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Batman: The Animated Series Wrap-Up

btas redOne-hundred and nine episodes plus three features leading to one-hundred and twelve blog entries have been devoted to the subject of Batman: The Animated Series. It started as a celebration of the show turning 25 and then as a curiosity piece. Since its premiere in 1992, the show had become much celebrated and praised all over. It’s exceptionally rare in this age of social media to see anything basically universally loved, but that was the case for BTAS. I had a lot of good memories of the show myself. I watched it as a kid and when the show received a DVD release I bought it up. And I watched them all. Batman became a show I had experienced and enjoyed both as a kid and as an adult, but some ten years or so removed from when I last watched it in total I still wasn’t sure just how good the show was.

And so I watched it again. And after each episode I made a little blog entry afterwards. Well, at first they were fairly little as I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. Did I want to do an episode review or did I want to do a recap? I started leaning more towards the review side while also inserting a brief summary. Perhaps being influenced by all of the recap style podcasts I listen to, the entries drifted more towards that style. And they grew. Oh, did they grow. This little weekly entry soon routinely ran for thousands of words. I’m not saying that makes them any better or worse, but it certainly transformed my little project from something I could regurgitate via my keyboard rather quickly to something much more demanding.

Even though my vision for this feature grew beyond my initial plans, that doesn’t mean I regret anything about it. Far from it, actually, as I really enjoyed my time with this show once again. I may have even enjoyed it more than ever as I found it much easier to find things I liked about episodes I previously wasn’t very high on. Some of those episodes are still rather poor, but I can at least see what the writers were thinking and for the most part the animation is always quite good. It’s a very entertaining program, and while it’s still primarily a children’s cartoon, there’s enough depth there to captivate an older audience.

2face revealed

The character of Batman drew people in, and villains like Two-Face and Mr. Freeze kept them coming back.

In re-watching the show I found there were certainly things that consistently worked and things that did not. When the show centered on a sympathetic villain it was usually at its best. Batman can be pretty ruthless in his application of justice, but the guy does have a heart. He often makes the right decision, though he’s also not perfect. Mr. Freeze, Two-Face, and Clayface ended up being my favorite villains. And when Harley Quinn was thrust into a sympathetic role she soared. Even Arnold Stromwell was interesting when we saw his softer side. That doesn’t mean everyone needs that to work though. Rupert Thorne was consistently nasty and thus interesting, same for Roland Daggett. The Joker was also often very entertaining and the show never made an attempt at deviating from what he is, which is something filmmakers today could learn from.

There were still a few duds when it came to the villains. Surprisingly, Catwoman was rarely compelling as the show didn’t seem to know what to do with her. For whatever reason, there was a desire to portray her as something other than a villain. Rather than make her an antihero, she more or less just became a victim. There was a bit of a course correction in season two, but only when the show returned as The New Batman Adventures did it feel like the show actually knew what it wanted to do with one of Batman’s most popular foils. Two-Face also tended to flounder after his strong debut. He was able to rebound a bit, but it was a shame to see so much of what his debut built up was seemingly cast aside. The Penguin, another famous Batman villain, was also rarely up to the task when called upon with many of his leading roles serving as the show’s worst. He was usually most entertaining when paired up with other villains to play off of them. The show seemed to acknowledge this by putting him in more of a supporting role later on when he became a club owner.

Mostly, when I consider the legacy of this show I mostly recall what it did for the lesser villains. Going into 1992, the only Batman villains I was really aware of were the ones featured in the Adam West show. The Riddler, Penguin, Joker, and Catwoman were the most famous, but I also recalled Mr. Freeze and, for some reason, King Tutt. This show is how I was introduced to other, lesser, villains such as Two-Face, Poison Ivy, Scarecrow, Clay-Face, and others. And for the most part I loved these “new” villains most of all. Sure, there were some duds for me like The Clock King or the one-off werewolf character and Lock-Up, but mostly the new guys were pretty interesting. And you can’t talk about this show without talking about what it did for Mr. Freeze. Previously more gimmick than character, Freeze became one of the most popular Batman villains seemingly overnight thanks to his portrayal in “Heart of Ice.” No, he never had another story as good as that one, but because that episode was so good it made any future appearance appointment television just to see if another Freeze story could match that one.

batncat

Oddly enough, the show seemed to struggle with Catwoman not knowing if it wanted to portray her as something of an antihero or as her more traditional cat burglar persona.

Since this show is primarily a half-hour cartoon intended for kids, it runs into some issues. The format it strived for is a limitation. That inaugural 65 episode first season included several two-part stories, but following that every other story was confined to a single episode. This limitation is only a limitation if the writers allow it to be one, but sometimes it felt like certain episodes were short-changed. It also leads to numerous instances of Batman just turning to his wonder computer to solve a problem. That was definitely my biggest pet peeve with the show this time around as it quickly became a trope of the show. Batman turning to his computer felt like The Simpsons using the living room television to either start or advance a plot. An episode can still be good when that element is present, but it certainly feels cheap.

I also can’t offer a proper conclusion on the show without talking about the move from Fox to the WB and the creation of The New Batman Adventures. The switch did lead to some good things. For one, it advanced characters like Dick Grayson and Barbara Gordon and let us see some actual development. Some conflict between Batman and Robin was teased during the Fox years and it was rewarding to see that go somewhere. I think the show could have mined that conflict for more material, but it was mostly handled well. Barbara, on the other hand, was a bit glossed over. Sure, she was now an accepted ally as Batgirl, but we learned very little about her character. Did she have a new outlook on crime fighting? What was her end game? We also never even got to see what came between she and Dick, which was unfortunate.

Aside from that, the move to WB also allowed for less censorship. This didn’t have a huge impact on much unless you’re really turned on by seeing a thin line of blood streaking from a character’s mouth, but it did really open up The Joker. He went from being mostly just a lunatic to being a violent lunatic. He has a few moments to be truly mean during his time on WB giving the character a similar feel to how he was portrayed in Mask of the Phantasm. This did lead to some criticisms I had with the direction of Harley Quinn, but I think I did a good job of highlighting those issues in my posts on the episodes she appears in.

newbatjoker

No matter how many times I see the new-look Joker I just can’t fall in love with it.

What obviously stands out the most though in the change in networks was the new design. While some characters looked unchanged and a few looked better than before, I mostly disliked the new style choice. Less detail and odd choices are mostly to blame, but even the animation came across a bit too cartoony for this show. The whole tone of the show was also thrown off and I think that had to do with the ensemble cast and the simplified portrayal of each of the leads. The writers basically assigned one archetype to each character and mostly stuck with it. This left no room for nuance and it had the most drastic impact on our main lead, Batman himself. In the first two seasons we got to see different sides to the character, but in The New Batman Adventures he’s basically just grim and curt. He’s so boring, and sadly none of the other leads outside of Nightwing really offer much. Robin is mostly just a vehicle for bad puns and Batgirl offers even less.

As a result, I can comfortably say that The New Batman Adventures era is inferior to what came before it. That doesn’t mean there isn’t still quality to be found there. Much to my surprise, a few episodes actually rank quite highly and the worst of the show is still found in those first two seasons. A lot of that third season is just okay or average with few true stinkers. Though that is a post for another day.

harley scream

The show is exciting and fun and gave us some truly memorable characters. It’s one of the best things to ever happen to Batman, if not the best.

Ultimately, I set out to decide for myself if I felt Batman: The Animated Series was overrated or properly rated. It never occurred to me that it could be underrated, and it certainly is not. While the show didn’t deliver a slam dunk each episode, it also totaled 109 episodes and what show has ever hit a home run every episode for such a long time? Even much celebrated shows like Breaking Bad have a lesser episode here and there, and that particular show produced far fewer than 109 episodes (though to be fair, in terms of total minutes it’s probably much closer). And no, I’m not trying to compare this show to Breaking Bad, but making the point that it doesn’t have to “wow” the audience every time out to be a great show. Calling it the greatest television show based on a comic book feels right. It’s certainly the greatest cartoon, and I also came away feeling that it’s totally defensible for this to be someone’s favorite depiction of Batman in any medium. It’s a great show with a lot to offer. It’s primarily an action vehicle, and the wonderful animation allows it to be a pretty great show based on its action alone. What puts it over the top are the stories, the captivating villains, and it’s wonderful sense of style. The music of Shirley Walker, the performances of actors like Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, it’s a production that oozes quality. So yes, Batman: The Animated Series is properly rated and if I am certain of anything it’s that I will watch this series in its entirety again. And again…


The New Batman Adventures – “Judgement Day”

judgement dayEpisode Number:  24 (109)

Original Air Date:  October 31, 1998

Directed by:  Curt Geda

Written by:  Rich Fogel, Alan Burnett

First Appearance:  The Judge

We have arrived at the final episode of The New Batman Adventures and what is essentially the final episode of Batman: The Animated Series. This third season seemed to go by fast, and while that’s certainly partly attributed to the fact that it was 23 episodes versus the 85 that totaled the first two seasons, that’s still more than six months of weekly blog posts. And this final episode certainly has an ominous title to it, doesn’t it? “Judgement Day” is the final produced episode of the show, though it was never envisioned as a series finale since most assumed the show would continue into a fourth season. It did not, as DC and Warner elected to instead create a sequel series in the form of Batman Beyond depriving us of what would be a true series finale.

Even though this wasn’t necessarily intended to be farewell, some aspects of this episode work as a series finale. For one, this is a Batman solo adventure. He’s going to do everything on his own in this one and even look to Alfred for a little help along the way giving this one a very season one feel to it. It’s also going to bring back a few villains we haven’t heard from much during the events of this third season. It also introduces a new one in the form of The Judge, who bares a rather strong resemblance to The Phantasm from the film Mask of the Phantasm. And like that persona, this one has its identity unveiled at the end so if you’ve never watched this one on your own, maybe do that before reading any further. It’s a fun and worthwhile reveal that I’d rather not spoil.

bartering

Just The Penguin taking care of some business.

