Welcome to a new weekly series where to celebrate the 30th anniversary year of what I consider to be the greatest superhero cartoon series of all time, Batman: The Animated Series, I will watch and review each episode of the series in the order they originally aired (more on that in a bit) and I'll also include some fun trivia and notes on the episode from its creators.
For this first entry, let's get into a little background on the series itself and how it came to be. Previous to B: TAS, the last time Batman had appeared on TV in animated form was in 1986 as a part of The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians and the last time he had an animated show of his own was in 1978 with The New Adventures of Batman. Both of these were still semi or fully attached to the campy, more lighthearted Batman of the 1960s, with the proof being they both featured Adam West as the voice of Batman.
The general public perception of the character changed in 1989 with the release of Tim Burton's Batman film, which gave the wide audience a new vision of the character as a dark, psychologically challenging noir hero. As the film became a pop culture phenomenon and pre-production was underway on the sequel that would become Batman Returns, Warner Bros. wanted to fully capitalize on the new "Bat-Mania" and the decision was made to create a new animated program for Batman to reinforce his standing as a merchandising juggernaut with kids.
From the studio's own Tiny Toon Adventures, animator and producer Bruce Timm was granted the opportunity to pitch his vision for what a new Batman cartoon would/should look like.
By combining the extreme Art Deco designs and film noir influences that were prevalent throughout Batman's comics history with the interesting time period clash present in Burton's Batman film (1930s designs and costuming mixed with modern technology), Timm, along with fellow animation producer Eric Radomski, created a short animated "proof of concept" in late 1990 that not only served as a sort of pilot for the series but also secured them the full go-ahead from WB to produce the show. You'll note how similar it is to what would become the iconic opening to the series.
And that brings us to September 5, 1992, when the world first laid eyes on Batman: The Animated Series.
The Cat and the Claw Part 1 (Original Air Date: 9/5/1992)
As I mentioned earlier, we will be going through the series in order of the date each episode aired. While On Leather Wings is regarded as the first episode of B: TAS as it was the first produced and was intended to be the debut episode, it actually aired one day after this episode (Part One and Part Two were the 15th and 16th episodes produced) as a mandate from Warner Bros. and Fox broadcasters. Why? Because the episode was the first to feature Catwoman and the series debuted just under three months after Batman Returns hit movie theaters, which of course featured Catwoman. Gotta love corporate synergy!
The official synopsis for the episode: "Catwoman steals a valuable necklace to fund the purchase of land for a mountain lion preserve but is thwarted by a group of terrorists."
This episode features the first meeting of Batman (Kevin Conroy) and Catwoman (Adrienne Barbeau) as the Dark Knight intercepts her after stealing a necklace from an apartment. The action of the chase that ensues is very fun and a great early example of the stunning animation of movement, speed, and action that would elevate the series past its contemporaries.
The banter between the two characters is playful, but certain lines are kind of cringe in hindsight (after Catwoman scratches Batman, he responds by saying "Hey! I'll have to try and trim those claws.") The chemistry between the two characters is immediate here in their introduction to one another and that would, of course, continue throughout the run of the series as it has in every other iteration of the two.
The episode also features the first meeting of Batman and Catwoman's respective alter-egos, Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle, when she wins an auction for a date with Wayne at a charity event for $10,000 (I wonder how much Gotham's most eligible bachelor goes for now with inflation and all?). The maskless versions of them also share some playful chemistry here, as Wayne is immediately smitten with the woman whom a fellow rich snob warns him is "a wildlife nut".
We're given our first look at the relationship between Batman and Commissioner Jim Gordon in this episode, which is immediately noticeably different than any other adaptation we've seen at this point. In every TV iteration of Batman up to this series, Batman has been a welcomed help by the Gotham Police Department and freely walks in through the front of headquarters, while in the 1989 film, Batman and Gordon appear to have no real contact with each other.
