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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 – “A Bullet For Bullock”

bullock title cardEpisode Number:  67

Original Air Date:  September 14, 1995

Directed by:  Frank Paur

Written by:  Michael Reaves

First Appearance(s):  None

Episode 67 brings us a bit of a re-tread as it’s another unlikely pairing of Batman and Detective Harvey Bullock (Robert Costanzo). This one is based off of Detective Comics #651 written by Chuck Dixon, though he doesn’t have a writing credit on the episode. Batman and Bullock have had a bit of a combative relationship throughout this series. Bullock distrusts Batman because he wears a mask and operates outside the law. He views him as a freak, just one who happens to be on their side as opposed to being like Joker or Two-Face. Batman just hasn’t cracked yet. There’s also likely some jealousy on the part of Bullock due to Commissioner Gordon placing more trust in his pet bat than he does the police force. Batman also gets to blatantly work outside the confines of the law, something Bullock would likely love to do. The animosity, up until now, has seemed mostly one-sided with Batman largely ignoring Bullock’s rants and insults. He even expressed some admiration for the detective, or perhaps respect is a better word, when he investigated him during the events of “Vendetta” when Killer Croc tried to frame him. When Bullock needed help in that episode, Batman came calling. Bullock needs help again, only this time he’s not being framed and he’s going to reach out to Batman personally. I’m not sure if there is more to mine from this relationship, and this episode was not a particularly memorable one for me, so it was one I was more eager to re-watch for this feature than others. And after just doing our first episode of 1994, we’re already doing our first one from 1995! That’s because this episode was held back for awhile, relative to production order, as it ended up being the 84th episode to air. And if you know you’re Batman: The Animated Series, then you know that means it was the second to last episode of the series to make it to air. Are we really that close to the end?!

targeting bullock

We’re going to find out that Harvey Bullock is a guy with more enemies than friends.

First of all, this one begins with the intro for The Adventures of Batman and Robin, even on the recently released Blu Ray edition. I had spot-checked episodes when I reviewed the set and found the season one intro to be in use through-out, but apparently I didn’t check well-enough. That’s because, by air date, Fox considered this to be part of the fourth season. When watching in production order, the episodes are all over the place and it was only Fox’s Seasons 3 and 4 (which was a scant 5 episodes) that contained the new intro.

The episode opens at night with Bullock walking the streets of Gotham likely heading home. Someone tries to take him out with their car, but fails. Bullock gets a look at the vehicle and fires off a shot, but the culprit escapes him. Either later that night or the following night, the Bat Signal lights up the Gotham sky summoning the Batman. When Batman arrives at police headquarters he finds not Commissioner Gordon, but Bullock. Bullock tells Batman that he needs help as someone is trying to take him out. He further explains he doesn’t want to go internal because he doesn’t want Internal Affairs nosing around in his business. This prompts Batman to question if Bullock is on the take, which insults the detective as he denies he’s ever taken a dime. He just suggests his methods of investigating perps isn’t always in agreement with company policies. He tosses in a “we’re the same” message Batman’s way which insults Batman. He declares he’ll help, but makes it clear they’re not the same.

bullock needs help

Bullock needs help and he knows who to turn to.

This exchange was rather interesting. Batman is pretty thorough, so I’m not surprised he’d question if Bullock was taking bribes even though he’s previously said he’s a good cop. Expecting an honest answer had he been is probably a bit fool-hardy though. Batman’s disgust at Bullock’s notion though that they’re similar in their methods rings rather hollow. What could Bullock do that Batman would not? Aside from obviously not sharing the same discipline for physical fitness, I’d assume they’re pretty similar. Batman is constantly breaking and entering, conducts searches without a warrant, and threatens witnesses and suspects on the regular. Unless Bullock has a history of shooting first and asking questions later that isn’t explored, it would seem they’re quite similar. Get off your high horse, Batman.

