Debriefing #15: Batman: The Animated Series’ Vol 1 disk 2

Batman: The Animated Series Volume 1 Disk 2
Creators: Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm
Directors: Boyd Kirkland, Frank Paur, Kevin Altieri, Bruce Timm
Writers: Jules Dennis, Richard Mueller, Sean Catherine Derek,Ted Pedersen, Steve Hayes, Alan Burnett, Randy Rogel, Tom Ruegger, Garin Wolf, Sam Graham, Chris Hubbell, Paul Dini

Note: This is a discussion of the episodes The Forgotten, Be a Clown, Two-Face Part 1 & 2, (It’s Never Too Late, I’ve got Batman in My Basement) and Heart of Ice

Edgar: A few weeks ago, you and I dove into the Batman Animated series for a discussion about the first few episodes. At that point, the show was, for all intents and purposes, introducing us to its style. With some reservations, I think we both enjoyed those episodes. Now, as the show finds its ground, the stories, for my money at least, become even darker and less kid-friendly. James, did the darker, more sinister trajectory the show took in the recent batch of episodes takes,, a representation of what the Animated Series is all about, or are there any detectable cracks in the armour?

James: I’d say this is where you get the upshot of what the entire series will be about. You’ve got an eclectic mix of the more fun, lighthearted episodes like I’ve Got Batman in My Basement and Be a Clown, the social commentary with The Forgotten and It’s Never Too Late and, what I think is the heart of the show, the episodes built around sympathetic villains with the Two-Face two-parter and the superb Heart of Ice. This section gives you a taste of everything and if you like this set of episodes the only thing I can say is you can expect a lot more of the same for the duration of the series. Were there any of those episodes you wanted to start talking about?

E: Well, if we may, I’d like to start with the episode that I found to be the weakest of the bunch, that being the very first one, The Forgotten. Watching it, I felt it odd that the animators and writers snuck this one so soon after an earlier episode we already discussed involving child labour. You liken the episode to social commentary, and I can see why. After all, the episode details how some of Gotham’s homeless are snatched up by a crim ring of some sorts to perform intensive manual labour. No one will miss them, presumably, and therefore the bad guys take advantage of that. I got that idea, and it was perfectly fine. I thought where the episode fails is in the presentation. The chief villain, the music, the location. Even the amnesia subplot was something we’ve seen in so many other shows. What were your thoughts?

J: That was a tonally strange episode. The plot is quite dark and serious, and I get that they interject a lot of humor because it’s a kids show, but it was all over the place. I get that amnesia is overdone, but I like the payoff here where it allows the show to reinforce family as at the heart of Bruce Wayne’s motivation. But as far as a lot of the trappings go, yes, it wasn’t great. I did think the Alfred subplot was quite amusing, but in a really corny way. Still, it’s certainly the weakest episode of this strand. I’m curious as to what you think about Be a Clown.

E: ‘Be a clown’ sees the the return of the Joker after a certain absence. It was great to have him back. He is such a clear cut menace masquerading as the most ridiculous, possibly harmless looking villain imaginable. Mark Hamill, as you wrote in our previous talk, is amazing in the role. I love how he’ll saying one thing to the crowd at the birthday party and then murmur something really vile to himself, like the line about the birthday candle blowing the kid up. The mood in his episodes is so freaky, so discomforting. As for the involvement of the little boy, that was maybe more hit or miss, but I nonetheless enjoyed the episode a great deal. James, how about you?

J: I have a soft spot for any episode with The Joker, but I did think the plot was a bit weak for this one. Watching this again, I’m reminded that the show often tries to work in kids in some awkward ways and this is certainly one of those episodes. I do like the arc of the father/son relationship, but putting children at risk always seems like a cheap way to get someone invested in the story. Still, I enjoyed it quite a bit. One of the things I like about this stint of episodes that you get a bit of in this episode is that Bruce Wayne also gets a lot of screentime as a character in the show, and he also uses a bit more detective work, disguising himself to get info or sneak into some area. Did you like that dimension of the character?

