There are a lot of reasons Batman: The Animated Series has held up so well over the past 25 years. Any fan will tell you that film noir/art deco style is timeless, the cast is impeccable and the stories were compelling to all ages. While the show didn't talk down to kids, it was still beholden to the network and its advertisers -- so that meant that Broadcast Standards and Practices would often have the final say when it came to what could air on Saturday morning. There's no doubt that censorship diluted the impact of certain B:TAS episodes, but there's an argument to be made that the show flourished in ways it wouldn't have without those creative restraints.

Looking back, you can sometimes see where the Batman team made compromises. The easiest one to spot is the inclusion of the "hit flash," which waters down fights by briefly interrupting the moment of a strike. Back in the old Adam West days, these were stylized with comic booky text like POW!, BAM! and GADZOOKIE!, but that didn't really gel with the tone for this particular Batman. Instead, you'd often spot a quick flash of white light just as a punch connects. In the case below, it's a frame or two of a fiery "explosion." 

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This might seem silly and arbitrary, but these are the kinds of sacrifices you make when you're producing a show for kids. Plus, agreeing to certain network demands means that it's easier for other slightly edgier aspects to slip by. There might be brief flares that mask hits during this brawl, but you can also see a bit of red stuff dribbling down over Joker's mouth. As mentioned by writer/director/producer Bruce Timm on the DVD commentary for the episode "On Leather Wings," including a bloodied character was a great way to start a fight with the Fun Police. Making use of hit flash for this scene may have been a concession they were willing to make to break that creep's nose.

Since censors' primary form of alteration is removal, it can be hard to tell just what has been affected in a given episode. But if you know the no-no's, you can start to pinpoint moments in which the production team has worked around these boundaries. Timm managed to sum up all of Batman: The Animated Series' biggest censorship hangups in one now-infamous image.


The nine taboos are printed on the bottom, but in case you don't feel like reading upside-down, they are as follows: Guns, Drugs, Breaking glass, Alcohol, Smoking, Nudity, Child Endangerment, Religion (the cross on Joker's leg) and Strangulation. 

Many of these rules were bent or outright broken on the show, but it all depends on context. "Guns" in particular might stick out to you as an odd taboo, since many characters throughout the series have wielded all sorts of ballistic weaponry. But as Mark Hamill notes, it's okay for Joker to wield a tommy gun because most parents of the 90s were not Prohibition-era gangsters and did not have Chicago Typewriters in their closets. The idea being that if kids don't have access to the ridiculous firearms they see on TV, they are less likely to emulate their favorite show about a vigilante who beats up the mentally ill on a weekly basis. This same reasoning is why the X-Men, Spider-Man and everyone in G.I. Joe were always being targeted with futuristic laser blasters in every episode of their cartoons. 

Even if a particular scene doesn't violate one of the nine taboos of BS+P, that doesn't mean an episode is in the clear. The great (albeit out-of-print) production book Batman: Animated features a fascinating spread of the funniest and most ridiculous censor notes received by the TAS production team. 


If some of these sound a little too outrageous, that might be by design. When a script includes something like "hyenas putting their heads into a baby carriage and chowing down," it's not because anyone actually expects that to make it through to air -- it's more than likely what's called a "censor decoy," a purposely-outlandish moment or sequence crafted to make other risque bits in the episode seem tame by comparison. 

Some of the other notes reveal the fickle and sometimes baffling logic of cartoon watchdogs. When Harley Quinn tells Batman "I made a mess on your cape," most people's would not perceive the implication of off-screen defacation. Similarly, the idea that Batman would punch a walrus in the dick in a cartoon is laughable, but the powers that be want to make it extra clear that the Dark Knight would only assault a marine mammal above the waist.

That obsession with tiny details that may possibly hint at a whiff of vaguely offensive content can bring scenes to a standstill, but violating bigger taboos can get entire episodes axed altogether. 


When it comes to episodes of B:TAS that never got made, a fabled Nocturna story comes up most often in interviews. Timm got as far as designing an animated version of the vampire villain, but according to producer Alan Burnett, the network was not okay with centering an episode of a kids' cartoon around consuming human blood. Talk about prudes. 

We don't have a lot of examples when it comes to before/after censorship in B:TAS. With the possible exception of that scene mentioned in the censor notes where Alfred gets shit on by a bat, the crew usually didn't get too far into the cycle before someone stopped them from spending money on something that wouldn't make it to broadcast.

