Monday, November 08, 2010

Batman: The Animated Series Re-Watch: Episode Twenty Eight: Dreams in Darkness

Plot: Batman is locked up in Arkham. A flashback reveals he was exposed to fear gas, crashed the Batmobile and was imprisoned by the well-meaning Arkham staff. Now Batman must escape his straightjacket and stop the Scarecrow from infecting the whole city with fear.

Another psychologically interesting episode of Batman, one that lays his flaws on table, specifically his inability to trust others. As he did in Appointment in Crime Alley, Batman cannot see a crime about to be committed and not step in, even when leaving the problem for the police is probably the right thing to do.

After being exposed to the fear gas, Dr. Wu gives Batman a clear choice: he can take the antidote, recover for two days, and let ANYONE ELSE, specifically Robin or Commissioner Gordon, handle the Scarecrow in the meantime, or he can delay recovery and try to take care of the Scarecrow himself. And Batman makes the obviously wrong choice. In trying to ignore the problem, Batman nearly kills himself in a car crash and gets himself locked up, cut off from his allies, all while the Scarecrow comes closer to launching his attack.

Notably, in the narration that covers the first half of the episode, Batman admits to two mistakes (he's wrong about the nature of the robbery, and he's wrong about the effect of the gas), but he never admits it was a mistake to drive to Arkham while under the influence of a powerful hallucinogen.

The two major dream sequences: running through a twisted Crime Alley, impotent to stop his parents from literally walking into a gun, and fighting his greatest foes as they shift from one into another, and into Alfred and Robin, suggest why Batman is hesitant to trust others. First, no police saved his parents, and if he can't save them, no else even seems to try. And secondly, Batman seems to fear betrayal from those closest to him, that their attempt to drag him from the shadows will actually doom him.

Which makes the final image so psychologically interesting. After rejecting Alfred and Dr. Wu's offers of help earlier, Bruce has submitted to Wu's treatment, administered by Alfred, as he sleeps in the Batcave (and not, say, his very nice bed in this very nice room upstairs). Bruce actually thanks Alfred, saying "It's good to know I'm safe here," so Bruce is learning to accept that he needs help.

Then a very angelic looking bat casts a very Batman-like shadow on Bruce, which suggests that the Batman persona, like Alfred, is a shield that protects Bruce while he recovers. Just as it's the screech of a bat that wakes Bruce from his worst delusion of the episode, being Batman isn't a madness. Being Batman is what keeps Bruce sane and helps him recover from the trauma of the loss of his parents.

That one of Batman's greatest is his villains is new. We've seen his fear of the loss of his parents before, and we saw in The Forgotten that the Joker haunts Batman's thoughts, but now we see a fear of new villains, Poison Ivy and Two-Face, whom Batman has only fought once (and it's only implied that Batman has fought the Penguin before I've Got Batman in my Basement.) We are watching a transition from Batman encountering villains for the first time in the middle of schemes unrelated to him, to villains like the Scarecrow actually setting traps for Batman, targeting him directly. The Joker has been doing that since his first episode, but this episode (and The Clock King) implies more villains are going to act like the Joker, and Batman's job is only going to get harder from hear on out.

Certainly, the Scarecrow is much better here than he has been before. He's better motivated, without the circular reasoning of using fear attacks in revenge for not being able to use fear attacks, or using fear attacks to make money to afford to be able to use fear attacks. Here, he simply wants to panic everybody in Gotham, just to find out what would happen if he did. Perfect villainous motivation. In addition to that, he's clever about his plan. He baits Batman into a trap before trying to scare everyone. He throws off everybody's suspicion by NOT escaping from Arkham, merely running his scheme from its basement. And Henry Polic II seems to have gotten the Scarecrow's voice down to the right tone of erudite menace. He no longer sounds like an English professor playing a Batman rogue for Halloween, but rather a truly brilliant and sadistic man, who likes to wear a scary mask. He also has a fabulous pocket watch (which Batman breaks).

Unfortunately, in order for the episode to work, Dr. Bartholomew, head of Arkham, has to be completely negligently incompetent. The Animated Series has a dim view of psychology, and psychiatrists and psychologists on the show range from merely ineffective, like Harvey Dent's therapist, to the outright evil, like Professor Jonathan Crane himself, and while not malicious, Dr. Bartholomew totally misdiagnoses Batman while he ignores everything Batman has to say.

The episode shows Batman DOES have problems trusting people and probably could use therapy, but that would require a psychiatrist who actually listens to him. Instead, Bartholomew diagnoses Batman off just the fact that Batman came to Arkham as someone who cannot tell reality from delusion, when in fact, being Batman, being a detective, is exactly what allows him to see through his hallucinations. But Bartholomew refuses to believe that Batman's hallucinations are gas-induced, calling it "supposed gas", as if the Scarecrow hasn't been using fear gas from the beginning. He refuses to contact Gordon or Dr. Wu like Batman asks, and even after discovering the Scarecrow missing, which proves Batman is right, insists on keeping Batman locked up.

The worst moments is when he chides Batman for not using the villains' real names, which is doubly stupid. I don't think Batman has yet referred to Two-Face or Poison Ivy as anything other than "Harvey" and "Isley", and NO ONE calls the Joker anything but the Joker. His reference to "Jack Napier" is the Joker's real name from the Burton film, but it's never mentioned again in this cartoon. Also, who is Bartholomew to talk? He's the one who leaves them in their costumes, reinforcing their villainous personas over their civilian ones.