The episode opens during some negotiations between rogues. The Penguin (Paul Williams) is haggling with Killer Croc (Brooks Gardner) over a diamond he’s brought him. Penguin is a tough negotiator and it’s getting under Croc’s skin. Penguin appears to think little of Croc, and even flaunts it when another rogue saunters in:  Two-Face (Richard Moll). Penguin is open about how he’s willing to pay someone of Two-Face’s stature more money than he would Croc and the two quickly complete a business transaction. Croc, grumbling, reluctantly takes what Penguin is offering and he has his two female associates, Lark and Raven, escort the men out.

judge strikes

The rogues of Gotham have a new problem, and he carries a big sword.

As he deposits his newly acquired goods in a safe, Penguin remarks to himself essentially how fun it is ripping off Croc. Unfortunately for him, he’s not alone. A hollow, yet booming, voice (Malachi Throne) causes Penguin to turn around. Before him is a large man dressed in a long black robe. His face is completely black and surrounded by an old-fashioned white judge’s wig. He admonishes Penguin for possessing no honor among thieves and brandishes a sword declaring he must pay for his many crimes. Penguin, for his part, appears unfazed and is ready to go toe-to-toe with this apparent vigilante, but his umbrella is no match for The Judge’s sword. He runs and calls for his associates, but he stumbles upon them tied up and hanging from the ceiling. As The Judge chases him, he hacks at a large penguin statue on wheels which rolls over and lands on the “legitimate businessman.” The result leaves him unconscious and looking rather worse for ware.

A news broadcast the next day is covering the attack and reveals that Penguin is in critical condition. Killer Croc is shown watching the report smugly while Bruce Wayne reacts somewhat angrily as he watches from his limo. When it’s revealed that a vigilante was responsible for the attack, Alfred asks Bruce if it’s a friend of his, but gets a growl in response. Two-Face also sees the story, but isn’t happy, unlike Croc. The news then pivots to another new face in Gotham, councilman J. Carroll Corcoran (Steven Weber). Corcoran remarks that everyone knows Penguin is not on the up-and-up, but no one was brave enough to take him on. He thanks the vigilante for his brand of justice and for doing what Gotham’s police and D.A. would not.

A couple of security guards are loading an armored car along one of Gotham’s suspension bridges. They apparently are collecting the haul from the tolls and making small talk, but we all know the only reason for an armored car to be in this show is for it to be robbed. And sure enough, lurking beneath the vehicle is Croc. He emerges from a manhole to grab onto the underside of the car as it pulls away. Once on the bridge, Croc demonstrates his claws are quite sharp by ripping through the underside of the vehicle and climbing inside. He quickly gets rid of the guards, but someone is on the vehicle’s roof and unwilling to let Croc get away.

croc and judge

If it works in Donkey Kong it will work on you, Croc.

That someone is The Judge. This time he’s armed with a giant hammer and he causes Croc to lose control and flip the vehicle. Once he climbs out he confronts the new vigilante who has come prepared with numerous trial-related puns. He’s so generous with the puns that he comes across like a menacing version of a 1960s villain. Croc appears to be in no mood to fight with this guy, and makes his escape. He apparently forgot that he’s part crocodile, because rather than dive into the waters below he instead climbs up the cables of the bridge. When he gets to the top, he finds out that The Judge is just as capable as Batman in scaling great vertical distances without notice as he’s there waiting for him. He clocks Croc with the mallet knocking him from his perch.

Fortunately for Croc, Batman was watching from a nearby rooftop. He makes the save before Croc can go splat on the pavement. When Batman looks up following the rescue The Judge is gone. How does it feel, Batman?!

corcoran

This guy Corcoran is basically a piece of shit and the episode isn’t interested in hiding that.

Councilman Corcoran is shown tossing some floppy disks across his desk. He says the data on them would prove invaluable for someone trying to track down Gotham’s most notorious villains. There to receive the data is The Judge. It would seem Corcoran’s endorsement of Gotham’s latest vigilante has been good for him in the polls, which is good news since there’s a primary on the horizon. He reasons that if Gordon can have his pet bat, why can’t he have The Judge? Really, everything he’s saying makes total sense given the reality of this world, but the delivery of his lines is done in such a way that it’s obvious this dude is a villain and there’s more to this story. The Judge, for his part, is fine with this arrangement and the two shake hands indicating they’ll be a force going forward.

riddler judgement day

The New Batman Adventures sure did The Riddler dirty.

We’re then shown another news report. This time it’s The Judge putting a stop to a crime being committed by The Riddler (John Glover). There’s footage of The Judge in action as Riddler is given just one brief line in which he’s not even allowed to deliver a riddle. Such an inauspicious way for his character to go out. Corcoran is again interviewed by the crew and heaps praise on The Judge. He confirms that the two are in communication and even issues a warning for Two-Face that he’s next on the list.

The image explodes as Corcoran issues his threat and it’s revealed we were watching this through a television in a bar. The bartender is initially pissed when his TV explodes, but he turns to see the responsible party and promptly shuts up. Apparently he forgot that Two-Face and his associates had sauntered into the bar, and since he didn’t like the program, he turned it off in his own special way. Two-Face then leaves and as he does another individual leaves as well. That individual is Wayne in disguise who quickly throws on his Batman attire and begins following Two-Face’s ride.

batman twoface gas

Don’t light a match.

Batman follows Two-Face to his hideout which is the same one from “Shadow of the Bat.” Two-Face is alone and soon Batman barges in. Two-Face is rather angry to see Batman on top of him, but Batman insists it’s for his own good as he’s trying to protect him from The Judge. Two-Face does not seem to want Batman’s help, but before the two can sort things out Two-Face’s security mechanisms take effect. Metal shutters cover the windows and doors turning the lounge into a panic room. A television then flips on and it’s The Judge. He delivers his judge-speak and sentences Two-Face to death by asphyxiation for his crimes. Gas then starts pouring into the room. With the doors and windows sealed, Batman demands to know where the secret exit is as he knows Two-Face would have one. He shoves Batman aside and then removes a trap door from the floor. He finds it’s been sealed with metal bars and then panic sets in. Two-Face claims no one knew that exit was there, but that doesn’t change the reality of the situation. Batman then tosses Two-Face over the bar and tells him to stay down. Ducking behind a wall, he pulls out an explosive Batarang and nails the source of the gas which results in a large explosion.

With the gas no longer a threat, Two-Face emerges from behind the bar. He finds Batman down on the floor and gives him a nasty kick. He then thanks him for saving his life and walks on by. This seemingly makes the two even.

Corcoran is shown on the phone having a conversation with The Judge. The Judge is angry with Batman for preventing The Judge from delivering justice to both Killer Croc and now Two-Face. He is seeking permission to deal with Batman from Corcoran, but he doesn’t think that would be a good look for anyone. The Judge hangs up in response and Batman soon appears. He wants info on who The Judge is, but Corcoran tells him he doesn’t know. He then goes off telling Batman that The Judge is good for Gotham and the people don’t mind if he kills the bad guys, as long as it gets them off the streets. Batman does his disappearing act, per usual, and Corcoran is actually happy by this development as he assumes it means Batman was in agreement.

two-face interrogates

Brought to a courtroom? This seems like something a judge would do…

Corcoran then heads for his car, his work done, when he’s confronted by Two-Face. Corcoran’s happy mood changes quickly and as he backs away he’s knocked out by Two-Face’s men. He is then taken to a courtroom and bound to a chair. Two-Face wants info on The Judge, but Corcoran swears he has nothing. The Judge always seeks him out, not the other way around. Two-Face consults with his men, who are seated where the jury normally would be, to see if they believe Corcoran’s story. Manny (Peter Jason) and Mo (Loren Lester) both say they believe him, but that doesn’t mean Corcoran is free to go. Two-Face consults his coin, and the results are not good for Corcoran. He tells the boys to do their thing, and they spring up armed with a knife. Corcoran is terrified as they approach, but the knife is just used to cut his restraints. As they lead him away, Corcoran begs with Two-Face. He reveals he has 100 grand in cash he can pay him with, all kick backs and bribe money he’s been taking. Two-Face says he wishes he knew that before he flipped the coin, but it’s too late now.

At the Batcave, Batman is examining the mallet The Judge wielded in his attack on Killer Croc. Alfred is there to monitor and wonders what Batman could be looking for since the police already checked it for prints. Batman is more interested in some holes in the mallet itself. He assumes there used to a plaque affixed to it and he turns to his omniscient computer for awards resembling mallets. He finds one, which is an award given out to lawyers and judges. He then pulls up a list of past winners and we’re not allowed to see the list of names. He asks Alfred if any look familiar, and he just gives us an “Oh my God!” in response. I think that’s a yes.

img_0382

This has been fun, but it’s time for these two to go one on one.

We now return to Corcoran who has been bound and blindfolded at the base of a giant Lady Justice statue. Manny and Mo appear ready to execute him and once more Corcoran tries to barter his way out. The two are amused that Corcoran would propose they two-time Two-Face and raise their guns to off the councilman. Suddenly, metal shackles snap onto their wrists. They’re apparently magnetized as not only do their wrists end up bound together, but they also end up pointing their guns at each other. The Judge then emerges once again armed with his sword. He knocks the men down and traps them with a wooden adornment. He then turns to Corcoran who is delighted that The Judge has come to rescue him.

Or not. It would seem The Judge was listening in on Corcoran’s attempts to bribe his way out of this predicament and he’s especially angry with Corcoran about the bribes he’s been taking. He takes aim with his sword, but a Batarang knocks his sword away. Batman informs Corcoran he’s not going to like what he’s about to reveal, but he’s unable to reach The Judge’s mask. Instead, The Judge flings the shackles he used on Manny and Mo at Batman binding his hands together. He then has to dodge The Judge’s sword strikes and use his body to knock him down. The Judge then uses another pair of shackles this time striking Batman’s ankles and binding them together. Realizing he can’t possibly fight like this, Batman uses a grapple gun on the ceiling and attempts to get away. The Judge won’t allow it though and jumps on Batman’s back. As the two rock towards the ceiling, Batman is able to swing himself into the statue of Lady Justice and knock The Judge from his back.

judge revealed

The Judge revealed. Is it surprising? Eh, close enough.

