Saturday, January 23, 2021

Batman: TAS, episode #12: Appointment in Crime Alley

I mentioned in my intro post that The Batman had been revitalized in the late 60s/early 70s, after years of moldering as the "fun" Adam West of the TV series, by writer Denny O'Neill and artist Neal Adams. O'Neill's socially conscious, contemporary scripting and Adams' brooding, photorealistic art style (developed during his sojourn in advertising work) became THE Batman for many readers and recreated the concept of the Darknight Detective that Bob Kane had originally intended the character to be. So, it's interesting to note that this episode, Appointment in Crime Alley, is based on the 1976 O'Neill script "There is No Hope in Crime Alley" (Detective Comics, #457), but is also written by comic legend, Gerry Conway. Conway broke into a career of writing comics at the age of 16 with a story for DC's House of Secrets. Like fellow series writer, Marv Wolfman, he had a run during the horror comics revival of the early 70s, co-creating characters and series like Werewolf by Night and Man-Thing, but he also tried his hand at virtually ever major character of both DC and Marvel, including a year-long run on The Batman in Batman and Detective. (Along the way, he was also editor-in-chief at Marvel for about a month and a half.) In that respect, he seems like a natural choice to try his hand at BTAS.

The terrifically moody title card and initial look at the streets (even if it's only a model) set the tone not only for the story but the visual style that will be employed in this episode. I think it's safe to say that both are pristine examples of The Batman as a figure around which to build a story. This is The Batman, from the excellent shadows in the whole action sequence where he beats down the thugs trying to clear out a family to the flow of the camera through the scenes as we learn the story of Park Row/Crime Alley and how "progress" often leaves people behind who have nowhere else to go. This is the most clear-cut example of a film noir story we've yet seen and it's a great one. Conway stuck to O'Neill's script almost note-for-note and again demonstrates how close comics are to animation in particular and film, in general. This is a story told visually, without any "comic booky" elements, unlike Be a Clown. We don't need to hear dialogue to notice Bruce's frustration in his exercise room as he watches Roland Daggett (Ed Asner) on the news. We see it simply from the way he's hitting the heavy bag. When dialogue is introduced, it's not exposition. Alfred tells him he doesn't want to be late. He asks, rhetorically: "Have I ever been late?" It could just be a wry joke between the two of them or it could be true and have deeper context. It does, but it isn't spelled out, but instead left for the viewer to figure out as we move along. It's a lead, not an announcement. That, again, is good storytelling.

Characterization is also on point here. Nitro is a nerd about explosives and demonstrates his enthusiasm in a way that many would find socially awkward, if not obtrusive. We see that point emphasized when Daggett overtly brushes his hand with the detonator out of the way. These are the people he feels like he has to associate with in order to expand his empire, but he's not about to socialize with them or tolerate their behaviors. Dr. Leslie Thompkins is also a real character, as she points out that Park Row is her home and she's not afraid of walking the street by herself. This isn't a woman staged to show how horrible it is to be stuck in the slum with the undesirables. That's Daggett's illusion. Instead, this is a woman who knows the people here and knows that they're due the respect and dignity of anyone else. Fearing what might happen to her, personally, is beneath that dignity. That's a solid character. The clock metaphor overlays everything; about Bruce's past, about the impending explosion, about time moving on from what was once a great neighborhood in Gotham (and still could be.) Daggett is also the perfect noir villain ("We cannot allow the underclass to hinder us from building a better tomorrow!") and immediately working the camera and public reaction when The Batman exposes his scheme.

The dialogue also often serves the atmosphere. When The Batman shows up at the hotel and has the little exchange with the tactical squad member ("Who do you think you are?! ... Oh."), we get the average person's response to the hero. When that hero finds the direct perpetrators, they're not only embedded in the world ("Fancy meeting you again, Crocker." "You told the parole board you'd given up the arson-for-hire thing, Nitro.") but it's a world with a hard Batman; THE Batman ("Talk to me, Nitro!") who locks the perps in their own truck with more explosives. If he doesn't rescue the people they've endangered, they probably go down with them. Similarly, the action scenes don't stick out. They're all part of the pacing, from the aforementioned combat in the apartment to the saving of the runaway trolley. A great visual sequence shows the actual effects of trying to do something so outlandish, as the Batmobile loses a tire and a rim in the process, forcing The Batman to lock it up before he goes off in pursuit of his real targets of the evening.

