But the series' reach and impact extended far, far beyond even just Batman. Its success compelled Warner Bros. to commission a Superman series and, in what turned out to be a brilliant maneuver, a second run of Batman (done in a semi-revamped style to better match with Superman's) that would cross over with it. To a degree not seen in U.S. animation since the Filmmation shows of the 70s, which frequently shared characters and plot points, the concept of shared universe continuity quietly made the leap from comics to TV, and may have laid the generational groundwork for that same concept to be brought to movies by The Avengers years later.
The success of the Superman/Batman shows, meanwhile, spurred further development in the construction of what was becoming known as "The DC Animated Universe" in the form of Batman Beyond and two Justice League series, both of which maintained a functioning, cohesive continuity with plot threads stretching all the way back to the original Animated Series. (The DCAU also included, though without as much consistent reference, Static Shock and The Zeta Project.) When the curtain finally came down on Justice League: Unlimited in 2006, this Animated Universe had amassed an astonishing 14 years of individual episodes that can indeed be viewed, in order, as a single massive story spanning thousands of years, dozens of worlds, multiple universes and hundreds of characters.
But while the story that began in Batman: The Animated Series may have ended, its legacy is all around us. The DC Animated Universe didn't just double back around and influence DC Comics, it also crept into other tangential adaptations. Batman & Robin borrowed the animated origin story (at the time not officially integrated into the comics) for its version of Mr. Freeze, and it's hard to imagine Christopher Nolan being permitted to build Batman Begins around The Scarecrow and Ras Al Ghul without TAS making them known to a wider audience first. And, of course, there's the best selling (and critically acclaimed) Arkham Asylum videogames, the aesthetic of which is best described as fusion of the more recent live action movies and The Animated Series, and brings back key figures of the series' now legendary voice cast to complete the ensemble.
Even beyond that, when you step back and really look at it, we're living in the pop culture universe that Batman: The Animated Series created. Superheroes are the reigning American mythic symbol, dominating the box office and overwhelming the airwaves. Every action cartoon made since has labored in its long, imposing shadow.
So cheers, Batman: The Animated Series! May we still be talking about you this way when you turn forty.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you've heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.