Batman: The Animated Series – “Read My Lips”

read my lipsEpisode Number:  64

Original Air Date:  May 10, 1993

Directed by:  Boyd Kirkland

Written by:  Alan Burnett and Michael Reaves

First Appearance(s):  Scarface, The Ventriloquist

For the second week in a row we have a rather unusual villain for Batman to tangle with. Some would even say comical, but in the case of Scarface, the execution is better. The unique nature of Scarface makes this a memorable episode. It’s title card some-what gives away the villain’s twist, but I’ll still suggest making sure you’ve either seen this episode already or you’re familiar with this foe before reading this.

scarface

“Say hello to my little friend,” takes on new meaning with this Scarface.

The episode opens on a boxing match. When the fight concludes we see the money that the fight generated getting moved around amongst the bowels of the arena, until a trio of muggers intercept it. They beat a hasty retreat to the roof of the building. When a truck stops at a nearby red light, the robbers jump off the building to land in the back of it unseen. The truck is then able to simply drive away when the light turns green as the police arrive on the scene. The robbers return to their hide-out where they greet their boss, who like many villains, dwells in the shadows. They boast of their success, while the boss, Mr. Scarface (George Dzundza), assures them this is only the beginning.

Following that declaration we get a trope. Spinning newspapers detail the new crime wave hitting Gotham, and it’s all flummoxed the commissioner. Gordon is shown at his desk when Batman emerges from the shadows of his office to give him a startle. He tells Batman they’ve been unable to get anywhere with this new gang and hands Batman a VHS some amateur home video maker passed along which shows the gang in action. Batman says he’ll take a look before vanishing as he always does. It’s the second episode in a row that begins with a crime, a shadowy boss-figure, and Gordon essentially passing it onto Batman.

scarface and dummy

Scarface and his “dummy” make for quite a pair.

At the Batcave, Batman analyzes the tape Gordon handed him along with Alfred. He remarks the thieves are clever and careful to make sure they’re always masked and wearing gloves, which strikes me more as common sense as opposed to cleverness, but I’m not the expert here. Batman is able to notice a tattoo on one of them revealed when he crashes through a fence (further proving my thought this isn’t the work of clever men) and his sleeve is torn. The man is a behemoth, and the tattoo is of a rhino breaking out of a cage. Batman turns to his trusty tattoo database, which looks more like a collection of mudflap designs, and finds a match linking the tattoo to a fellow who goes by the name of Rhino, who could have guessed?

Batman confronts this Rhino (Earl Boen), who is out for an evening stroll and dressed like a classic gangster. Rhino thinks Batman is trying to provoke him into a fight, but he won’t bite. Batman tells him he has him confused with the police and that he wants answers. Batman comes off as rather threatening here, a nice edge for him. Rhino, despite just claiming he wouldn’t fall for it, does indeed try to inflict some harm on Batman, but he just sidesteps him. The commotion attracts the attention of a police cruiser and two cops pop out to see what’s going on. Batman takes his leave and the cops are able to have a little fun at Rhino’s expense. He shuts his mouth and leaves, but proving he has the physique as well as the brains of a rhinoceros, he heads straight for Scarface’s hideout.

Batman pursues him from the rooftops and watches through a skylight as Rhino confronts a rather meek looking individual. He demands to see Scarface, but the bald, little man with glasses (Dzundza) insists that the boss is sleeping and disturbing him would be a bad idea. Rhino needs only to mention that Batman is nosing around their operation to get the man to rouse Scarface. He disappears into a bedroom and Scarface can be heard chastising the man for waking him, but he reluctantly gets up. As he emerges from the bedroom, it’s revealed that Scarface is a dummy, and the other guy is a ventriloquist which causes Batman to make his shocked face with the half-circle eyes.

Rhino fills Scarface in on what happened, causing Scarface to think they have a squeeler among them. A rat-faced looking guy (who goes by the name Ratso and is voiced by Neil Ross) is alarmed by Batman snooping around and makes the mistake of speaking his concerns to the ventriloquist and not Scarface, which nearly gets him killed. Scarface soon returns to his room, leaving Rhino, Ratso, and Mugsy (Joe Piscopo) to talk amongst themselves. When Ratso questions the relationship between Scarface and the ventriloquist, Rhino points out that it’s Scarface who is the brains of the operation implying he is fully onboard with this setup as presented.

interrogating ventriloquist

The ventriloquist turns out to be rather meek and pathetic, by villain standards.

