Thursday, September 6, 2012

Celebrating Batman: The Animated Series 20 years later: The best episodes in Batman: TAS's 109 episode run.

This week will be the 20th anniversary of the premiere of Batman: The Animated Series. In its weird way, the show actually had three 'premieres'. The first episode, "The Cat and the Claw part I", debuted on Saturday morning, September 5th, as a quasi-sneak preview of sorts. The next day saw the official premiere, in primetime no less (Sunday night at 7pm) where Fox debuted the official pilot episode, "On Leather Wings". Then came the first official weekday episode, Monday afternoon at 4:30pm, which was no less than "Heart of Ice", which to this day stands as not only one of the best episodes of the series run, but a shining testament to all that Batman: The Animated Series did right both in terms of the Batman mythos and the entire medium of childrens' action shows. This is one of an ongoing series of essays detailing the long-term legacy of the Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski's groundbreaking animated saga. Today we discuss my all-time favorite episodes.  In short, here are ten of the (subjectively) best episodes in alphabetical order with my all-time favorite at the end.  Do enjoy... 

"A Bullet For Bullock":  Adapted from a Chuck Dixon comic book story, this is one of the last episodes of the original Fox Kids run and arguably as much of an 'adult' episode as the series ever produced.  The plot concerns Detective Harvey Bullock enlisting Batman's help when someone targets the disagreeable cop for murder.  This one is pure unapologetic film noir, with brutal action, references to murdered bank guards, armed criminals clearly high on drugs, an actual drug deal shown onscreen, explicit discussions of crack labs, and an unapologetically bleak finale.  It also features one of Batman's most vicious interrogations, tossing a thug off a building and barely catching him in time to avoid an oncoming truck.  But more than just its 'mature content', the show is a sobering character study of a cop who comes to realize that the job is all he has.  Bullock realizes that he has no friends, no family, no life to come back to, with the final straw being that even his home isn't a safe haven.  It's a pretty hopeless tale for a supporting character who we have grown to begrudgingly respect over the years.

"Almost Got Im": This is a joyous ode to the campier aspects of the Batman universe while also becoming one of his finest hours.  The story concerns five villains (Killer Croc, Penguin, Poison Ivy, Two-Face, and The Joker) sitting around a poker table discussing how they came the closest to killing Batman.  This is not only laugh-out-loud hysterical and action-packed, but it's continuity rich that rewards longtime viewers and even old-school comic book fans ("So Harvey, what became of the giant penny?").  It was also the first truly standpoint moment for Harley Quinn (her second appearance overall), which is only icing on the cake for this gloriously written and delightfully staged little action comedy.  The show has a number of rock-solid romps and near-comedies in its library, including the Harley Quinn-centric "Harley & Ivy", "Harley's Holiday" (which has a surprisingly sweet epilogue), and "Harlequinade" (which features the show's lone musical number).  But "Almost Got Im" is the gem of the crowd, ranking as the funniest episode of the series's run as well as one of the very best episodes, period.

"Beware the Grey Ghost": This modern classic takes what could have been a jokey premise ("Let's team Batman with a gee-whiz adventurer played by Adam West no less!") and turns it into one of the most moving episodes of the series.  I don't want to give away too much about what my final essay will be, but this episode pulls at the heartstrings and creates high drama out of something as mundane as an out-of-work actor struggling to pay his rent.  But that downer of a first half gives way to a joyous celebration of the very idea of fictional superheroes and how they can inspire us to do good and be good long after we've stopped playing with action figures and dressing up in costumes.  The show delivers one of its biggest emotional gut-punches in an almost throwaway line of dialogue, as Simon Trent is treated to a tour of the Bat Cave and exclaims "It wasn't all for nothing...".  And the final moment, where Bruce Wayne subtly reveals his secret identity to a now rediscovered Trent is a whopper too.        

"Double Talk": This Kids WB era episode concerns the seemingly reformed Ventriloquist and his attempts to reenter society.  But no sooner does he attempt to reform himself does he start hearing Scarface talking to him in his head.  It's a dark and creepy little psychological tale, offset by some fun action beats (watch Batman just beat the holy crap out of Scarface's former henchmen) and a look at how Bruce Wayne makes a point to help the foes of Batman who actually want to stay on the straight and narrow, a point cemented in the powerful final scene in the 'how Robin became Nightwing' episode "Old Wounds".  It's no great epic drama, but it serves a glance at how well the show handles real-world situations in a plausible fashion.  It's also an example of how well it treated its entire supporting cast, showcasing every aspect of the Bat-universe in a way that honored and respected them.  

"Heart of Ice": This episode premiered exactly twenty years ago today, and it is in the eyes of many the ultimate Baman: The Animated Series episode.  It heartrendingly turns Mr. Freeze into a victimized scientist, cursed to live forever in a suit that renders him ice-cold.  But his own predicament is of less concern his quest for vengeance against the corporate tycoon who caused his accident, killing his sick wife in the process.  This was a blaring signal to the world that Batman: The Animated Series would be playing for keeps, with real-world drama and real-world stakes.  One could argue that the subsequent "Nora's alive, Nora's awake, Nora's left me!" episodes have somewhat softened the impact of this original Victor Freeze saga, but the original tragedy still stings after all these years. For those who want a perfect encapsulation of what set this show apart from the pack right from the start, "Heart of Ice" is the perfect starter episode.  

