Saturday, January 26, 2019

Batman: The Animated Series Ranked, Part 4


25. House & Garden

As anyone familiar with writing/storytelling knows, the thing that separates the good stories from the bad largely depends on character wants. The more your character wants something, the better your story is going to turn out. And if that want is tied into something universal and relatable, then the audience will respond just as deeply. Such is the case with “House & Garden,” a Poison Ivy-centric episode in which the Bat-villain has seemingly reformed and married a college professor, living in domestic bliss with him and his two sons. Of course, all is not quite as ordinary as it seems on the surface, and the ending delves into some freaky, sci-fi Body Snatchers territory when it’s revealed what Poison Ivy’s really been up to. But what makes the episode special is the central “want” of Ivy herself--she’s not out to terrorize the city or anything like that, but legitimately wants a family of her own, and sets about getting one in the only way she knows how.

24. Trial

This episode tackles some of the uneasy questions Batman’s night-time activities create, all voiced by new Gotham City D.A. Janet Van Dorn. Van Dorn is not keen on the idea of an independent vigilante taking the law into their own hands, and sees Batman as responsible for drawing crazed personalities like the Joker and the Mad Hatter to the city itself. Ironic, then, that Van Dorn and Batman are soon captured and held hostage within Arkham Asylum, and the new D.A. finds herself in the unenviable position of defending Batman in a mock trial held by his greatest villains. It’s a clever conceit, and--to the show’s credit--doesn’t shy away from asking difficult questions about the more negative aspects of Batman’s modus operandi. 

23. Appointment in Crime Alley

Comic book writer Denny O’Neil created Leslie Thompkins in an attempt to widen out Batman’s worldview, wishing to tell a story that didn’t have Batman save the day by punching out criminals. The character has since gone on to become a fixture in the Bat-mythos, and made her first appearance outside of a comic book with this episode. Batman has a very important appointment to keep with Leslie, but keeps being interrupted by a chaotic night in Gotham City. It all culminates with a plot to blow up Crime Alley by corrupt businessman Roland Daggett as a part of urban redevelopment, with Leslie getting drawn into the conflict as a bystander. The overall plot tying everything together feels a bit like a cheap way to tie everything together in the end, but the episode still works as a testament to the Leslie Thompkins character and the alternate viewpoint she brings to Batman’s world.

22. Second Chance

This episode is an excellent example of how the show’s creators could utilize the singular world they set up around their title character to maximum effect. Two-Face is set to have radical plastic surgery to fix his scars, but someone plots to stop it before it begins, leading Batman to tear a swath across Gotham City’s underworld and uncover which of Two-Face’s many enemies could be responsible for the sabotage. Characters like Rupert Thorne and the Penguin weave in and out of the story, elements the show could draw upon to help sell the idea that this was a living, breathing world all its own. And the ultimate twist of who’s responsible for stopping Two-Face’s surgery is the type of beautiful character reveal the show excelled at when it was firing on all cylinders.

21. Read My Lips

One of the better Bat-villains to come along in the modern age was the Ventriloquist, a split personality who manifests his darker half via his dummy, Scarface. This episode mines all the possibilities that this twisted character provides, playing like a cross between old hardboiled pulp paperbacks and that one episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that featured a killer puppet. George Dzundza gives a brilliant dual performance as both the Ventriloquist and Scarface, and the episode has a nice, jazzy score to go along with the film noir visuals.

20. Almost Got ’Im

“Almost Got ’Im” is another classic episode, a Paul Dini-pinned tale that features five of Batman’s major rogues gathering together for a poker game and each trading stories of the times where they came closest to defeating Batman once and for all. Each little vignette is wafer-thin on their own, but put together in an “omnibus” of sorts makes for a an episode that is a delight to watch, and the small sight gags the animators work in for each character makes it even better on rewatch.

19. Mad Love

Harley Quinn was unquestionably the most ingenious addition provided to the Batman world via the animated series, so the show’s creators had a mighty task ahead of them when it came time to finally unveil her origin story. Originally told as a prestige format comic book by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, Mad Love was later adapted into an episode when the show was retooled as The New Batman Adventures. Casting Harley Quinn as the former psychiatrist at Arkham assigned to the Joker who eventually fell in love with her patient was a rare stroke of genius--the perfect twisted origin that kept Harley in line with Batman’s psychologically-damaged rogues but still kept true to an original character that was unlike any other in Batman’s world, or even mainstream superhero comics at the time. Originally able to loosen their belts with a format that allowed the story to be told with more mature themes, what’s most surprising about the adaptation is how much of that survived the translation from comics to animation--the animated version pulls no punches in portraying the Joker’s abusive relationship to Harley for what it is.

