Category Archives: batman the animated series

Batman: The Animated Series – “The Last Laugh”

The_Last_Laugh-Title_CardEpisode Number:  4

Original Air Date:  September 22, 1992

Directed by:  Kevin Altieri

Written by:  Carl Swenson

First Appearance (s):  Batboat, Joker Gas

Despite the finality of the title, “The Last Laugh” is not the last appearance of The Joker, Batman’s greatest foil. While The Joker’s first production appearance in “Christmas With The Joker” featured a pretty slap-stick version of the character, The Joker depicted in “The Last Laugh” is a bit more dangerous and more in-line with his future appearances. Even though “The Last Laugh” marks The Joker’s second appearance in the series, it still isn’t the first appearance the character would make on television as we haven’t come to his broadcast debut yet. This is also the second holiday themed episode of the show, in this case April Fool’s Day, though thankfully The Joker would refrain from only appearing on holidays.

April Fool’s Day has arrived in Gotham, and with it a barge full of garbage is sailing down a canal in the city sending a foul order through-out that also happens to make all who inhale burst into uncontrollable laughter. This is obviously the work of The Joker, and our hero makes the same connection just as quickly as the viewer when the news reports break. Strangely, Batman doesn’t actually set out to put a stop to this until the gas creeps into Wayne Manor, turning Already (now voiced by Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) into a destructive force as he happily smashes various objects around the mansion.

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Joker, breaking the fourth wall, declares “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping,” which is a line I can’t decide if it’s just not funny, or intentionally not funny.

Meanwhile, Joker and his goons are galavanting around Gotham happily looting stores and emptying the pockets of those who are paralyzed with laughter. Unlike other depictions of Joker’s famous Laughing Gas, this version appears to only induce laughter without the fatal component; appropriate for a kid’s show. Batman eventually tracks down the barge with the debuting Batboat, which also appears to function as a submarine (surprisingly, it does not resemble the Bat Ski-Boat from Batman Returns) when needed. Batman is forced into conflict with Joker’s henchman, where one turns out to be not a henchman at all, but an android that is able to surprise and overpower Batman. Captain Clown, as The Joker affectionately refers to his robotic minion, stuffs Batman in a trashcan with a lockable lid and tosses it into the bay, but not before Joker stabs a few air-holes in it. Batman, naturally, avoids death by drowning and tracks the Joker down to a waste management facility where he dispatches with the goons, and eventually corrals The Joker himself.

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The Joker always brings out Batman’s playful side.

Despite the title, this episode is some-what short on laughs as writer Carl Swenson seems to view The Joker as the type of comedian who just makes bad jokes that only he finds funny. While it may not be all that humorous, the visual style is exceptional. There’s some wonky animation early in the episode with Bruce and a shower scene (not as sexy as it sounds), but after that the rest is gorgeous. The initial fight scene between Batman and The Joker’s men features Batman ably darting around and throwing punches. Captain Clown, being a robot, allows for Batman to really tee-off on him in a manner the censors likely wouldn’t allow had the character been human. He even gets to smash him repeatedly in the head with a steel pipe, the clown’s frozen expression is probably rather creepy for those who hate clowns. Batman’s eyes are also allowed to emote in their most expressive manner yet as they’re constantly changing shapes to show fear, worry, and even dizziness. Joker is allowed to get serious and even a little scary when he reacts to Batman “killing” Captain Clown. There’s also a fun playful moment at the end between Joker and Batman, and Bruce even gets to make a joke to close the episode out at Alfred’s expense. The only other criticisms I can levy at the episode from a technical perspective is one shoddy-looking Batman chest emblem at the 9:40 mark and the abundance of eye black on The Joker, which at times makes it look like he’s wearing a bandit mask. The animators also, at times, appeared to have trouble with Joker’s mouth movements. Either that, or they re-recorded some lines after the fact. I’ll have to be on the look-out for this in future episodes featuring The Joker.

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I’m not sure he’d still be smiling if he could help it.