Similarly, his explanation that the orderly cannot remove Batman's mask because Batman might become catatonic is utterly ridiculous. How are you supposed contact his loved ones if you don't know who he is? How do you know it's really Batman and not some idiot in a Batman costume? And how could it hurt to take off his mask while he's out of it, if you put it back on before he wakes up? Maybe Batman would learn to trust people, if he wasn't surrounded by idiots.

The other problem this episode has, though no fault of its own, is airing after the inferior Fear of Victory. All of talk about who could have used fear gas is silly, it's obviously the Scarecrow, who we've seen is the only one who uses that weapon. And Bartholomew's claims that Scarecrow couldn't have escaped seem hollow since we've already seen that he can. (If they wouldn't have seemed hollow before, since the first time we see Arkham is watching the Joker escape from it on the back of a rocket Christmas tree). Plus, this episode could have been the first time we see inside Arkham, but that was already used in the best scene in Fear of Victory. This episode almost feels like the head writers saw that scene, realized that should be an entire episode and decided to make this one, only they forgot to tell the guys behind Fear of Victory to stop work.

(Strangely, the interior of Arkham in Fear of Victory, with glass enclosed cells of concrete, looks very different from the one in Dreams in Darkness, where cells are made of stone and closed by iron doors. Considering we also don't see any other famous Arkham inmates, except in dreams, it's possible that Batman was thrown into the arcane practices wing, while the costumed villains are kept somewhere else.)

That said, once you get past those problems, this is a pretty great episode designed to get us inside Batman's head. The noirish narration, the superb dream sequences, the flawed hero, and the comforting image of the bat protecting Batman, closes out the season with style.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Batman: The Animated Series Re-Watch: Episode Twenty Seven: Mad as a Hatter

Plot: WayneTech employee Jervis Tetch has invented a mind control device, which he uses to court Alice, his work-place crush, on an Alice in Wonderland inspired date. Then he just takes over her mind. Enter Batman.

The Mad Hatter is a relatively straightforward villain, hat-obsessed mind controller inspired by Lewis Carroll, who nevertheless has had varied interpretations of the years, usually having some perversion in some way. In some, and I'm looking at you Gail Simone, his hat obsession is a full blown sexual fetish. In others, Alice in Wonderland is the book Martha Wayne used to read Bruce, so he's a perversion of Batman's idyllic childhood. For the past twenty years or so, he's been portrayed as a pedophile, playing on the rumors of Lewis Carroll's relationship with Alice Liddell.

While this episode does not quite go that far, he's certainly the Animated Series's first attempted rapist. There's no other interpretation of what Tetch was going to do after kidnapping, brainwashing, and then dressing his Alice up. As adults, we can't assume he just wanted to have tea with her. Like Mojo, the Mad Hatter is one of the more disturbing of Batman villains for using fantastic technology to commit very real and all too common crimes.

This is made all the more disturbing because Tetch is the protagonist of this episode, and a sympathetic one at that. We're actually supposed to feel kind of sad his love for Alice perverts him into the monster we see at the end (as indicated by the crying Mock Turtle statue). We can see he's brilliant, that his boss doesn't appreciate him, but Bruce Wayne, his boss's boss, does, and that he genuinely seems to care for Alice. We can see why he would use his device to pretend to be a celebrity. His date with Alice is a fabulous bit of wish fulfillment.

A lot of credit for the sympathetic portrayal belongs to Roddy MacDowell's voice work which is kind, awkward, nervous, and totally reasonable when we meet him, then turns darker, meaner, and more controlling as the episode progresses. (His combination of obvious intelligence and subtle menace is how I wish the Scarecrow sounded)

We watch Tetch turn into a villain over the course of the episode, and not for revenge like most of the supervillains we've met so far. Even from the beginning of the date, we can see that Tetch is a psychopath in a clinical sense. When he saves Alice from muggers, he off-handedly tells them to jump in the river. He may not have meant to kill them, which in fact would be worse. He does not see anyone but Alice and himself as human, and has no trouble using people as puppets, and by the end of the episode he uses Alice as a puppet as well.

Tetch gets crazier and crazier (or, as he says, "curiouser and curiouser") as the episode progresses. It's whimsical to show up for a date dressed as the Mad Hatter, but Tetch goes to work in the costume the next day. Thwarted, he crushes roses in his hand, and starts bleeding, and we haven't seen blood since the first episode. He becomes paranoid, gathering an army of henchmen BEFORE he has any reason to believe that Batman is after him. (At least he stole their on-theme costumes, rather than stay up all night sewing them himself.) And at the end, the Mad Hatter blames BATMAN for making him mind-control Alice, though it's clear he as going to do that whether Batman showed up or not.

His paranoia changes how he controls people too. During the date, he only uses his mind control cards to make people who are otherwise acting normal treat him better. Afterwards, as Alice slips away from him, he starts using the cards to change people, first turning Billy against Alice, then literally dressing up the people around him as the characters in his favorite book. It's not a coincidence that Batman fights the Mad Hatter's army on a chessboard, since these are his pawns.

The showdown at the storybook land has some of the Animated Series few nods to realism. Structurally, it's as much of a fantasy fight setting as the temple complete with death traps in Joker's Favor or the giant gears in the clock tower in Clock King, but here, the maze of cards is really built for children. So when Batman becomes trapped in it, he simply climbs out, cause he's Batman. (It also contains a zinger from Alfred that gets a chuckle even out of Batman, that Bruce Wayne's usual breakfast is "toast, coffee, and bandages.")

