Countdown to ‘The Dark Knight Rises’: Part 6 of 11 – “Batman: The Animated Series”
If you missed it here is Part 1 of 11: Introduction to Batman “The Gift”
And here is Part 2 of 11: A look Back at Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’
And Part 3: ‘Batman Returns’
And Part 4: ‘Batman Forever’
And last week’s part 5 ‘Batman and Robin’
In 1992, Warner Bros. figured they could capitalize on the success of Tim Burton’s two cinematic offerings of the DC character to which they owned the rights in the form of an animated TV show. The camp of the 1960s TV episodic had given way to Burton’s darker vision and the studio figured out how to tame that and frame it within the confines of a show aimed at kids. I was smack-dab in the middle of their target demographic and I was hooked when I saw the show’s first commercial. I was watching TV with a neighbor when we witnessed the ad together and it was like living life with cataract-infested eyeballs to be handed eyeglasses by Jesus, himself. A whole new world had opened up to me and Aladdin was nowhere in sight. My friend and I knew our lives had been pointless up until the moment the show debuted (which meant my life was of utmost patheticism, as he was a few years younger than me). We conspired to make the most sacred of pacts: wake up early on a Saturday and get together to watch the show. And it was done.
When I decided to do a Batman retrospective, the task that excited me the most was the idea of going back to watch all 85 episodes of “Batman: The Animated Series.” I hadn’t seen an episode since its original airing, but a couple of housemates had done some renting of the DVDs after The Dark Knight came out and I was always a bit jealous I didn’t get to partake in this nostalgia with them. As exciting as the prospect was, I couldn’t will myself to start. I had only watched 12 of the plethora of episodes laid before me two weeks before I needed this article written. My notes were slight and about as descriptive as any sentence found in the series of “See Spot Run” books. If I retained one lesson from college, though, it was how to cram. I went on a Batman bender the likes of which only Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan have lived through. My notes got longer and more elaborate and by the time I hit the finish line, there were 36 pages and 25,000 words of notes – something about each episode. I promise to spare you the details.
Batman: The Animated Series Ran on TV From 1992-95
It’s difficult to tackle Batman without talking about his enemies. I’ve done a little bit of that already and will look at them as a whole in a couple of weeks. What struck me most when re-watching the show (other than my open palm, trying to keep me awake) was how many episodes didn’t revolve around the main cast of villians. At least a third and up to about half (depending on whom you count as “the main cast of villains”) of the episodes don’t involve either Joker or Two-Face or Poison Ivy or Scarecrow or The Riddler or Penguin. There are episodes involving werewolves and invisibility and the mafia. As you can probably imagine, the quality of the half-hours that didn’t involve the non-name characters varied, but I thought it was a tremendous risk to take which led to some inventive storytelling.
Before delving into specific episodes worthy of mention and how they did or didn’t play into Christopher Nolan’s take on the character, the show itself had a wholly unique style worthy of discussion. Though Burton had constructed modern Gotham, which Nolan has followed upon, Joel Schumacher and “Batman: The Animated Series” opted to for more of a retro look. It’s almost insulting to compare the latter two, but that’s apparently what Schumacher was going for. It just went as horrifically wrong as overexposure to Daggett face cream (I’ll get there in a second). “Batman: TAS” did it properly. The show looks like a 1940s noir spectacle sourced from a Raymond Chandler novel. And it has the art deco architecture to prove it. If that wasn’t enough, every TV broadcast is in luxurious black-and-white. Not even Bruce Wayne has sprung for a color set yet. The period setting is a perfect fit with some of the storylines and harkens back to when the character was created and the Batman serials of the era, just minus all the cheese. It’s a setting befitting of the World’s Greatest Detective.
As much as I’d love to give a recap of all the episodes or at least the ones I really enjoyed, this isn’t the proper venue. Those sites exist and you can peruse their 30,000 words. I’m here to give you a condensed version. What you should know from the outset is in narrowing down the list of 85 episodes to highlights I wanted to cover, I still had a list of 46. It suffices to say, there’s a lot of gold to be found in this series and you won’t have to dig for long to find it.
This series hits its stride with its first two-part episode, appropriately tackling the origin of “Two-Face” (which is the episode’s title). The tale of Harvey Dent in “Batman: TAS” differs a little from the one Nolan tells in The Dark Knight, but it’s no less impactful. Harvey and Bruce Wayne are good friends. They go out on double dates together. However, Harvey’s had this burgeoning personality called “Big Bad Harv” that’s been developing from within him ever since an accident on the school playground. When he’s blackmailed by local mafioso, Rupert Thorne, Harv gets angry. And you wouldn’t like him when he’s a victim of a bomb blast that disfigures half of his body giving Big Bad Harv a chance of existence. The second half of the episode shows Two-Face’s fight for bringing Thorne to justice. Although the circumstances are altered, this episode fits thematically with Nolan’s depiction of the character and though this show is animated, it’s vastly less cartoonish than Tommy Lee Jones in Batman Forever.
Could Christopher Nolan Have Used Some Other Villains From Batman: TAS?
It remains to be seen what Nolan his in store with Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle/Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises, but another two-parter, titled “Cat and Claw,” could serve as a nice basis. Assuming you’re counting Catwoman as a “villain,” there are two villains in these 60 minutes, much like we know The Dark Knight Rises to have with Catwoman and Bane. In the episode, there isn’t an origin of Catwoman like Batman Returns. Instead, Selina is already donning the costume to perform her jewelry heists. When Batman catches her, there’s an instant attraction between the two. While Bruce and Selina meet in their civilian lives, and Selina is just as wealthy as he, she can’t help but wish Batman was attracted to her instead of Bruce. Her passion is animals, though, and she fights to create a mountain lion preserve which is shut down due to interference by a criminal organization manned, nay, womaned, by Red Claw. Batman and Catwoman have a common enemy, but once defeated, the sides of the law in which they stand are not the same.
