Bruce Timm Took The 'Princess Bride' Approach To Both Batman And Superman: The Animated Series

Bruce Timm has done a lot for DC's animated efforts over the years. Once Tim Burton made Batman dark again with 1989's "Batman" and 1992's "Batman Returns," Timm picked up the gauntlet and ran with it. Helping to cement Batman's newly rediscovered seriousness with "Batman: The Animated Series," Timm co-created a show which many consider the definitive take on the Dark Knight. Then, once he'd proven his worth to Warner Bros., he was asked to take on the Man of Steel himself. The result was "Superman: The Animated Series" which once again offered a brilliantly realized version of its central character and his world, making for another fan-favorite depiction of a DC superhero.

Not bad for a former "Tiny Toon Adventures" animator. In truth, Timm was helped along by a whole host of collaborators. On "Batman: The Animated Series" he was flanked by his "Tiny Toon" colleague Eric Radomski who co-created the show, as well as writer Paul Dini and writer/producer Alan Burnett, who helped sculpt the series' unique "Dark Deco" design style and noirish tone. When in 1996 Warner Bros. asked Timm to repeat his trick with Superman, he brought along Dini and Burnett to once again help mold his vision.

Airing on Kids' WB from 1996 to 2000, "Superman: The Animated Series" took cues from its darker predecessor but changed things up to suit its more light-hearted hero's aesthetic. Gone were the shady expressionist backdrops drawn on black cards. In their place were futuristic cityscapes and modern design elements which featured alongside a version of Supes that combined all the best elements from his then 60-year history. All of which was by design, according to Timm.

Cherry-picking history

Asked about his approach to "Superman: The Animated Series" in a ScreenRant interview, Bruce Timm highlighted the challenge of reinventing such an iconic figure for a new generation — especially a figure whose origin story differed so wildly from Batman's. The Man of Steel had been a constant pop culture presence for decades, which provided ample source material from which to pull. But Timm and his team didn't necessarily want to simply run through a checklist of Superman staples. In fact, they wanted to pick the very best parts of the character's history, whether they were considered staples or not. As the show creator explained it:

"There's been so many different versions of [Superman] previously, and just as we did with the Batman show we kind of cherry-picked parts of different Superman shows and cartoons and live-action and movies and everything, just the things that we liked, so it's kind of 'The Princess Bride' way of doing it, like we leave out all the boring parts, we just give you the good stuff."

"The Princess Bride," Rob Reiner's 1987 fantasy adventure based on William Goldman's novel, has gained a cult following due to its unique blend of comedy, romance, action, and adventure. As Timm would put it, Goldman and Reiner "cherry-picked" the best elements of fantasy adventure literature and mythology to create a wholly original story that remains a beloved favorite of many. Goldman told EW that even the name of his book was a concatenation of two ideas. Before he'd even written a single word, he asked his daughters what his story should be about. As he recalled, "One of them said 'a princess' and the other one said 'a bride.' I said, 'That'll be the title.'"

Batman was the blueprint

The "Princess Bride" approach had already proved extremely effective for "Batman: The Animated Series." In Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski's 1992 reimagining of the Caped Crusader, they borrowed from a similarly rich history by taking the elements of Batman they thought would work best for their iteration. That meant taking the character back to his roots as a shadowy figure of the night whose detective skills took precedence. The creators also borrowed from Tim Burton's movies, which featured a Gotham suspended in a sort of timeless stasis. Some combination of 1920s gangland Chicago with a distinctly '80s New York urban decay and punk aesthetic, Burton's Gotham was mostly the brainchild of production designer Anton Furst, whose monstrous version of Manhattan felt at once modern and historical. Timm and his team used a similar approach with "Batman: The Animated Series," where black and white TVs appeared alongside Batman's high-tech gadgets, cars, and planes.

And the cherry-picking extended beyond Batman's own history to history in general, with Timm and co. developing their own "Dark Deco" style which combined an Art Deco influence with German expressionism and film noir styles to create an original aesthetic. Elsewhere, Paul Dini borrowed from Alfred Hitchcock and other similarly suspenseful sources to create the foreboding atmosphere present throughout the series.

Retelling Superman's story

Set in the same universe, "Superman: The Animated Series" would tone down the moodiness, but maintain the principle of borrowing the best elements from its hero's history. The Superman of "The Animated Series" was a more vulnerable one, akin to the hero who could be hurt in battle and struggled when using his super-strength in John Byrne's 1986 mini-series "The Man of Steel." That lent the show a more dramatic tone but didn't stop Bruce Timm and Paul Dini from bringing in fantastical elements to help make their Superman distinct from its more grounded predecessor. The whole series started with a retelling of Superman's origin story, which embraced the classic tale of Kal-El being rocketed from his home planet but ensured that the planet's design was unlike any previous version of the story.

Elsewhere the creative team made subtle changes to Superman's costume, which was, as Timm recalled, "pretty old-fashioned." To combat that dated look, and its primary colors, Timm and co. "did certain things with that, just with the color palette to kind of darken the blue and put a little black on his trunks to kind of make it look like the comic books." Again, small but meaningful changes preserved the essence of the character while tweaking things slightly.

Preserving the mythology

Both Batman and Superman have, over time, revealed themselves to be such versatile characters that they can basically be unendingly reinterpreted. Bruce Timm found himself at some midway point in both superheroes' cultural journeys, with enough history to draw from and enough room to try new things. It was a kind of sweet spot, in that sense, that isn't an exact analog of William Goldman and his "Princess Bride" story. Whereas the author had centuries of storytelling to draw from, Timm found himself with a comparatively short timeline from which to pilfer. While the method was similar in that both men took the best parts to make something new, there's no doubt Timm's experience was unique in comparison to Goldman's — if only in the sense that he had an entire studio and its various executives to please while working on his projects.

The animator recalled one such example:

"The biggest thing was, at the time, in the comics, Superman had come back from the dead and he came back with a mullet. And DC Comics was pushing really hard to give him a mullet in our show, and I was like, 'No effing way am I giving him a mullet!' [...] And literally, the decision had to go all the way up to the head of Warner Brothers. Bob Daly had to weigh in and he said, 'No, I think we should go with a classic look.'"

Differences aside, the "Princess Bride" approach suited DCs biggest superheroes precisely because of their rich and diverse histories which allowed Timm to cherry-pick all he wanted. They had their own mythologies, which may not have been developed over centuries but to modern audiences appear just as meaningful — in part due to the efforts of people like Timm to preserve the best parts.