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Batman: The Animated Series – “Batgirl Returns”

batgirl returns cardEpisode Number:  85

Original Air Date:  November 12, 1994

Directed by:  Dan Riba

Written by:  Michael Reaves and Brynne Stephens

First Appearance(s):  None

We have reached the end of the series. Episode 85 is the last produced episode of Batman:  The Animated Series, though it aired as the 8th episode of the third season. It’s not surprising then that this wasn’t aired as the series finale since it’s missing a pretty important ingredient:  Batman. Yes, that’s right. For the first time in this show Batman is going to sit on the sidelines. There have been episodes with smaller doses of Batman in the past, but none where he was absent. Bruce Wayne has a brief appearance to explain his absence, but that’s it. There is some screen time for Batman, but it’s right at the beginning and is part of a dream sequence, so technically he’s in it, but technically he’s not at the same time.

This last episode of production season two brings us another fairly major return, and it’s Batgirl. We last saw Batgirl in the two-parter “Shadow of the Bat” in which she helped to clear her father, Commissioner Gordon, of criminal charges. She’s kept quiet since as Barbara returned to her life as a college student. The ending of the episode made me wonder if Bruce and Dick knew who was under the cowl of Batgirl, and if they did, they sure don’t act like it here. In fairness, Bruce doesn’t get to react much to her presence, but Robin will. It seems hard to believe that Batman, who is pretty damn good at this sort of thing, couldn’t figure out who Batgirl is. On the other hand, we’ve seen a lot of Robin in this season and he hasn’t always looked too sharp so I am able to at least go along with him not knowing, and Bruce is under no obligation to share. I am not at all surprised we’re getting another Batgirl episode as her first appearance was well received, as far as I know. It’s just a little surprising it was reserved for the last episode in the production schedule.

batman batgirl steamy

It makes sense that she wouldn’t be into Robin.

The episode begins in a darkened museum. Someone has their eyes set on stealing a jade cat statue, but Batman is there to stop them. He’s soon struck with a laser of some kind, and we see it’s being fired by The Penguin! Batman is pressed up against a wall as a playing card comes flying in. In comes Joker followed by Two-Face. Given the events of past episodes, it seems odd for these three to be working together again, but when you have a common foe I guess it’s easy to look past old grudges. When all hope appears lost, help arrives. It’s Batgirl! She drives the crooks away and races over to check on Batman. He’s injured as she helps him up. He says her name, but appears too groggy to say much more. Their eyes meet as their capes billow in the wind. From afar, we see their silhouettes in the moonlight as they lean in for a kiss.

The sound of Dick calling her name wakes Barbra Gordon (Melissa Gilbert) from her dream. She’s surrounded by textbooks and homework and looking a little annoyed that her lovely dream was interrupted like that. She heads over to the window, and surprisingly Dick is right outside it. The way his shouts sounded seemed to indicate that Barbara’s dorm was not at ground level, but his head is literally less than a foot below her window. She yells to him as well, which makes me think when these lines were recorded the direction was that they were yelling to each from a much higher vantage point for Barbara, making this scene rather awkward. Dick just wants to know if Barbara is willing to take a pizza break, but she says she can’t as she needs to ace these midterms or her dad will lock her up. Dick doesn’t put up a fight and leaves her to her studying mercifully putting an end to this exchange. As she heads back for her books, the newspaper is delivered and slid under her door. The front page is covering the theft of the jade cat statue, which seems to give Barbara an idea.

the cat vs the batgirl

Time to tango.

The university museum has been broken into by none other than Catwoman (Adrienee Barbeau). However, it appears she’s the second person to enter as the lock on the skylight was melted away. She drops inside to inspect the case where the cat statue once stood and is surprised to be met by Batgirl. Batgirl accuses Catwoman of returning to the scene of the crime, but Catwoman is quick to point out the methods utilized by the actual thief before demonstrating how she would have done it with her claws. The two exchange silly superhero banter with Batgirl insisting she tell her tale to the police (she’s so like Batman). Robin drops in to interrupt the two, and Catwoman uses the distraction to her advantage and escapes. As Robin grabs Batgirl to help him chase after Catwoman, he ignores her protests.

batgirl unconvinced

Batgirl is going to need some convincing.

