Hard-Traveling Fanboys: Countdown (Batman: The Animated Series Episodes)

Mild-mannered reporters by day, Greg Phillips and Nick Duke share an intense love of comic books that has made them the Hard-Traveling Fanboys. And if there’s anything that fanboys love, it’s debating what book is better than another book or which character is “cooler.” Enter Countdown, a monthly column where Greg and Nick will give a top five list and debate the merits therein.

Nick: It’s that time of the week, loyal readers, as we bring you the latest insane ramblings of the Hard-Traveling Fanboys. It’s the second Friday of the month, meaning it’s time to Countdown, and in keeping with last month’s countdown of top comic book animated series and DC’s ongoing celebration of the 75th anniversary of Batman’s first appearance, this month we’re bringing you our five favorite episodes of the iconic “Batman: The Animated Series.”

Greg: This is no easy task. Quite frankly, picking the 25 best episodes of “Batman: The Animated Series” would be difficult. To make things just a little easier, we decided to count two-part episodes (of which there were many) as one singular episode, since they were generally telling a single story.

We’re also counting episodes of “The New Batman Adventures,” since that was packaged and promoted as the final season of B:TAS. Is that a copout? Maybe, but make your own list! (And send it to us on Facebook, Twitter or by email!)

Nick: Indeed. With that, let’s see Greg’s No. 5.

Greg’s No. 5: “Over the Edge”

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Nick: Admittedly, my memory of this one is pretty hazy, as I don’t remember many of the “New” episodes very well.

Greg: This “New Batman Adventures” episode has the distinction of being the last one written solely by Paul Dini. Like another episode that will be featured later in my list, this took place entirely in a dream, though we aren’t made aware of that until the end.

I can remember watching this for the first time and being mesmerized. Near the beginning of the episode, Batgirl falls to her death. That was heavy stuff for a cartoon, especially in the late ’90s. From there, the episode becomes all about Jim Gordon’s quest for revenge on Batman, who he blames for his daughter’s death.

Because I’d missed much of the season to that point, this was my first TV exposure to my favorite character (who wasn’t my favorite character yet), Nightwing, and I remember the distinct brutality of this episode appealing to me at the time. We see Batman bleed as Gordon doggedly pursues him, even hiring the mercenary Bane to break the Bat.

As a kid, my favorite Batman story was “Knightfall,” and so I was disappointed in the show’s initial portrayal of Bane (in the episode “Bane”). Here, though, he’s perfect — cold, calculating, ruthless and Batman’s physical match. They even recreated the iconic backbreaking scene from “Knightfall” in this episode — just as Bane is about to bring Batman across his knee … well, you’ll have to watch the episode. This blew my mind at the time, and it was a rare case of seeing Batman and Gordon at odds.

Nick: Yeah, it sounds like it would be an interesting twist on the Batman/Gordon relationship, which is one of my favorites in all of comics. Sounds like a rewatch is in order in the near future.

But you brought up dream episodes, which brings me to this…

Nick’s No. 5. “Perchance to Dream”

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Greg: A classic early episode, this one used the Mad Hatter in an especially clever way.

Nick: This is an episode that really challenges Bruce’s dedication to his one-man crusade. Because of his experiences in life and the nature of his obsession, it’s rare to see Bruce get an opportunity at happiness, but that’s what we get here.

In this episode, Batman is out on patrol when he is knocked out. When he comes to, his life as he knew it is completely changed. His parents are alive, he is engaged to a non-criminal Selina Kyle and he holds a prominent position at Wayne Enterprises without the distraction of Batman.

Bruce knows something isn’t right about the whole ordeal, but where the episode really succeeds is its ability to show Bruce’s willingness, almost even a desire, to accept this false life just to have a taste of the world he wishes he could live in. However, he’s still Bruce Wayne, and his determined nature forces him to uncover the truth behind the illusion and eventually topple the true adversary of the episode, the Mad Hatter.

