This week marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the landmark Batman: The Animated Series. Of all the incarnations of the Caped Crusader, including Christopher Nolan’s epic Dark Knight film trilogy, Batman: TAS is a favorite among many fans. What helped make it such a standout entry in the expanded Batman universe is how deftly it handles the questions of life and death. No animated show aimed at children or adults before or since has better taught its viewers the impact that the loss of life carries. Episodes throughout the series serve as lessons to young audiences about the realities of death.
Revamped a couple of times during its original run, each episode of Batman: TAS was an emotionally complex morality tale framed around the thrilling exploits of Gotham City’s masked guardian and his team of crime fighters. Airing on weekday afternoons and Saturday mornings, the series touched upon a number of serious issues, including how children survive trauma. As a young child, Bruce Wayne sees his parents brutally killed. Becoming Batman is the ultimate catharsis: by stopping violent crimes, Bruce is in perpetuity stopping the death of his parents.
The seminal two-part episode “Robin’s Reckoning” explored the heartache of being orphaned. Dick Grayson is a child trapeze artist whose parents are killed during an act when their equipment is sabotaged by a gangster demanding protection money from their circus. Bruce essentially makes Dick his surrogate son. Shortly after moving in with Bruce, Dick asks him, “Does the hurt ever go away?” Bruce answers, “I wish I could say yes. But it will get better in time, for you. That I promise.” An adult Dick, now Batman’s sidekick, Robin, is in pursuit of the man responsible for his parent’s demise. Robin thinks Batman tried to keep him from the manhunt because he would be too personally invested in finding his parents’ killer. Instead, Batman expresses a fear that haunts those who have had their families shattered by murder. He tells Robin his parents’ killer had “taken so much, caused you so much pain. I couldn’t stand the thought that he might take you too.”
Batman: TAS also shows its audience that not accepting the natural process of death is an evil thing. Based on two comic book issues, the two-part episode, “Demon’s Quest,” features Ra’s al Ghul, a mystic who has achieved a form of immortality. He has done so by periodically dipping himself in the so-called Lazarus Pits, chemical pools that also cause bouts of insanity in those exposed to them. Before being stopped by Batman, Ra’s is on his way to “restore” Earth to what he believes will be an undefiled state by wiping out billions of people in the process. Ra’s resistance to his own mortality and to a changing world is portrayed as a grotesque affront to nature and evolution.
Batman: TAS also does not prevent its young audience from learning the agonizing truth that death is, in many cases, senseless. “Heart of Ice” introduces Victor Fries as a scientist whose wife, Nora, is diagnosed with a terminal illness. He conducts an experiment to cure her, but his greedy employer shuts it down and presumably ends her life. In the aftermath, Victor is turned into Mr. Freeze. Compassionless and hardened, Mr. Freeze seeks lethal retribution. Batman empathizes with him but sides with justice and stops Mr. Freeze before he slays his former boss.
The episode ends by imparting a valuable message to children. Simmering beneath Mr. Freeze’s cold exterior is Victor, a man longing for his departed wife. Victor lands in a jail cell, holding a snow globe with a wind-up toy dressed and twirling like an ice skater. He mournfully stares at the wind-up figure, who is modeled after Nora, suggesting she was afflicted in her prime. Victor then utters words mirroring those of countless people who have endured the sorrow and even guilt that comes with the untimely death of a loved one. He says, “I can only beg your forgiveness and pray you hear me somehow, some place—some place where a warm hand waits for mine.” Despite suffering such a terrible loss, Victor still clings to some semblance of hope.
Death is a bitter part of life, but Batman: The Animated Series has been teaching its young viewers for a quarter of a century that greater meaning can be derived from it. The creative teams of future Dark Knight adaptations, namely the upcoming installment starring Ben Affleck as Batman, would be wise to consider enriching their material with this emotional and philosophical truth.
Image: Warner Bros. Animation