Shadow of the Bat: Why Batgirl’s ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ Origin is Still Her Best

There’s certainly no argument that Batman: The Animated Series is one of the best superhero shows of all time. It is, for many people, still the definitive version of the character and the world he inhabits. There are episodes that immediately come to mind whenever people talk about the series, those widely considered the best. Every celebrated show has that handful of untouchable episodes. “Heart of Ice,” “Almost Got ‘im,” “Robin’s Reckoning,” these are all titles that get thrown around. But with a show this good, there are so many other episodes that easily rank among the best but aren’t nearly discussed as often. And so much of it is subjective, too, of course. Everyone has their favorite characters, their favorite villain, and even their favorite hero, after the show began to introduce the extended members of the Bat-Family.

I’m a bit biased in that Batgirl is possibly my favorite DC hero in general, but I think that the two-part “Shadow of the Bat” not only ranks among the show’s best episodes, but is in fact the best version of Barbara Gordon’s transformation into Batgirl that we’ve ever seen. In some respects, it’s not that surprising, as Batgirl’s origins have always been tied to television. Decades before Harley Quinn would famously be created for the animated series before being introduced to the comics, Batgirl was created to appear in the comics and the third season of the 1966 Batman TV show simultaneously. Yvonne Craig’s version of the character helped to cement her mainstream popularity. It’s still thanks to her, I think, that the general public are aware of the character at all, even if they might know next to nothing about her.

Batgirl’s first comic book appearance—which was also the first telling of her origin—saw Barbara attending a costume party only to wind up seeing Batman in trouble and saving him from the villain Killer Moth. While it’s nice to immediately see Batman in the damsel-in-distress role, being rescued by a woman, this original version still essentially sees Barbara become Batgirl by accident. There’s no decision, she’s just in the right place at the right time and happens to be wearing what she’s wearing, only deciding to commit to the hero gig after the fact. “Shadow of the Bat” actually cleverly calls back to this, as Barbara has an event she’s trying to get Batman himself to attend, and decides to dress as him when he refuses to do it.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Batman: The Animated Series took an interesting (and smart) approach to Batman’s friends and colleagues by already having Robin be well established by the beginning of the show. He’s only in some episodes and he is, by this point, an adult. He’s in college, not playing superhero full time as he has to balance it with a full course load. That no doubt left fans wondering if the same approach would be taken to Batgirl, but thankfully that was not the case. While it worked for Robin, seeing characters evolve gradually quickly became one of the best things about the show as a whole. Both Harvey Dent and Pamela Isely were introduced long before becoming Two-Face and Poison Ivy, respectively, making their turns that much more dramatic.

With Commissioner Gordon being such a major presence on the show, Barbara had appeared before, though she had not been given much to do. Thankfully, “Shadow of the Bat” plays off of that in very natural and clever ways. The episode sees Jim Gordon framed for a crime he didn’t commit, suggesting that he may even have been working with crime boss Rupert Thorne. His name is tarnished, and while some cops like Bullock remain loyal, many have turned against him because they’re just doing their jobs. Barbara wants to help solve it, as Barbara Gordon, but Jim tells her to stay out of it and that it is not her place.

Even at that point, all Barbara does is turn her attention to Batman, because she knows of his friendship with her father and—more importantly—knows of his reputation in Gotham. An appearance by Batman to show his belief in Gordon’s innocence would help tremendously with getting the city to rally behind the commissioner. It’s a smart plan on Barbara’s part and she takes it to Batman expecting him to agree, because why wouldn’t he? But he refuses, insists on proving Gordon’s innocence on his own and tells her to stay out of it and that it is not her place.

As she actually dons the Batgirl costume, most of her interactions are with Robin, who also tells her that she is an amateur and needs to leave this to the professionals, but is equally ineffective in either stopping her or getting her to second guess what she’s doing. To be fair, though, Barbara does make a lot of rookie mistakes during these first few outings as Batgirl, and I think that’s important. She’s not just deciding to be Batgirl and kicking ass and taking names right out of the gate, she screws up a lot and gets in way over her head, but she handles it. It’s not so much about proving herself as it is proving to herself that—now that she’s committed to the mask—she can get the job done.

Like the original comic book appearance, Barbara does not initially dress up as Batman with the intention of fighting crime, nor does she immediately take the name Batgirl. All she wants is for people to see the costume so that they know that Batman is putting his faith in Gordon’s innocence. “Shadow of the Bat” succeeds where the original comic debut failed because even though becoming a superhero is not her first thought, it is something that evolves very naturally. Everything she’s doing across both of these episodes is for the sake of proving her father’s innocence, salvaging his reputation and figuring out who set him up in the first place.  

It’s a very focused arc, but it’s also a clearly driven and ultimately heroic one, costume or not. That of course goes back to the fact that Barbara did try to do this above board, she tried to find anyway that she could to do the right thing without putting on a mask, but every man in her life went out of their way to stand in hers, so she did the best she could with what she had. And that, I think, is an honestly great way for a hero to be born, out of circumstance and desperation, but most of all out of sheer force of will. To do what you know you need to do when everyone around you is telling you it’s not your place. That’s a fantastic origin story, one that couldn’t be told with remotely the same resonance for any male character.