Admittedly, I didn’t remember this episode as one of my favorites until I bought the series box set a few years back but since then, it’s an episode that just keeps getting better every time I watch it.

Greg: I watched it when it first aired (as I did virtually all the episodes), and I vividly recall that this was the first cartoon that really made me ask myself some tough ethical questions. Namely, if I were in Bruce’s shoes, would I be able to resist the temptation of an idyllic life without the pain and torment that reality dealt me long ago? This episode made me think more than any other.

But more on that later.

My favorite character is the centerpiece of the next entry on my list.

Greg’s No. 4: “Robin’s Reckoning”

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Nick: This one narrowly missed my list, but it’s well worth being included. Dick Grayson isn’t typically thought of as one of the darker, more brooding characters in the DCU, but this two-parter certainly took a look at the more vengeful side of the man who would become Nightwing.

Greg: Honestly, I’m not sure I ever really “got” Robin before this episode, which aired when I was still 8. Sure, I’d seen the ’60s show and enjoyed it, but Robin wasn’t the draw there. I’d read about Tim Drake (a completely different Robin) in the comics and found him largely uninteresting, so when B:TAS first brought Robin on board, I just shrugged and didn’t think much of it.

This was the product that changed my mind on Robin and, particularly, Dick Grayson. It’s a rare episode in that it’s mostly told from Robin’s perspective rather than Batman’s. Writer Randy Rogel really takes viewers into Dick’s mind here, showing us that Batman isn’t alone in the orphan business, but some simply choose to deal with their grief in a different way.

Bubbling beneath the humor and wit, Grayson feels much of the same rage that drives Bruce Wayne. From Dick’s hurt and anger that Bruce would hide the identity of the man who killed Dick’s parents to the look of glee on his face when he finally corners Tony Zucco, the episode still takes me on the same emotional roller coaster it did when I was a kid.

And when Dick finally chooses not to embrace his revenge, it provides one of the greatest scenes in the history of the characters of Batman and Robin. It touched me at the time, and it finally provided me the hook I needed to latch on to the superhero who would become my favorite.

Nick: It certainly helps to establish Robin as his own character while also showing how Bruce cares for Dick in his own, often cool or distant ways. The episode really shows how different the two men are and how those differences would eventually cause them to go their separate ways, yet also proves that through all of that, there’s a deep love there that can’t be unbroken.

Greg: It really captures the father-son dynamic I’ve always loved between Bruce and Dick.

Nick’s No. 4: “I Am The Night”

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Greg: Speaking of the Gordon-Batman relationship, this one shows just how deep it goes.

Nick: Much like the No. 5 episode on my list, this episode features Batman questioning his crusade on crime, albeit in a much different and much more realistic fashion.

The episode begins with Bruce already depressed, being it is the anniversary of his parents’ death. To make things even tougher, he discovers that the Penguin has been set free yet again, causing Bruce to wonder if he is doing more good than harm. Despite all of this, Batman sets out for a planned police raid, but is sidetracked along the way. Because of this, he arrives on the scene too late, as Jim Gordon is gravely wounded during the operation.

Harvey Bullock basically tears Batman a new one for not being there when Gordon needed him most, and Bruce’s grief over his inability to protect his friend causes him to hang up the cape and cowl for a while. After the criminal who shot Gordon escapes from prison and sets out to finish the job, Batman eventually snaps out of his funk with some coaxing from Robin, Alfred and Barbara and sets out to save Gordon. Through all of this, Gordon is comatose, and Bruce is able to eventually save his incapacitated friend. When Gordon comes to, we get a fantastically touching scene where Gordon tells Batman their crusade can’t end, no matter what happens.

This provides Bruce with the rejuvenation he sorely needs, and Batman is ready to fight on. As big a fan of Gordon as I am, I loved this episode the first time I saw it, especially because in the end, it’s Batman’s desire to protect Gordon that spurs him back into action and it’s Gordon’s affirmation that wipes away the doubt that was building in Bruce’s mind.