Not to be outdone, the audio section of the episode is particularly lively this time around. Normally, the show can be a bit understated, relying on the Batman theme for its big moments. Joker has his jubilant theme which the series will return to time and again, and this episode has its own unique opening theme that’s really good. It has a nice build and I wish the show had returned to it more in other episodes, but then maybe it wouldn’t be as special.

This is a very good episode for the series, even if it probably isn’t among the very best. It’s harmed some-what by the mostly directionless Joker who has no real motivation here other than to rob Gotham. The show kind of does that sometimes with him as his primary goal appears to just be to stir up trouble and draw Batman out. Maybe I’d feel satisfied if we saw Joker just casually toss all of the stolen goods into the pile of garbage and not really care about it. Instead we don’t really see it at all. Even so, The Joker is easy to write as he’s Batman’s polar opposite so as long as the two get to share some screen time the results are typically entertaining.

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Batman: The Animated Series – “Nothing to Fear”

Nothing_To_Fear-Title_CardEpisode Number:  3

Original Air Date:  September 15, 1992

Directed by:  Boyd Kirkland

Written by:  Henry T. Gilroy and Sean Catherine Derek

First Appearance (s):  The Scarecrow, Thomas Wayne

Episode 3 of Batman:  The Animated Series introduces us to what is probably the standard episode template. A physically unimposing villain with a gimmick shows up to cause some sort of havoc while leading a gang of incompetent muscle who mostly exist just to get pummeled by Batman. That’s not necessarily a criticism as its a format that works just fine so long as the main villain is interesting enough.

Enter The Scarecrow (Henry Polic II), a costumed villain armed with a fear-inducing toxin and a grudge. The Scarecrow will see a redesign later this season, but for his first appearance he’s uniquely toon-like with a tear-drop shaped masked head that’s not at all indicative of the shape of the skull beneath it. His eyes, like Batman’s, are void of pupils and his head will curve in natural ways. He’s rail-thin with claw-tipped fingers with a rather ordinary looking attire to go with it. He’s fairly creepy looking, probably because of the unique shape of his model. His future version will add pupils and a more natural shaped head as well as teeth to the hideous moth and some straw hair. This original version is basically the under-stated version, though I like it, despite the simplicity.

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The Scarecrow as seen in this episode. He will undergo a redesign before his next appearance in “Fear of Victory.”

This episode also introduces us to the Bruce Wayne character by showing us how some in the public view him. The episode opens with Gotham University head Dr. Long (Kevin McCarthy) fretting over a recent crime wave impacting the school and being chased down by Summer Gleason for comment. A chance encounter with Wayne, in which Long refuses to shake his hand before admonishing him, shows us that some view Bruce as just some billionaire play boy not living up to the Wayne name. It’s an aspect of the character that’s really not going to be explored much outside of this episode, but I’m glad it’s at least touched upon here. The comments naturally sting Bruce, even if his actions as Bruce are just an intentional cover for his Batman persona.

Batman soon has his first encounter with The Scarecrow, who appears to be robbing a vault on university grounds but may in fact just be looking to harm the university by any means. He’s able to show off his toxin, first on a hapless guard and then on Batman himself. Dr. Long’s words come back in a big way by unveiling to the viewer that Batman’s greatest fear is that he’s letting his parents down. The Scarecrow escapes, but the effects of the toxin linger throughout the episode. It’s not until the climax, where Batman being confronted by a vision of his dead father as a giant skeleton, utters his most famous line from this show:  “I am vengeance! I am the night! I. Am. Batman!” It’s a bit corny, but I know at the time I thought it was awesome and it’s a still a fun little catch-phrase for Batman.

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That’s probably not how your dad wants you to remember him looking, Batman.

Batman naturally figures out The Scarecrow’s identity as that of Johnathon Crane, a former university employee specializing in fear. I should say, Batman’s computer figures out who Scarecrow is in what is easily my biggest pet peeve with this show. Batman’s computer basically knows everything and responds to voice commands in 1992 better than Siri does in 2017. The computer is often the detective with Batman taking all of the credit.