The one big exception is Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, a movie that went into production shortly after the Columbine school shooting in 1999. The following period of intense scrutiny on violent video games and entertainment resulted in several parts of the film being altered or excised altogether. Comparing original uncut version to the one that first aired, the differences are clear:



This video gives a great rundown of everything that changed, from newly-bloodless faces to truncated fights to minor dialogue tweaks. Aside from the expected, there was one other change that's so minimal it's kind of hilarious.


Should kids learn that even superheroes wear seatbelts? Probably not a bad idea, and it even works in canon -- the spunky young Terry McGinnis might be believably rebellious and/or ignorant enough not to buckle up, but you can bet old Bruce Wayne would always practice car safety precautions. But did they really have to show Batman Beyond strapping into his Batplane? Are we as a people really worried about children sitting down in the cockpit of a futuristic hoverjet without properly securing themselves in the pilot's seat? 

As fans might know, the biggest edit for Return of the Joker's initial broadcast was the demise of the titular supervillain. What was originally a brainwashed Robin killing his captor with his last ounce of sanity instead became an off-screen electrocution. The censored scene was undeniably less grisly than watching the Joker be impaled by the flag of a prop gun, but some parts of the "cleaned-up" version ended up even more disturbing than what was initially produced.

See, early on in the uncut edit, Joker murders a henchman named Bonk. This established Joker's menace while also setting up the deadly prop gun a twisted Robin would use later. 

You can see why networks might have a problem with this kind of thing in a kids' show produced immediately after Columbine, but the replacement scene is way more likely to give children nightmares. 

In much of Batman: The Animated Series, exposing a character to Joker's toxic laughing gas was as close as the show could get to killing someone. As the producers admit, destroying a victim's psyche and leaving them with a wretched permanent smile is in some ways a fate worse than death.

The fact that Bonk doesn't die also allows the camera to linger on his convulsing body that much longer, whereas his corpse is nowhere to be found in the same shot of Return of the Joker's uncut version.



If you look up these clips, it's not uncommon to see YouTube commenters profess that they prefer many aspects of the "censored" version of RotJ. It's not hard to see why. Bonk's "death" in the restored cut of the movie is kind of rote and boring, and besides introducing the prop gun, doesn't really tell us anything about this "new" Joker beyond the idea that he's willing to kill his own suboordinates... just like every other supervillain in the history of fiction. In being forced to come up with a new solution, the production team actually managed to improve on their work. You might say that censorship helped improve the scene. 

In Vulture's great oral history of Batman: The Animated Series, Timm and fellow co-creator Eric Radomski suggest that wasn't the only time that frustrating fights with standards and practices resulted in superb storytelling. When the production team was making the episode "Robin's Reckoning," animators were yet again stymied by the fact that they weren't allowed to show anyone die on screen. As you can imagine, that's something of a problem when you're depicting Robin's origin story, which relies heavily on the Flying Graysons tragically faceplanting in the middle of their trapeze act. This is the solution the animators came up with

Subtle but clear, understated yet still dramatic. It's tough to imagine that the image of the Graysons eating the dirt on the circus floor would be more impactful than this. Radomski and the team were thrilled with the end product. 

So we came up with the idea of the trapeze ropes going through the scene with a spotlight on them, and then coming back with one sheared rope and stinging with appropriate music. Thank God for Shirley Walker. It was something you could have only dreamed of at that time in animation, to do it for television. I think we, as a team, hit a home run with "Robin's Reckoning." It was the height of what we could do as a dramatic animated show and still be entertaining.

Robin's Reckoning went on to win an Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program. 

The DVD commentary for the fantastic "Over the Edge" tells a similar story. Five minutes into the episode (which is mostly set in a dreamlike hallucination), Batgirl is knocked off a building and onto the hood of Commissioner Gordon's car, dying shortly thereafter. Timm recounts the battle with the network over the scene -- showing a character falling directly onto a car from such a great height is a little... intense for kids' TV, to say the least. So their solution was to show the moment of impact from inside the cop car:

Timm notes that this is "20 times worse [...] so much more effective" than the original framing, since you're seeing the death of Barbara Gordon from the perspective of her father.

"Censorship" is something of a dirty word on the internet, but as we saw with Batman: The Animated Series, in certain contexts those hard lines can push creative work to even greater heights. But yeah, I'm still mad we never got to see that bat shit on Alfred's shoulder.

Tristan Cooper can be found on Twitter