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Batman: The Animated Series – “Avatar”

avatar_title_cardEpisode Number:  69

Original Air Date:  May 9, 1994

Directed by:  Kevin Altieri

Written by:  Michael Reaves

First Appearance(s):  None

Episode 69 (nice) brings us the surprising final confrontation between Batman and Ra’s al Ghul in this series. It won’t be the villain’s final appearance, but he will not tangle with Batman again, at least not to this kind of degree. He does appear in Superman and Batman Beyond, so this isn’t the end for him in what is now referred to as the DC Animated Universe. The character has such a presence though that it still surprises me that his mark isn’t felt again, but maybe that is due to him being a difficult character to write. He’s one of the few villains in this series that really breaks reality with magic and mysticism and all of that stuff. And this episode is really going to push the series into more fantasy than we’re accustomed to seeing.

egypt explorer

This explorer has a pretty distinct haircut…

“Avatar” begins in the past at an archaeological site somewhere in Egypt. An Anglo explorer is descending into an open tomb while natives around him work at the site. He’s handed a lantern by a young boy and vanishes into the hole (which appears to change shape more than once) via a rope. Inside, he sees various artifacts but his attention is drawn to a door which begins to emit an eerie glow. At ground level, the rope is pulled from the hands of those securing it. They regain control and try to pull the explorer up, but the only thing that returns is the end of the rope.

In the present, Lucius Fox (Brock Peters) and Bruce Wayne are visiting an exhibit at a museum. It seems Bruce has recently donated several artifacts to the display, including half of the Scroll of Osiris which is the oldest Egyptian document known to man. Bruce seems to be feigning indifference and making more of an effort to play-up his millionaire party-boy persona than he typically does which I appreciate as Bruce Wayne has mostly embodied a squeaky clean image in this show. That night, a thief is shown sneaking into the museum and targeting the fabled Scroll of Osiris. Batman, for some reason, is there to confront the thief and is able to unmask him revealing him to be Ubu (George Dicenzo), Ra’s al Ghul’s bodyguard and right-hand man. Ra’s (David Warner) himself then emerges from the shadows and attacks Batman in an unconvential manner by throwing a cobra at him. Batman is bitten, and the venom coursing through his body weakens him enough to allow the villains to escape. Batman, perhaps in the most “Bat Shark Repellent” moment of the show, just so happens to be carrying anti-venom on his person and is able to administer it.

At the Batcave, Batman is able to research the species of cobra Ra’s utilized, but it doesn’t provide any concrete leads. After conferring with Alfred, Batman elects to seek out the one person in the world who may know what Ra’s is up to:  his daughter Talia (Helen Slater).

cairo lair

Bruce Wayne in dumb pants.

Since the apparent death of her father, Talia has spent her time in Gibraltar. As Bruce Wayne, Batman journeys there to find her. He encounters a surprised Talia who claims to have no knowledge of her father’s state of being alive. She claims that he has not attempted to contact her, and Bruce seems willing to believe her. Talia does, however, know why Ra’s would steal that particular item from the museum:  he’s in possession of the other half of the Scroll of Osiris. Talia explains that the scroll is actually a map to the tomb of an Egyptian Queen by the name of Thoth Khepera and Ra’s has been obsessed with locating it. Why he is so obsessed with this particular tomb is unknown to Talia, but she suggests their best course of action is to head to a secret lair of Ra’s al Ghul in Cairo.

Bruce and Talia wander the streets of Cairo until arriving at a shop. Bruce is dressed like a tourist and looks like a pretty big geek, but I guess he thinks he looks cool. Using an ultrasound device, he and Talia locate the secret entrance to the lair in a shop. The shopkeeper notices, and he sicks some goons on them that are no match for this particular duo. Inside the lair, the two find the completed scroll and Ra’s al Ghul. He’s apparently learned nothing from his previous encounters with Batman and explains why he wants to find the tomb. It is said that Thoth Khepera holds the secret to life and death (seems weird that she’s in a tomb then, but whatever). After his explanation is finished, a glass case is dropped over Bruce and Talia designed to kill them by depriving them of oxygen. Again demonstrating that he’s a slow learner, Ra’s leaves the two to their demise to presumably head to the tomb. This trap isn’t going to be the thing that kills Batman though, and he uses the same ultrasound device he utilized earlier to create enough vibrations to shatter the glass. Miraculously, Bruce and Talia avoid being horribly cut by the glass shattering all around them.

beautiful thoth

Now I see why Ra’s wanted to find this Thoth person.

This is now a job for Batman! Now in costume, he and Talia follow the map to the tomb and head in. It’s clearly the tomb we saw in the flashback to start the episode. Unknown to them, Ra’s and Ubu actually watch them enter possibly hoping they spring any traps that could be in place. Batman and Talia arrive at the sarcophagus, and that’s when Ra’s and Ubu show themselves. Perhaps unwisely, Ra’s orders Ubu to open it, but he only finds more scrolls that are so old they appear useless. Ra’s and Ubu brought thugs with them, and they set their attention on Batman and Talia who decide this is no place for them. While that fight goes on, Ra’s frets over this apparent dead-end, but then discovers a lever near the sarcophagus. Upon tripping it, he finds the real tomb of Thoth Khepera below.

lich queen thoth

Well that took an unexpected turn.

Inside the tomb, Ra’s finds a glowing green pool and many, many, skeletons scattered about. If the liquid in the pool is the same as what is in his famous Lazarus Pit, I’m not certain, but it seems like a fair assumption. Suspended above the pool is Thoth Khepera (Nichelle Nichols) herself. She appears youthful and beautiful and beckons to Ra’s to come to her if he wishes to gain her knowledge and the power of the gods. This proves quite tempting to Ra’s and he does indeed approach. The two embrace with a long kiss. As the camera pans around the duo, Thoth Khepera goes from being a beautiful woman to a withered hag. Ra’s is horrified, but is unable to pull himself away as Khepera drains the life from him leaving him withered and old.

