Debriefing #27: ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ Vol 1 Disk 4

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Batman: The Animated Series Volume 1 Disk 4

Creators: Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm

Directors: Boyd Kirkland, Frank Paur, Dick Sebast and Kevin Altieri

Writers: Paul Dini, Michael Reaves, Samuel Warren Joseph, David Wise, Gerry Conway, Judith Reeves-Stevens and Garfield Reeves-Stevens

Note: This discussion covers the episodes The Joker’s Favor, Vendetta, Fear of Victory, The Clock King, Appointment in Crime Alley, Mad as a Hatter and Dreams in Darkness.

James: After getting a variety of episodes over our first three discussions, this round of episodes is a bit different. There are some new characters introduced, but the series begins to stray into what a lot would consider the b-list of Batman antagonists. Still memorable for Batman fans, but not someone the average person would recognize. My question is, going forward, do you find these characters, both old and new, as fun, memorable and interesting as the big hitters or do you think this series of episodes is a noticeable step down on the character side of things?

Edgar: I was afraid you’d start by asking that some of a question. In essence, I appreciated the fact that the showrunners wanted to branch out into other stories, which sometimes meant either concocting new villains or calling up what, you as described, b-list villains. There are times when the payoff works. I believe the Crime Alley episode to be a fine example of this since the story at the core is so good. Other instances, such as the Clock King episode, have interesting enough foundations, but fail to rise to the occasion. All in all, one could say I am mixed, which is a boring answer, I know, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles I suppose. James, what are your initial thoughts on these previously unseen antagonists and how the show goes about using them?

J: At first, I think I had that initial feeling. It’s been a while since I’ve revisited these episodes, but I liked the way they used these characters. Sure, the storytelling isn’t as strong for some of these characters, but I love the creativity that surrounds the characters. The Clock King is one of the Batman characters who first appears in this show and I thought it was a great episode. Yes, the storytelling isn’t as strong, you don’t feel sympathetic towards the antagonist because he’s a massive jerk and uptight, but I love him as a mastermind villain. His obsession with time allows him to outwit Batman in a way very few villains can. I’m curious, what did you think were the failings of the episode and what did you like?

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E: I think this is a great episode to analyse because I am so on the fence about it, which often makes for the best discussions. The things I like about the episode is the willingness of the creators to think outside the box in inventing a new character that can challenge Batman. Nearly all of his enemies are pretty ridiculous on paper, so somebody named the Clock King really shouldn’t be too great a stretch to see as a good fit for this universe. Plus, he has these little clock grenades that are nice touch and his final plan to have the mayor of the City crushed under the hands of a giant clock is just crazy and inventive enough to fit. However, I didn’t get the sense that most of what he was doing was justified. He is a very uptight man, and anything that goes against his patterns (read: schedule) sets him off (!). Nevertheless, his fury towards the mayor, especially his reasoning for it…I had trouble buying that. It felt too small to make a great villain out of him. I’d actually like to know your thoughts on the next episode, and in particular, the appearance of Killer Croc and how his story is entangled with one of Gotham’s most divisive detectives: Harvey Bullock.

J: I think this series of episodes is endemic of something some people may not like, which is that the villains often seem to overreact, to lash out in a very irrational way. I think that’s part of what makes them troubled individuals and why most of them end up in the asylum. I bring this up because I think Killer Croc is the best integration of this irrational overreaction. He’s a character prone to anger and he’s not that bright. He’s very reactive and has a way of blowing things out of proportion…sometimes literally. And for his character, that works great because it’s part of who he is. He’s larger than life, literally. I can see you having a problem with that for The Clock King, who feels like he should be much smarter and more rational about it, but it works for someone like Killer Croc. As for the rest of the episode, I like the tense relationship between Batman and Bullock. Neither trusts each other but it’s clear they’re both after the same thing. I also think it does Bullock a bit more justice as a character. He’s been played as a buffoon so far, but this episode makes him feel like a character you can care about a bit more than you could in the past. What did you think about the episode?