18. Mad as a Hatter

One of the reasons Batman: The Animated Series was so resonant as a whole was in how it took existing villains and refashioned them into characters with clearly-defined motivations. It’s not surprising, since Batman’s origin and motivation was what separated him instantly from other heroes of the day like the Shadow or Doc Savage. Taking an otherwise one-trick character like the Mad Hatter and giving him a backstory of social awkwardness and unrequited love is oddly fitting, as it is entirely in keeping with the character’s central gimmick of using mind control to get what he wants. The Hatter’s a creep, for sure, but a sad, pitiable creep, and Roddy McDowell’s masterful performance is at turns equally unsettling and heartbreaking.

17. Harlequinade

The Joker acquires an atomic bomb and holds Gotham City to ransom, and the only way Batman and the police can track him down is to free an incarcerated Harley Quinn and persuade her to turn on her beloved Mr. J. Thus begins a madcap comedy of errors, as Batman works together uneasily with Harley to find the Joker and stop him before he blows Gotham off the map. The Batman/Harley pairing is a fertile ground for some Odd Couple-styled humor, including a memorable jaunt through an underground speakeasy where Harley saves her and Batman’s skins by performing a musical number. It concludes in a fantastic set-piece involving the Joker and a prop-driven aircraft, and a pretty great final scene where it initially appears Harley is ready to break off her relationship with the Joker by finishing him.

16. Legends of the Dark Knight

This is a fun episode, especially for comic fans and historians of Batman’s deep and storied legacy. The set-up couldn’t be more simple: a group of kids are walking the streets of Gotham one evening, and the conversation eventually turns to the Batman. Each kid claims to know what the hero is really like, and proceeds to regale the others with differing visions of the Dark Knight, and that’s where the really fun stuff begins--each kid’s story is animated in the style of a famous Batman artist, so we get an anthology consisting of the do-gooder Dick Sprang Batman of the 40’s and 50’s side-by-side with a truncated adaptation of Frank Miller’s seminal Dark Knight Returns (confession time: I prefer this short segment to the later, two-part animated film adaptation of DKR). The ending is a bit of a let-down, as the real Batman shows up to save the kids from… Firefly, and the kids get to see that he’s a little bit like their own versions. But weak ending or no, the individual segments capture their respective artist’s styles to near-perfection, and it’s hard to see Batman fans of all eras not getting a kick out of it.

15. The Ultimate Thrill

Out of all the characters created for the animated series, Roxy Rocket not catching on with the wider public bums me out the most. I suppose she is a character that doesn’t fit in with the modern Nolan/Arkham games aesthetic that drives much of the Bat-media we get today, but Roxy is a fun character that could absolutely carry a series of her own. A former stuntwoman who found the controlled thrills of movie sets limiting, she got hold of a flying rocket and started getting her kicks by staging daring robberies. It’s a relentlessly fun episode packed with exciting set-pieces and wickedly-clever dialogue, including some pretty obvious sexual innuendos that I’m surprised the animators got away with.

14. The Laughing Fish

Two famous Joker stories provide the basis for this episode, the titular “Laughing Fish” and “The Joker’s Five Way Revenge.” After developing a new compound that allows him to induce Joker smiles onto fish, the Joker is incensed when copyright and patent offices refuse to let him lay legal claim to his new product, and seeks to enact his revenge on all of them. It’s an odd set-up storyline to be sure, feeling more like a scheme Caesar Romero would have tired pulling off in the sixties, but the horror-tinged atmosphere permeating the whole show gives the episode an undeniable creepiness, and the final standoff between the Joker and Batman is one of the series’ finest moments.

13. Harley & Ivy

I don’t know what the initial inspiration for teaming Bat-villains Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy was, but whatever led to their pairing resulted in a long-lasting partnership that has ingrained itself into not just the Bat-mythos, but the wider DC Universe as a whole. It all starts here, as a down-on-her-luck Harley happens to bump into Poison Ivy during a robbery, and the two decide they have a better chance at making it out together rather than apart. The two have an instant chemistry, with Harley’s child-like goofiness playing off of Ivy’s cool, sultry nature. The jokes are layered enough to land with kids and adults alike, and performers Arleen Sorkin and Diane Pershing never sounded better in their respective roles as Harley and Ivy.

12. Mudslide

I don’t know what it is about the character, but the villain Clayface always seems to bring out the best in the show’s creators whenever he turns up. This time, the former Hollywood star-turned-psychotic mudman has seemingly found a permanent cure for his condition, which is growing increasingly unstable by the day. Clayface/Matt Hagen is helped in this cause by Stella, a former medical advisor he knew from his film days who’s developed a way for him to return to normal. It’s a humanistic portrayal of a very complicated relationship, as Stella’s feelings for Hagen are clearly not returned, and Clayface is only giving her the time of day to receive the treatment that will put him back together again. It all culminates in a tragic showdown with Batman, with one especially memorable moment of Clayface absorbing Batman into himself in an attempt to suffocate him, before the villain takes a tumble into a Cliffside ocean and dissolves into a watery grave… Until the writers decided to bring him back, of course.

