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Batman: The Animated Series – “Joker’s Favor”

Jokers_Favor-Title_CardEpisode Number:  22

Original Air Date:  September 11, 1992

Directed by:  Boyd Kirkland

Written by:  Paul Dini

First Appearance(s):  Harley Quinn

At last, we’ve come to the television debut of The Joker. Despite already appearing in several episodes, it was production episode number 22 that ended up being the first Joker episode to air on television, and as a debut episode, it’s both odd and strangely appropriate. The episode, seemingly more so than the other Joker episodes, requires having knowledge of who The Joker is going into it. As has been established with a few villains, The Joker existed before the events of the show and he’s so well known that even the citizens of Gotham know who he is, as we shall see with poor Charlie Collins. This episode is also the first Joker episode where Paul Dini is credited as having written, though as a creator on the show it stands to reason he had input on most of the episodes. And of course, this episode is most notable for being the debut of Harley Quinn in any medium. She would arguably end up being the biggest break-out star on the show. Interestingly, if you have the DVD release for this first volume of episodes the episode is titled “The Joker’s Favor,” though everywhere I’ve seen it listed it’s just referred to as “Joker’s Favor.”

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Bad idea, Chuck.

The episode opens with its protagonist. No, it isn’t Batman or even Joker, but an ordinary chum by the name of Charlie Collins (Ed Begley Jr.). Charlie is just an average guy having a bad day. Not much has gone right and his wife is making meatloaf for dinner – he hates meatloaf. He’s driving home from work when we meet him, and he’s soon cut-off by another motorist. This is enough to push Charlie over the edge and he starts laying on his horn and scolding the individual who wronged him on the road. Much to Charlie’s horror, the other motorist he just sassed turns out to be none other than The Joker. One turn of the head and a hideous grin is enough to scare the Hell out of Charlie. He knows who he just yelled at and immediately shrinks like a frightened turtle. Unfortunately, The Joker slides in right behind him and begins to follow him. Charlie tries to lose him and hastily exits the freeway. He pulls off the road and takes to his feet running through the nearby woods as fast as his short legs will carry him.

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This is not a situation you want to find yourself in.

Charlie collapses, exhausted, at the base of a tree, but he looks up only to find himself gazing up at The Joker. Joker, decked out in his gray hat and trench coat that he’ll sport in Mask of the Phantasm, isn’t too happy with old Chuck. He gives Charlie a chance to resume his tough guy talk, and as expected, Charlie is too frightened to do much but offer an apology. Joker, being the caring type, decides he’s not going to kill Charlie and instead tells him he expects a favor in return, some day. Charlie is frightened out of his mind, but all in all pretty relieved to not be dead as The Joker departs.

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There she is, that character we all love.

Two years later, the Gotham P.D. is getting ready to celebrate Commissioner Gordon with a special dinner and Joker wants sees it as a perfect opportunity for mischief. He decides now, along with his henchman Harley (Arleen Sorkin) seated beside him, to look up Charlie and call-in his favor. Turns out, Charlie did the wise thing and entered into a witness relocation program following his brush with The Joker. He’s now Don Wallace and lives in Ohio, but apparently Joker has been keeping a close eye on him because he’s able to call him up. Charlie tries to tell him he has the wrong number, but he soon realizes who is on the other end. Joker orders him to the airport to hop on the next flight to Gotham where Harley will pick him up from the airport.

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I have to admit, that cop outfit really works for her.

In Gotham, Charlie is forced to confront the Joker once more, and much to his surprise, he’s only asked to open a door. Feeling he’s capable of doing that, he goes along with the plan. Realizing something is up though, he leaves a bat-signal like calling card for Batman as he’s put into position inside the banquet for Gordon. He does as he’s told, opening the door when instructed and in strolls Harley dressed as a cop with an over-sized cake in tow. The men in the room think something sexy is bound to happen, but instead they’re all hit with some nerve gas that renders them all unable to move, frozen in place like statues. Harley, of course, wears a mask to prevent the gas from affecting her and she affixes one to Charlie as well. Joker rises from the cake to taunt the police as Harley attaches a bomb to Gordon, his plan almost complete.

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That could be a gag bomb, but I wouldn’t want to wait around to find out.

