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

Jokers_Wild-Title_CardEpisode Number:  41

Original Air Date:  November 19, 1992

Directed by:  Boyd Kirkland

Written by:  Paul Dini

First Appearance(s):  None

 

Episode 41 of Batman:  The Animated Series is written by show runner Paul Dini and it plays like a love letter to old Warner cartoons. It’s timely that we’ve arrived at this episode right now as we just recently we celebrated the 30th anniversary of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a film that could also be described as a love letter to classic cartoons. And if you’re going to do a send-up to the old Looney Tunes then who better to man that ship than The Joker (Mark Hamill) himself?

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Joker and Poison Ivy sharing a moment.

The episode begins at Arkham Asylum where the happily incarcerated Joker is fighting over the television in the common area with Poison Ivy (Diane Pershing). They bicker like children and it’s rather amusing to see The Joker reduce Ivy to that of a whiney child, but apparently he has that effect on people. He’s delighted to be causing her such consternation to the point that he doesn’t mind when the guard forces them to watch the news since they couldn’t agree on a show before (Joker wanted to watch Letterman, Ivy a gardening program). The news is covering the opening of a new casino by Cameron Kaiser (Harry Hamlin) and even Bruce Wayne is in attendance. When the casino is unveiled to contain a Joker motif, complete with a laughing depiction of The Joker’s unmistakable visage atop the building, the audience reacts in disgust – including Wayne. The Joker is immediately ticked off to see his likeness infringed upon and Ivy delights in seeing this change in mood from him. It’s all the motivation he needs though to break out of Arkham once again (revealing how pathetically easy it is to do so in the process) and set his sights on Kaiser and his shiny new casino – Joker’s Wild.

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Another instance of the show maintaining continuity with the Burton Batman film.

Joker arrives in his top hat and overcoat and is kind of impressed with what he sees. The place looks like a tribute to him complete with ushers dressed as The Joker and waitresses clad in Harley Quinn attire (who is not present in this episode marking a rather lengthy absence for her). Joker is immediately mistaken for a worker and is instructed by another attendant to go work the blackjack table where he immediately starts winning hand after hand. He may be there to wreck the place, but it’s pretty clear he’s going to have a little fun before he does.

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The head spins and laughs, because it wasn’t garish enough.

Bruce Wayne, after seeing the unveiling, decided to book a room knowing that there was no way The Joker would stand for this. It basically highlights how quickly The Joker broke out and got himself situated that Wayne is still there. Alfred brought him his gear, and Wayne points out how he thinks something is off with the place by pealing back some wallpaper to reveal an older design. He thinks this switch to a Joker theme was a last minute addition, and plans to do some sleuthing.

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Hard to imagine even The Joker himself designing a casino so lovingly dedicated to him.

Batman does some nosing around in Kaiser’s office and, because Kaiser is apparently stupid, finds all he needs to find. The casino is already deeply in debt, and apparently Kaiser has no faith in it generating enough money to pay down that debt in a timely fashion. Rather than file for bankruptcy, he made the (probably costly) change in theming to attract The Joker in hopes that he would sabotage the whole thing and Kaiser could collect on insurance. I do wonder how well that plan would have worked if the plan went off without a hitch. In a world where villains like The Joker are sort of commonplace I wonder if an insurance company would even payout for such an action? Batman attracts the attention of security, but it’s nothing he can’t handle, as he makes a hasty retreat.

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That is some room.

Joker has also attracted the attention of security (the guard is voiced by Ernie Hudson which seems like a really small role for him. I thought maybe he had a bigger part in another episode and just recorded some filler but I don’t see any other credits for him under this show) who alerts Kaiser of what’s going on. The Joker is seen clearly cheating on the security footage, but Kaiser doesn’t seem bothered and tells the guard to ignore him. Meanwhile, the patrons at Joker’s table have fled in disgust, but Bruce Wayne arrives to take their place. They make small talk, in which Bruce remarks on the distasteful decor which irritates Joker, before getting down to business. Joker hits a 20, but Bruce hits on 21 and pockets his cash and moves along. He saw what he needed, and in an exchange with Alfred, we see Bruce knows how to cheat at cards with the best of them.

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Even Wayne looks kind of off model here.