On the rooftop, Catwoman uses a bola to entangle Robin and make her ultimate escape. Batgirl, knowing she didn’t steal the statue, lets her flee while Robin sarcastically remarks how much help she ended up being. She tries to tell him what she knows, but Robin isn’t listening. He tells her to stay out of his way and leaves. Some men…

The next day, as Barbara appears to be leaving the campus gym, she spies a cat-shaped card on a bulletin board addressed to “The Winged Mouse.” She reads it and finds an address and instructions to meet there tonight. Barbara does as she’s told, and that night Batgirl heads to the spot to find Catwoman waiting for her. Catwoman remarks she was impressed the prior night with Batgirl and proposes a team-up to find the real thief. Batgirl appears hesitant, but then naively agrees on the condition that if it turns out Catwoman is up to no good that she’ll turn herself in. Catwoman agrees, and the two shake hands forming their partnership.

At the Batcave, Robin is shown talking on the phone. He’s speaking with Bruce who is in France for an important meeting that he can’t bail on. He cautions Robin when dealing with Selina Kyle as she likes to play games. After their conversation ends, he openly remarks that he hopes Batgirl isn’t in over her head.

bat cat teamup

They’re basically the only two major female characters in this show so of course they have to team up.

Catwoman leads Batgirl to a dive bar called The Stacked Deck. Batgirl is disgusted to be there declaring it the sleaziest bar in Gotham, which is why Catwoman says they’re going to check it out. If anyone knows anything about that stolen statue, they’ll likely be in here. The two stroll in and the gathering of basically all men turn to admire the women. Catwoman narrows her focus on a guy who looks like a stereotypical scientist and begins interrogating him. This guys goes by the name of The Chemist (Scott Valentine), and Catwoman thinks he would know where the acid used in the robbery came from. He lists off a couple of possible locations in a hushed voice, one of which being the chemical plant that gave birth to The Joker, before making a run for it. The bar then erupts in violence forcing Batgirl and Catwoman to battle their way outside.

the chemist

If Hugo Strange combined with Professor Farnsworth you would end up with The Chemist.

Once there, Catwoman commandeers a motorcycle (really guys, why leave your keys in the ignition at a bar where criminals frequent?) and Batgirl jumps on the back of it. The two speed away just as the cops show up. One squad car goes after them and Catwoman leads them on a chase onto a freeway that’s still under construction. Conveniently, the overpass is complete except for a six-foot gap that the bike can easily clear, but a police car cannot.

bike escape

I’m legitimately surprised they were able to do this scene without helmets.

Catwoman declares she has a good idea who is behind the robbery and takes Batgirl to an old abandoned factory. Batgirl recognizes it as a building once belonging to Roland Daggett and it’s the same building where Clayface was born. Catwoman confirms this while also adding it’s the same place where a virus was developed that nearly killed her (“Cat Scratch Fever”). The two head inside and Catwoman easily locates the jade cat statue. Too easily, as soon a flood light clicks on and the two find themselves staring down the gun of Roland Daggett (Ed Asner) himself, along with some of his men.

captured by daggett

Nice of Daggett to save his first appearance of season two for the final episode.