Charlie, realizing he can’t be an accessory to this, tries to do something about it but finds his hand has been glued to the door handle. Joker informs him he’s done with him and leaves him to die with the others. Good thing he left that little signal for Batman, because the caped crusader soon arrives on the scene. Charlie tells him what’s going on, and Batman is able to remove the bomb just in time with the added benefit that it landed on Joker’s escape van when he tossed it out the window.

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Got to hand it to him, Joker really takes it well when things don’t go according to plan.

A fight ensues between Batman and Joker’s goons. Joker is able to use yet another bomb to distract Batman and slips into an alley only to find Charlie waiting for him. He tries to brush past Charlie, but all of a sudden he finds the portly fellow full of courage. Charlie slugs Joker in the stomach and knocks him into some trash cans. He then produces another Joker bomb, only he seems intent on blowing them all up. Batman arrives and tries to talk Charlie out of it, but Charlie makes the correct observation in noting it’s pointless because The Joker will just escape from wherever he’s locked-up to torment him again. Joker, now no longer having any fun, tosses all of the information he has on Charlie at his feet, but Charlie refuses to abandon this course of action. Joker tries to hide behind Batman, but Charlie tosses him the bomb only for it to detonate and reveal itself to be a gag bomb. Charlie has a good laugh, and Batman even joins in, at Joker’s expense. Batman basically tells Charlie to get out of here, and he’s happy to do so. As we wanders away, he even mentions he hopes his wife is making meatloaf for dinner.

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In the end, Charlie gets the last laugh.

“Joker’s Favor” succeeded as a Joker episode for two very important reasons. One, it establishes The Joker as being a villain to fear. It’s easy to lose sight of that on a kid’s show given all of the silly Joker stuff that exists in most of the episodes featuring him, but he is a murderer and someone to be feared. His stalking of Charlie is creepy and Charlie’s fear is easy to understand. And then second, it also showcases Joker’s silly side, the side of him that basically always gets in the way and prevents him for doing real lasting damage on the show. He carries gag bombs, rarely takes Batman seriously, and even dismisses Charlie. He also only uses Charlie in his scheme because he just wants to terrify the guy. He probably could have utilized someone else for his plant at the banquet, someone who wouldn’t have betrayed him and called Batman, but as we’ll see time and time again The Joker just can’t get out of his own way. It often seems like he prefers it that way.

Harley Quinn makes a nice debut for herself, though it’s also not indicative of the character she’ll become. Her harlequin inspired attire and attitude is fetching (much of that can be credited to Arleen Sorkin who really brings life and charm to the character through her performance) and she makes an instant impact since so often the henchman in the show are lacking a personality. Still, I’m not sure if people expected to see more of her or if they thought she would just be a one and done sort of character. Of course, she wasn’t, but considering a series of Joker episodes followed this one without Harley it seemed to suggest she wouldn’t play a large role going forward. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case, and Harley ended up being one of the few villains who often has another layer revealed about her in each subsequent episode she appears in, rather than just being an unchanging villain of the week.

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If you liked Harley in this episode, then I have some good news for you because we’ll be seeing a lot more of her.

As for Charlie, he was one and done and that’s the way it should have been. Joker probably should have sought revenge, and if you’re the dark type maybe you just assume Joker did end up killing him and we never found out. If Joker could find him once even with a name change and move out of town then he could probably do it again. This episode also doesn’t feature much Batman, but at this stage that’s fine as we’re pretty comfortable with Batman at this point. He can sort of come and go as he pleases, as long as what’s in his place is worthwhile and here it certainly is. This may be my favorite Joker episode, though more good ones are to come.

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Batman: The Animated Series – “Heart of Ice”

Heart_of_Ice_(Batman-_The_Animated_Series)Episode Number:  14

Original Air Date:  September 7, 1992

Directed by:  Bruce Timm

Written by:  Paul Dini

First Appearance(s):  Mr. Freeze

Production episode number 14 was actually the third episode of Batman: The Animated Series to air. It’s also the first written and directed by the two individuals who receive the most credit for the success of the show, Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, respectively. And wouldn’t you know, it’s also probably the best episode of the show and maybe the best episode of television based on a comic book.