Greg: This is also one of the most grounded episodes of the series. The Jazzman is very much a street-level criminal, a hitman who would fit perfectly in the era of the Untouchables. I remember the grittiness of this episode, and how much it feels like an old gangster flick. Gordon didn’t get a ton of development on B:TAS, but this is the best example of just how important he is to Batman and Batman’s mission.

The most enduring mustache in comics.
The most enduring mustache in comics.

Nick: Yeah, Gordon didn’t get the spotlight often on the show, but when he did, it almost always produced one of the series’ most memorable episodes.

Greg: On the other end of the spectrum, B:TAS was renowned for taking forgotten or less-than-intriguing villains and turning them into iconic parts of the DC Universe mythology. Such was the case in my third-place pick.

Greg’s No. 3: “Feat of Clay”

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Nick: Yet another episode that narrowly missed my list.

Greg: I’d never even heard of Clayface when I first saw this episode in 1992. Instead of going with the original comic book persona, Basil Karlo, writers Michael Reaves and (the legendary) Marv Wolfman went with the name Matt Hagen and imbued him with some of Karlo’s characteristics while crafting a multi-layered persona and, of course, a huge layer of tragedy.

Of all the tragic villain stories on B:TAS, this has always been the one that most resonated with me. Hagen is a talented, successful actor whose fame is fading, and he isn’t sure how to deal with it. Backed against the wall, he turns to “cure-all” substances to maintain his looks, though the chemicals are actually destroying him all the while, hooking him into a world of addiction and crime. Sounds like a lot of wrestlers I loved as a kid, come to think of it.

The idea of a bad guy who didn’t really want to be a bad guy drew comparisons to another of my favorite villains, Magneto. And let’s not forget the cool powers, which made Clayface seem like he’d be a perfect fit on “X-Men.” How could Batman hope to beat a guy who can change shapes and, seemingly, can’t be harmed?

Finding that answer shows Batman’s resourcefulness, but the cliffhanger ending makes it clear we’ll be seeing Hagen again. It’s masterful storytelling, and Wolfman’s presence surely had a lot to do with that.

Nick: BTAS was a show that was able to balance the realistic and fantastic so well so often, and Clayface was a prime example of that. Batman could go from a showdown with Rupert Thorne one week to fighting Clayface the next, yet it never felt anything but true to the heart and tone of the show. As Greg said, the character was little more than an afterthought before he was revitalized by the show, with effects that are still felt in most modern-day incarnations of the character.

Which brings me to this…

Nick’s No. 3: “Heart of Ice”

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Greg: Ah, we’ve reached arguably the show’s most famous and critically acclaimed episode, one that barely missed my list.

Nick: While the debate could go on for days about which character redefining episode is better, I give the nod to Heart of Ice. Perhaps Paul Dini’s finest writing job of the entire series, it’s an episode that has been named by many websites and fans as the best the series had to offer. It even won the series an Emmy for outstanding writing.

The episode was a complete reinvention of the Mr. Freeze character, throwing out all but the cold-based powers and turning the character from a one-note joke into perhaps the most sympathetic of all the Bat-villains. Over the course of the episode, viewers were introduced to Victor Fries, a scientist whose only initial crime was that he was using his company’s resources in an attempt to save his chronically ill wife’s life.

A tragic accident renders Fries unable to survive outside freezing temperatures, and he eventually comes for revenge against the company and the corporate villain Ferris Boyle who pulled the plug on the cryogenically frozen Nora Fries. Naturally, this puts him in conflict with Batman, who eventually discovers the truth behind Freeze’s origin. By episode’s end, it’s clear that Batman is begrudgingly protecting Boyle and actually agrees with Freeze on some level.

This episode was only a one-part, 22-minute installment, but it left a lifetime of legacy, adding Freeze to the pantheon of top-level Bat-villains. The character was eventually used in the Batman & Robin film, with the same backstory left largely untouched. The tragic origin was eventually added to the comic canon, and the character of Freeze hasn’t looked back.

