Ken Tucker
June 16, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

When it premiered in September 1992, Batman: The Animated Series was nothing less than a shock. At last, TV had gotten it right: Here was a brooding Dark Knight seeing the light of daytime television. This Batman was drawn with film noir flair, reminiscent of the dizzying mise-en-scene of live-action suspensers like director Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946) and Jules Dassin’s Night and the City (1950). And by cannily reviving fan-fave villains like Mr. Freeze and turning Poison Ivy into a slinky antiheroine (to give Batman an itch he could never scratch), The Animated Series immediately became the most striking, effective adaptation of a comic-book character to TV.

”I was thinking of a look closer to Alex Toth’s Space Ghost, and to David Mazzucchelli’s work on [the graphic novel] Batman: Year One,” says artist-director-producer Bruce Timm. His vision of the charismatically morose superhero even streamlined the blocky Batman drawn by originator Bob Kane. But Timm, who created his Caped Crusader with writer-producer Paul Dini (Tiny Toon Adventures), also benefited from some fortuitous timing: ”We hit the air after the first, Tim Burton-directed Batman movie, which was both a big hit and so adventurous artistically that Warner Bros. was willing to take some chances. Warner animation president Jean MacCurdy is the real hero here — she told us to come up with a Batman who wasn’t just for kids, but was for us to enjoy, too.”

Dini soon realized that he wasn’t working on an ordinary cartoon show: ”I know the exact script that captured what we wanted to do. It was what aired as the third episode, one that concluded with the villain, Mr. Freeze, crying, and as he did, his tears turned to snowflakes. It was a bleak story, it had pathos, it asked you to have sympathy for a bad guy — and they let us do it! And the audience loved it!”

Loved it, indeed. Batman’s popularity spawned a new spate of spiffy Superman cartoons (the two series have recently been folded into The WB’s afternoon anthology The New Batman/Superman Adventures) and begat the newest variation on the franchise: the moodily ingenious smash Batman Beyond, featuring an elderly Bruce Wayne mentoring a teen Bat-hero. ”What we established,” says Batman producer Alan Burnett, ”is that a cartoon series could be a straight action-adventure show, not a comedy or a send-up, like the ’60s Batman TV show.”

For Dini, success has opened the door to Hollywood: He’s written the script for Million Dollar Heroes, now in development at New Line. Its premise? ”Three young rich guys with a lot of time on their hands decide to be superheroes.” It’ll be, he hopes, funny and poignant. And will there be a comic book tie-in? Dini chuckles. ”You betcha!”

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