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Animating Batman, Part II

For those who came in late: Last week, we began our examination of Warner Animation’s classic 1992 animated program BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, and its various spinoffs and descendants. We left off having just started our discussion of the series’ treatment of Batman’s Rogues’ Gallery, and so there we begin:

Not every character would be as well translated to the series as the Joker and Poison Ivy. The series treatment of the Penguin was very much hampered by Warner Brothers’ insistence that the character fall in line with the version of the character presented in Tim Burton’s feature BATMAN RETURNS, that of Danny DeVito’s sewer-dwelling mutant flippered freak.

However, the series producers and writers were clearly fans of the original, aristocratic mannered conception, with the resulting character being something of a mishmash, with the humpbacked, mutated Penguin speaking with the droll mannerisms of an intellectual, sophisticate. As a study in contrasts, it’s somewhat effective, if not entirely satisfying. There’s certainly no faulting the vocal performance, as 1970s actor/songwriter Paul Williams provides the perfect emotional tone for the Oswald Cobblepot, at once egotistical, charming, hateful and insecure. Williams’ best performance comes in “Birds of a Feather,”(written by Brynne Stephens, directed by Frank Paur) in which Bruce Wayne’s high-society pal Veronica Vreeland (played charmingly throughout the series by TAXI’s Marilu Henner) invites the newly paroled Penguin to her latest function, just to create a buzz. When the Penguin, who has found the respect and adoration he’s always felt he deserved, and has begun to fall for Veronica to boot, learns that he’s actually the butt of the joke and is only included as a curiosity, his sense of betrayal and humiliation pours off the screen, thanks to the expressive animation and the power of Williams’ performance.

Unfortunately, not every Penguin episode would be as well executed. Most of the others are fairly routine, such as the aforementioned “I’ve Got Batman in My Basement,” which was strictly for the kiddies, and “Blind as a Bat,” in which a temporarily blinded Batman must contend with the Penguin’s theft of an experimental attack helicopter. Even the old chestnut of “Penguin steals the Batmobile” is revived in “The Mechanic,” an otherwise decent outing in which the Penguin blackmails Batman’s top-secret vehicle engineer into sabotaging the Batmobile. Actually, in the first series, the Penguin works much better in small doses, such as in “Almost Got ‘Im,” an amusing little gem of an episode by writer Paul Dini and director Eric Radomski in which Batman’s enemies swap tall tales around a poker table about their close calls in killing the Caped Crusader. Big changes would await the Penguin in Batman’s second series, but we’ll get to that later.

The Riddler also took a while to really click with the creators of the animated series. Re-creating him as computer-game designer Edward Nygma, cheated out of his profits and bent on revenge, the animated Riddler only appeared in three featured episodes, and it wasn’t until the third one that it really felt right.

The visual inspiration was clearly Frank Gorshin’s suit-and-tie ensemble from the ABC series, and actor John Glover wisely doesn’t even try to compete with Gorshin’s manic glee, opting instead for a cool smugness in his delivery that works quite nicely. The first two Riddler episodes strayed too far from the Riddler’s basic “riddle-crime” gimmick, instead having him first at the helm of a deadly robotic maze, and then at the controls of a virtual-reality digital death trap. In his last starring role in “Riddler’s Reform,” (written by Randy Rogel, directed by Dan Riba) Edward Nygma is released from Arkham and capitalizes on his newfound notoriety with a line of puzzles and games, and is soon rich, popular and happy.

Unfortunately, his compulsion to outwit the Batman still drives him, and before long he’s risking it all for that last, greatest satisfaction. The writers finally deliver here with riddle-style crimes that are both complex and satisfying, while Glover does his best performance as the Riddler here, ranging from giddy with excitement to bitterly self-hating.

Catwoman fared somewhat better than the Penguin and the Riddler. Although she too was constrained by Warner’s requirement that the character resemble her BATMAN RETURNS counterpart, since the Michelle Pfeiffer Catwoman was far more on-target than the Penguin was, it didn’t have much of an adverse effect, save that the traditionally brunette Selina Kyle was now a blonde.

