Batman boasts visuals that are as strong as the writing behind them. It's incredibly dark; despite its Saturday morning/weekday afternoon origins, this is a series that greatly benefits from being watched at night with the lights off. The character designs are angular and exaggerated, in contrast to the rounded, '40s-inspired props and backgrounds that further establish the distinctive, timeless look of the show. The detail and fluidity of the animation vary from episode to episode, but the better installments are almost jaw-dropping. Despite more than a decade having passed between my initial viewings of these episodes and this DVD set, I could still vividly remember Clayface's overload at the television studio and the inventive direction of Temple Fugate's downward spiral in "The Clock King" even before giving these discs a spin. The energy of the dynamic action set pieces outclasses any other animated series I've seen.
Following the visuals of the series, the next obvious subject to tackle is how it sounds. For me, Batman's tone is one of the elements that really sets it apart from most every other animated series, and contributing greatly to that is the orchestral score in each episode. The series also has a phenomenal roster of talent contributing its voices. The main group -- Kevin Conroy as the definitive Batman, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as Alfred, Bob Hastings as Commissioner Gordon -- just nail their parts with complete perfection. Very recognizable names also contribute to villains and assorted supporting characters. A complete list would be prohibitively long, but some of the more notable actors and actresses from these episodes are Michael Ansara, Ed Asner, Adrienne Barbeau, Ed Begley Jr., Mark Hamill, David L. Lander, Heather Locklear, Kevin McCarthy, Roddy McDowall, Richard Moll, Kate Mulgrew, Ron Perlman, Alan Rachins, Marc Singer, Jeffrey Tambor, John Vernon, Adam West, and Paul Williams. The campy live action series from the '60s also drew heavily from established Hollywood talent, but the difference here is that the actors don't draw attention to themselves as stars. I don't listen to an episode and think, "oh, that's Kevin McCarthy"; they fit so perfectly and so unobtrusively into the overall framework.
This collection is almost uniformly excellent, although some disappointing episodes do creep in. Among the exceptional episodes are the opener, "On Leather Wings", "P.O.V" (for lengthier comments about this episode, feel free to read my review of the Tales of the Dark Knight disc), the "Two-Face" two-parter, "Heart of Ice", "Beware the Gray Ghost", and "Mad as a Hatter". I'm sorely tempted to rattle off at least a third of the episodes as part of that list. Of those, "Heart of Ice" and "Beware the Gray Ghost" are two particular stand-outs. Both benefit from first-rate animation, but they also pack an impressive emotional wallop. "Heart of Ice" offers the most complex and thoughtful presentation of Mr. Freeze, otherwise a throwaway character barely distinguishable from similar supervillains in a dozen other rogue's galleries, making for one of the series' most exemplary entries. (Freeze would go onto mark perhaps the best episode of Batman Beyond with "Meltdown"; just something about these writers and that character, I suppose.) "Beware the Gray Ghost" has a nostalgic bent to it that owes much to the presence of Adam West, whose lot in life after the live-action Batman series mirrors that of the episode's Simon Trent and his inability to shake the spectre of the episode's title character. There are some decidedly mediocre episodes, but only a few, and they're more than compensated for by the immensely high quality of the set's high points. Although Batman: The Animated Series by and large doesn't paint itself strictly as a kids' show, the episodes that focus more on children tended to flounder for me. "The Underdwellers", "Be a Clown", and, he types with a shudder, "I've Got Batman in My Basement" all prominently feature young boys in significant roles, and I would just as soon never watch any of them again. The Joker's first couple of outings are undistinguished as well, particularly "The Last Laugh", an episode that generally seems to be well-liked by everyone other than myself. There's usually a buffer between these lesser episodes, and as awful as "I've Got Batman in My Basement" may be, the stellar quality of the episode that follows immediately washes that bad taste out of my mouth.
I could keep this going for pages and expand in meticulous detail on those points already made. I'll spare you, though. I'm not telling established fans anything they don't already know, and curious readers who haven't seen the series before would do better watching these episodes rather than suffer any more through my inept gushing. My only disappointment with this set is that it didn't come sooner. It hasn't even been a full day since I finished the last disc, and I'm already anxiously awaiting a follow-up volume.