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“Heart of Ice” isn’t just the debut of Mr. Freeze for the show, but the start of a whole new life for the character.

Prior to this episode’s airing, its star villain Mr. Freeze was a bit of a joke. Dead in the comics, viewers most knew him from the campy 60’s TV series where he was just some old guy with an affinity for the cold. He was a nothing character and a throw-away villain for Batman to dispatch when a little variety was needed. After this episode, Mr. Freeze was suddenly a star villain in Batman’s rogues gallery and is now probably among his top adversaries in terms of notoriety. He was resurrected in the comics and his backstory was retconned to closely mirror the events of this episode. Freeze isn’t the only instance of the show influencing the comics, and it’s probably debatable which contribution from this show is most important:  Freeze or Harley Quinn. Regardless, this episode is my personal favorite from the show and one that stuck with me when I first saw it back in 1992. Prior to seeing this, I’m not sure if I had ever really empathized with a superhero villain on such a level and it really created a unique viewing experience for me as a child.

The episode opens in a foreboding fashion with a shot of a ballerina dancing in place. It’s a figurine encased in a snow globe and Mr. Freeze (Michael Ansara) is gazing at it longingly remarking how this is how he’ll always remember “you.” His character model is partially obscured by shadow and is illustrated like a background from the show clearly done on black paper. His mouth is the only thing that animates until his red, glowing eyes open. The eye bit makes no sense, since we’ll soon see that they’re goggles, but it does add a nice dramatic flourish which is something we will also see again.

Cut to a TV report from Summer Gleeson and the episode becomes a more conventional setup. Someone armed with an ice gun has been knocking off GothCorp locations and making off with some tech pieces. Batman, via his magic computer, is able to figure out what these pieces of equipment are being acquired for (a giant freeze canon) and knows what the next item targeted will be and where it’s manufactured. He’s able to arrive as Mr. Freeze and his henchmen hit the scene and Batman has his first encounter with his new adversary. Mr. Freeze, unlike some villains we’ve seen already, is debuting in the show and in the show’s universe as Batman has never encountered him before. We’re shown pretty early that he’s a vicious sort, not in his methods, but his mindset. He cares nothing for the men working for him or those his actions could harm. Batman is warned to stay out of his way, and he genuinely holds no ill will towards the caped crusader, but he also has no problem with killing him either. Freeze’s callousness is demonstrated in leaving behind one of his henchmen who he inadvertently froze. He shows no remorse and offers no apology that he froze the man with his handy ice gun and Batman is forced to help the guy out at the cost of letting Freeze escape.

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Victor Fries seen pleading with Ferris Boyle not to pull the plug on his wife.

Batman decides he needs to do a little sleuthing about Freeze and goes straight to the source:  GothCorp CEO Ferris Boyle (Mark Hamill). Boyle is at a loss as to why someone would be targeting his company, but does tell Batman (as Bruce Wayne) that a former research scientist would possibly hold a grudge due to the company pulling funding, but adds that he died in a lab accident. It’s a curious thing to bring up if the man is dead, but it’s enough of a lead for Bruce to return as Batman to scour the security tapes. He locates the one for the accident Boyle mentioned and witnesses a rather disturbing scene. Scientist Victor Fries (pronounced Freeze, naturally) was experimenting with cryogenics and freezing a live human to place them into a state of suspended animation. His test subject was his wife, Nora, as she was terminally ill with what we can only assume is likely some form of cancer, and he hopes to keep her in this state until a cure is found. Boyle storms in with some guards to tell Fries his funding is being withdrawn as it’s proving too costly. He has the apparatus housing Nora Fries shutdown, despite the protests of Victor as this will surely result in his wife’s demise. Boyle cares little for the predicament of Nora, and when Victor begs him to reconsider Boyle tosses him aside into a bunch of random chemicals. Victor can only look on helplessly as his wife is essentially murdered before his eyes, the contact with the chemicals apparently resulting in his current state. It’s a haunting video, though I can’t help but snicker a little at the dramatic cuts contained in supposed security footage, but it helps tell the story.

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Zzzzzap!

