Batman: The Animated Series – “Showdown”

showdown cardEpisode Number:  78

Original Air Date:  September 12, 1995

Directed by:  Kevin Altieri

Written by:  Kevin Altieri, Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, Joe R. Lansdale

First Appearance(s):  Jonah Hex, Arkady Duvall

 

We’re in an odd string of episodes, with perhaps this being the oddest, structurally speaking. It’s probably the episode to feature the least amount of screen-time for Batman up to this point, and there’s a good reason for that. Also, look at that “Written by” line – that’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen for one episode. The last name, Joe R. Lansdale, is credited with handling the teleplay so the other names handled the story – and they’re pretty big names. Kevin Altieri, Bruce Timm, and Paul Dini are the three most commonly credited with really bringing this series to life. Altieri has mostly handled directing duties and Timm producing with Dini leading the writers. It’s possible this episode was envisioned as a back-door pilot, but nonetheless, the list of writers gives this episode an aura of importance before it even begins.

jonah hex

For a lot of viewers, this was likely their introduction to Jonah Hex.

Most of all though, this episode is remembered as The Jonah Hex episode. Most of the episode occurs as a flashback to a time where Batman didn’t exist but there was Jonah Hex (William McKinney), a disfigured bounty hunter of the old west. Created by John Albano and Tony DeZuniga, Hex first appeared as an ad in Batman #237 in 1971 before officially debuting in the pages of All-Star Western #10 the following year. He mostly remained in the pages of Western themed comics before being catapulted into the future to appear in a post-apocalyptic kind of setting in the pages of Hex which was cancelled in 1987. He would eventually resurface on DC’s indie-inspired label Vertigo in the 90s. After limited runs in 93, 95, and 99 he vanished once more but received a new line of comics in 2005 which ran for 70 issues before ending in 2011. All-Star Western then got revived and lasted until 2014. There was also the film in 2010 starring Josh Brolin that was a huge flop. This episode, airing in 1995, came during his revival period. I would guess the writers liked the character and wanted to do a treatment of him, and since he debuted in an issue of Batman, it probably felt appropriate. The problem though is figuring out how to connect a modern-day hero in Batman with a bounty hunter from the 1800s. It just so happens though that Batman has an enemy who can provide a link since he lived through the era himself:  Ra’s al Ghul.

The episode opens at a rather unusual setting:  a retirement home. Ninja-like infiltrators are on the scene and they bare a resemblance to some old friends, The League of Shadows. What could they possibly want at a retirement home? All in due time. Batman and Robin show up and do battle with the men they encounter, but they’re after bigger fish, namely the leader of the group:  Ra’s al Ghul. He’s there as well, and is shown entering a long hallway that ends with an old man in a chair. Ra’s has apparently come for this man, and given his long life, there could be any number of reasons why. When Batman and Robin get to the same room they find an empty chair where the old man sat and a cassette tape (how dated). They don’t know what Ra’s could have wanted at the facility, but they take the tape and leave.

bat tape deck

For our younger readers, this is what’s known as a cassette tape deck.

Once in the Batmobile, the two examine some flight schedules and find one labeled Lazarus. It would seem Ra’s wants to be found. While they head to the airport, they decide to listen to the tape Ra’s left behind. When Robin presses play, the cabin of the Batmobile is filled with the voice of their enemy, it would seem he has a little story to share with them.

barmaind montgomery

The role of the barmaid is played by actress Elizabeth Montgomery in her final role originally airing four months after her passing.

Back in 1883 when the Transcontinental Railroad was nearing completion is where our story takes place. Out in the old west in a town called Devil’s Hole, an old man in a gray duster strolls into a bar. He’s got a pretty nasty looking disfigurement and it causes the barmaid (Elizabeth Montgomery, in her final role before her death) to recoil when she approaches him. He wants some water, but also information. He’s a bounty hunter looking for a fellow by the name of Arkady Duvall. The barmaid knows, and hates him, and she brushes aside the coins the bounty hunter tosses on the table and offers to help him for free. It would seem Duvall beat on some of her girls in the past and has been driven out-of-town, hence why she’d like to see the bastard get what’s coming to him. A sheriff (William Bryant) then barges in and confronts the bounty hunter. It’s then we learn his name, Jonah Hex, and it would seem he has a reputation for bringing his bounties in dead. The sheriff is mostly there to intimidate, as he says he’s got nothing on Hex, who in turn embarrasses the sheriff by pointing out his fly is down.