Though it’s not his origin episode (that’d be “Nothing to Fear”), the Scarecrow-starring “Dreams in Darkness” serves as the character’s most potent time in the spotlight throughout the series’ run and the most darkly reminiscent of Batman Begins. Scarecrow hatches a plan to taint Gotham’s drinking water with his fear toxin. Batman gets a taste of that medicine before the plan is hatched and has to face the fears of his parent’s death while hallucinating about Joker infiltrating the Batcave and narrowly running over Robin with the Batmobile. Naturally, the scheme is eventually halted. There was a 60s “Batman” episode where Joker tainted Gotham’s water supply. He turned it into red jelly. Hardly frightening, but again Joker isn’t about scare-tactics, only chaos. Still, how the times have changed.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, I can keep going. But I know I shouldn’t. Before I get to what I consider the pinnacles of the show, here are a few episodes to check out. “Heart of Ice” is the Mr. Freeze origin story that was told within the confines of corniness in Batman & Robin. This is the episode that makes you think he would’ve been a worthy addition to Nolan’s world. Joker pulls a Tyler Durden, plucks a potential victim’s ID and tells him he’ll come back later, asking for a favor in “Joker’s Favor.” Robin’s origin from Batman Forever gets a retelling in “Robin’s Reckoning.” Edward Nygma perfects his riddles in “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?” and “What is Reality?” Jim Carrey, he is not. Killer Croc finds a family of former Freak Show stars in a forest in “Sideshow.” And Poison Ivy claims to be reformed only to be hatching clones like Invasion of the Body Snatchers in “House & Garden.”
After seeing The Dark Knight, I couldn’t help but read every rumor about who the next villains were going to be and scan every list throwing out ideas of every character Batman ever faced in any form of media. When discussing the subject with a friend, character names were tossed about and he stopped on Clayface. I was aware of the character from a vague memory of “Batman: TAS” a decade and a half prior and my memory was that he was a brown monster. There’s no way I wanted that in my gravel-and-grit Batman franchise. It sounded more like something for Sam Raimi to screw up in Spider-Man. After re-watching the show, I’d be completely onboard with a Clayface inclusion.
It still sounds strange to even suggest and there are only two episodes of 85 that deal with Matt Hagen, the man who would be Clayface. But they’re fantastic. Hagen is a B-movie actor whose age is finally starting to show. He’s no longer getting the roles he once was and turns to a face cream called “Renu-U,” created by one of Gotham’s Donald Trumps, Roland Daggett. Hagen’s so addicted to the cream that his face becomes less than “camera-ready” unless he has some on hand. With supply running low, he breaks into Daggett Industries to feed his addiction and is helped to all of the Renu-U he can take, courtesy of Daggett thuggery. This transforms his body into this massive clay-like blob, but he has the ability to change into different forms, thus taking on the moniker, Clayface. Hagen is a “villain” in a similar sense to Mr. Freeze. He’s not a bad man, but was forced into a life changing circumstance that propelled him into doing the unlawful. It’s Daggett who’s the true villain. Clayface is the subject of the two-parter “Feat of Clay” and an episode titled “Mudslide.” They could conceivably be written into one long three-act story, which (minus the Mr. Fantastic-esque feats of limb growth) boil down to a great dramatic narrative and character arc Nolan could have hammered home.
My favorite one-off episode belongs to another lower-tier villain, The Mad Hatter. Jervis Tesch is a scientist practicing the how-could-it-ever-be-used-for-ill art of mind control. He tries to impress a woman named Alice and give her the night of her life. Only when she gets back with her boyfriend does he become enraged and use his scientific discovery to control her. This is all established in the episode “Mad as a Hatter,“ which is uniformly excellent, but the character and the show reaches its zenith in “Perchance to Dream.”
If Nolan has surpassed The Dark Knight in his filmography to date, it was with Inception, the story of which dreams are made. “Perchance to Dream” is the Inception of “Batman: TAS.” Bruce wakes up to a nightmare he feels is deathly real. He can’t find the entrance to the Batcave and Alfred professes to know nothing about it. Bruce finds his parents are alive and well and that he’s engaged to Selina Kyle. He even sees Batman flying outside a window. He feels something amiss and sees an old family friend who knew of his alter ego. She tells him his whole Batman thing was a delusion. Just when Bruce accepts his new life and couldn’t be happier as a result, he sits down to read the paper and all of it is gobbledygook. He knows he’s stuck in a dream and he has to find a way out. The Mad Hatter is behind it all.
There’s no way this episode could have made for a whole movie. Or even part of one. It’s just a great episode of television. However, it works on a level you’ve seen before with Nolan. There’s no way I would ever throw Inception back, but you wonder if he could have incorporated a character like The Mad Hatter and a concept like this in his Bat-world. The thing you know for sure is if he had, it would have been astounding. Instead we’ll just have to take that episode for what it is and the series as a whole: a great 40+ hours of Batman, no matter the viewpoint from which it’s seen.
Next week: Batman attends his own version of “Take Back the Night” by rounding up the inmates in “Batman: Arkham Asylum.”