E: It might be one of my favourites. 28 episodes in this first season and I would easily have this one in the top 10. One of the main reasons for that is that I’ve come around to really enjoying the Harvey Bullock character. I don’t recall where the first time I discovered him was, I think it was one of the comics we’ve reviewed, but since then I find him endlessly fascinating. The people who claim that, at the end of the day, when push comes to shove, Bullock wants to nab the bad guys and do the citizens well are correct I think. The issue is that he’s such a huge a-hole and often times either doesn’t look like he knows what he’s doing or seems to be circumventing the law. The dichotomy between him and Batman is really interesting. Batman does disobey the law in many respects, yet he has plenty of fans. The Killer Croc is used to great effect, like he is a monster out of a horror film. Good stuff, and it would make sense that someone as angry as him would aim to harm a controversial figure like Bullock. James, what are your thoughts on the presentation of Killer Croc?

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J: I like how they play with his similarity to Bullock’s built. They seem to be the same shape so the episode does some cool stuff playing with that. I’m a fan of the grey skin over the green that seems to be more common. It fits into the aesthetics of the show a lot better and I can’t really say why, but I think it fits the character more. It’s a bit more earthy, I guess, and given that he spends most of his time in sewers I feel it’s a more fitting design. Anything you wanted to add?

E: Not in particular, other than I loved how the show refrained from revealing Killer Croc in his full form until maybe the halfway point. It goes back to the ‘horror film’ angle I alluded to earlier. He comes as genuinely scary in this episode. We don’t know much about him, and maybe that would make him even more compelling (or possibly ruin the mystery), but I can live with that. After Killer Croc comes a villain we have seen before in the show. In fact, we get to see him not once but twice in this final home stretch: Scarecrow. I’ve written before how he has quickly become one of my favourite villains, partly for his look. In fact, the show has changed his look drastically from the last time we saw him. Before getting into the specifics of the two episodes he’s in, what of the new face? Yay or nay? This is very important for me!

J: I’m gonna say nay. More than once the show changes faces on us for some major characters and I really didn’t like how they changed Scarcrow’s face. It looks a bit too silly. The first one was sinuous and creepy and this one feels too fat and jolly. Am I alone in that or do you feel the same way?

E: Sadly, I have to agree. I wouldn’t say the face looks too joly, but it doesn’t have a more cartoonish vibe about it. It think it has to do with the eyes. The teeth I didn’t mind too much, although I don’t recall scarecrows ever having teeth, so that is a bit of an odd aesthetic choice to go for…That first face was amazing. It was so simple, but those eyes were amazing. Plus, the hair on this new Scarecrow just doesn’t work for me. A shame, really. Nevertheless, Dr. Crane has two plots here. the first is rather unique in that he doesn’t really have a grand scheme, not yet at least. Before doing that, he needs to earn some cash, which he does by fixing sporting events around Gotham and placing bets. How did that come across for you?

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J: I thought it was a decent episode. I think it’s a smart plan and like how it plays with fear in a way that is recognizable to most people. We’ve all experienced that one time where we’ve had to step up and perform while everyone is watching and we have that fear of losing it. Of course, Crane enhances that fear into something much bigger. It heavily features Robin and I feel this is mostly just Batman solving problems while Robin quakes in fear. Poor Robin. I think he gets the short end of the stick here, although he does step it up in the last act. You have any differing thoughts?

E: Yeah, you know, I had nearly forgotten Robin was in this episode. I think I enjoyed Scarecrow’s doings more than anything else this time around. I liked that here is one episode that showcases a major villain before he has any funds or employees to hatch a plan. It’s phase 1 of what might happen later if Batman doesn’t stop him. That angle alone was enough to sell me the adventure. As for Robin…with the first season now done, I’m trying to figure out what the show’s writers and directors want to do with Robin. First, he hasn’t appeared very often. Second, there doesn’t seem to be a real reason WHY he is in the episodes he is in. What makes this all the stranger is that the next time we see a Scarecrow show, the season finale, pretty much the same stuff happens but to Batman, which is dealt with in a far more interesting way. I have nothing against Robin, but I think he is a character who has to be used right, otherwise he is wasted, which I fear is the case here. How about the second Scarecrow adventure? Did that work any better, or possibly worse?

J: It works a lot better. I think by making the person who gets affected by the fear toxin be the one who has to solve the problem you make a much more interesting conflict. Also, the stakes feel a lot higher and the episode focuses more on how the fear affects the person it inhabits. Watching Batman slowly descent into fear as he gets closer and closer to stopping Scarecrow makes the episode a lot more exciting. Plus, the animation gets crazy in some of those feverish nightmares and visions he has. I really like the show when it gets into psychological torment. I hesitate to call it my favorite episode of this lot, because there’s one I really have affection for in this lineup, but it’s probably the most creative and exciting episode. What did you think?