Batman is horrified, and even utters a “My God,” at the sight which was surprisingly allowed to make it to air as any mention of God like that is usually rejected by network censors for a kid’s show. Mr. Freeze conveniently shows up to offer a little commentary on Batman’s reaction to the security footage before firing his ice gun at the screen ending the scene. Batman is taken prisoner and suspended from the ceiling via ice shackles. From here he’s able to pry Mr. Freeze about the night Boyle ruined his life. The “accident” he suffered has forced him to reside in a sub-zero temperature as he cannot live in any other climate. The suit he wears keeps him alive, and we’ll learn later it also triples his strength making him a pretty good physical adversary as well for Batman. Batman offers his sympathy and tries to reason with Freeze, but Freeze doesn’t care. His heart is ice and he only desires revenge against the man who murdered his wife and no one will stand in his way.

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I’ve seen enough cartoons and movies to know that you probably shouldn’t just leave Batman like this.

This is where Freeze makes the mistake of behaving like a typical villain, for all of his bluster about not caring about the lives of those who get in his way, he makes the mistake of leaving Batman alive. He even spills the beans on his plan to crash a dinner where Boyle is being presented with a humanitarian award, and soon departs with his super weapon now complete. Batman is left to extricate himself from his confines and pursue Freeze. He’s able to arrive just in time as Freeze is in the process of encasing a begging, pleading, Boyle in ice. Batman even retrieves his utility belt, and it’s a good thing, because Alfred had equipped him with a thermos of chicken soup to fight off a cold he acquired during the episode which comes in handy when he uses it to smash the glass bubble around Freeze’s head. He hands the Gotham PD the security tape he took from GothCorp depicting what happened to Nora Fries. The episode ends on a sad scene of Mr. Freeze in his frozen prison cell gazing at his snow globe representation of his wife apologizing through tears that he could not avenge her.

“Heart of Ice” is a triumph due to its story-telling and its style. Mr. Freeze has a retro sci-fi look with a dash of Darth Vader thrown in. His voice is modulated and fuzzy since it’s being amplified by the suit, and the red goggles work to hide any emotion his eyes could convey. His brow is in a constant frown and his cold mannerisms are achieved naturally without being too overstated by the character (something the film version from Batman & Robin was unable to achieve). His ice gun is a fun piece of animation and it’s particularly neat to see him use it in a manner similar to how Marvel’s Ice Man uses his powers when he smashes a fire hydrant and creates an ice track to a high rise. The pacing of the episode is well done, though the limited running time is felt a bit when Batman is able to figure out Freeze is improbably building a giant ice canon right away. I guess an ice canon isn’t a completely foreign concept to Batman. There is also a goof that probably bothers Timm and Dini when they watch this when the colors on Batman’s logo are flipped, and I do kind of hate that Freeze just captures Batman and makes the classic villain error of revealing his hand to the hero and letting him live to do something about it.

The shortcomings for “Heart of Ice” are real and go beyond nitpicking, but they’re not enough to do any real harm to the episode or take away from the fantastic back story dreamed up by Dini for the character of Mr. Freeze. Giving him the motivation of wanting to avenge his lost wife, and in turn making Boyle the real villain of the episode, means the viewer is in some scenes rooting against Batman. We want to see Boyle get what’s coming to him and we don’t want Freeze punished further. At the same time, the episode does make the crimes of Mr. Freeze obvious so it doesn’t go too far in making him sympathetic. The tragic air of the episode’s conclusion is a somber touch to end on, and appropriate one given the mood of the episode. The only real drawback is it’s too good, making it hard for the show to come back to the character because how can it possibly top this?

Heart-of-Ice-BatmanThankfully, Mr. Freeze avoids the Two-Face treatment which saw that villain return more than once as basically a conventional Batman foil. The show never forgets the true motivation for Freeze and Nora is a part of the few times he does reappear. He never schemes with the Joker or serves as hired muscle for Poison Ivy. And best of all, Mr. Freeze is provided a legacy that still endures today making him one of Batman’s greatest foes, and he owes it all to this episode of a children’s cartoon.


