This past Wednesday, a major anniversary for one of geek culture's most cherished (and important) modern institutions passed basically without any kind of official notice (seriously, Warner Bros? Does anybody have their hand on the wheel at this point?) or real fanfare: Batman: The Animated Series turned 20 years old, having debuted on September 5th of 1992.
Nobody knew it (or, we can only assume, even expected it) at the time, but on that day something was set in motion that would change the animation industry, the comic book industry, the movie industry and the very fabric of fandom in ways no one could've imagined.
In some ways, it was a matter of everything happening at the right time. Warner Bros. had seen their acquisition of DC Comics finally pay off huge when Tim Burton's Batman became an unprecedented juggernaut of mass media merchandising with an impending sequel virtually guaranteed to make it even bigger. However, there wasn't much to keep the brand pumping in between films. American comics had entered their Dark Age, and while teen and adult comic fans (and the speculator's market) were eating it up, it was not the place for them to drive licensed toy sales.
But what Warner Bros. had also done in the recent past was double down on original TV animation in the mid-to-late 1980s, and by the 90s had a reliable stable of the medium's best talent to draw from. A weekly superhero cartoon starring what was now the genre's biggest character? The suits couldn't say yes fast enough.
That burning desire by Warners to get a Batman show - any Batman show - on the air as soon as possible translated to a never-before-seen level of freedom for the assembled creative team. While nominally similar in tone (at least at first) to the recent movies, they were allowed to create a Batman that was entirely their own, grounded in an ambitious and comprehensive noir aesthetic that began with the then-novel technique of painting the backdrops on black paper instead of white and branched out to embracing a timeless design sense (futuristic technology, modern speech, black and white TVs, 40s-style clothing and a police department inexplicably committed to zeppelins as an urban crimefighting tool). They also had license to pull often overlooked characters from the DC Universe's dense backlog, bringing the likes of The Riddler, Mr. Freeze, The Mad Hatter and Ras Al Ghul to the attention of a new generation.
They also got unheard-of leniency in the fields of violence and thematic darkness, which wooed skeptical older comics fans and earned them early raves from preview screenings on the convention circuit. When the show finally hit, it hit big, transfixing spellbound younger viewers in its target audience and quickly earning the attention of their parents and older siblings at the same moment that The Simpsons was making grownup viewing of cartoons acceptable to the mainstream for the first time in decades. Two decades later, it's not uncommon at all to hear Bat-fans 30 and under cite The Animated Series as their preferred or default vision of the franchise, and comics culture in general is now littered with folks whose fandom began with this show.
One of its most visible effects on its own source is the character of Joker's girlfriend Harley Quinn. Created originally as a compromise to keep The Joker suitably menacing (supposedly, Joker stories would require a certain amount of "clown gimmickry" in the action scenes but they wanted a secondary character to handle the sillier stuff so Joker always "meant business"), she quickly became one of the breakout stars of the series and migrated into the mainstream DC Comics Universe. Another original creation of the show, Gotham policewoman Renee Montoya, went on to become one of the DC Universe's more important recent fixtures.