11. You Scratch My Back

The now-grown, be-mulleted Dick Grayson had already made a brief appearance in the previous episode “Sins of the Father,” but makes his full debut as Nightwing in this action-packed, full-throttle episode. With his relationship to the Bat-family as frosty as ever, Nightwing gets mixed up with Catwoman while investigating a smuggling operation. Bringing Nightwing into the show’s continuity was incredibly exciting at the time, since the character has always been beloved as the cooler older brother of the DC universe. Nightwing’s uneasy alliance and flirtacious banter with Catwoman provides ample story and character opportunities, and the animation and choreography of the various action set-pieces never looked better.

10. Beware the Gray Ghost

Even if this episode didn’t feature Adam West in the perfect guest role, this would still contain the raw ingredients for a classic episode. We get our first looks at young Bruce Wayne, inches from the television as he watches his favorite TV show, chronicling a Shadow-esque hero called the Gray Ghost, who it turns out had quite the influence on Batman, himself. All the meta-references inform the episode before you even get to the ultimate meta-reference of them all, having West voice the actor who played the Gray Ghost, was subsequently typecast and has trouble getting work in the present day. The reveal of the villain’s motivations is the only weak spot, but his plan provides the two heroes with enough of an excuse to team-up and play against each other (also, small side-note: the episode makes you wonder if Batman truly understands the concept of acting as make-believe, as he keeps badgering an older actor who only played a superhero on TV to put on a cape and help him with the case in the very real present). 

9. On Leather Wings

The very first episode is still one of the absolute best, as it lays down the framework and sets the tone for what is still the ideal translation of the Batman character into any medium. The script is a bit simple compared to the emotional and thematic highs the show would later reach, but provides all the elements that would go on to define what the series’ interpretation was all about: the dark, pulpy tone that was somewhere between film noir and classic horror, tragic villains who were motivated by more than just doing evil for evil’s sake and Batman’s detective-work being highlighted just as much as his physical prowess. Man-Bat may have been a curious choice to the uninitiated for the series’ debut villain, but he winds up being the best possible choice in allowing the show to plant its flag in the ground in stating what the show was going to be, and the climax of Batman and the Man-Bat sweeping over the beautifully-painted Gotham cityscapes remains breathtaking to this day--all resulting in an episode that you just want to watch over and over again.

8. P.O.V.

It was pretty rare for a cartoon to take inspiration from Rashomon, but that’s B:TAS for you: a show that routinely traded in small, intimate crime stories as much as it did in world-threatening stakes. Batman exists only on the periphery in this one, as three cops are called in to testify and recount their version of events of a sting gone wrong. The differing interpretations of the event and Batman himself give an alternate viewpoint of this world and the Dark Knight who protects it, and also provide definition for the three cops; chief amongst them Officer Montoya, another jewel that the series gifted to the larger Bat-universe, and a character who has remained an important fixture in the DCU ever since.

7. Showdown

One of the very best Batman episodes has very little Batman in it, as this episode is mostly a flashback to years past. The benefit of a character like Ra’s al Ghul is that his elongated life-span allows for stories like this, where the action is moved to the American West of the 1880’s and Ra’s is plotting a takeover of the U.S. government with a high-powered zeppelin warship. The only thing standing in his way? A certain scarred bounty hunter with a penchant for one-liners. He wouldn’t be the first hero you’d expect to guest star on B:TAS, but Jonah Hex fits into the format of the show like a well-worn jacket, and considering this episode was penned by long-time Hex scribe Joe Lansdale, nearly every line of dialogue that comes out of his scarred mouth is solid gold. Incredible voice actors (the likes of Malcolm McDowell, Elizabeth Montgomery and William McKinney) add to the lively steampunk western vibe, and the last minute reveal in the present day is the cherry on top.

6. Growing Pains

Many have decried the revamped New Batman Adventures for the sometimes drastic redesigns and the inclusion of a younger Robin, proclaiming it a “kiddie-fied” version of the original animated series, but the opposite could not be more true--case in point, this episode, where the younger Robin Tim Drake befriends an orphaned girl on the run from someone, with no memory of who she is or where she came from. It’s the type of story that could only have worked with this version of Robin, and the final twist of who the girl actually is by turns equally clever and heartbreaking. It culminates in a downer climax that’s as sophisticated as anything to be found in the original run of B:TAS, in which Robin learns that not every story gets a happy ending.