E: Obviously it’s important to the show that the viewers get a sense of not only how Batman operates, but Bruce Wayne as well. It further proves the point that even when Bruce is not wearing the famed costume, his mind is always on what Batman should be doing. I know only a moment earlier I said the Forgotten episode was the weakest, but I did appreciate how Bruce decides to sneak into the gang’s operation, not by being Batman, but rather by pretending to be a bum. That was a nice touch that I wasn’t expecting. Bruce Wayne is rather well developed as a character, even in the smaller touches, like in an episode about Harvey Dent, when we see Bruce, for about two seconds, laughing and having a good time with a woman. He’s a playboy, he’s charismatic and he’s Batman too! Speaking of Bruce Wayne and Batman, how about the actor playing them, Kevin Conroy. We didn’t discuss his work a few weeks ago, this might be an opportunity. What say you?

J: I love Conroy’s performance. I think the problem I tend to have with the average Batman performance is that a performer tends to be really good at one part of the character but not the other. So, for instance, I’m not a fan of Michael Keaton’s Bruce, but I think he’s a decent Batman. In Conroy’s case, he’s able to play both the playboy and the dark knight fantastically. And you can hear bits of both voices in each character. What about you?

E: See, I know what you are referring to when highlighting that one can discern a little of both voices in each character and I wonder how ‘strong’ of a point that is. Don’t get me wrong, I like Conroy, but I might lean more towards his Batman than his Bruce Wayne. He doesn’t overdo it with the growl, but it’s there in a subtle way. The more I think of it in fact, the more I wonder if it is the desire to pair Conroy seemingly normal voice (i’m sure he’s doing a little something to it even when playing Bruce Wayne) with the absolute towering figure of Bruce Wayne. It isn’t that I don’t buy it, but there is something to be said about the fact that we are a solid dozen episodes in, even more, and I still find that juxtaposition a little jarring. For the record, I like Keaton’s Bruce Wayne more than his Batman! Oh boy… There are some very, very important episodes in this batch relating to classic villains, one of which is Two-Face because I think it’s stipulated in the Batcave Debrief program that we must always talk about him. Another involved Mr. Freeze. Let’s start with the former. What did you make of them?

J: Starting with the Two-Face episodes, what I think makes this work is that you’ve had Dent show up a bit previously so you’re familiar he has a relationship with Bruce and his role in Gotham. To me, this is my favorite interpretation of Two-Face we’ve talked about so far because it gets at the idea that Harvey Dent doesn’t become this split personality psychotic because of the accident, but that he has this personal demon inside him to begin with. I love that the first episode is just dealing with that part of the story and then the second episode launches us into Dent taking on the persona of Two-Face. What did you make of these episodes?

E: There is so much to discuss here it could make for its own Batcave Debrief, just these two episodes. First and foremost, I, like you, enjoyed how the writers strayed from the traditional interpretation of the birth of Two-Face by clearly stating Harvey Dent has always had issues. Now, how could he have hidden for so many years and bla bla bla, sure, one can come up with some holes here and there, but the dramatic effect is incredible. Watching this for the first time at my age, it’s quite impressive to see what it supposed to be a kids show deal with a character who, for all intents and purposes, is schizophrenic. They never say that in the show, kids would get lost understandably, but it is there that is a bold decision. I love the actor playing that part as well, I don’t know his name unfortunately. I’d like to know what you thought of the show’s decision to make Harvey, oops, Two-Face, a much more vengeful character against the criminals who made him who he is. He doesn’t seem his usual villainous self. He’s more tragic and his mind is on vengeance. James?

J: I think it shows the duality of his character. Big bad Harv, as they call him, is very violent and angry, but you still see that side of justice to him when he decides to take down that criminal organization. And on top of all that they work in the coin as part of how Two-Face views ultimate justice as random. It’s quite complicated, making it a story that I think works both for kids and adults. It is surprising how dark this is. I mean I did watch these episodes as kids and I don’t remember being frightened by them. Even though I’ve seen this episode at least a half-dozen times each time I’ve watching it I’m surprised by how strong it is. It really is one of the finest episodes of the series. And speaking of one of the finest episodes of the series, what did you think of Emmy winning Heart of Ice?

