TV Review – The Best of Batman: The Animated Series Part 3

Shadow of the Bat (Season 1, Episodes 57 & 58)
Original airdates: September 13 & 14, 1993
Written by Brynne Stephens
Directed by Frank Paur

Shadow of the Bat does many things and feels like a movie boiled down into weekday afternoon animation. It’s the best modern presentation of Batgirl we’ve ever gotten outside of the comic book, and it really showed how poor she was brought into the films with Batman & Robin. What’s interesting here is how separate & independent Batgirl is from Batman & Robin, the characters. Her origins are born out of a story centered around her, and the established heroes play supporting roles in this two-parter, with Robin being the more prominent of the two, in my opinion.

Barbara Gordon is thrown into peril when her dad, Commissioner Jim Gordon, is arrested for accepting bribes from Rupert Thorne. This doesn’t jibe with Barbara or allies in the GCPD like Bullock. Batman is also suspicious and goes undercover as Matches Malone to find out the word on the street. Barbara wants Batman to appear at a public rally supporting her father, but he won’t be able to. So, she puts together a makeshift costume to emerge as the Dark Knight from a distance. Gun-wielding mobsters show up, and Barbara must put her gymnastics skills to the test working alongside Robin. From there, it’s revealed that Two-Face has orchestrated a conspiracy to get revenge on all the people who he believes wronged Harvey Dent. Batman & Robin team-up with Batgirl to take him down and prove Gordon innocent.

If anyone was making an iteration in a Batman film series that wanted to introduce Batgirl, they should look to this episode as the template for doing so. The character’s arc is a perfect outline and gives her the spotlight. By the end, she’s not necessarily in Batman’s circle of trust, but she doesn’t need to be. Barbara is doing her own thing and can handle herself in challenging situations. I think Batman: The Animated Series did a fantastic job with its female characters like Batgirl, Harley, and Ivy. They are given lots of great episodes and developed to influence how they were portrayed in comic books.

The Demon’s Quest (Season 1, Episodes 60 & 61)
Original airdates: May 3 & May 4, 1993
Written by Denny O’Neil & Len Wein
Directed by Kevin Altieri

This is one of those rare treats where the original story writer got to pen the teleplay for the episode. Denny O’Neil created Ra’s Al Ghul for Detective Comics #232 (1971). O’Neil was inspired by the famous James Bond films with their Machiavellian arch-criminals. He thought it would be a nice contrast to the gangster and gimmick-inspired Rogues Batman traditionally fought. The 1970s was considered when Batman became the Dark Knight, a superhero who fought at different scales, both street level and sometimes globe-spanning. Ra’s would be a mental and physical match to Batman, using his mystical Lazarus Pits to rejuvenate and keep himself seemingly immortal.

The episode begins with Dick Grayson returning to his dorm room only to be kidnapped. Batman receives a ransom note, and Ra’s Al Ghul appears in the Batcave with his bodyguard Ubu to reveal the same has happened to his daughter Talia. Talia has initially been introduced in the episode Off Balance, where Batman first fights Count Vertigo. Batman hesitantly agrees to go with Ra’s on a quest to uncover both their loved ones’ whereabouts but of course, he suspects the old man is the one behind it and is correct.

BTAS did an outstanding job in its adaptations of stories from comic books. Entries like this and The Laughing Fish showed the writers knew how to take the best parts of these narratives and condense them down to television. You get Batman sword fighting with Ra’s shirtless but still wearing his cowl. We also get a villain unlike any showcased on the series prior. He’s partially insane but also a little right in his lamentations about the harm humanity has done to the planet. His solution is genocide, so Batman has to stop him, but Ra’s has always been a more complicated antagonist for Batman than most. 

House & Garden (Season 2, Episode 5)
Original airdate: May 2, 1994
Written by Paul Dini
Directed by Boyd Kirkland

Oh, that pesky production vs. airing order. House & Garden was the first episode of BTAS’s second season to be aired, but the fifth produced. This is one of many episodes in the second season to deal with a villain’s possible reformation. The series certainly wasn’t going to give up any of these great villains, so the stories had to be well-written to make us believe that this time they had gone straight or that they had some elaborate ruse that even Batman couldn’t crack. House & Garden is one of the best of all these entries, and it’s my favorite Poison Ivy episode. 