Having seen all he needs to see, Wayne hops into his Batman attire and goes to apprehend The Joker, only to find that he’s switched tables. When the real Joker sees Batman harassing a harmless worker, he decides to flee. He commandeers a Joker mobile, a dragster sort of car with Joker stylings, that was on display as a prize (I assume, because it looks like the sign to win it was lost in translation, literally, when animated overseas) and takes off. Batman jumps in, but Joker crashes the car into a pier causing Batman to plummet into the nearby bay while Joker is able to safely eject.

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I love how Joker needs to have his likeness on his own gun. No wonder why he’s so irritated at another man stealing that very likeness.

We next see Joker wheeling a bunch of explosives under the guise of a food service cart into a closed section of the casino. It looks like it’s supposed to be a play area someday as there’s a giant roulette wheel and some other things scattered about. Kaiser notices this on camera and immediately calls for his private helicopter to be prepared for a swift exit. Batman confronts him as he’s filling a suitcase full of money and reveals to him he knows what’s going on. Kaiser, unfazed, activates some sort of electrical floor trap beneath Batman which incapacitates him. He orders his two lackeys to bring Batman down to the Joker for disposal.

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Battle on the helicopter!

Batman stumbles out of an elevator only to be clobbered with a 2×4 by The Joker, knocking him unconscious. He wakes up to find he’s been bound to the enormous roulette wheel with its giant caricature of The Joker leering down at him. Joker taunts him, and while doing so the animation gets real wonky and he appears off-model numerous times. Batman reveals Kaiser’s plans to Joker, who seems pretty bummed that he’ll have to abort his plans to demolish the casino. That doesn’t get Batman off the hook though as Joker activates the roulette and leaves him with a live grenade bouncing around on the wheel. Joker makes the same mistake he always makes in leaving Batman to his own demise, which means he obviously is going to get out of this one. Using his trusty grapple gun, Batman makes a shot that’s even amazing by his standards as he not only hits the bounding grenade (while spinning at an extremely high rate of speed) with his grapple gun, but also causes the grenade to go into the giant Joker structure demolishing it in the process causing it fall on him and free him from his bindings. That is some crazy shot.

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Joker back in Arkham with very weird looking representations of Ivy, The Mas Hatter, and Scarecrow.

Joker is able to beat Kaiser to the helipad as he’s trying to flee the casino and takes over piloting duties of his helicopter (eerily similar to his actions in his last appearance, “The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne”). When Kaiser realizes it’s The Joker and not his pilot, he gets pretty angry that The Joker isn’t down there demolishing his casino. Joker reveals he’s decided to take over the casino instead, after he knocks off Kaiser, though he does compliment him on the attempted scheme. Batman arrives too late to get on the helicopter, but he somehow manages to get high enough to soar after it in his hang glider, much to the frustration of The Joker. The animators redeem themselves with a brief, but nice looking, chase sequence that ends with Batman and Joker tussling in the cockpit of the helicopter. They crash into the casino and not only do they manage to not kill anyone in the process, they all walk away from the crash despite not being restrained at all. Joker tries to get away, but Batman knocks him into a slot machine and change pours down over him. The still image looks rather poor and the bottom of the image almost looks like a half-finished animation cel that was supposed to be cut-off in the actual picture.

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Hey! I know that guy!

The episode concludes with Joker back in Arkham amongst cameos from Scarecrow and The Mad Hatter (looking really off model) while they all enjoy watching the coverage of Joker’s failure. He tries to change the channel to Looney Tunes, but they all shout at him in protest. The camera settles on Joker’s grumbling as “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down,” better known as the Looney Tunes theme, plays before changing back to the news coverage, and eventually Joker’s theme, which takes us out. It’s a fitting way to end this one as throughout the whole episode we’ve had little Looney Tunes nuggets tossed about. The Joker is humming that very song early in the episode, while he also makes numerous one-liners basically lifted directly from those old cartoons. He even calls someone a “maroon.” It’s really silly, and I actually wouldn’t blame someone for thinking it’s too silly and a bit out of character for the show. We do often get dueling Jokers in this show where he’s sometimes really calculating and murderous, while other times he’s looney and breaks the fourth wall (as seen in his debut “The Last Laugh”). This episode might push things a little too far in that direction, but as someone who unabashedly loves the Looney Tunes, it’s hard for me to be too bothered by it.

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Joker’s eyes are right triangles in this show. I never want to see that again.

