Episode Number: 50
Original Air Date: November 23, 1992
Directed by: Kevin Altieri
Written by: Len Wein
First Appearance(s): Talia, Vertigo, Ra’s al Ghul (unnamed)
With “Off Balance” we have reached what feels like a fairly significant milestone. We’re now 50 episodes deep and we’ve also passed the one year mark for this little feature at this blog. You may be wondering why we’re not at 52 or 53 episodes if a year has passed, but that’s due to this feature pausing for the big Christmas advent calendar that goes on around here in December (expect more of the same this year). We’re also at some pretty notable and important debuts. Ra’s al Ghul, who feels like possibly the biggest break-out villain from this series, makes a brief appearance at the end of this episode. He’ll play a pivotal role in episodes to come, though it surprised me that when I looked back on it he only actually appears in five episodes, one of which is a two-parter and his true debut, “The Demon’s Quest.” He did cross-over into Superman and also shows up in Batman Beyond. Also debuting is his daughter, Talia, who is almost immediately cast as a potential love interest for our protagonist. Surprisingly, the least important debut is that of the actual villain of the episode, Vertigo, who appears to be based off of an old Green Arrow villain. This episode is actually his only appearance in the show and he never made the leap to other DC Animated Universe shows, to my knowledge. This episode is also a mostly direct adaptation of a story from the comics, in this case “Into the Den of the Death-Dealers” by Dennis O’Neil from Detective Comics #411.
The episode opens with Batman meeting an informant who goes by the name of Twitch (Chick Vennera) on what is apparently the Gotham version of The Statue of Liberty. Batman is seeking information on the Society of Shadows, and the appropriately named Twitch seems pretty jumpy when speaking about them. He can only offer Batman a little information, but is at least able to tell them they follow a guy by the name of Vertigo. Before Batman can get anymore info out of him, a ninja emerges from behind to strike. His attack is apparently just a feint, as a second ninja pops up behind Twitch and tosses him off the structure to the waters below. Batman, seemingly thinking Twitch is likely dead, is enraged and goes after the two ninjas. They manage to repel down from the statue’s torch to the crown where Batman catches up with them. Seeing no way to escape, they praise the Society of Shadows before activating what appears to be suicide gas in their masks. Batman removes the mask from one to see a face frozen in death while a dark-clad woman looks on from the shore.
Or that’s how it appeared. Batman soon drops in on Commissioner Gordon who is alone at the Gotham PD’s firing range. Gordon remarks that Twitch got away, seeming to suggest he either survived that fall or the police just haven’t turned up anything on him (he probably should be dead, this is clearly to please the censors). Batman also reveals that the gas activated by those ninjas wasn’t a suicide, but a special gas that erases one’s memory. Again, this was likely something they had to add in to please Standards and Practices, which stinks because this story really started off with a very high-stakes feel to it. Batman did learn from Twitch that the Society is planning on swiping some new high-tech weapon, and Batman is aware of such a weapon arriving by train that night to Wayne Enterprises.
The weapon in question is an ultrasonic drill. Because it’s associated with Wayne, we’re to believe this thing is only supposed to be used for benign purposes, hence why it’s called a drill and not a gun, but it’s capable of so much more. When the weapon arrives there are many on hand to oversee it including Detective Bullock and Wayne Enterprises own Lucius Fox. Vertigo (Michael York) soon appears though and demonstrates how he got that name. He wears a funky eyepatch with a swirling design on it, from which he can emit waves of radiation that cause those it touches to experience extreme vertigo thus disabling them. Batman shows up to see this for himself and also experience it. Batman is unable to do anything about it as the same mysterious woman appears again, only it would seem she’s there to fire at Vertigo. He and his men escape, forcing Batman to retreat to the Batcave and determine his next move.
At the Batcave, Alfred is polishing the enormous penny seen in “Almost Got ‘Im” while Batman busies himself at his computer recounting the events of the night to his trusty butler. We get another stupid Batman “eureka!” moment that is pretty much a carbon copy of a previous one involving Alfred (“Alfred, you’re brilliant!”) as Batman relies on a throw-away line from Vertigo about the tolling of the hour and realizes he fled to a place with a giant bell tower. He pulls up potential locations in his super computer, and settles on the one that looks like the type of place you would expect to find a super villain’s hideout. Especially a Batman super villain.
Batman wastes no time in heading out to this place and arrives to see the shadowy woman get attacked by some ninjas. Batman joins the fun and demonstrates he’s an amateur at playful banter (“Looks like you could use a hand,”) while the woman seems to welcome the help. One ninja successfully cuts off Batman’s prized utility belt without Batman noticing, while two more emerge on a plateau armed with the sonic drill. They fire not at Batman and the woman, but at the ground beneath them causing a huge chasm to open that both fall into.
Batman awakens some time later to find the woman washing the purple welts on his face. On his face! She’s removed his mask! He panics while she soothes him and urges him to be quiet before he can say his real name out loud. Batman gathers himself and puts his mask back on, only to then realize he’s without his belt. The two are in a locked room, seemingly dumped there by the bad guys. The woman, who reveals her name as Talia (Helen Slater), produces a hairpin as all women seem to carry and unlocks the door. From there the two escape and she takes lead, obviously knowing her way around the place as she mentions they need to get to the lab up ahead. Batman quizzes her on what her connection to the Society of Shadows is. She only offers up that she was sent here by her father to prevent Vertigo from stealing the sonic drill. Vertigo once worked for her old man, but once he saw the blackness in his soul, he cast him aside. When Batman asks why her father would care if Vertigo were successful she responds that he cares for all humanity.