This is yet another beautifully put together episode. The designers went to town on playing with the Alice in Wonderland theme, starting with the John Tenniel inspired title card, to the mice drinking while wearing tiny fez, to the obviously costumes and yet still terrifying wardrobe of the Hatter's goons. We know Tetch's boss will be the Queen of Hearts almost from the moment we meet her. And we know it's all over the Jabberwocky itself comes for Tetch, subtly implying that Batman himself has "the claws the catch." All in all, this episode is one of the better pairings of Batman's fantasy trappings to a core plot about a very real crime.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Batman: the Animated Series Re-Watch: Episode Twenty Six: Appointment in Crime Alley

Plot: Batman has an appointment at Crime Alley, little knowing that at 9 o'clock, an arsonist will destroy the rundown slum to make way for Roland Daggett's new development.

This is the first episode of Batman: the Animated Series, to be based on a specific story from the comics, in this case Denny O'Neal and Dick Giordono's classic "There is no Hope in Crime Alley." That story established that, on the anniversary of his parents' death, Batman lays two roses down on the spot where they were killed, alongside the aging socialite who found and comforted him that night, long ago.

Comic book veteran Gerry Conway (who created Killer Croc) adds to that story a literal ticking clock plot and a heaping does of social commentary. The sharp divide between Bruce Wayne's upper class and the poor homeless and criminal lower class has been seen before (I think the only middle class person we see is Charlie Collins, who moves the hell away from Gotham). But this episode foregrounds the class conflict.

Roland Daggett is a force of "urban redevelopment," improving Gotham. But it's clear he has no interest in improving Gotham for the people who already live there, the "underclass" who "do not value lives the way we do." What an amazingly dehumanizing stance the man has. He frames the debate as a conflict between "the future and the past, "the weak and the strong" and, like all great lies, there's an element of truth to his claim. Crime Alley IS a rundown slum and a breeding ground for crime, like the gunman who holds a Daggett employee hostage, or the mugger who killed the Waynes.

But not everyone who lives in Crime Alley is a criminal. Most, like the mother and daughter at the beginning, have no where else to go, and others, like Leslie Thompkins, have lived there all their lives and simply do not want leave. Furthermore, forcibly moving everyone, citizen and criminal, out of Crime Alley wouldn't fix the problem, it would only move the crime to some other neighborhood.

Ironically, this episode uses the clocks better than the Clock King. We know from the first scene that 9pm is the deadline, when Nitro (David Lander doing a Peter Lorre impression) gives a demonstration of the destruction he plans, and all the clocks, (pocketwatches, digital readouts, and clocktowers) ratchet the attention up through the episode. By this point, we no longer fear that Batman can't fight or gadget his way though out of any situation, so most of the tension is waiting for him to learn that time is running out, which he does before, like a pimp, locking the thugs in the van filled with dynamite.

(The van, by the way, advertises "J. Olsen and Sons' Photography", the first definitive reference to a DC Comics character outside the Batman canon.)

The successive emergencies, besides distracting Batman from the major crime about to be committed, also demonstrate another side of Batman, that he cannot willingly ignore someone in danger, even if, possibly, he should. It's easy to understand why he stops to help the girl save her mother, all he's doing is missing his appointment with Leslie Thompkins, and while Skeletal Thomas Wayne Ghost might be disappointed, it's clearly the right choice. When he saves the runaway trolly, even when he knows Leslie's been kidnapped by that point, he's making the calculation of saving dozens or more lives over the life of one person (and one Batmobile).

But his interruption of the hostage situation is kind of a dick move. The police have the man surrounded, and Gordon is already on the scene (though he doesn't have any lines). But Batman charges in anyway, because "the hostage might be hurt" if the police rush in, dismissive of any experience or training they might have. And it's not clear his method is better, since yelling at and then jumping on the gunman causes everyone to fall, almost to their deaths. It's totally possible to read the policeman's "Good thing you showed up," as awesomely sarcastic.

But that's how Batman rolls, and the great part of this episode is that it shows how Batman became Batman. Despite being a semi-regular presence, this is the first time we actually learn how the Waynes died and implicitly how that inspired Bruce to don the cowl of the Bat. Similarly, we learn of one more influence on young Bruce, besides Alfred and the Gray Ghost. He may have learned to be a superhero from Simon Trent, and how to drop a devastating one-liner from Mr. Pennyworth, it's from Leslie Thompkins that he learns his compassion, and also his courage and hope. Leslie Thompkins refuses to give up on her home, no matter how bad it gets, and tries to make things better. She is in every way the antithesis of Roland Daggett, and proof that "good people still live in Crime Alley."

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Batman: The Animated Series Re-Watch: Episode Twenty Five: The Clock King

Plot: In revenge for making him late, Temple Fugit wages a terrorism campaign against Mayor Hill, and will kill Batman if Batman gets in the way.

This is one of my favorite episodes, and the reason is almost entirely the Clock King himself. He's everything a minor Batman villain should be, themed from weapon to location to McGuffin to horribly punny real name, a mental threat, capable of creating real traps and dead ends, as well as a physical threat, more than able to defend himself when Batman comes to punch him.

There are only two moments the Clock King is not ahead of Batman (when Batman uses the dueling deathtraps of a bomb and vacuum pump against each other to escape, and when Batman redirects the Clock King's cane into the gears of the clock tower). Otherwise, the Clock King completely controls this episode, from the street lights to the trains, to knowing Batman's every move and piece of equipment and being prepared for anything.