Our villain of the week, Cameron Kaiser, will never be heard from again. He served his purpose, but the conflict of him vs Joker means this episode doesn’t rely a whole lot on Batman. That’s nothing new for the show, but he feels especially buried in this one. He has some really generic and corny lines as the episode feels like its rushing through his scenes. It’s not the worst we’ve seen him, but it sticks out in a Paul Dini episode which are usually the show’s best. It’s also weird because kids don’t really understand insurance, for the most part, so they might not quite understand the plot and yet so much of the humor and direction feels aimed at children. In particular, the bickering of the inmates in which the line “I know you are, but what am I?” is uttered more than once. The hang glider thing also really bothered me. I know I should be willing to overlook how unrealistic it is for Batman to get as high as a helicopter without an obvious launching point, but some things just can’t be ignored. Just have him grapple gun the stupid helicopter!

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The blackness around Joker’s eyes constantly pops in and out in this episode and it’s very distracting.

The animation for this one is all over the place. I made mention of it during the summary portion, but it warrants further mentioning. The Joker’s face is often tricky to animate as he’s always grinning, but the animators seemed to have more trouble than usual here as he sometimes has some off mouth flaps. The black around his eyes is really inconsistent too, and it’s particularly egregious when he’s confronting Batman. Batman is also really stiff and the action scenes don’t feel especially dynamic. He’s slow, and when he’s strapped to the spinning roulette wheel we don’t really get a sense of motion out of the scene. It feels very detached. The hang glider sequence is well done though, so maybe they blew the budget on that part. The backgrounds also look good, and since the setting is rather unique, there probably wasn’t too many opportunities for cost-savings. It was handled by Akom, who has been responsible for more bad than good episodes. I actually wasn’t aware of this while watching, but Akom was apparently fired because this episode came out so poorly. In addition to the issues I pointed out, there also just some silly gaffes in some shots, like items appearing and disappearing at random. Apparently Akom had a bad reputation amongst the staff often referring to it as “The Kiss of Death” when an episode was assigned to the studio.

“Joker’s Wild” is an okay piece of comedic filler for the series. It’s not the best Joker episode, but the images of the Joker casino help make it more memorable than it deserves. How much you enjoy the episode will partly hinge on if you enjoy the humor and the little nods to Looney Tunes shorts. At this time, Tiny Toon Adventures was a thing and the shows had some overlap in terms of talent so it isn’t surprising to see something like this make it to air. Previously we had seen some sight gags in past episodes, but this one really went for it and the results were…okay? We’ve got some less than stellar episodes upcoming though, so after about four weeks this one may seem positively divine by comparison.

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Batman: The Animated Series – “The Laughing Fish”

The_Laughing_Fish-Title_CardEpisode Number:  34

Original Air Date:  January 10, 1993

Directed by:  Bruce Timm

Written by:  Paul Dini

First Appearance(s):  None

“The Laughing Fish” is our second episode of Batman:  The Animated Series to be directed by Bruce Timm and written by Paul Dini* (asterisk on the written by credit which I’ll get to). You may remember the first as being pretty damn good: “Heart of Ice.” Interestingly, both that episode and this one are the only two so far to not feature a true title card as each opts for a focused shot on a subject that’s simply part of the first scene (in this case, a swinging sign on a pier for a company that could share a name with the episode title). This episode, unlike “Heart of Ice,” is not an original story by Timm and Dini and instead is an amalgamation of three different stories from the comics. Those stories being “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge (1973)” by Denny O’Neil and “The Laughing Fish” and “Sign of the Joker! (1978)” both by Steve Englehart. If you hadn’t guessed from the title of the episode, then surely you know by now based on those titles from the comics that we’re dealing with The Joker this week as he seeks to utilize his Joker toxin in a fairly unique manner in order to win money and score laughs.

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I don’t care what Batman says, there’s no way I’m eating one of those.

This episode is quite stylized from the get-go and will remain so. It features some brief narration by our hero, Batman, which I believe is a first for the series. The fish being harvested in the waters of Gotham are all sporting a tell-tale Joker grin. Batman suspects the worst, but when he dissects a fish he finds there’s no danger to humans when consumed, which just makes him more curious. This is a good thing because the ghastly visage of these fish apparently isn’t stopping the local fisherman from harvesting and selling the things as we soon see Joker himself pay a visit to a local paper-pusher at a patent office about licensing rights. That poor sap, G. Carl Francis (George Dzundza), finds himself in the crosshairs of The Joker when he can’t help him file a trademark on the fish. It would seem The Joker thought he’d be able to earn money on every fish sold since they bare his likeness, but he’s frustrated to find out that isn’t the case. His lovely associate, Harley (Arleen Sorkin), sprays poor Francis with some icky perfume while remarking that she has a strong dislike of fish which the perfume should eliminate. Joker informs Francis he has until midnight to reconsider his patent claim. Joker then goes to his old standby – television, to essentially broadcast his threat against Francis so his old chum Batman can be aware of his plans.

