How Tim Burton's Batman Influenced Batman: The Animated Series - VRGyani News and Media

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Thursday, August 19, 2021

How Tim Burton's Batman Influenced Batman: The Animated Series

Can any one film have the impact anymore that Tim Burton’s Batman had?

In my lifetime, there have been a few movies and TV shows that balloon into national or even global events, outsized cornerstones of popular culture. The first Matrix film was one, and Pirates of the Caribbean became another by the time the first sequel was out. There was Game of Thrones, too, and Episodes I and VII of Star Wars. From the comic book world, you could put The Dark Knight and the MCU into that category, though the latter is many, many movies at this point, and more an illustration of how dominant comic book adaptations have become in the feature film world. But there is so much content out in the ether right now, and the pace of pop culture is so quick, that I’m not sure any lone title can have the impact that older generations have described the original Star Wars having, or The Godfather – or the first (serious) Batman.

How big an impact did Batman (1989) have? It’s still cited as the cornerstone for the modern age of superhero movies. Kids and teenagers of the 21st century have never known a time when comic book films weren’t ubiquitous, and even my generation, growing up in the 90s, didn’t exactly lack for content in this genre (the quality might have been hit and miss – but that’s still true today). All this was in the wake of Burton’s Batman; before that, there was one-and-a-half good Superman movies and their regrettable sequels. The level of success that Batman achieved, and its approach, opened the door, if not the floodgates. “Thank God for the Tim Burton movie,” Bruce Timm told Wizard magazine in 2006, and he had reason to give thanks – Bruce Timm is the co-creator of Batman: The Animated Series (TAS), which got its greenlight in the wake of that wave of Batmania that was set off in 1989.

Timm and his collaborators have never denied their debt to Tim Burton’s take on Batman, and there are undeniable links between his films and TAS. But not every one of those links was a voluntary or welcome choice, and as TAS grew into a larger DC Animated Universe, even the deliberate ones would grow more and more distant.

The DCAU is sometimes referred to as the “Timmverse,” but Batman: TAS was a co-creation of Timm’s and Eric Radomski, with vital contributions by writer/producers Alan Burnett and Paul Dini. None of them were in a position to pitch an animated Batman series in 1989. Burnett was a seasoned television writer working for Disney animation, while Radomski, Timm, and Dini were at Warner Bros. Animation as background painter, storyboard artist, and writer, respectively, for Tiny Toon Adventures. The latter show loved its pop culture references and parodies, and Batman came in for its fair share. Superheroes as a broad category were fodder for gags, but Burton’s film saw its designs, casting choices, and relentless marketing campaign spoofed over the years, culminating in an episode where Plucky Duck tries to convince Tim Burton to cast him as Batman in a sequel.

The kidding was in good fun. Radomski, Timm, and Dini all enjoyed Burton’s Batman. Dini recounted his impressions for the DVD release of Batman years later: “Wow, that looks great! [Jack] Nicholson looks phenomenal and scary, and the suit looks good, and the darkness and the world…this rocks!” For Radomski, it was his gateway drug into the Batman mythos; he had little knowledge or interest in the character beforehand, but he loved the movie. Timm, a self-confessed “lifelong comic book fan,” may have had a more muted opinion of the film, but he has said he “still enjoy[s] what Burton did.” And when Warners executive Jean MacCurdy announced in 1990 that the studio was preparing a Batman animated series for the Fox network and began soliciting interest, Timm and Radomski jumped at the chance. Independently, they prepared sample art, background paintings from Radomski and character designs from Timm. After seeing them, MacCurdy declared, “that’s perfect!” and put Radomski and Timm – who barely knew one another and had never acted as showrunners before – in charge of developing the Batman cartoon.

Batmania was still in vogue in 1990, and Warner Bros. was already developing a sequel film with Tim Burton (though it took a while to get him committed to directing it). The influence of the ’89 Batman couldn’t be avoided even if Timm and Radomski had wanted to. Radomski has acknowledged a direct inspiration from Burton’s work. “The opportunity to bring some influence into animation that could at least be in line with what Tim Burton’s movie was, was just unique,” he said, “and that’s kind of why my direction came out the way that it did in the very beginning.” A major part of that “direction” was settling on the look for Gotham City. The Oscar-winning design of Burton’s film created a Gotham where the characters (with exceptions) went around wearing the fashions of the 1940s and driving the cars of the 1980s, in a city of deliberately clashing architectural styles scaled up and crammed together to cut off sunlight. Radomski embraced the dark aspect of Burton’s Gotham – his backgrounds were painted on black paper – but ultimately he wanted his Gotham to be “a little more stylish and a little classier.” So he leaned into the 1940s period elements, with nearly every building in Gotham City done in the Art Deco style. The choice leaned into Bruce Timm’s sensibilities anyway; left to his own devices, his first instinct would have been to set the series in 1939. TAS’s design sensibilities were eventually dubbed “Dark Deco” by the staff, with the 40s influence extending to fashion, vehicles, and appliances, juxtaposed with modern and futuristic technology given a retro design and black-and-white screens. Still, it was the design choices in Burton’s film that set Radomski in that direction.

Burton’s choices influenced character decisions in the early days of TAS as well. “There were things about the first movie that I thought they got just right,” recalled Bruce Timm in an interview for Modern Masters. “The spooky aloofness that Batman has and the fact that he isn’t chummy and hanging out with Commissioner Gordon…I thought that was a cool way to go with the character, and that probably influenced us to a degree. We wanted to keep him remote and creepy as much as possible.” Of course, with an initial order of 65 episodes, Batman had to be more “verbose” in TAS than he was in the movie, but even as the show expanded Batman’s roster of young sidekicks and rebranded as The Adventures of Batman and Robin in its final season, Timm and company always strove to keep Batman himself grim. Cues were also taken for Batman's archnemesis: as in Batman '89, TAS's Joker was a vain and ruthless mob enforcer before his chemical bath unleashed his cruelty and violence to a new creative plane (a concept Paul Dini would further refine with the comic book story "Case Study"). And one more nod through character came in the series’ 50th episode, “Off Balance.” A minor crook named Twitch, acting as an informant to Batman, was patterned after Tim Burton himself. If that doesn’t seem the most flattering of cameos – well, just compare it to the one Joel Schumacher got a few years later.