Batman returns to the ground where the judge lays unconscious, one of the scales having fallen on him. He takes the keys from The Judge to free himself from the shackles, then rather proudly informs Corcoran his life is about to get worse. He pulls the mask off of The Judge to reveal his identity:  Two-Face. Corcoran is shocked and soon the police and some reporters come storming in. They’re surprised to see Two-Face as well and Batman leaves Corcoran to explain this mess.

Bruce Wayne is shown reading the newspaper which contains a story about Corcoran being indicted and losing his primary. Alfred shows up to express how surprised he was to learn that Two-Face was The Judge all along, allowing Bruce to explain to the audience what happened. Two-Face essentially created a third persona, unknown to him, which is how The Judge knew about Two-Face’s hidden exit to his apartment. Alfred expresses pity for the man formerly known as Harvey Dent, which takes us to Arkham. The voice of The Judge can be heard demanding to know how Two-Face pleads when confronted with his crimes. Two-Face is shown in a strait jacket with his head hung low as he just repeats the word “Guilty” over and over, his face rising to reveal a haggard expression.

guilty

“Guilty…guilty…guilty…”

And that is how The New Batman Adventures comes to an end. One of the best villains the show produced is returned in yet another new role to disburse justice across Gotham. It’s a fitting sister episode to “Second Chance,” for in that episode it was Harvey’s bad side that took control to make sure an operation that would repair his face never took place. In this one, it was the side of him that is Harvey Dent, District Attorney, who found a way to manifest itself in the form of The Judge. The reveal is protected rather well, with the only tip-off being that The Judge was clearly either a judge or lawyer when not in costume. The only other clue was the throw-away line from Two-Face about his secret exit, but it’s not as if the exit was hidden well. It was plausible that if The Judge could gain entry to the apartment for long enough to hack the security system and plant the gas bombs that he also could have found the hidden exit. It works well as a clue though and helps to make sure the episode didn’t do anything unfair in hiding the real identity of the vigilante.

For Batman, he only has to do some simple detective work to figure this one out. And as we saw in “Second Chance,” Harvey is a tough villain for him to confront given his failure to protect him back when he was disfigured by Rupert Thorne. It makes sense for this to be a solo mission given that fact, and truthfully there wasn’t much room for anyone else given how this one moves along. It might have been nice to see Robin confront Two-Face again, but it wasn’t exactly needed either.

Corcoran is the only real weakness for this episode. His portrayal is so slimy in nature that the reveal that he’s a crooked politician was expected as opposed to surprising. If he had been played different or made to seem a little less self-serving it might have made that reveal a bit more shocking and effective, rather than just being ho-hum. The writers felt that Corcoran needed to be a villain, and since Gordon endorses a vigilante all of the time they had to make him different to further illustrate the difference between Batman and The Judge.

batman soars

It feels appropriate that the show ends like it started with a Batman solo tale.

For Harvey Dent, this is a sad end for him. He will not appear in any of the series that follow and clearly he’s no closer to regaining his sanity at the end of this one than he was at any time before. He feels like a lost cause, and even Bruce shows him no sympathy in the end which is in contrast to his appearance in “Second Chance.” They could have given him a line about how The Judge’s presence indicates that there’s still some of Harvey Dent locked inside of there somewhere, but alas they chose not to. I’m not complaining as I’m fine with the story of Two-Face essentially having a sad ending even considering it is the final episode of the series. And not to be forgotten, but this is also the final appearance of Paul Williams as The Penguin. The Penguin character will return in Mystery of the Batwoman, but Williams did not reprise his role. A lot of praise is heaped on Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill for being the definitive take on their respective characters, but I can never read a line of dialogue from The Penguin and not hear Paul Williams in my head.

And that is the inescapable reality of this one. The end of Batman: The Animated Series, possibly the greatest action cartoon of all time. I started this project as a celebration of the show’s 25th anniversary more than two years ago. I also wanted to do it as a chance to revisit the show with a critical eye and determine for myself if it’s still worthy of much of the praise heaped upon it. And while it is true that not every episode is great, the vast majority are more than entertaining and it leads me to believe that the show has a well-earned reputation. It’s not just nostalgia talking. I will return to this show again to do a proper wrap-up, but it will have to wait until possibly the new year. I could not have timed this better when I started for next week will be a review of the show’s feature length finale, Mystery of the Batwoman. After that comes December which means Christmas, so there won’t be room for Batman for awhile. If you have been reading this weekly since the start, or just popped in now, thanks for doing so. I know it’s not as fun to read about Batman as it is to watch it, but hopefully this has been an acceptable use of time for anyone choosing to spend that which is so precious on my humble little blog.

 


The New Batman Adventures – “Mad Love”

mad love titleEpisode Number:  21 (106)

Original Air Date:  January 16, 1999

Directed by:  Butch Lukic

Written by:  Paul Dini, Bruce Timm

First Appearance:  None

During the development of The New Batman Adventures, Paul Dini always assumed there would be another season. There could have been some thought that Batman had peaked by then given the bomb that was Batman & Robin, but it’s hard to imagine someone thinking Batman wasn’t still a bankable character. To the surprise of probably not just Dini, Warner Brothers decided to go in a different direction with Batman leading to the creation of Batman Beyond. It seems like an unceremonious end for what started as Batman: The Animated Series, but when it came time to select a series finale the network did at least do the show right.

mad love comic

Like “Holiday Knights,” this story originated in the pages of Batman Adventures, the comic tie-in to BTAS.

“Mad Love” was the episode chosen to usher Batman out of the spotlight and into semi-retirement. Of course, Kevin Conroy’s Bruce Wayne would return in Batman Beyond and then eventually move onto Justice League, but he still deserved a good send-off of his own. “Mad Love” is a story that originated in a comic by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm that was done back in 1993. It centered on series break-out star Harley Quinn as it revealed her origin and explored her complicated relationship with the villainous Joker essentially filling in the gaps left unexplained by BTAS and taking advantage of Harley’s popularity. Somewhat surprisingly, it was not adapted for the second season of BTAS and maybe that’s because Dini and Timm felt the censors at Fox wouldn’t allow them to do the story justice. When the series was resurrected on Kids’ WB it made the adaptation realistic and was a pretty easy way to fill an episode order.

“Mad Love” the comic was also hugely successful. It won an Eisner Award for best single issue and Timm was nominated for an additional award for his artwork on the book. Even though the book takes place in the Animated Universe of Batman, it’s essentially been adopted as part of Batman canon for the regular line of comics and was even sourced for the Arkham series of Batman video games. At this point, it’s surprising the story hasn’t been adapted for film. This episode may only be 22 minutes or so, but it actually would not be all that difficult to pad it out into a feature length. Normally for classic stories DC commissions animated features, but the company probably feels that’s not necessary since this episode exists and it’s done really well.

joker dentist

Finally, a legitimate reason to avoid going to the dentist.

The episode opens with Commissioner Gordon (Bob Hastings) grumbling about a dentist appointment. As he heads into the office the dentist’s back is facing him and he’s directed to sit down. As Gordon yammers away it becomes quite clear to the viewer that this is not Gordon’s regular dentist, but the Clown Prince of Crime himself, the Joker (Mark Hamill)! And he’s not alone, as dental assistant Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin) is here as well to administer the laughing gas. Joker is ready to get started with a power drill as Gordon is restrained, but Gordon’s knight in dark and grim armor arrives in the form of Batman. He crashes through the window and tosses some chattering teeth on the ground. He reprimands Joker for getting sloppy and predictable, but Harley chimes in that the teeth were her idea as she blasts Batman with some gas. She makes a pun about it being a gas, which enrages Joker as he’s the one who’s supposed to deliver the jokes. Off his game, Joker then decides to run, but he leaves behind a parting gift – a grenade. As he tosses it, the script has some fun with Hamill by having Joker deliver the line “May the floss be with you!” Batman knocks the grenade away and sets to freeing Gordon who gets to deliver his own pun about always hating this appointment.

harley revs

Possibly the most “adult” reference from this show.

At the Funnibones Warehouse, an obviously unnerved Joker is working on some new blueprints for his next crime. He’s very intent on coming up with something much to the chagrin of Harely who comes strutting in wearing some lingerie as she tries desperately to get her man’s attention. In one of the more risqué gags, she even climbs onto the table Joker is working on to beckon him to “Rev up his Harley,” as she pantomimes riding a motorcycle. Joker swats her off the table and goes into a rant about how Batman is right and he is getting stale. He wants to correct this by doing the unthinkable – killing Batman! He expresses frustration at coming up with a way to do it and Harley suggests he just shoot him. This irritates Joker further who explains that the death of Batman needs to be something big as it will be his magnum opus. He then notices some old plans for a piranha tank trap he had planned for Batman. He wanted the fish to gobble him up while sporting Joker smiles, but he could never get his toxin to work properly on the miserable little fish.

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Joker inflicts much violence on Harley in this one. Some of it has a slapstick quality to it, but a lot of it is also painfully honest.

Joker then slumps in his chair assuming a defeated posture. Harley sees this as an opening to resume her romantic advances. The camera cuts to the alley outside and Harley comes flying into the picture. Apparently, there’s no room for love tonight. She then starts to walk away defeated with her babies, the hyenas Bud an Lou, in tow. As she does so she monologues about where her life went wrong. She blames Batman for messing things up between she and Mr. J and as she slumps against a brick wall she begins to let us in on how this all got started.

harley meets joker

Harley’s first encounter with The Joker.