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Poor Harley is going to have a rough time with all of the fish in this one.

When Joker leaves the office angry, Francis does the right thing and enlists the aid of the Gotham Police Department for protection. They setup a watch for Joker that Batman soon crashes, much to the ire of Detective Bullock. They all patiently wait around for The Joker to make his presence felt, but noting comes. When Francis starts rubbing at his hands and makes the offhand remark that he never got to wash off the stuff Harley sprayed him with, Batman basically freaks out and starts demanding medical attention for Francis. He’s too late though as a speeding truck launches a swordfish through the window that stabs into the wall. It releases a gas and Francis begins to laugh uncontrollably, his face turns an ashen color and his mouth stretches into a hideous smile. Batman injects him with his anti-Joker compound and Francis begins to settle down. Batman deduces that whatever Harley sprayed on him mixed with the toxin in the swordfish to infect him. Joker soon appears on television to taunt Batman and also name his next victim:  copyright office bureaucrat Thomas Jackson.

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These transformation scenes felt genuinely disturbing to me as a kid, which is perhaps why this episode actually debuted in prime time as opposed to during normal children’s hours.

Having failed to stop Joker once, the police and Batman give it another shot with Jackson. They set up a security ring around him as well with Gordon and Bullock arguing over their approach. Apparently they’re doing this one Batman’s way and Bullock is less than thrilled. When Jackson’s cat comes waltzing into the room everyone soon notices it’s carrying a Joker fish in its mouth. The cat lunges at Batman and is able to bite him breaking the skin. Batman soon breaks out into laughter as his face becomes round and unrecognizable. Jackson jumps in to administer the anti-toxin, and it’s revealed that Jackson and Batman had actually switched places to try and fool Joker, unfortunately they couldn’t fool the cat.

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Here kitty…on second thought, maybe not.

Batman makes the obvious observation that the fish the cat dragged in is a tropical fish not native to Gotham’s waters. This means Joker must be at the local aquarium. Batman, however, is the second person to figure this out as Bullock has already fled Jackson’s residence to head there himself (“I didn’t need no Batcomputer to tell me that weird-looking minnow came from the aquarium,”) and confront The Joker. It doesn’t go well for him and he soon finds himself strung up by a crane like a worm at the end of a fishing line for Joker’s pet shark. Joker is having a good time until he realizes that if Bullock was smart enough to figure out his location then surely Batman will too. He decides to use Bullock as Bat-bait instead and, what do you know, it works.

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This sequence is pretty stupid.

Batman comes charging in and Joker’s two goons are no match for him. Joker has his ace though in Bullock and Batman is forced to hand himself over to secure Bullock’s freedom. Joker is happy to make the switch and Batman is tossed into the shark tank. As Bullock looks on, Joker decides he should go for a swim too and shoves him in (Batman couldn’t have possibly expected Joke to not do something like this) and then covers the tank depriving the two of precious oxygen. No matter, as Batman demonstrates his shark battling abilities. It’s a bit ridiculous, though I suppose it’s less ridiculous than the time Batman successfully fought off several crocodiles. He’s able to break the tank and free himself and Bullock as Joker takes off.

B4rpth8Batman and Joker square-off outside the aquarium on a large dock. It’s the most physical we’ve seen these two get as Joker gets ahold of a large wrench and gives Batman a good strike with it (in a bit of censorship, the screen flashes as Joker connects reminding me of the old Pow! Bam! effects from the 60s Batman show). Joker, not to be confused as Batman’s equal in fisticuffs, is soon subdued and cornered. His last resort is to simply leap off the tall structure revealing a get-away float around his waist. He laughs and taunts Batman from the waters below, until his shark-buddy shows up and drags him under. The episode closes teasing Joker’s demise as a tearful Harley says her goodbyes. Batman, apparently aware that this is only episode 34 of an 85 episode run, tells Commissioner Gordon he doubts The Joker is truly gone. Truer words were never spoken.

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The Batman fake-out definitely fooled me as a kid, as well as frightened.