Batman and Talia burst in and are able to interrupt the process, saving Ra’s for now, but incurring the wrath of Thoth Khepera. The lich summons forth tentacles from her creepy pool which attack Batman and Talia. Batman fends them off, while Talia is able to retrieve her father’s withered body. Thoth summons more enemies to fight Batman, who counters with a rare grenade that proves ineffective against Thoth. Seeing no alternative, he forces a collapse of the temple which is apparently enough to “kill” Thoth Khepera because the result causes Ra’s al Ghul to return to his normal state.

batman vs tentacles

Batman gets to fend off some gross tentacles.

Outside of the temple, Batman is cleaning up the mess and securing his new prisoners:  Ubu and Ra’s al Ghul. Apparently he is not interested in the others who attacked him, or they perished in the temple. Ra’s demonstrates his wily nature by forgiving his daughter, most likely knowing that appealing to her loyalty to him is his only way out of this current predicament. And it works. When Talia asks Batman what he intends to do with Ra’s, he responds by saying he’ll bring him to the proper authorities where he’ll have to answer for his crimes. Talia pulls a gun on him, and then sets her father free. She forces Batman from his horse, and the villains depart. As a showing of apparent respect, Ubu tosses Batman a canteen of water while the caped crusader vows there will be another time to settle this (and as we mentioned in the opening, there actually won’t be in this series).

“Avatar” is the anticipated follow-up to “The Demon’s Quest,” a fairly compelling two-parter that seemed to imply that Batman and Ra’s al Ghul were destined to continue this dance for sometime. It’s not a particularly successful follow-up though, as the messy plot takes a lot of shortcuts and ends up relying on Batman’s misplaced trust in Talia once again, which seems like the kind of mistake Batman normally learns from. “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me,” is the end message here for Batman. The added supernatural elements feel misplaced as well for this series and just aren’t as compelling as the more grounded threats in most episodes.

double crossed again

You have to stop trusting this one, Batman. I know she looks amazing, but come on!

Studio Junio handled the animation for this episode, and they left their own mark. Bruce Wayne has some unique looks, including a dark suit when we first see him. The villains have a slightly different look to them as well, though it’s not particularly dramatic. Where the episode really distinguishes itself is in all of the subterranean scenes in the tomb. When Batman enters dark areas, he usually has a black and blue color scheme, but in this episode they actually went with brown accents. It gives the scenes a very earthy look to them. The special effects utilized are also well-done, and Thoth Khepera is quite unsettling for younger viewers. It’s just a shame the content of the episode doesn’t live up to the impressive visuals.

Ultimately, “Avatar” is an episode I want to like, but it’s not one I can get behind 100%. It’s not a bad episode, just a bit disappointing considering what it had to follow in “The Demon’s Quest.” Ra’s al Ghul seems too conventional, even if the plot machinations are unconventional given their fantastic nature. The Talia swerve is too predictable, and Ra’s insisting on being a cliché of a villain is exhausting. The visuals save it some since they’re quite far removed from what we’re used to seeing stylistically and in the various locations the plot takes us. It’s odd that the villain and Batman never clash again in this series given the conclusion. The two will cross paths in a few episodes, but in that episode Ra’s al Ghul is more of a vehicle to tell the tale of another character and only really crosses paths with Batman at its conclusion. Season 2 was a bit of a surprise so I can’t imagine they were holding out for a third season, even though one would be requested years later. The fact that he wasn’t dealt with there is also surprising, but as I mentioned he does show up in Superman. The writing in this episode leads me to believe that the staff wasn’t sure what to do with Ra’s al Ghul, so it opted to just leave things here. Perhaps it’s an unsatisfying end to the conflict with Batman, but if the staff did feel that way then it’s probably better than forcing the character into a plot that doesn’t serve him well.

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Batman: The Animated Series – “The Demon’s Quest – Part II”

demons quest 2Episode Number:  61

Original Air Date:  May 4, 1993

Directed by:  Kevin Altieri

Written by:  Dennis O’Neil and Len Wein

First Appearance(s):  None

One thing I appreciated about Batman:  The Animated Series as a kid was that it was a week day afternoon show, so when these two-parters aired I had to wait only a day for the conclusion. With X-Men or Spider-Man, it was usually a week which is a long time for a 10-year-old. “The Demon’s Quest – Part II” picks up right where the first part left off and it has a lot to reveal. We know Ra’s al Ghul is a bad guy with some righteous qualities, but we don’t know just how bad he is since at the end of the last episode he looked ready to kill his own daughter. Batman had just saved him by plunging him into a Lazarus Pit which contains a green liquid that has apparently sustained Ra’s al Ghul for some 600 years. Batman had also just denied Ra’s al Ghul’s request to become his heir, because he’s apparently a sexist individual and will only pass on whatever it is he has to give to another male as opposed to his daughter. Doing that was considered a great insult by al Ghul, and forced him to declare they are now enemies. Well, Batman, you just brought one of your enemies back to life and he looks to be in superhuman physical condition now, what’s your next move?

mad ras

Watch that left hand, dad.

As the episode begins, Ra’s al Ghul (David Warner) is ready to toss Talia (Helen Slater) into the Lazarus Pit from which he had just emerged. Ubu (Manu Tupou) informs Batman that the pit can restore a dying man to life, but it will destroy someone so young as Talia. Batman is able to grapple Ra’s causing him to drop Talia onto the ground. She immediately approaches her father once more and slaps him across the face, which causes him to finally cease with the creepy laughter. His senses are soon restored, and Talia explains that each time he emerges from the Lazarus Pit he is momentarily insane and cannot be blamed for his actions. Batman and Robin look like they’re done with all of this, but Ra’s still repeats his offer to the detective and he once more refuses.