Harleen Quinzel was a new hire at Arkham Asylum. On her first day she entered her office to find a single rose and a note from a “J” beckoning her to come see him some time. She confronts Joker in his cell and demands to know how this note made it into her office. He replies that he put it there, and when she suggests the guards would like to know this he responds that if she were going to tell them she would have done it already. He explains his interest in her is largely stemming from her name, Harley Quinzel, which sounds like harlequin when you drop the suffix. She remarks she’s heard it before, but as she walks away Joker calls out to her that he’s looking for someone to spill his secrets to which puts a smile on her face.

harleen and joker

This episode provides a good look at just how manipulative Joker can be.

It took three months, but eventually Harley was given the clearance to host Joker for some therapy sessions. As he lay on a sofa, Harley listened to his tales. He describes to her an abusive father and tells a story about his dad taking him to the circus to see the clowns. When he describes how he tried to recreate a gag from the show using his father’s pants as a prop, he’s able to make Harley laugh hard enough to produce tears setting her up for the real punchline which is that his dad broke his nose following the stunt. Harley narrates how Joker gained her trust and her sympathy and as she does we see flashbacks of Joker’s creation at the chemical plant and some battles with Batman (all new animation) as she puts the blame for his psychotic nature on his upbringing and the continued involvement of Batman. She admits her love for Joker and we see the tables have turned and it’s now Joker listening to her confessions. When Joker eventually escapes, he is brought back to Arkham in a sorry state by Batman and Harley is there to weep at his side. This was the final straw as we see her leave Arkham and head to a joke shop. She grabs a costume and even her prop gun she’s now known for and returns to Arkham. After clocking the security guard with a brick-stuffed rubber chicken, she blows open Joker’s cell and the two escape laughing all the way.

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The black and white television returns as Harley makes a plea for Batman’s help.

Harley is shown once again in the alley. With resolve in her voice, she once again pins blame for all of her life’s misfortunes since then on Batman. The scene cuts to the Bat Signal high in the sky over Gotham. Inside the police station, Gordon, Bullock, and Batman are viewing a tape from Harley in which she claims Joker has gone too far and is planning something horrific. She claims she needs their help, and to add gravitas to her words she removes her mask as she does so.

harley syringe

This is easily the most menacing Harley has ever looked in this show.

Harley is then shown, no mask and in a trench coat, at a dock. Batman spots her from a rooftop and as Harley paces with some blueprints for Joker’s crime Batman appears behind her. She hands over the plans and Batman looks at them eagerly. He says he wants Gordon to see them, but before they can discuss it further Joker shows up on a boat. He shouts about Harley being a stool pigeon and opens fire. Batman pulls Harley to the ground and hits Joker with a Batarang that takes his head off revealing it was a dummy. As Batman looks on with some confusion he winces in pain. As he falls Harley is standing behind him with a syringe.

harley traps batman

Batman is in a bit of a pinch, but he’s always so resourceful.

We’re then taken to a place called Aquacade which sounds like an aquarium crossed with an arcade which would be a rather interesting concept. The inside of the place makes it look more like a traditional aquarium, though there are bar stools. Batman is bound by chains and suspended over a tank of water swarming with piranhas. Harley is there in full costume adding more water. She explains she’s going to win Joker over by killing Batman using one of his plans that she tweaked a bit. She explains that with Batman hanging upside down, the piranhas will appear to be smiling from his perspective as they devour him. Before she lowers Batman further into the tank, she expresses some remorse as she explains she did kind of enjoy their encounters. She needs to do this for her beloved puddin’ though and when she suggests this will set everything right Batman does something a bit unexpected:  he laughs.

harley tears

Harley is full-blown crazy during these events as she’ll stop at nothing to win Joker’s affection.

Harley spins around clearly unnerved by Batman’s laughter. Batman goes on to explain that Joker couldn’t possibly love her because he only loves himself. When she tells him he’s wrong she justifies her convictions by citing how Joker opened up to her at Arkham. Batman, appearing amused, then starts citing all of the stories Joker has told others looking to gain their trust over the years. They align with what he told her, only with slight variations like his dad taking him to an ice show instead of the circus. Harley, clearly upset, decides to just ignore Batman’s words and sets out to finish the job, but Batman points out to her that the piranhas won’t leave much of him behind and that without a body Joker will never believe her. This causes worry to flash across Harley’s face.

harley's fall

Harley’s night ends in tragedy, though amazingly she survives this fall.

Joker is then shown pacing around his hideout clearly still trying to dream up the perfect way to kill Batman when the phone rings. It’s Harley, and when Joker finds out she’s got Batman trapped he races out of there in his purple convertible. Harley then approaches Batman smugly to tell him Joker is on his way. He apparently drove exceptionally fast because he then bursts through the doors. He immediately heads for Harley who is expecting praise, but instead gets a backhand. It’s delivered offscreen so we just here the “smack!” and then see Harley come flying into frame. She sets to calming him down by explaining how she changed the trap so the piranhas appear to be smiling which only irritates Joker further. It’s not a joke if you have to explain it, and as she backs away from him she ends up in front of a window. Joker, in a scene reminiscent of Catwoman’s creation in Batman Returns, shoves her through the window. We see her fall from his perspective and it happens in slow-motion. Harley crashes to the ground amidst boxes and trash. As she lays there broken with blood trickling from her mouth she pathetically blames herself for making Joker mad.

Harley didnt get the joke

“It’s my fault. I didn’t get the joke.”

Joker looks down on her and declares he never liked her pet name, puddin’, that she used for him. He then turns his attention towards Batman and essentially apologizes for the whole thing. He says he thinks they should just forget about all of this before heading for the door. He then stops and reconsiders his plan and returns to Batman. He pulls out a gun and is seemingly prepared to do what Harley suggested earlier and just shoot the guy, but Batman kicks him causing him to shoot the tank instead freeing the piranhas. As Joker fends off the fish, Batman hops around in the chains and grabs his utility belt with his teeth. While Joker makes a run for it, Batman picks the lock on his chains to free himself before giving chase.

joker smokestack

At least he got what was coming to him.

Joker reaches the roof of the aquarium and decides to make a jump. He crosses the huge gap which takes him over some train tracks and grabs onto a railing on another building. The railing breaks, and Joker cries out as he falls. Batman reaches the edge and looks over and finds a laughing Joker (“Made ya look!”) riding on top of a passing train. Joker enjoys himself for a moment and then turns to see Batman has jumped on the train as well. Batman then informs Joker that Harley came closer to killing him than he ever did. If it weren’t for Joker’s massive ego, she probably would have got the job done. He ends his explanation by dropping a “puddin'” on Joker and this infuriates him into attacking Batman. Joker gets in some shots, but he’s really no match in a one-on-one fight with the Dark Knight. Batman nails him with an uppercut, and Joker flies off of the train and plummets into a smoke stack.

damaged harley

The consequences of Joker’s violence towards Harley is shown.

A news program on an Arkham television is utilized to inform us that Joker’s whereabouts are unknown following his confrontation with Batman. The camera pans and we see a brief flash of inmates (one of which I swear is intended to look like Conrad Veidt from The Man Who Laughs, often cited as a real world inspiration for The Joker) and Harley in the background getting wheeled down the hall. She’s covered in bandages and her arm is in a sling. She then narrates for us how she finally sees Joker for what he is vowing that from now on things are going to change. As she’s placed in bed in her cell she lists off a bunch of negative adjectives that describe Joker. She then looks to her left to see a single rose on her nightstand with a note that says “Feel better soon. – J” and a smile crosses her face as she finishes her list of labels out loud describing Joker, the last word being “Angel.”

harley smiles

The final shot of the episode. She may be smiling, but it’s painfully sad.

Lets just get it out of the way and declare this one of the best episodes in the series. “Mad Love” encapsulates everything I love about Batman, Joker and Harley all in one episode. Batman is resourceful, and perhaps even a bit naïve in trusting Harley, but she and him have had a close moment in the past so his decision isn’t completely without merit. Joker is psychotic and truly evil. He’s entertaining, and even funny, but also unlikable and terrifying which is how the character should be. He’s not someone deserving of sympathy, and he doesn’t get it from the viewer. He does get it from Harley, who is truly a tragic figure. She’s grown over the course of this series, and in some respects her character here doesn’t reflect that. I chalk that up to this story being an old one relative to when this episode was adapted. Some of the plot points were reused for “Harley & Ivy,” mostly Harley trying to figure out where things went wrong, but it’s done well here so I don’t mind. Her sequence in the alley is what is utilized as reference for basically any video on the character, and her hopeless devotion to her beloved Mr. J is truly sad. Seeing her lying there in the rubble blaming herself for the violence inflicted upon her by her partner is almost too real as many abuse victims can attest. This might be the rare episode that’s actually too troubling for some people to watch. The ending, with her smiling and apparently forgiving Joker, is the only place I find it easy to criticize. It almost feels like it’s supposed to be funny, when really it’s tragic. I think the episode was fine to end this way, but the score could have been better utilized to make it absolutely clear that this is a sad ending for Harley.

Production wise, this is also a high point for the series. Maybe not visually, as there are a few gaffes here and there, but the voice acting across the board is stellar. Kevin Conroy, Arleen Sorkin, and Mark Hamill all turn in possibly their best work on the series. Maybe not so much for Conroy, but that’s only because he didn’t have as much to work with here as he has in the past. Even so, his delivery of Batman’s lines are biting. He’s remorseless in exploiting Harley and Joker’s mental state giving him a touch of viciousness we’re not used to. Part of me wishes he was worked into the end so we could see a showing of sympathy on his part towards Harley. His laugh is also well done. It sounds genuine and it’s even a touch unsettling, which is good because it helps us react to it in the same way Harley did. Sorkin has always been wonderful as Harley, but here she is able to inject both comedy and tragedy into her performance. It’s painful to see her expecting praise from Joker like a dog expecting a pat from its owner only to have pain inflicted upon her instead. And Hamill, what more can be said about his Joker? I may not like what this show did to Joker visually, but the loosening of the censors has been a boon for the character. It’s allowed Hamill to approach Joker in a more menacing manner giving the villain the chill he needs. He’s no longer just a punchline, but a dangerous psychopath.

mad love two-pack

In case you were wondering, you can indeed get an action figure two-pack based on this episode. And better yet, it features the season one version of Joker.

