Monday, October 11, 2010

Batman: The Animated Series Re-Watch: Episode Ten and Eleven: Two-Face

And so we come to the Two-Face storyline, and, appropriately enough, the first two-part episode. Normally, I don't like two-parters, because I feel most TV stories don't "earn" the extended length, or use the break between episodes well, but I think this one works quite well, especially as each episode has a separate and complete plot:

Part 1 has the Fall of Harvey Dent: When Mob Boss Rupert Thorne tries to blackmail Dent with evidence that Harvey suffers from multiple personality disorder, he unleashes Harvey's bad side and scars half of his face for life, not necessarily in that order.

Part 2 has the Rise of Two-Face: After six months of systematically dismantling Thorn's organization, Two-Face is ready to end Thorne for good. But Thorne is ready to strike back, using Harvey's former fiancee Grace Lamont as a pawn.

So, Two-Face is one of Batman's oldest foes, dating back to 1942. His origin in the comics is basically the same as what's presented here, district attorney, face scarred for life by the criminal he was pursuing, causing a mental breakdown and the release of a second personality obsessed by chance vs. justice, duality, and the number 2.

The major change here, picking up from the Two-Face origin story that had just been published in Batman Annual #14 (1990), is that Harvey already had multiple personality disorder before he was scarred. This is a big improvement over previous versions (or even Christopher Nolan's take on the character in The Dark Knight), where one tragedy seems to make a perfectly good and sane man crazyevil over night.

In this version, Harvey had created a second personality because he represses his anger after mistakenly believing he put another boy in the hospital. That's kind of silly and frankly a rare example of toning down the Batman mythos for the child audience. In the comics, Harvey's insanity is born out of physical abuse at the hands of his alcoholic father, a much darker but more satisfying explanation (also more realistic, as child abuse can cause split personality, but one really shouldn't be looking to Batman for realism).

Two-Face serves as a walking reminder of the time Batman failed, the man he did not save, and boy is that true here. Over two episodes, Batman is singularly ineffective. Not only does he let Harvey become horribly scarred (as he inevitably must), Bruce also failed to notice for five years that his close friend of suffered major mental problems. And then Batman is unable to stop Two-Face's six month rampage through Gotham City. By contrast, when the Joker escaped from Arkham Asylum on Christmas morning, Batman had him back in his cell in time for Boxing Day. Batman even dreams about his failure (and the Wayne's make their THIRD appearance in eleven episodes. Yeesh, that's enough, Dead People).

No, Batman is pushed to the side for two episodes for our real protagonist, Harvey Dent himself. It's Harvey that chooses to keep campaigning rather than commit himself to a mental hospital, Harvey that goes to see Thorne even though he knows nothing good can come of it, Harvey that leaves behind Grace to lead a life of crime (yes, we get it, writers, very subtle). Two-Face that takes apart Thorne's operation, Two-Face that finds the evidence to convict Thorne, and Two-Face that tries to re-unite with Grace only to be betrayed. Batman isn't even the antagonist, since when he does show up, he's usually fighting on Two-Face's side against Thorne's men.

It's a question why Batman is even trying to stop Two-Face. Yes, like Scarecrow or Poison Ivy, Two-Face is motivated by revenge, but unlike them, he's totally justified. Thorne is a gangster who blackmailed him, destroyed his career and his face, and threatens the life and security of everyone in Gotham. And Two-Face goes after Thorne it in a very Batman-esque manner, attacking Thorne's operations, crippling his finances, and ignoring his lawyer's rights to privacy by rifling through his files. Even his plan to finally get rid of Thorne is admirably restrained.

Why wouldn't Batman do all that? In fact, why hadn't Batman ALREADY done all that, instead of wasting six months researching multiple personality disorders. Except for possibly at the end, when Two-Face is about to shoot Thorne, Two-Face is a better Batman than Batman is.

Again, Richard Moll deserves a shout out for his superb voice work. When Harvey becomes Two-Face, his voice is actually a synthesis of Harvey's normal voice and the voice of his other half "Big Bad Harvey." BB Harvey's voice is deep with an animal growl. Two-Face's voice has the same growl, but is high enough to feature sadness and longing (which BB Harvey is incapable of) without actually returning to Harvey's voice.

The animators also do an excellent job. The design for Two-Face is probably their most impressive translation of a character from comics to television. In the comics, Two-Face's suit is a combination of a plain right half and a garishly ugly left half. Here, it's simplified to just black and white. While that may have just been to save time and money on animation, the effect is much more striking. And furthers the conclusion that Batman just has the best dressed rogues gallery ever.

They also play the reveal of Two-Face's face perfectly, teasing it out, making us think we'll see it once, when the doctor takes off the bandages and recoils in horror, twice, when Two-Face, in his growly voice, demands to see a mirror (in an homage to Burton's first Batman movie), and then finally they show us his face, lit by lightning, when Grace comes to visit. But, in fact, we had ALREADY seen his face, very briefly, again lit by lightning, when Harvey is hypnotized by his therapist. Two-Face was always there, he was just waiting to get out.

Other notes: Last time we saw Harvey Dent, five episodes ago, he was ready to propose marriage to a woman he had only known for a week (it didn't work out). Now he's engaged to a different woman (though he hasn't set a date). Either Harvey is just the marrying kind, or the episodes are doing funky things with time jumps (like jumping from Christmas to April Fool's Day over the course of two episodes). There are time jumps within the episode too, jumping from mid-way through the campaign to election night, and then six months later. If Batman: The Animated Series is supposed to be in strict chronological order, we've already witnessed a year and a half in the life of Batman (so it's probably best that we don't).

Also introduced in this episode is Rupert Thorne, who shows up in the Animated Series whenever the story calls for a generic mob boss. Here, he replaces Sal Maroni as the man who scarred Harvey Dent. In the comics, however, Thorne was a corrupt politician, not an out-and-out gangster. I think it's interesting that instead of an Italian as crime boss (the canonical choice would be Carmine Falcone), the writers of the Animated Series chose a character with a very Anglo name. This was probably to avoid stereotyping, even if he still resembles Marlon Brando as Don Corleone.

Grace is the more problematic character: everything about her is a throwback to 1942. Her only goal is to marry Harvey Dent (though she's totally willing to wait for him to set the wedding date). Her only actions are to support his campaign and recovery (though not enough not to faint upon seeing his ugly face), then betray him (to be fair, she thought she was betraying him to the police, not to Boss Thorne), then be the love that will save Harvey (unsurprisingly, she's never seen again). It's a good thing they've already introduced Montoya, because between Grace and Poison Ivy, you have to start wondering about the Batman writers' relationships with women.

Before the second episode, a narrator says "Previously, on Batman..." This shouldn't be noteworthy, except that it's the first time we learn the official name of the series ("Batman"), as no title is seen in the opening credits. I'll continue to refer to the series by the accepted nomenclature of Batman: the Animated Series, which distinguishes it from the 1966 live-action series and all of the movies, even though there's been several Batman animated series before and after this one. (I can't even say Batman, the GOOD Animated Series, since the current one, Brave and the Bold, is pretty fun).

And finally, when Two-Face lingers over a photo of Grace, we get a close-up of his wallet, and can see he has a credit card issued to Two-Face. Man, they'll give credit to anyone these days.

1 comment:

Eugene said...

This is a great look at one of my favorite episodes. And nice catch on the credit card. I'm still wondering how Batman managed to get a credit card in his name in Batman & Robin, let alone one that never expires.