Once again, Batman has decided to make an enemy of Ra’s al Ghul, and Ra’s decides to destroy the mountain base they are currently in. Talia tries to talk him out of it, but he reasons that they have plenty of other locations and their desert base will do just fine. He activates a switch in the rock and bids Batman and Robin farewell as a steel door closes sealing the two in with the Lazarus Pit. Batman and Robin, amidst explosions and falling rocks, jump from the cliff they’re on to grab ahold of the rope affixed to the gurney system they used previously for Ra’s. Spying an opening in the ceiling of the chamber, they climb up and out and emerge in the snowy Himalayas once more. To add a dash of drama, the ground upon which they tread is collapsing into the pit they just escaped and the two jump off the side of the mountain towards the camera positioned below, a shot most will recognize as it will soon be featured in the opening credits for the show.

snowed in

I bet they wish they had some of Adam West’s trusty Bat-thermal underwear.

Trapped in the mountains and clearly not dressed for the arctic-like conditions, it would seem things are looking bad for our crime fighters. Batman picks Robin’s brain about his time in captivity, and he mentions he kept hearing the word “Orpheus” repeated by the men guarding him. As the two chat, the camera zooms out to reveal a Wayne Enterprises building at the base of the mountain. How convenient.

Inside an office, Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson are more conventionally dressed and searching a database, or the internet, for clues relating to the word Orpheus. Bruce recognizes the name from legend and also discovers it was recently adopted as the name of a satellite launched into orbit over the Sahara Desert. Bingo.

batmans disguise

Batman’s disguise doesn’t look like it would work very well.

Robin and Batman apparently commandeer a Wayne airplane and Robin positions them over the Sahara for Batman to eject. He’s going solo from here on out. Once he touches down in the chilly, night-time, desert, he spies a caravan of camels with some armed men aboard them. They’re riding single-file, which makes it quite easy for Batman to get the drop on the rear rider and take his place. In what is a rather amusing visual, Batman just puts the man’s clothes on over his costume and apparently no one notices the mask under the mask. He also apparently is so against guns that he doesn’t even carry the mercenary’s weapon to make his disguise look as authentic as possible.

They arrive at the base of Ra’s al Ghul, and old friend Ubu is there to command them inside. Batman, grabbing a bed roll for some reason, walks off away from everyone else which does not miss the eye of Ubu. He gives chase, but once he rounds the corner after him he sees only the lime green bed roll on the ground. Batman is then shown sneaking around, but soon Ubu ambushes him. The two fight, and when it looks like Batman is about to gain the upper hand more of the mercenaries show up and they all take him down. Ra’s al Ghul then appears and orders them to stop. He wants to know who this foolish, or brave, individual is that has infiltrated his stronghold and he’s not at all surprised to find it’s Batman. Proving that he might be smarter than most villains, Ra’s has them remove Batman’s belt and anything else that might aid his escape which means they get to rip his shirt off.

ras and batman reunion

Two guys who love capes.

Ra’s al Ghul may have been smart enough to partly defang his foe, but not smart enough to kill him or keep his mouth shut. Batman claims Ra’s has nothing to lose by telling him what he’s planning on doing, and Ra’s agrees (idiot). He reveals that the Lazarus Pit is a naturally occurring thing on the planet and that many of them are scattered across the globe, which explains why he didn’t mind losing the one in the Himalayas. He’s had his global agents work to position bombs above each one, and when the Orpheus satellite is in position this evening, a signal will go out to all of those bombs causing them to fall into the pits. The resulting explosions will cause the pits to erupt and spread their goo all over the world. He even has a number for the lives lost, totaling over 2.5 billion (which I assume would have been about half of the world’s population in 1993).

Batman declares Ra’s is insane, but he disagrees saying this cleansing is needed to restore the Earth to her former glory. He had initially planned on this cleansing taking place over generations, with his heir taking up his work, but since Batman denied him he’s just going to accomplish his goal in one fell swoop. He wants Batman to witness his triumph, so he has him taken away. Before the guards can lead him away, Talia requests a moment and gives him one, long, lingering, kiss.

en garde

They’re going to settle this like men.

Once locked up, Batman finds he’s been chained to the wall of his cell and his two guards demonstrate almost immediately that they’re going to underestimate him. Batman reveals a lock pick was slipped into his mouth by Talia, presumably, and quickly frees himself and effortlessly dispatches his captors. Once free, he’s able to move about the base undetected causing mischief before eventually detonating most of the weapons stored on site. The many explosions attract a lot of attention and also leads to another confrontation with old friend Ubu. Batman is able to beat him rather easily, once again, which just leaves the old man.

cross blades

Ra’s is clearly a misogynist, but he’s not above using eye-liner.

Ra’s al Ghul declares they must do battle to settle this, and because his opponent is bare-chested I guess he decided he needed to do the same. The two sword fight, because this is a classy fight, and neither appears to have the upper hand over the other. As Batman ascends some stairs to the Lazarus Pit located there, he realizes he’s running out of time if he wants to stop Ra’s al Ghul’s master plan. He hurls his sword and it zips past the head of al Ghul, a narrow miss? Nope, Batman was aiming for the satellite uplink dish below and scores a direct hit thwarting the operation. Enraged, Ra’s attacks the now unarmed Batman. Batman avoids the would-be fatal blow causing Ra’s to fall into the Lazarus Pit. Batman looks down to find Ra’s has saved himself by jamming his sword into the side-wall. Batman extends a hand, we’ve seen this before, and beckons Ra’s to do the same. For a moment, Ra’s looks like he’s going to comply, but then you can tell pride prevents him from ultimately accepting the aid of Batman. Declaring that Batman is the victor here, and expressing a desire to join with the planet he so loves (he’s like a demented Captain Planet), Ra’s lets go of the sword and plunges into the Lazarus Pit below.

talia sad

Talia is said to see her “beloved” go.