Batman: The Animated Series – “Be A Clown”

Be_A_Clown-Title_CardEpisode Number:  9

Original Air Date:  September 16, 1992

Directed by:  Frank Paur

Written by:  Ted Pedersen and Steve Hayes

First Appearance(s):  Jordan Hill

Thus far, Batman:  The Animated Series has basically given us an episode either featuring The Joker as the main antagonist or basically a no-name villain (at the time) for Batman to do battle with. Here we are at episode 9 and already it’s the third Joker episode for the series. The series will not be so Joker heavy much longer, and truthfully it’s hard to argue with the strategy of making new stars out of Poison Ivy and Scarecrow while also mixing in a liberal dose of Joker. This is also the second episode directed by Frank Paur, who gets a shot with a big-time villain following his series debut with “The Underdwellers.”

The episode opens with Mayor Hamilton Hill (Lloyd Bochner) giving a press conference when some hoodlums come speeding through to disrupt things. They’re fleeing Batman, who swoops in and nabs them before departing as quickly as he arrived. Unfortunately for Hill, this all happened while he was downplaying the amount of crime in Gotham and it prompts a reporter to ask him about the criminals, as well as Batman. Hill reveals himself to be of the Bullock mindset that Batman is no better than criminals like The Joker – cut to The Joker watching all of this on television which enrages him. He’s angry that anyone, especially the mayor of Gotham, would compare him to Batman and deems it a grievous insult.

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Mayor Hill doesn’t share his son’s enthusiasm for magic.

Sometime later, Hill is throwing a birthday party for his son Jordan (Justin Shenkarow), who isn’t particularly excited about it. Hill basically reveals himself to be a greasy politician who stocks his son’s birthday party with various political personalities in Gotham as well as wealthy individuals like Bruce Wayne. Jordan is not at all amused by any of this, but he is delighted when Jekko The Magnificent shows up to entertain the party goers. Jordan is an aspiring magician himself, so he’s drawn to the clown performer immediately. When asked how to become a great magician, Jekko tells Jordan he should run away and find a mentor. As viewers we are not fooled by The Joker’s disguise, and anyone who was is soon tipped off when Jekko places a stick of dynamite on the birthday cake which features a head sculpt of The Joker himself. Wayne notices, and finds a way to “accidentally” knock the cake into a swimming pool before it explodes. Interestingly, when Joker places the candle he instructs the children to run along indicating he’s only interested in blowing up the adults. It’s an interesting bit of morality from The Joker, and I wonder who’s decision it was to soften The Joker in this manner.

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The guests at Jordan’s party apparently aren’t too observant.

Jordan, predictably, runs away and stashes himself in Jekko’s van. The police are summoned for a missing person and also happen upon the real Jekko, whom The Joker had tied up and left on the side of the road. Bruce is still hanging around the Hill residence to hear all of this and races off to track down Joker and Jordan. He tracks them to an abandoned amusement park where Joker has somewhat reluctantly taken Jordan in as a protege of sorts. He actually sincerely shows Jordan a few tricks before Batman shows up. Jordan, distrustful of Batman thanks to his father and also a bit intimidated by his appearance, goes along with Jekko’s scheme to lure Batman into a trap that succeeds in knocking him out. When Batman awakes, he finds himself inverted in a water tank with a straight jacket and no utility belt. Jordan, realizing this trick is intended to kill Batman, tries to free him only for Joker to finally reveal himself.

Jordan runs off, and for some reason The Joker decides to give chase rather than watch Batman drown, which naturally helps to allow Batman to escape. A chase sequence ensues involving a roller coaster, and if you played the Super Nintendo game based on this series it will seem familiar to you. Batman is able to deal with The Joker, who falls into a nearby body of water. Jordan has to overcome his fear of Batman in order to be saved, but naturally everything works out. We don’t get any closure on The Joker, who we presume gets away since I doubt anyone thought he perished from his fall, nor do we see Mayor Hill’s reaction to learning his son was rescued by Batman.

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Joker in his Jekko gear corrupting young Jordan.