“The Laughing Fish” is a very stylized episode of Batman: The Animated Series. It’s sound production and setup are very film noir and evocative of old crime dramas, with obviously a super hero twist. It’s an amusing plot with Joker just out for money and Batman gets a chance to demonstrate just how well he understands his foil. It’s a fun episode to re-watch as well especially for the scene in Jackson’s home. They don’t cheat, like they often do, the reveal of Batman and Jackson switching places by having Batman speak in Jackson’s voice and vice versa. Rather you never see either man speak until after the reveal. Joker is also at his best as he’s pretty cruel throughout the episode. He obviously can’t actually murder anyone, but it feels clear his intention is to do just that. It’s also interesting to see his relationship with Harley evolving. Here it’s very business-like with her referring to him mostly as “boss,” but it’s obvious she’s higher on the pecking order than the other goons since Joker bothers to remember her name. It’s also fun to see her broken up over Joker’s apparent demise, making it obvious she has an unhealthy devotion to the man.

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Joker and Harley get to demonstrate a taste of their chemistry in this one. Here Joker makes her his mermaid.

Where the episode does sort of cheat the viewer is in its resolution. Joker obviously is not dead and will return for many more episodes. The episode doesn’t offer a plausible explanation for how Joker survived a shark attack, and it won’t bother trying to explain it the next time he shows his face in this show. He’ll just reappear and this won’t be the last time he cheats death in such a way.

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Farewell, sweet clown prince. For now, anyway.


Batman: The Animated Series – “Mad As A Hatter”

MadasahatterEpisode Number:  27

Original Air Date:  October 12, 1992

Directed by:  Frank Paur

Written by:  Paul Dini

First Appearance(s):  The Mad Hatter

 

Our fourth Paul Dini episode contains yet another lesser foe from Batman’s rogues gallery for him to enrich. After elevating Poison Ivy and Mr. Freeze (his other episode was a Joker one) Dini is going to try to bring the same touch to The Mad Hatter. As you can probably guess from the villain’s name, he’s a take on the same character from the famous Lewis Carroll novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which seems like a pretty silly source of inspiration for a villain (and rather lazy, since he even goes by the same name). He sounds like a villain more appropriate for the 1960’s series, and lo and behold he was a part of that, though not a well remembered part. He appeared in a handful of episodes and was played by David Wayne. In that series, he was less a man with a fondness for Lewis Carroll and instead just a guy obsessed with hats, and in particular, Batman’s cowl. He wore his signature top hat which would sprout two eyes and hypnotize people. Really, he might have a bone to pick with Mario’s Cappy. It’s kind of amusing though that he was featured in that series, because his voice actor for this show is a veteran of that program as well:  Roddy McDowall. I don’t know if they ever entertained the notice of hiring Wayne (he may have been retired since his last credits date back to the late 80s, he’d die in 1995 at the age of 81), but McDowall previously played The Book Worm in the 1960’s Batman television show.

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Get a load of this goon.

For Batman:  The Animated Series a more serious take on The Mad Hatter was needed. Just how does one make him a villain with the Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland affinity without making him too silly? Well, for one they make him a scientist researching mind control. Jervis Tetch works for Wayne Corporations as a researcher and has discovered a way to control the minds of laboratory rats, which is depicted at the start of the episode by showing Tetch command the rats to have an adorable little tea party. He has a secretary named Alice (Kimmy Robertson), because of course he does, and he’s pretty smitten with her. The problem is, she has a boyfriend. Also of problem is Tetch’s boss, Marcia Cates (Loretta Swift), who is constantly on his case. She brings Wayne by to get an update on the research Tetch is working on. Wayne refers to his research as being aimed at unlocking the potential of the human mind, leading the viewer to conclude that mind control isn’t exactly what Tetch is being paid to research. He also plays coy and doesn’t reveal the device to Cates or Wayne. While Cates seems like she’d prefer to terminate him, Wayne is far more sympathetic and assures Tetch that he’s a valued employee. When Alice steps out for lunch later and returns in tears after a fight with her boyfriend, Billy (David Haskell), Tetch sees an opening for himself. After monologuing the pros and cons of just simply controlling her, this sudden break-up gives him the confidence tot ry and win her over and use his device and circuit cards to aid him. Outfitting a top hat with his mind control device and dressing lavishly as The Mad Hatter, he treats Alice to a night out. Utilizing the hat and little playing cards outfitted with his tech, he’s able to control the minds of those they encounter and come across as a big shot. Unfortunately for Jervis, after dropping Alice off at her home Billy is there waiting and the two reconcile.