Out in the Sahara, Talia accompanies Batman to Robin who is waiting by the airplane. She explains to Batman that she shares her father’s ideals, but does not agree with his means. When she asks if she is now to become his prisoner, Batman simply  pulls her in close for a romantic smooch as the sun rises in the distance. Surprisingly, Robin has nothing snarky to say about this as Batman boards the airplane, leaving Talia behind. Once in the sky, Robin asks if they’ve finally seen the last of Ra’s al Ghul, as if he’s some villain they’ve been tangling with for years. Batman remarks it looks that way, which seems rather naive of him. And indeed it is, as we’re taken back to the edge of the Lazarus Pit to see a hand emerge from below and grab the edge as laughter rings out.

the kiss

The money shot.

After a more procedural Part I, Part II of  “The Demon’s Quest” is largely action-oriented. We get some stealth Batman action and even a sword fight amidst the backdrop of Armageddon. I suppose the stakes have never been higher in an episode before, not that the outcome is ever seriously in doubt. Ra’s al Ghul proves to be both smart and dumb as he seemingly has a backup plan for everything, but makes the villain mistake of letting the hero in on his plan while he still has time to stop it. He was willing to kill Batman at the episode’s start, but for some reason was not when they met up later. It moves quickly though and the action looks great. The outcome is satisfying enough too, with Ra’s defeated, but not dead. Talia is still out there and her father likely knows she played a role in orchestrating Batman’s escape so we’re left to wonder how their relationship will play out.

If you’re the nit-picking sort though, then you can probably get after this episode a bit. Batman and Robin’s frequent escapes are almost routine, and they’re lack of alarm at being stranded in the frozen mountains was odd, until Wayne Enterprises showed up. A total deus ex machina is that one, and the episode even ignores how the two gained access. Did they sneak in and steal some clothes? Can Bruce Wayne just go to any building with his name on it and demand an airplane? Batman also didn’t do anything about the bombs planted around the world, wouldn’t Ra’s have a simple manual override function on each one? He could radio his cohorts to all release the bomb at a certain time, the satellite really isn’t necessary.

ras goes shredder

Ra’s showing us his Shredder impersonation.

Like with Part I, Part II is animated by TMS and the results are pretty great. Curiously, there is a disconnect in visual style between the end of Part I and the beginning of Part II, implying the studio had two different teams work on it rather than treat it like one long episode. They must have been working on both episode simultaneously. They did maintain continuity with Robin missing his belt and Batman having claw marks on his shirt from his battle with the panther. Talia seems toned down though in terms of her sex appeal, but Batman gets to make up for it. Proving that TMS is all about keeping things equal, shirtless Batman is jacked and there’s a funny looking sequence where he’s knocked on his back and his pecs are gigantic. Ra’s is also rather proud of his physique, and rightly so.

Ra’s al Ghul, and Talia as well, feel like pretty big villains from this show. Interestingly, this is their penultimate appearance as foes for Batman. They will both show up in the season two episode “Avatar,” and Ra’s has one final appearance in the flashback episode “Showdown” which does not feature Batman. After that, they’re all done. Perhaps the writing staff just felt Ra’s was a special attraction and a villain they feared would be diminished if he showed up too much. After the conclusion of this one, he certainly needed at least one follow-up and they delivered there, but it’s really surprising he never showed up in The New Batman Adventures. Both do make an appearance in Batman Beyond and in sister series Superman:  The Animated Series. I’ll save my final thoughts on the characters for “Avatar,” but it does surprise me how infrequently the two were actually used given their presence over the series as a whole. As a true debut though, this was good and it did capitalize on the mystique of the character created in “Off Balance.” A rare example of a long-form story in this series being executed and also paying off.


Batman: The Animated Series – “The Demon’s Quest – Part I”

Demons_Quest_TitleEpisode Number:  60

Original Air Date:  May 3, 1993

Directed by:  Kevin Altieri

Written by:  Dennis O’Neil

First Appearance(s):  Ubu, The Lazarus Pit

We have reached what feels like a seminal piece of Batman:  The Animated Series:  “The Demon’s Quest” and the true debut of Ra’s al Ghul. There’s no denying that the biggest break-out star from this show was Harley Quinn, a character created for the program who has gone on to become a rather popular part of DC. She was an original star, and if we were to pick a break-out from the list of pre-existing characters from Batman’s past it would come down to two villains:  Mr. Freeze and Ra’s al Ghul. Freeze was already fairly well-known to fans of Batman, both casual and hardcore. His presence in the 60’s television show is largely responsible for that, and even though his portrayals are rather lame in comparison to what this show did for him, he didn’t experience the same boost that Ra’s did, for he was only known to the hardcore fan base. Without this series, does he get featured-villain treatment in Batman Begins? Probably not. And while he debuted in “Off Balance,” this episode is essentially his real unveiling and where the audience gets to learn just who this guy is.

Robin_Attacked

Well, Robin, at least you don’t have to do any homework.

The episode opens unconventionally as it jumps right from the opening credits into the action without a title card. Robin is returning from a night out and is sneaking back into his dormitory. The interior of his room is dark when he climbs in through the window, but we can see he keeps a framed picture of Bruce on his dresser which is just adorable. We wouldn’t be seeing this though if something important wasn’t about to happen, and Robin is confronted in his room by some shadowy men. They tranquillize him, and as he falls to the floor the camera pans up on a darkened figure and a flash of lightning gives us a look at this green-cloaked figure with a horned mask.

robin kidnapped

Batman has a new frenemy in Ra’s al Ghul.