This episode does not mark the first appearance of Mayor Hill as he was a part of the pilot, but it might as well be his true introduction. It’s actually nice to see people who question Batman and I like that his only real ally at Gotham PD is Gordon (and apparently Montoya following “P.O.V.”). It is sort of surprising to see a politician come out against Batman as I also assumed the general population of Gotham approved of Batman, but maybe they don’t? This episode also has some fun easter eggs in it. When Jekko pulls out a poster for a magician named Prosciutto the drawing is clearly supposed to resembled famed comics writer Alan Moore. There’s also a clown robot at the amusement park which laughs at Jordan when he runs by it. The laugh was taken from Tim Curry’s Joker audition (uncredited) as he was originally cast as The Joker before losing the role due to bronchitis. It’s interesting to hear because it most likely represents what The Joker would have sounded like (at least when laughing) had Curry been retained.

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Batman dodging Joker’s bladed throwing cars is a fun little animation sequence in this episode and a warm up for the roller coaster chase.

“Be a Clown” is one of the better Joker episodes as it captures what I like about the character. He’s easily set off by some of the most mundane things and is more interested in stirring up trouble than doing lasting damage (though he probably did intend to murder some of those party-goers with his dynamite candle). It’s also interesting to see him try and corrupt a child. The Jordan/Mayor Hill dynamic is believable in that he’s more of a political prop for his dad and feels isolated as a result. Hill comes off as a bit of a slime ball, but we do see that he does genuinely care for his son so he’s not a true bad guy. The only thing I don’t particularly care for about the episode is Batman is given some one-liners that mostly fall flat. I don’t mind the writers injecting a little bit of dry humor into Batman, but it’s a delicate game and the script wasn’t up for the task this time. And as always, the score for any Joker episode is excellent as the playful, but somewhat malevolent, Joker theme is always welcomed.

As I stated in the intro, this is already The Joker’s third appearance in this show, but we still haven’t made it to his actual broadcast debut! The order is all over the place, but this is our best Joker episode so far and when all is said and done it will probably still place in the top five, I would guess


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 Alfred (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.


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: Mask of the Phantasm Blu Ray

Batman-Mask-of-the-Phantasm-Blu-rayI’ve written about Batman: Mask of the Phantasm on more than one occasion, often in glowing terms. I dubbed it the definitive take on the Batman character for film and ranked it pretty highly on my list of best Batman movies of all time. In addition to that, I did a straight-up review of the film as well. Most of these articles are old by the standards of this blog, but all of those write-ups were based on the DVD release of the film. It’s taken Warner years to finally put this film on Blu Ray, but it’s finally here and I’m going to tell you about it.

Now since I’ve already done an actual review of the film, I’m not going to go into much detail though I did re-read my review and I have some embellishments I can make in order to pad this post out. The Blu Ray itself is what is important for this post. Mask of the Phantasm is a film I always felt would benefit from a high-definition transfer because of all of the deep blacks, particularly in the backgrounds. The DVD release was an old one and not particularly good by the standards of DVD. It was re-released in multi-packs with the direct-to-video Batman films based on the animated series and I don’t know if any of those were handled better than the version I have. As far as the transfer goes, the Mask of the Phantasm Blu Ray is a mixed bag. My assumption the blacks would benefit was spot-on. Not only are they rich, but the deep blue of Batman’s cape looks great as well and the animation is nice and fluid. Sadly, there’s some blurring that takes place, particularly early in the film. I’m not sure if it persisted throughout at times and I just became engrossed in the plot or if it was confined to the beginning of the picture. Either way, it’s disappointing the transfer isn’t better.

The other disappointing aspect of the release is the complete lack of special features. The DVD did the same as both only include a standard definition version of the trailer for the film and nothing else. I find it hard to believe the likes of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm weren’t interested in doing something for this release, be it a commentary or a short piece on the making of the film. The subpar transfer and lack of special features really makes it feel like Warner cared little about the integrity of this release, which is a shame because it’s a film deserving of more respect.

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What you see is what you get.

And what a film it is! In re-watching it for this write-up I’m just reminded of how well it gets the Batman character. Seeing Bruce’s early years as a vigilante really drives home the tragedy of the Batman character. And I don’t mean the sad origin of Batman, but in how Bruce has given up any chance at a healthy life by committing to being Batman. He’s fighting an un-winnable battle to rid Gotham of crime and foregoing marriage, children, and the simple pleasures of life. He’s unquestionably doing good in the community and helping people, but it’s probably not a fulfilling lifestyle.