While Catwoman’s introduction in “The Cat and the Claw” was weighted down somewhat with the introduction of a blah female terrorist named Red Claw, the Batman/Catwoman and Bruce Wayne/Selina Kyle interactions were quite well done, with Adrienne Barbeau’s voice work being sexy and tough without crossing over into Eartha Kitt-style cheese.

Later Catwoman stories took some interesting turns, including Selina Kyle being transformed into an actual cat-woman in “Tyger Tyger,” an ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU pastiche that turned out to be oddly affecting, particularly in the relationship between Selina and Tygris, her intended man-beast mate.

The series attempted to keep Catwoman on the fence throughout most of its run, not quite a villain nor really an ally, until finally returning her to a life of crime in the excellent episode “Catwalk.”

Where the animated series truly excelled, however, was in revitalizing and rethinking many of the lesser-known members of the Rogues” Gallery, many of which are far more resonant (and popular) characters thanks to their numerous appearances on the series. Take, for example, Mr. Freeze. A one-note gimmick villain in his comic-book appearances, Mr. Freeze was best remembered for his awful portrayals by Eli Wallach and Otto Preminger on the Adam West show. As realized by writer Paul Dini and director Bruce Timm in the tragic episode “Heart of Ice,” suddenly the character has a real emotional depth, unseen in any previous appearances.

When a rash of robberies at high-tech warehouses and labs owned by Gothcorp breaks out, led by the mysterious “Mr. Freeze,” Batman’s investigations lead him to a GothCorp security tape, in which he witnesses the sorry fate of GothCorp researcher Victor Fries, a cryogenics specialist who used company equipment to place his beloved wife Nora, dying of an incurable disease, in cryogenic sleep. Gothcorp CEO Ferris Boyle discovers the misuse of company resources and sends in security to shut down the lab, killing Fries” wife, and in the process exposing Fries to chemicals which permanently altered his metabolism, rendering him unable to live outside a subzero environment.

Dini and Timm’s Mr. Freeze is suffused with pain, sorrow and loss, making him at once sympathetic and far more dangerous. Topping off the first-rate writing and animation was the acting of Michael Ansara (a well-known character actor probably best remembered as the Klingon captain Kang in the classic STAR TREK episode “Day of the Dove”), conveying a man whose grief is so great, it’s deadened his other emotions entirely.

The episode won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing in an Animated Program, and the Batman producers wisely realized that this was a character to be used sparingly if the story was to retain its power, and accordingly Mr. Freeze only appeared four more times over the next several animated series, once in a film all his own.

A longtime Batman villain finally got proper treatment outside comics in the animated series’ version of Two-Face. In one of the smarter decisions on the part of the producers, the character of Gotham City District Attorney Harvey Dent made several appearances on the series before his transformation into Two-Face, firmly establishing him as Bruce Wayne’s friend, making his eventual fate all the more tragic. In the two-part episode “Two-Face” (written by Randy Rogel, directed by Kevin Altieri), we’re really given the time to get to know Harvey Dent as he struggles with multiple personality disorder while amidst a re-election campaign.

Despite several outbursts of violent temper, Dent wins the election, only to be blackmailed by crime boss Rupert Thorne, who threatens to release his psychological reports to the press unless the DA agrees to play ball. In the struggle between Dent, Thorne’s men, and a late-arriving Batman desperate to save his friend, a gunman’s bullet and an errant live wire ignites a vat of chemicals (the meet was taking place at a processing plant), massively disfiguring the left side of Dent’s body. The moment when Dent’s fiancee (and the audience) first sees Dent’s new, horribly scarred face is downright chilling. Dent’s other personality, which was already obsessed with a two-headed coin, takes over, and soon begins allowing the flip of a coin to make all his decisions, believing all things in life to be ruled by chance.

