29 December 2012

"Batman: The Animated Series" Volume Three

Batman: The Animated Series Volume Three
Starring the voices of Kevin Conroy as Batman/Bruce Wayne, Loren Lester as Robin/Dick Grayson, Efram Zimbalist, Jr. as Alfred Pennyworth
Date of Release: 24 May 2005
MSRP: $44.95
29 episodes/609 minutes
Volume One | Volume Two | Volume Four

Volume Three represents a bit of a dilemma. The first nine episodes here represent the end of Batman: The Animated Series proper; the remaining twenty episodes comprise The Adventures of Batman & Robin. Released between the two series was the feature film, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. I debated the relevance of the chronology, particularly as the DVDs are not sequenced by airdate or production order. Ultimately, I elected to re-watch Mask of the Phantasm before resuming with The Adventures of Batman & Robin, but I suppose the argument could be made to go either way on it. I reviewed the movie in my Letterboxd diary.

For the most part, Volume Three is pretty far removed from the crime noir aesthetic of earlier episodes. There's a much greater emphasis instead on the rogues gallery, particularly The Joker and Harley Quinn. The Adventures of Batman & Robin was produced as a Saturday morning series, and changes reflect a more cartoon-y sensibility. Robin is a fixture in those twenty episodes. Some fans disliked that, but I was fine with it. I think the whole Robin-bashing thing is absurd.

There are a lot sillier schemes and more gags than were found in The Animated Series. The Joker kidnaps and controls the minds of three comics just to rig winning a comic contest in "Make 'em Laugh", for instance - a particular low in the series. "Baby-Doll" has an okay premise (a Shirley Temple-like actress becomes obsessed with the TV show that's defined her as an adult) but it just feels like a Saturday morning cartoon and not the kind of sophisticated drama that The Animated Series earned its stripes by telling. Even episodes that are played straight seem more obvious and less diligently crafted. "Bane" was almost disappointing, given the kind of potential open to the storytellers of that episode. It's reduced to a brawler, without a lot of tension and there are a couple of shots with Bane bulking up to Venom against a solid red background that just doesn't jibe with what we've seen in other episodes.

All those caveats aside, there are several gems to be found in this collection. Advanced is the Batman/Catwoman relationship, particularly in the solid "Catwalk", in which Selina finds it frustrating to walk the straight and narrow path - an issue that plagues Harley in "Harley's Holiday". Harley appears in three other episodes with The Joker, as well as "Lock-up", for a total of five appearances in twenty-nine episodes. Those are fine episodes, as is "Trial", but they fall just shy of the top tier for me.

Episode Highlights
"Shadow of the Bat" opens Volume Three, introducing us to Batgirl. Barbara Gordon dons the costume to appear as a substitute for Batman at a public rally for her falsely accused father, Police Commissioner James Gordon, who's been set up on corruption charges. Even aside from my fondness for Batgirl, the Gordon set-up alone is a solid mystery. The second part is a bit of a letdown, devolving more into pure action as Batman, Robin and Batgirl tangle with the villain behind the plot and his henchmen, but the first part is a great opening.
Notice the ill-fitting boots.
Though we've already met Ra's al Ghul, he appears in four episodes in Volume Three, including the terrific Indiana Jones-esque two-parter, "The Demon's Quest" and "The Demon's Quest, Part II". Ra's was created to bring Batman out of Gotham City and put him into international-level plots, and this tale does just that. It's fun to watch the rivalry emerge between Batman and Ubu, and also thrilling to see someone interact with Bruce who knows his secret. It makes Ra's unpredictable and a much more personal threat than anyone else in his rogues gallery. David Warner's British accent may be incongruous with Ra's intended Middle Eastern ethnicity, but his measured enunciation is so elegant that it feels right that this is how the head of the League of Shadows should speak.