And, finally, the crowner is that they don't bother with the origin story. We're fans of The Batman. We know the bloody origin story. We don't need it played back to us in flashbacks. It's enough for him to leaf through Dr. Thompkins "Memories" book (A little on point for a book title. Couldn't it have just been "Scrapbook" to be just as obvious?) and end with him kneeling over the two roses with the final card being the picture of him and Leslie in the newspaper clipping. It's a reference to something we already know and don't need to be hit over the head with. It's a noir approach. It's a well-told story approach. O'Neill deserves great credit for the initial idea, but Conway almost as much for translating it properly to the screen and director Boyd Kirkland for maintaining the right pace and delivery that keeps us entranced from opening to ending. You can pick little nits with the seemingly ineffective gag on Leslie when she's left behind to die and Daggett wearing white socks with his suit, but those are animation (and clothing style) details that don't detract from the episode in any real fashion. This, even without the bizarre villains, is a Batman story and it's neck-and-neck with Heart of Ice as the best episode we've seen so far.

Next up, we stay with the "mundane" aspects of crime in Gotham with a story called P.O.V., which hearkens back to Kurosawa's masterpiece, Rashomon.

Batman: TAS, episode #11: Be a Clown

The one thing I'm always looking for in any kind of media is story. You have to have a decent story to draw me in. Giving me the bog-standard approach will always make me sigh in disappointment as soon as it becomes apparent that the writer(s) seemed to be just following the typical model. Unfortunately, Be a Clown is a perfect example of that. It's a "typical Batman vs Joker" story, not only assuming that the audience knows whom both The Batman and The Joker are and what their histories are, but also what their "typical" encounter would be. In this episode, the Joker's vanity compels him to act out against a politician who's clueless about the realities of his own city and also about the people who live there; most notably the "costumed freaks" that he threatens to "run out of town", including The Batman. Hamilton Hill is so stock Hollywood "mildly corrupt and completely incompetent politician" that the opening scene, with the cops conducting a high-speed chase right through the mayor's ribbon-cutting and press conference, probably could almost have been an ironic joke with the audience (e.g. "This is what's utterly predictable... so here it is!") We're also tipped off that this will be a Joker story from the name and tagline of the development that the mayor is announcing ("Gotham Acres: A Fun Place to Be!") It's all very much hit-you-over-the-head-with-a-cinderblock obvious.

That extends beyond the plot, with The Batman swinging into events on a crane-hoisted I-beam and knocking the intruding crooks into a dumpster with: "Garbage collection is usually Monday, but in your case I'm making an exception!" You can't really get much more "comic booky" than that, if your interpretation of comic books is low-grade, Super Friends-style material. But the thing to keep in mind is that BTAS was intended to reach a broad audience and while a lot of kids might be able to appreciate some of the style points of many episodes, some of them were just looking for good ol' Batman to do his usual thing against his greatest foe, The Joker. Adding in the story about the incompetent mayor also being the incompetent parent who learns his lesson when his son is inadvertently kidnapped by the homicidal clown is just this side of making fun of typical kids' TV ("Your parents still love you, even when they're jerks... and even when you run away to help a clown try to kill The Batman!")

As much of a fool as Mayor Hill seems to be, he does have one inadvertent insight: "Batman and Joker are cut from the same cloth!" As noted before, the dynamic between the two is actually a very important aspect of any story involving those two characters. Mark Hamill's Joker immediately reactd to that statement in a manner you might expect: "I have much more style!" but then immediately targets his anger not against the person he's been compared to, but the person who he claims has insulted him. It's just a way to set up another contest with The Batman in his eyes, which is precisely what the plot of this episode is. So, even though it's not especially imaginative (The Joker hiding out in Gotham's abandoned amusement park funbouse? Sigh...), it's still in line with the relationship that these characters had established in the 50+ years leading up to this episode. An actually funny part about it is that The Joker as Jekko the Clown is easily the grimmest clown ever seen. Seriously, Pennywise has nothing on this guy. I find it hard to believe most of the children gathered around would be willing to get anywhere near this creature.

Visually, there's not a lot that makes this episode stand out. The best scene is definitely the one where The Joker asks Maura, the boardwalk fortune teller machine, to tell him how he should deal with The Batman. Not only is this a fine example of the Clown Prince of Crime's insanity, but it's also a nice, moody encounter with the carnival trappings of a bygone age; again pointing out BTAS Gotham's "between times" setting. There's also a great moment when Bruce Wayne reacts the same way I do to hearing Mark Hamill's maniacal cackle: "That laugh..." On the down side of the visuals, after 2/3 of the episode pretending to be "Jekko", we're supposed to believe that Jordan is surprised to know he's spending time with The Joker, when the only thing that changes is the latter's hair. He's kept the orange fringe cap on even while he's changed into his normal purple suit! But perhaps that was part of the point. There's no truly insane scheme here. It's just a simple escapade. Joker is a vaguely murderous goof here, instead of the wicked threat we saw in Joker's Favor. However, the chase scene on the roller coaster is well done and they didn't dwell on the metaphor of the coaster destroying the funhouse any longer than necessary, so there was some thought put into the pacing and direction, at least. And there was one good line: "They don't make straitjackets like they used to... and I should know." We'll just stroll right by the schmaltzy ending.