The two arrive at the lab and find it unlocked, indicating a trap is ahead which Talia points out. When they enter they’re confronted by Vertigo himself who reveals the whole room is rigged with his special vertigo effect. He flees with the drill, leaving the two helpless in a booby-trapped room. Batman urges Talia to take his hand and trust him to lead her through the room. She does and the two have a really corny face to face exchange before getting to the task at hand. Batman walks her slowly through the room, seemingly anticipating every trap that is sprung. When they finally emerge outside of the room Batman reveals he simply closed his eyes to prevent the vertigo effect from disabling him. He simply had to rely on his other senses to avoid the traps. Oh yes, Batman, very simple indeed to blindly avoid flying knives and spikes that shoot up from the floor.
As Vertigo is about to escape in a very odd-looking airplane with a helicopter propeller on top of it, Batman shouts at him from below. They’re running up the bell tower, and I guess Batman feared Vertigo would escape if he hadn’t shouted because otherwise it was a foolish move. Vertigo simply activates his eyepatch and then takes fire with the sonic drill from above them. He takes out the stairs ahead of Batman and Talia as well as behind, stranding them in place. Seeing no other way out, Talia jumps and grabs onto the ropes that run up to the many bells above. As they start clanging away, Vertigo loses his own balance and drops the drill which Batman jumps off the stairs to catch. It would seem letting it fall and break apart would have solved his problem, but it wouldn’t have looked as cool. It also would have screwed up the episode’s ending, which we’ll get to.
Vertigo didn’t just lose his grip on the drill, he also lost his own footing and falls from the tower. The shot of him falling feels like an obvious homage to the film that bares his name, Vertigo. There’s water below, because there has to be in a cartoon, but Vertigo will not be heard from again so it’s safe to say this fall was fatal. Back at ground level, Batman and Talia are shown walking from the monastery lair with Batman having regained his utility belt and carrying the sonic drill. As the two bid farewell, Talia pulls a total dick move and draws a gun on Batman. It turns out she’s in league with the Society of Shadows and her father wants the drill. Batman is forced to angrily hand it over, but before he does he pulls some tiny, very specific looking device from his belt and inserts it into the tip of the drill. He warns Talia that this is not over, as the same weird-looking airplane returns to pick her up. Once high above Batman, she speaks over a video monitor to her father who is in a lair of his own somewhere. He congratulates her on a successful mission and then orders her to test the weapon. When she goes to fire it she realizes it’s been compromised by Batman, and drops it in a fit of rage. Her father closes the video link and turns to the camera repeating Batman’s own words toward it that this is not over.
“Off Balance” is definitely a setup episode, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be bad. Penned by legendary comic book writer Len Wein, it tries to be a little bit noir thriller and a little bit spy story. A ninja-like group of villains sounds like something that should be really cheesy, but the serious approach at the episode’s opening with the suicide gas and the taking out of informants works to make this one feel convincing. The mild undermining of the opening events in the next scene hurt, but don’t completely erase the feelings of that opening. Unfortunately what follows feels more like typical cartoon corn. It’s not always convincing to see Batman coolly figure out a villain’s motives and where their base of operations is, but the eureka moments are arguably worse. The episode also tries really hard to play up some sexual tension between Batman and Talia but the chemistry isn’t there. It feels really forced and amateurish, and Batman’s supernatural ability to avoid the many traps in Vertigo’s lab also didn’t sit well with me.
What the episode does get right though is its introduction of Ra’s al Ghul. If you were watching this for the first time and with no knowledge of who he is you would be left wondering quite a lot, as was the case for me when I saw it back in 92. He’s not named, but his apparent status as the leader of the Society of Shadows makes him very intriguing. His look is a bit goofy – a balding, older man, with a giant green cape, but he’s able to pull it off. A lot of that is due to the work of voice actor David Warner whose voice could make anything sound sinister and lethal without even trying. I’m a little less receptive to the Talia character, but that’s almost entirely due to the poorly constructed banter between she and Batman. Ignoring that, she’s portrayed as a capable spy herself and it seems like she didn’t need Batman’s help at all. How much of what transpired is staged and what isn’t is unknown since she too is a member of the Society. Vertigo’s betrayal was real and he likely had some loyal followers, but were the many ninjas encountered working for him or working for Talia and her father? I also really enjoy the voice work of Helen Slater as Talia. One odd thing though about her voice is that she has an accent (Austrian? I’m not good with accents) while her father doesn’t seem to have one. That might be explained in a later episode though. Vertigo himself, though he’s not really in much of the episode, is fun and I enjoyed his portrayal. I suppose Batman figuring out how to counter-act his device means he wouldn’t have been an interesting return villain so I’m fine with his apparent death.
As a setup episode, “Off Balance” does succeed in making me want to see what’s next. When Ra’s sees his scheme thwarted by Batman he doesn’t react with anger, but with a quiet admiration. There’s obvious unfinished business and this show isn’t really known for such teasing preferring to let the majority of episodes exist on their own. Removing that component, which granted is impossible, reduces this to an average or below average episode. It’s disappointing given the strong opening, but I guess they can’t all be winners.