I am slightly disappointed that this episode isn’t the last we’ll see of Joker and Harley. It really is a great way for the show to end, but we’re going by production order which means the pair have one more appearance to make. This episode is the final appearance of Commissioner Gordon though in this series. He’ll return for the film based on this series, but he won’t be seen in any of the final episodes. The same is true for Detective Bullock, who was seen, but not heard in this episode. It feels weird to say goodbye to these characters after so long, but there’s more of that coming with only three episodes remaining so I guess I should get used to it.

“Mad Love” is on the short list for best episode in the series, and by series I mean Batman as a whole as this is considered season three for Batman: The Animated Series. If you just want a great Joker and Harley story then this is it. No other tale about the two has really come close and given the critical failure of Suicide Squad it surprises me that DC and Warner have yet to turn to this as a remedy. That’s a movie I’d be excited to see, but by no means is such a thing needed to legitimize this story or anything. Whether it’s experienced as a comic or television show, “Mad Love” is excellent as is. I’m partial to this episode as being the definitive take because the voice acting performances are so well done, but both are stories that should not be ignored.

 


The New Batman Adventures – “You Scratch My Back”

you scratch my backEpisode Number:  5 (90)

Original Air Date:  November 15, 1997

Directed by:  Butch Lukic

Written by:  Hilary J. Bader

First Appearance:  Nightwing

After briefly checking in with Dick Grayson (Loren Lester) at the end of the second episode we now get the official introduction of Nightwing, Grayson’s new alter-ego. We’re still going to have to wait to find out what happened to cause the former Boy Wonder to break away from his mentor, but at least we’ll get a look at how Nightwing operates. We’ll also be reintroduced to a certain femme fatale in the form of Catwoman (Adrienne Barbeau). This episode is going to play up the tension that exists between Batman and Nightwing as well as the tension between he and his old adversary. Catwoman is going to be happy to squeeze her way in between the two. Also caught in the middle, but less eager to be, is Batgirl who is the frustrated bystander who just wants to see everyone get along.

water tower

Some people just always like to invite themselves to the party.

The episode opens with Nightwing on a water tower scoping out some shipping docks. He apparently expects something to go down with some gun smugglers, and Batman and Batgirl soon arrive on the scene. Nightwing is not particularly happy to see them, rebuffing Batgirl’s friendly vibes while being rather straight with Batman. Once a forklift is deployed, Nightwing jumps into action. His suit is similar to a wing suit or the classic Spider-Man costume with the webbed under-arm portions. He glides in effortlessly, which looks ridiculous because the wings are far too small. Also, he now has a mullet. Aside from that, the simple black suit with blue logo and domino mask looks fine, better than that garish old Robin costume. In addition to the new threads he also has his own theme song which feels bright and upbeat (similar to Superman’s) which stands in contrast with Batman’s moody tunes. It’s a nice touch, but it almost feels corny. It’s a tad overused in this episode and I hope it’s not something that’s repeated a lot.

Nightwing gets the drop on the bad dudes and gets to work. He demonstrates he’s still plenty good at this crime fighting thing, and even shows off some new shurikens (Wing-a-rangs? Night-a-rangs?) of his own making. He tangles with one goon in a forklift, impossibly dodging bullets and depositing said forklift into the harbor. As he dusts himself off he fails to notice another thug closing in on him from behind with ill intentions. Batgirl swings in for the save, but Nightwing hardly seems grateful for the help. The two have a little argument that’s interrupted by a fleeing thug. He runs among some stacked shipping crates and finds Batman just casually leaning against some of the crates. He ignores the thug, who seems shocked, but eventually continues on his way.

batman inaction

Must be his night off.

Nightwing comes through the same way and seems irritated with Batman’s inaction, though he was recently agitated with Batgirl for the opposite. Batman gestures which way the perp ran with a “He’s all yours,” and Nightwing goes after him. Before he gets to him he can hear a commotion. Nightwing races around the corner to find the crook bound and gagged, and the person responsible is Catwoman. Sporting a new all black attire, Catwoman immediately acts cozy with the young Nightwing by blowing a kiss his way and goes into her backflip routine as she fades from view leaving Nightwing to wonder what that was all about.

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Nice crib, Dick.

The next night, Barbara pays Dick a visit at his loft to warn him not to trust Catwoman. Surprisingly, she never brings up her prior partnership with the same villain. Dick’s loft is rather fancy, making me wonder what he ended up doing for work or if this is all Wayne money. It has a dojo-like vibe to it as well, suggesting maybe Dick has sought out some teachings similar to what Bruce did before becoming Batman. Anyways, he has a cool motorcycle now and when Barbara points out there’s room for two on that bike he declines leaving her to lock-up.

catwomans affection

Catwoman knows how to get close to a man.

Seeking to follow a lead on the same drug-smuggling ring, Nightwing arrives in position where he can spy on a penthouse. Catwoman soon arrives and reveals she knows a thing or two about these guys. The guy they’re after goes by the name of Ricky the Hook (Sal Lopez) on account of his hook hand. Nightwing is reluctant to engage her, but she insists she’s on his side. When Nightwing allows for a slight opening in this job, thanks to some distractingly flirtatious behavior on the part of Catwoman, she takes it and the lead and heads over to the penthouse forcing Nightwing to pursue.

Rick the Hook

Enrique El Gancho, aka Rick the Hook.

The two infiltrate the penthouse and uncover some shipping schedules. As Nightwing downloads the information, he’s confronted by The Hook and some of his men. Worse, Catwoman has apparently left him high and dry. As The Hook confronts an irritated Nightwing though, Catwoman reappears to take out the hired help. As The Hook reels from the surprise appearance of the feline, Nightwing takes the opportunity to hit the man as hard as he can in the face. It seems to only stun him. Catwoman takes a whack at taking him down as well, but to similar results. The gunmen gather themselves and force the two to flee. They leap through a skylight and into an indoor pool. The gunmen fire from their vantage point down into it forcing Nightwing to take out the lights allowing for their eventual escape, but not before they engage in some slight slapstick by using pool equipment on the thugs.

Now out of danger, the unlikely partners go over what just happened. Catwoman pushes the idea of the two teaming up, and this time Nightwing is receptive to the proposal. This job clearly requires more than one person, and maybe he’s being seduced by Catwoman’s innate charms. Nearby though, Batman is watching and listening and he doesn’t look too happy.

Sometime later, or another day, Selina Kyle is lounging in her apartment amongst her cats. She’s apparently done well for herself since returning to a life of crime as this apartment appears to be every bit as nice as her old one. She’s also cut her hair short and dyed it black, in keeping with her comic look at the time (the prior blonde look was likely done to resemble Michelle Pfeiffer). Batman soon appears in her apartment and this isn’t a friendly visit. He warns Selina to stay away from Nightwing. She seems amused and opines that the Man Wonder can make his own decisions, implying that it must be common knowledge that Robin has grown up and transitioned to this Nightwing persona. Because drama demands it, Nightwing too shows up. He’s not at all pleased to see Batman sticking his nose in his business, but rather than get into an argument, Batman chooses to leave quietly. As he does, Nightwing looks up to see Batgirl watching and a brief, pained, expression crosses his face as she too departs.

Selina Kyle Short Hair

Selina is feeling frisky after ditching the bat.

With him gone, Nightwing informs Selina that he analyzed the files they took from Ricky the Hook and knows where the next big shipment will take place, and that it’s to take place tonight. Selina seems pleased and moves in closer to Nightwing causing him to stop her. It’s not that he’s rejecting the affectionate advance, but he’s spotted something:  a bat-shaped tracking device on Selina’s whip.

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A last ditch effort to keep the Man Wonder on her side.

Now in costume, Catwoman releases her cat Isis into the Gotham night. And on her collar is Batman’s tracking device. He and Batgirl are shown in the Batmobile falling for the ruse, as Catwoman and Nightwing head out to their rendezvous spot with some gun smugglers. Once they arrive at the docks, the two slip onto a ship and start nosing around the shipping containers. Catwoman seems especially eager, and Nightwing will soon learn why. As Nightwing breaks into some crates, he finds a priceless artifact rather than guns. He finds more, and when he goes to share this information with Catwoman he finds she’s rather consumed with her own affairs. It seems that Catwoman was recently in South America and stole an item called the Cat’s Eye Emerald and stashed it on this boat in order to bring it back to Gotham. She’s busy smashing a bunch of statues until she eventually finds it. Nightwing is rightly angry with her, but Catwoman is prepared for this reaction. She tries to smooth things over with her womanly charms resorting to the tired old villain line of pointing out the money she’ll get for this emerald will allow them to go anywhere they want. She tries to seal the deal with a kiss, but Nightwing rebuffs her. Catwoman informs him he can’t blame her for trying, before quickly tripping him and using her whip to drop a cargo net on top of him.

Batman and Batgirl soon burst onto the scene. Batman frees Nightwing from the net, who brushes himself off to tell Batman his hunch was right and that Catwoman led them right to the emerald. Catwoman is surprised to learn the two played her for a fool. As she lets them know how she feels about being conned, The Hook and his men arrive forcing Batgirl to deploy some smoke grenades to allow the three to escape.

batman vs the hook

The fight you never knew you wanted.

With the smoke obscuring the vision of the gunners, the trio take out the goons with ease. Nightwing gestures to Ricky the Hook informing Batman he’s all for him while he pursues a fleeing Catwoman. The two trade blows with Ricky the Hook even drawing blood from Batman. He eventually gets the upper hand on the Dark Knight, but as he goes to deliver a killing blow with his hook, Batman blocks it with a nearby fire extinguisher. The foam inside the extinguisher gets in Hook’s eyes and he stumbles back getting his hook caught in some chains. This causes a large crate to release from above which crashes down on top of him. For a moment, it looks like he’s going to brush this off as well, but then he collapses in a heap.