The animation for this episode is possibly the best yet. Each sequence, from the ever worsening flashback at the beginning, to the escape from the bank vault, to the train crash, is expertly done. But the final fight in the gears of the clock tower is exceptional. Totally surreal, completely illogical (really, throwing one gear out of joint causes the whole thing to crash?), but perfect for a cartoon fight and a Batman cartoon at that. It is an utterly mesmerizing episode.

My only real question is why this is not the first Riddler episode. I mean, look at the Clock King, bowler hat, sharp suit, on-theme cane/sword: he's basically a palette swapped Riddler in design anyway. He behaves in a very Riddler-esque style, leading Batman into death traps, taking control of the city's systems and using them to his advantage, basically playing a very deadly game of chess with the city's protectors. The Riddler will even be introduced in a very similar Revenge plot episode (though the Riddler will be SLIGHTLY better justified). So why use a great Riddler plot on a minor villain?

Especially since, like they had with Mr. Freeze, they were basically inventing the Clock King anyway. There is a Clock King in the comics, a Green Arrow villain who made his way onto the Adam West tv show for two episodes, but that's a completely different character, with a different punning real name (William Tockman). That character was an incompetent crook who used clock themed weapons badly. He had none of the (Riddler-esque) character ticks this Clock King exhibits, the emotionless demeanor, the machine-like command of facts and details, the absolute disdain for inefficiency and improvisation. So if they were going to create a character who acts just like the Riddler, why didn't they just use the Riddler?

Other notes: This is the first time we see Batman operate in costume in broad daylight, something considered taboo by the story bible. In fact, in sharp contrast to the usual style of the show, the entire episode takes place during the day (the majority between 8:47 am and 3:15 pm, in fact). While the quick change sequence was good (and very Superman-like) as he runs into a revolving door and changes, in silhouette, while running up the stairs, one can imagine a very different episode where Bruce felt compelled to solve this problem without ever changing into costume, as much a slave of his rituals as the Clock King.

This also represents the first time Batman has saved Mayor Hill directly. Yes, he saved Jordan Hill, but it's unclear if the Mayor knows Batman was there, or that his son was ever in any real danger. One wonders if his opinion of Batman has changed since the first episode, where he ordered a manhunt for Batman.

Also, like Clayface, the Clock King simply escapes at the end of the episode, leaving the plot unresolved. It's not clear why he would stop trying to kill the Mayor, or why Batman would stop looking for him. But the Clock King won't be for awhile, and Batman won't even think about him until he reappears.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Batman: The Animated Series Re-Watch: Episode Twenty Four: Fear of Victory

Plot: The Scarecrow is poisoning athletes with fear, and accidentally gets Robin as well. Now Robin must overcome his fear before the Scarecrow causes a mass panic at a Gotham Knights game.

Design-wise, the return of the Scarecrow is great. The score brings back the high string theme from Nothing to Fear throughout, and the use of shadows and light create a real horror movie atmosphere. Also like Nothing to Fear, the animators have fun with the fear induced hallucinations, the athletes turning into the monsters and the street spiraling away from Robin as he dangles on a rope. And they've greatly improved the Scarecrow design, giving him a crooked smile and crazy eyes, so his head looks like a Jack-O-Lantern rather than sock.

The highlight is our first real visit inside Arkham Asylum. We've seen it briefly, usually at the ends of episodes to let us know where Mr. Freeze ended up. But here we actually see inside, with its long corridors of deep shadows and its policy of allowing patients to wear their costumes in their cells. It's no wonder no one seems to recover here. The scene of Batman walking along the row of cells, each one filled with a villain we've previously seen, The Joker playing solitaire with a deck of Jokers, Two-Face flipping a coin, Poison Ivy, reasonably moved from Stonegate Prison, protecting her plant, builds tension and dread before the reveal that the Scarecrow has, in fact, escaped.

Otherwise, this episode is kinda lousy. It's just so low stakes. Fixing sporting events feels beneath the Scarecrow, a step down from his terrorist campaign against the University in his first episode. C'mon, master of fear, you can do better than this.

And his plan is full of holes. Why didn't any of the Scarecrow's doctors notice he was missing before? Why is Batman the only one who suspects the athletes are being drugged? Wouldn't doctors test for that? Why didn't the Scarecrow use a lower dose, or less often, or bet at different bookies, to not draw attention? Why does he have to be at the game to drug the player or make the bet, and why does he have to be there in costume? Why does he need money in the first place? Can't he just steal chemicals like a respectable Man-Bat does?

Also, Batman acts like a dick in the entire episode. He's entirely unsympathetic to Robin's suffering, despite going through his own fear drug induced trauma a few episodes back. And instead of giving Robin the "I am so proud of you" speech Alfred gave, he's constantly telling Robin to "get it together" and "shake it off," or he's teasing him by promising to "drive real slow." He's also a dick to Commissioner Gordon, condescendingly telling him to "put two and two together." The only person he shows even the slightest kindness towards is the lady in the bathrobe who gives him an admiring, breathy "oh my." Batman stops long enough to give her a half smile, before running out again to, oh yeah, rescue Robin from falling to his death.