Batman waits until later when everyone is asleep to infiltrate Scarface’s bedroom. There, he cautiously approaches the dummy as it lays in bed with the covers drawn up to its chin. He taps the dummy on the nose and its eyes spring open, startling Batman. He then merely closes them, and probably silently calling himself silly for being so cautious around a dummy, resumes his sleuthing. He doesn’t seem to uncover anything when the ventriloquist comes in to check on Scarface. Batman is able to grab him from behind, covering his mouth, and pulls him into another room for questioning. He approaches the interrogation as if the ventriloquist was the brains behind the whole thing. When the ventriloquist appears to be playing dumb, Batman instructs him that he may think he’s a dummy but not to speak to him as if he is one. Scarface starts calling out from his bed, and the ventriloquist gets real concerned. He starts sweating and pleads with Batman to let him go insisting that Scarface tells him nothing. Batman does, as the ventriloquist goes to attend to his boss, Batman plants a listening device on the ventriloquist’s tux which was hanging on the door. In Scarface’s room, the ventriloquist is clearly nervous as he converses with Scarface, who notices that something is up, but seems to accept the explanation of a bad dream. As the ventriloquist closes the window from which Batman had entered, he sees the caped crusader swinging away.

ventriloquist nervous

Even when he isn’t being watched, The Ventriloquist still acts like Scarface presents a real danger.

At the Batcave, Batman explains multiple personality syndrome to Alfred. Alfred has the good line of noting that even for Batman this Scarface is a bit of an odd one. Batman references his old mentor Zatara and how he taught him how to toss his voice, but remarks that this ventriloquist puts him to shame. He even claims the computer can’t tell that the two voices belonging to Scarface and The Ventriloquist originate from the same person. Thus far though, he also notes that The Ventriloquist was not lying when he said that Scarface shares nothing with him regarding his plans and he remarks he’ll just have to keep listening until something comes up.

And something does, as Scarface gathers his boys about a job he’s got. They’re going to knock-off a shipment of platinum which is currently just sitting on a cargo ship in Gotham harbor. Scarface warns that he feels a double-cross is coming and makes sure his boys know that if one of them turns on him they’re dead. They head out for the job and it’s going rather well for them. They pull up in a small boat alongside the ship and cut through the hull. Inside is a huge stack of platinum arranged in a pyramid and they just start unloading it. Batman arrives and first takes out the one man remaining in the boat before entering. He dives in and takes out the smaller man, but Rhino puts up a fight. He’s able to get behind the stack of platinum and actually shoves it over onto Batman. The camera pans over to show Batman’s hand sticking out of the pile of platinum bars.

scarface double cross

Now this is something you don’t see every day.

Batman once again proves he’s no normal man as he wakes up inside Scarface’s hideout dangling by his wrists from the ceiling. That stack of platinum really should have killed him or at least mangled him, but he seems fine. The villains have foolishly left his utility belt in place so we’ll have to see if that proves to be a big mistake, but for now his hands are bound. Below him are a bunch of mannequin parts and they’ve been sharpened to a point and look mighty nasty. Scarface and his men are standing around him ready to let him know he’s been got.

Scarface informs Batman that they set him up. The Ventriloquist filled him in on what happened and Scarface found the planted microphone on the suit. It would seem like Batman is in a bad spot, but he tells Scarface he was able to gain access to his hideout thanks to some inside help. Scarface, being a stereotypical gangster, gets agitated at the thought of a rat in his midst. He starts looking around suspiciously, while Rhino insists he’s not the rat and Scarface agrees noting he’s too stupid to be a betrayer. Batman plays coy, but when Scarface appears ready to end the discussion by dropping he reveals his source – The Ventriloquist. Scarface takes the bait, and immediately turns on his handler. He orders his men to take him out, but they’re understandably reluctant to shoot The Ventriloquist given what that would mean for Scarface. When they won’t do it, he decides he will and The Ventriloquist even helps Scarface point his adorable little tommy gun at his own face.

dead scarface

I know he’s just a puppet, but that’s still a bit unsettling.