The title of the episode is then introduced, but over a “live” shot as Batman enters the Batcave on one of his motorcycles. Alfred is there to greet him and ask if there’s any word, to which Batman responds there is no sign of Robin or Dick Grayson anywhere in the city. Alfred is clearly distressed and hands Batman some mail that arrived for him as he heads upstairs to wait by the phone in case Dick calls. Batman opens the envelope and is angered to see it contains a photo of a bound Robin with a crooked dagger being pointed at his face. His anger is further fueled when a voice from the dark calls to him and a figure walks into the light.

Demanding how the man got in, Batman rushes at him only to have a dagger strike the ground in front of him. A second, much larger, man emerges as well and the first, soft-spoken figure apologizes for his overzealous protector. The man is Ra’s al Ghul (David Warner) and his attendant is Ubu (Manu Tupou). The viewer saw Ra’s in the closing moments of “Off Balance,” but this is Batman’s first time meeting what he refers to as The Demon’s Head. It would seem Ra’s has a reputation. He reveals that, via a second photo, that his beloved daughter Talia (Helen Slater) was abducted the same night as Robin and he wants Batman’s help in rescuing them. Batman, after seeing the weapon and rope in the image, knows them to be of Indian origin and the preferred weapon of a mercenary cult there. An impressed al Ghul declares they should then head to India aboard his aircraft.

ubu and batman

Batman and Ubu are going to have some problems.

As they depart the Batcave, Batman makes the mistake of walking in front of Ra’s al Ghul causing Ubu to toss him aside. Ra’s apologizes and asks Batman to consider it a case of overzealousness, but Batman instead refers to it as strike one. Aboard the aircraft, Ra’s explains how he figured out Batman’s identity and also alludes to how old he is by referencing a conversation he once had with Napoleon.

ras unhealthy

Aboard the airplane, Batman gets a sense of how unwell Ra’s is.

On the streets of India, Batman notes a building of interest thought to be connected with the mercenary group they’re looking for, and once again makes the mistake of passing in front of al Ghul leading to strike two. Once inside the building, the trio are attacked by ninja-like assassins. Ubu ushers Ra’s out of the way and the two seem content to watch Batman at work. He neutralizes their attackers, but leaves one conscious for interrogation. The frightened mercenary (Frank Welker) says the others have left and taken the hostages with them. They’re heading for Malaysia.

The group heads for Malaysia, though this time via automobile. As they drive through a rain forest, Ra’s al Ghul reveals more of himself. He condemns those who prioritize profits over the environment and rattles off statistics about the rain forest’s rapid destruction. Batman attempts to defend the good name of Bruce Wayne by mentioning how much money he donates to environmental causes, but Ra’s is unimpressed. It will take force to fix what is wrong with the world, not capital, and Batman asks if Ra’s is the one who will wield such force, but he’s non-committal citing his advanced age.

nice kitty

Not the sort of foe Batman is accustomed to dealing with.

At the temple the merc instructed them to check out, Batman races ahead and finds himself trapped. A black panther emerges to do battle, and Batman is forced to suffocate it, but not kill it, with his cape. As he replaces his cape, Ubu smashes in a giant steel door that had slammed shut behind Batman and he and Ra’s enter. They seem dismayed to see little of value in the room, save for a map. Batman notes there’s a scratch on the map likely left by a fingernail and determines that it likely represents someone tracing a route on the map. It starts at the temple, and leads into the Himalayas. Ra’s says he’s familiar with the area and knows where they could land an aircraft and the three set out. This time, Batman beckons Ra’s to go first with a polite bow and smirk for Ubu, who nods approvingly.

High above the mountains, Batman is preparing to parachute to the base of the mountain while Ra’s and Ubu will land closer to the summit. Batman doesn’t seem thrilled about having to trudge through the harsh, winter, conditions while the other two get to fly, but Ra’s insists it’s needed so Batman can gather intel. Dressed in a warm looking parka, Batman jumps and begins his descent down. A flash catches his eye and soon a rocket zooms past him and strikes the chopper causing it to burst into flames and crash below. Before Batman can even be allowed to wonder if the other two escaped, machine gun fire starts heading his way forcing him to ditch the parachute.

A pair of mercenaries on skis arrive at the wreckage and see what appears to be Batman face-down in the snow. They open fire, but it turns out Batman had simply ditched his parka as it bounces around from the gunfire. He emerges from the snow behind the mercenaries and takes them out. Looking rather cold and miserable, Batman follows the trail left in the snow from their skis to their origin.

There he finds a cave which leads into a fairly large temple. Robin is there bound to a chair and Batman races over to check on him. Robin is quite glad to see Batman, and Batman lets him know he’ll have him free in a second.

clapping

Batman has a receptive audience in the form of Anubis, it would seem.

Famous last words? Knives and spears immediately come flying in from the darkness at Batman who deftly dodges them only to be met by a rush of masked men wielding giant axes. Batman tangles with them, while we’re left to mostly experience the fight through Robin’s expressions as he marvels at his mentor’s abilities. Once all of the men have been dealt with, Batman frees Robin and also reveals he know who kidnapped him. Before he can explain, some clapping can be heard as the shadowy man with the horned mask enters the room. Batman rushes him, removing the mask, and revealing the man behind it:  Ra’s al Ghul.

she likes me

“Whoa! She…loves me?”

