20 December 2012

"Batman: The Animated Series" Volume Two

Batman: The Animated Series Volume Two
Starring the voices of Kevin Conroy as Batman/Bruce Wayne, Efram Zimbalist, Jr. as Alfred Pennyworth
Date of Release: 25 January 2005
MSRP: $44.95
28 episodes/624 minutes
Volume One | Volume Three | Volume Four

Volume Two represents a different tone and wider range of episodes than Volume One. Supervillains are more prevalent here, versus the emphasis on mobsters in Volume One. The Joker appears in six episodes; The Penguin, four; Catwoman, three. Volume Two contains both appearances in the series of Kyodai Ken as well as Professor Milo, and two of the three episodes with The Riddler. Conversely, we only see Rupert Thorne twice in this collection. There are also eight episodes with Robin, versus just four in Volume One.

I've been ranking the series, episode by episode, as I've re-watched them. At present, thirteen of the bottom twenty are from Volume Two. However, eight of the top twenty are also from this set so there's that. I've gotten better at noticing differences between animation studios. I can't name any of the studios, but I've noticed that one studio consistently gave Batman a squiggly mouth instead of the sharp, singular line from Bruce Timm's model sheet. Gordon's hair also has a bit of a distinct flair depending on the studio. Just little things like that.

Episode Highlights
"Heart of Ice" and "Two-Face" set the bar pretty high, but "Robin's Reckoning" and "Robin's Reckoning, Part II" are even better. I know there are a lot of Robin-haters out there, but I'm not one of them. Aside from giving Batman someone to talk with, Robin offers two very important storytelling opportunities. Just like Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson was orphaned through violence. Yet Dick makes different choices about it than Bruce; he has a different (healthier) perspective on his life. In a lot of ways, it's Bruce who ought to be following Dick's example.

The other thing, of course, is that Bruce's paternal side comes out with Dick. It gives us a different side to him than we tend to see. It's something that Superman didn't have, and one more way in which Batman was made more accessible as a human character. "Robin's Reckoning" shows the murder of the Graysons in a heartrending, off-screen image that's a testament to the power of evocation. We don't need to see their bodies fall from the trapeze to know what's happened, and there's something about knowing without seeing that's even sadder somehow.

It's the end of "Part II", though, that demonstrates the importance of the relationship between mentor and apprentice. Robin says he understands why Batman didn't want him on the case to find his parents' killer; that he would lose his objectivity. "It wasn't that, Robin," Batman says. "It wasn't that at all. Zucco has taken so much, caused you so much pain. I couldn't stand the thought he might take you, too." There's a pause in Kevin Conroy's voice after the word "might" that tells us just how vulnerable Batman is in that moment. Perfect.

Kyodai Ken first appears in "Night of the Ninja", a very interesting episode, but it's his second appearance in "Day of the Samurai" that's the real masterpiece. Kyodai was Bruce Wayne's rival when Bruce studied under Sensei Yoru, long before becoming Batman. Embittered, he's set out for revenge against the "rich man's son" he blames for his expulsion from Yoru's dojo. This is personal, in a way that no other Batman enemy ever quite was. The climax of the episode, with Bruce fighting Kyodai - unmasked - on an erupting volcano? Amazing animation. Absolutely amazing. It's the most perfect homage to the Fleischer/Famous Studios Superman short films of the entire series, and that's a good thing.
That is pure awesomesauce.
If you're going to have supervillains together, there's no better way to do it than "Almost Got 'Im", in which The Joker, Penguin, Two-Face and Poison Ivy trade stories about the closest they've each gotten to snuffing out Batman. It's a fun episode, as much for the sparring camaraderie between the villains as anything else in the episode. Plus, it advances the relationship between Batman and Catwoman; each coming to the other's rescue. For twenty years now, my friends and I have quoted Batman-as-Croc: "It was a big rock." You'd be surprised how often the chance to use that actually comes up.