In contrast, Robin is SO WHINY. Yeah, he's recovering from a fear gas attack, but he's being pretty wimpy about it. Batman had nightsweats, and dreams of his dead father as a giant skeleton, and he still managed to leap onto an attack zeppelin. Robin has trouble walking across a bridge without complaining about it. This could have been for Robin what Nothing to Fear was for Batman, a chance to show what drive Robin, what makes him tick. But the only thing we see him afraid of is heights, which we know is the opposite of how he usually behaves. So all we learn is that Robin does not take being poisoned as well as Batman does.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Batman: The Animated Series Re-Watch: Episode Twenty Three: Vendetta

Plot: When Spider Conway, a prisoner about to testify against Rupert Thorne, disappears in an explosion, Batman suspects that Harvey Bullock is behind it. But Harvey is being framed by Killer Croc, a monstrous reptile man Bullock sent to jail two years ago.

There's a great episode that could have been here. Bullock has so far been the voice of anti-Batman sentiment, but before this episode, all of Bullock's posturing about bringing Batman in because he's a dangerous lunatic, a vigilante force, is played as hot air, that Bullock's main concern is protecting himself from Batman.

But here we have an episode where Batman is just wrong, and he's going after an innocent man, specifically Harvey himself. If Batman had REALLY interrogated Bullock, showed up in his room, roughed him up, and threw him off a roof (as he does with Thorne), then they could have SHOWN that Bullock has a point, that there should be limits on what Batman can do.

That's a big problem with the episode. There's a lot of telling, without showing. Gordon says Bullock is a good cop, but we never see it. We never see Bullock be a good detective. Apparently Bullock arrested Croc on his own two years ago. Considering Batman has trouble fighting Croc, that could have been something to see, but we don't. Worse, we never see Bullock be a good man. How much better would the episode have been if, instead of sleeping through the final fight with Croc, Bullock had helped, actually risked his life to save Batman's? For an episode that revolves around him, Bullock is singularly passive the entire time.

I mentioned before that I find Killer Croc to be a boring villain. My problem with him is that there isn't much to him. He was born looking like a crocodile for never explained reasons, he is superstrong, and he pursues a life of crime. But he's fine here. The plot requires a villain Batman hasn't heard of before (so the Penguin's out) who will also be formidable physical threat once he's revealed. And that's all Croc is and needs to be, a good visual and reasonable threat.

Though Croc's plan in this episode is good, even clever. Take out the men who testified against him while framing the cop who arrested him at the same time. The only real question is why he kept Conway and Joey the Snail alive in his underwater cave. The answer "because it's a kid show and no one can be killed" doesn't quite sit right, because the menacing shot of Croc moving in on a cowering, screaming Conway implies he was doing something to them in that cave, and torture is the least awful thing it could be.

(Spider Conway, by the way, is named after Killer Croc's creator, Gerry Conway.)

Production-wise, a top notch episode. The score's solid throughout. The animation, particularly the fight in the sewers at the end, is very well done. When Batman and Croc hit each other, they feel like they have weight, that they're solid objects, rather than the rubbery dolls from Beware the Gray Ghost. And the design evokes a noir mood throughout, from the never-ending rain at the beginning to the shadowy bridge when Gordon meets Batman, to the dark cave where we first see Croc step into the light.

One really off note in the plot, however, is how Batman begins to suspect Croc. First, Croc leaving behind one of his scales at a scene of a crime seems awfully careless for a guy who purposely left a toothpick at the same scene to frame Bullock. If they were going to find the toothpick, they were going to find the scale. But, whatever, Batman needed to find a clue somehow.

But it gets worse. Looking at a thing that looks reptilian but is actually human, does Batman go through police records and databases to see if anyone fits that description, particularly someone Bullock arrested in the last few years? Nope. He has no clue what to do with that until Alfred says "microwavable crock." Great detective work there, Bruce.

However, THAT doesn't lead him to Croc either, only that he's looking for some kind of crocodile-man. Does Bruce check out a book on crocodile behavior? Does he ask questions of the zoo's reptile expert? Does he knock on Kirk Langstrom's door to see if he was making Man-Crocodile? Nope. Bruce goes to an animatronic exhibit for children at the theme park "Ocean World." It is one of the stupidest things I have ever seen, and even if it was meant to be campy funny, it's so out of tune with the dark crime fiction feel of the rest of the episode that it stands out like, well, a giant grey man-crocodile.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Batman: The Animated Series Re-Watch: Episode Twenty Two: Joker's Favor

Plot: Two years ago, the Joker spared Charlie Collins's life in exchange for a favor. Now, on the eve of a banquet in honor of Commissioner Gordon, the Joker calls the favor in.

Easily one of my favorite episodes, Joker's Favor is the Animated Series take on Cape Feare, with the Joker the obsessive psychotic, who will play with someone's life for two years for no greater reason than as a hobby. Yes, Charlie curse at the Joker, but he certainly doesn't earn the Joker's wrath as much as Gordon or Batman has. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The Joker is especially psychotic in this episode. He obsessively tracks Charlie to another state, noting that Charlie "owes me a favor!" as if the Joker might forget that. He's fixed his hatred on Gordon, moving from previous targets Mayor Hill (who cameos) and Batman himself. Even the nature of favor is insane. Charlie just has to open a door, which either of the Joker's two thugs who were also in the room could have done. All of his actions move him from being an extreme personality to one that has actually become unfathomable. You just cannot understand why he would torment someone for two years, only to kill him off-handedly.