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The Joker could have felt tacked-on to give the film a recognizable villain, but his inclusion pays off

The other aspect of this film that really merits praise, because it feels overlooked in light of The Dark Knight, is its depiction of The Joker. The Joker of the cartoon series is somewhat of a cornball. There’s some danger to the character, but standards and practices kind of holds him back. He’s overshadowed by the likes of Mr. Freeze and Two-Face as far as memorable villains go. Instead he’s kind of the old reliable stand-by for Batman as decades of Joker material from the comics means it’s relatively easy to come up with a decent episode. Here we get The Joker that the animated series probably wanted to give us, but couldn’t. He’s still a nut, but so much more menacing. There’s a real tension in his scenes because he feels unpredictable. Is he going to aid a character? Kill him? What’s his endgame? It’s a shame he doesn’t share screen time with a character we as an audience are invested in, instead he’s paired with scum and we don’t mind if Joker opts to murder them. And what more can be said of Mark Hamill’s performance as The Joker? He’ll always be my favorite.

What we have here is a mixed bag, a great film undermined by a mediocre release. Even so, the Blu Ray is an easy recommend for those who do not have the film already, especially if you’re into Batman and you’ve never seen it. It may be a brief experience, but it’s worthwhile. For those like me who already had the DVD, it’s a tougher sell. This strikes me as a release that will be discounted to the ten dollar bin by this time next year, so maybe waiting on it is the right move if you’re not eager to re-watch. If you’re perfectly happy with the DVD then sure, feel free to pass on this one. I don’t feel burned by it, but I do feel like at 19.99 it’s probably five bucks too expensive. Next year is the film’s 25th anniversary so perhaps there’s an outside shot of Warner doing a more robust release, but I kind of doubt it. This is probably all we’ll get with maybe a future two-pack coming along with an HD transfer of Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero, but I doubt that would feature any additional content aside from the films themselves.


#5 Best in TV Animation: Batman – The Animated Series

Batman_the_Animated_Series_logoChildren of today can probably hardly imagine a world in which super heroes aren’t dominating the pop culture landscape. We’re in an era where even the Fantastic Four have received three chances at making a successful movie and less popular characters like Antman and Dr. Strange have either become mainstream or soon will. That wasn’t the case before 1990. Prior to that, only Batman and Superman had ever made a buck at the box office while The Incredible Hulk had a semi-successful television series for Marvel. When it came to cartoons, there was basically the many variations on the Super Friends and the Marvel Action Hour. The quality for these cartoons was something less than satisfactory.

When Tim Burton and Michael Keaton helped to make Batman popular once again, the powers that be at DC and Warner Bros. decided to give television another go with the caped crusader. Instead of another colorful super hero mash-up they opted to adapt the more current iteration of Batman. The resulting “Batman” (often subtitled “The Animated Series)” returned Batman to the night from which he was born. Developed chiefly by Eric Radomski, Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, the show embodied much of the recent films as well as the tone of the current comics. Robin was there, but only in a handful of episodes initially and he no longer dressed like Tinker Bell’s older brother. Villains that were popular on the older 60’s television program returned, but with a more serious take. Joining them were the more grounded villains like Roland Dagget and Rupert Thorne, mobsters who waged war from the comfort of their homes. Adding even more of a sense of realism to the program was the fact that the villains (and cops) carried and fired realistic weaponry as opposed to cartoonish laser guns that are always conveniently set to stun.

The pervasive darkness of the show is like a character by itself.

The pervasive darkness of the show is like a character by itself.

The Batman present in the animated series was not the ever-present optimist from the 60’s with the serious, but often cheerful, demeanor. This Batman, voiced exceptionally well by Kevin Conroy, was a moody, no nonsense, hero who truly embodied the term The Dark Knight. He’s driven by a quiet anger, it’s root cause being the murder of his parents he bore witness to as a child. Batman is fiercely driven and consumed by his urge to avenge his parents by cleaning up the streets of Gotham, a seemingly never ending task. His alter-ego Bruce Wayne exists only as a cover for Batman. This Batman has a lot in common with Frank Miller’s, only the delivery isn’t so heavy-handed and extreme. As usual, Batman has allies around him. By his side is his butler, Alfred Pennyworth, who is more of a sidekick in the series as opposed to a moral arbiter. That role falls to Dr. Leslie Tompkins who often counsels Batman away from his life of crime-fighting. Commissioner Gordon heads the Gotham police department and relies on Batman probably more than he should while Detective Bullock is Gordon’s foil and often mistrusts the Batman. Robin is also around with an equally tragic backstory and Batgirl eventually comes into the fold during the second “season.”

