Tag Archives: superhero cartoons

Batman: The Animated Series – “It’s Never Too Late”

It's_Never_Too_Late-Title_CardEpisode Number:  12

Original Air Date:  September 10, 1992

Directed by:  Boyd Kirkland

Written by:  Tom Ruegger

First Appearance(s):  Arnold Stromwell

Fresh off his debut in the two-part “Two-Face,” Rupert Thorne is at it again. Apparently there wasn’t enough dirt provided by Dent to put Thorne behind bars, or he just bought his way out, because he’s looking pretty comfortable in “It’s Never Too Late.” In this episode, we have Thorne playing the role of ultimate villain opposite the slightly less villainous drug dealing crime lord Arnold Stromwell (Eugene Roche). Stromwell is the old dog in the fight and even the media and Commissioner Gordon are predicting he’ll ultimately be overthrown by Thorne in the not too distant future.

Stromwell is naturally rather irritated with everything. And worst of all, his son has gone missing and he suspects Thorne is behind it. Batman is looking on as the war in the streets is apparently escalating between the two. Thorne arranged a meeting between the two syndicates at one of his restaurants and Stromwell agrees to go. Along the way we’re shown a flashback to a young “Arnie” boasting about owning Gotham one day to a kid named Michael. The flashback is in black and white, and a common stylistic choice for this program, and things get a bit harrowing when Arnie gets his leg caught in some train tracks with a train barreling down on him.

Batman-TAS-Its-Never-Too-Late

Stromwell and Thorne are locked in a struggle for crime supremacy in Gotham.

In the present, Stromwell gets grabby with Thorne who insists he knows nothing about his kid. He claims to have a code of honor that prevents him from messing with family, how noble of him, but he doesn’t have a code about blowing up his adversary. He ducks into the back to help with the food before bidding Stromwell adieu. Fortunately for old Arnie, Batman is close by and is able to save him from the resulting blast. Prior to this, we saw Batman meeting with a priest to inform him “it’s going down tonight” which distresses the priest. He apparently has some ties to Stromwell.

With Stromwell saved, the episode kind of takes on an It’s A Wonderful Life/A Christmas Carol vibe as Batman shows him what his drugs have done to the city and to his family. He brings him to a hospital, where Stromwell finds his estranged wife (Katherine Helmond) looking over their son who apparently overdosed on something. When Stromwell vows to punish the one who got his son hooked on drugs his ex-wife admonishes him and lets him know in no uncertain terms that he is the one responsible. It would perhaps be an affecting scene if it wasn’t so close to a popular PSA that aired in the 80s and early 90s (“I learned it by watching you, dad!”), which makes the scene feel almost comedic.

hqdefault-11

Stromwell does not appear to be very grateful for Batman’s aid.

Batman is able to arrange a meeting between Stromwell and the priest, at the very same tracks from Stromwell’s flashback. We are again taken to that day and see young Stromwell free himself from the tracks, only to jump onto the next set of tracks right into the path of another oncoming train. Michael saved him, but in the process lost his leg. We return to the present to find out that not only is Michael the priest standing before him, but also his younger brother. Thorne tries to take the two out, but Batman works in the shadows to take him and his goons out to allow the brothers to share a moment. They tearfully embrace, and as the police roll in Stromwell informs Gordon he has a statement he’d like to give. Batman looks on with satisfaction before his gaze turns to a church which the pans to, holds, and then we fade to black.

its-never-too-late

The Father Michael and Stromwell dichotomy is reminiscent of the classic film Angels with Dirty Faces.

“It’s Never Too Late” is a decent story that unfortunately feels like an anti-drug PSA, and not just because of that one scene that really invokes that impression. This was the early 90s after all, and the War on Drugs was in full swing at this point and it was quite common for family and children’s shows to tackle the subject. Usually those episodes were even more hammy than this one, but even as a kid who sincerely thought drugs were just terrible I still resented these episodes. Did someone really think that Batman telling me drugs are bad is the thing that would keep me clean? Though what I really found distasteful is that last lingering shot on the church which feels like Batman’s silent way of advocating Christianity. At the risk of sounding like a god-hating atheist, it really bugs me whenever a kid’s show promotes organized religion as the cure for a problem. I think there is an artful way to incorporate religious characters into such shows, X-Men did it pretty well with Nightcrawler (excepting that show’s closing scene with Wolverine coming back to God), but do we really need Batman’s endorsement here?