That night, the barmaid leads Hex away from the town to a rock formation with strange light pouring from it. Duvall apparently has no home in town and isn’t staying at any of the inns. He’s the soft type, so she rules out him sleeping on the ground under the stars with the real cowboys and figures there’s something more to these strange lights. Hex thanks her for taking him out there, and she thanks him with a kiss and a wish of good luck before taking her leave.

monocle ra's

I wonder when he gave up on that monocle.

Hex investigates the formation and finds a cave, the inside of which is ludicrously massive. And it needs to be, because a group of laborers are building a massive dual-balloon zeppelin. And this isn’t some Good Year blimp, it’s coated in steel panels and looks to be heavily armed with canons and turrets. Near the sight, a moustached man in an expensive suit is whipping one of the workers. He’s soon stopped and accosted by a man in a top hat, and we know this man to be Ra’s al Ghul. Besides the funny attire, he looks more or less the same and even has that silly facial hair. He is angry at the man for beating on his workers and will not stand for it, and we learn the other man is Hex’s target, Arkady Duvall (Malcolm McDowell). Duvall falls in line with his boss, but not happily. Ra’s also fills us in on what is going on. The massive airship has been christened The Phoenix, and he intends to use it to smash the Transcontinental Railroad before taking it to Washington, D.C. where he’ll force the current President (Chester A. Arthur, if you’re curious) to surrender to him and make himself Master of America! The man is a dreamer.

angry ra's

Ra’s does not seem to be a big fan of Arkady Duvall. It’s a wonder he just doesn’t hand him over to Hex and get on his way.

As Hex watches the scene unfold, a noise behind him alerts him to the presence of some of Ra’s al Ghul’s men. He spins and fires his revolver, but the men are in large steel suits (kind of like old diver suits) and his bullets ricochet harmlessly away. They grab him and take him to Duvall, who immediately thinks he’s a government spy. Hex informs him he’s a bounty hunter, and that he’s come for him and him alone. He doesn’t really care about the railroad, or anything else going on here. Duvall doesn’t believe him and orders the men to drop him in a melted vat of lead. They chain him up and begin to lower him headfirst, but Duvall has the men pause before the ends of Hex’s hair touches the boiling metal to get some more taunts in. Ra’s shows up and is again outraged to see the measures Duvall has taken in addressing the problem. He orders Hex be taken down and placed in a holding cell for interrogation, and turns to Duvall to tell him he is no longer allowed to make decisions for himself.

While Ra’s and the others prepare to depart, Hex is thrown in a cell. It doesn’t take him long to devise an escape plan, and he tricks the guards into thinking he’s already escaped which in turn causes them to enter the cell allowing him to exit for real. And he does so just in time, as the mountain they’re occupying opens up (it’s pretty absurd, even by this show’s standards) and The Phoenix begins its departure. Hex is able to grab onto a rope ladder draping off The Phoenix as it leaves and the few men who notice are unable to shoot him down.

canonfire

That’s some rather intimidating fire power for 1883.

As Hex makes his way aboard The Phoenix, a local governor (voiced by current Vermont Senator and longtime Batman fan Patrick Leahy) is dedicating the railroad by driving in the last spike. The Phoenix comes into view and fires upon the town from a massive, rotating, turret. The locomotive is destroyed, among other things, and The Phoenix then turns broadside to unload a huge volley of cannonballs at the town itself. The local militia shows up, but their pitiful rifles don’t appear to bother The Phoenix one bit. A gunner on the airship unleashes another one of its many weapons, a crank-powered gatling gun, just adding to the lop-sided nature of this skirmish.

Hex shows up and takes out the gunner. He makes his way into the innards of the ships where the canons are manned and finds a stash of spherical, black, cartoon-styled bombs. He lights one and rolls it toward the men, who rather than try to get rid of it, all run like Hell. The place goes up, since it’s full of bombs and gun powder, but somehow doesn’t destroy the ship and everyone onboard in the process.

jonah hex knife

He’s pretty slick with that knife.