He's also such a delightful dick in this episode. After being chewed out for not signalling, the Joker makes a big show of signalling while chasing Charlie to his death. He actually throws down two cents to challenge Charlie. He makes sure to give Charlie a big hug when they meet again and makes fun of Charlie's baldness and weight. He even keeps Charlie mobile but trapped before blowing him up, just so Charlie has a chance to beg for his life. What a villain!

This episode makes a nice follow up to Be a Clown, with Charlie Collins standing in for Jordan Hill. There, we saw a child's interaction with the Joker, here we see an adult's. Of course, for adults, the Joker is just as scary, but in a different way. The Joker is an immediate threat to Jordan, a monster that is coming for him. Here, the Joker is a looming threat to Charlie's wife and son, a constant nagging fear.

Of course, skipping to the end, we learn that the Joker is of course, just a bully. A lot of his power comes from the fear he induces in his victims beforehand, making people believe that only Batman can stop him. But one good punch to the solar plexus and little "I might be crazy" routine and the Joker changes his tune right quick. Of the four Joker episodes so far, this is by far his most satisfying defeat. Not only does he have to beg Batman to save him again, but instead of tripping or getting one good kick the chest, he's actually out witted and out joked, and by a "nobody" at that.

Charlie makes a pretty great "everyman," with pudgy features, bald head with a pathetic attempt at a combover, and his own theme music pulled out of a 50s sitcom. He's a loser, but he's not a bad guy. He is motivated by his family's safety and he's surprisingly resourceful, basically inventing the Batsignal in a world that lacks it. Ed Begley Jr. voices him with such a put-upon tone, like he was defeated long before he crossed paths with a supervillain.

But, of course, the really big story is that this is the first episode with Harley Quinn, who is easily the most popular character created by the show. You can see her development from Be a Clown, because she is exactly what the Joker was trying to turn Jordan Hill into, a mini-version of himself who is also his biggest fan. Harley literally cheers almost everything the Joker says, and finds his plans brilliant and his jokes hilarious. We know she's not just any thug, because she has her own costume. We don't know her origin, a couple lines to Batman implies that she's new on the scene and possibly a beauty school drop out, but that doesn't get at just how dark her relationship with the Joker actually is.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Batman: The Animated Series Re-Watch: Episode Twenty and Twenty One: Feat of Clay

Plot: On orders from the ruthless industrialist, movie actor Matt Hagen impersonates and frames Bruce Wayne for attacking Lucius Fox, using a face cream that allows him to reshape his face. But Hagen is addicted to the cream, and when he tries to steal it, Daggett's men drown him in it. Instead of killing him, the cream turns him into the monstrous, shapeshifting Clayface, who swears revenge on the man who destroyed his life.

There's been a few Clayfaces in the comics, and this version is actually a combination of the first two. His name and powers are taken from the second Clayface, but his personality and origin are closer to the first Clayface, Basil Karlo (get it?), a movie actor who tries to get revenge on the studio that ignored him. Roland Daggett, on the other hand, is a Batman: the Animated Series original, though in character and appearance, he greatly resembles Norman Osborn, the civilian identity Spider-Man villain the Green Goblin. Like Rupert Thorne, Daggett gets called in whenever the script calls for "evil businessman."

When I started, I decided to review these two-part episodes as one story, but in this case I wonder if I should review them separately, because the first part is pretty boring, while the second part is fantastic.

Structurally, this story resembles Two-Face, but where as the first part of Two-Face allowed us to get into Harvey Dent's head, see where he's coming from, see why he makes the mistakes that led to his downfall, before getting to "The Revenge Plot" in part two, Matt Hagen's barely in the first part of Feat of Clay, really only two scenes where he's himself, and what we see isn't very compelling.

Hagen is violent, selfish, vain, impetuous (read: stupid), and abusive to Teddy, his best friend, stand-in, roommate, and I'm just going on circumstantial evidence, boyfriend. (Undoubtedly, Teddy plays the same role Harvey's fiance Grace played). Teddy implies it's the magic face cream (Renuyu) that's making Matt crazy, but since we never see him without it, we never have a reason to like Matt, so it's not a tragedy when we find Matt turned into a puddle of mud at the end of the episode.

Meanwhile, most of the first episode follows Batman's assbackward attempt to clear Bruce Wayne. The chase sequence where Batman flies a plane through a tunnel to impale a car might be impressive looking, but it's both pointless (he gets no information) and needlessly risky, considering he does get the information he needs in the second episode using nothing more than a precariously placed jar of sea water. Add to that he gets arrested sneaking into Lucius Fox's hospital room, and you have to wonder if they're going to take that "World's Greatest Detective" mug away from him.

But then we get to the second episode, and things pick up immediately. One wonders why it's a two-part episode anyway, why they couldn't just have started with the already transformed Clayface coming for his revenge on the businessman who caused his accident, except that then the episode would be Heart of Ice again, but really, would that be so bad?

Clayface is the most dangerous villain Batman has faced so far, since NOTHING Batman does hurts him in anyway. He can't punch him, kick him, drop him off a roof. Gas probably wouldn't do anything. And in the end, they reveal electricity has no effect either. If only Batman could "freeze" him somehow, maybe using some kind of a "freeze" gun powered by "freeze" technology. But where would he get something like that?

But I digress. Besides being invulnerable, Clayface can become anybody or anything. He likes to impersonate authority figures, cops, doctors, Bruce Wayne, big women in mumus in talk show audiences, which done right could make a paranoia infused episode that would make See No Evil feel like a walk in the park. This episode only hints at those possibilities, preferring to play Clayface BIG, an unstoppable mudslide that just steamrolls Batman for an entire episode.