Greg: I’d argue the character still has never been utilized as well as he was in this episode. The comics have never truly capitalized on the potential Paul Dini and Bruce Timm gave this revamped character. The episode is brilliant from beginning to end, and as you said, it defined this character in a way the previous comics and TV appearances never could.

Greg’s No. 2: “Almost Got ‘Im”

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Nick: I’ll withhold comment for now.

Greg: For a show that was so often grim, B:TAS could really pack some laughs into a half hour of television. Such was the case with “Almost Got ‘Im,” an episode that mostly takes place at a card game played between several of Batman’s greatest enemies during their downtime.

Like old Phillips family members comparing fishing stories, each of the villains explains in great detail the time he or she “almost got” the Batman. Folks, this is a master’s class in economic storytelling. Each villain’s tale feels longer than it actually is, and each has a beginning, middle and end. Yet the card game continues to mesmerize in between each story.

Meanwhile, the characterizations are spot-on. Killer Croc steals the episode, though, with his hysterical story involving Batman and “a big rock.” Croc’s dialogue is even funnier when a twist is revealed near the end. Of course, the Joker upstages his cohorts by nearly killing Catwoman, bringing Batman to her rescue. I prefer the Bat and the Cat on the same side, so this one always makes me a happy camper.

Nick: I’ll have more to say in a bit on this wonderful episode.

Nick’s No. 2: “Two-Face”

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Greg: I was certain this would land on your list, given your love of the titular character, but I just wasn’t sure where it’d place.

It’s also one of my favorites in many regards, another example of a groundbreaking take on an old villain.

Nick: Anyone who’s a frequent reader of our columns had to know this one was going to pop up on my list. This was the series’ introduction of Two-Face, with the audience able to go along on the ride from promising district attorney to supervillain along with Harvey Dent.

While it’s a fairly straightforward telling of the Dent tragedy, it doesn’t keep it from being a wholly effective one. We see Dent as Bruce’s friend and Batman’s uneasy ally before being introduced to Harvey’s darker nature. It’s political blackmail that eventually leads to the accident that fractures Harvey’s psyche, as mob boss Rupert Thorne has proof of his psychological instability that is threatened to be released to the public.

Once the scarring has taken place, the scene in the hospital where we’re introduced to the show’s take on the Two-Face look. I can admit to being less of a fan of the blue skin look as time goes on, but that doesn’t keep it from being perhaps the most popular version of the look. It’s the one tons of kids grew up with, and that first image of Harvey framed against the backdrop of a lightning storm gives it this great 50s monster-movie feel.

In the second part of the episode, we see the iconic Two-Face elements such as the coin, the “two” themed crimes and the oft-used plot device of one side of Harvey’s psyche plotting against the other. Perhaps more importantly than that, however, we see what really makes Two-Face my favorite villain in all of comics.

It’s been said that a great villain needs a personal connection to the hero, and this episode we see Bruce agonizing over the fact that he couldn’t save Harvey and feeling largely responsible for what his former friend has become. By episode’s end, Bruce used Harvey’s psychological instability and dependence on the coin against him while still maintaining hope that Harvey can one day be redeemed.

The best thing I can say about this episode is that it’s a perfect introduction to the character for those who are completely unfamiliar with the concept, and it still stands to this day as one of my favorite Harvey Dent stories.

Greg: I have to ask you one question about your love of this episode. You have a very specific idea of Two-Face in the comics, so I’m wondering your thoughts on the “Big Bad Harv” element. Do you prefer Dent to already be psychologically scarred before the physical scarring (as in this episode), or do you prefer, say, Christopher Nolan’s take of a relatively sane man driven insane by circumstance? Or are both valid approaches in your mind?

Big Bad Harv playing imaginary accordion.
Big Bad Harv playing imaginary accordion.

Nick: I honestly prefer a mixture of the two. I think there needs to be some level of darkness bubbling beneath the surface, but one that is vastly exacerbated and encouraged by the events he lives through. If I had to say something bad about this episode, it would be that the “Big Bad Harv” stuff can come on a little strong at times, but it’s something I’m willing to forgive since we were never going to get to see a slow burn over an entire season. It got the point across well enough and it worked for the story they were trying to tell.