Bullock gives Batman a copy of his case file on a floppy disc and Batman takes it back to his comically gigantic computer at the Batcave (seriously, does he have vision problems or something?) and shares some info with Alfred. Bullock, having handed the data over, goes home to his apartment where he’s confronted by his landlord Nivens (Jeffrey Jones) over his filthy living habits. Bullock pays him no mind though and is his usual rude self, further demonstrating that he’s the type of guy that probably doesn’t have many friends.

Sometime later, Bullock and Montoya (Liane Schirmer) are shown busting up a gang of bank robbers. One flees to the roof, and Bullock chases after him armed with a shotgun instead of his usual revolver. He’s about to take a bullet to the back when Batman swoops in for the save. Bullock is less than grateful about being baby-sat by Batman and asks him if he’s found any suspects. Batman has not, and Bullock tells him to meet him later while he takes care of the perp. Batman does his usual disappearing routine in mid-sentence.

bullock pizza

Bullock’s homelife.

Bullock then arrives home and finds someone is in his apartment. He enters with gun drawn to find Batman, who’s inspecting the threatening letters he’s been sent. The two talk about the case, with Batman suggesting whoever is after him may just be trying to put a scare in him as he doesn’t think this is the work of a professional. Bullock makes a good point that it doesn’t matter if the guy is a pro or not, for had he succeeded in running him over the other night, he’d still be dead. Batman takes off, and Bullock is left to himself. The next night, he’s shown leaving a donut shop and heading for the subway. While waiting for the next train, someone shoves him from behind into the train’s path. Bullock gives the typical terrified look, but then rather unceremoniously just gets out of the way and back onto the platform. At work, he’s visibly shaken up and Montoya takes notice. She tells him he looks terrible, then corrects herself that he always looks terrible and he just looks a bit more terrible today. Bullock reacts appropriately and Montoya tries to laugh it off. She asks him what he’s doing for New Years, and he quips back “the same thing I did for Christmas:  my laundry.” Apparently, Bullock lives a rather lonely life.

batman grabby

Batman seems to have a strong dislike for Bullock. I guess 65 episodes of being treated like dirt by the detective took its toll.

As the snow starts falling, Batman makes an appearance. He tells Bullock he has a lead:  Vinnie the Shark. A drug-dealer who was on the verge of cementing his empire, Vinnie was taken down by Bullock and even threatened him openly in court. It would seem Vinnie was a model prisoner at Stonegate and was let out after serving 8 years of a 10-20 year sentence. Batman instructs Bullock to pay a visit to Summer Gleeson, who had recently conducted an expose on the crack houses of Gotham (nice city). When Bullock objects to being bossed around by Batman, Batman gets grabby. He reiterates the importance of figuring this out to Bullock, and tells him he has other leads to chase before disappearing out the window.

batmans methods

Batman knows how to get what he wants.

Bullock drops in on Gleeson (Mari Devon) who is editing something for the news. She’s not thrilled to see Bullock, but tells him to come back in an hour. As Bullock leaves, he notices her office and decides to sneak in. Elsewhere, Batman swoops in and picks off a drug-dealer who just completed a transaction (he’s apparently unconcerned about the kid running off with some drugs) and takes him to a rooftop. He tells him he wants info on The Shark, but when the dealer insists he has no knowledge of what he’s up to, Batman tosses him off the building. He uses his grapple-gun to stop his fall and barely pulls him out of the way of a passing truck, before getting the guy to sing. See, Batman is no worse than Bullock! Meanwhile, Gleeson catches Bullock making a mess of her office and orders him out. He tries to tell her someone is trying to kill him, but he’s apparently burned his last bridge with her.

caught by the shark

Vinnie The Shark gets the drop of the Dynamic Duo 2.0 for a moment, but it’s a brief moment.

Out on the street, Bullock tries to hail a cab, but with no luck. Apparently they don’t think much of him either. Batman pulls up in the Batmobile and grabs Bullock by the shirt collar and hauls him in, which seems unnecessary. Bullock has a few moments to wonder at the instruments in the Batmobile before the two get down to business. Batman has tracked The Shark to his hideout where a new drug ring is operational. The two enter and quickly have a car dropped on them. Or rather, the hollowed out, frame-less, husk of a car. Batman gets them out of the mess with his smoke bombs, and he and Bullock successfully take down Vinnie The Shark and all of his men. As Bullock cuffs The Shark, he tells Batman that he had to be the guy and thanks him for his help, but of course, Batman has vanished before he can get that out of his mouth.

the would be assassin

Lots of gunpoints in this episode, this one the most threatening.

