First off, let me just say that, while the “vs” in the title felt right given the action superhero premises (premise’s? premisii?) of the two shows, this article is in no way promising to pick a “winner” when all is said and done. The more I thought about these two shows, and what I loved so much about them, the more I realized that I can’t possibly pick one as better than the other. I will simply aim to talk about them both, framed around certain aspects of each show. Maybe one show is better than the other in certain instances, but as a whole both shows are amazing and beloved memories of my childhood. At 31 I’m still as happy watching either of these shows as I was at 13, and that says something for each animated series.
An arguable measuring stick for contrasting the two shows is to look at Batman vs Wolverine, as characters. However, this is an overly simplified argument. Storylines have to be taken into account, and while a great deal of ‘X-men’ was centered around Wolverine, as was 6 of the 7 X-men movies, Batman ruled his own series much more than Wolverine did ‘X-men’. So the cast as a whole has to be evaluated in any fair comparison, and both shows featured phenomenal voice-acting. Of course, the pinnacle of voice acting in any animated series or film is Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as Batman and the Joker, respectively. Conroy’s switch between Batman and Bruce Wayne is still a better portrayal of the change than any of the other actors to don the cape and cowl. Both voices sound normal, although Bruce Wayne is the façade and Batman is the norm for Conroy’s Batman, which is so much more refreshing when compared to Christian Bale’s “bat-growl’ in the Christopher Nolan trilogy.
Any episode of ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ featuring Mark Hamill’s Joker is a must watch. His play between quirky and psychotic (usually both at once) is something that is hard to too. Neither of the two actors who have played the Joker on the big screen have been able to hit this balance (Heath Ledger’s was undoubtedly the best Joker, but his was mostly just psychotic). ‘Harley and Ivy’, an episode where Harley Quinn teams with Poison Ivy after being spurned by the Joker, features a performance by Hamill that is one of the best in the entire series, as he attempts to find his socks in his maniacal run down funhouse ‘Joker hideout’, stressed out that Harley is nowhere to be found after the Joker himself told her to kick rocks. Harely Quinn, voiced by Arleen Sorkin, is almost equally phenomenal in this episode and any episode she appears in, including ‘Harlequinade’, where she is released from prison into the care of Batman in an attempt to track down the Joker and his stolen nuclear bomb. I’m telling you right now, no one will ever do her voice better if they portray her character on the screen with someone else. No one. (She also voiced the character for the ‘Arkham’ video games. The play between Hamill and Sorkin as the psychotic lovers is both endearing and frightening, and with Conroy’s Batman in the mix, the Love/Hate triangle among the three is unparalleled in a “children’s” animated series.
Speaking of love stories, Gambit and Rogue developed a relationship in ‘X-men’ that was also groundbreaking in “children’s” animation. Never before, or since, has a love been so complex, intricate and implicit as Gambit’s love for Rogue. Chris Potter voices Gambit in such a way as to add cockiness and loneliness in the same sentence, every sentence. Rogue’s power is to siphon the energy (and eventually the life) out of everyone she touches. Therefore, since the manifestation of her powers, she’s gone her entire adult life with no one ever wanting to touch her. Ever. Imagine how lonely that must be. Yet here’s a man, in Gambit, who seemingly spends every waking moment begging to get one kiss, one touch. It’s not that he doesn’t care if he gets zapped. He very much does and he by no means wishes to die. But begging to touch her is the greatest gift that he can give her. And it’s a gift that he’ll never stop giving her. At the end of the second season, trapped in Mr. Sinister’s cage with no way out, Gambit professes his love: “Gambit never say this to anyone before, Gambit loves you.” He gives her a kiss, possible only since all the X-men are stripped of their powers at the moment, and this kiss is the most charged, emotional kiss in my cartoon memory. It’s a scene that rival’s Han Solo’s “I know”, and that’s not a comparison I throw around lightly.
As far as the rest of the cast goes for each show, Cathal J. Dodd is a fantastic Wolverine, Cedric Smith and David Hemblen do a great Professor X and Magneto, but ‘Batman’ takes the edge in this regard. Alfred, voiced by Efrem Zimbalist Jr., doesn’t quite steal the show in any given episode, but he comes close at times. Particularly, the ex-London spy butler’s adventure back to England in ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ is a prime example, and he also does a fantastic job in the flashback scenes in Dick Grayson’s two part origin story, ‘Robin’s Reckoning’. Of course, Loren Lester also shines through as Robin in those episodes.
I will point out here that ‘Wolverine and the X-men’, which aired in 2008, had the most phenomenal voice talent in any action animation series, and there are some of you who will argue that this is the show that should be compared to Batman since it was better that the 90’s ‘X-men’, namely my good friend Kenny. You are wrong. A show simply cannot go for only one season and then attempt to compare to a show that went 4-5. This is true for more than just animation. One of my favorite shows of all time is ‘The Black Donellys’, yet having gone only one 14 episode season, getting pulled from the air after only 6 or 7, I’ll never compare it to ‘The Sopranos’ or ‘24’ or any of the shows that lasted longer. Oppositely, even though one can argue that ‘Justice League’, ‘Justice League Unlimited’, ‘Batman Beyond’ and ‘Young Justice’ (and even ‘The Adventures of Superman’) seem to take place in the same universe at different points in time, for the purpose of this article I am only including the four season of ‘Batman The Animated Series’. It would be an unfair comparison otherwise.