So, not the greatest visit by the clown, but not all of them can be brilliant. Next up is Appointment in Crime Alley; not only the latest produced episode of the ones we've seen so far (26th), but also one based directly on a Denny O'Neill-written comic from 1976.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

No unity without justice

I'm sure you're all happy to know that I'm willing to sacrifice my constant stream of entertainment embodied by The Idiot, President Donald J. Trump, for the sake of the rest of your sanity and ability to feel at least somewhat decent about the concept of America as anything but the profit center I believe it to be. We have come to end of Trumpworld, to a certain degree, and even the QAnon people are giving up. I remain constant in my opinion that the only upside to that moron occupying the Oval Office was that it forced people to pay attention. Every time he exploited the "rules" of tradition and custom that make up our mockery of a government; every time he pushed the limits, knowing that the pearl clutchers wouldn't believe he was telling them exactly what he was going to do; every time he reinforced the farce of an uneducated and often willfully ignorant public putting a con man into the highest office in the land and being supported by other elected officials (Hi, Mitch!) who definitely knew better, he showed just how outdated and inadequate our administrative system actually is for the vast majority of those subject to it. If you are part of the ownership class, the Trump era likely reinforced your status. The rest of you will have to live with actually being awakened to the reality of how the system is designed to exploit you and those with even less than you have.

And, of course, now is not the time to return to sleep. What I was afraid of with Hillary Clinton's election was that the very real systemic problems- the wealth disparity, the police state, the inability to speak outside the traditional norms of discourse without being dismissed as an extremist -would all be dutifully ignored. Trump's election changed some of that and we began to see the emergence of people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar and Katie Porter; people that were committed to asking the questions about the power structure that had regularly been dismissed as not relevant to the goal of wealthy people making even more money. Those representatives are all still present in Congress and one assumes (hopes?) that their attitude has not and will not change. With a functioning adult in the White House, there arises the prospect of actual, positive change. But in his speech today, actual-President Joe Biden spoke of "unity", which has been a buzzword among Republicans in the last two weeks, suddenly confronted with the fact that not only had they lost control of both branches of government but had been directly threatened by the monster that they've nurtured and ridden for the past 30 years. My opinion on that is simple:

I'm not interested in "unity" without justice.

I'm especially not interested in unity with those who actively encouraged the assault on January 6th, such as Ted Cruz (R-TX), Joshua Hawley (R-MO), Mo Brooks (R-AL), Paul Gosar (R-AZ), and Andy Biggs (R-AZ.) (Rumor has it that the latter three went looking for a pardon from the Idiot in the last couple days...) I'm not interested in unity with fascists or unrepentant racists or devoted QAnon cultists. Advocating unity with people like that only encourages their crimes and makes it that much easier for them to be considered acceptable behavior the next time some con man like Trump (and there will be a next time; in Josh Hawley, there basically already is) leads a bunch of fools into declaring him the messiah. The only thing that counts right now is justice. Justice means expelling all five of those people, among others like Lauren Boebert (R-CO), from their respective bodies of the legislature as not suitable for the proper function of government. It means arresting stooges like Louis DeJoy and seizing the assets of his company for directly interfering with the function of a federal agency (in this case, the US Postal Service.) It means cracking down in the most direct and obvious ways to send the message: No more. No more profiting by damaging the function of government. No more attacking the function of that government in the name of some twisted cult based on the second amendment or some other bizarre notion (like trickle-down economics...) For once, the hope is that Democrats run the show like they're aware that they're in the director's chair and not concerned about the studio (i.e. their campaign fundraisers) threatening to pull the plug if they're spending too much money (It's pathetic how symmetrical that analogy is.) For once, they should be assured that the progressive opinions they're hearing put forth are those of the majority of the citizens of this country.