The animation of Clayface is fantastic. When he's shapeshifting while fighting, the animation is fluid and heavy, so each impact is felt. But when he changes his face, from human to his muddy self, or his "death" scene, spinning wildly from form to form, the face tears and rips in painful looking ways. His transformation on stage before attacking Daggett directly, BURSTING out of his female form, is one of the great entrances on the show.

And how about a hand for Ron "Hellboy" Perlman as the voice of Clayface? Yeah, in the first part, he only plays the part of a jerk, but in the second, he gets to be the voice of a jerk who is also a demi-god and starting to really enjoy being superpowerful. Ed Asner also is nicely menacing as Roland Daggett, which is who Ferris Boyle would be if he didn't even pretend to be humane. The surprisingly strong voice work comes from Ed Bagely Jr., who plays Daggett's germophobic Alfred. The interrogation scene where Batman takes total advantage of his phobia works because of Bagely's delivery, trying desperately to be brave in the face of both Batman and unspeakable disease.

The only really false note in the second episode is the revelation that electricity has no effect on Clayface. Sure, it's there to set-up his inevitable return, but, if Hagen was faking his death, it's not at all clear why he would do that. We're supposed to think that seeing images of all the roles he played freaked Clayface out so much he lost control, but clearly he has enough control to create a fake Clayface shell and escape when no one is looking. And if he's free and alive, it's unclear why he stops going after Daggett. Instead of opening up for the possibility of Clayface coming back, the revelation that he's alive and well just unresolves the plot, but oops, we're out of time, so that's all the story you get for today. Boo.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Batman: The Animated Series Re-Watch: Episode Nineteen, Prophecy of Doom

Plot: when Bruce Wayne's friend Ethan Clark tells Bruce that a psychic saved him from a series of disasters, Batman suspects this Nostromos is actually causing the disasters in a scheme to steal a lot of money. Turns out Batman's right.

This episode is a mixed bag of some good ideas that don't quite gel into a good story. That's probably because the villains, Nostromos and his right hand man Lucas, are not very compelling villains. Lucas is a non-entity who is surprisingly good at fighting Batman. And Nostromos might have been a fun parody of Marvel's Dr. Strange, but he comes across as a watered down mix of Dr. Orpheus and Zorak.

Nostromos lacks interest because we know right away that he's a fraud. We see the time bomb that sinks the gambling ship, so we know that was sabotage. Ethan's daughter Lisa states her suspicion that Nostromos is behind the disasters almost immediately. Maybe if they had teased the possibility that Nostromos was in some way legit, he would be more compelling. And there no reason he couldn't be, considering that Batman fought an invisible man two episodes ago.

Which is kind of a shame, because there are a lot of good ideas here. For one thing, this is the first time we really explore the social circle Bruce belongs to, and it's not a pretty picture: uniformly white, overweight, and utterly credulous. These are people like Bruce who have inherited their wealth ("old conservative stock"as Ethan says) and spend their days gambling on cruise ships and worrying that society will collapse. When informed that "the Great Fall" will happen soon, instead of telling the world to possibly prevent it, they form a "Secret Brotherhood" to protect their own wealth and be in a better position to rebuild society, as if they did not have all the power already.

There's also a subtle critique of religion. Nostromos's con has very strong religious tones, from the cultish hooded robes his followers wear, to the prosthelytizing Ethan does on Nostromos behalf. Even when the jig is up, and Nostromos is threatening his life and the life of his daughter, Ethan protests "I believed in you. You saved me," as if Nostromos is his personal messiah. When Bruce quotes Shakespeare at the end, "the fault lies not in the stars, but in ourselves," that's the voice of reason saying Ethan, and no one or thing else, is responsible of Ethan's life.

The most interesting character here then becomes Lisa Clark, voiced by Heather Locklear, who rejects Nostromos and pleads with her father to be reasonable. In many ways, Lisa acts the way Bruce would, if Bruce didn't pretend to be an idiot when he's in civilian clothes. She resemble Julie Madison, Bruce's original fiancee from the comics, as the heiress who wants to do more than inherit her wealth, and might have been an good on-going love interest for Bruce, but she's never seen again after this episode.

This episode is full of missed opportunities like that. After almost being killed, Bruce decides to run a con on the con-man, which might have been fun. But the con only lasts for one scene where Bruce can't even pretend to be surprised when Nostromos flies. When dropped into a spotlight, Batman and Lucas are animated in a Sin City-esque high contrast, black and white style and when the models of planets start crashing into each other, the music becomes a riff on Mars, the Bringer of War by Gustav Holst. But both of these moments last just long enough to see what they're doing, but are not explored in anyway. Even Batman being an entertaining dick, flinging Nostromos around on his string like a puppet or dropping a planet on him, could have been done better, perhaps embarrassing Nostromos in front of all of his followers, and not just the one he was about to kill anyway.

And then there's the questions that just take you out of the episode. Why does Batman change into his bat-costume BEFORE escaping a plummeting elevator? Why con his way into the Secret Brotherhood when he could just tail Ethan there, as Lisa does? Why are the rings on the model of Saturn honed razor sharp? These are little things, but in an episode as weak as this, it just brings the whole thing down. So, in the end, what could have been a great episode ends up being eh, at best.