Storyline wise, ‘X-men’ definitely did a better job of having season arcs, sagas and multiple part episodes. ‘The Phoenix Saga’ and ‘Dark Phoenix Saga’ are both amazing, and the show runners even set up ‘The Phoenix Saga’ with a two part episode titled ‘Out of the Past’ which featured a tumultuous Love/Hate showdown between Wolverine and Lady Deathstrike (can you tell I have a weakness for the Love/Hate relationship?) while also introducing the alien presence in the Milky Way that would lead to Jean Grey’s God/psycho cosmic adventure. Another two part episode that strikes a particular cord is ‘One Man’s Worth’, which is the show’s sort of version of the Age of Apocalypse, but with a future (or alternate present, I think) of sentinels and meta-humans at war with all mutants. The episode itself is decent, but in this present Wolverine and Storm have become a couple deeply in love. Predictably, they must put aside that love in order to save Xavier from being killed, resuming a timeline in which they are not together. It’s a story that’s been done before, certainly. Magneto and Rogue do just that in the comics’ version of ‘The Age of Apocalypse’. What brings it home for the TV series, though, is the final scene, which features Wolvie and Storm, this time in the restored timeline where they are not dating. Cathal J Dodd and Alison Sealy-Smith play the scene with just a hint of flirtatiousness, winking at the viewer who has just watched the end of their alternate selves’ love story.
‘Batman’ never reached anything on the scale of ‘The Phoenix Saga’ or ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ (another 4 part gem from ‘X-men’). However, ‘Batman’s episodic format allowed for fantastic stand alones like ‘Almost Got ‘Im’ and ‘Babydoll’ (not to say that ‘X-men’ didn’t have some great stand alones, just that they weren’t as heartwrenchingly amazing as the finer ones in ‘Batman’). In ‘Almost Got ‘Im’, Killer Croc, Joker, Penguin, Poison Ivy and Two-Face meet up to play poker, since apparently, in this world with caped men jumping off rooftops and disfigured super-baddies constantly pulling off heists and capers, there’s times when you have to be able to sit back, relax, and play cards for gold coins and keys to boosted Mercedes’. I mean, all that planning and robbing armored cars is hard work. So the bad guys meet up and play cards in a seedy, smoky, underground bar and take turns telling stories of how they almost caught the Batman. We get these long-winded tellings of capers where each bad guy almost won. SPOILER ALERT: it turns out at the end of the episode that Killer Croc is Batman the whole time, undercover in order to find out where the Joker is keeping Catwoman or something. When it’s Croc’s turn to tell the story (before Batman is revealed) his story builds up and gains momentum up to the apex: “I threw a rock at him.” This is funny enough when you believe it’s actually Killer Croc, since he’s dumb. But in rewatching, knowing at that moment that it’s actually Batman, that means that the caped crusader is doing a laugh inducing impression of Croc, presumably completely straight-faced (have you ever seen Batman smile?) under his cowl which he’s wearing underneath a rubber Killer Croc mask. That is fucking hilarious.
The best single episode of ‘X-men’ is ‘The Final Decision’, which comes as the finale to Season 1 (can’t get away from those long story arcs). The X-men first rescue a mutant hating senator from Magneto, only to have to decide whether or not to rescue that same senator from the even more mutant hating Mastermold, a sentinel that creates sentinels. There is a scene in the War Room at X-mansion that will, still, damn near bring tears to my eyes even though I’ve seen it tens of dozens of times, and can pretty much recite the entire episode. The X-men are trying to decide who will go on this suicide mission to save the mutants’ worst enemy, and each X-man must make his/her own choice. Jubilee has none of it, asking, “what’s everybody waiting for?” Wolverine tells her she’s not going, and her response is pure gold, “I’m not a kid anymore, I’m one of you, one of the X-men, and it means more to me than anything in the world.” The story of the X-men has always, since the 60’s, been one about inclusion vs exclusion, about fighting for the rights of others in a world that doesn’t understand you or even seem to have a place for you in it, for striving to leave the world a better place when you inevitably leave it, and that’s all addressed in this scene. And as the X-men fly off in their BlackBird to certain doom (which of course they all come back from, this isn’t Game of Thrones, although they did kill off Morph for an entire season before bringing him back), Magneto stands on the front steps of the mansion proclaiming, “You’re all fools. Heroic fools. The brave are always the first to die.” Naturally, Magneto then later shows up to save Xavier from plummeting to his doom aboard the BlackBird, and it’s one of the most rewarding scenes of the entire series.
The best television shows are the ones that make you look deep inside your own self even as you watch events unfolding on the screen. Superheroes have always been uniquely suited to do that. Surely, we all know there’s little chance that we will spend seven years mastering every fighting style known to man in order to take back the streets of our city from the animal, clown or mud themed super-villains. And none of us possess an innate healing factor that would allow us to survive our skeleton being fused with the strongest metal known to man so that we could become a living killing machine. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do our damndest to make this world better. What both ‘Batman The Animated Series’ and ‘X-men’ have meant to me is an imaginative view of the effect one man or woman or group of individuals can have on the world around them. The super-powers and gadgets are added for excitement, but the message is what counts. Whether it’s Batman fighting desperately for the seemingly healed Two-Face in ‘Second Chance’, or Wolverine struggling with his own inner demons as he attempts to save Leech’s life in a blood transfusion process that may very well kill the Morlock in ‘Have yourself a Morlock Little Christmas’, superheroes can show us a way to live that we can’t hope to measure up to. And that’s a good thing, because that gives us a role model to look up to when we’re 6, and there they are, fighting the good fight when we’re 60.
So if you haven’t seen either of these shows (forgivable if you’re under 26, a crime against nature if you’re older) go ahead and look them up. Unfortunately, neither is on Netflix (although they do have ‘The Adventures of Jackie Chan’ and the ‘Star Trek’ animated series, swing and a miss Netflix!). But I’m sure you can find them somehow. Hell, I’ll bet someone you know has the complete set on DVD that you can borrow. In a world where no one buys DVD’s anymore, these are two box sets that will most likely stand the test of time.