Batman is obviously rather irritated at this whole sideshow, but he does go into detail how he figured out it was Ra’s all along. Ra’s seems impressed, and when Batman demands to know why he orchestrated this whole thing Ra’s reveals his intentions. He’s old, and nearing the end of his already well-extended life, and he needs someone to take up his mantle. He has his own view of justice, of which we were privy to some of that during their conversation on the rain forest, and he thinks Batman is the man for the job. Not only is he a worthy warrior and detective (the name Ra’s uses for Batman throughout the episode), but he has also captured the heart of his beloved daughter, Talia. She also enters the picture showing off far more skin than before, and Batman’s eyes turn into that half-circle shape when Ra’s mentions that she loves him. She gives him an inviting gaze and for a second it seems like Batman might be for this (who could blame him?), but his cutely shaped eyes turn back into narrow slits and he refuses.

freaky ras

The Lazarus Pit can do some weird stuff.

Batman then takes his leave with Robin at his side. Ubu runs up to him and reminds him that his master did not give him permission to leave. When Batman says he didn’t ask, Ubu takes a swing. Batman catches his fist and holds it in place. As we hear the bones in Ubu’s hand crack, Batman declares that this is strike 3 and dumps Ubu on his back. Ubu, who was apparently strong enough to smash in a steel door earlier, can’t match Batman’s strength nor can he withstand a simple arm-drag. At this point, Ra’s is irate, and as the sweat beads on his forehead he declares that they shall now be enemies. A fit of coughing overtakes him and he crumbles to the floor. Talia begs for help, but Batman insists he isn’t playing any more of their games. Talia insists this is no game and that her father is dying. Batman checks his pulse and determines there’s no faking that, and Talia tells him they must take her father to the Lazarus Pit in this mountain.

ras emerges

Talia pauses to admire the posterior of the Batman.

Batman carries Ra’s as the others follow and Talia leads the way. They come to a cliff-face inside the mountain with a gurney on a pulley. At the bottom of the cliff is a pit of green, boiling, liquid. Robin thinks it’s crazy to put Ra’s in there, but Talia insists it’s the only way. Batman declares that it will have to do, as Ra’s has stopped breathing. They place his body on the gurney and lower him in. As the two heroes look on in wonder, Talia stands there smiling. Down below, the liquid swirls and the outline of Ra’s al Ghul appears in the water with fiendishly glowing red eyes. The liquid bursts forth in a water spout and Ra’s lands back on the cliff looking strong, and fit. He begins to laugh maniacally as Talia rushes in to embrace him. He looks completely crazy, and he grabs Talia around the waist and continues to laugh in her face in this demented fashion. He then hoists her above his head, prompting Batman to demand he let her go. He rushes al Ghul, only to be kicked and sent flying backwards. As Batman continues to demand he release Talia, Ra’s al Ghul’s laughter continues as the episode ends.

“The Demon’s Quest” is an effective and exciting way to introduce Ra’s al Ghul. He was already mysterious and interesting after his first appearance, and this episode illustrates just what makes him special. His apparent immortality makes him a more supernatural foe in a series that’s fairly grounded for a cartoon. He also has an almost supernatural ability to acquire information and setup elaborate traps to ensnare Batman. And at the same time, he’s dangerously relatable. Who didn’t identify with Ra’s al Ghul’s thoughts on the rain forest devastation in 1993? It was a hot topic and kids especially would have been expected to take his side in that argument. His motivations are still mysterious and we don’t really know just what he does that makes him a villain. He has ideals and principles, and very clearly is not afraid to operate above or outside the law as he’s willing to stage a kidnapping just to test Batman. And then there’s the madness of the character at the episode’s conclusion. Is that his true nature or a side effect of the Lazarus Pit? His behaviour there makes him a more natural villain, especially as he seems prepared to harm his daughter, which perhaps is a way to make sure the viewers don’t move fully to his side.

ras laugh talia

The maniacal laughter of Ra’s al Ghul is more than a little creepy.

The reappearance of Talia is also welcomed. She and Batman have unfinished business stemming from her first appearance, and it was rewarding to see that followed-up on. There’s still a lot of questions surrounding her. She and Batman seemed to hit it off in “Off Balance,” but how much of that was just she playing him? Even here, Ra’s claims that Batman has captured his daughter’s heart, but we don’t know how much of that is true and how much is deceit. She’s obviously well-trained so anything is possible. It’s also clear she’s devoted to her father, so Batman better watch out. As a child viewer, I think I wanted to see Batman go for it with Talia, but as a more mature viewer now I must say I think he was trying to do the right thing in just walking away from that hot mess.

Dennis O’Neil wrote this episode and he was responsible for the works from which it originates, Batman #232 and Batman #244. Other episodes of the show were based on his comic stories, but this is the only one he was either asked to write for the show or the only one he chose to write. And interestingly, he’s just a co-writer on Part II as he shared duties with Len Wein. Wein is credited as handling the teleplay which leads me to think he may have only received credit for the original work, while Wein handled the translation of comic to screen. At any rate, if you’re only going to write one episode of the show this (and the conclusion, Part II) is a pretty good one.

In addition to the fascinating villain of the episode is also the presentation. Robin working his way through a stormy night at the episode’s open is an attention-grabber. The scene itself isn’t thrilling from the start, but just the way it decides to forego the title card is enough to make it unsettling. It feels like an important episode from act one. It also looks fabulous and that’s largely due to the animation of Tokyo Movie Shinsha (TMS). TMS works on some of the most elaborate and expensive animation in Japan so every episode of this show they handle feels extra special. While this doesn’t top the fantastic work the studio did for “Feat of Clay – Part II” it’s certainly not a slouch in the animation department. If I had one piece of criticism though it’s that they may have gotten a bit too horny with Talia. Her bust is massive and dominating and, at times, oddly shaped as if they were paying way too much attention to making her sexy. It’s all the more stark since Part II was animated far more tastefully. I’m not against her being sexy, as seduction is one of her weapons, it’s just a bit over-the-top.