There are some fun little easter eggs in this episode. When Batman is confronted by Bullock after Scarecrow escapes, Bullock refers to him as Zorro with a mocking tone. Zorro is often cited as the real-life inspiration for the Batman character, although the in-universe inspiration will be established later. Also, when Batman is looking at a list of possible sources of The Scarecrow’s mask, Axis Chemicals pops up which is the same name as the chemical plant from the Batman movie that gave birth to The Joker. The vault guard from early in the episode is also seen reading an issue of Tiny Toon Adventures, and enjoying it immensely.

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If this is how everyone on Scarecrow’s toxin would view him, then maybe Batman should start arming himself with it.

Plot wise, this is the best episode so far and The Scarecrow is an interesting villain in his own right. Unfortunately, it’s a low point for the animation quality of the program. I already covered the minimalist approach taken in designing The Scarecrow, but also the character just animates unnaturally. Bruce looks especially off-model in his appearance early in the episode and we get a really bad shot of the Batmobile at one point, as well as the first instance of bendy Batmobile. The vault guard who is the first affected by The Scarecrow’s fear toxin hallucinates spiders all over his body, which strangely only appear to have four legs apiece. On the plus side, I like the added stubble on Bruce when he’s in the Batcave essentially withdrawing from The Scarecrow’s fear toxin. His hands are shaky as he tries to pick up a picture of his parents and he looks appropriately disheveled. There’s also a nice bit of artistic licensing in the closing shot of the episode where Bruce’s shadow is cast as Batman.

This is a good episode, and for a lot of kids this was probably their first look at The Scarecrow. He’s a unique villain who has a good look that gets better and his fear toxin is a fun weapon for the writers to play with. He’ll actually be one of the most used villains by the show which is a bit surprising on the surface, but his episodes tend to deliver which is why the show runners kept returning to him. Also of note, we get to see Batman actually driven to strike Bullock over his mocking, heightening their rivalry. We also get to see one of The Scarecrow’s henchmen, after being exposed to the toxin and revealing his fear as returning to prison, basically kill himself by jumping out of a zeppelin rather than risk capture by Batman. He lands on some trees with a nice leafy canopy. The censors probably intended for us to think those leaves cushioned his fall, but I’m not buying it. That guy is dead. This is also the last episode for Clive Revill as Alfred who will be recast. We hardly knew ye, Clive.


Batman: The Animated Series – “Christmas With The Joker”

Christmas_With_the_Joker-Title_CardEpisode Number: 2

Original Air Date: November 13, 1992

Directed By: Kent Butterworth

Written By: Eddie Gorodetsky

First Appearance(s):  Robin, Joker, Summer Gleason, Arkham Asylum

An interesting choice for a second episode of a series. It’s a Christmas episode, which feels kind of inline with Batman thanks to Batman Returns. It’s also the debut of The Joker, and introducing him through a Christmas themed episode also feels odd. Naturally, since the show premiered in September this episode was held back to be more topical when it did eventually air, though its original air date still came before Thanksgiving which still feels off.

In this episode, we are immediately introduced to The Joker, who with other inmates at the famed Arkham Asylum, is decorating a Christmas tree and singing “Jingle Bells.” In a moment that would probably now be described as “metta,” Joker adds in the “Batman smells,” variation which probably delighted 8 year old me at the time while he improbably blasts away on a rocket-powered Christmas tree just as he arrives at the “and The Joker got away,” part of the song. Right away, we see this episode isn’t going to care much for realism as Joker is going to quickly establish lots of unique traps and engineer a few kidnappings in a short amount of time with zero explanation on how he accomplished any of that. And unlike many of the villains who will follow, this is not a depiction of Batman’s first encounter with The Joker. It’s pretty clear that the two have a relationship that predates the events of this show and have been at this game for years, assumedly, just as this isn’t Robin’s first foray into crime-fighting even though it’s his first appearance in the show (we’ll get to see his origin later).

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The Joker’s humorous, but improbable, escape from Arkham.

