Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Batman: The Animated Series Re-Watch: Episode Twelve: "It's Never Too Late"

Plot: Crime boss Arnold Stromwell believes his son is yet another victim of his on-going mob war with Rupert Thorne. But Batman shows him that his son is rehab for his addiction to the drugs Stromwell himself sold, and then offers him a chance at redemption.

First off, Thorne? Again? Didn't we just see him carted off to jail? *Checks* Yes, yes we did. Clearly, this episode should have come earlier in the season, as Thorne is the head of all gangs in Two-Face, but here he's an upstart taking on the more established boss. Or it might have made sense to make Stromwell the upstart, taking advantage of Thorne's weakness after Two-Face crippled his operation.

On the other hand, back to back, the strengths of this episode are a lot clearer in juxtaposition to the previous one. As in Two-Face, the protagonist is not Batman, but rather Thorne's criminal rival. However, instead of spending his time on the side of the stage flailing uselessly about, here Batman is a master manipulator, putting Stromwell's son, ex-wife, and brother into place, saving Stromwell's life, then guiding him along like a pointy-eared version of the Ghost of Christmas Present and protecting him from Thorne's goons long enough to have his moment of conversion. And unlike with Two-Face, we have every reason to believe that Stromwell really has repented, and that Batman's plan worked.

This episode really plays up Batman's role as a demon on the side of good. He's hiding amongst the gargoyles when we first see him in costume, he's actually called a "dark angel" by the hippiest bum I've ever seen, and the first thing Stromwell sees when he opens his eyes is Batman standing in front of a sheet of flame like the devil himself. In the final sequence, where Batman takes out Thorne's men one by one, Batman is playing the movie monster, the unseen thing in the shadow that you don't notice until it's too late. Twice, in fact, we see Batman taking out a hood from the hood' point of view, making the explicit point at the viewer is not Batman, could not hope to be Batman, and if you are thinking about a life of crime, Batman, the dark avenger, will hit you in the face.

Really, the audience for this episode is supposed to identify with Stromwell, which is admittedly a little difficult. Unlike Two-Face, he's not seeking justice. He has no problem with Thorne taking advantage of people. He just doesn't want the competition. He's clearly rationalized his career as a drug dealer by saying he doesn't make anyone take drugs. And even after seeing the effect of his drugs on his son, he doesn't feel the need to repent or make up for his mistakes. There doesn't seem to be anything to save.

However, he must feel some guilt. Why else would he locate his headquarters a short walk away from where his brother Michael saved him from being hit by a train only to be hit himself? The sight of any train makes Stromwell break out in a sweat remembering that day, and yet he placed himself where he had a constant reminder of his greatest mistake. It becomes clear that it's not that Stromwell doesn't want to reform, it's that he thinks he can't, that he's done too much wrong in his life already.

Arnold Stromwell was created for the series, and like Thorne he's a mafioso type with an Anglo-name. However, in this episode, the writers' desire not to create a stereotype butts up against gangster movie conventions. Stromwell's brother is priest, suggesting Stromwell is Catholic. And "Pete's", where Thorne tries to have Stromwell killed, is an Italian restaurant (with "the best cannoli" according to food connoisseur Det. Bullock). And of course, the Mafia are Italian. Everything would just make more sense if Stromwell was Falcone. But whatever.

This episode also marks Batman: the Animated Series complete move into the never-was past. Not only are TVs now black and white, but flashbacks travel even further back. Young Arnold and Michael are dressed like turn of the century newsies.

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