Here, after stopping a truck of goons working for a terrorist named Red Claw with a U.S. Army chain gun, Gordon wanders to the shadows of a nearby alley, out of the view of other officers, to share information with Batman and plan what they'll do next. This secret cooperation between the two, while very familiar to comics readers, was a new addition to the more-seen TV/film Batman and the relationship between the two would be a paramount feature of the series that would go on to influence every other Batman iteration to this day.
Eventually, we learn the main plot of the episode, which revolves around Selina Kyle being muscled out of her attempt to build a mountain lion preserve outside of Gotham by the head of a corporation who wants to build a big resort on the same land and do away with the mountain lions that inhabit the land, "As for the cats, Multigon will take care of them… one way or another." We then learn that Multigon is in cahoots with the terrorist Red Claw, who we see for the first time is a woman, as she promises to remove Selina Kyle or any other environmentalist who threatens their plans.
As Batman and Catwoman separately investigate their angles of what's happening (Batman trying to find out about Red Claw, while Catwoman investigates Multigon and why they want that land), Red Claw informs her team about a train they must intercept that will be passing through Gotham containing a bio-weapon. Catwoman is caught in the act by Red Claw and her goons and after a chase through the building and atop the rooftops of Gotham, is blown off the side of one by Red Claw with a grenade launcher.
As she falls to her certain death, Batman swings in to save Catwoman and she kisses the Caped Crusader to his surprise. They settle on a nearby rooftop and while Catwoman tries to hit on Batman, he insists that they're on opposite sides of the law and she will have to face justice for her crimes. This doesn't sit well with Catwoman, who tosses Batman off the side of the building. As Batman finds a ledge to save himself, Catwoman mocks him from the rooftop before escaping.
At the end of the episode, Catwoman tells her assistant at her apartment that she found out that there's an abandoned underground military facility at the site she wants for the preserve and she plans to use that as leverage to get it from Multigon. We then see that she's being spied on by one of Red Claw's men as the episode ends.
While it's obvious why WB/Fox wanted to put out this episode first to capitalize on the media zeitgeist of Batman Returns, it wasn't putting their best foot forward for the series in terms of quality. The episode is fun and engaging, but not one of the more memorable ones when we look back on it and it contains a lot of silliness. For example, Catwoman's cat that she uses to pull off her robberies is played here like any Disney animated animal sidekick, with its comedic attempts to catch up and ridiculous responses to certain things.
The plot of the episode also isn't anything that interesting and is only there to show there are worse criminals than Catwoman and make her look like an antihero by comparison. It's not bad, it's just not as hefty or intriguing as the stories the show would become iconic for telling.
Also interesting here is the similarities to Batman Returns. Selina Kyle has always had dark hair in the comics and all of the actresses that have played her have had dark hair, except for one: Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns, who was blonde. Here, Kyle is also blonde and shares a noticeable resemblance to Pfeiffer and shares many of her mannerisms (except the whole supernatural cat-zombie lady thing, that was thankfully left out).
There is also the scene at the end of the episode where Catwoman throws Batman over the edge of a rooftop by getting him to drop his guard and taking advantage of it. In Batman Returns, a very similar scene happens and both end with Batman barely hanging on by one hand. And after being defeated by her in both scenes, we see Batman still clearly taken by Catwoman right after.
While this was the first aired episode, it was only part one of a two-part story and was intended to be aired back to back. We wouldn't see the second part until September 12 of that year as the 8th aired episode.
One big positive here and it would become maybe the series' greatest strength throughout, was the music by the late great Shirley Walker. The music for B: TAS has stood the test of time as some of the best ever composed for TV and for any superhero production and it is the soul of this episode. Walker took Danny Elfman's iconic Batman music from the films (which she served as the conductor for) as a loose base and expanded on it and found so many amazing character themes and emotions in it. The music in this episode adds depth, character, and action to scenes that need the boost and is only just a taste of the great heights the music will reach in this series.
This episode along with the entire series is available on HBO Max in full HD.
Next week, we'll cover the episode that was intended to be the show's debut and the one that most fans regard as the first episode, On Leather Wings.
See you next time Bat-fans!