Hex then heads higher while some more men foolishly shoot at him. An officer (Michael Bell) orders them to cease-fire since they’re aiming right at the hydrogen filled balloons. Hex reaches a bridge, where more men come after him though this time they’re brandishing knives and swords. He’s able to illude them and eventually he comes face to face with Duvall. Duvall is surprised to see Hex aboard The Phoenix, but will be happy to force his exit. Armed with a sword, he approaches Hex, who rather than fight kicks a canon so that it points straight up and fires it right into one of the zeppelin balloons. It blasts right through it and the ship immediately begins to lose altitude.

Duvall is incensed and asks what Hex is up to. He explains he just doesn’t like them and will enjoy thwarting their scheme. Duvall then informs him he has no chance of beating him since he’s an expert fencer and Hex is only armed with a bowie knife. Undaunted, Hex welcomes the attack, though he soon retreats.

As those two fight, Ra’s al Ghul is ready to concede defeat. He launches himself from The Phoenix in a glider, but before he does he orders the others to evacuate. When the person he gives the order to asks about Duvall, he tells him to leave him to his fate.

hex vs duvall

Hex eventually gets his man.

Hex and Duvall continue their fight, and it’s moved to another part of the ship where a bunch of piping has been erected. An errant swing of the sword causes Duvall to strike the pipe and steam blasts him in the face as a result. The momentary distraction gives Hex enough of an opening to disarm him and as The Phoenix crashes into the mountains they’re able to jump off onto a nearby rocky outcropping. Once on the ground, the now unarmed Duvall begs for his life and Hex tells him he’s not going to kill him. He gives him a shove and then finds his hat on the ground, which he had lost while fleeing the men on the airship so this is quite a special hat. He remarks that he’s getting too old for this, as Ra’s al Ghul’s story comes to an end.

Robin is left puzzled with why Ra’s shared that story with them, while Batman claims he knows why (I call bullshit). They soon arrive at an airport runway and Ra’s is there with his loyal attendant Ubu and an old man in a wheelchair. Ra’s turns to face Batman as the duo approaches. It’s then revealed the old man is Duvall himself, and when Robin questions how he could possibly still be alive, it’s revealed that Duvall came into contact with a Lazarus Pit as a young man for he is the son of Ra’s al Ghul. Ra’s explains he recognized that Duvall was too cruel to take over for him as his true heir. Following his capture by Jonah Hex, he was sentenced to 50 years hard time. He surprised everyone by surviving the sentence, and Ra’s lost track of him until now. Telling Batman he still has a few good years left in him, he promises they can cross swords another time, but for now he just wants to take his boy home. Batman snaps his cape across his shoulders and turns around leaving Ra’s to do as he wishes.

ra's and duvall

Ra’s and his very old long lost son.

I touched upon this during the write-up of “Avatar,” the most recent appearance of Ra’s al Ghul, in that this is an odd final note for the character to go out on. Batman and Ra’s al Ghul were setup as enemies destined to confront each other for decades to come, but “Avatar” failed to capitalize on the excitement of “The Demon’s Quest” while this episode really doesn’t attempt to address it. Ignoring that short-coming, it’s still an interesting episode with a fun twist of an ending. This show reserves almost all of its twists for Ra’s, which is a bit amusing, and I like the Duvall twist at the end. It’s also interesting to see Batman acquiesce to Ra’s al Ghul’s request as we’ve seen him be rather inflexible at times in the past.

The portions of the episode set in the past confused me as a kid. I think I turned this one on for the first time having missed the beginning, because I remember being really confused. I could tell it was an episode of Batman given the style, and then the presence of Ra’s al Ghul, but for some reason I wasn’t able to let myself get absorbed into the story. As a result, I never looked forward to revisiting it when the show first hit DVD, and I still didn’t for this viewing. Now though, I just see it as a change of pace. It’s fun to see a new setting, and the character of Jonah Hex, while feeling like a cliché of classic characters, is entertaining enough. Some of the stuff that happens in the flashback is pretty ridiculous, but in an Indiana Jones kind of way. And it’s fine for Batman to step aside once in a while to let someone else soak up the spotlight. It’s not the last time he’ll do so.

“Showdown” is what I would consider a fun episode. Lots of action with the bonus of actually containing some interesting character development. It’s shortcomings are almost entirely due to the surrounding episodes featuring Ra’s al Ghul which seemed to promise something bigger, which the show never delivered. If Batman had one final showdown of his own with the villain before the series ended then it wouldn’t matter at all. On its own, it’s a good episode that’s a nice showcase for Jonah Hex at a time when he was far from being a household name.


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