, 1993
- The Joker, Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy
This was the first episode Harley started to grow into her own character, out of the Joker’s huge shadow. He forcefully ejects her from his gang after too many incidents. She stumbles into the company of fellow criminal Poison Ivy and the more mature ecological villain takes the younger Harlequin of Hate under her wing. Writer Paul Dini navigates the choppy waters of the abusive Joker/Harley relationship here (and in “Mad Love”) much better than Suicide Squad did in the finished film and lays the groundwork for a whole new subsection of the Batman universe, as the episode is the earliest seed of the upcoming Squad spinoff Gotham City Sirens.
- 2. “Almost Got ‘Im”
- November 10, 1992
- The Joker, Two-Face, The Penguin, Poison Ivy, Killer Croc
This episode is a masterclass in the show’s strengths. The familial interactions of Batman’s rogues, the variance on perspective, on memory, on storytelling, and the way it always relates, at least tangentially, to the Caped Crusader himself. Five villains tells stories of almost catching Batman over a poker game – Joker, Two-Face, Penguin, Killer Croc, and Poison Ivy. Perhaps the most impressive part of The Animated Series is how classically cinematic it is, with fade outs, wide shots, and experimental in point-of-view.
- 1. “Over the Edge”*
- May 23, 1998
- Scarecrow, Bane
“Over the Edge” is the best Batman: The Animated Series episode. While doing the nightly criminal pursuit, Batgirl is killed in action, driving her father Commissioner Gordon to recruit Bane for revenge on the man he blames for her death – Batman. It’s a twisty, dramatic hour that throttles the heart and shoots it full of adrenaline. For my money, it is the show at its most affecting, most provocative. It’s just icing that the episode features my favorite Batman villains on either side of the Joker, Scarecrow for his psychological impact and Bane for his physical and intellectual challenge.