“The Demon’s Quest – Part I” sets up what should be a rather interesting conclusion. With Ra’s gone mad and Batman and Robin stranded in the Himalayas, it would seem they’ll need to get rather resourceful if they want to get home. In terms of setup, it might not be quite as exciting as some of the others, but the possibility of a worthy pay-off seems just as likely.


Batman: The Animated Series – “Off Balance”

Off_Balance-Title_CardEpisode Number:  50

Original Air Date:  November 23, 1992

Directed by:  Kevin Altieri

Written by:  Len Wein

First Appearance(s):  Talia, Vertigo, Ra’s al Ghul (unnamed)

 

With “Off Balance” we have reached what feels like a fairly significant milestone. We’re now 50 episodes deep and we’ve also passed the one year mark for this little feature at this blog. You may be wondering why we’re not at 52 or 53 episodes if a year has passed, but that’s due to this feature pausing for the big Christmas advent calendar that goes on around here in December (expect more of the same this year). We’re also at some pretty notable and important debuts. Ra’s al Ghul, who feels like possibly the biggest break-out villain from this series, makes a brief appearance at the end of this episode. He’ll play a pivotal role in episodes to come, though it surprised me that when I looked back on it he only actually appears in five episodes, one of which is a two-parter and his true debut, “The Demon’s Quest.” He did cross-over into Superman and also shows up in Batman Beyond. Also debuting is his daughter, Talia, who is almost immediately cast as a potential love interest for our protagonist. Surprisingly, the least important debut is that of the actual villain of the episode, Vertigo, who appears to be based off of an old Green Arrow villain. This episode is actually his only appearance in the show and he never made the leap to other DC Animated Universe shows, to my knowledge. This episode is also a mostly direct adaptation of a story from the comics, in this case “Into the Den of the Death-Dealers” by Dennis O’Neil from Detective Comics #411.

Thugs_Suicide

It’s so creepy until you learn they’re not actually killing themselves.

The episode opens with Batman meeting an informant who goes by the name of Twitch (Chick Vennera) on what is apparently the Gotham version of The Statue of Liberty. Batman is seeking information on the Society of Shadows, and the appropriately named Twitch seems pretty jumpy when speaking about them. He can only offer Batman a little information, but is at least able to tell them they follow a guy by the name of Vertigo. Before Batman can get anymore info out of him, a ninja emerges from behind to strike. His attack is apparently just a feint, as a second ninja pops up behind Twitch and tosses him off the structure to the waters below. Batman, seemingly thinking Twitch is likely dead, is enraged and goes after the two ninjas. They manage to repel down from the statue’s torch to the crown where Batman catches up with them. Seeing no way to escape, they praise the Society of Shadows before activating what appears to be suicide gas in their masks. Batman removes the mask from one to see a face frozen in death while a dark-clad woman looks on from the shore.

Or that’s how it appeared. Batman soon drops in on Commissioner Gordon who is alone at the Gotham PD’s firing range. Gordon remarks that Twitch got away, seeming to suggest he either survived that fall or the police just haven’t turned up anything on him (he probably should be dead, this is clearly to please the censors). Batman also reveals that the gas activated by those ninjas wasn’t a suicide, but a special gas that erases one’s memory. Again, this was likely something they had to add in to please Standards and Practices, which stinks because this story really started off with a very high-stakes feel to it. Batman did learn from Twitch that the Society is planning on swiping some new high-tech weapon, and Batman is aware of such a weapon arriving by train that night to Wayne Enterprises.

vertigo

Say hello to Vertigo, just don’t get too attached.

The weapon in question is an ultrasonic drill. Because it’s associated with Wayne, we’re to believe this thing is only supposed to be used for benign purposes, hence why it’s called a drill and not a gun, but it’s capable of so much more. When the weapon arrives there are many on hand to oversee it including Detective Bullock and Wayne Enterprises own Lucius Fox. Vertigo (Michael York) soon appears though and demonstrates how he got that name. He wears a funky eyepatch with a swirling design on it, from which he can emit waves of radiation that cause those it touches to experience extreme vertigo thus disabling them. Batman shows up to see this for himself and also experience it. Batman is unable to do anything about it as the same mysterious woman appears again, only it would seem she’s there to fire at Vertigo. He and his men escape, forcing Batman to retreat to the Batcave and determine his next move.

At the Batcave, Alfred is polishing the enormous penny seen in “Almost Got ‘Im” while Batman busies himself at his computer recounting the events of the night to his trusty butler. We get another stupid Batman “eureka!” moment that is pretty much a carbon copy of a previous one involving Alfred (“Alfred, you’re brilliant!”) as Batman relies on a throw-away line from Vertigo about the tolling of the hour and realizes he fled to a place with a giant bell tower. He pulls up potential locations in his super computer, and settles on the one that looks like the type of place you would expect to find a super villain’s hideout. Especially a Batman super villain.

Batman wastes no time in heading out to this place and arrives to see the shadowy woman get attacked by some ninjas. Batman joins the fun and demonstrates he’s an amateur at playful banter (“Looks like you could use a hand,”) while the woman seems to welcome the help. One ninja successfully cuts off Batman’s prized utility belt without Batman noticing, while two more emerge on a plateau armed with the sonic drill. They fire not at Batman and the woman, but at the ground beneath them causing a huge chasm to open that both fall into.

Talia_unmasks

“No! My face! Not like this!”