Batman is naturally unnerved by The Joker’s Christmas break-out, while Robin (Loren Lester) thinks even villains prefer to spend the holidays with family. Batman is quick to remind him that The Joker has no family. Naturally, Batman is right and when Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson sit down to watch a television broadcast of It’s A Wonderful Life they soon find the airwaves taken over by The Joker. Joker has kidnapped three pretty important figures in Gotham:  Commissioner Gordon, Detective Bullock, and television news reporter Summer Gleeson (Mari Devon). Joker, lacking a family to spend the holidays with, has dubbed this trio the Awful Lawful Family and given them personalities of Mommy, Daddy, and Baby (Bullock gets to wear the adorable bonnet). They’re hog-tied, and presumably in danger, as are other citizens of Gotham.

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The Joker and his “family.”

Joker lays some traps, including taking out a railroad bridge and arming an observatory with a giant cannon, all while tormenting his captors in a mostly PG sort of way on television. His use of a discontinued toy is what clues Batman in on the fact that The Joker must be housed in an abandoned toy factory and he and Robin race to the rescue. They have a mostly slapstick encounter with The Joker and his toy-themed gadgets, and Robin even gets to make a pretty terrible bat pun when Batman makes use of a baseball bat. The ultimate goal of The Joker’s crime is to get Batman to open a Christmas present from him, and it’s genuinely amusing and makes The Joker look like a psycho, albeit a G-rated one, and I kind of appreciated that fact.

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Merry Christmas, Batman.

“Christmas With The Joker” is a middling episode of this series that’s neither great nor bad. It’s hamstrung somewhat by the Christmas theme and just feels inappropriate as the debut for The Joker. Of course, if I were going in broadcast order it wouldn’t be The Joker’s debut, and those of us watching at the time were introduced to the character in a better fashion. As the debut of The Joker though, it still is a fine reception for Mark Hamill in his second most famous role. His Joker is often regarded as the best voice for the character. It’s mostly goofy and fun, especially in this episode, but when he needs to get a little more malevolent he can slip into a darker tone with ease. And his laugh is brilliant.

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Not to be forgotten, this episode also marks the first appearance of Robin.

As a Christmas episode, I will give this one props for not being an adaptation of a more popular Christmas story. At first, I was afraid it would go in a It’s A Wonderful Life direction (a non-Christmas episode kind of will much later this season) when Robin name-dropped the film, but it thankfully did not. I do hate how Gordon and Bullock are just assumed kidnapped, and the episode is too eager to “yada yada” over such details. It’s the only episode written by Eddie Gorodetsky, and if he could do better it’s too bad he didn’t get a chance to show it. For a show that does a good job of elevating what children’s entertainment could be, this one feels too close to the cartoons of the 80s which treated its audience as imbeciles. It’s not as bad as those old shows, but definitely lacking when compared to future episodes. I’m probably being a little too hard on it, as even this mostly serious show is entitled to just have fun now and then. It’s still a worthwhile episode to toss into your Christmas viewing experience though.


Batman: The Animated Series – “On Leather Wings”

On Leather Wings

The series features great title cards for each episode. I like the simplicity of this one quite a bit.

Episode Numer: 1

Original Air Date:  September 6, 1992

Directed by:  Kevin Altieri

Written by:  Mitch Brian

First Appearance(s):  Batman, Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, Detective Bullock, Man-Bat, Kirk Langstrom, Francine Langstrom, Dr. March, Mayor Hill, Harvey Dent,

On this day 25 years ago, Batman returned to television with a show simply titled Batman. Almost immediately, the show came to be recognized as Batman:  The Animated Series and is even referred as such on the DVD volumes released much later. When it premiered, Batman was riding high on a new wave of popularity thanks to two Tim Burton directed features:  Batman and Batman Returns. Batman had returned to his more brooding roots and away from the camp of the television series from the 60s starring Adam West (RIP). And while the Batman of this new show would more closely align himself with Michael Keaton’s portrayal than what was featured on various incarnations of The Super Friends, it was still an animated show featured on Fox Kids that would appeal to a general audience.