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In spite of his outlandish attire, Tetch is able to make an impression on Alice.

When Jervis shows up for work the next day, still in costume and with a bundle of roses, he hears the “good news.” Not only did Alice and Billy make-up, but he also proposed and Alice is over the moon and totally oblivious to how this will make Jervis feel. Not that she’s responsible for his feelings, she even fails to notice the roses and that Jervis is squeezing them so tightly his hand bleeds on account of the thorns and a single drop lands on the photo of Alice and Billy on her desk. Jervis retreats to the lab where he is now determined to win her love. Emboldened by how well his mind control device had worked the night before, he now feels he can use it to win her over, and as a last resort, he could always just control her as well. He starts by taking control of Billy so he can break up with Alice once more. And when Alice returns home from work to find dozens of flowers in her apartment, Jervis is there to console her. By now she’s a little freaked out, forcing Jervis to utilize his last resort.

Unfortunately for Jervis, Bruce Wayne was in the office earlier that day and noticed Alice’s crying. During their date, Jervis had utilized his mind control cards when the two were mugged to command the would-be muggers to jump in the river. Batman was there to thwart the apparent suicide and also uncover the cards Tetch uses to control the minds of others. Since he’s familiar with his work as a scientist, and the likeness of the cards to the Carroll character depicted in Tetch’s office, he goes to pay Tetch a visit and is intrigued further by the unusual behavior of Alice’s boyfriend. He decided to pay Alice a visit at her home later as Batman, and is there to confront The Mad Hatter who makes off with Alice.

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Probably not the scariest group Batman has had to deal with, but maybe the creepiest.

As an actual foe, The Mad Hatter presents little opposition for Batman, but he’s able to utilize his “powers” to quickly gather a following. This is challenging for Batman since he’s confronted with adversaries, who are apparently made stronger by the mind control, who aren’t actually trying to harm him since they’re being controlled. It’s a moral dilemma, but Batman doesn’t seem to mind too much as he beats the Walrus and the Carpenter unconscious. Of course, The Mad Hatter ends up holed up in a Storybook Land amusement park in the Wonderland section. He orders his mind controlled henchman, which include Billy and Cates, to kill Batman, but all Batman has to do is free one. Since the other henchman are only focused on Batman, freeing Billy means Billy can just walk up and remove the cards from the other possessed individuals which seems like a pretty big hole in The Mad Hatter’s plan. Alice is still under The Mad Hatter’s control, and she’s now in full Alice in Wonderland attire, which is kind of gross because it implies Jervis made her change and who knows what kind of liberties he took. Once Tetch is isolated against only Batman it’s not much of a contest putting at least a temporary end to his plans. He does spout the classic villain line, “You made me do this,” at Batman, which feels kind of forced. I know most of the villains place blame on Batman for their crimes, but Batman really entered this arc kind of late.

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He’s certainly got the “mad” part down.

I will give Dini credit, I don’t hate The Mad Hatter. While he’s kind of a gross sort of character, interested in mind controlling a woman to love him, he’s at least believable and not too over the top with his gimmick. It’s always going to be inherently silly, but he definitely could have been a lot worse. Even still, he’s kind of hard to take seriously because his motivations are rather small making it seem kind of odd that he’d bother to return again as a villain (and he will). This is a tight, simple story and there is at least some degree of sympathy to be found in Jervis Tetch. Most people can understand what it means to lack confidence in dealing with a potential mate, though Tetch goes from sweet to creepy almost too fast basically quashing any sympathy the viewer could have built up. I suppose what I’m trying to get at is that I find this episode good without being sold on The Mad Hatter, which is different from how I felt about Poison Ivy and Mr. Freeze. Though in looking ahead, The Mad Hatter will inexplicably be the main villain of one of my favorite episodes, so perhaps this episode has zero baring on the long-term relevance of The Mad Hatter.


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 – “Pretty Poison”

Pretty_Poison-Title_CardEpisode Number: 5

Original Air Date:  September 14, 1992

Directed by:  Boyd Kirkland

Written by:  Paul Dini, Michael Reaves

First Appearance(s): Poison Ivy, Renée Montoya

“Pretty Poison” is another early production episode that’s confident to give viewers a lesser villain rather than a heavy hitter. As the title implies, this episode is the introduction of Poison Ivy (Diane Pershing) and she’s debuting as a new villain, not as one with a prior relationship with Batman (so far, only Joker has been introduced as an already existing villain) making this an origin story for her. Also central to the plot is Harvey Dent (Richard Moll). We saw him briefly in the pilot “On Leather Wings,” but this episode is really his introduction to the audience.