“It’s Never Too Late” is a mostly forgettable episode of Batman. Stromwell doesn’t play a meaningful role in future episodes while Thorne apparently is never brought to justice as he’ll remain a player for years to come. I don’t mind the more grounded stories which offset the outlandish villains that otherwise dominate this program, but this show can do better.

 

Advertisements

Batman: The Animated Series – “Two-Face: Part I”

Two_Face-Title_CardEpisode Number:  10

Original Air Date:  September 25, 1992

Directed by:  Kevin Altieri

Written by:  Alan Burnett

First Appearance(s):  Rupert Thorne, Candace,  Two-Face

The first nine episodes of Batman:  The Animated Series have been a little up and down. They’re entertaining for the most part, but for someone watching it for the first time there may be a tendency to wonder what all the hype is about. Well, “Two-Face:  Part I” is the first episode where things really pick up and a lot of that is due to the episode “Pretty Poison” which helps set this one up. In that episode, we were introduced to Harvey Dent, his personality, and his relationship with Bruce Wayne. When we last saw Harvey he was engaged to be married, but the woman he asked to be his bride turned out to be Poison Ivy. When her attempt to poison, and thus murder him, failed Harvey apparently went on with his life and in the process became engaged again to a woman named Grace Lamont (Murphy Cross).

1225532-grace

Harvey and Grace during happier times.

We find Harvey now in a state of mostly happiness. His reelection campaign for Gotham District Attorney is going well and he and Grace are planning a wedding. Bruce is happy for his friend, but a little concerned about the stress the election is placing on him. Also of concern is the stress created by local crime boss Rupert Thorne (John Vernon). Thorne is a character from the comics and he’s sort of analogous to Marvel’s Kingpin. He’s a heavy-set crime boss who’s primary skill is money. His money wins him allies, including those in high places, and as a result he’s built up a reputation in the law enforcement circle as being untouchable. Worst of all, Thorne knows this and uses it to taunt Dent which only enrages the Gotham D.A. and brings out his darker side.

We find out that Harvey has been hiding something for years:  Big, Bad, Harv, his alter-ego who has manifested himself thanks to Harvey’s inability to face his inner demons. Dent is prone to mood swings which can get violent. He’s rather frightening at times, and voice actor Richard Moll does an excellent job of portraying Harvey when he’s got everything put together and the unhinged Harvey outraged that Thorne has managed slip off his hook yet again. As for Big, Bad, Harv, it seems that Dent can keep that side of his personality suppressed for the most part with him only taking over as a controlling personality when under hypnosis. Dent’s therapist is quite concerned, but maybe not enough, by Dent’s mood swings and it’s clear he needs a break, but with the election in full swing Dent feels now is not the time for a vacation.

parttwo5

This episode marks the first appearance of Rupert Thorne, who will be a constant thorn in Batman’s side (I’m sure the pun was intended).

Even though Thorne is largely untouchable, he’s still unnerved by Dent’s determination to put him away and is growing desperate for a way to cool things off. His assistance Candace (Diane Michelle) is the one who digs up the dirt on Dent’s therapy sessions, and when Dent is celebrating his election win the mood is killed by a call from Thorne who’s obtained all of the information he needs to out Big, Bad, Harv. Dent is concerned his medical problems will kill his career, even with the re-election bid over, and agrees to meet with Thorne. Bruce Wayne sees him leave the post-election celebration in one of Thorne’s limos and elects to pursue him as Batman.

Thorne brings Harvey to a chemical plant to confront him with the damning medicals, but all he accomplishes is bringing out Dent’s dark side. He goes wild and starts fighting with Thorne’s men. Batman shows up to even the odds, but when Thorne makes a run for it Harvey gives chase. Some stray gunfire from one of Thorne’s men strike an electrical box causing an explosion that ensnares Dent. When Batman is able to get to him we see a look of horror flash across his face as he turns his friend over to survey the damage.

twoface

Dent’s going to need a good plastic surgeon. A really good plastic surgeon.

