Toy Tribute: Animated Batman Evolution

Whenever a new Batman animated series airs, the first thing I do is look for is a "Hero Batman", to wit, a Batman figure sporting a basic Batsuit from the new series. It's always cool to see how the Batman design has changed from the previous version, and animated Batman has certainly changed dramatically over the years as DC continually morphs the design to try to keep the character fresh and interesting to kids. Let's take a look at the evolutionary history of animated Batman action figures!

Before we begin, we need to lay some ground rules. First, each Batman has to be from an episodic series, meaning one-shots like Superman/Batman Public Enemies and Gotham Knights don't count. Second, the Batman should be a good representation of the basic Batsuit from the series. Sorry, Neon Arctic Infrared Camouflage Batman... you'll have to hock your wares someplace else. Finally, it has to be the Bruce Wayne Batman. That means Batman Beyond is out. (That was never really Batman anyway). And one more thing: I won't cover the accessories. They generally suck and what's important here is the evolution of the figure's design. At least, that's how I'm rationalizing not including them because I lost them all. Anyway, let's start with...

Super Powers

Figure: Batman
Manufacturer: Kenner
Year: 1984

Arguably the first figure that drew its inspiration from a cartoon was this Super Powers Batman. Although the Super Powers line could easily represent DC superheroes from the comics, it seemed influenced by the Hanna Barbera cartoon, The Super Friends. Also, the figures were released in conjunction with the cartoon's rebranding, the title of which tried to cover all its bases: Super Friends, The Legendary Super Powers Show.

This Batman figure is a nice sculpt (for the time period, at least) and it establishes a couple of mainstays that we would see in Batmen for the next decade or so: 5 points of articulation (swivel neck, shoulders, and hips) and a cloth cape that attaches via a wire collar.

One thing was dropped after this figure, though: the action feature. Super Powers Batman socks his foes when you squeeze his legs, but most future Batmen would drop the internal action feature concept in favor of huge gaudy accessories. It makes sense... a Batman with a crapload of accessories would be much more impressive on the pegs than one with action features that aren't readily apparent. Still, it's too bad. The Super Powers action feature is far more useful than those crappy accessories, and it doesn't screw up the figure's look at all.

Batman: The Animated Series

Figure: Combat Belt Batman
Manufacturer: Kenner
Year Stamped: 1993

With the cancellation of the Super Powers/Super Friends show in 1986, Batman sat on his animated butt for a few years until 1992's Batman: The Animated Series. Taking some cues from the more serious tone of the Batman 1989 movie, BTAS was darker with film noir storytelling and a cool art deco visual style developed by Bruce Timm. For better or for worse, Timm's basic style would rule the DC animated landscape for over a decade until DC decided to shake things up a little with The Batman.

The strong colors, sharp design, then-standard 5 points of articulation, and removable cape make this figure a cool Batman that represents its cartoon remarkably well. But I hope you appreciate it because this is pretty much all we got in terms of a Hero Batman in BTAS. Kenner injected some variability into the line by producing Batman figures in all sorts of differently colored Batsuits. It's not an inherently bad idea, and it's arguably marketing genius because kids ate up the kaleidoscope of different Batmen. But Kenner ran the concept into the ground, making the line infamous for endless repaints in eye-bleeding colors. And that just made this Combat Belt Batman so much more desirable to collectors.

The New Batman Adventures (v1)

Figure: Detective Batman
Manufacturer: Kenner
Year Stamped: 1998

After five years of BTAS, Batman got an animated facelift with the New Adventures. Bruce Timm's influence still shows, but the character design was simplified into a more angular and geometric style. Why this happened is anyone's guess... maybe it was due to budgetary constraints as Wiki suggests or maybe the studio felt the need to spice things up a bit to keep kids interested for a few more seasons.

Regardless, I actually dig its sharpness. The sculpt of the action figure reflects this angular design pretty well, but it's a design that just doesn't lend itself well to realization in plastic.  The legs in particular are too spindly to be supportive, especially since the cloth cape was replaced with a heavy rubber cape that tends to topple the figure backward.

The figure has a hole in its back to accommodate the unreasonably oversized Flight Pack accessory. The hole isn't particularly noticeable though, and is certainly not as egregious an alteration on behalf of accessories as a certain future Batman (B&TB, I'm looking at you).

The New Batman Adventures (v2)

Figure: Batman (silver colorway)
Manufacturer: Mattel
Year Released: 2003, figure marked 2008

In 2003, Mattel managed to wrestle the DC Universe license away from Hasbro (which by that time had absorbed Kenner). Obviously eager to get some bat-product on the shelves as soon as possible, Mattel immediately threw out some figures based on The New Batman Adventures. The weird thing was, the cartoon was cancelled 4 years prior. I guess Mattel knew that animated Batman figures sold well regardless of whether or not there was a cartoon to support it. Maybe they also wanted something to bridge the gap between the New Adventures and Justice League lines.