The episode opens in black and white as we see a pair of hands saving a wild rose from being torn up to make way for a new prison in Gotham. An old news broadcast serves to provide a framing device for this prison as it’s the brainchild of Gotham’s new district attorney, Dent, with considerable financial backing from some guy named Bruce Wayne. The show uses colored images to take us to the present, five years later, and a current prisoner of that fancy new establishment is making an escape with the help of a helicopter. This sets up a fun little back and forth where we’re shown scenes of Batman going after this guy and a scene of Dent enjoying dinner with a dashing redhead. They’re waiting for Wayne, and we get some humorous comments from Dent about his boring buddy who is always late while Batman is shown doing mostly Batman things. It’s a scene that will basically be adapted for the first Spider-Man movie.

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Bruce meets Harvey and his new girlfriend Pam for dinner.

Bruce eventually shows up at dinner, having thwarted the escape, and is introduced to Dent’s fiancé, Pam Isely. After she gives him a long, lingering, kiss she departs and Bruce begins to caution Dent on moving too fast (he’s only known her a few weeks). Dent begins to complain about not feeling well, and then passes out into his pudding and Gotham PD is alerted. Dent’s been poisoned, and Wayne naturally is on the case as Batman.

Through the use of his awesome computer, Batman discovers the poison is derived from an extinct species of rose. He also learns that Dent’s new flame is a botanist, who is currently giving a lecture on extinct plants. You would think Batman’s villains would be more careful? Anyway, it’s pretty clear who’s behind the poisoning and Batman confronts Isley, who’s hopped into a backless green outfit with a wrist-strapped crossbow and is now calling herself Poison Ivey. She has some sentient plants that do her bidding and basically makes it clear she values the life of the plant Dent drove into extinction by building his prison (apparently Gotham has a bad environmental works department) more than the life of Dent. I can’t help but wonder if Ivy was created by someone who thought vegetarians were crazy and that they valued animal life more than human life and decided to make a more extreme version?

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I always thought Poison Ivy’s mini crossbow was pretty cool.

Nonetheless, this is a good episode with some pacing problems. I really enjoy the setup, and it’s great that we get to see the Bruce/Harvey friendship before a different tragedy befalls the Dent character. I like that Isley is not too on the nose at first. While it’s not hard to figure out who poisoned Dent, it’s handled about as well as it can be. Ivy does come across as a bit incompetent, even basically just giving up in the end after almost losing her precious plant. It’s always a challenge to put Batman at odds with a female because the censors don’t want Batman handling them in the same manner he would The Joker, but Ivy’s plant monsters work well to take a beating and they’re pretty cool looking. I can’t help but think this episode would have benefitted from being a two-parter though, as it wraps really fast. A second part would have allowed for the introduction of some red herrings to make things seem less obvious leading to a better pay-off in the end.

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Given how Ivy’s feminine features are very much a part of her arsenal, I really hope that mutant plant isn’t supposed to be representative of a certain part of the female anatomy.

Visually, this is a solid episode. There’s some stiff animation at times, but I liked the artistic take of utilizing black and white and color as a way to distinguish the past and present. Batman gets a little beat up too which is always kind of fun to see. There’s also a little visual humor as we get Gordon and his subordinates racing out of the police headquarters when that unnamed prisoner attempts a break-out repeated when they find out Dent gets poisoned. Both times Bullock is just trying to enjoy some donuts because he’s a cop, and he’s fat. Cheap humor, but for some reason it made me laugh a bit when the scenario was repeated. Alfred also gets some nice lines here, and he’ll be even better in the next episode, making him a dark horse early favorite for season MVP.

This episode is a good introduction for Poison Ivy, who could be considered one of the break-out players from this series. Prior to The Animated Series, Ivy wasn’t a big player in the comics, but this series treated her as Batman’s #1 female adversary (it would mishandle Catwoman, coming later), and yes I realize this is the show that gave us Harley Quinn. Without this show, she probably isn’t a featured villain in Batman & Robin, which was a pretty big moment for the character, even if the film is trash.


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.


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.