TV Review – The Best of Batman: The Animated Series Part 4

Sins of the Father (Season 3, Episode 2)
Original airdate: September 23, 1997
Written by Rich Fogel
Directed by Curt Geda

Batman: The Animated Series came to an end on Fox Kids in 1995 as a new network came to prominence. The WB was to be a home for Warner Brothers programming, including expanding the DC superheroes animated universe. The New Batman Adventures was run by the same people that worked on BTAS, but the character and production designs were tweaked. Batman’s costume was more in line with his simpler Year One style, and the villains took on more gothic, monstrous looks. Catwoman had pale skin, Joker’s hair looked like a boomerang, and The Scarecrow was a pure nightmare.

One of the most significant changes was that Dick Grayson was nowhere in sight. In this second episode of the series, we meet Tim Drake, who, despite the name, is closer to Jason Todd’s personality. Tim is the son of a man that works for Two-Face. The villain sends a couple of his men to Drake’s apartment to muscle the man but find he’s skipped town. Throughout the story, Tim ends up in Batman’s care, who is partnering with Batgirl full-time. It turns out Tim’s dad has died, and the boy is promised a place in Wayne Manor. Despite Batman’s wishes, Tim dons the Robin costume and shows up to help stop the villain and cements his place as part of the Batman family. Dick shows up in the final scene foreshadowing his return as Nightwing.

If we’re comparing Robin origin episodes, this one doesn’t touch the two-parter Robin’s Reckoning. However, Tim is a very different character from Dick which makes him an interesting character. He plays off of Batman with more conflict than Dick did in the earlier seasons. Tim Drake is also a perfect Robin through the 1990s and 2000s, only to have been incredibly mishandled in the last decade. The Young Justice animated series has been the only time we got the detective prodigy version of Drake. I just imagine it’s Jason Todd for this animated iteration, so it doesn’t conflict too severely.

Double Talk (Season 3, Episode 4)
Original airdate: November 22, 1997
Written by Robert Goodman
Directed by Curt Geda

As a kid, I always found the Ventriloquist & Scarface to be one of the creepiest villains in the Batman mythos. Arnold Wesker is a man with some deep-seated mental illness, repressing his violent tendencies through an avatar. This comes in the form of a dummy made up to look like a 1940s gangster he calls Scarface. Scarface berates Wesker and even physically strikes him, a disturbing manifestation of Wesker’s self-loathing. Like many of the episodes in the last season, this one deals with rehabilitation and delivers a surprisingly successful one at that.

Wesker is released to a halfway home after showing signs of recovering from his dissociative personality disorder. Bruce Wayne owns the facility and even gets Wesker a job in the mailroom at his company. He keeps a close eye on the man as his employer and as Batman. Scarface’s old crew wants the boss to return and begin tormenting Wesker with phone calls pretending to be the dummy. It’s only a matter of time before Wesker breaks and allows himself to be crushed under the boot of Scarface.

The comics haven’t really known what to do with The Ventriloquist in recent years since his debut, but this episode should be used to guide how to use the character in stories. This is also one of the episodes where a villain actually gets redeemed. By the end, Wesker isn’t going to be The Ventriloquist anymore, but he’s still going to have to keep working on his path to healing. I think this is an essential thing to have in BTAS, seeing Batman help a foe and lead him down a path of redemption. It works because this isn’t a classic villain you expect to see in perpetuity, and it feels perfect to have an upbeat ending like this.

You Scratch My Back (Season 3, Episode 5)
Original airdate: November 15, 1997
Written by Hilary J. Bader
Directed by Butch Lukic

This is the first episode to feature Nightwing, Dick Grayson’s new persona. There are no real details given on what led Grayson to take this name and this costume. In the comic books, Grayson had been separated from Batman for a while as he was the leader of the New Teen Titans. He eventually felt Robin was something from his childhood and abandoned the identity. Inspired by stories he’d heard from Superman about the Kandorian heroes Nightwing & Flamebird, Grayson took the name and created a new persona. Of course, due to continuity changes, that inspiration no longer applies, and I don’t know what the hell led Grayson to become Nightwing now.

In this episode, Nightwing is paired with Catwoman, who created a love triangle with Batman. Nightwing is attempting to take down a smuggling ring operating out of the Gotham docks. Catwoman claims to be turning a new leaf and wants to partner with the former Boy Wonder. Batman is immediately suspicious, but Catwoman tries to play it as jealousy. She takes a cougar route and attempts to seduce Nightwing, who appears to take the bait. But of course, not everything is as it seems, and the story plays with the surface versus character motivations beneath things.

This Catwoman is an interesting twist on her often bland persona in the earlier seasons. Having her pursue Nightwing makes sense. Batman has rebuffed her so many times she has to be frustrated with him. In the comics, they’ve recently leaned into the Batman/Catwoman relationship to the point that she’s just a straight-up superhero at this point, but there’s always a reason why they can’t be together. I also think exploring the Nightwing/Batman conflict is still interesting because it leads to examining how dangerous Batman’s entire mission is. Nightwing is a character who can break free, but Batman is going to do this until he dies.

Never Fear (Season 3, Episode 6)
Original airdate: November 1, 1997
Written by Stan Berkowitz
Directed by Kenji Hachizaki

The Scarecrow received the best redesign of all the Batman villains for this WB season. Visually he is a waking nightmare, leaning into the horror elements of the scarecrow archetype. A closer look at these new elements adds complexity to the character. He wears a wide-brimmed traveling preacher’s hat, reminding me of the hat worn by Malachai in Children of the Corn. He also has a hangman’s noose around his neck, not something commonly associated with scarecrows but connects him to the concept of death. Instead of his face as a burlap sack, it resembles a skull. 

His scheme in this episode is a reverse of his standard M.O. Instead of manipulating people’s fears, Scarecrow uses his chemicals to cause people to have no fear, which leads them into perilous situations. The opening of this episode has a man freewheeling through the skies of Gotham without a care for how close he comes to death. This is facilitated by a motivational speaking seminar called Never Fear, where the chemical is offered to people with anxiety. Batman gets hit with the serum, and it’s up to Robin to keep him from crossing those sacred lines.

This was the first episode of the series to be produced by animators at TMS Entertainment, the studio responsible for anime like Lupin the Third, Akira, and Little Nemo. The director is Kenji Hachizaki, who worked on many of those projects. The result is that this episode looks very classical, like a Superman-Fleischer cartoon at certain moments. The fights are fluid and wonderfully structured. That opening is especially one of the best sequences in the series.

Over the Edge (Season 3, Episode 12)
Original airdate: May 23, 1997
Written by Paul Dini
Directed by Yuichiro Yano

Much like “Perchance to Dream,” we get an episode that is obviously a dream of some kind; otherwise, it would end the whole series. Despite that, this is such a fantastic BTAS entry that I was amazed. I missed these WB episodes when they originally aired, and I am so happy I got to see this one. The Scarecrow plays the villain role but mostly in the background. Instead, we get an imaginary story about how the relationship between Batman and Commissioner Gordon falls apart.

Batgirl pursues The Scarecrow and, in the ensuing fight, plummets to her death on the street below, striking Gordon and Bullock as they pull up to the scene. While Bullock goes to get help, Gordon holds Batgirl, who calls him “Dad.” He unmasks her and learns she has been his daughter, Barbara. As she dies in his arms, Gordon is wholly broken and blames Batman for putting his daughter in the line of danger. He learns Batman’s true identity after examining Barbara’s home computer, and the SWAT team shows up at Wayne Manor. Eventually, Bane is hired to assassinate Batman, with Gordon baiting the Dark Knight out into the open. Ultimately, the illusion collapses, and we learn Barbara is fighting off fear gas.

Because this is a Paul Dini episode, it is immaculately written, and he even makes a character like Bane interesting, which is quite an accomplishment. Despite the high concept, Dini never loses touch with the characters. Even Barbara, who is absent for most of the story, ends up having a fantastic moment with her dad in the closing scene. The illusion is masked well enough that a child watching could legitimately believe this is the end of Batman. There’s even a great scene where Bat-villains go on television to place the blame of the criminality on Batman,

Mad Love (Season 3, Episode 21)
Original airdate: January 16, 1999
Written by Paul Dini & Bruce Timm
Directed by Butch Lukic

Mad Love represents an exciting twist in that it’s an adaptation of a comic book written by Paul Dini based on his character Harley Quinn created in the first season of BTAS. The story is the origin of Harley Quinn, something slightly hinted at but not fully revealed until the comic book was published in 1993. In the comic, Quinn is a much more overtly sexual character, sleeping with a college professor and having sex with the Joker. It’s not explicit, but it’s much more direct than anything you would expect to see in the animated series.

Harleen Qunizel is an ambitious young psychologist who wants to become famous. She sees Arkham Asylum as a ticket to that life by working with high-profile patients and eventually selling books based on her experiences. Harleen gravitates immediately to the Joker, the most high-profile villain in the bunch. Finally, Joker flips the tables and begins delving into Harleen’s mind. Eventually, she’s kicked out of Arkham but snaps and comes back dressed as Harley Quinn, helping her lover escape. This is all told in flashback from the present day as she tries to prove to the Joker that she can capture and kill Batman herself.

It’s a Paul Dini episode, so the writing is fantastic. He knows Harley’s voice so well at this point that he writes her effortlessly. Despite production order, this was the final episode aired of BTAS, which feels like a perfect note to send the series out on. Harley Quinn is the best thing to come out of BTAS and certainly the most long-lasting creation. Having the story of how she came to be a villain, yet another victim of the Joker, is the perfect endnote. Arleen Sorkin, Harley’s voice, nails Harleen’s personality and helps the audience understand the schism between these two personas. I don’t think another children’s cartoon from the 1990s stands up like this one, not just the best-animated presentation of Batman but one of the best representations of him in all media.

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