Batman has no shortage of allies but he’d be nothing without his rogue’s gallery. The usual suspects are present such as The Joker (voiced by Mark Hamill) and Penguin. They’re presented well, but the show is best remembered for its fresh approach when adapting the lesser villains. Two-Face is introduced slowly as district attorney Harvey Dent before his eventual transformation. His character is handled with care and his sympathetic nature is sort of a calling card for the series. The villain most often cited as coming out of the show for the better is Mr. Freeze. Once a fairly corny player in the comics, the depiction of Freeze in the animated series is that of a vindictive killer. Juxtaposing his cold demeanor is the origins for his madness over his wife’s apparent murder. His debut episode, “Heart of Ice,” is often mentioned among the show’s best. The show doesn’t always rely on its villain of the week (day, actually, since the program aired week days originally) as illustrated in “Beware the Grey Ghost.” In this episode, the show runners have some fun by pairing Batman with an out of work actor typecast for his work as a super hero in an old television show. His voice actor? None other than Adam West.

The rogue's gallery for the show is a clever mix of classics and unknowns, with the unknowns often shining brightest.

The rogue’s gallery for the show is a clever mix of classics and unknowns, with the unknowns often shining brightest.

The artwork in the show is heavily based off of the set designs of Eric Radomski and the character designs of Bruce Timm. If you are not familiar with Timm’s work, it’s a low-detail approach with lots of angular lines. Lots of pointy-chinned females and square-headed males populate the show. His take on the various villains is often influenced by both classic works and the Burton films. Joker and Penguin are obviously takes on Jack Nicholson’s Joker and Danny DeVito’s more monstrous Penguin. Catwoman too resembles her look from Batman Returns but with the S&M aspect toned down. There’s a minimalist approach to the details with lots of flat, muted colors. Backgrounds were even done on black paper, most noticeably the opening title sequence, with light colors painted over them. This technique is credited to Radomski and often referred to as “Dark-Deco.” The show’s biggest contribution to the world of Batman though is easily the character of Harley Quinn, who first originated on television before making the leap to comics.

Whether you like the look of the show or not is a matter of opinion. It certainly needed to grow on me, but I appreciated the style of the show. Like the Burton films, Gotham is a modern city rooted in the stylings of the 30s and 40s. Batman possesses some pretty advanced technology but for some reason also watches a black and white television half the time. The low detail approach for the show’s look is a benefit to the animation itself. Rather than the somewhat stiff X-Men, Batman animates rather smoothly. The later series, The New Batman Adventures, who further reduce the detail to boost the animation but some would suggest they went too far as certain characters came across as too cartoonish.

The show maybe fairly serious in tone, but Batman still has plenty of toys at his disposal. Just no shark repellent this time.

The show maybe fairly serious in tone, but Batman still has plenty of toys at his disposal. Just no shark repellent this time.

Batman The Animated Series is truly one of the great achievements in kid’s programming. Its serious approach to the character of Batman and his many villains really enhanced the product above what is typically expected of children’s programming. The only thing holding it back is the show’s consistency. It was originally ordered as one season of 65 episodes which is a pretty daunting task to come up with 65 well-executed episodes. The show is often one of those programs where the good episodes are really special but there’s a lot of filler to work around. The show becomes more watered-down when the short second season is added to the mix as well as The New Adventures which surfaced years later. That run produced maybe 2 or 3 worthy episodes with the rest being kid stuff, sadly.

Even so, the good produced by Batman The Animated Series is worthy enough to place it at fifth on my top ten list for animated television programs. The show also spawned some feature films, though only one was released theatrically, the fantastic Mask of the Phantasm. When the films jumped the shark with Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, it was the animated series that kept Batman relevant. It’s unlikely another super hero show could ever surpass it.