When it comes to DC Comics characters, the mid-2000s were years of tumultuous change across nearly every medium that they could be found in. On the comic book side, the Infinite Crisis storyline promised a multiverse clean-sweep, one that would tidy up the continuity issues that have become a norm for the publication. In the movies, Christopher Nolan and Warner Bros. rebuilt the Caped Crusader with the highly praised Batman Begins, eschewing any hints of the maligned efforts of the late ’90s and bringing audiences a grittier, frownier Dark Knight. On TV, Smallville was still chugging along, and its producers were keen to mine it for spinoff potential (even though separate ones featuring Aquaman, Green Arrow and the Justice League never materialized).
And in the realm of animation, the DC Animated Universe, a sprawling mythology that had begun with 1992’s seminal Batman: The Animated Series, was coming to an end with 2004’s Justice League Unlimited. Debuting that same year (and now streaming in its entirety on Netflix) was The Batman, a new origin story for the titular hero that would take him from his rookie years and his first encounters with arch foes like Joker and Penguin alllll the way to being a foundational member of the Justice League. In the span of five seasons, it effectively tells Batman’s whole story.
The immediate fan reaction to it was scathing. But still, The Batman remains an interesting show to revisit and reevaluate, especially thanks to how it reflects the rapid metamorphosis of the time period and the endless potential that Batman has for adaptation.
From the first episode, it’s clear that The Batman isn’t striving to be like Batman: The Animated Series, a cartoon that’s often regarded as one of the best ever. BTAS had combined its noir roots with superhero derring-do in a way that no other series really has since, and it had ended the 50-year drought of solid superhero cartoons since the Fleischer Superman shorts back in the 1940s. And BTAS had been such a broad demographic success that, for a short time, it was given a primetime slot competing with 60 Minutes. Sunday-night viewers would get to choose between the fantastical adventures of Batman and Robin and the slightly less fantastical adventures of Leslie Stahl and Mike Wallace.
But a lot had changed since 1992, and The Batman reflected that. Most noticeably, the influence of anime was everywhere, from the angular character designs (the work of Jeff Matsuda, fresh off of the underrated Jackie Chan Adventures) to the hyper-kinetic fight scenes. Even the Penguin does backflips and roundhouse kicks here. The Batman was for kids that had been raised on a diet of Toonami, ones that were likely to eventually gravitate toward Naruto and Bleach. It was also inherently toyetic (even though later seasons would cut back on this), and many episodes of The Batman’s first season are marked by the appearance of a cool new action-figure-ready suit or vehicle or robot.
Combine all of this with an initially diminished focus on pathos (BTAS’ Mr. Freeze was a tragic figure, unable to feel and yet desperate for connection; The Batman’s Mr. Freeze had some dope ice powers and enough ice puns to put Arnold Schwarzenegger to shame) and you have a series that was all but destined to be seen as the lesser Batman outing by older fans. It didn’t help that it also had to compete with Unlimited, a show that treated DC’s expansive mythology with a kind of dignified grandeur, full of characters that we’d gotten to know over the past 12 years. Unlimited was a full-fledged universe, rivaling and often outdoing the stories from the comics that it was based on. In its shadow and often seen as little more than a 20-minute toy commercial, The Batman would receive terrible reviews; one of the first ones, appearing on Toonzone, labeled it “an unmitigated disaster and a blight to the Batman name.”
Obviously, this kind of online handwringing is now a staple of any reboot of a beloved character. And The Batman would evolve over time, especially when it got a full season’s worth of villain origin stories out of the way. Then, in its first season finale, it pulled a 180 from the relatively shallow stories of its first 11 episodes and gave us the anguished transformation of one of Bruce Wayne’s close friends into the vengeful Clayface. Batman’s rogues’ gallery has always been an assortment of pitiable people driven by personal obsession and paranoia and finally, The Batman delivered for those looking for that.
The Batman would always have to grapple with being a Saturday morning cartoon with a heavy toy line, but the storytelling would only get more inspired from there. In time, we’d see legitimately great stuff like “Night and the City” (Joker, Penguin, and Riddler scrap over control of Gotham while the police close in on Batman); “A Fistful of Felt” (the Ventriloquist leaves Arkham with a clean bill of mental health, only to have corrupt psychologist Hugo Strange toy with him); and “A Matter of Family” (Robin’s introduction to the show in a heartfelt episode that includes BTAS mainstays like Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill playing Dick Grayson’s father and the Grayson family’s murderer Tony Zucco, respectively). They’d all be filled with the exciting anime-inspired action, but there was now the emotional curiosity that is the basis of every good Batman story: Who are these characters and what do they want outside of an endless cycle of “villain does stuff and Batman stops them”?
Throughout its run, we were given visual overhauls of most major villains alongside everyone seemingly knowing karate now. Bane would turn into a hulking, rad behemoth while Riddler would dress in goth cyberpunk style, with the latter’s voice actor, Robert Englund (of Freddy Krueger fame) joyously hissing his lines. As the show became more beloved, fans began to look forward to seeing what these new incarnations would look like, especially in comparison to their often comic-friendly BTAS forms.
But not all of Batman’s rogues would see a transformation. Having so many reboots and game-changers up in the air in the mid ’00s meant that DC would get a little anxious about its presentation. The fear of a kid checking into a cartoon and suddenly being confused about just what Batman thing they were actually watching hit executives. In 2023, where we have over a half-dozen Batmans either on screen or in production across film and television, that kind of thinking seems old hat. The kids are smart. They’ll figure it out.
In 2004, it would lead to what became known as the “Bat-embargo.” Spearheaded by then DC Comics president Paul Levitz, the characters from Batman’s universe would be parsed out among different projects. Justice League Unlimited, beginning in the middle of its second season, would be allowed to keep Batman and a smattering of his lesser foes and colleagues like Clock King and KGBeast. In animated form, the heavy-hitters of his world would belong exclusively to The Batman, as a new show on Kids’ WB would likely gather very little public steam promising exciting new versions of Electrocutioner and Kite Man.
However, despite seemingly having the keys to the Batman kingdom, The Batman wouldn’t have carte blanche to everyone. With Batman Begins in production, it seemed that characters like Ra’s al Ghul and Scarecrow (and rumored Nolan future prospects like Two-Face) were off limits to them, further complicating the scenario. Two-Face would’ve been tricky anyway, considering The Batman’s less violent fare, so it’s pretty fitting that his narrative duties of “trusted friend turns into conflicted enemy” were passed off to Clayface. But overall, it made for a very frustrating situation for Batman fans, especially those that wished to see his major antagonists show up again in the final lap of Unlimited.
Ultimately, futile petitions were created, but it was perhaps Bruce Timm, lead developer of the DC Animated Universe since its outset, that had the clearest head about things: “Batman’s only one ingredient in the Justice League… I don’t mind a break from those characters after working on them for so many years.” Though it limited the amount of villains that could appear, the Bat-embargo allowed for a deeper dive into the pantheon of interesting DC villains. This was a Justice League show after all, not Batman: The Animated Series Part 8.
The “Bat-embargo” would be a thorn in the side of those working on the show at the time and a grievous fandom wound to a subsection of its audience, and we’re not quite sure what either Justice League Unlimited or The Batman would’ve looked like had they had complete freedom in that area. Still, Justice League Unlimited would go down as a spectacularly fitting end to the DCAU, while Batman Begins would set a precedent for DC Comics film reboots that it’s still attempting to follow today. And The Batman would leave its snark-fueled backlash in its early days, and hit a particular stride that would make it all its own. There, it would create a whole new generation of fans, its mission from the beginning.
All five seasons of The Batman are now streaming on Netflix and HBO Max.