Apparently not willing to risk getting shot, Catwoman and Batgirl are then shown with their hands bound and Daggett’s men around them. They’re on a catwalk which is running over some imposing looking vats of green, bubbly, acid. Daggett explains his legal fees relating to his last encounter with Batman have bankrupt him. He needs money from the sale of this cat statue to start life, and business, somewhere else and stealing it provided the perfect cover since everyone in Gotham would assume Catwoman was behind it. Batgirl then notices Catwoman is keeping them talking because she’s using one of her claws to cut through her restraints. Batgirl does the same and tries to guess at the death trap awaiting them. Daggett corrects her though:  there’s no trap, he’s just going to have his men shoot them. Before they can react, Robin swings in to take out some of Daggett’s goons. Catwoman then frees herself and goes after another while Batgirl is forced to fight with just her legs. Catwoman even tosses a man over the railing, but he lands on a pipe running over the acid bath, sparing himself a rather nasty end. Batgirl winds up in a precarious position when it looks like one of the crooks is going to toss her overboard, but Robin makes the save by cutting her restraints with a batarang which is enough for Batgirl. As the two congratulate each other, they realize Daggett and Catwoman are missing.

batgirl needs saving

It’s a bit annoying how often Batgirl needs saving, hopefully she improves for the next series.

Daggett, with the jade cat statue in hand, is shown running across a darkened catwalk. Catwoman calls out to him, and he spins and fires at shadows not realizing the voice came from above. She uses her whip to disarm Daggett before dropping in on him. She retrieves the cat statue and while regarding it Daggett finds a metal hook lying around and tries to take her out. She easily avoids the old man and lets him tumble over the railing catching his foot in a chain. As he dangles over the acid, Catwoman seems content to let him fall as payback for the whole virus thing. Batgirl arrives and uses the classic super hero line of “You’re just as bad as him if you let him go,” and Catwoman basically laughs her off and lets go. Batgirl makes the save by grabbing the chain, but is having a hard time hauling Daggett up which allows Catwoman to flee once again. Robin then shows up and the two pull Daggett to safety.

catwoman daggett

Yeah, he’s not getting away from her.

On the rooftop, Catwoman swings from building to building with the aid of her whip, but soon finds Batgirl on her tail. Batgirl uses a bola of her own to catch the cat burglar, and the two then have a little chat. Catwoman confesses that it was always her intention to steal the statue, causing Batgirl to remind her of their deal. Catwoman proposes the two team-up, but Batgirl is sticking with the law. The police arrive on the scene and Catwoman surprisingly agrees to the terms of the deal as she lets the arriving officers place her in handcuffs. While they lead her away she tells them Batgirl is innocent, which is apparently good enough for them.

robin bargirl celebrate

Robin with the premature celebration.

Batgirl and Robin observe as the two officers place Catwoman in their squad car. They take off while the two basically have a moment to congratulate each other again. As they watch the car speed away, it begins to swerve. Soon the doors open and both cops are tossed. They run over to help the officers, who rise to their feet and realize their guns are missing. Catwoman then yells from the car that she agreed she’d let the police take her, but she never said how far. As she takes off, Robin starts to go after her, but Batgirl grabs him by the cape insisting there will be another time. She must have been really certain there was going to be a season three!

And that’s how the series comes to an end, with Batgirl and Catwoman having a cheeky little romp through Gotham. Catwoman, due to her playful nature, is as good a villain as any for this type of story. She’s returned to her life of crime following the events of “Catwalk” (which would awkwardly air after this episode) so no explanation is needed for her ulterior motives. It’s interesting that this was the first chance for her to interact with Robin as one could see her using her feminine charms on him, but they have few interactions. The episode also serves as a curtain call for Roland Daggett, a pretty big player in season one who will never be seen again. I guess the in-universe explanation would be that since he’s no longer wealthy he couldn’t afford a good attorney to keep him out of prison this time.

batgirl returns pose

Batgirl may still be new at all of this, but she’s definitely got the poses figured out.

This is another directorial effort from Dan Riba, who was given an expanded role back when Dick Sebast left the show. Unlike the directors for the past two episodes, Riba will stay on for the next iteration of Batman. Joining him will be Dong Yang Animation which will animate all of the episodes of The New Batman Adventures save for five. This isn’t their best work as some of the animation seems a bit stiff. Perhaps it’s due to animating the more slight female characters as opposed to Batman. This is the final appearance of Melissa Gilbert as Barbara Gordon/Batgirl. She’ll be replaced by Mary Kay Bergman in Batman & Mr. Freeze:  SubZero and then by Tara Strong in The New Batman Adventures. This is also Dick Grayson’s last appearance as Robin in an episode of the show, though he’ll be in the upcoming movie.