Honestly, “Shadow of the Bat” is basically the perfect template for a Batgirl movie, as it has a three-act-structure that even some of the best episodes of the series don’t often have. Granted, it’s yet another origin, but it’s different enough to warrant a larger spotlight and any possible movie bringing Batgirl to the big screen should at least take a close look at what worked so well about this two-part episode. There’s not just a clear trajectory of a systematically underestimated woman’s transformation into a costumed hero, there’s such a strong emotional core as well.

First and foremost, it’s her father’s name she’s trying to clear. James Gordon is not only the most respected cop in Gotham, he’s (in just about every version we’ve seen) the cop who brought respectability to Gotham. It’s not just about the fact that she’s trying to prove her dad’s innocence. She knows how the people rally behind Gordon and she knows that losing him would be almost equal to losing Batman for the city’s collective sense of hope. Then there’s the emotional through line of Barbara’s relationship with Gil, a guy so perfect that almost everyone can see the twist coming. And yet, even though we do see it coming, it doesn’t make the eventual reveal any less impactful. Gil is someone who works closely with Jim Gordon and there is a clear mutual attraction between he and Barbara. The commissioner even gives it his full support. He loves seeing the two of them together and they clearly love being together. It’s literally too perfect.

Even still, when Gil turns out to be the one who framed Gordon for taking bribes from Rupert Thorne (as it was obviously himself on Thorne’s payroll) it’s still a huge gut punch for Barbara. More importantly, it’s a reality check that’s equally important in the development of a superhero. Trust becomes a rarity the moment someone decides to put on a mask and live a double life and Gil is a reminder that she needs to be careful, because you can’t always trust the people you think you can trust. This also speaks to something incredibly important about the episode and why it’s a terrific Batgirl story as well as something that couldn’t really just be a Batman story, and that’s perspective.

Barbara’s point-of-view is entirely different from Batman’s. He’s aware of police corruption, yes, but he’s always looking at things from the rooftops, whereas Barbara has literally been entrenched in this her whole life. She’s the daughter of a cop, she knows how it works and she knows how to help and she’s often seen this corruption firsthand. If it were anyone other than Commissioner Gordon being framed, there’s every chance that Batman may have seen this as a little bit beneath him. He’s always chasing after colorful villains, after all. It’s hard to leave room for the departmental politics of the GCPD when the Penguin could use exploding rubber duckies to level a city block. But if it were another cop she knew was innocent, it’s easy to imagine Barbara wanting to investigate while Batman may never even know of its existence.

Of course, “Shadow of the Bat” isn’t without its colorful villain, either, and it truly is the perfect rogue for the inherent themes of this particular episode. After all, this is all about deception, false faces and things that are being hidden. Commissioner Gordon is being made out to be something he’s not: a criminal and a crooked cop. Barbara dons her costume for the first time to essentially trick the people of Gotham into believing they caught a glimpse of Batman. Bruce, appropriately, dons his delightfully ridiculous undercover persona of low-level thug Matches Malone as he tries to investigate the situation after refusing Barbara’s help. And of course Gil’s been deceiving both Barbara and her father the whole time, setting Jim up for something he himself has been doing and still planning to date the man’s daughter while he does it.

With all of that in mind, the episode’s big bad could truly be no one else but Two-Face. He’s that guy. He’s all about false faces and deceptions, but not so much in terms of embracing them. If anything, it’s really the opposite. Two-Face might be a gangster on Batman: The Animated Series, but while other characters revel in their criminal behavior, Two-Face doesn’t. That half of him that loves justice, that has a respect for the law, that’s all still in there. And at the same time, there’s a whole other half of him with an absolute disdain for all of it. It’s that conflict that makes the character so endearing. It fits in perfectly with Gil, who is equally conflicted in that he thinks he can frame Jim Gordon in order to advance his station while also somehow thinking he can still pursue a relationship with the man’s daughter. It even ties into Batgirl herself, whose initial plan (while noble) is still to trick people, only to eventually find a purpose in the costume and to allow herself to assume a mask and a mantle that absolutely no one would have handed her unless she took it for herself.

There’s so much going on in “Shadow of the Bat,” so much to recommend it, but at the end of the day, it does what the show always did at its best: cleverly reimagining an iconic character while at the same time getting everything special about them incredibly right. It would have been disappointing if this debut was a one-off and did not lead to further Batgirl adventures, but thankfully that was not the case.

At the end of the day, Batman: The Animated Series probably doesn’t need any recommendation. Everyone knows how great it is, how well it works and why. But with a Batgirl movie seemingly blowing in and out of development every other week, and now apparently coming to HBO Max, it’s always worth it to go back and remember one of the story lines that best captured this tremendous character on screen. This was the show at its strongest: taking a unique character, understanding what made them work in the first place, and simply letting that tell the story. To this day, we still haven’t seen a version of Batgirl’s origin that better captures her bravery, devotion, loyalty and—above all—her fierce determination quite like this.

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