E: I think this episode does most of the things correctly, with one little misstep. I even hesitate to call it a misstep, but I think the time constraint of making a show that can only last 20 minutes forced the writers and director to cut short what to me was the most interesting thing about it: Batman admitted to Arkham and having to deal with that fate. It starts off with a real surprise when, in the very first scene, it is immediately revealed that Batman is in a straight jacket, condemned to spending his days in Arkham. I loved that move, but of course it can’t last forever because the Caped Crusader must face off against Scarecrow and foil his plot. I understand this, and I also enjoyed it, but I would love an extended cut of this episode with more time in Arkham. That idea fascinates me. You mentioned the animation and how adventurous it is and I agree 100%. The nightmares are very well designed and speak very clearly to the things that Batman must wrestle. Interesting that The Joker is a hallucination that appears TWICE in this episode. A little nod to how iconic that villain is I suppose. There is a Joker episode in this batch, one in which the Joker seems to take a very roundabout way to putting a new dastardly plan into motion. James, where do you stand on that episode?

 

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J: The Joker’s Favor has always been one of my favorite Joker episodes for a number of reasons. First, the episode is about a regular guy. He’s a born loser and when he gets cut off in traffic, he gets angry and tells off, of all people, The Joker. So The Joker strikes him a deal, he’ll let him off if he promises to do a favor for him. Eventually, The Joker calls on him and the big favor he has to do is….open a door. I love that it’s so anticlimactic and stupid but it feels right for The Joker. Torment this guy with just the thought of what he might be called to do and then make it the most innocuous thing ever. The other reason I love it is it introduces one of the show’s original characters that quickly became a fan favorite: Harley Quinn. She’s essentially just Joker’s cheerleader in this episode, but I love the cheek and spirit she shows. While she’s not a great character yet, I love watching her evolve as a character as the series progresses. Did this episode find your favor?

E: Hmm, I have more positive things to say than negative things, more I hesitate to say that I absolutely adore it. It begins in a manner I wasn’t expecting, as the story really concentrates on the miserable (relatively speaking) life of one man. Unfortunately for him, he runs into the Joker. I think all of that is great. However, as zany as the Joker is, I always feel there is some sort of logic behind what he does, however illogical it might seem at first. In this case, I had trouble finding the logic behind calling this guy up two years later for some a silly thing as opening a door. And then to leave him there to die with along with everybody else? It all felt so… pointless. Nonetheless, any episode with the Joker is a good one, and more I see, the I too am being converted into thinking Mark Hamill is the definitive Joker. No other actor can pull off the feat of being simultaneously amusing and off putting. I think the Joker is both incredibly disturbing and incredibly funny. Hamill does this every single time. What did you make of the climax, when it seems as though our regular Joe might have gone over the edge?

J: I thought it was a great way to end the episode, both with a bang and with a joke. And Batman thought it was funny! I can see how he would be taken to the breaking point and see it as the only way out, but I also like how he uses it to beat The Joker at his own game. I’m curious, what did you make of Mad as a Hatter?

E: I was wondering actually when we might get an episode involving this curious b-list villain. Once again, as has been the case with many of the villains encountered up until now, this is an origin story, which in principle I don’t have an issue with because the writers have gotten most of these right anyhow. When it comes to the Mad Hatter, they certainly hammer home the point that what he is after is nothing that bad after all. I don’t know how I felt about that. Presumably, if he shows up again in any of the next two seasons, he will most definitely be the villain, yet we don’t get that impression as much in this episode, which I thought was kind of strange. I also didn’t understand where the Alice in Wonderland park came from. Maybe you can help me out James. Are we supposed to accept that the park was already an expo in Gotham or did the Mad Hatter make that? Oh, and what did you of the episode? Why not.