E: That’s an Emmy winning episode? Wow, i had no idea. Interesting, interesting… I would have thought a Joker episode would have won something as prestigious. Nevertheless, ‘Heart of Ice’ is an incredible piece of animation and storytelling. The Two-Face episodes might have reached a certain peak, but nothing in all the episodes I watched struck me as much as the opening 15 seconds or so of this episode, when a strange, almost mechanized voice laments the loss of his beautiful wife, the fictional camera pans back to reveal a really scary face: Mr. Freeze, looking really pissed off. We can debate best episodes, but for me that is the best moment I have seen in the series thus far. The episode as a whole is so good too. The emotional tragedy of it all is ridiculously mature and dark. I mean, I keep sounding like a broken record, but this is a kid’s show and that scene when Batman discovers how Freeze came to be is so far beyond what any bloody kid’s show would ever do. James, your thoughts.

J: That’s a sentiment you’ll find yourself returning to a lot when talking about this show. The show gives a lot of tragic origin stories to its villains and I think this one is the most poignant, sad and beautiful. I also love what makes the character tick more than anything else is how emotionally cold he is inside, making him even more chilling than his exterior condition. That one scene where he tells his gang to leave the one man he accidentally froze behind is dark stuff. But you also see why the character has become so uncaring which makes you understand and feel for him even if his practices are wrong. It certainly is one of the pinnacles of the show. Any further thoughts on the episode?

E: Design for me is always key when it comes to the more fantastical stories, be it Batman, or Marvel or even James Bond to a degree. The Mr. Freeze design a really cool, no pun intended. The red glowing eyes is a nice touch. There seems to be a certain lack of consistency in the way Freeze looks outside of his costume compared to when he’s in it. I thought he suddenly looked far leaner and stronger in the costume where he almost looks heavy in his scientific research lab garb, but that’s a minor detail. The voice is fantastic too. Love that voice. There is another voice that sounds familiar in this episode, although not because a well known character comes back. Do you  know what i’m talking about James?

J: Mark Hamill does play the voice of the “humanitarian” of the year, Ferris Boyle, who is the man Mr. Freeze is after. I do like how you see some of the voice actors pop up or play multiple roles in an episode. Conroy also pulls double duty on this episode as a valet. The voicework is one of the show’s strongest qualities. I agree that the voice of Michael Ansara for Freeze is great, but of course it’s the effect of making it sound ever so electronic that seals it as a memorable voice. Adds to the cold distance of the character. As for the animation, the series is a bit notorious for being spotty at times. The show was written in American and animated in Japan so there were times where you could maybe see where perhaps the animation wasn’t as overseen as if the directors were working directly with the animators. I, too, noticed that Dr. Victor Fries seem to change drastically in build a number of times. But it’s a minor flaw in an otherwise beautifully animated show.

E: I know this is not the first time you bring up the fact that the show was written in the United States yet animated in Japan. I didn’t comment on that in our previous talk if only because, partly, I was mesmerized by the overall design and my eyes had not caught on some the details that hinted  at Japanese involvement. This time however, I felt those touches were far more prominent and noticeable. There is a fluidity to their animation style which differs from what’s done in our part of the globe that is pretty evident in some episodes. It made for some great effects. I liked it a fair bit and I hope there is more of it.

J: This set of episodes is where the show starts to gain traction and get into some amazing stories. While I think we may set expectations high for the rest of the series, there are still a lot of great origin stories I’m looking forward to discussing. that being said, I’ll always have a fondness for some of these early episodes and I think Two-Face and Heart of Ice are the two episodes I’d tell anyone just interested to get a taste of the show to check out. I don’t think there just two of the best episodes in the show, I think there two of the finest Batman stories ever told.

E: As the saying often goes: the hero is only as strong and compelling as his villains, so maybe it is telling that your two favourite Batman stories ever do not even directly relate to Bruce Wayne or Batman! I will say this however, after the episodes we have watched thus far (me for the first time, you for the 147th,) the show has been great at setting up villains. We’ve had some classic Joker encounters, and now Two-Face and Mr. Freeze have each earned phenomenal episodes telling us where they come from. I want to see what comes next however. Okay, so you can tell me a good backstory (which often perhaps the most interesting thing for a villain), but what can you do now? show me what they do next is what I anticipate.


One response to “Debriefing #15: Batman: The Animated Series’ Vol 1 disk 2

  1. In case you guys were wondering, Richard Moll is voice of Harvey Dent/Two Face. Richard’s probably better known as Bull Shannon on Night Court, but he’s a fantastic voice actor as well. His voice crops up a lot in B:TAS — for example, he’s the voice of the Bat Computer and also as the computer HARDAC in _Heart of Steel_ and _His Silicon Soul_.

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