Batman: The Animated Series was at its finest with drama and melodrama, and the stakes were rarely higher than in "I Am the Night". During a raid on a gangster known as The Jazzman, Commissioner Gordon is shot. We'd seen characters in peril lots of times in cartoons, of course, but that was to my knowledge the first time we'd ever seen one actually injured by gunfire. Remember; bullets hadn't been part of any other cartoons, unless they were clearly over-the-top (as with Yosemite Sam, for instance). Gordon being shot was a striking bit of realism that stands out even more today than it did to me at the time.

Also, there's depressed/furious Bruce Wayne blaming himself for Gordon's injuries. It's a level of self-recrimination that rings all too true, and it's well beyond the level of reflection that we'd seen from anyone else in animation. There are real consequences for these characters, and they're consequences that you and I risk in some way on a daily basis. We could feel responsible for something happening to those closest to us. We could be shot - a point we know all too well in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy.

Animation used to be afraid for us kids to be aware of such things, but Batman: The Animated Series did not shy away from them. Why should it have? These were, and are, very serious matters.

A personal favorite of mine has always been "The Man Who Killed Batman", in which Sid the Squid takes credit for killing Batman after an apparent fatal accident. His notoriety quickly attracts some unwanted attention from The Joker, who becomes distraught at the idea that his vicious cycle with Batman has been broken; much less by someone as irrelevant as Sid. It's the stuff with The Joker that makes this one so much fun. Another immortal line from the series comes from this episode: "Well, that was fun! Who's for Chinese?"

We see Dr. Leslie Thompkins a few times in Volume Two. Her best appearance in the series remains "Appointment in Crime Alley", but "Paging the Crime Doctor" here is also a strong outing. Like other characters, Dr. Matthew Thorne was reinvented as a far more sympathetic character than his comic book counterpart. Here, he's tried to eek out a living on the black market after losing his medical license on account of his brother, Rupert Thorne. When the mob boss needs a procedure, though, Matthew coerces Leslie Thompkins into assisting him. Motivations and relationships are complex in this episode, and while the entanglements are a bit too cute, the finale is genuinly touching: Bruce Wayne offers to pay for Matthew's legal defense on the condition that he "Tell me about my father." The look on Bruce's face is full of palpable longing. Amazing stuff.

The last episode I want to highlight from Volume Two is the last one, "Harley and Ivy". Though Harley Quinn originated as The Joker's henchwoman/girlfriend, it was through her relationship with Poison Ivy that she really evolved. Ivy benefited even more. Before hooking up with Harley, she had been a rather one-note character. With this partnership, though, she took on a whole new persona. Batman: The Animated Series had a lot of great female characters; even the villains were well-developed. The chemistry between Harley and Ivy was a pure delight.

The DVD Box Set
We get four commentary tracks this time around, all interesting and candid. "Robin's Reckoning", "Heart of Steel, Part II", "Almost Got 'Im" and "Harley and Ivy". I've never been big on the "Heart of Steel" two-parter as far as its story, but the animation is spectacular and it was a lot of fun listening to Kevin Altieri explain some of the influences that went into the action sequences.

"Robin Rising" is a little featurette about how Robin was developed in the series. I always found it interesting that they had already used the character a few times before ever delving into his back story in "Robin's Reckoning".

"Gotham's Guardians" is a fluff piece about secondary characters. There were better ways to spend ten minutes on bonus content, but this is what they gave us.

More interesting is "Voices of the Knight", a piece in which Kevin Conroy (Batman), Efram Zimbalist, Jr. (Alfred), Adrienne Barbeau (Catwoman) and Mark Hamill (The Joker) discuss their work on the show, along with voice director Andrea Romano. I've always been fascinated by voice actors and the chance to actually see some of them is always exciting for me. Even when it's someone as well known to me as Mark Hamill, it wasn't until I actually saw him on camera talk about working as The Joker that I could finally, truly believe it was him.

Lastly, there are trailers for Batman: The Animated Series Vol. 1, Challenge of the Super Friends and Superman: The Animated Series Vol. 1. They're so ho-hum that I defer to depressed Batman for a reaction: