Hey, everybody, remember The Batman? You know, that one where Batman ate enchiladas and piloted a giant robot and fought a ninja-Penguin and also all the cops had laser blasters for some reason? Yeah… it’s all comin’ back to you, now.
In the past, I’ve talked about this less-loved of the Caped Crusader’s animated outings and I’ve been fairly generous in my accounting of the series. It came out at a bad time (as the successor to the decade-and-a-half-long DC Animated Universe) and its aggressive departure in both style and storytelling to its predecessors only served to bring it down. Not that I can make too many excuses for the show; it genuinely deserves a lot of the mud slung in its cowl. However, when The Batman was firing on all cylinders, it proved that it was perfectly capable of telling some really good Dark Knight fiction on par with that of its holy forefather from the 90s. And even when it was just going through the motions, The Batman could still be a pretty entertaining series that, at its very least, was always entertaining on a visual level (excellent, consistent animation and some terrific action choreography).
But because I don’t want to be a Mr. Freeze and bring everybody down with crippling depression and cynicism, I want to highlight some episodes I felt were the strongest outings in the series.
Penguin won’t be making this list.
Ragdolls to Riches
A lot of my selections for this list made it here because they’re the “exceptions to the rule”. By that, I mean that they have a deeper layer or intelligences or sentimentality that makes them a cut above the rest. “Ragdolls to Riches” (written by Adam Beechen), on the other hand, is a shining example of this show’s consistent strengths: it’s bizarrely innovative takes on classic and obscure villains as well as its dedication to outrageous action sequences.
The plot to this one couldn’t be more cut and dry: Catwoman and Ragdoll (a burglar/contortionist) are both vying for the same pair of priceless emeralds hidden away in the gargantuan mechanisms of a clock tower. Naturally, Batman decides to come between the two warring larcenists and an elaborate three-way brawl within an intricate set piece erupts.
The Batman was action first, story second, but that approach isn’t exclusively a bad thing. “Ragdolls to Riches” has some amazingly storyboarded and animated fight sequences, all centering around Ragdoll’s contortionist abilities. They go absolutely nuts with the character and his crazy, anatomy-defying abilities and it really is exciting as Hell to watch. Clock towers are classically epic cartoon set pieces (“Castle of Cogliostro”, “The Great Mouse Detective”) and it makes for a superb finale, as Ragdoll jumps from coil to hammer, getting crushed within the massive gears without any ill effect, chortling all the while (with a great vocal performance from Jeff Bennett).
“Ragdolls to Riches” also illustrates how good the show could handle some of its characters. I always preferred this Catwoman over any other animated version, and Ragdoll was a character I’d never been aware of prior to watching the episode. I don’t think he was even a Batman villain, was he?
While it has virtually no plot to speak of, the episode is just plain ole eye candy; a trait typical of this show, which had strikingly high quality animation from Korean studio Dong Woo.
Gotham’s Ultimate Criminal Mastermind
On the subject of The Batman taking classic or underutilized characters and reworking them, this show is probably the only piece of Batman media (prior to Arkham City, I suppose) to realize the potential of Hugo Strange as a villain outside of the comics. They built him up for several episodes in the seasons leading up to this episode (which was the season 3 finale), constructing him into a major threat to be reckoned with. What’s best is that unlike every single other villain in this show, whose threats were strictly physical (even Penguin and the Joker knew kung fu), he stands out as being an intellectual and psychological threat with no athletic menace to speak of.
And yet, this episode isn’t even really about him.
“Gotham’s Ultimate Criminal Mastermind” (written by Alexx Van Dyne) sees Hugo Strange construct the ultimate challenge for the Dark Knight: an artificial criminal consciousness named D.A.V.E. (Digitally Advanced Villain Emulator) programmed with the skill and knowledge of Batman’s whole rogues gallery. D.A.V.E. immediately gets to work building himself a robot body, then steals all the money in Gotham before deducing Batman’s secret identity and taking Alfred hostage. Batman is constantly left a step behind, trying to outwit an enemy more mentally and physically advanced than he is.
This episode is sort of a double whammy. It’s Hugo Strange’s big “reveal” episode in that he finally turns into a villain (he’d been lurking in the shadows as an Arkham doctor for three previous episodes). And while he is the catalyst for the conflict, he isn’t at the center of the episode (another episode on this list continues that theme of his jail cell-based menace).