National healthcare is one of them. Climate change is another. Student debt is another. Policing is another. Economic inequality may be the most important one of all. But don't talk to me about unity with what are, in the end, actual criminals. In the modern era, the fox guarding the henhouse is perhaps a bit too quaint to draw the picture, so let's try something timely: If you invite the plaguebearers into the house, all you do is continue to spread the plague. There is no herd immunity to broken government and the widening gap between rich and poor in this nation. There is, instead, a simple dividing line: One can be on the side of facts, truth, and equality or one can be a fascist. I say again that I have no interest in unity with fascists because they have no interest in facts, truth, or equality. I'm still convinced that proper civil war is the only way to truly solve our current national problem, but it may be a case of fighting the fascists long enough for some of them to realize that the real problem is the ownership class and always has been. It's Biden's task at this point to make a statement about which way this society is going to move in the future. To his credit, the line from his speech today: "... not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example." is a good summary of what I'm talking about, since it would be starkly different from much of what the US government has stood for, in matters international and domestic, for most of its existence; from Shays' Rebellion to now.

The casualties of the non-stop rueful, cynical entertainment will probably be half a million strong by the time we reach February, and that's only talking about COVID. Millions more are already casualties of the profit machine and one con man's willingness to exploit every angle of it. Now we have a new executive whose task is to reverse course on much of what has happened over the past four years, but whose real task should be to alter course on much of what has happened over the past forty. Is he willing to do that? As the zen master once said: "We'll see."

Friday, January 15, 2021

Batman: TAS, espiode #10: Nothing to Fear

This episode revolves around the Scarecrow who, interestingly enough, is kind of a combination of two or our previous villains: Poison Ivy and Clayface; Ivy in that Scarecrow is a bit of a schtick villain and Clayface in that his whole raison d'etre is more subtle than most and, thus, takes some effort on the part of the visual storyteller (originally comics and now cartoon) to convey. The Scarecrow makes people afraid, which means that the storytellers have to do both the perspective switch (so we can see what they're seeing) and leave the focus on those impacted (so we can see the effect on them), which takes time and removes the reader/viewer focus from the action and the central character of the moment. It tends to enforce a slower style of adventure story and/or a clumsier one. Most horror stories are of the first type (slower) by their very nature. It takes time to set up a proper fright. The clumsy type tends to appear in comics, as Princess Projectra shows the scary monster to her opponents because that's what's easy to show in a panel, rather than the three or four it might take to display what's happening in their minds and how debilitating that is.

That storytelling difficulty is why Scarecrow often ended up being identified with the "schtick" villains, as some contortion of "fear gas" would have to be employed as his thing, like Ivy with her plants or Freeze with his icicles. However, that "fear thing" is also a central element of the main character in our stories: The Batman. The whole basis of the character is as a symbol of fear for Gotham's underworld. As he highlights when coming to grips with his own fear: "I am vengeance! I am the night! I am... Batman!" I, of course, cringe at the last declaration, since he was almost there ("I am... THE Batman!"), but we'll live with it. The Scarecrow also has the luxury of escaping the usual naming alliteration, in favor of a literary reference: Jonathan Crane, after Ichabod of Sleepy Hollow fame. In this incarnation, Jonathan escapes the Headless Horseman but replaces it with the faceless nemesis of societal standards. It seems that the academy frowns on him using human subjects for his experiments. Or maybe it just gets in the way of the public image needed for the donors...? Here's where our noir cynicism rears its head, as the Scarecrow isn't interested in money (in true Batman villain style, it must be said), as he tells his comic relief thugs to "Take what you can and burn the rest!" In truth, he'd be an excellent foil for the modern American university system, which is often far more concerned with profit (see: the NCAA and the oppression of most instructors' unions) than it is education. Why does a major university have a bank that Scarecrow is torching, rather than robbing? It's obvious that Crane is an educator, as he's constantly stopping to explain ("Arachnophobia!") what he's doing to the people he terrorizes, but it's also obvious that he's not a good one, as he continually demeans his students, to the point that while they show the respect that university educators should receive more often in our society ("Wow! He's a real professor!"), they also end up inadvertently making him the butt of the joke ("You mean they kicked you out because you wasn't smart enough?") because of his, uh, excessive methods and attitude.

And that shows up in the storytelling method, as well. Horror writers tend to inspire dread by what's happening. In an adventure story, as noted, that's a bit more difficult, especially when you're confined to 24 pages, even of 9 panels each in the classic style, or a 20-minute cartoon. So, when the Scarecrow's drugs take hold, they're often far more ferocious than "simple" fear drugs. The Batman is shown suffering real, physical effects from the injection; more like he'd been hit with a major barbituate, in addition to having visions of his father and his disapproval. They could've inserted repeated references to the visions and Bruce's emotional reaction and the physical effects that generated, but our episode would've been probably 30 minutes long to do that properly, so you have to cut corners somewhere. Showing unshaven, sweating Bruce who looks like he's swallowed half a bottle of valium is the way to show just how inimical Scarecrow's drugs can be, even if it's kind of ham-handed. The upside of this approach is that it's a great moment for Alfred to demonstrate his crucial role in Bruce's and The Batman's life. Up to now, we've seen him be little more than a chauffeur and step-and-fetch-it. The emotional support he provides, as the closest thing Bruce has to family who can express their appreciation for and pride in his actions, is really important, both to this episode and the series as a whole.