Meanwhile, Batman demonstrates his proficiency at throwing his voice. In order to further provoke Scarface, he imitates The Ventriloquist and further riles him up. While everyone is distracted, Batman is able to free himself from the binds on his wrists. When it looks like Scarface is about to execute his handler, a whirling batarang severs his hand at the wrist. Batman then swings in to dispatch of the lackeys, though Rhino puts up a good fight. Batman at first tries to take him head-on, which is futile, and then resorts to misdirection to take him out. While dealing with Rhino though, Mugsy is able to grab a machine-gun. He opens fire at Batman, but misses and hits the Scarface dummy which had fallen to the ground. It gets riddled with bullets until Batman takes the guy out with another batarang to the forehead, which lucky for him didn’t get lodged in his skull. A weeping, hysterical, Ventriloquist picks up Scarface’s remains and cradles them in his arms as the camera pans out from high above.

At Arkham, two doctors are shown discussing the progress of their newest inmate in what appears to be a workshop. The other patients are all working on various crafts and one of the doctors approaches our pal The Ventriloquist from behind. He offers some praise on the work he’s doing, which he politely thanks him for, before moving on. Once the doctor is gone, the ventriloquist reaches for a wood-carving blade and turns his work over in his hands to reveal the face of a dummy. Plunging the blade into the dummy’s cheek, he drags it along leaving a wicked scar.

new scarface carving

The episode ends basically the only way it can.

“Read My Lips” is able to better straddle the line of comedy and thriller than the prior episode, “Fire From Olympus.” The plight of the character who is simply referred to as The Ventriloquist is perhaps a stretch, but plausible. Fiction writers have been having fun at the expense of those suffering from multiple personality syndrome for years, but doing it through a dummy is definitely one of the more eccentric methods. The actual dummy, Scarface, would be adorable if he weren’t so homicidal. He has a little pin-striped suit and fedora to go with his tiny gun. He even has a cigar affixed to his mouth to complete the look, which is apparently removable since he doesn’t have it while he “sleeps.” It’s amusing to see how his subordinates treat him, some being more into it than others, and even Batman is a bit unnerved by the dummy. George Dzundza is awesome as both Scarface and The Ventriloquist and I would have guessed the two roles were played by different actors. The little callback to Zatara is also nice, as I always like it when the show acknowledges some continuity, though Batman being able to perfectly imitate The Ventriloquist’s voice is a bit of a stretch.

Scarface was also right when he said at the start of the episode that this is only the beginning. He seemed to be a favorite of those who worked on the show as he’ll get to reappear more than once. He was given a makeover for this show, as he’s more of a comedy bit in the comics, and The Ventriloquist was as well going from a character who kind of stunk at ventriloquism to someone who is perhaps unrivaled. The Ventriloquist will even get a more in-depth look in the much later episode “Double Talk” where he tries to move on from Scarface. We’ll even eventually find out he has an actual name in Arnold Wesker, though it was never mentioned in this episode with Scarface preferring to just refer to him as Dummy.

Really the only thing I don’t like about this episode is more an issue of placement. It’s very similar in format to “Fire on Olympus.” Shadowy new villain emerges at the beginning, Gordon brings along Batman, Batman does some sleuthing, Batman gets trapped, Batman eventually wins, and the villain is shown in Arkham to close it all out. I suppose that’s a template for a great many episodes of this show, but it’s more obvious when back to back episodes follow the formula so closely. And I could have done without the pile of platinum falling on Batman. That would have been a nasty end for Batman, and sometimes I feel like the show is insulting my intelligence when it does something like that. Why not just have Rhino knock him on the head or maybe bear hug him into passing out?

My issues are minor, this is ultimately a fun episode. Maybe not a top 10, but possibly a top 20. Scarface is a ridiculous sight to behold, but ultimately a compelling villain. Hopefully I’ll still feel the same way after I re-watch his other episodes.


One response to “Batman: The Animated Series – “Read My Lips”

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