From the ship’s deck, Nightwing spots Catwoman attempting to flee via motorboat. He glides after her, but she takes notice and begins firing a flare gun at him. He avoids the projectiles, and as he descends onto the boat Catwoman accidentally hits the vessel causing it to go up in flames. Worse, they’re speeding towards an ocean liner which for some reason has its prop exposed above water. Catwoman tries to drown Nightwing by shoving his head underwater over the side of the boat, which is quite a vicious turn for her, but Nightwing pulls himself back onto the boat. Catwoman is apparently unaware of the impending collision, as Nightwing grabs her and leaps from the boat as it smashes into the ocean liner. The resulting explosion was apparently enough to knock out Catwoman, but not Nightwing. As he clings to a piece of the former motorboat with Catwoman draped on it as well, Batgirl arrives with the Batboat to see if he needs a hand. Nightwing responds by telling her he’s always happy to have some help as the episode ends.

nightwing could use a hand

The explosion conveniently knocks out the bad guy while leaving the good guy fully conscious.

“You Scratch My Back” is an interesting episode because it reintroduces us to Dick Grayson by showing us that his relationship with Batman has become strained. And yet, by the end of it we’re left to wonder how much of that was real and how much was just show to keep Catwoman in the dark. It makes me wonder if the show was afraid to make them too confrontational and wanted to have it both ways:  a fraught relationship, but also a buddy ensemble. Nightwing was made to be so naive though when it came to Catwoman that it basically had to go this way or else the character would have instantly lost all credibility. It would be one thing if the younger Robin were duped into something like this by a villain, but for Nightwing to fall for it would be absurd.

dick and barbara photo

There appear to be some hard feelings in the past of Dick and Barbara.

The episode does not show any interest in revealing what caused the break-ups that occurred offscreen. We know things could get tense between Batman and Robin, but we don’t know if Dick just gradually distanced himself or if there was one thing that put him over the edge. Similarly, we don’t know what happened between he and Barbara. When we last saw the two together they were a couple, but now they’re not. While Dick is getting into costume, Barbara is shown looking at a picture of the two of them with a look of sadness on her face. And who is Dick’s barber? That hairstyle is brutal.

As for Selina, we can see she’s been living a life of crime and doing quite well for herself. She’s managed to become wealthy again without running afoul of Batman, as evidenced by the fact that she’s not in jail. Is she even living as Selina Kyle or has she adopted an alias? Her new look seems to be even more influenced by her appearance in Batman Returns as her costume is basically identical to the one present in that film, just without the stitching. There’s something very cartoonish about her head though that really takes away from the sex appeal she’s supposed to possess which ultimately hurts the character. Aside from that, I do like how she’s portrayed as she’s very physical and flirtatious which strikes me as very cat-like.

Overall, this is a rather fun story. Sure, it left me with some questions, but it does a solid enough job of not telegraphing the end. The conflict is largely kept to Batman, Nightwing, and Catwoman so it didn’t need an A-list villain to serve as the adversary. Ricky the Hook is at least a physical menace and he gives Batman a good brawl further showing how open to violence this series is. Batgirl is just along for the ride, mostly, and Tim Drake is sidelined which is fine as there’s plenty of characters here anyway. For director Butch Lukic, this is his first time in the big chair after being a storyboard artist for the previous series. He does a good job as the action pieces are well done and the many characters are utilized well. He’ll go on to direct four more episodes of this series, including the much beloved “Mad Love,” as well as many episodes of Batman Beyond.


The New Batman Adventures – “Holiday Knights”

holiday knightsEpisode Number:  1 (86)

Original Air Date:  September 13, 1997

Directed by:  Dan Riba

Written by:  Paul Dini

First Appearance:  Robin (Tim Drake), Mo, Lar, Cur

After pausing for a week to discuss the 1998 film Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero we have now finally arrived at The New Batman Adventures era of the show. This is essentially the start of a sequel series, but it’s been retconned over the years (or just simplified) as Season 3 of Batman: The Animated Series. The Blu Ray set released in 2018 simply refers to it as such and the intro for each episode is the Season One intro from the Fox Kids era. The show largely exists thanks to two new developments since the previous series ended in 1995:  the WB network, and Superman.

Warner Bros. and Fox had a nice relationship in the 1990s where WB created several shows that Fox aired as part of its Fox Kids lineup on weekday afternoons and Saturday morning. At some point, the executives at WB decided it would just make more sense for them to start their own network. On January 11, 1995 The WB was launched and alongside it came Kids’ WB. That block of programming would be occupied by cartoons primarily, most of which included characters WB owned. Gradually, as the license agreements with Fox expired the shows WB had created for that network migrated to its network.

TNBA trio

The New Batman Adventures placed greater emphasis on Batman’s supporting cast.

The network’s flagship action cartoon was Superman, or Superman: The Animated Series. It was decided that it would make a lot of sense for Superman to simply be partnered with Batman to form an hour programming block of DC’s hottest heroes. It would make sense for the two to cross paths, and so WB commissioned a new Batman series envisioned as a sequel to BTAS. Like the second season of that show, this one would focus on Batman and a supporting cast of heroes. Dick Grayson would return, but not as Robin but rather Nightwing. In his place was a new, much younger, Robin and Batgirl would be there as well. The show would need to be updated to match the style of Superman and to also make the show cheaper to produce. “Dark Deco” was now out, in its place was a modern Gotham with cell phones and (gasp!) color TV. Oddly, Gotham would also feature a red sky apparently to heighten the darkness of the show vs the much brighter Superman. There is a reduction of shadows as well making everything lighter in appearance. Perhaps something that disappoints only me is the dropping of title cards. I loved the title cards on BTAS and I was so bummed to see they weren’t continued here. It also makes each one of these posts a little less interesting to look at.

TNBA redesigns

A look at the various villains from the show, some old some new.

This new style meant character redesigns. Batman would ditch the blue of his prior costume opting for a strictly black and gray ensemble. His belt was also muted in tone and more utilitarian in appearance. Robin’s costume dropped the green and Batgirl ditched the gray as well. On the villain’s side things were a bit more extreme. We’ll mostly get to them as they show up. To highlight a few; Scarecrow received an entirely new look while Joker featured an aggressive redesign that removed the sclera of his eyes and the red of his lips. Some of these redesigns are quite interesting on their own, while some are just plain inferior to the previous look. The characters had to be simplified to reflect the shrinking budget, but some sacrifices just aren’t worth making.

Most of the creative staff was returned for the new series. Paul Dini and Bruce Timm served as executive producers alongside Alan Burnett. Dini and Timm would both contribute to multiple episodes as writer while Dan Riba returned to direct multiple episodes as well. Also returning was the majority of the voice cast from the prior series, with the only notable change being Tara Strong (then known as Tara Charendoff) as Barbara Gordon/Batgirl. A lot of new blood was also brought in, many of which would hang around the DC Animated Universe which was about to expand to include The Justice League and Teen Titans. This is basically the beginning of an expansive television universe by WB and DC which is basically the television equivalent of the current Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’m primarily only interested in Batman when it comes to DC, so don’t expect me to do this for the other shows. Hopefully no one is disappointed.

TNBA logo

New show, new logo.

The New Batman Adventures was released on DVD as Volume 4 of Batman: The Animated Series and is included in both the DVD and Blu Ray box set of the series as Season 3. For this feature, I considered simply sticking with the BTAS title, but decided this show was different enough to change it up. I’ll include both the episode number as it relates to this series as well as how it relates to the entire series. We’re also sticking with production order as opposed to air date order. The show was ordered as one season, but aired as two seasons of 13 and 11 episodes respectively concluding in January of 1999. At some point I’ll summarize my thoughts on the whole of Batman: The Animated Series, but since we’re getting started with The New Batman Adventures I’ll say upfront that I find this series to be inferior to its predecessor. It’s less unique looking and not as well written. The new villains introduced aren’t as memorable and we also lose a little bit of Batman by switching to an ensemble format. He’s made to be more grim, apparently to heighten how different he is from his younger companions, and as such loses some of his humanity in the process. He’s overall just less interesting as a character, and the focus on the others doesn’t really make up for that. It feels like a diservice to the excellent Kevin Conroy, who simply has less to work with in regards to Batman and Bruce Wayne.

Anyways, let’s finally start talking about this first episode, shall we? First airing just over 2 years after the conclusion of BTAS, “Holiday Knights” is a pretty bizarre way to kick-off this series. For one, it’s a Christmas/New Years episode that’s presented in anthology format with three separate mini stories starring different heroes and villains. It’s based on the Batman Adventures Holiday Special released in 1995 written by Bruce Timm and Paul Dini. Oddly, WB chose to air this as the premier as well in September rather than stashing it away until closer to Christmas like Fox did with “Christmas with the Joker,” the second episode from BTAS. Also complicating things, the new Robin (Mathew Valencia) debuts here even though the second episode is the one that details how he met Batman and came to assume this persona. Clayface is also the featured villain of the middle tale, but his actual return from the events of “Mudslide” is recounted in a later episode as well. This episode almost feels non-canon as a result, and it’s just overall a weird and confusing way to bring the series back.

new ivy

Ivy has apparently spent the past few years avoiding the sun.

The episode begins on December 22 and quickly reintroduces us to a pair of villains:  Poison Ivy (Diane Pershing) and Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin). Harley largely looks the same as she did in the previous series, while Ivy has received a fairly dramatic makeover. Her hair is more stylized and her skin bone white. She displays what is basically the new female body-shape on the show:  short, pointed, with an oversized head. It’s a more “toon” presentation and is less realistic compared with BTAS. I personally don’t care for it, but it is what it is.