This eventually becomes the longest-running action sequence we've yet seen, which takes up almost the entire second half of the episode when Scarecrow invades the fundraiser and then The Batman pursues him to his airship. The central role of that vehicle is just another reinforcing of the "between times" nature of the show and it was nice to see their presentation of the fact that they don't just burst like a balloon if the outer shell is penetrated. Of course, it was also strange to see the tool that made those holes being the average Thompson submachine gun shooting red light like a Star Wars Imperial laser, for some reason. Said laser also ignited the cabin, as you expect it might when surrounded by hydrogen, so I guess that was the plot jump needed to create the big explosion and crash at the end...? They missed their chance to have someone shout: "Oh, the Batmanity!", however. On the technical end, it's also fair to ask why a bank vault would have overhead sprinklers. Furthermore, one can question why the Scarecrow's drug showing everyone their worst fear suddenly switched to everyone being not terrified of the "giant bat" in the middle of the room, but enraged enough to attack it, rather than sprinting away. Again, there were a lot of plot jumps happening here in order to make this episode happen and, strictly from a writing perspective, that drags it down a bit. We also get a return to the more aggressive Harvey Bullock that we saw in On Leather Wings, as he actually assaults The Batman and points out the "Zorro here is withholding evidence!"

On the character side, I think it was important for them to cite Bruce's self-doubt about his mission. After all, he is dressing up as a bat and spending his nights on rooftops, beating people up. A little uncertainty about oneself doesn't seem to be out of the question. By the same token, it was a good chance to see a bit of the mania that drives the Scarecrow (something much more evident in Cillian Murphy's excellent performance as the character in Christopher Nolan's films) and he's clearly enjoying himself as he watches people suffer under the effect of his drugs and it's something that he points out to The Batman ("I thought you'd be at home enjoying my time-release fear toxin!") Also, the epilogue was done really well. There was no internal dialogue where Bruce reassures himself about his life. It's just him, staring down at the graves of the parents he saw murdered in front of him. That's all that's needed. The visuals tell the story, as they usually should. That came into play in the opening, as well, since we started at sunset, with the golden light of autumn (often with scarecrows!) suffusing the city before deepening into the night that we're so accustomed to with The Batman. It wasn't the best episode of the series, but it touched firmly upon a lot of the major themes of both history and character and I think it's one to be recommended for those wanting to understand The Batman and the people around him.

Next time, our favorite is back in town when we're asked why more people can't Be a Clown.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Batman: TAS, episode #9: Pretty Poison

Poison Ivy is one of the goofier villains in The Batman's rogues' gallery. Alongside Mr. Freeze, this just damns the film Batman Forever that much more. (Tangent: George Clooney, the Batman of the subsequent Batman and Robin, has a hilarious story about Joel Schumacher, the director, who was well aware of the absurdity coloring the entire project (Nipples on the bat suit!) and how he would 'motivate' his star: "OK, Bruce! Your parents are dead! You have nothing to live for! And... action!" /tangent.) But, like we saw with Heart of Ice, it is possible to take a goofy character and turn it into something with genuine appeal and depth. Pretty Poison doesn't quite go that far, but it does lean farther in the direction of Pamela Isley's significant mental problems than even most of her comic appearances, where she was typically just a Flash-type villain: plants were her gimmick. Also, be aware that the typical comic book alliteration is on full display here: Pamela Isley = Poison Ivy, even if they never mention her, uh, professional name. As noted before, this is a series designed with the idea that people would know the general layout of the universe.

That universe includes Harvey Dent, who gets an actual role here, unlike his brief cameo in On Leather Wings. Dent is voiced by Richard Moll, whom most will remember as Bull from Night Court. He's also shown here as lacking significant judgment, both on a personal level and from someone who is on top of the hit list of every criminal in the city and someone you'd expect to have a bit more caution about whom he hangs around with. Christopher Nolan is to be commended for making Harvey's girlfriend one of his fellow attorneys in the DA office, in addition to the dramatic impacts of that vis-à-vis Bruce Wayne. But another thing that Nolan adds to the character is that Dent is actually effective in his role, rather than just being a name attached to a job before he becomes something far different. The best part about Commissioner Gordon in the comics of the modern era and in BTAS is that he's obviously an able, driven cop who's good at his job. We're kind of hoping that the Harvey Dent of BTAS is similar, rather than just being "the district attorney" before later events ensue. This episode doesn't generate a lot of faith in that respect.