"I Am the Night": This is another classic 'adult' episode, as Batman has a crisis of faith after a broken promise leads to Jim Gordon being gunned down during a botched raid.  This one is a pure hard-boiled crime story, as well as a redemptive tale that establishes the very real social good that Batman accomplishes.  Leslie Thompkins puts in a potent extended cameo while Dick Grayson spends the most time out of costume that we'll see in the series.  This is a somber, meditative, but ultimately hopeful story about Batman realizing that the good he does is about the lives he saves, both literally and metaphorically, rather than the criminals he catches.  It's a clear distinction that makes Batman more than just The Punisher and a clear reason why this show's portrayal of Batman is such a standout.      

"The Laughing Fish": Adapted from two defining 1970s Joker comic book stories, this episode tried to push the 'scary Joker' as far as he could go in the animated childrens' show format.  The story concerns The Joker attempting to copyright all of Gotham's fish after he poisons them to give them his trademark Joker-grin.  After the bureaucrats refuse, he proceeds to bump them off one by one.  Filled with creepy music, blinding rain, and moody lighting and shadows, this episode succeeds in making The Joker into a shadowy menace of death (without actually having him kill anyone) while also delivering one of Mark Hamill's funniest performances.  It also solidified Harley Quinn as a keeper while giving the first hints at her co-dependent relationship with the creepy clown.  

"Riddler's Reform": Despite John Glover's superb vocals, the show struggled with making The Riddler, inherently a verbal villain, work in an action cartoon where riddles had to be given and solved within a few seconds. This late-in-the-run gem pulled it off, going deep into Edward Nygma's psychosis and delivering a tragi-comic tale of obsession and personal ruin.  Unlike some of the other costumed crazies, Edward Nygma would have been perfectly happy getting his fortune and glory in a non-criminal enterprise under his real name.  So to watch him basically get what he always wanted (fame, fortune, respect for his intellect) and then watch him unable to stop doing the very thing that could take it all away is almost heartbreaking. Bonus: One of the coolest action sequences of the series run, a violent (Robin breaks his leg) and rain-soaked confrontation aboard a plunging scaffolding that quickens the pulse.

"Robin's Reckoning" part 1:  Part 2 is fine and all, but the heart and meat this 'origin of Robin' tale comes in its first half.  This is hands-down one of the best-animated episodes of the series, and it isn't content to rest on its somewhat shocking subject matter (in a show with few explicit deaths, we see both of Dick Grayson's parents die just offscreen).  That defining tragedy certainly pulls at the heartstrings, but just as impressive are the emotional beats surrounding Dick's goodbyes to his circus family and his tearful conversation about how both the pain and guilt of watching his parents die will never really go away.  Also helping, two of the better action sequences in the show's run, including a moody nearly-silent take-down of a group of mafia security guards, among the few extended action sequences to go without music.         

"Two-Face" parts 1 and 2:   Along with "Heart of Ice", these are the episodes that established the show as something truly special.  The creators made the smart choice to introduce Harvey Dent prior to his sad transformation into the murderous Two-Face, which of course made his fall from grace all the more potent.  Richard Moll's Harvey Dent is presented as one of the coolest and nicest guys in Gotham, so you're constantly hoping that his deeply-buried psychological issues don't get the better of him.  But as Rupert Thorne's machinations twist Harvey into a vise, there is no escape, only a freight train of inevitable tragedy that even Batman can't prevent.  The acting by all involved is peerless, with gorgeous animation throughout.  This one is the pinnacle of Batman: The Animated Series as 'adult entertainment', and it still stands as the most realistic and plausible 'Harvey Dent-to-Two-Face' transformation we've ever seen outside of the comics.

Before I get to my out-and-out favorite episode, let me take a moment to explain some omissions.  I intentionally left off any episodes that were actually Superman: The Animated Series shows, so that nixes the terrific "World's Finest" three-parter that teamed Superman and Batman against Joker and Lex Luthor.  While many best-of lists might include the surreal and brilliant "Perchance to Dream" (which climaxes with Roddy McDowall's stunning monologue) and the stunningly powerful 'what if?' saga "Over the Edge" (which features Bob Hasting's best performance as Commissioner Gordon), I intentionally left them off because of their 'it's all just a dream!' nature.  Other than that there are a few episodes here and there that I wrestled over including, but I had to draw the line somewhere. The second act of "The Man Who Killed Batman" is some of the best Joker material of the series. "Second Chance" has one of my favorite musical scores and a superb first act action sequence.  "You Scratch My Back" has the best overall fight choreography of the entire series.  "Babydoll" is one of the best 'weird' episodes and succeeds at presenting a rather bizarre situation while extending empathy to its wholly original villain.  "Mad As A Hatter" is awfully good but I now realize that most of its power comes completely from Roddy McDowall's painfully awkward and sympathetic turn.  "Appointment In Crime Alley"... well, I had to draw the line somewhere.  So without further ado, I present my absolute favorite episode of Batman: The Animated Series.  Believe it or not, it was an easy call...