We soon are taken to a hospital where a doctor is removing the bandages from Harvey’s face. He’s conscious, and able to see the damage caused by the blast. The doctor recoils in horror at the sight of Dent, and we get the classic “mirror!” demand that’s been used many times before in other media, and most recently by Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Batman. Dent is enraged at the sight of his own face and storms out of the room, only to run into Grace. It’s here we finally get a look at what the explosion did to him, turning his face lumpy, blue, and grotesque. Grace immediately faints at the sight, and a despondent Harvey bids her farewell.

The transformation of Harvey Dent into Two-Face is a seminal moment for the show. It’s the first time actual stakes are introduced as we see a character permanently altered by the events of the show. We also see our hero lose an important ally in his fight against crime, and not just an ally, but a close, personal friend at that. And at this point, Dent is really the only friend we’ve seen for Bruce besides Alfred and Dick so his loss feels particularly damaging. At the same time, this being part one of a two part episode, we don’t know how the story will resolve itself. When I first saw it I was just a kid. Prior to this series, my only exposure to the Dent character was Billy Dee Williams in Batman so I was in the dark the whole time about the Two-Face character. I’m pretty sure my assumption was that Batman would make everything right in the second act, but we’ll soon see I was mistaken.

tfp1-7

Thorne’s assistance Candace will be a fixture at his side throughout the series.

Villains work best when they have a human element and when their motivations are relatable. For Two-Face, we know he’s a good person and circumstance pushed him to this which makes him feel tragic. While true that we actually do not see him act as a villain in this episode, we soon will. Before Two-Face, we had villains we could relate to without necessarily feeling too sympathetic. We know it’s frustrating to be fired like Scarecrow was, and I think most people don’t want to see plants driven to extinction, but few are going to agree with the methods utilized by both Scarecrow and Poison Ivy in their bids for revenge. The other villains such as The Sewer King and Boss Biggis have just been terrible human beings who we’re supposed to hate, and do. And then, of course, there’s The Joker who’s motivations aren’t supposed to be relatable either and represents more of a chaotic force in Batman’s world.

The other aspect of this episode that comes to mind when I reflect upon my first viewing of it is how even at the time I really enjoyed and appreciated it. Perhaps enjoyed isn’t the right word as I was unnerved by the outcome, but for a slow developing plot I don’t recall being bored. It’s that slow build that creates the payoff at the end and director Kevin Altieri certainly feels like the show’s MVP thus far. This episode both looks and sounds great, with excellent voice work all around. Murphy Cross is especially convincing as the heart-broken Grace, and she’ll get to really shine in Part II. I also love the little visual cue to Two-Face early in the episode when a flash of lightning in the doctor’s office causes Dent to resemble his future self for a split-second. And the actual reveal shot of Two-Face is also setup so well. Even though it’s only a few minutes that pass between Dent’s accident and the reveal of his new face, it feels like an eternity as the viewer is kept on the edge of their seat waiting to see just what the effects of that explosion were. Two-Face is particularly hideous looking, and while his scarred face doesn’t make much sense medically, it looks gross and it’s easy to understand how that could drive a man insane. I’m sure if they wanted to go with a grosser, more burned look like the original comics took and the one The Dark Knight would take many years later that Standards & Practices likely would have requested they tone it down. The only negative I have is that there’s a continuity error with the following episode as Harvey’s face is the only thing scarred in this episode, where-as going forward his left hand will be blue and lumpy as well.

hqdefault-10

A little scene from early in the episode tipping its hand.

“Two-Face: Part I” is in my personal top three episodes for this show. And while I normally have a hard time separating episodes in a two-part sequence, in this case I do believe Part I is the stronger of the two as it’s the creation of Two-Face that is most memorable and most important as opposed to the actions he will take as a villain. That doesn’t mean Part II is bad, nor does it mean I can watch the first without immediately watching the second. You will have to wait until next week for my write-up of Part II, which feels appropriate given the first airing of this episode was on a Friday, meaning I had a whole weekend plus a Monday to endure before seeing Part II. To a kid, that felt like an eternity.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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