Part of it is because Harvey is just a vehicle for the introduction of the real focus, the villain, as is so often the case with Batman stories. I think writer Tom Ruegger (writing the teleplay from a story by Paul Dini and Michael Reaves) did a pretty good job in emphasizing Ivy's two most prominent attributes: her sultriness and her insanity. Clearly, she was meant to be a head-turner and the character is written to emphasize her awareness of that. Everyone in the Rose Café does the "Guy looking back" thing when she walks by and she doesn't stop teasing The Batman with her sex appeal even while he's in the process of being devoured by her pet flytrap. But she also demonstrates the mania that grips her in several instances and in a much different manner than, say, The Joker. The latter has fully come to grips with how different his outlook on the world is from the rest of humanity. He has no illusions about being accepted or passing as one of them. Indeed, part of his mania is that he is different and everyone else should be more like him. Ivy, OTOH, is still attempting to fit into society, but wants to be sure that her views are taken seriously. If it means killing a few people along the way, fine. That's just the cost of doing business. Most of the time in the comics to that point, Ivy unleashing carnivorous plants on the public was accepted as part of being in a "comic world." BTAS had reached the point that many comics had, post-Watchmen, in that there had to be some foundation for why these crazy things happened other than the fact that there's so many crazy people running around in weird costumes. So, this Ivy is more subtle than the historical one had been, but she's also driven by more obvious motivations than simply "I'm Poison Ivy." The story steps into this slowly, as she talks to her potted plant at the greenhouse with just a hint of an edge, so that you know that something is a little off here. But then we go full crazy when The Batman arrives and things start going awry. That's a more interesting character because it's not just "stock super-villain."

There are, as always, a couple technical questions about the story that arch an eyebrow or two. Why does the entire police force have to rush down to the hospital because Harvey's in a coma? OTOH, Gordon exhibits the kind of judgment you'd have expected Harvey to have by immediately assuming this is an assassination attempt and organizing his guard. Also, it's probably the doom wrought of cultural assimilation that every carnivorous plant that's a threat to humans is always some version of Audrey from Little Shop of Horrors. When The Batman first walks in, the sizable trap door leading to a bunch of threatening cacti seems a little excessive. But, then, vines with teeth moves in and you figure: OK. This is where we are. Also, if Pamela Isley is going to wear a costume, I wonder why they didn't go the distance and bring out her outfit with all the leaves? The green leotard seems like a really weak offering, artistically, although it is a lot easier to draw several hundred panels of. (Budget concerns are a thing in TV shows like this.) Plus, it's a little funny that in a greenhouse, with live green plants, and presumably high humidity, a few sparks from a crashing light fixture ignite the whole place instantly. But when you're trying to get the whole thing into one episode...

One small problem with both writing and production is a line from Alfred about the antidote for Harvey: "I'm afraid this is UNfeasible." Argh. For a major production, you'd hope that an editor at some point would've spoken up about that. OTOH, there were a couple writing highlights, like the caption of "A better, safer Gotham; 5 years later" over the prison that started this whole thing, as well as the line from The Batman: "The bottle for the weed. What's it gonna be?" Depending on your personal preference, I guess? Most of the ways that line would be interpreted have nothing to do with hanging on the edge of a pit over menacing cacti. And then you have the irony quandary: Given Ivy's clear mental issues, you'd naturally expect her to end up at Arkham (which she has in the comics.) But she ends this episode sitting in the prison she so reviled, just to bring us to a close. It's a deviation from the character and from what they just spent the whole episode emphasizing, but it's a pat ending that most would find appropriate if they don't stop to think about it (like I do.)

Next time, we continue our survey of The Batman's regular opponents with the Scarecrow and Nothing to Fear.

Batman: TAS, episode #8: The Cat and the Claw, part 2

The most notable thing about the opening for part 2 of The Cat and the Claw is one of the more subtle things: The score. The music playing over the windy evening in the park where The Batman is meeting one of his mob stoolies is a huge part of the atmosphere, as scores should be. When most people talk about the music for BTAS, they usually focus on the infections theme song written by Danny Elfman and they're not wrong. The theme is a defining aspect of the show, since it so wonderfully depicts the aura and stylistic themes behind it in true, Romantic period-style. But there's a lot to be said for the score composers, too, since there's rarely a moment where the eerie background notes separate one from what's happening on the screen. Even when The Batman is operating in a scenario with a lot of action and explosions (literally in the case of this episode), there's still an overall aura of mystery that enshrouds the character and the score is an essential part of that.