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The most obvious nod to Burton in TAS is in the music. Radomski and Timm were both greatly taken with Danny Elfman’s score for the ’89 movie. Warner Bros. hired Elfman to write the theme for the series, an adaptation of the Batman theme he’d written for the film. The lead composer for TAS was Shirley Walker, a composer and conductor who had worked for Elfman in the latter capacity on Batman. Walker would end up writing her own character theme for Batman, but it shared a close resemblance to Elfman’s, and was designed to segue into Elfman’s theme in various ways. All the music for the series benefited from a full orchestra (courtesy of lobbying by Steven Spielberg on Tiny Toons), lending a more cinematic sound.

All well and good, for those pieces of Tim Burton’s vision that the animated team wanted to borrow from. But Bruce Timm has said: “We have a love/hate thing going on with the Tim Burton movies.” He was insistent that TAS not be “just a spin-off of the movie. I didn’t want the show to look just like the movie. I didn’t want to use their Batman design. I didn’t want to use much of anything they did…I had my own ideas of what Batman was. They coincided in some places with the movie, and in some places they didn’t.”

Warner Bros. gave their untested production team remarkable leeway on Batman: TAS. They let them use the designs they wanted, write the stories they wanted, and set the tone they wanted. The show was never a spin-off of Burton’s movies. But major studios under the ownership of massive corporations like their synergy, and they had conditions.

Some ended up in the “blink and you’ll miss it” category. A few early episodes contain brief use of “Jack Napier” as the Joker’s true name, as it was in Batman ’89. The comics have avoided tying the Joker down to a specific name and identity pre-accident (he himself declared once, "If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!") but the studio insisted. The incidents go by so quickly (one of them isn’t even verbal) that you could easily miss them altogether. More obvious were certain design choices. “We did get a call that the studio wanted the Penguin and Catwoman to look as much like the movie versions as possible,” Timm told Modern Masters – “the movie” being the sequel, Batman Returns, which would premiere the same year that Batman: TAS hit the small screen (1992). “I didn’t really want to do that,” said Timm. Being a comic book fan, he wanted to tap into the work of Golden Age Batman artist Dick Sprang for the Penguin’s design, and looked to Batman: Year One artist David Mazzuchelli’s all-gray ensemble for Catwoman’s outfit. “But you get the word from on high and you’ve got to do it.” Timm and Radomski would go to the Batman Returns set to meet Tim Burton and Penguin actor Danny DeVito during costume tests (Warners’ security measures to protect images of the sequel from being leaked meant that not even their employees could get photos from the film, but they could bring sketchpads). Burton even provided Timm with a quick sketch of his take on the Penguin – a radical departure from the character’s classic, dapper interpretation. The Penguin of TAS would never become the bile-spewing, sewer-dwelling creature of bitterness and malice that Burton created, but his flippered hands and more explicitly penguinesque physique were duly used per studio mandate. Catwoman’s case ended in a compromise: Timm kept the gray suit but added a black mask, gloves, and boots as a nod to her black costume from Batman Returns, and her alter ego Selina Kyle’s hair was changed from black to blonde a la Michelle Pfeiffer.

A film (at least in the 90s) had its premiere and a few months in theaters before drifting to home video and TV airings, and even the biggest pop culture wave dies down with time. But a successful TV series can keep on trucking, and Batman: The Animated Series was very successful. After its initial run on the Fox network and a brief hiatus while the creative team moved on to Superman: The Animated Series, the show returned as The New Batman Adventures on the Kids WB network. The network move coincided with a top-to-bottom revamp of the character and background designs. The color palette of the backgrounds became more stark, with dark (and more generic) cityscapes silhouetted against an often blood-red sky. Every character became sharper and more graphic, partly to help with construction and quality control in the animation process at overseas studios. But some of the designs represented a second chance for Bruce Timm. Now that Batman Returns wasn’t in production (and its mixed reception made Warners wary of leaning into Tim Burton’s vision any more than they had), Timm could ditch Burton’s Penguin and use the Dick Sprang-inspired design he wanted. Any reference to the name “Jack Napier” vanished. Even Danny Elfman’s theme was a thing of the past; it had faded away during the Adventures of Batman and Robin season. By the next series in the DCAU, Batman Beyond, the full orchestra was gone as well, and Shirley Walker’s soundalike theme for Batman was rarely heard. (One exception to the diminishing presence of Burton influences: in the character redesign process, Timm came to appreciate the all-black costume Catwoman had in Batman Returns and used the concept for the revamp.)

The DCAU wound up a few years later, and new interpretations of Batman have followed. Many of them have eschewed any overt nods to Tim Burton’s work with the character, and various animated projects have tried to distinguish themselves from TAS. But both retain significant fanbases, and both continue to influence fresh adaptations: the TAS cast have frequently reprised their voice roles in other media, and The CW’s Arrowverse and the upcoming Flash film have both tapped into Burton’s take on the character. TAS and Burton’s Batman both have comic book continuations printing at the moment, too. It’s a coincidence more than another connection between the two. But with such a plethora of Batman (and comic book) media available these days, neither has to be so closely associated with the other. TAS had the time to distinguish itself from the movies that let it come into being, and they are now two among many fantastic interpretations of Batman.

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