Greg: Well said. While it may not be my favorite version of his pre-Two-Face life, it told its story incredibly well and ended up crafting another tragic, wonderful B:TAS villain.

The tragedy of losing everything you have is something Bruce Wayne already lived through once, but he seemingly had a chance to undo all of it in my favorite episode of the entire series.

Greg’s No. 1: “Perchance to Dream”

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Nick: I’ve said my piece on this episode at the start of our column, so I’ll get out of Greg’s way here.

Greg: As I mentioned earlier, one of the reasons I admire this episode so much is that it forced me to think. Even as an 8-year-old kid, I left this episode wondering what I’d have done in Batman’s position. To have a literally perfect life at your fingertips, and to know that the alternative is a living hell where you’re virtually guaranteed never to find true happiness, how could I make the same choice Bruce Wayne does?

But that’s why he’s Batman and I’m not. That’s the sneaky part of this story — in addition to making me question myself, it also inspired me. It taught a valuable lesson: sometimes the easy choice isn’t the right one. And it did so without being overt or heavy handed in any way. Much like many of the classic wrestling and comic book storylines I enjoyed as a child, I ended up learning important ethical lessons without even trying.

And, again, it’s got a lot of Bruce and Selina, which (I suppose) satiated the ‘shipper side of my personality.  I also think this one, more than any other, displays the characteristics that make Batman unique among all superheroes. He’s not naive enough to truly believe the fantasy for himself, but he’s heroic enough to fight to make it real for others.

Nick: Couldn’t have said it better myself. This episode really does epitomize the drive, determination and self-sacrifice that makes Batman, well, Batman.

And while this episode expertly analyzes the psyche of Batman and brings the dramatic and emotional impact, I opted for something a bit more lighthearted as my No. 1 selection.

Nick’s No. 1: “Almost Got ‘Im”

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Greg: Arguably the funniest episode of this great series, it’s already landed on my list. It’s unforgettable.

Nick: As Greg said earlier, the concept of this episode is essentially that Batman’s greatest villains have gotten together for a card game. This gives the episode a chance to experiment with something of an anthology format, a format it used to great success in “P.O.V.,” another outstanding earlier episode.

While the series was built around the excellent dynamics between Bruce and his allies, it was rare that villains got a chance to interact during the course of the show. Here, though, seeing Penguin, Poison Ivy, Two-Face, Joker and Killer Croc threaten, mock and nearly maim one another was almost as much fun as any Batman action we saw. The final twist of the episode, which I won’t spoil on the off chance that our readers may not have seen the episode, is not only hilarious, but is just a fantastic example of how Batman is always a few steps ahead of the so-called criminal masterminds that seek to challenge him.

While there are certainly episodes that gave us a more serious, introspective look at the Caped Crusader, this one gave us something the show never really gave us ever again and something we rarely see in the comics. More than any other episode in series history, this one is just plain fun to watch. For that, it takes my top spot.

Greg: And with that, ladies and gentlemen, that brings this week’s Countdown to a close. I hope this was a fun trip down memory lane, and maybe it’ll even inspire some of you to pick up your DVDs or tapes and give some of these great episodes another viewing.

Next month, we’ll get back to the printed page. And next week, the Longbook Hunters will be right here to look at Matt Fraction and David Aja’s critically acclaimed Hawkeye run.

Nick: As always, we welcome your feedback on Facebook, Twitter (@gphillips8652 and @nickduke87) and on our PTB email accounts (GregP@placetobenation.com and NickD@placetobenation.com). Let’s hear your favorite episodes of Batman: The Animated Series!

Author: Greg Phillips and Nick Duke

Greg and Nick share two passions above all others, both of which involve people in spandex punching each other. Reporters by day, they also insist on being called "Two Dudes with Attitude" but can't decide who is Kevin Nash and who is Shawn Michaels.