I re-watched the first season of Batman: The Animated Series recently for the first time since I was in my tweens. (And boy, does that make me feel old.) I loved this show when I was a kid, but I don’t think I was really old enough to appreciate how brilliant it was. As an adult who’s interested in superheroes and storytelling, I got a lot more out of it. Not only did it entertain the heck out of me, but it gave me a lot to think about writing-wise.
Here are five thoughts I had after finishing the first season.
A Surprising Number of Episodes don’t have much Batman in them
Whether it’s the fantastic “The Joker’s Favor”, which stars an ordinary guy who unluckily caught the Joker’s attention, or the fun “I’ve got Batman in my Basement,” which follows a group of kids hiding an injured Batman in their basement, a lot of episodes feature Batman as a minor character at best.
I think this works for a lot of reasons. It highlights Batman’s status as an almost mythical figure in Gotham City. Even when he’s not the star, his presence is felt throughout the narrative, and it’s great to see the shock and awe of the other characters when they come across him. It’s also fun to take a break from Batman and give some fun one-shot characters the spotlight. Charlie in “The Joker’s Favor” is a particularly great example of an everyman character pushed to the brink by the Joker—and he gets his own victory over the villain at the end.
I tend to write in first-person POV and follow one main character in my books. This is a reminder not to be afraid to let minor characters shine every now and again. It can add a lot to the narrative, and it definitely helps world-building to show that so many interesting people are going about their lives in this fictional universe.
OMG, the Villains are so Awesome
This goes without saying, really. Batman is known for having the best rogue’s gallery in comics, and rewatching this show, it’s easy to see why. Most of the episodes that don’t star Batman have the villain as the main character instead. The show really takes the time to dive into their motivations, establishing memorable characters with heartbreaking stories.
Take “Mad as a Hatter,” for example. It starts with the proto Mad Hatter having a huge crush on a coworker and being devastated to learn she’s with someone else. There’s even a moment when he’s talking to himself and says he should bow out like a gentleman because she has a boyfriend. At first, he uses his mind-control technology on waiters and store-owners to show her a good time after she and her boyfriend break up. After the happy couple gets back together, however, his behavior escalates into mind-controlling her boyfriend into breaking up with her, breaking into her apartment and filling it with flowers, and eventually mind-controlling her.
First off, I find this episode way creepier as a grown woman than I did as a kid. Secondly, telling the story from the Hatter’s point of view rather than Batman’s goes a long way to making him a three-dimensional, sympathetic villain even when he does horrible things.
Develop your villains. I tend to focus more on my heroes, but readers love a good sympathetic villain. Taking the time to show what they want and fear will make them so much more interesting to the audience.
Batman and Catwoman fell in love after like one night, WTF
I’m a huge Batman/Catwoman shipper. This should come as no surprise to anyone who’s read my White Knight & Black Valentine Series with its superhero/supervillain couple. I also love the two-part Catwoman episode “Cat and Claw.” It does a great job establishing Catwoman as a villain who can go toe-to-toe with Batman and is every bit as skilled as he is. The animal-rights angle to her character gives a sympathetic aspect to her as a criminal, and she even has her own supporting character, her secretary/friend Maven—or make that two if you count her cat, Isis.
I like her first meeting with Batman and the subsequent rooftop chase. I like the interplay between Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle, and I totally buy the romance between both of their alter-egos. Everything is perfectly fine until the word “love” is thrown out there. “Attraction,” yes. “Lust,” definitely. But you’ve known each other for two days, tops. Isn’t it a little two soon for the L word?
Love at first sight is an out-of-date trope. Take the time to develop romantic relationships. (Hint: it should take longer than two days.)
Harley Quinn was just a Random Side Character
Harley Quinn first appeared in the episode “The Joker’s Favor.” This was her first appearance ever, in any media. She didn’t show up in the comics until after she got popular on the show. And she doesn’t get a big introduction. A scene shows the Joker plotting with his minions, and she’s one of those minions. She has some great lines, and her voice actress is excellent, but considering that she’s now one of DC’s all-time most popular characters, she’s introduced with very little fanfare.
You never know what random side characters your readers will adore. Listen to your audience, find out what they like about your work, and adapt accordingly. (And from a reader’s perspective, share what you like about certain books so the author will know.)
Batman gets beat up more than I Thought
If you’re a comics reader, you may be familiar with the “Bat God” criticism that Batman is sometimes shown to be so hyper-competent and untouchable that he effortlessly wipes the floor with multiple superpowered opponents who should realistically give him more trouble. I’m a little used to that, to be honest: Batman knocking out bad guys with one punch and always being two steps ahead of everyone.
Maybe that’s why it surprised me to see how much he struggled in this first season.
When he gets the drop on the bad guys and can knock out the lights and pick them off one by one, he’s a terrifying force of nature. But when he doesn’t have the advantage, he often gets beat up by just a few muscled henchmen. Yeah, he usually wins at the end, but those henchmen get their hits in and give him a really hard time.
And I kinda like it?
Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing Batman backhand a crook trying to sneak up on him from behind, and I love seeing a prepared, smart hero take down a villain who’s stronger than him. But it shouldn’t be too easy. I’m much more engaged in the fight scenes when I know the criminal with the crowbar might knock Batman out, because that’s what happened last episode. I like not knowing if he’ll win or lose.
Competent heroes are good, but so are realistic fight scenes. Don’t have the hero plow through a squad of minions effortlessly, because it kills all the tension. The greater the struggle, the sweeter the victory.
And those are my thoughts on season one of Batman: The Animated Series. What else was awesome about this show? Has any Batman media matched it since? Share your thoughts in the comments.
4 thoughts on “5 Writing Lessons I Learned from Re-watching Batman: The Animated Series”
Very good points. One can take a lot of inspiration from the DC Animated Universe. I’d love to see your thoughts after Superman, Justice League or Justice League Unlimited, as well.
Thanks, mrhelm! I love those shows, too. It was awesome to see plot threads started way back in Superman and Batman come to fruition in Justice League.
Very enlightening, thanks for posting this, it brought to light a few things I’ve glossed over or didn’t pick up on as a kid. My fav villain though, besides Black Valentine ;), is Mr. Freeze. No one can look me in the eye and tell me they didn’t shed a tear for that guy (despite how he turned out)
“Besides Black Valentine” made my day. 😀
And omg, yes, Mr. Freeze! When his debut episode ended with him alone in his cell with Nora’s music box, apologizing to her for not being able to avenge her…. I shed more than one tear. 😥