Another part of that is maintaining the noir-ish approach. The nighttime meeting with the stoolie, the deduction of the military transport, and the date turning into an attempted assassination on the road before the suddenly-ruthless Bruce Wayne turns things in their favor; those are all scenes that could be drawn from films like Night and the City and other similar offerings. Since this was the second part of the series opener, it was important to keep reinforcing that approach and I think director, Dick Sebast, did that well. There are some good transition moments, such as when we shift to where Red Claw's goon invades Selina's apartment and the intro to that moment is highlighted by a cat leaping from a trash can in the street below. Similarly, as we see Catwoman enter the ventilation shaft of the underground bunker, the Batwing silently passes overhead. That's good pacing that keeps the style and theme rolling while still serving a storytelling function.

Unfortunately, we also end up maintaining the outdated sexism, with The Batman stumbling over it yet again ("Red Claw?! A woman?!") Thankfully, the writers let her volley right back when she escapes: "You've finally met your match, Batman! Not surprising it's a woman!" And that may be the point. As out of place as it sounds to modern ears, considering the audience that they could rightfully assume they were playing to (young boys and some not-so-young boys), what sounds clumsy to us may have been the overt message they were trying to drive home: It's not just guys who can be heroic... and wear costumes while committing crimes and/or enacting vigilante justice. So, not quite the moral message one would hope for, but certainly with the right intent. The central idea is that women are just as capable as men. Selina stops to point this out in the face of Bruce's concern, claiming that she's never been able to do the "damsel in distress" thing. It's interesting to note, however, that that's exactly the role she ends up playing in the car chase/combat scene, clinging to Bruce in fright while he goes Mad Max on their pursuers. However, you do want to convey tension and emotion in scenes like that and that's difficult to do without the more immediate action of live performers. If you don't draw overt reactions to events, your characters end up sitting still when they should be displaying something. (This is the difference between actual animation and something like Hanna-Barbera.) So, it's understandable that Selina may have been showing some degree of shock and dismay, even when the character's personality wouldn't normally conform to that. In some ways, you just have to go with what the scene demands.

But that approach is slightly problematic in a couple later moments, where the emotional displays by our two leads seem somewhat clumsy. Bruce declares his affection for her after one visit to Multigon and a couple aborted dates, while Maven later informs The Batman that Selina is in love with him after two encounters, in one of which she threw him off a building. I think the pacing of the episodes was sufficient to convey the time that had passed and you certainly want that final scene, where he cuffs her, to have the semi-tragic impact of caring about someone you're about to send to jail. All of that is an essential element of the Batman/Catwoman relationship and has been almost since the first time they met in the comics. I guess one could argue that they overdramatized those moments a bit here... but, again, we're talking about a show that's intended for a broad audience. Adults may pick up on those concepts much more easily than children do, so their intent might have been to really reinforce the message. As this was the second episode of the series, it could've been an attempt to really lay the groundwork for their relationship in future encounters. The counterpoint to that argument is that this series clearly seemed intended to credit the audience with awareness of who and what The Batman and his world are. That would include the emotional/sexual tension between the two leads in this episode.

One quirky thing to note is that the mountain lion that Catwoman released on the guard outside and on Red Claw herself presumably could have killed either or both of them. In neither case do we see the results. That would be a bit more visceral than the character has ever been in her existence and also something that would be a bit past the "violence" rating that HBO assigns the show. In this case, what happened off-camera, stays off-camera, I guess. (Leopards ate my face!) 

So, that was a decent end to a solid opening. Next time, Harvey Dent returns as a main character in an encounter with some Pretty Poison.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Batman: TAS, episode #7: Joker's Favor

Let's establish one thing right away: I love The Joker. He's always been endlessly entertaining to me. The concept of a homicidal maniac whose only purpose in life is to find new ways to entertain himself, usually by jousting with The Batman, seemingly has endless possibilities about where to carry a story. That's probably why I'm such a fan of Master Shake on Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Of course, the danger of those endless possibilities is what happened in the 50s, wherein said homicidal maniac became a lot less dangerous and ended up being a parody of himself (Can you parody a clown?); more noted for the increasingly tedious, 'wacky' method of challenging his opposite number than for the threat that originally motivated our hero to try to stop him. If he was just going to be a clown robbing banks with increasingly bizarre methods, you might as well just let Commissioner Gordon and the cops deal with him. But when he was restored to his glory in the early 70s under Denny O'Neill and Neal Adams, the Clown Prince of Crime genuinely returned to being the true antithesis of The Batman. No one else could ever claim to be the Darknight Detective's #1 opponent. Not Ra's. Not Bane (ugh.) The Joker. End of story.