The other half of that double whammy is the new villain, D.A.V.E., who has a terrible name but an awesome design and presentation. The Batman wasn’t known for having many new characters of note. Detective Yin was discarded after the second season and Ethan Bennett suffered from having no direction after becoming Clayface, eventually having his role usurped by the original comics version, Basil Karlo.
What made D.A.V.E. stand out was his really, really cool design, with the bird-like feet, the tattered lab coat and the emotionless three red dots for a face. He also had a great vocal performance from, again, Jeff Bennett, doing what sounds like his best Daran Norris impression. The character is extremely matter-of-fact, befitting a robot, but with a huge ego that affords him a sense of humor, too. I was actually pretty bummed that he, well, died at the end of the episode… but I suppose after learning Batman’s identity they sort of wrote him into a corner. Be that as it may, there’s something about the image of a robot locked up in Arkham Asylum that appeals to me. He’d certainly make a good export to the comics. And yes, the fact that he has a crappy origin is actually addressed as a major plot point in the episode (another highlight).
The Laughing Bat
There are many fantastic Joker stories out there: “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge”, “The Laughing Fish”, “The Killing Joke”, “Death in the Family”, The New Batman Adventures‘ “Joker’s Millions”, Batman Beyond’s “Return of the Joker” and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight just for starters. In my opinion, though, I think “The Laughing Bat” (written by Michael Jelenic) is one of the most entertaining and underrated Joker tales ever told in any medium. Now, I know, I know. A lot of people hated Rastafarian Joker (despite having a great voice over from Kevin Michael Richardson), but if you can get past his unusual character design and appreciate this episode for its story, I think you’ll find it is very, very good.
The Joker has decided that he doesn’t want to be the Joker anymore; he wants to be Batman. But after running around Gotham and delivering merciless beatings to such criminal scum as litterers, jaywalkers and little girls drawing in chalk on the sidewalk, Bat-Joker realizes that he needs a nemesis. He needs a Joker of his own. With that in mind, he infects the real Batman with a permanent version of his Joker toxin that will, after a while, turn Batman into a cackling maniac for him to beat up and lock away in Arkham.
This episode has all the makings of a great Joker story. The plot is bizarre; the Joker’s scheme is the kind that makes perfect sense if you’re crazy, yet the threat is perfectly real. But what pulls it all together is that it is genuinely funny, albeit in a very dark and twisted sort of way. Not only is there an entertainment value to seeing the Joker brutalize old ladies for rolling through stop signs or antagonize elementary schoolers playing hopscotch, but the humor never comes at the expense of Joker’s credibility as a threat. One scene sees the Joker demanding payment for services rendered from Gotham’s mayor (voiced by Adam West). When the Mayor refuses, the Joker tells him that’s “too bad… for your wife”, before leaving the old guy’s elderly spouse strung up by her feet from City Hall, gassed with Joker venom.
Batman’s gradual descent into insanity not only heightens the tension, but the dark comedy, too. When he goes to visit the Mayor’s wife in the hospital (as Bruce Wayne), the toxin causes him to lose control and Bruce begins laughing hysterically at the old lady on life support (and then points and laughs at a guy in a wheelchair). The climax is even better, as a cured Batman faces off against Bat-Joker and delivers a great finishing gag to wrap the whole thing up.
The Batman won’t be hailed for its portrayal of the Joker by many, and I’ve met more than a few who refuse to watch the show for the Joker’s appearance alone. But “The Laughing Bat” is not only its strongest Joker episode, but a damn strong Joker story on its own, worthy of competing with the best.
Strange New World
Written by Joseph Kuhr, “Strange New World” is a great exercise in turning the nature of this action-over-psychology series on its head and playing with the audience’s expectations.
In this story, Hugo Strange has infected all of Gotham City with a zombie virus that, after 48 hours, will become irreversible. However, just to be sporting, Strange also inoculates Batman with the antidote, giving him a chance to synthesize more of the drug and distribute it through Gotham before time runs out. Unfortunately for the sleep-deprived Batman, the hordes of zombies (including Commissioner Gordon, Batgirl and Robin) seem determined to make sure that Batman fails in his mission.