Batman awakens some time later to find the woman washing the purple welts on his face. On his face! She’s removed his mask! He panics while she soothes him and urges him to be quiet before he can say his real name out loud. Batman gathers himself and puts his mask back on, only to then realize he’s without his belt. The two are in a locked room, seemingly dumped there by the bad guys. The woman, who reveals her name as Talia (Helen Slater), produces a hairpin as all women seem to carry and unlocks the door. From there the two escape and she takes lead, obviously knowing her way around the place as she mentions they need to get to the lab up ahead. Batman quizzes her on what her connection to the Society of Shadows is. She only offers up that she was sent here by her father to prevent Vertigo from stealing the sonic drill. Vertigo once worked for her old man, but once he saw the blackness in his soul, he cast him aside. When Batman asks why her father would care if Vertigo were successful she responds that he cares for all humanity.

offbalance

We have ourselves a team-up.

The two arrive at the lab and find it unlocked, indicating a trap is ahead which Talia points out. When they enter they’re confronted by Vertigo himself who reveals the whole room is rigged with his special vertigo effect. He flees with the drill, leaving the two helpless in a booby-trapped room. Batman urges Talia to take his hand and trust him to lead her through the room. She does and the two have a really corny face to face exchange before getting to the task at hand. Batman walks her slowly through the room, seemingly anticipating every trap that is sprung. When they finally emerge outside of the room Batman reveals he simply closed his eyes to prevent the vertigo effect from disabling him. He simply had to rely on his other senses to avoid the traps. Oh yes, Batman, very simple indeed to blindly avoid flying knives and spikes that shoot up from the floor.

As Vertigo is about to escape in a very odd-looking airplane with a helicopter propeller on top of it, Batman shouts at him from below. They’re running up the bell tower, and I guess Batman feared Vertigo would escape if he hadn’t shouted because otherwise it was a foolish move. Vertigo simply activates his eyepatch and then takes fire with the sonic drill from above them. He takes out the stairs ahead of Batman and Talia as well as behind, stranding them in place. Seeing no other way out, Talia jumps and grabs onto the ropes that run up to the many bells above. As they start clanging away, Vertigo loses his own balance and drops the drill which Batman jumps off the stairs to catch. It would seem letting it fall and break apart would have solved his problem, but it wouldn’t have looked as cool. It also would have screwed up the episode’s ending, which we’ll get to.

talia betrayal

Just when you started to like her…

Vertigo didn’t just lose his grip on the drill, he also lost his own footing and falls from the tower. The shot of him falling feels like an obvious homage to the film that bares his name, Vertigo. There’s water below, because there has to be in a cartoon, but Vertigo will not be heard from again so it’s safe to say this fall was fatal. Back at ground level, Batman and Talia are shown walking from the monastery lair with Batman having regained his utility belt and carrying the sonic drill. As the two bid farewell, Talia pulls a total dick move and draws a gun on Batman. It turns out she’s in league with the Society of Shadows and her father wants the drill. Batman is forced to angrily hand it over, but before he does he pulls some tiny, very specific looking device from his belt and inserts it into the tip of the drill. He warns Talia that this is not over, as the same weird-looking airplane returns to pick her up. Once high above Batman, she speaks over a video monitor to her father who is in a lair of his own somewhere. He congratulates her on a successful mission and then orders her to test the weapon. When she goes to fire it she realizes it’s been compromised by Batman, and drops it in a fit of rage. Her father closes the video link and turns to the camera repeating Batman’s own words toward it that this is not over.

Talia-with-Mustache

This image is important because it reveals that Talia does, in fact, possess a left eye.

“Off Balance” is definitely a setup episode, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be bad. Penned by legendary comic book writer Len Wein, it tries to be a little bit noir thriller and a little bit spy story. A ninja-like group of villains sounds like something that should be really cheesy, but the serious approach at the episode’s opening with the suicide gas and the taking out of informants works to make this one feel convincing. The mild undermining of the opening events in the next scene hurt, but don’t completely erase the feelings of that opening. Unfortunately what follows feels more like typical cartoon corn. It’s not always convincing to see Batman coolly figure out a villain’s motives and where their base of operations is, but the eureka moments are arguably worse. The episode also tries really hard to play up some sexual tension between Batman and Talia but the chemistry isn’t there. It feels really forced and amateurish, and Batman’s supernatural ability to avoid the many traps in Vertigo’s lab also didn’t sit well with me.

1512481-02

He’s coming.

What the episode does get right though is its introduction of Ra’s al Ghul. If you were watching this for the first time and with no knowledge of who he is you would be left wondering quite a lot, as was the case for me when I saw it back in 92. He’s not named, but his apparent status as the leader of the Society of Shadows makes him very intriguing. His look is a bit goofy – a balding, older man, with a giant green cape, but he’s able to pull it off. A lot of that is due to the work of voice actor David Warner whose voice could make anything sound sinister and lethal without even trying. I’m a little less receptive to the Talia character, but that’s almost entirely due to the poorly constructed banter between she and Batman. Ignoring that, she’s portrayed as a capable spy herself and it seems like she didn’t need Batman’s help at all. How much of what transpired is staged and what isn’t is unknown since she too is a member of the Society. Vertigo’s betrayal was real and he likely had some loyal followers, but were the many ninjas encountered working for him or working for Talia and her father? I also really enjoy the voice work of Helen Slater as Talia. One odd thing though about her voice is that she has an accent (Austrian? I’m not good with accents) while her father doesn’t seem to have one. That might be explained in a later episode though. Vertigo himself, though he’s not really in much of the episode, is fun and I enjoyed his portrayal. I suppose Batman figuring out how to counter-act his device means he wouldn’t have been an interesting return villain so I’m fine with his apparent death.

As a setup episode, “Off Balance” does succeed in making me want to see what’s next. When Ra’s sees his scheme thwarted by Batman he doesn’t react with anger, but with a quiet admiration. There’s obvious unfinished business and this show isn’t really known for such teasing preferring to let the majority of episodes exist on their own. Removing that component, which granted is impossible, reduces this to an average or below average episode. It’s disappointing given the strong opening, but I guess they can’t all be winners.