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J: I love this episode, it’s my favorite of the bunch. I’ve always had deep affection for this episode because I feel Jervis is such a relatable character. What does he want? A girl, his secretary, Alice, specifically, it’s a sentiment many a man can relate to. But he’s a dorky nerd who doesn’t have a chance. So what does he do? He tries to win her over with whimsy and charm. He pretends to be the Mad Hatter. The only thing is he also uses his invention to control the minds of all the people around him to make Gotham his wonderland. It’s the perfect date…except Alice is still in love with her ex and when they get back together, well, lets just say the Hatter gets even madder. Yes, the wonderland world is a bit over the top, but in service of an interesting setting. I thought it was fun. I like what this episode suggests, that we have this tendency to think that maybe if we do things just right if we control the right factors, we can get people to love us. The Hatter finds out this isn’t the case, and in the process he becomes both a monster and reduces what he wants into something pathetic and sad. I find it one of the most touching episodes in the series. Yes, I’m a sap for a tragic love story.

E: James, I don’t have a single issue with anything you wrote above. I think all of that makes for great material. My only qualm is that the Mad Hatter is probably going to return later at some point and he will be the villain. Despite all his bizarre tactics, I don’t think this episode makes him out to be truly villainous. That alone is not a problem, for the very reasons you marvelously articulated. How are the creators going to make him a bad guy now, I have no idea. I don’t think it was great setup for a villain. I think they attempted something similar once before with Mr. Freeze and it worked much better. If Mr. Freeze returns, which I hope he does, I know he can be a true antagonist. I didn’t get that vibe from Jervis. If he comes back, I’d be very curious to see how the writers handle him. I suppose I am being unfair since this is quite a good episode, all things considered. I simply don’t think it gets the end result maybe it should have. That being said, I did really like the voice work for Jervis. What about you?

J: I think, like most of the series, it’s great voice work. Roddy McDowall’s able to capture the whimsical, children’s book feel of the character but also able to turn it into something haunting and sinister. I think that’s something endemic of a lot of the great villain voices in this series and McDowall is no exception. I feel before we wrap things up we should talk about Appointment at Crime Alley because it’s a very different kind of episode than most and certainly notable for several reasons. But before I give my thoughts, what did you make of it?

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E: I think it was very strong, despite that lack of memorable villains. The emotional core of this story was more than sufficient to drive the episode. I always enjoy it when Batman/Bruce’s past is brought up. It isn’t something that needs to happen often, that would be abusing it, and I feel that in the 28 episodes we’ve watched, it’s only been tackled 2 or 3 times. This might be the very best of them. Bruce, as Batman, is put under a lot of strain in this adventure because the villains are attacking something very close to his heart. He sounds a bit angrier when interrogating the bad guys this time around. Even though I wrote that the villains are not very exciting, I did enjoy their very capitalist mission to blow up crime alley. Sure, it’s unsubtle, but i feel it would make for something interesting for kids to see, because garbage like this actually does occur sometimes in real life. James?

J: Yes, it’s a bit more political in nature, which is why I think it’s a notable episode. It also shows that there’s someone else who knows Batman’s identity and why he’s on this crusade. I think it’s a good episode as a reminder of the emotional core of why Batman does what he does. I also just thought it was a good street level episode about Batman facing a series of seemingly innocuous crimes that lead to something much bigger. No colorful baddies, just thugs and criminals. Anything else you wanted to discuss?

E: Not necessarily about this episode in particular, but I thought we could cap off this week’s chat with some summarizing thoughts on the season as a whole. For my part, Batman The Animated Series ended up being way, way more intense and mature than anything I could have expected. The fact that in the 1960s they made a show that was ostensibly a comedy told that, really, Batman can be interpreted in so many strange ways that the prospect of watching a Batman cartoon had me, not worried mind you, but just slightly hesitant. Clearly, the writers had something very special in mind: stories that spoke to the history of the protagonist, to the emotional drives of Batman AND the villains, fantastic plots with mature themes. Plus, they hired quality animators who brought a very dark, very shadowy Gotham to life. Kids can certainly watch it, no problem, but it isn’t a ‘kids show’ if you catch my drift.

J: Yes, it’s a show that can be enjoyed by all ages and while from time to time there are a couple of gags that feel aimed at the children, the show doesn’t pull any punches or water down the stories it wants to tell. Gotham is still a dark city with a lot of bad people around. The villains are often sympathetic, but they’re still sinister and menacing. It’s an uncompromising show and even revisiting it after many viewings I’m surprised by how much it gets away with given that it was billed as a kids show. It’s for Batman fans of all ages. I hope these talks convince more people to check it out because I think we both agree it’s a fantastic body of Batman fiction.

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