I've always gotten a private thrill out of "A Bullet for Bullock" in part because it was based on Detective Comics #651, a comic that I bought and read when it was first published. That, to my knowledge, was the first time that a story that I read new was later adapted for the screen. Beyond that connection, though, it's a great crime noir yarn. Watching Bullock reluctantly collaborate with Batman is fun, and even though I knew the twist ending, I have to say it still plays very well in a repeat viewing. Plus, there's that killer sax-heavy score - the only score from the series to win an Emmy.
Ra's al Ghul returns in "Avatar", and it's every bit as great as "The Demon's Quest". Most impressively, Bruce Wayne appears in safari clothes for much of the episode instead of as Batman. That kind of thing is conspicuous anyway, but especially since this episode was part of The Adventures of Batman & Robin. Surely, there was at least one executive afraid that young kids would change the channel on Saturday morning if they didn't see Batman in their Batman cartoon...and that's to say nothing of the heavy exposition and relationship development between Bruce and Talia that dominates the story.

It was in "The Lion and the Unicorn" that we first really learned what a bad dude Alfred once was - and, really, still is. Red Claw, like Ra's al Ghul, draws Batman to the global stage where he shines. Here, her terror plot to blackmail the United Kingdom by threatening to destroy London raises the stakes in a way that somehow wouldn't have been the case had the target been Gotham City. We're used to Batman saving Gotham to the point that we never really feel that Gotham is in true danger. London, however, is different. Who knows? Red Claw might actually blow up London! Plus, there's that climax where Red Claw unmasks Batman from the cockpit seat behind him in the Batplane. Does she get to see who he is? We don't know...

Another bold storytelling decision was "Showdown", in which most of the story revolves around Jonah Hex tracking a bounty in the late 19th Century. Arkady Duvall is a nasty, abusive scoundrel who's done something unspeakable to a "girl" (read: prostitute) in some town somewhere and Hex aims to collect the $200 reward for bringing him to justice. It's fun to watch Hex track - and get - his man, and even more than that, it's clever to use Ra's to link Hex to Batman. This is one of two episodes in Volume Three written by Joe R. Lansdale, along with "Read My Lips" - the debut of Scarface and The Ventriloquist, another solid and fun episode. Both feature old school dialog that few contemporary writers can pen with the organic ease of Lansdale.
I bet Uncle Ruckus cosplays as Jonah Hex.
Harvey Dent is one of the most compelling characters in the mythos, and "Second Chance" is a perfect microcosm of why. Bruce Wayne has bankrolled a surgery to restore the left side of Harvey's face, to complete the hard work he's done in therapy to reassert himself over his Two-Face persona. Just as the scalpel is drawn, though, Harvey is kidnapped. Bruce becomes nearly obsessive about finding his friend, pushing aside Robin. The reveal of the actual culprit is brilliant, though the "never give up on a friend" motif at the end shows feels too forced and exposes how Robin was shoehorned into what should have instead been a solo Batman story.

We've not seen Mr. Freeze since his first appearance in the amazing episode, "Heart of Ice" (on Volume One). His return in "Deep Freeze" is even more affecting, as we see him extorted into servicing Grant Walker's Moonraker-under-water scheme of repopulating the world after wiping it out. Freeze recognizes that Walker is insane, but he's compelled to cooperate because Walker has Nora Fries's frozen body. We see Freeze rationalize going along with Walker, but we know when Batman plays on his fear of being ashamed before the eyes of a revived Nora that he's not as ambivalent as he would like to believe. Freeze is so compelling because he really isn't a bad guy at all. That's at the heart of "Deep Freeze".

The DVD Box Set
The lone featurette, "Gotham's New Knight", focuses on Batgirl. We hear from Bruce Timm, Paul Dini and others as they discuss decisions made about how their portrayal of Batgirl was influenced by, and differs from, previous incarnations.

Beyond that, the only bonus content are commentary tracks for "Read My Lips", "House and Garden" and "Harlequinade". "House and Garden" is a video commentary, which is kind of weird since the commentary isn't on-screen throughout the entire episode. It's not very clear why the video commentary format was chosen for that episode, when an audio commentary would have been entirely sufficient. It's moderated by Jason Hillhouse, who mostly uses it as an opportunity to make sure Bruce Timm knows what a fanboy he is. The other two commentary tracks are more entertaining, and informative to boot. "Read My Lips" and "Harlequinade" are both solid episodes, and I very nearly included both in my Episode Highlights list. "Harlequinade" would have made it had the final act not been so cartoonish and over the top.

1 comment:

  1. Batgirl should wear briefs the same as her male counterpart.