Thursday, October 21, 2010

Batman: The Animated Series Re-Watch: Episode Twenty and Twenty One: Feat of Clay


Plot: On orders from the ruthless industrialist, movie actor Matt Hagen impersonates and frames Bruce Wayne for attacking Lucius Fox, using a face cream that allows him to reshape his face. But Hagen is addicted to the cream, and when he tries to steal it, Daggett's men drown him in it. Instead of killing him, the cream turns him into the monstrous, shapeshifting Clayface, who swears revenge on the man who destroyed his life.

There's been a few Clayfaces in the comics, and this version is actually a combination of the first two. His name and powers are taken from the second Clayface, but his personality and origin are closer to the first Clayface, Basil Karlo (get it?), a movie actor who tries to get revenge on the studio that ignored him. Roland Daggett, on the other hand, is a Batman: the Animated Series original, though in character and appearance, he greatly resembles Norman Osborn, the civilian identity Spider-Man villain the Green Goblin. Like Rupert Thorne, Daggett gets called in whenever the script calls for "evil businessman."

When I started, I decided to review these two-part episodes as one story, but in this case I wonder if I should review them separately, because the first part is pretty boring, while the second part is fantastic.

Structurally, this story resembles Two-Face, but where as the first part of Two-Face allowed us to get into Harvey Dent's head, see where he's coming from, see why he makes the mistakes that led to his downfall, before getting to "The Revenge Plot" in part two, Matt Hagen's barely in the first part of Feat of Clay, really only two scenes where he's himself, and what we see isn't very compelling.

Hagen is violent, selfish, vain, impetuous (read: stupid), and abusive to Teddy, his best friend, stand-in, roommate, and I'm just going on circumstantial evidence, boyfriend. (Undoubtedly, Teddy plays the same role Harvey's fiance Grace played). Teddy implies it's the magic face cream (Renuyu) that's making Matt crazy, but since we never see him without it, we never have a reason to like Matt, so it's not a tragedy when we find Matt turned into a puddle of mud at the end of the episode.

Meanwhile, most of the first episode follows Batman's assbackward attempt to clear Bruce Wayne. The chase sequence where Batman flies a plane through a tunnel to impale a car might be impressive looking, but it's both pointless (he gets no information) and needlessly risky, considering he does get the information he needs in the second episode using nothing more than a precariously placed jar of sea water. Add to that he gets arrested sneaking into Lucius Fox's hospital room, and you have to wonder if they're going to take that "World's Greatest Detective" mug away from him.

But then we get to the second episode, and things pick up immediately. One wonders why it's a two-part episode anyway, why they couldn't just have started with the already transformed Clayface coming for his revenge on the businessman who caused his accident, except that then the episode would be Heart of Ice again, but really, would that be so bad?

Clayface is the most dangerous villain Batman has faced so far, since NOTHING Batman does hurts him in anyway. He can't punch him, kick him, drop him off a roof. Gas probably wouldn't do anything. And in the end, they reveal electricity has no effect either. If only Batman could "freeze" him somehow, maybe using some kind of a "freeze" gun powered by "freeze" technology. But where would he get something like that?

But I digress. Besides being invulnerable, Clayface can become anybody or anything. He likes to impersonate authority figures, cops, doctors, Bruce Wayne, big women in mumus in talk show audiences, which done right could make a paranoia infused episode that would make See No Evil feel like a walk in the park. This episode only hints at those possibilities, preferring to play Clayface BIG, an unstoppable mudslide that just steamrolls Batman for an entire episode.

The animation of Clayface is fantastic. When he's shapeshifting while fighting, the animation is fluid and heavy, so each impact is felt. But when he changes his face, from human to his muddy self, or his "death" scene, spinning wildly from form to form, the face tears and rips in painful looking ways. His transformation on stage before attacking Daggett directly, BURSTING out of his female form, is one of the great entrances on the show.

And how about a hand for Ron "Hellboy" Perlman as the voice of Clayface? Yeah, in the first part, he only plays the part of a jerk, but in the second, he gets to be the voice of a jerk who is also a demi-god and starting to really enjoy being superpowerful. Ed Asner also is nicely menacing as Roland Daggett, which is who Ferris Boyle would be if he didn't even pretend to be humane. The surprisingly strong voice work comes from Ed Bagely Jr., who plays Daggett's germophobic Alfred. The interrogation scene where Batman takes total advantage of his phobia works because of Bagely's delivery, trying desperately to be brave in the face of both Batman and unspeakable disease.

The only really false note in the second episode is the revelation that electricity has no effect on Clayface. Sure, it's there to set-up his inevitable return, but, if Hagen was faking his death, it's not at all clear why he would do that. We're supposed to think that seeing images of all the roles he played freaked Clayface out so much he lost control, but clearly he has enough control to create a fake Clayface shell and escape when no one is looking. And if he's free and alive, it's unclear why he stops going after Daggett. Instead of opening up for the possibility of Clayface coming back, the revelation that he's alive and well just unresolves the plot, but oops, we're out of time, so that's all the story you get for today. Boo.

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