One final note, the Gotham Observatory is modeled on the Griffith Park Observatory, famously seen in Rebel Without a Cause. We last saw it in Christmas with the Joker, where it had been turned into a giant cannon. Presumably that was cleaned out before Nostromos moved in.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Batman: The Animated Series Re-Watch: Episode Eighteen: Beware the Gray Ghost

Plot: When a series of bombings seem inspired by an episode of young Bruce Wayne's favorite show, Batman seeks the help of the actor who played his childhood hero. Meta-commentary ensues.

Oh my god, you guys, this episode. I mean, as good as this show is, not every episode inspires a lot of analysis. There's only so many ways to say child abduction = bad or Heart of Ice is an awesome episode (though it is). But this episode...

Even on just a textual level, there's a lot going on. We are seeing where Batman got the idea to be a superhero, and how much being Batman is the way a child would react to the tragedy of crime. We've already seen, repeatedly, how Batman inspires children to be heroes. Here we see how he himself was inspired as a child.

In fact, Batman comes off a little crazy in this episode. He seems to have trouble telling the difference between an actor and the character the actor plays, addressing notes to the character and getting huffy when the actor, patiently, explains that he's not really that character. And that's before we learn the the Batcave is Bruce's re-creation of the set of the Gray Ghost, and that he has a Gray Ghost shrine hidden in a closet. 

And of course the villain of the piece is also a man-child, obsessed with toys and nostalgia, even using toys to commit his crimes, so he can buy more toys. When he ends up blowing up all of his own toys, he resembles no one so much as Poison Ivy, except Poison Ivy took it better.

Simon Trent, the actor trying to put the Gray Ghost behind him, comes across as the most adult character in the episode, worrying about the rent and trying to play other parts. However, the resolution to his character arc is that he embraces his history and wears his costume again with pride. This creates dueling morals: the villain is bad because he cannot put away childish things, but the heroes are good because they revel in them. 

But that's the surface. Because the Gray Ghost isn't just Bruce Wayne's inspiration, he's a stand-in for all of the pulp heroes that inspired Bob Kane and Bill Finger to create Batman, particularly Zorro and the Shadow. Everything about his design marks the Gray Ghost as a 40s film serial hero. He has the upbeat horns theme music (similar to another modern take on the 40s hero, Indiana Jones). His posters are him towering over art deco buildings in a very Shadow-esque manner. Even the opening to his TV show is the way a live action show would do the opening sequence to Batman: the Animated Series (shot of the sky, pan down to crooks, hero appears to beat the crooks, dramatic pose), including the fact that in the 40s, THEY USED NARRATORS AND TITLE CARDS TO TELL YOU WHAT SHOW YOU'RE WATCHING.

Looked at in that light, we're seeing a passing of the torch, one generation of pulp hero paying respect to the last. We can see the transition from the Gray Ghost's stylized clothes (that are things people might actually wear) to the full effect costume (with pointy ears) of Batman. We also see that Batman has effectively replaced the older characters, assumed their place in the public psyche, so that they are forgotten. But Batman hasn't forgotten, and he still thinks they can help him. 

But then the creators of the show went one step further, and cast Adam West as the Gray Ghost! Now, it's no longer about Batman teaming up with the Shadow, it's about Batman teaming up with older Batman. 

Still with me? Because the show has one more screw to turn. The villain is Bruce Timm. Yes. Bruce Timm, creator, executive producer, and director of Batman: the Animated Series, is the voice and the model for the villainous Mad Bomber.  

So the Mad Bomber isn't just a man-child, he's exactly the kind of fanboy who would create this show, obsessive in his recreation of the past (the toy cars he uses resembles the Batmobile from the old show), but with a need to make it darker by incorporating his Twilight Zone toys into the game and knocking the head of his Batman doll. So we have campy Batman and Batman teaming up to fight against the forces that made this very show. 

Interpretations of Batman, from the Dark Night Returns to the Burton films even to the Animated Series itself, had been running away from the "Bam Pow" silliness of Adam West's Batman, but this episode turns that around. It basically says "yeah, last episode was about a father kidnapping his daughter, but he was invisible and called Mojo at the time, so we're not too serious". 

We can read Bruce's reaction to the Gray Ghost, going from hero worship, to disillusionment and disgust, and going back to qualified worship, as the way a lot of Batman fans feel about the old show: as kids they loved it, as teenagers they hated it, and as adults they love it again, for what it is. This episode is about this version of Batman looking at the goofy, campy 1966 version and saying, "I would not be what I am today without you." 

Other notes:

Casting Adam West adds another layer to the story, because Simon Trent becomes not just any actor, he's Adam West, and Christopher Reeve, and George Reeves, and every actor who played a superhero and couldn't find work afterwards. His impoverished state at the beginning reflects how superhero actors and superhero stories themselves have trouble being taken seriously by the mainstream (man, if only you could tell him to wait fifteen years).

The animation in this episode is off-model. It's a lot more dynamic, and the chase sequences have real energy, but at the same time, the bodies and machines are rubbery, and when the Batmobile goes over a hill, it bends with the road.

It's funny watching Batman feel nostalgic and watch his favorite childhood show while I am, um, feeling nostalgic and watching my favorite childhood show. I'm pretty sure at this point if you held up another mirror I'd fall into it.

And finally, in a blink and you'll miss bit of foreshadowing, Simon Trent shares the cover of People (another fine Time Warner product) with Matt Hagen: Man of a Million Faces. He's an actor with a completely different problem, but we won't meet him for a couple of episodes.