As a series finale, “Batgirl Returns” is miscast, but it’s not a bad episode by any means. This is a fun, entertaining, reintroduction for Batgirl. She’s painfully naive throughout, but since she’s new at this I suppose I can overlook it. Robin and the police both overlooking Catwoman and her ability to escape are less forgivable as this episode really puts an exclamation point on how inept the Gotham PD is. And Robin, for that matter.

Even if the series finale isn’t what one would have expected, it doesn’t diminish what Batman:  The Animated Series meant for children’s cartoons and Batman as a whole. It’s the show that helped re-legitimize the character for a new generation which had grown up on reruns of the 1960s show. The show arguably gave us the best Batman (Kevin Conroy), the best Joker (Mark Hamill), and absolutely the best Mr. Freeze and Two-Face. When I decided to revisit the show in this format as a celebration of the show’s 25th anniversary there was some skepticism on my part. I didn’t think the show would hold up as well as it did. I knew “Heart of Ice” and other select episodes would be great still, but I was surprised to find that most of the episodes I didn’t remember fondly I ended up having a more positive reaction to this time around. There’s still a few duds, but by and large the show is very consistent and very entertaining. It gives me hope for The New Batman Adventures as I don’t have great memories of that show so I’m hoping I’ll like it more now than I have in the past. One thing I do know though is that it isn’t as good as the original two seasons. This is still my favorite portrayal of Batman, and I doubt that will ever change.


Batman: The Animated Series – “Zatanna”

zatanna title cardEpisode Number:  54

Original Air Date:  February 2, 1993

Directed by:  Dan Riba, Dick Sebast

Written by:  Paul Dini

First Appearance(s):  Zatanna, Zatara (flashback)

 

For episode 54 we have a rare dual-directed episode by Dan Riba and Dick Sebast, so rare that it’s the only one. Sebast had left the show before the episode’s completion so Riba took over. What state the episode was in, I have no idea, but Riba previously had only directed one episode (“See No Evil”) and had primarily contributed as a character designer and storyboard artist on the show. From here on out though he’ll be a regular director. This episode is also the debut of Zatanna, the magician super heroine who seems to be somewhat of a fan favorite. Paul Dini wrote this one and he’ll later get to write for Zatanna in the comics, incorporating some of the details of this episode involving Bruce Wayne and Zatanna’s history making this yet another episode to influence how a character was portrayed in the source material.

Zatanna hello

Zatanna know what the boys come for.

The episode opens with Bruce Wayne and Alfred in the audience for a magic show. The presenter is Zatanna (Julie Brown), which we learn is someone Bruce once knew many years ago bringing us another flashback. Some 10 or 12 years ago, Bruce sought out training from a magician and escape artist named Zatara (Vincent Sciavelli) as he prepared to become a vigilante. Like the flashbacks from “Night of the Ninja,” they’re presented in a sepia tone so even if we didn’t recognize that Bruce looked younger we would still know it’s a flashback due to the coloring. Zatara had a daughter named Zatanna, and she and Bruce had a some-what flirtatious relationship. Zatanna seems fascinated by young Bruce, who is known to them under the alias John (Bruce, why would you go with John? It’s too close to John Doe) and is unusual in that he wants training as an escape artist, yet shows no interest in performing. Zatanna is puzzled and curious by this John, while Zatara seems to pay it no mind sensing something in the boy that compels him to teach him all that he knows. When Zatanna is caught spying on John’s lesson, the straightjacket escape trick which we’ve actually seen Batman put to good use in the past, her father sends her away.

Zatara_and_Bruce

Bruce once sought training from the great magician, Zatara, father to Zatanna.