At police headquarters, Bullock interrogates Vinnie (Gregg Berger) and demands to know why he sent him those letters. Vinnie insists he has no idea what Bullock is talking about, and some concern appears on Bullock’s face. Later on, Bullock is entering his apartment building when a masked man wielding a gun sneaks up from behind. Trembling, the man insists he didn’t want it to come to this and that he tried to make Bullock leave town, but now he has no choice. Bullock indicates that he recognizes the man, but can’t figure out who it is. Needless to say, it’s not looking good for him, which is when Batman drops in and kicks the would-be assassin knocking the gun from his hands. Batman hauls him to his feet and yanks off the mask to reveal it’s Nevins, Bullock’s landlord. Nevins starts rambling on and on about how much he hated Bullock and just wanted him to leave while Bullock looks rather dumb-founded. He eventually sheepishly cuffs Nevins and suggests to Batman that he owes him one. Batman demurs, suggesting Bullock has enough problems to sort out before taking off.

“A Bullet for Bullock” ended up being another unlikely pairing of Batman and Bullock while also serving as a bit of a character study of Bullock, which helps to differentiate it from “Vendetta” some-what. It’s more of a straight-forward team-up as well with both Batman and Bullock combining their brains and their brawn to take down one of Gotham’s criminals, even if it ended up being a different criminal than who they were after. Though since Bullock entered The Shark’s hideout alongside Batman and without a warrant, I wonder if they ended up taking him down at all? It adds to the relationship by revealing that Batman really dislikes Bullock, maybe even as much as Bullock dislikes him. Batman comes across as a hypocrite, while Bullock’s characterization as a gruff, rule-bending, cop is reinforced. It’s also shown that Bullock is a pretty lonely guy and his tough demeanor likely pushes people away. He’s basically a slave to his job as he doesn’t even have time for simple upkeep. When he returns home to find Batman in his apartment, he starts chowing down on a slice of pizza that was apparently left out all day on his kitchen table. Sure it reveals that Bullock is a slob, but also that maybe he doesn’t even leave himself enough time to go grocery shopping.

nevins

Oh, it’s just his crazy landlord. Haha – who doesn’t want to see Bullock dead?

The tone of the episode is definitely noir, and Shirley Walker’s score goes for that right from the start. It’s a very jazzy score with a liberal use of horns. The action sequence at the end at Vinnie’s hideout in particular uses a hot jazz type of track that I wonder if it’s intended to serve as a theme for Bullock. It’s something I’ll be on the lookout for going forward. I could not recall him having a theme prior to this, but I could be mistaken. Studio Junio animated this episode, and I must say, I’ve really enjoyed their work on this series. A lot of shots of Batman feature a little blue triangle on the side of his nose. It’s a subtle touch that most studios don’t bother with, but it adds nice definition to Batman’s face. The coloring is also just really well-done here and I am a sucker for a snowy setting. Batman’s interrogation scene with the drug-dealer is also really well-animated and for an episode with minimal action, it does contain a lot of excitement thanks to the animation.

“A Bullet for Bullock” is ultimately mostly a re-tread of an idea, but it does at least offer something new. I don’t think it’s as successful or as good of an episode as “Vendetta,” and the punch-line ending it goes for is a bit off-brand for the show. It’s an episode more intent on spotlighting the relationship between Batman and Bullock while also showing a side of Bullock previously not shown. It’s less interested in the mystery of who is threatening Bullock as the writing doesn’t offer any nuggets for the viewer to track in an attempt to solve they mystery itself. Which is fine, as mystery has never really been the show’s strength. In the end, this is an unnecessary episode, but it has entertainment value so I wouldn’t call it unjustified in its existence.