Bachelors throughout Gotham are being poisoned and robbed. All signs point to the M.O. of Poison Ivy, but Batman learns she’s been released from Arkham. Along the way, she fell in love with a profiler named Steven Caryle, happily becoming the step-mother to his two boys. Everything looks legit, but Batman stalks her to see if he can perceive any cracks. There are none, and he decides to back off after she confronts him over this. Meanwhile, Dick Grayson is attacked in his dorm room by a strange cactus-like monster with a ransom note sent to wealthy Bruce Wayne for his ward’s safe return. Batman plays along and discovers a twisted secret concealed in Ivy’s new home. 

I love the aching tragedy of this episode. Paul Dini once again evokes strong emotions from the viewer, and we feel deeply sympathetic for the villain. He touches on Ivy’s infertility, a side effect of her ability to be immune from all poisons. She genuinely enjoys being a mother but states she will do it on her own terms. Dini is one of the best writers of Batman villains. He just understands how to give them complexity and take them beyond being a gimmick of the week for Batman to battle. As you can see below, he either wrote or was a part of the team writing the episodes in the rest of the post. There is a reason why the writing staff was cut down in the second season, and Dini had handed a full plate of work.

Harlequinade (Season 2, Episode 7)
Original airdate: May 23, 1994
Written by Paul Dini
Directed by Kevin Altieri

Paul Dini gets another chance to deliver a Harley Quinn episode, and I am reminded why this character popped off the television and into the comics and subsequent films. The frustrating thing is I think successive writers haven’t really developed her in directions that suit what Dini was doing. I don’t emotionally connect with Harley in most contemporary comics. I feel much more sympathetic watching these episodes where we are seeing her develop into an independent figure out of the Joker’s grasp.

The Joker steals an atomic weapon with plans to blow Gotham to oblivion. Batman has no idea where he could be and reluctantly goes to get help from Harley Quinn, who is imprisoned in Arkham at the moment. She jumps at the chance for freedom, and Batman tries to control her chaos without much luck. A stop at the Joker’s old warehouse headquarters reveals he has the city wired with cameras, monitoring everyone. Harley leads Bats to a nightclub frequented by Gotham’s underworld and performs a musical number to help the Dark Knight escape having his life cut short. Eventually, they realize the Joker has been holding Mayor Hamilton Hill hostage, and an explosive showdown begins. It sees Harley finally cutting her ties with the Joker in a blaze of glory.

I think modern Harley Quinn has been sexualized beyond anything acceptable. There is inherently a goofy sexiness with the character, and you can see where it’s kept playful, but she’s presented as a genuine, funny & witty person. The version you see running around the DCU, particularly in the pages of Suicide Squad, is abhorrent. I think writers are trying to make her “edgier,” but the result is she becomes repulsive. I don’t want Harley to be a female version of the Joker. I want her to be her own thing, her own complexities & flaws. It’s bad enough that the Joker has been somewhat tainted into losing all semblance of fun; now they are doing it to poor Harley. BTAS is a reminder of a simpler time when this character really shined.

Baby Doll (Season 2, Episode 11)
Original airdate: October 1, 1994
Written by Paul Dini
Directed by Dan Riba

Paul Dini attempts to introduce another new character though this one would never get Harley Quinn’s traction. That doesn’t mean this is a bad episode or the villain is weak. This is one of the most tragic entries into the series, but Baby Doll just didn’t click with viewers and comic book fans for one reason or another. This is one of those episodes that hit harder when you are an adult. BTAS did a remarkable job giving us episodes like this that incubate and reveal complex themes when you are older, often heart-breaking & bittersweet.

Cast members of a decade-old sitcom Baby Doll are being attacked and kidnapped. It turns out the star of the show, Mary Dahl, has lost her mind and is using her wealth to re-assemble this “happier” time in her life. Mary has systemic hypoplasia, a disease that keeps her from aging. She has the mind of a woman in her 30s but the body of a child. The sitcom went under when Mary wanted to become a ‘serious actress,’ but she was mocked and considered untalented. Part of the blame rests on Cousin Spunky, a late series addition who upstaged Mary after he debuted. Now that she has everyone together, she wants everything like it was and to kill Buddy. Batman and Robin arrive just in time, though, and foil Mary’s plans.