Zatanna confronts John after his lesson and implores him to continue on tour with she and her father. John insists he cannot, and will be leaving for Japan in the morning (presumably to begin his training as a samurai). Zatanna tries to weaken him with an amorous hug. John does appear slightly flustered, but he appears to enjoy the affection. When Zatanna releases her grip on him he finds he’s been handcuffed to the wall. As Zatanna walks off, she playfully mocks him that any decent escape artists would wiggle out of those cuffs before she could finish her sentence. When she turns around to presumably taunt him further, she finds John has vanished leaving the cuffs dangling from the wall.

young bruce and zanna

Bruce and a young “Zanna.”

Back in the present, Zatanna is preparing for her grand finale. As part of her final trick, she brings a noted magician sourpuss Montague Kane (Michael York) to the stage. He has apparently made it his business to point out how magicians pull off their tricks. Joining him is Irving Fauncewater (Zale Kessler), the manager of the Gotham Mint. Zatanna intends to make $10 million disappear from the Gotham Mint’s cache and the money is piled high on stage. She walks through her presentation, and wouldn’t you know, she succeeds! Everyone is delighted, except Fauncewater who seems a little concerned. When Zatanna finds she can’t make the cash reappear his concern turns to outrage. Kane accuses her of stealing the money, and Zatanna soon finds herself in cuffs she either can’t escape, or chooses not to.

Zatanna_BTAS_episode

Bruce doesn’t get to do stuff like this too often.

Bruce knows Zatanna is no thief, and he immediately jumps into costume to investigate. Feeling the police will only focus on Zatanna, Batman decides he needs to free her from custody in order to investigate who really stole the money. He busts Zatanna out of the paddy wagon and she joins him in the Batmobile, somewhat reluctantly for he has now made her a fugitive. Batman explains he can help her, and she inquires if they’ve met before. Batman, somewhat surprisingly, seems a tad flustered and offers a lame excuse about having a familiar face (even though he’s wearing a mask).

Z_25_-_Zatanna_and_Kane

There’s no way this guy on the right isn’t a villain.

Batman and Zatanna return to the scene of the crime in order to figure out how the real crook managed to make the money vanish. Batman, because of his seemingly infinite knowledge, reveals Zatanna’s secret. The trick relied on a hologram to take the place of the actual money. Someone got to the trick before her show, probably the night before, and stole the money replacing it with yet another hologram to make it seem like the money was still there. Zatanna is impressed, and the two suspect Kane of being the one behind it, because who else? The guy both looks and sounds like a bad dude.

The heroes head off to Kane’s mansion to investigate further. Along the way Batman attempts to pry at Zatanna to learn more about her love life, and about her father. Much to his enjoyment, I presume, he finds out Zatanna has no one in her life from a romantic standpoint. She claims to have no time for relationships now that she has taken over for her father, who passed away. Batman offers his condolences while revealing he saw Zatara perform as a child, which once again causes Zatanna to question if they’ve met before.

Z_34_-_Batman_and_Zee

He’s smiling on the inside.

When Batman and Zatanna arrive at Kane’s home, they find a trap waiting for them. They wind up in a cliché, the old spiked-wall closing in on them after falling through a trap door. Batman some-what crudely disarms the trap by jabbing at the wall’s gears with one of the spikes. They then use the spikes to climb out of the room. Batman takes note of a picture of a seaplane and assumes, correctly, that Kane is using such to flee Gotham. Batman and Zatanna are able to get to the plane and confront Kane, who like any good villain in this town, has some goons to throw at Batman. They’re no match for him, but Zatanna is apparently not accustomed to crime fighting and finds herself in the clutches of Kane himself. Using her as leverage, Kane gets Batman to surrender. He makes a gross comment towards Zatanna suggesting there are things she could do for him in order to spare her life, which results in him getting a stiletto jammed in his foot.

chained up

I’d say things aren’t going well for our heroes, but they’re escape artists, surely these chains can’t bind them forever.