The new black-and-white design for Two-Face is a vast improvement over his orange-and purple number from the comics, and actor Richard Moll (remember the bailiff “Bull” from NIGHT COURT?) gives a pair of marvelous performances as both Harvey Dent and Two-Face. His Dent has a quavering quality, as if he’s just hanging onto his sanity by his fingernails, while his Two-Face is cold and emotionless, only occasionally breaking to reveal the anger and torment bubbling beneath. It was hard to top the fantastic Two-Face debut episodes, and I think the producers knew that, choosing to use him primarily in episodes that featured the entire Rogues’ Gallery, with only one or two exceptions, which tended to focus on efforts to rehabilitate Dent.

Two-Face was used again in the two-part episode “Shadow of the Bat” (written by Brynne Stephens and directed by Frank Paur), which introduced Batgirl to the series. Here Commissioner Gordon’s daughter Barbara creates the Batgirl identity to help clear her father’s name, as Gordon has been framed for bribery by a crooked politician, who, it turns out, is in cahoots with Two-Face.

Although Batgirl as portrayed here was appealing enough (with a solid portrayal of Barbara Gordon/Batgirl by Melissa Gilbert), it wouldn’t be until the second series that the Batgirl character would really get to strut her stuff.

Another Bat-villain that received his best treatment ever thanks to the animated series was the ’60s sci-fi villain Clayface, mostly forgotten until BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES got a hold of him. Combining elements from the various comic-book incarnations of the character, the two-part episode “Feat of Clay” (written by Marv Wolfman and Michael Reaves, directed by Dick Sebast and Kevin Altieri) is, like all the best episodes of the series, a tragedy: scarred actor Matt Hagen (played with intensity by Ron Perlman) has come to depend on a new experimental drug provided by criminal pharmaceutical head Roland Daggett, which allows him to remold his very features, and erase the scars from his handsome face.

In exchange for the drug, which can even completely reshape one’s features, Hagen has agreed to perform certain criminal activities for Daggett while in disguise. When Hagen fails on an assignment, Daggett cuts off his supply of the drug, putting his career in jeopardy. Desperate, Hagen breaks into Daggett’s factory to get some more, but is met by Daggett’s goons, and in one of the more disturbing sequences I’ve seen on American television, is force-fed (shown in silhouette, but still most unpleasant) a massive quantity of the drug, which permanently alters his entire body into a claylike substance.

Hagen discovers that with his new body he can impersonate anyone, and even alter his body into deadly forms like bricks and blades, but he can’t hold up the transformation for long, and is, at the core, stuck in his new horrific form. Hagen vows revenge, and begins plotting to ruin Daggett’s plan to market his drug to the public, before murdering him as well. Batman’s eventual strategy to stop the massively more powerful Clayface is a clever one, and also provided some of the best animation early on in the show’s run. Much like Mr. Freeze, the series producers wisely decided to leave this powerful episode alone and not overexpose the character, and Clayface only appeared three more times in the various animated shows.

Although the producers’ batting average was good, it wasn’t perfect. They tried and tried to get the Scarecrow right, but it never quite worked. The character’s design changed more than any other villain from episode to episode, as the animators worked to perfect the character, which was just never as spooky as they clearly intended.

Sometimes his mask would have hair, sometimes it wouldn’t, sometimes the mask would have eyes and teeth and sometimes not, you name it. Ultimately, the character just wasn’t scary enough.

Ironically, some of his episodes worked quite well, such as “Dreams in Darkness” (written by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, directed by Dick Sebast), in which Batman is committed to Arkham Asylum after being dosed with one of the Scarecrow’s fear toxins, which is inducing terrifying hallucinations (one of which, if I recall correctly, centered on the murder of Batman’s parents, and even ended with blood pouring from the mouth of an enormous gun barrel. How they got that past the network I’ll never know…)

Still, the producers seemed to run out of steam on the Scarecrow, and eventually kinda gave up on him, even playing him for laughs in the episode “Harley’s Holiday.” It wasn’t until the second Batman series that we’d see a truly terrifying Scarecrow. We’ll get back to that.