The last ten minutes of this episode are the most heart-breaking you’re likely to see on BTAS. Mary is reflective of a disturbing trend in the fates of child actors when the fame ends. At the time, you could see her connections to Gary Coleman and Shirley Temple. Since then, we have people like Corey Haim who lost his sanity & life from the abuse he experienced in the industry. Mary embodies that pathos so beautifully. The finale has Batman chasing her through a carnival funhouse, and she freezes in front of the distorting mirrors. One of them shows her as Mary feels inside, without her illness, and it causes her to break. She just wants the life she sees others having, but that’s impossible. The episode closes with her reaching out and Batman embracing her. I think some of the best episodes are when you see Batman’s heartbreak for his villains, showing he honestly does believe they can be reformed.

Riddler’s Reform (Season 2, Episode 14)
Original airdate: September 24, 1994
Written by Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, and Randy Rogel
Directed by Dan Riba

One of BTAS’s most under-rated villains was always The Riddler, voiced by the brilliant John Glover. His episodes weren’t always the best, but he is such a fun antagonist to put up against Batman when the hero is in detective-mode. There’s particular fun in watching Batman struggle to decipher Riddler’s clues, especially when the hero is befuddled by his enemy. In the pages of Detective Comics, Paul Dini would play with the Riddler becoming a “good guy,” making his detective for hire. I almost think he works best in that capacity, a foil for Batman rather than the same level as the Joker or Two-Face. It’s the same thing with the Penguin being a mob boss rather than just an umbrella and bird-themed looney.

The Riddler has formed a partnership with the Wacko Toy Corporation, and of course, Batman doesn’t believe this for a second. His old nemesis has to be up to something, and he is determined to find out what. A commercial for the new Riddler line of puzzle toys airs, and Batman discovers there are ciphers hidden within. It leads them to the First National Bank, but it’s only when it’s too late that the Dark Knight realizes he read the answer wrong. The Riddler manages to buy himself some time but gets caught up in his newfound celebrity, especially the women that are suddenly interested in him. 

I was struck by how much this felt like it could have been an episode of the 1966 live-action Batman series. I could easily see Frank Gorshin playing a “gone straight” Riddler who is savoring how much he makes Batman look like a fool. I also love the idea of Adam West and Burt Ward being stumped and tricked by the puzzles. BTAS did an excellent job touching on every flavor of Batman in pop culture at the time without going too over the top. It was a show obviously jumpstarted by the Tim Burton interpretation, but its writers loved all eras of the comics and even the original television series.

Second Chance (Season 2, Episode 15)
Original airdate: September 17, 1994
Written by Paul Dini, Michael Reaves, and Gerry Conway
Directed by Boyd Kirkland

BTAS did a fantastic job of reframing Two-Face as the villain that strikes most personally for Batman. This was done by establishing Harvey Dent as a character who was a long-time friend of Bruce Wayne. We got quite a few episodes where Harvey played a supporting character and even the victim of Poison Ivy when she debuted in the show. So, when Dent was transformed in the first season two-parter Two-Face, it hit harder than any other villain’s introduction on the show. Because all that groundwork was laid, it makes Second Chance that much more heart-rending of an episode. 

Harvey is taken into Gotham General Hospital, where he will have surgery to fix his scarred half. Psychiatrists at Arkham believe this is the needed next step to heal his dual personality. Harvey appears to want this and shows gratitude when he hears Bruce Wayne is paying every cent for the operation. But in the middle of surgery, a gang of armed men rushes in and whisks Harvey away. They depart in two cars, so Batman and Robin split up, unable to catch them, but it establishes two potential villains behind the kidnapping: Rupert Thorne and the Penguin. Batman eventually realizes only one villain could have done this, Two-Face, Harvey’s worst enemy.

In this episode, the animation is some of the best series has ever offered, with a beautiful car chase followed by a fantastic escape by Robin. While the Batman/Two-Face conflict is at the forefront, in the background is a subplot about Robin coming into his own. He’s a peer to Batman now, not just a sidekick. Robin is a friend, not only his ward. This all foreshadowed his transformation into Nightwing when the series moved over to The W.B. The final sequence of this episode has a showdown between heroes and villains that pushes Harvey further than he ever has. It also emphasizes Batman’s commitment to helping those villains who he can see want to change. He doesn’t know exactly how, but he will fight to do everything he can.

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