Kane, now angered, has his men chain Zatanna to Batman. Kane’s plan, with the plane airborne, is to toss the two out of the cargo door to a messy end. Batman, referring to Zatanna as “Zanna,” tells her to reach into his glove. The little nickname was something John used to use with her and it alarms Zatanna to hear it from the lips of Batman. She does as she’s told and removes a lock pick. She’s able to free the two from their chains, but unfortunately not before Kane’s men tossed them from the plane. Batman was able to hook his foot in some sort of cargo net in the plane which was fastened to the plane itself. The goons start firing while Kane tries to cut the net as the two dangle in midair. Batman uses the chain that once bound them to lasso Kane and pull him out of the plane forcing him to order his men to stop shooting. Kane is able to climb the net and reach the plane before Batman and Zatanna, allowing him to shut the door.

zatanna punch

After being mostly ineffective during the fighting, it’s kind of nice to see Zatanna get the last blow.

With the door shut, Batman and Zatanna are forced to scale the plane’s hull. Kane heads for the cockpit to try and jerk the plane around and dispatch the two. He also orders his men to go after them, apparently not at all concerned for their well-being. Once again, the nameless goons are no match for Batman, who dumps them off the plane (they’re over water and fairly low, so Batman isn’t a murderer). As the two scream, Kane thinks they’re the cries of Batman and Zatanna and prematurely celebrates only for Zatanna to appear behind him to deliver a swift right fist.

With that all out of the way and the plane docked safely, the Gotham police are able to arrest the real crooks. Apparently, they’re not at all concerned with Zatanna’s fugitive status as she’s free to have a little chat with her new/old buddy Batman. Batman apologizes for never writing to Zatanna as he had promised to do as John, but she doesn’t seem to mind and acknowledges that he’s been a busy man. They trade words of encouragement, with Zatanna assuring him her father would be so proud to see how he’s made use of his teachings. Batman offers her a ride and gestures to the Batmobile, only to turn and find Zatanna has vanished in a puff of smoke (how does it feel, Batman?) leaving behind a signed poster for “John” imploring him to write this time.

Zatanna_Good_Bye

Parting is such sweet sorrow, ain’t it, Batman?

“Zatanna” is another episode that reveals a small piece of Batman’s past. It’s nice to now have an explanation for how Batman could wrangle out of some pretty dangerous traps in the previous episodes, and for fans of the comics they got to see someone make the leap from print to television. This version of Zatanna doesn’t appear to possess any remarkable talents beyond being a good illusionist. It’s also possible she kept her true powers a secret too, but I would think if that were the case the audience would have been treated to something behind Batman’s back. The added wrinkle to both character’s back story is a nice addition. It’s a little surprising she doesn’t make another appearance in the show as a featured character, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s disappointing.

Fans of Zatanna may have been disappointed to see her costume was altered slightly to not include her traditional fishnet stockings. That’s due to the medium as fishnet would be harder to animate than Spider-Man’s costume. This is another episode handled by Dong Yang Animation and it looks pretty good. Dong Yang handled more episodes of the show than any other company and their work is always consistent. The designs of Kane and his goons are a little on the dull side, since this isn’t a villain with a gimmick, but the plane sequence is pretty thrilling. And if you were worried Zatanna wouldn’t look good without her fishnets, don’t worry, she’s got plenty of sex appeal and it’s easy to see why Batman seems to have taken a liking to her.

Overall, “Zatanna” is a tight little story that works just fine as a stand-alone episode and as a fun cameo piece for the character Zatanna. It’s the first superhero team-up episode for the series (Gray Ghost feels like the first, but that character did not exist outside of this show), though if that’s something you like don’t get too excited. Batman will largely resist those temptations, though we get more when the show returns as The New Batman Adventures as DC was more interested in building an animated universe come then. Not being a huge a consumer of DC print material, the cross overs never added anything for me, but the good thing about this one is I didn’t need to know anything about Zatanna to enjoy the episode. And for a show that tries to tell self-contained stories in 23 minutes, that’s the right approach.


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