Friday, October 08, 2010

Batman: The Animated Series Re-Watch: Episode Nine: Be a Clown

Hey, remember when I said The Underdwellers would be better if they used an established Batman villain? Turns out I was right.

Plot: Feeling neglected by his father, Mayor Hamilton Hill, Jordan Hill runs away from his own birthday party in the back of the hired clown's van. Unfortunately for Jordan, the clown is actually the Joker in disguise. Hijinks ensue.

In Christmas with the Joker, the Joker represented the ever-present threat and the attention seeker. Here, we are dealing the Joker as a tempter and a corrupter. Just as Batman is an inspiration to Frog in The Underdwellers (and, presumably, Robin), it turns out the Joker can be an inspiration too. He represents the freedom to runaway from it all and join the circus. Though, in the Joker's case, "it all" includes the law, morality, and sanity itself.

Notably, this inspiration is a by-product of his actions. The Joker doesn't set out to kidnap the Mayor's child and turn him against his father, that happens accidentally. In comparison, his actual plan of sneaking into the Mayor's house and blowing up his guests is remarkably straight forward.

But once the Joker learns what happened, and begins to realize the potential in creating a protege, the creepiness of the episode begins to ratchet up. We actually see the Joker make up his plans as the episode progresses, first simply teaching Jordan magic tricks to keep him entertained, then deciding to use him as bait to lure Batman into a trap, and finally forcing Jordan to watch Batman drown while the Joker stands behind him, squeezing his shoulder. The mythical parents who watch cartoons with their kids must have been freaking out at that point.

The Joker, accidentally and then intentionally, makes a mini-version of himself, a demonstration that anyone could be as bad as himself in the right circumstances, which is a recurring theme for the Joker from The Killing Joke to The Dark Knight. The Animated Series explores this theme further with the character of Harley Quinn, particularly her origin episode Mad Love, and then takes the disturbing implications of the Joker's attempt to make his own Robin to its extreme in the Batman Beyond movie, The Return of the Joker. But back to Jordan.

Jordan follows the Joker because, unlike Mayor Hill, who knocks aside Jordan's magic props to drag him to the party, the Joker doesn't seem to care about impressing people, he just wants to do his magic tricks. Ironically, the Joker is in fact obsessed with impressing people (as established in Christmas with the Joker) and craves Mayor Hill's attention even more than Jordan does, but Jordan doesn't realize that until the Joker tells him "there is no trick." The Joker is just a killer.

Even after Jordan rejects the Joker and runs away, the creepiness only increases. He already rejected one father for a new one. Rejecting the second father-figure leaves him alone in a terrifying world where nothing makes sense, everything is too big, and a monster is hunting him down. Even twenty years later, the sound of the Joker following Jordan while clack clack clacking his cane along the picket fence sends chills down my spine.

Which leads to the big moment of the episode, when Batman asks Jordan to trust him. At this point, Jordan has been betrayed by two father figures, and the second chased him onto a runaway rollercoaster while throwing exploding cupie dolls at Batman (in a scene taken from The Dark Knight Returns #3). Now a scary man in a black mask, who his father and the Joker insist is a bad man, is asking Jordan to rely on him, or he will die. It's impressive Jordan is able to even get out of his seat. But not only does his bravery save his own life, it earns him the highest honor, the Bat-thumbs up.

Other things to note: I'm pretty sure the Joker would have succeeded in blowing up the party if he hadn't put his face on the dynamite and thus given himself away. But then, he wouldn't be the Joker.

I'm also pretty sure that the full bearded Prociutto is actually Alan Moore, who wrote the Killing Joke.

For the third time in as many episodes, the Joker has Batman at his mercy and decides not to just shoot him in the face. I'm starting to get the feeling that he's not serious about this killing Batman thing.

And this is the first episode where Batman fails to capture the villain in the end. The Joker simply falls into the water. We don't see him escape, but we can't assume he drowned either. At least Batman actually kicked him this time, and the Joker didn't just trip, again.