Video: This DVD release of Batman: The Animated Series looks a bit better than I'd expect to see with an appearance on cable, but the full-frame video doesn't offer nearly as dramatic a difference as that seen in the Batman Beyond and Justice League discs compared to their broadcast counterparts. I don't have any complaints about crispness or clarity, even if this set isn't as razor-sharp as Warner's more recent animated releases. Some mild flaws do creep in, though. There's quite a bit of cel dirt, which isn't a problem specific to this DVD set, but still something viewers deadset on immaculate, clean presentations should go in expecting to see. There's also some aliasing, infrequent crosshatching, and MPEG discoloration. Those will likely go unnoticed by readers with smaller displays, but those watching on a large set may find those particularly distracting. As mentioned earlier, this is a very dark series visually, and it loses something if watched in a brightly-lit room. Turn the lights down before giving these discs a spin.
Audio: Each episode features three stereo tracks encoded at a bitrate of 192Kbps, including the original English as well as French and Spanish dubs. The Portuguese from the individually released discs is no longer an option, and the intention of matrixed, monaural surrounds has disappeared. I was impressed with how rich and full these episodes sounded, considering that they were produced for television twelve years ago. Explosions, crumbling buildings, gunfire, and soaring dirigibles are all accompanied by a thunderous, substantial low-end, and dialogue is crystal clear throughout. Very well done. Subtitles are provided in each of these three languages as well, along with closed captions.
Supplements: Every one of the four discs includes at least some supplemental material. In "The Dark Knight's First Night", Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski talk about the test reel they collaborated on in 1991 that eventually landed them gigs as producers on the series. After several minutes of interviews and pencil test footage, their two-minute reel is provided in its entirety, though with a slightly altered soundtrack and multigeneration video quality. Timm and Radomski return for an audio commentary on the first episode, "On Leather Wings". Their discussion frequently isn't about the minutiae of the episode itself so much as bringing the series to fruition and a general overview of producing Batman in those early days. They note the stumbling blocks encountered and overcome at all turns as first time producers of an action-adventure animated series, breaking expectations and taking an atypical approach in an era of laser rifles and parachutes bursting from exploding bubblecraft.
Another commentary opens the second disc, with Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, and Eric Radomski commenting on "Heart of Ice". My favorite bits revolved around some of the minor flaws, like the Filmation-ish reversed colors of the bat-symbol in a few shots, Victor Fries' impressive array of cameras for his video log, and...:gasp!:...a color television. Another topic is the addition of unrequested flourishes that add a great deal to the animation, which may have helped cause the studio to have to financially restructure. Bruce Timm notes that the episode basically directed itself and talks about cobbling together a freelance storyboarding team. Both of these commentaries are so great that I really wish there were more on this set, and hopefully the next volume will have at least a few tossed on there. The 18 minute featurette "Batman: The Legacy Continues" includes interviews with a wide assortment of people, including those directly involved with the creation of the series and professionals in the comic industry. Among those featured are comic scribes Mark Waid and Geoff Johns, comic historian Les Daniels, DC editor Bob Schreck and Editorial VP Dan Didio, writer Paul Dini, director Dan Riba, voice actors Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, voice director Andrea Romano, and producers Bruce Timm, Eric Radomski, and Alan Burnett. The featurette covers most of the necessary angles, including the translation to television, crafting a tone and visual style for the series, tackling Batman's rogue's gallery, assembling the roster of talent that provided the voices, the score, and the overall impact the series has had. Definitely worth taking the time to watch.
Disc three includes a narrated tour of the Batcave, including glimpses at Batman, his utility belt, various bat-vehices, and Alfred. The fourth and final disc has trailers for "Other Super-Hero Favorites", including Challenge of the Super Friends, Justice League: Starcrossed, and Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman.
Each disc includes a set of 16x9 static menus, along with seven episodes that can be viewed individually or consecutively. Each episode is included as a single chapter stop.
Conclusion: One of the best portrayals of the Dark Knight in any form, I'm proud to have this four-disc collection of episodes from Batman: The Animated Series in my collection. I wish Warner would've taken this route initially rather than trickling out four and five episodes a year, and the quality of the commentaries on this set absolutely left me wanting more. Highly Recommended.