What we ended up with were generic, minimally-packaged animated figures that you can still find in pharmacies and dollar stores. (In fact, I picked up this sample just last weekend at ToyZam.) There's not much information available on the 'Net regarding Mattel's New Adventures line; Figure Realm doesn't mention it at all, and it garners only a passing sentence in Wikipedia's article on Batman action figures. Fortunately, Legions of Gotham offers a cool page featuring the waves of what it calls the "Batman Animated Classics" line.

Finding a reasonable representation of the basic Batsuit in this line is challenging. It seems like Mattel actively avoided making a Hero Batman, but I suppose the figure above is close enough. It's a completely different sculpt from its Kenner counterpart and largely an improvement. The cloth cape is sewn together so that the shoulders seem extra-spikey, and the lighter cloth remedies the balancing problem caused by the heavy plastic cape of the Kenner NA figure. But the paint apps are all over the place so you might have to do some comparison shopping to find a decent one.

Justice League

Figure: Mission Vision Batman
Manufacturer: Mattel
Year Released: 2004

Batman took a supporting role in his next cartoon appearance, joining his "Super Friends" in a cartoon more tonally similar to BTAS. The Batsuit was slightly adjusted, with extended ears on the cowl, but at its core it was still the Bat-Timm design.

Unlike previous animated toylines, Justice League had quite a few Hero Batman figures. I opted for Mission Vision Batman above because of its added elbow and knee articulation. The figure design looks dynamic, but this is another instance in which the spindly Bruce Timm legs cause problems. With a top heavy sculpt and a heavy plastic cape supported by tiny legs, this figure just loves to take a dive.

The Batman

Figure: Zip Action Batman
Manufacturer: Mattel
Year Released: 2004

As we saw with BTAS, Batman cartoons tend to draw their influences from Batman movies. The Batman was released in conjunction with Batman Begins and, like the movie, the cartoon was based on the early years of Batman with a greater concentration on Bruce Wayne as an independent character. The character designs by Jeff Matsuda drew much consternation among fanboys for their drastic reimagining of classic characters in a decidedly non-Timm-like fashion, but I loved the style. In fact, I'd say that The Batman is the coolest incarnation of animated Batman yet, at least visually.

The figure is similarly awesome. Not only does the sculpt match the cartoon well, but the limbs are substantial enough to support the added elbow and knee articulation. Most importantly, the strong legs and feet can easily support the figure on display. The cape is also a uniquely cool feature of this figure: it's long enough that it drapes on the ground dramatically.

Although there was a more basic Batman than this that didn't include the retractable grappling hook (namely, Triple Shot Batman), I love the action feature and it makes this Batman one of the most fun since Super Powers Batman twenty years prior.

The Brave and the Bold

Figure: Hang Climber Batman
Manufacturer: Mattel
Year Released: 2009

In the final 5th season of The Batman, they experimented with Batman teaming up with other superheroes like he did in the Brave and the Bold comics. It was obvious that a B&TB series was just itching to be released, and with no hiatus after The Batman's cancellation, Bats immediately jumped into the role in 2008.

This series was more lighthearted than the previous cartoons, drawing its influence and character designs from the live action show and comics from the 1960's. The style was less Bruce Timm and more Genndy Tartakovshy, and as much as I like its geometry and colorfulness, the figure ultimately doesn't do a particularly good job of depicting the Hero Batman. Huge holes in the arms and back that accommodate attachable accessories seriously detract from the figure's look. The accessories aren't even all that cool, and it just doesn't make sense to attach them on the arms and shoulders anyway. How tragic.

Other than that, it's nice to get a Batman in the classic color scheme of blue/gray/yellow so Super Powers Batman doesn't get too lonely. And the head sculpt just screams Adam West to me.

Young Justice

Figure: Dynamic Duo 2-Pack Batman
Manufacturer: Mattel
Year Released: 2011

Concurrent with the final season of B&TB, DC released a cartoon based on a Justice League of superhero sidekicks called Young Justice, with Batman taking a supporting role. Admittedly, I haven't watched this series so I know very little about it. But it suffices to say that this is one sweet Batman design. The wacky proportions of previous animated Batmen has been thrown out in favor of a more realistic body and a Batsuit inspired by the comics.

Unfortunately, the figure's design severely limits playability. With an inflexible cape, shoulders that can only rotate 45 degrees, and hips that do less than that, this figure seems like less of a toy and more of a statue. Still, it's a pretty rocking statue.

I am vengeance. I am the night. I... am... Batman!

And that's it for this tribute to animated Batman! With the cancellation of B&TB late last year, we find ourselves uncharacteristically Bat-cartoon-less. But worry not, another is just around the corner with Beware The Batman scheduled to be released in 2013! Just like the previous incarnations of animated Batman, fanboys are already complaining about the design. I'm just eager to get my hands on another Hero Batman action figure!


DISCLAIMER: All items reviewed on Dork Dimension were purchased by the reviewer unless otherwise noted. The opinions expressed on Dork Dimension are solely those of the author and are presented for entertainment purposes only.