Thursday, October 28, 2010

Batman: the Animated Series Re-Watch: Episode Twenty Six: Appointment in Crime Alley

Plot: Batman has an appointment at Crime Alley, little knowing that at 9 o'clock, an arsonist will destroy the rundown slum to make way for Roland Daggett's new development.

This is the first episode of Batman: the Animated Series, to be based on a specific story from the comics, in this case Denny O'Neal and Dick Giordono's classic "There is no Hope in Crime Alley." That story established that, on the anniversary of his parents' death, Batman lays two roses down on the spot where they were killed, alongside the aging socialite who found and comforted him that night, long ago.

Comic book veteran Gerry Conway (who created Killer Croc) adds to that story a literal ticking clock plot and a heaping does of social commentary. The sharp divide between Bruce Wayne's upper class and the poor homeless and criminal lower class has been seen before (I think the only middle class person we see is Charlie Collins, who moves the hell away from Gotham). But this episode foregrounds the class conflict.

Roland Daggett is a force of "urban redevelopment," improving Gotham. But it's clear he has no interest in improving Gotham for the people who already live there, the "underclass" who "do not value lives the way we do." What an amazingly dehumanizing stance the man has. He frames the debate as a conflict between "the future and the past, "the weak and the strong" and, like all great lies, there's an element of truth to his claim. Crime Alley IS a rundown slum and a breeding ground for crime, like the gunman who holds a Daggett employee hostage, or the mugger who killed the Waynes.

But not everyone who lives in Crime Alley is a criminal. Most, like the mother and daughter at the beginning, have no where else to go, and others, like Leslie Thompkins, have lived there all their lives and simply do not want leave. Furthermore, forcibly moving everyone, citizen and criminal, out of Crime Alley wouldn't fix the problem, it would only move the crime to some other neighborhood.

Ironically, this episode uses the clocks better than the Clock King. We know from the first scene that 9pm is the deadline, when Nitro (David Lander doing a Peter Lorre impression) gives a demonstration of the destruction he plans, and all the clocks, (pocketwatches, digital readouts, and clocktowers) ratchet the attention up through the episode. By this point, we no longer fear that Batman can't fight or gadget his way though out of any situation, so most of the tension is waiting for him to learn that time is running out, which he does before, like a pimp, locking the thugs in the van filled with dynamite.

(The van, by the way, advertises "J. Olsen and Sons' Photography", the first definitive reference to a DC Comics character outside the Batman canon.)

The successive emergencies, besides distracting Batman from the major crime about to be committed, also demonstrate another side of Batman, that he cannot willingly ignore someone in danger, even if, possibly, he should. It's easy to understand why he stops to help the girl save her mother, all he's doing is missing his appointment with Leslie Thompkins, and while Skeletal Thomas Wayne Ghost might be disappointed, it's clearly the right choice. When he saves the runaway trolly, even when he knows Leslie's been kidnapped by that point, he's making the calculation of saving dozens or more lives over the life of one person (and one Batmobile).

But his interruption of the hostage situation is kind of a dick move. The police have the man surrounded, and Gordon is already on the scene (though he doesn't have any lines). But Batman charges in anyway, because "the hostage might be hurt" if the police rush in, dismissive of any experience or training they might have. And it's not clear his method is better, since yelling at and then jumping on the gunman causes everyone to fall, almost to their deaths. It's totally possible to read the policeman's "Good thing you showed up," as awesomely sarcastic.

But that's how Batman rolls, and the great part of this episode is that it shows how Batman became Batman. Despite being a semi-regular presence, this is the first time we actually learn how the Waynes died and implicitly how that inspired Bruce to don the cowl of the Bat. Similarly, we learn of one more influence on young Bruce, besides Alfred and the Gray Ghost. He may have learned to be a superhero from Simon Trent, and how to drop a devastating one-liner from Mr. Pennyworth, it's from Leslie Thompkins that he learns his compassion, and also his courage and hope. Leslie Thompkins refuses to give up on her home, no matter how bad it gets, and tries to make things better. She is in every way the antithesis of Roland Daggett, and proof that "good people still live in Crime Alley."