"Joker's Favor": This is a perfect combination of everything the show did right.  It is a classic super hero vs. super villain story, a classic struggle between Batman and the Joker while also telling a story about the ordinary citizens of Gotham City.  The twist is that this Batman vs. Joker tale is told almost entirely from the few of an innocent bystander, an unwilling pawn in their duel.  Charlie is the proverbial 'every man', and his situation is instantly relatable.  After a bad day at work and minor family issues, he randomly lashes out at a driver who cut him off, only realize that said motorist was The Joker.  Gotham City, a place just like any other city, except that that guy you randomly insulted might be a homicidal super villain who now wants you to make it up to him... or else.  This was the first Joker episode to air, and Mark Hamill's creepy performance resulted in the series's first negative mail from parents of a frightened viewer (with the exception of "The Laughing Fish", Joker was never allowed to be this disturbing again).  Joker's relentless tormenting of this poor soul, stalking him from state to state and randomly threatening his family, showed off a side of the Clown Prince of Crime we rarely see (at one point he calls Charlie his 'hobby'), since his schemes in the show so often involved direct confrontations with Batman.   The Joker is perhaps amusing when he's targeting Batman.  But he's not quite so funny when he's threatening to slaughter your family.

This episode represents a snapshot of what it's like to live in Gotham along with why having Batman around is so important (it's notable that Joker's scheme this time isn't targeting Batman but rather Jim Gordon).The end result is a show that feels like an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. This episode was the debut of Harley Quinn, although her first appearance was unremarkable save for an amusing riff on the whole 'Batman takes pity on the villain's moll' from the 1960s Batman show.  The Joker's plan is chilling in its simplicity and intent.  He just wants to blow up a roomful of cops and politicians, arguably because it's Tuesday.  With hardly any action and very little violence, the show creates almost unbearable tension as we watch Charlie try to figure out a way to save himself while avoiding being an accessory to mass murder.  And of course in the end Joker has no intention of letting him live, leaving him stuck to a door in a room about to explode purely because he has no more use for his 'hobby'.  But Batman does come to the rescue, thanks to Charlie's earlier creativity which signaled danger, and Charlie gets his shot at redemption, facing off against the Joker and showing real courage for perhaps the first time in his life.  The idea that anyone could be Batman was one that the Chris Nolan films have toyed with, but it comes into play here as well, the idea that even a man like Charlie can stand up to the villainy of Gotham just by not running away.

As a kid I was disappointed that Charlie's threat to blow up the Joker with one of his own bombs was a bluff, but of course it has to be because Charlie is not a murderer and not made of the same stuff as the villains who torment the city.  He is better than that, able to save himself, capture the Joker, and protect his family by outsmarting his enemy rather than besting him at violence.  As a bonus, the episode features a lovely low-key moment between Batman and Commissioner Gordon where Batman explains just why Gordon is as much a hero to Gotham as he is ("I'm just the night shift, Jim.  You deal with this mess 24 hours a day.").  "Joker's Favor", aside from telling a terrific story incredibly well, aside from featuring strong animation, a fine Paul Dini script, and impeccable vocals, represents what Batman: The Animated Series did best.  It didn't just tell stories of adventure featuring Batman and his villain of the day.  It told stories of Gotham City.  It was technically about Batman, but just as much it was about the people who found themselves in Batman's path, for good or ill.  For being my favorite Joker episode, for being the strongest mix of 'superhero adventure' and 'human-scale drama', "Joker's Favor" gets the vote as my all-time favorite episode of Batman: The Animated Series.

And that's a wrap for this segment.  Obviously you all have your favorites and I hope you'll share them below. Tomorrow comes the finale of this week-long retrospective, in which I discuss the key factor that not only made the show as wonderful as it was 20 years ago, but keeps it unique among the many animated dramas that followed in its wake.

Scott Mendelson


Diana B. said...

My favorite bit of Robin's Reckoning was when Alfred reminded Bruce that his primary duty was to the boy rather than to the punishment of the killer. Bruce (initially, at least) seems to forget that healing Dick requires that he be with him, and I love this moment for what it does for Bruce (who has a tendency to get wrapped up in his cases at the expense of his personal life) and Alfred as characters. said...

These Batman: TAS articles are great, Scott! "Over The Edge" is absolutely my favorite episode. I just ignore the last minute (it's all a dream!) and consider it the greatest Last Batman Story ever told. (Far better than The Dark Knight Rises!!) I am glad you highlighted "I am The Night," probably my 2nd favorite ep. Other favorites of mine include: "The Demon's Quest Pt 1 and II" (the first big Ra's al Ghul 2-parter), "Mad Love", "It's Never Too Late" (a great crime story with nary a super-villain in sight) and "You Scratch My Back" (a great late-in-the-run ep that embraced the passage of time that had happened over the run of the show, with Nightwing coming into conflict with Batman's new partners Robin and Batgirl).

Scott Mendelson said...

It is a shining moment, and I made reference to it in my first essay as an example of how the show presented Batman is the best possible light.


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