The folks behind the series wisely went right to the source when it came to adapting Ra’s al Ghul for the show, hiring the character’s creator Dennis O’Neil and comics writer Len Wein to write Ra’s’ debut episode “The Demon’s Quest” (directed by Kevin Altieri). The episode followed the comics very closely, providing a globetrotting, high-adventure feel that the series had been lacking up to that point. David Warner provided the right mix of dignity, honor and menace as Ra’s al Ghul, with former Supergirl Helen Slater playing Talia.

Ra’s only appeared twice more, most notably in “Showdown,” which was told almost entirely in flashback, featuring Ra’s facing off against DC Comics’ famous Western character Jonah Hex.

This was the beauty of a series like BATMAN: with such a large episode order (70 episodes followed by 15 more for the first series, a practically unprecedented number nowadays), the producers were able to take chances like this one: an Old West episode in which Batman and Robin barely appear.

Of all the BTAS revamps, the series’ handling of the Mad Hatter was probably the most poignant, in part because the character had previously been so pointless, perhaps even more so than Mr. Freeze, who at least had a good gimmick. With an M.O. as lame as “obsessed with hats,” nearly anything would’ve been an improvement. Fortunately, “Mad as a Hatter” (written by Paul Dini, directed by Frank Paur) came through with flying colors.

Waynetech scientist Jervis Tetch, a lovestruck introvert with a Lewis Carroll fixation, begins with the best of intentions, using his new mind-control technology in a harmless (if a little creepy) attempt to woo his assistant Alice, who’s just been thrown over by her boyfriend.

When the boyfriend returns and proposes, Tetch loses control, and uses his devices to manipulate first the boyfriend, and finally even Alice herself, before Batman steps in to try to put things right. The episode’s coda stands as one of the most powerful and effective in the series, with a defeated Mad Hatter (played to perfection by all-time great Roddy McDowall) watching his beloved run for comfort in the arms of another while Tetch quietly sings a line of Lewis Carroll verse to himself. “Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you … won’t you join the dance?”

The Hatter made several more satisfying appearances, particularly in “Perchance to Dream,” an intriguing take on the “everything you know is a dream” storyline so often used in cartoons, and “The Worry Men,” a scheme to bilk Gotham’s richest with what seems to be a bit of tribal superstition.

A personal favorite of mine is “Baby-Doll,” one of the villains created for the series that never quite caught on. In the episode, written by Paul Dini and directed by Dan Riba, cast members from a long-cancelled sitcom begin disappearing, and all clues point to the series’ former child star, Mary Louise Dahl, better known from the sitcom as “Baby-Doll.”

Dahl, who has a rare medical condition which doesn’t allow her to age, found little success in her acting career after the cancellation of her show, and, bitter and alone, masterminded the kidnapping of her TV family so as to recreate the happier days of her fictitious childhood. Although the script is sharp and funny and the animation is fine as well, it’s the performance by sitcom veteran Alison LaPlaca (probably best remembered as Rachel’s boss on FRIENDS) that really puts this one over the top. In a fantastic little monologue midway through the episode, La Placa transitions from a treacly, Cindy Brady-style moppet voice to the saddened, beaten-down voice of a disillusioned woman so smoothly that the viewer barely even realizes it.

When in the episode’s final moments, Dahl sobs what used to be her wacky catch-phrase (“I didn’t mean to.”) in a broken whimper as even the usually emotionally remote Batman places a hand of support on her shoulder — well, it’s powerful stuff.

Baby-Doll returned once in the second series in an amusing episode that teamed her with perennial second-string villain Killer Croc, but was played by a different actress, and without La Placa’s voice, the character had far less impact.

As I look back on so many of these episodes, what becomes clear is that all of the most effective installments are tragedies, and it’s no surprise when you think about it. With so much of what makes Batman an effective character tied up in grief and loss, any sort of a happy ending is going to ring emotionally false, at least to some degree. It was fortunate the BTAS producers were smart enough to realize that, and determined enough not to give in to pressures to lighten the show up. It’s a situation I don’t think we’ll see again.

Next week, we’ll take a look at THE NEW BATMAN ADVENTURES, the successor series to BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, discuss my picks for “best in show,” and if there’s time, take a trip to the movies.

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