Thankfully, the story of The Joker almost never ends. But, again, he has to be done right. That's probably why producer Paul Dini was the writer for this episode. It's like Stan Lee declaring that only he would be writing stories about The Silver Surfer. When you have someone as important as The Joker is to the mythos, you need a sure hand. By the good fortune of discovering Mark Hamill in a minor role and then Tim Curry developing bronchitis, they also lucked into the perfect voice for the role, as well. That laugh! I regularly crack up when I hear it. It has just the right touch of both the jovial and the menacing, on top of the maniacal, which is just like the character. This is on full display when he's first encountering poor Charlie Collins (in another sojourn in the studio by Ed Begley, Jr.) and first remonstrating about public courtesy ("We can't have people cursing at each other on the freeway! It's simply not polite!") before revealing the occasional short-sightedness of the master criminal when asked what favor Charlie should provide ("I don't know! I haven't thought of it yet!") Even genius occasionally has its limits, which we see with The Joker constantly serving his vanity by requiring his henchmen to applaud every other word. Not that vanity precludes genius. Even, self-centered smart guys occasionally need fans.

Which is why we have Harley! This is the first appearance (HBO order or otherwise) of The Joker's assistant neé girlfriend, who would later go on to regular status in DC Comics and has since transitioned to film. Ably voiced by Arleen Sorkin, who actually inspired the creation of the character, Harley is an excellent sidekick to The Joker, lacking his palpable menace, but almost as manic and with a certain "everyday person" vibe that probably made him more approachable by association for parents and younger children who identify clowns with 'fun' (Seriously. Some people do that.) Harley's danger is a bit more "fun" than the leering Joker's. That kind of thinking is, again, where you can see that Dini and Bruce Timm and the other producers really understood the fine line they were walking with the "dramatic cartoon" concept. It's also the first appearance of Renee Montoya, Harvey Bullock's date for Gordon's celebratory dinner who, like Harley, transitioned from the series into the comics and then later into Christopher Nolan's films.

And, despite my disdain for the 50s-era stuff, the fight scene in the remarkably-preserved Mesoamerican temple (a point of absurdity noted by The Joker) is purely from that realm and invokes the fun side to the two characters and their encounters. As with most scenes of that order, it's more like watching a video game than an actual story, but it's still entertaining seeing them go through the paces that both they and the audience know they've trod so many times before. This is part of the hidden dynamic between them, as neither would know what to do with themselves if The Joker actually succeeded in killing his nemesis; a point emphasized by Alan Moore in Batman: The Killing Joke and which Dini drew from with The Batman's rueful laughter at Charlie finally putting one over on his terrible oppressor of the last two years. A lot of people expressed distaste at not only the savagery displayed by The Joker in Killing Joke but also the idea that The Batman somewhat enjoyed their contest of wills. Those people, quite obviously, didn't get the joke. ("I'm here to give you a small token of affection, from me and all the guys doing 25-to-life!")

There's some great visual style employed here, as well. It's not a real deviation from their usual, but little things like the outrageousness of the Crazy Clown Catering truck and maintaining the extra wide smile of Harley even when she's out of her usual costume are good touches that keep the craziness going. Also, the entrance of The Batman to the dinner was a really classic approach, with the spreading cloak (like bat wings...) and the screen being filled with the Batsignal symbol on his chest. There's also a great moment when Collins stays just this side of breaking the fourth wall, when he mutters: "He's nuts!" after hearing more of The Joker's plan. Yes, he is. That's what's so glorious about it. The swinging glider in front of the window as a makeshift Batsignal was also a nice touch. Another was the key quote when The Batman's presence is detected: "I smell a bat!"

There are so many good things about this episode, I could go on and on. On the story side, it's obviously not what Heart of Ice is. The plot is just a vehicle for The Joker's insanity (and perhaps a warning against road rage) so there's nothing particularly deep or meaningful about it. But, like the encounters with Clayface, these are intended to be adventure stories before anything else, and there's almost never been a moment that involved The Joker that isn't an adventure, so I'm fine with it. There's nothing deep or meaningful about ATHF, either, and I'm a huge fan. Sometimes the absurd is good enough.

Next time, we return to Catwoman and Red Claw with The Cat and the Claw, part 2.