The Batman was different from its predecessor, Batman the Animated Series in that it favored over-the-top action over drama and psychological suspense. Just to give you an idea, not only does Strange turn everyone in Gotham into zombies, but he turns them into Shaolin Kung Fu Zombies that can vertically leap ten feet in the air, doing back flips and jump kicks and all sorts of crazy nonsense. That isn’t to say The Batman wasn’t a smartly written show, it just had… other priorities.
And that’s what helps “Strange New World” to succeed so magnificently. The Batman was an action show to be taken at face value and the idea of a “twist” wasn’t really in the series’ game plan. So as we watch Batman spend two days (or 20 minutes, I guess) beating the Hell out of zombie-Batgirl and zombie-Robin, we’d already concluded before the opening titles had finished that this was just going to be another action-oriented karate rollercoaster. Certainly, nothing screwy is going on, right?
Then it turns out that Batman is the one infected by the zombie virus, and that the “antidote” he’s trying to spread all over Gotham is really the disease-itself. As the episode is shown completely from Batman’s POV, the twist comes as a genuine surprise; everything we’ve seen throughout the whole episode (the burning buildings, legions of infected, Strange’s “throne” at Arkham) was nothing but a hallucination. And oh yeah, Batman apparently spent two days out of his freakin’ mind, beating the tar out of his sidekicks, his butler, cops and even random people on the street.
“Seconds” (written by Steven Melching) is perhaps the most unorthodox episode of The Batman and a story that might feel more at home in Batman the Animated Series. There are no kung fu fight sequences. Not a one! Instead, it’s a story about good people that make bad choices and what it takes to realize the important things in life before it’s too late.
Francis Gray (voiced by Dave Foley of Kids in the Hall fame) is a bungling burglar and a very unassuming criminal. But that’s because he has a special power: the ability to rewind time by a few seconds so he can do things over again and get them right. After spending the best years of his life in prison for petty theft, Gray decides to get revenge on an uncaring society by planting a bomb in Gotham Square during the New Year’s celebration. With no way to physically defeat Gray, as he can just call a “do-over” every time he fails, Batman has to think of another way to bring the madman down.
Plenty of folks I’ve talked to have called this episode “too good for The Batman.” That’s a pretty harsh condemnation of The Batman, but I’ll admit that this is definitely the odd-man-out for the series. There are no super villains, there’s no karate and the means to defeating the “bad guy” (who is really hard not to like) doesn’t lay in beating him up or creating a dues ex machina to counter his power or any contrivance like that. This is a purely emotional episode with several layers of morality to it, not only in regards to the idea of choices, but regarding second chances; challenging audiences to be more empathetic toward ex-cons.
As mentioned, Gray is just totally likable. Despite his evil scheme, nothing else about him seems evil at all. It helps that David Foley has one of the best “nice guy” voices you’ll ever hear and was a great bit of casting, but there’s also his unassuming appearance, realistically tragic history and constant sense of humor. His nonchalant manner of rewinding time and doing things over again somehow, despite its constant use in the episode, never gets old and you really just like the guy and want things to work out for him. The manner in which Batman defeats him is… pretty damn dark and, I’ll admit, probably not something Batman would ethically agree to. Basically, he sends Batgirl to bring Gray’s estranged son to the New Year’s celebration right as his poison gas bomb detonates. Gray’s son dies in his arms and the shock causes him to rewind time all the way back to before he got his powers and made the choice that got him arrested in the first place.
While saying “Seconds” is “too good for The Batman” isn’t exactly something I’ll agree with, it is definitely in a league of its own; easily the best episode of the series. Not only that, but it’s a superb Batman story that pits the World’s Greatest Detective against a most unusual foe who cannot be defeated by gas pellets, Batarangs or any measure of “prep time”, with only a lingering sense of “déjà vu” to tip the Dark Knight off that something isn’t quite right. Batman is truly challenged in this episode and against a one-shot villain who, if it weren’t for a bad choice any number of genuinely good people might be tempted to make, wouldn’t be a villain at all.
You can find every episode of the The Batman‘s five season run on Amazon via DVD or downloadable Instant Video.