It seems like there will always be new Batman cartoons and new movies offering up new approaches to the character. And DC Comics will keep doing crazy new crap to Batman like pretending he's dead when he's really back in caveman times. The sad truth is that the pinnacle of Batman storytelling has already been reached, and anything that follows has been and will be but a shadow of perfection. The perfection of which we speak is Batman: The Animated Series (and its later incarnations), the mid to late-1990s cartoon that managed to distill the best elements of the Batman universe and remold them into a story that was engaging, darkly beautiful and simply perfect in just about every way. Batman was dark, serious and the greatest detective in the world, yet not overbearing and retained a sense of humor when appropriate. The origins of Batman and his villains and allies were perfected into their purest form, and the stories took place in a coherent universe. Although it was a cartoon, the show didn't pander. A high achievement, Batman: The Animated Series has many excellent episodes. These are, in our opinion, the creamiest of the crop.
15) The Clock King
Most people remember the Clock King as one of the typically ridiculous villains-of-the-week from the Adam West Batman series. Bruce Timm and Paul Dini gave the character new life and real menace in this episode, in which time-obsessed efficiency expert Temple Fugate follows some advice to break away from his regimented schedule for a longer lunch break, and ends up having his life ruined after a series of mishaps causes him to be, ironically, late to a court date. Years later, he shows up as the Clock King to get revenge on the man who gave him the bad advice, now the current mayor of Gotham City. The Clock King comes damned close to killing Batman and end up battling him on a giant clock face as the minute hand ticks down to potentially squash the kidnapped mayor.
The Animated Series wisely introduced District Attorney Harvey Dent in early episodes as Bruce Wayne's friend before an acid explosion turned Harvey into the villainous Two-Face. This very dark two-part episode is an early example of how the DC Animated Universe (DCAU) could be appreciated by kids, but was really tailored to an older audience. Harvey's transformation wasn't just because he was disfigured; he had already shown signs of possessing a separate personality consumed by rage and the accident just sent him over the edge. Looking back now, this episode is similar to the Two-Face storyline presented in the film The Dark Knight.
Forget that dumb brute Bane was portrayed as in the awful movie Batman & Robin. The Animated Series stayed closer to the comic books by making Bane a cunning, intelligent ex-con who was one of the strongest foes Batman ever faced, thanks to the steroids - Venom, I mean - that he shoots into his veins. The battle at the end of this episode was excellent. Robin goaded Candace, the conniving minx who was Bane's accomplice, to tussle and she was happy to oblige, almost handing the Boy Wonder an embarrassing defeat. And Bane replicated the scene from the comic books where he lifted Batman up and prepared to swing him down, breaking his back; but in this version, Batman at the last second stabs the Venom control switch with a Batarang, causing Bane to get so gruesomely pumped up that he almost explodes. See, this is why the DCAU Batman is even better than the comic book version!
12) Perchance to Dream
Bruce Wayne awakes to find himself in the life he would have lived if his parents never died. He's just a millionaire playboy; somebody else is Batman. Most importantly, Bruce got to live his whole life with his mother and father. Naturally, Bruce flips out, leads the police on a wild goose chase and decides to kill himself. Some people are just never happy. The episode has a twist ending that, while predictable, ends up involving a different Bat-villain that you might have expected. And Bruce's realization of why things aren't right is nicely done, too.
11) Beware the Gray Ghost
This episode is true bliss. Adam West, the beloved Batman from the 1960's series, voices Simon Trent, a washed-up actor who once played the Gray Ghost, a Sandman-like character who hugely inspired Bruce Wayne's creation of the Batman persona. When a crazed toy collector (a sad but true parody of those of us who obsessively collect action figures) begins recreating crimes from an episode of the presumed lost Gray Ghost series, Batman enlists the help of his childhood idol to solve the case. It's nice to see Bruce actually enjoying his work and pretty much using the case as an excuse to meet Simon Trent. He even kind of reveals his identity to Trent while Trent is promoting the release of the Gray Ghost episodes (of which he had copies stored in his closet). Trent seems pleasantly amazed that his former character has lived on in such a way, which mirrors how this episode is a big tribute to Adam West.
10) If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Rich?
Like just about every other villain in this series, the Riddler debuted in much more menacing form than a lot of viewers were used to. A corporate executive makes a bad decision when he cans Edward Nygma, designer of the popular "Riddle of the Minotaur" video game, and denies him any of the profits. Nygma later resurfaces as the Riddler and begins threatening and stalking the executive, instilling in him a terror that will seemingly last to the end of his days. The thrilling ending has the Riddler trying to defeat Batman and Robin in a life-size amusement park "Riddle of the Minotaur" maze, complete with a flying hand, fire-breathing dragons and a giant minotaur robot. On a side note, it seems a lot of the villains in this series were forced down the wrong path by corrupt corporate bigwigs or other figures of power.
9) Legends of the Dark Knight
If you're a Batman comic book aficionado, this episode is your wet dream. A group of kids imagine what Batman is like in person and the two vastly different versions presented are taken wholesale from the printed page. One kid's vision of Batman & Robin looks just like colorful Dick Sprang artwork from the 1950s and includes Golden Age craziness such as the Dynamic Duo battling the Joker with giant musical instruments. The second tale is a retelling of the Batman vs. Mutant Leader storyline from Frank Miller's The Dark Knight, imagined by a kid who looks just like the female Robin in that story and plays the Mary-Sue role in her fantasy. As an added bonus, one of the kids (who is standing under a "Shoemaker" sign) acts a bit fey and muses about Batman having tight rubber armor, both a nod and a slight to reviled Batman & Robin director Joel Schumacher.