5. Perchance to Dream

The Mad Hatter traps Batman in his latest mind control device, this one providing its user with his or her deepest desire. In Batman’s case, it’s a world where his parents were never killed, where he’s a carefree playboy engaged to be married to Selina Kyle. Bruce Wayne refuses to accept it, however, realizing something is amiss once he sees someone else posing as Batman in this manufactured dream-world. It’s one of the oldest questions in philosophy, whether or not you could be happy once discovering everything around you is a lie, and for the pragmatic Batman, there’s only one choice--a climactic final confrontation between Wayne and the Hatter that ends with a quite-literal leap of faith, which could alternately be read as a kind of suicide.

4. The Demon’s Quest Parts 1&2

The fate of the world was something that was never really in play in the largely Gotham-bound original animated series, which made its appearance in this epic two-parter all the more special. Ra’s al Ghul makes his full debut here after being teased in “Off-Balance,” the first part of which is almost a line-by-line adaptation of his first appearance in the comics. The Demon’s Head’s first encounter with Batman is in the Batcave, being one of the few villains to have correctly deduced his civilian identity. He appears at first to be on Batman’s side, as both their “children” (Robin and Ra’s’ daughter, Talia) have been kidnapped. It’s all a ruse, of course, and Batman soon finds himself running afoul of Ra’s ultimate plan to cleanse the world of its human population and restore to it to its former green, pristine state. It’s a globe-trotting, James Bondian episode that recalls everything from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Lawrence of Arabia, all of it culminating in shirtless sword fight between Batman and Ra’s--one of the goofiest, most homoerotic scenes I’ve ever seen in a cartoon, made all the more goofy by the fact that Batman keeps his mask on for the duration of the fight (just like he did in the original Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams comics). I kind of love it, and eagerly await the day DC Collectibles announces an action figure two-pack for their B:TAS line.

3. Two-Face Parts 1&2

What was great about B:TAS’ interpretation of Two-Face is that the audience first got to know the character as Bruce Wayne’s best friend, Gotham D.A. Harvey Dent--which made his eventual turn all the more shocking for those who weren’t already deeply invested in the comics. The first half of this two-part episode is undeniably the superior entry, as we see the tragic circumstances that led to Dent getting half his face scarred, but once again, the true genius of the show lies in its careful reinterpretations of Batman’s classic villains. B:TAS was the first to suggest that Dent already had immense psychological scars before he acquired the physical ones. It’s heavy stuff, and the first half plays not like a superhero adventure but rather an intensely psychological character study. The second part doesn’t quite live up to the first, both in the writing and animation, but it’s solid enough, and largely able to coast on the goodwill established in the first part.

2. Heart of Ice

“Heart of Ice” has long been considered the best episode of the entire series, for good reason. It took Mr. Freeze, a ridiculous villain that no one had much use for previously, and completely rethought him from the ground up, using his cold motif not only as a gimmick but a thematic starting point for a character who is dead to all emotion. It revamped the villain’s origin, giving Freeze a compelling motivation by having him lose his wife in the same accident that caused his frozen condition. But aside from the fresh take on an old character, “Heart of Ice” excels in nearly every other regard, whether it’s writer Paul Dini’s poetic, whipsmart dialogue, Bruce Timm’s assured direction of both slick action scenes and high character drama or the smooth and beautifully-rendered animation courtesy of the Spectrum animation studio. Like the rest of the series, it’s a story that is representative of what is best in Batman, bringing together all of the elements of the character and his world in a perfect way.

1. Over the Edge

There is a great debate over the merits of dream sequences in narrative, the chief argument revolving around whether the stakes can have any lasting impact on the characters if the events in the dream don’t actually happen. It’s a bullshit argument, in my opinion--just because something is revealed to have not really taken place doesn’t remove from the impact it had on either the audience or the characters themselves; what matters is whether the emotion behind it reads as truthful, which is part of the reason this episode works as well as it does. “Over the Edge” presents a what-if scenario of what would happen if one of the Bat-family were to fall in the line of duty, and the ramifications that follow. Considering that said Bat-family member is Batgirl/Barbara Gordon, the daughter of police commissioner Jim Gordon, it becomes the darkest timeline as Batman has his identity outed and is on the run from the police, with his former friend and mentor leading the charge. The events continue to spiral out of control, before the episode climaxes with a tragic showdown that ends with lives ruined and friendships broken. Honestly, the fact that it all turns out to be a Scarecrow-induced nightmare in the end is a relief. But, aside from the charge the audience gets from seeing the unthinkable occur, the episode works as well as it does partially because it plays on the very real anxieties of Barbara, whose anxiety at keeping her night life a secret from her dad is clearly beginning to bother her. The true ending of “Over the Edge” is as sweet as the false one is horrifying, the perfect bow to cap the very best episode of the series.

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