The Marvel folks have been dominating the discussion of superheroes lately, but I'll always be a DC Comics kind of gal, thanks largely to watching "Batman: The Animated Series" at just the right time when I was a kid. It remains my favorite incarnation of "Batman" and it's high time it got its own Top Ten List. This was one of the harder lists to pare down, and I've got a long list of honorable mentions as a result. As always, entries are unranked and ordered by airdate. And I reserve the right to totally cheat and count two-parters as single episodes.
"On Leather Wings" - The show's pilot episode is also one of its greatest, that sets the tone and style for the entire series. The mad scientist story is straight out of the earliest incarnations of Batman, but the modern sophistication of the writing and the more adult handling of the characters quickly establishes that "Batman: The Animated Series," (Henceforth "BTAS") had far bigger ambitions than most syndicated weekday cartoons.
"Heart of Ice" - Perhaps the best example of how "BTAS" reinvented, added to, and permanently enriched the "Batman" universe. Mr. Freeze was a gimmick villain until Paul Dini and Bruce Timm got their hands on him, giving Victor Fries a tragic, crushing backstory that humanized him utterly. Add the score, the winter imagery, and that amazing Michael Ansara performance - Freeze's cold heart was never a gimmick again after this.
"Feat of Clay" - A two-parter with some of the strongest animation in the entire series. The tour-de-force finale sequence is pure, glorious nightmare fuel. However, it's the villain origin story, which could easily be mistake for an old fashioned '40s or '50s noir mixed with sci-fi horror, that really packs a punch. The shapechanging Clayface was one of several of the Batman villains who I found legitimately frightening in these early episodes.
"Almost Got 'Im" - A collection of our favorite villains gather to play cards, banter, and swap "Almost got 'im" stories about the Caped Crusader. It's a light, funny episode with a lot of great punchlines. The individual stories aren't all that memorable, but the framing device and the character interaction is priceless. I especially love how Two-Face's giant penny story provides an origin for the beloved Batcave fixture. And that he's still got the hots for Ivy.
"Heart of Steel" - I love Barbara Gordon in this, far more than I enjoy her subsequent appearances as Batgirl. Maybe it's the wonderful creepiness of the Rossum Robots (gotta love that reference), patterned off Miyazaki creations of all things, or the paranoid "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" story. Or maybe it's the heightened intensity of the action and suspense. Because the enemies were robots, they got away with much more violence here than usual.
"The Laughing Fish" - My favorite Joker episode, because it's so wonderfully absurd and twisted. The poison gas that leaves its victims with disturbing perma-grins, the copyright scheme, the wacky commercial with Harley singing the Joker Fish jingle, and Batman going up against a shark - it's just one outrageous moment after another. This was also the episode where Harley Quinn really became Harley Quinn, and I love the character to bits.
"If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Rich?" - I always had a thing for The Riddler, having cultivated a similar know-it-all personality as a kid. Riddler's origin story is not one of the better ones the show came up with, but I was always a sucker for the puzzles, and the writers came up with some fun ones for this episode. This was also the first time I remember seeing Robin in the series, who could usually be counted on to lighten things up a bit.
"Harley and Ivy" - Was there ever a pairing of female villains as perfect as Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy? Bad girls were never so much fun to watch, and I couldn't help rooting for Ivy's twisted feminist schemes, even though I knew she was in the wrong. I mean, what woman hasn't secretly dreamed of having a bazooka on hand when harassed by a pack of hooligans? Their comeuppance, or course, is poetic justice at its finest - Gotham's Finest, that is.
"House and Garden" - I don't know why, but Poison Ivy episodes always seemed to involve the most horrific monsters and concepts. "House and Garden" has some of the most jaw-dropping. The story starts out innocuously enough, one of several second season episodes dealing with familiar villains' apparent attempts at reforming themselves. Ivy appears to have given up crime and become a suburban mom, but of course all is not what it seems.
"Harley's Holiday" - And finally, we end with a comic romp with my favorite "BTAS" character, Harley Quinn. Unlike Poison Ivy, Harley really does try to reform when she's released from Arkham. Unfortunately she's picked up some bad habits after all that time with Mr. J. I had a touch time choosing between this and the previous Harley episode, "Harlequinade," but this one gives Harley a chance to show what she's like working solo, and I appreciate the hopeful ending.
Honorable Mentions: "Christmas With the Joker," "Robin's Reckoning," "Two-Face," "Joker's Favor," "The Clock King," "I Am the Night, "Read My Lips," "Appointment in Crime Alley," "Eternal Youth," "Trial," "Mad as a Hatter," "Harlequinade," "Second Chance," "Catwalk," and "Over the Edge."