Harley is bored and not at all excited to be stuck in a slummy motel for the holidays. She bemoans their lack of a Christmas tree, which naturally sets Ivy off as she views them as a form of genocide against trees. Ivy insists she has a plan that will brighten up their holiday and urges her friend to trust in her. We’re then taken to a gathering of the wealthy at the Vreeland estate where we get our first look at the new Bruce Wayne. He dresses all in black now with a white shirt under his suit and red “power” tie. His hair is black as well and slicked back to give him a real douchey look befitting a billionaire playboy. He’s socializing with Veronica Vreeland (Marilu Henner) who has returned to her red-haired look after a brief dabble with being a blonde and seems amused when a gaggle of women swarm Bruce. While Bruce is being pushed around by the ladies, one of them plants a kiss right on his lips. It’s Ivy, and as we learned way back in “Pretty Poison” getting a kiss from her is not something anyone should desire.

bruce ivy harley

Not the women Bruce was hoping to take home.

Bruce leaves the party and as he heads for his car he’s invited into a limo by a pair of women. Bruce finds himself unable to control his own body as he’s subjected to Ivy and Harley’s whims. They then use Bruce and his fabulous wealth to go on a shopping spree. A montage plays which feels fitting for a holiday special and is set to a saxophone rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” The women seem to enjoy themselves while Bruce is helpless. As they force him to carry all of their purchases he begins to make some headway in fighting off the effects of the poison. The girls realize too late that he needs another dose, and as they approach to do so Bruce is able to back away falling into an open elevator shaft. The girls are indifferent to Bruce’s plight as they still have his credit cards and continue on with their evening. Meanwhile, the gloved hand of Batman reaches up from the depths of the elevator shaft.

harley ivy shopping

The Ivy and Harley montage is probably the best part of the whole episode.

Harley and Ivy make their escape in their stolen limo being driven by another brainwashed lackey, but soon enough the cloaked outline of Batman flashes behind them. Harley warns Ivy about who’s on their tail and Ivy makes some evasive maneuvers to avoid The Dark Knight which leads them to a toy store – how fitting. Batman enters and encounters all manners of toy-related traps:  wooden soldiers, giant boxing gloves, and Harley’s trusty mallet. The ladies lure Batman through their fun house leading up a tower of toys before they hastily attempt a retreat. As the duo turn to rub salt in his wounds, Batman fires his redesigned grappling hook (it makes a less satisfying hissing sound when fired and features an end that’s just a bladed Batman logo) to hook the base of a massive Christmas tree. He topples it landing right on the thieves putting a damper on their holiday, but returning to the Christmas tree gag with Harley who’s strangely comforted by its presence.

santa bullock

Santa Bullock, ho, ho, ho.

Our second story takes place on Christmas Eve. Barbara is shopping at Mayfield’s Department Store for a gift for her father. As she’s paying for her gift, a crying child gets her attention and the clerk remarks it’s been like that all day. Not far from the checkout station is a department store Santa being played by none other than Detective Harvey Bullock (Robert Costanzo). Apparently, Bullock isn’t the best Santa and tends to leave the kids who sit on his lap in tears. Serving alongside him as his elf is Officer Renee Montoya (Liane Schirmir) and the two are apparently on a stake-out which is why Bullock isn’t exactly into this whole Santa schtick. Bullock does at least find the Christmas spirit momentarily when a little girl sits on his lap asking to have her dad back for Christmas. Apparently, her dad is a crook Bullock just helped get put away. Not really knowing what else to do, he gives her some money. That should cheer her up.

Barbara is amused by Bullock’s turn as Kris Kringle and makes her way for the exit. Along the way she notices a child who appears to be shoplifting. The daughter of Gotham’s police commissioner can’t stand idly by as someone commits a crime, so she reaches out to grab him only she comes away with a handful of mud instead. Montoya then receives word to be on the lookout for a rabble of child thieves which fellow detectives are chasing through the store. They corner the kids, who then all merge into one being right before their very eyes.

batgirl crowd control

Batgirl showing off her new attire.

It’s Clayface (Ron Perlman), and he’s not the type of bandit to go quietly. He immediately begins trashing the place forcing Barbara to duck out and re-emerge as Batgirl. She takes the fight right to Clayface knocking him through an oversized window and onto a skating rink outside causing him to smash through the ice. Santa and his elf arrive to provide backup, though their guns do little to bother Clayface. Batgirl hollers at them to stop wasting their ammo and to aim for the Santa. Bullock at first confuses her command to mean him, but above Clayface is a giant, lighted, Santa as well as strings of Christmas lights. Bullock and Montoya take aim and blast the Santa down to land on top of Clayface. The frayed wires land in the water around Clayface electrocuting him and putting a stop to his rampage. Montoya then leaves Bullock to handle the clean-up.

new joker

I don’t like this new Joker at all, but at least we still have Mark Hamill doing his voice.

Our final tale takes place on December 31 and involves The Joker (Mark Hamill). He’s sent out one of his famous broadcasts to the people of Gotham revealing his New Year’s resolution to not kill anyone in the new year. This means he needs to make up for it all tonight and send the current year out with a bang! A taping of this broadcast is being viewed by Batman and Robin in Commissioner Gordon’s office. It would seem Gordon stopped heading to the gym following the events of BTAS as he’s a lot smaller and older looking now than he was before. Gordon (Bob Hastings) informs Batman that they have a lead on Joker as a GothCorp scientist was murdered earlier in the day. The scientist specialized in sonics and had been working on a new weapon that could kill with sound. Batman deduces that Joker’s likely target will be The New Year’s Countdown in Gotham Square and it’s likely he’ll have this new weapon in hand.

jokers favors

Joker’s party favors.

Joker is shown at Gotham Square with some of his finest: Mo, Lar, and Cur (all voiced by Ron Perlman and obvious reference to The Three Stooges). They’re rigging the sonic bomb to a massive bell. Apparently at midnight, the bell goes up to ring in the new year and when that happens the bomb will go off. And to make things harder on Batman, Joker has some “party favors” to distribute.

Batman and Robin head for the party and realize finding Joker will be a bit harder than expected. Joker has distributed his Joker masks to all of the party-goers making it hard to find the real Joker. Batman peers through some binoculars and spots a clown in a purple suit at a piano in the middle of the gathering onstage. He’s wearing ear muffs and so are the rather large men flanking him. Figuring that’s his man, Batman and Robin head for the stage and Batman dings Joker’s head with a Batarang knocking off his ear muffs. They then turn their attention to Joker’s goons, but find they’re pretty hard to deal with. Joker ends up grabbing the upper hand by smashing a bucket full of ice and champagne over the back of Batman’s skull.

joker champagne

This will be a short-lived victory for Joker.

Joker grabs the bottle of champagne to celebrate and apparently die with everyone else. As Joker gloats over Batman, The Dark Knight is able to snatch the bottle of champagne and spray it all over the controls to the bell shortening out the killing device. As he does so, Joker tries to stop him and shoots at him and actually hits Batman in the right arm. As Batman lays on the ground, Joker laughs like only he can. As he does so the bell begins to fall, and it just so happens to land right on Joker who offers a well-timed “Ouch,” from beneath it to close out the scene.

bat gordon toast

We’re introduced to an annual tradition for Gordon and The Dark Knight.

With Joker’s plot foiled once again, Commissioner Gordon is shown entering a diner around 2 AM. The owner (Corey Burton) ushers everyone out and tells them he’s closing up as Gordon takes a seat at a booth. The man brings him a mug of coffee as well as a second mug and wonders aloud if Gordon’s buddy is coming. Gordon assures him he is, and Batman soon enters through a rear door. He sits down and the two indicate this is a yearly tradition of theirs. They speak only a few words before Gordon turns to request something from the kitchen to go. When he turns back he finds an empty booth and a couple of bucks left on the table to cover the tab. Remarking he’ll one day beat him to the check, Gordon collects himself and heads out into the night while Batman is seen swinging off into the red sky himself.

As I said, this is an odd way to begin the series. Three fragmented stories which lean heavily into comic relief that contain characters who will require a true introduction (or reintroduction) further down the road. It at least gets a lot of characters on-screen though giving us a peek at this new look. In general, I’m not much of a fan for how this series looks. It uses mostly straight lines in its characters and the women and children have huge heads. I mostly hate the new Joker as his face just lacks personality and is so bland and wooden to look at. The removal of his lips also just makes his mouth flaps look odder as he’s all teeth gnashing together. He looked so great in BTAS so it’s just really disappointing to see him reduced to this. This practically elderly looking Commissioner Gordon is also not a favorite of mine and Bullock looks like he’s gained about 50 pounds.

clayface hk

Clayface doesn’t come across looking so hot. Meanwhile, less censorship apparently extends to Montoya’s attire as well.

Not surprisingly, Clayface isn’t as well animated as he was before. He still contorts his body into weapons and other beings, but not a lot of resources are spent on the transitioning animation. He’s also far more stable looking than he was in “Mudslide” and has almost a rocky appearance compared with his old one. It should also be pointed out he was previosuly immune to elecrocution so either that was a goof by Dini or they intentionally took that immunity away from him. I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but this is just a less interesting looking show. They wanted it to be in-line with Metropolis from Superman and it wouldn’t make sense to have Gotham look like it was trapped in the 1940s and Metropolis like something from the 90s.

harley and the tree

It’s nice to have a little Christas in June, right? Interestingly, the comic this episode is based on portrayed Harley as Jewish.

There is one advantage this show has over its predecessor and that appears to be with the level of violence on display. It’s blatantly discussed that Joker murdered someone and he has an apparent lust for carnage and mayhem that was more tip-toed around on Fox. Batman is also free to punch people while villains, and the police, are still able to wield realistic looking weapons. Warner must have desired a way to differentiate its network from Fox and upping the violence was apparently one such way.

As an episode, this is a pretty benign, disposable, piece of entertainment. And there is entertainment value for it largely as a comedic vehicle. I wish it had chosen to end on Batman and Gordon sipping coffee together rather than turn to the tired gag of Batman vanishing whenever someone turns their back on him. I think that would have been the way the old series would have ended this one with a somber, but also sweet, ending. I guess this is just one more way for this show to announce it’s here and it’s not the same one we’re used to. Since I am a bit of a Christmas cartoon junkie, I should add that as a Christmas episode this is also just all right. It doesn’t linger much on the holiday, but it also doesn’t beat anyone over the head with Christmas clichés. It’s probably a touch better than “Christmas with the Joker” actually though less memorable. I don’t think either makes a strong case to be included with annual Christmas viewings, but you could certainly do worse.


Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero

Batman_&_Mr._Freeze_SubZeroOriginal Release Date:  March 17, 1998

Directed by:  Boyd Kirkland

Written by:  Boyd Kirkland and Randy Rogel

Animation:  Dong Yang Animation Co., Koko Enterprises Co., LTD.

Running Time:  67 minutes

I feel like we can’t move onto The New Batman Adventures without first talking about Batman & Mr. Freeze:  SubZero. This direct to video feature is essentially the true finale to the original run of Batman:  The Animated Series. It’s existence can be owed to the fact that Warner Bros. wanted to do a tie-in film with the upcoming feature film Batman and Robin which featured Mr. Freeze as the main antagonist. This was supposed to be released alongside that, but since that film was so poorly received it was held back until March of 1998. This complicates things as by that time The New Batman Adventures was airing on Kids WB and had even aired a Mr. Freeze episode that follows the events of this story. It was released to video, which in 1998 meant VHS, and also aired on Kids WB. I could only find one release date listed online so I’m not sure when the television premiere took place (it could have been the same day), but that’s how I first saw this one.

freeze and bears

Mr. Freeze has returned, and he brought polar bears this time.

Mr. Freeze was first introduced to the animated viewing audience via “Heart of Ice” which first aired in 1992 as part of the show’s first season. It was so successful at rebooting the previously campy Mr. Freeze into an A-tier villain that the writers were reluctant to return to the character out of fear that whatever they came up with couldn’t possibly match “Heart of Ice.” Eventually, they relented and Mr. Freeze appeared in the penultimate episode “Deep Freeze” in which he partnered with Walt Disney Grant Walker in an evil scheme, but eventually turned and become a reluctant hero in the end. The episode basically proved what the staff feared initially as it wasn’t nearly as good or on par with “Heart of Ice.” It’s not a bad episode, but hardly a highpoint for the series. As a result, SubZero feels like a second attempt at capturing the magic once again and perhaps the lengthened running time will help tell a worthy story.

For the film, most of the principal players from BTAS were able to return. In the director’s chair is Boyd Kirkland who directed many episodes in the series as well as the show’s other feature, Mask of the Phantasm. Kirkland also co-wrote the film with Randy Rogel, another individual who had several writing credits in the main series. The voice cast was also largely returned for this one including Kevin Conroy as Batman, Loren Lester as Robin, and Michael Ansara as Mr. Freeze. The only notable change is Mary Kay Bergman taking over the role of Barbara Gordon for Melissa Gilbert. This would be Bergman’s only performance as Gordon as she would be voiced by Tara Strong in The New Batman Adventures. The other notable absences are Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, who were credited with this new version of Freeze. They were likely busy working on Superman and The New Batman Adventures during the development of the picture. Also missing is composer Shirley Walker who was replaced by Michael McCuistion, who had previously worked on some episodes of the show. He would go on to score 3 episodes of The New Batman Adventures as well as several more for other DC animated productions. Walker would also contribute to the sequel series.

gordons and dick

Barbara has a new voice actress, Mary Kay Bergman, and a new beau.

The film basically picks up where the series ended. Victor Fries has made a home for himself in the arctic alongside his still in stasis wife, Nora. He’s acquired a pair of polar bear companions as well as a twelve-year-old Inuit orphan named Koonak (Rahi Azizi). When an expedition by a US submarine disturbs their home and destroys the containment unit keeping Nora alive, Fries is forced to once again don his Mr. Freeze persona.

Nora cannot survive for long outside her containment unit which brings Freeze back to Gotham and in contact with an old colleague, a cryogenics expert by the name of Gregory Belson (George Dzundza). Belson just so happens to be in great financial distress as he tried to game the system with some insider trading in the futures market that didn’t pan out. He’s desperate for cash, and Freeze has access to a gold ore vein in the arctic. He needs Belson’s help to perform an operation for the only hope Nora has at survival is via an organ transplant. Unfortunately, she also has a rare blood type and no organs are available and are unlikely to become available in time, so they’ll need to harvest them from a living donor.

nora fries opening

Once again, it’s the welfare of Nora that motivates Freeze.

That’s where Barbara Gordon comes in. She’s the unlucky one who matches Nora’s rare blood type and is also of similar build. Mr. Freeze abducts her from a club while she is on a date with her new boyfriend:  Dick Grayson. It would seem Barbara got over her Bat-crush and settled on the Boy Wonder, though the film makes it seem like everyone is still keeping each other in the dark regarding alter-egos. Freeze, along with his two polar bear companions, takes Barbara to an abandoned offshore oil platform where the surgery will be performed against her will.

Most of the film involves the setup before transitioning to a focus on Batman and Robin’s detective work which will eventually force a showdown with Mr. Freeze. At a mere 67 minutes, the mystery of where Freeze took Gordon and what he wants with her isn’t lingered on for too long and there’s plenty of time saved for the climax on the oil rigging. It’s paced well and the movie moves along without feeling rushed. If anything is sacrificed, it’s the final confrontation at the end. Batman and Freeze really don’t have much of a confrontation, as circumstances force them to contend with a burning platform. It’s a similar setup to the episode “Deep Freeze” in that regard, but with smaller, more obvious, stakes.

batman robin batcave

Batman and Robin have some detective work ahead of them, but at least Robin’s gloves are now the proper shade of green.

The film in large part feels like a referendum on “Deep Freeze.” If you recall, in that episode Freeze learns his wife is still alive and then immediately agrees to help a wealthy man destroy the planet to revive her. It was a pretty outlandish setup which is why Batman was able to convince Mr. Freeze to not go along with Walker’s plan. In this film, Nora’s life is on a timer and in order to save her Freeze merely has to sacrifice one woman he doesn’t even care about. While it would have been interesting to see how he would have responded had someone been able to reason with him that Nora would never want an innocent to die so she could live, that’s never broached and it’s conceivable to think Freeze would not be swayed. He’d likely rather Nora live and despise him than for her to die. Freeze’s desperation causes him to act impulsively throughout the picture, and his relationship with Belson gives him a plausible reason to return to Gotham in an effort to save his wife knowing it will likely put him in the crosshairs of The Batman.

dr belson

Belson is pretty much a slime ball.

In many ways, it’s Dr. Belson that ends up being the film’s ultimate villain. He’s described by others as a jerk and he’s essentially a criminal for engaging in insider trading. Had he been successful with his futures play he might have been caught. When Freeze first approaches him for aid the film teases he won’t go along with murder, but he’s mostly feigning his apprehension and just uses it to leverage more money out of his old colleague.

barbara fighting back

Barbara may spend most of the film kidnapped, but she never stops fighting.

Barbara Gordon’s kidnapping may be the main plot device that gets this film rolling, but she’s hardly playing the role of damsel in distress. Her kidnapping is voluntary, as she doesn’t want Mr. Freeze to harm any of the patrons of the club she’s abducted from, especially Dick. She also tries to escape her confines more than once and realizes she has a sympathetic ear in Koonak. It would have been disappointing if the woman who is Batgirl just sat around and waited for Batman and Robin to save her, but Rogel and Kirkland know what they’re doing.

The film is visually quite nice and a noticeable cut above the television series. Dong Yang Animation, which animated most of season 2 and some of season 1, did the traditional spots with Koko Enterprises doing the CG. The colors are an obvious upgrade as Robin’s costume actually features two shades of green instead of that odd blue. The scenes on the flaming oil platform are especially spectacular and it’s obvious more care was put into this project as a whole. I also really like a spot at the beginning of the film where Fries emerges from the arctic waters. His body is coated in a thin layer of ice which cracks and breaks apart as he moves. The CG is used probably more often than I would like. It’s dated, but not woefully so. It’s a touch distracting in some of the chase sequences and with the Batwing, but it looks nice at the film’s onset with Fries swimming in the arctic amongst a swarm of CG salmon. The only real disappointment I have with the look of the picture is that it’s presented in 4:3 instead of 16:9. I assume that’s the aspect ratio it was created for since it was going to be broadcast on television, and since this was before the proliferation of 16:9 television sets, there was basically no need to develop for that if it was only ever going to be viewed on a TV set.

koonak and barbara

I hope you didn’t get too attached to Koonak, because he’s not coming back.

This film is the final presentation of Batman and the other denizens of Gotham in this art style. For some characters, like Summer Gleeson (Mari Devon), this is their final appearance all together. Veronica Vreeland (Marilu Henner) also has a cameo, but as a blonde now instead of her traditional red hair. It’s also the last appearance of Nora Fries and the only appearance for Koonak. I definitely miss this art style and the change for The New Batman Adventures is what kept me from getting into that series initially. When this surfaced on television it was like going back to an old friend.

Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero is a worthy follow-up to “Heart of Ice.” Even with the benefit of triple the minutes, it’s still not quite as captivating as that episode and I think that’s largely due to the surprise that initial episode had going for it. This film at least takes the character of Mr. Freeze and gives him a reason to act like a villain once more. It’s surprising that Paul Dini and Bruce Timm weren’t involved, but maybe turning to the duo of Kirkland and Rogel meant the pressure of doing something worthwhile with the character was largely removed freeing them to explore him unencumbered. For both, this was their last contribution to Batman: The Animated Series and it’s a worthy note to go out on. Had this been a theatrically released venture we’d probably unfairly compare it with Mask of the Phantasm where it would come up short, but for a direct-to-video venture this is more than acceptable.

Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero was originally released on VHS, but has since been released on DVD and Blu-Ray. It’s also streaming, if that’s your preference. The best way to view it, for my money, is via the Batman:  The Animated Series Blu-Ray set which includes this film as well as Mask of the Phantasm in one package alongside the entire television series.


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.


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