Monday, October 04, 2010

Batman: The Animated Series Re-Watch: Episode Five: Pretty Poison

From an episode where I didn't have much to say to one where I may have too much. So let's get right to it.

In Pretty Poison, Bruce Wayne's pal, Harvey Dent, has met a new lady love, Pamela Isley. But when the D.A. is felled by poison, Bruce discovers this blushing flower hides deadly thorns as the villain Poison Ivy.

Like The Last Laugh, Pretty Poison wears its influences on its sleeves. The first two thirds of the episode are a Batmanly take on 1940s film noir: the Femme Fatale, the amateur detective, interrogations held under hanging lamps, worried doctors anxiously looking over charts, deep shadows, jazz music, the works. It could be a Howard Hawks movie, until a trapdoor opens in a greenhouse and reveals a more superhero-y world of carnivorous, giant plants and sexy Eve Halloween costumes complete with wrist-mounted crossbows.

However, the Animated Series economic storytelling hinders the what could be a typical noir mystery, "Who poisoned the District Attorney?". Even if you didn't know Batman has an established villain named Poison Ivy, the title and the fact that only one new character is introduced in the whole episode point pretty loudly to Pamela Isley's guilt right away. We know she did it, the only real question is why.

Which is how we get to the character of Poison Ivy. Like the Scarecrow, Ivy is motivated by revenge, though she is slightly better justified. After all, she seeks vengeance on behalf of the environment, and there's some irony that the only plant that could cure Harvey is the rose bush he almost eradicated by building his prison. That's as far as justification goes, however. In the end, she's still killing a man for almost destroying a rose, one she herself is willing to harm if it helps her achieve her goals.

And though she is motivated by plant life and environmental concerns, her chief weapon is seduction. Ivy wields sexuality the same way the Scarecrow uses fear and the Joker uses (or abuses) humor, as a way to incapacitate and manipulate her victims. She may use a crossbow and animate vines, but she kills with her kiss. In fact, Poison Ivy the seductress is her defining feature going back to her first appearance in 1966, where she was a Bettie Page knock-off who used her seductive powers to turn Batman against Robin. (The plant activism as a motive was added later when the environmental movement became more popular in the '70s.)

This makes Pretty Poison one of the more sensual episodes of the series, with some pretty sexy scenes, like Pamela and Harvey's uncomfortably long kiss, her hip swaying walk out of the restaurant (in a dress inspired by Jessica Rabbit), or her strip tease behind the modesty screen as Batman steals into her private greenhouse. (Ivy's undressing inverts a fantastic gag from earlier in the episode, where Batman puts on his costume in the time it takes Alfred to read Ivy's increasingly damning resum√©.)

And that's the overt stuff. It's be hard to argue that the vertical maw of the Venus Batman Trap is not a representation of vagina dentata (what a wonderful phrase). And the animators slipped in another gag as the greenhouse is located at "69 Greene St."

This episode is also important in establishing Harvey Dent and Bruce Wayne's relationship. The flashback reveals that they have been friends for at least five years by this point (and answers my nagging question of how long has Bruce been Batman). Harvey comments on Bruce's wealth to Pamela, and in fact it's Bruce Wayne's credit card paying for the meal, suggesting a strong class difference between the two. On the other hand, Harvey Dent has the respect and political power that Bruce lacks. If Bruce is still worried that being Batman is a disgraceful way of honoring his parents, perhaps he looks at Harvey as the man he should have been. They trust each other enough to listen to each other's advice, but not completely. Harvey's line, "there's nothing we don't know about each other," is doubly ironic. Obviously, he doesn't know Bruce is Batman, but we'll later learn that Harvey is keeping a big secret from Bruce as well.

Other notes: The title card "A Better, Safer Gotham," juxtaposing the dark night sky and the jailbreak with a bright daylight and flowered field of five years ago, implies that despite the best efforts of Harvey and Batman, things have actually gotten much worse in Gotham. The story bible says that Stonegate Prison sits where the Statue of Liberty would be if this were New York, as a sign of the kind of city Gotham is. On the other hand, we may be seeing the prison and Gotham from Ivy's point of view at this point, where the city walls have grown too large and the past, which had a field of weeds, is much, if you'll excuse the expression, rosier.

Also, Ivy's thrown into Stonegate Prison, the source of her hatred of Harvey Dent, and not Arkham Asylum, despite being obviously crazy. Presumably the judge felt the irony was too irresistible.

Though the cops spend most of the episode looking in the wrong direction, it's nice to see that Bullock can actually be a good cop, as long as he's not chasing Batman. He may go back to his desk for his donut before heading out, but he's first on the scene of the escaped prisoner and he snaps to on Gordon's orders to investigate the Rose Cafe. We also get the official first appearance and spoken dialogue of Renee Montoya, but she doesn't actually do much, so I'll get back to her in a couple episodes.

Batman once again demonstrates his lack of trust of anyone else, stealing the blood sample from the doctor treating his friend Harvey Dent. You'd think the doctor would need that.

And finally, Bruce Wayne's car of choice is the Kord. At least, I assume it's spelled with a K, as in a reference to Ted Kord, the second Blue Beetle. It's only noteworthy because it's the first indication that any other superhero might exist. I am probably wrong, as a Cord, with a C, is an old style car, which is the show's preference (e.g. Bruce drives a Studebaker in The Forgotten). Still, that would have been nice.


Anonymous said...

Cord was an actual automobile brand in the 1930s:

Steven said...

Thanks, I'll update.

serge said...

stumbled upon this while writing up a piece about my artistic influences. this is good writing, keep it up. your reviews mix humour with solid observations. i always knew the show was intentionally anachronistic, but i never picked up on the "cord" thing. that's interesting