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.


Erik said...

I always really liked the animation of this episode. It's very "anime."

Also, I just recently saw this episode and I can't believe I didn't realize the villain was Bruce Timm. Brilliant.

Cabin Campbell said...

I and my circle of friends were quite amused by this episode. boy, how self referential can you get? We all agreed that the Fox Network should have used that episode as a pilot for a Grey Ghost animated series!
AND, we were adults at the time. Sigh.