Before Christopher Nolan came along, the Batman of this cartoon series (voiced by Kevin Conroy) was often cited as the preferred Batman above all others to escape the comic books. And for a great many fans, it still is. Batman:  The Animated Series tackled mature stories and treated its legendary hero with respect. Primarily the work of Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, it has become a landmark for animated television and is often considered the best comic-book adaptation to ever grace a television set.

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In the series’ first episode, Batman tackles an unfamiliar foe to most of the audience.

To celebrate 25 years of Batman:  The Animated Series, I’m going to take a trip through each episode in short write-up reviews. The posts will be in production order, so even though the series premiered with “The Cat and the Claw Part 1,” the first post is for “On Leather Wings,” which was the second episode to debut. The air dates are all over the place, as Batman’s first season was a 65 episode order designed to immediately qualify it for syndication. It was successful enough that more episodes were ordered (these are The New Adventures of Batman & Robin) and WB would order a third and final season many years later (The New Batman Adventures) to pair with their Superman animated series. I intend to get to all of them, including The New Adventures, though I have no idea how long it will take me. Hopefully I can refrain from typing 2000 words about each episode in order to move along at a decent pace.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about the first production episode “On Leather Wings.” This is a natural for the first episode because it’s a Batman solo adventure and does not feature a noteworthy villain who will hog the spotlight. This show very much follows a villain of the week/day type of format. There’s very little continuity from episode to episode and few callbacks, especially in the first season. This particularl episode was directed by Kevin Altieri and written by Mitch Brian. It’s sort of a surprise that Dini and Timm aren’t directly credited with the first episode, but since 65 were done at once I suppose it doesn’t matter much which is first. That and they also likely had a hand in just about every episode from some point in the development. Altieri will direct several episodes in this first season. Brian is credited as a co-creator on the show, though he only shows up a couple more times as a story writer.

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Commissioner Gordon and Detective Bullock, who will make many appearances in this show.

“On Leather Wings” feels like an introduction for Batman as the plot involves people confusing the villain with him and attributing his crimes to Batman. That villain is Man-Bat, a B-level villain who’s essentially a were-bat, if you will. The story calls on Batman to use his detective work to figure out who is the man behind the Man-Bat, essentially. Batman’s sleuthing skills take him to a bat exhibit in Gotham Zoo where he meets the irritable Dr. March. March, who seems to prefer bats to humans, is our episode’s red-herring though he’s clearly hiding something. Bruce also encounters March’s daughter and son-in-law, who have followed in his footsteps as bat experts.

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Fox was pretty good about letting the show depict some blood as well as guns and general, tasteful, violence.

 

Having Batman investigate a bat monster is a fun way to debut the series. We also get introduced to series mainstays Commissioner Gordon (Bob Hastings) and Detective Bullock (Robert Costanzo), and we also get a glimpse of Bullock’s distrust of Batman which will be an ongoing thing. Trusty butler Alfred is also debuted, though oddly enough voiced by Clive Revill. He will be voiced by Efram Zimbalist Jr. for all but three of Alfred’s appearances. The episode is also a nice exhibit of the show’s unique look. We get to see the Gotham skyline at night, done on black backgrounds and Batman and the Man-Bat pop nicely against it. The Batcave is also featured and we get to see Batman’s super-powered computer in action which will help him solve many mysteries through-out the series. It’s a tight little plot, which is resolved by the end in a mostly satisfying manner, though Batman seems very trusting of the bat experts to make sure this never happens again (spoiler alert – it does!) and declines bringing them to the police. In short, it’s a good episode though probably no one’s favorite. The production values are quite nice (we get some nice sound effects in particular for Man-Bat) and consistent through-out. Episodes both better and worse are still to come.

Like what you just read? Check back here every Friday, starting this Friday, for another episode recap of Batman:  The Animated Series. If you want to follow along we’re going in production order which just so happens to be how the DVDs are arranged. Individual sets can be had fairly cheaply these days, and there’s a complete collection for those with finer taste. All of the episodes are also currently airing on Amazon Prime so if you have a subscription you can watch there. I hope you enjoy reliving this series as much as I plan to enjoy writing about it.