The Batman Review: The Bat in the Belfry (S1E01)

(DISCLAIMER: The author of this blog owns none of the properties depicted below. All images used below are property of their respective companies unless stated otherwise.)

Original Airdate: September 11, 2004
Writer: Duane Capizzi
Director:
Seung Eun Kim

A short warning before we begin: I’m an extremely pompous geek who loves to show off how much he knows about Batman. So most every review is going to start with me blathering on about the entire history of that episode’s villain, plus any other stories that might’ve served as an inspiration for the episode.

Buuut not this one. It stars the Joker, and if you don’t know who that is, you should probably get back to Remedial Batmanology.

Let’s take a look.

We begin, naturally, with a Batman Cold Open – a scene where the hero kicks some ass, no context required. In other words, it’s The Batman attempting this:

DA-na-na-na-na…

Thing is, though – that’s not a fight anyone can really win. The B:TAS opening sequence is one of the few parts of that show I find legitimately untouchable. Senior Batmanologist Chris Sims lays out a bunch of Deep, Insightful Reasons here, but the superficial parts are more than enough for me – Tokyo Movie Shinsa’s animation is smooth and slick, the show’s signature Dark-Deco style gets played to all its strengths, and Danny Elfman’s score could get a mannequin’s blood pumping.

And what does The Batman offer in response? Some cool-if-forgettable guitar riffs, designs from Jeff Matsuda (an acquired taste at best for those who didn’t grow up with Jackie Chan Adventures), and a pioneering style that some guy way wittier than me christened “Why the fuck is the sky green?” – all decent for your run-of-the-mill superhero cartoon, but not much beyond that.

In any case, the ass getting kicked belongs to one Rupert Thorne, surely the patron saint of bit-part bad guys. B:TAS only whipped him out when the script called for a one-dimensional mobster, and even in the comics his big debut was almost instantly hijacked by the heavyweights. The Batman doesn’t touch a hair of that – it just ’70s up the whole package beyond recognition.

Thorne01
Zoom in on his hands and you’ll see a moodstone on every ring.

This is another thing that instantly sets The Batman apart from B:TAS That Other Show –  all the aesthetics have been bumped up three or four decades. There’s not a fedora or tie to be found among these gangsters, and you shouldn’t hold your breath expecting that to change.

Also not appearing: realistic guns of any kind. Well, Goon Number One gets a bazooka, but gets disarmed before he can fire it and… doesn’t even try to pick it back up before grabbing a pole and charging. Goon Number Two gets a set of glowy laser nunchucks (coming soon to a Wal-Mart toy aisle near you!). Our hero beats the shit out of ’em, stylishly sticking to the shadows all the while – not a new trick by any means, but hey, if it ain’t broke…

His backup gone, Thorne does something I really wish more Batman stories would try: offer this bigger, scarier outlaw a cut of the loot. Sure, we know it’s pointless, but what mafioso wouldn’t treat bribes as a fact of life, especially in Gotham? When that fizzles out – or maybe he’s just realized there’s nothing stopping the new guy from taking a 100% cut – then he bails.

For a whole roof and a half.

TheBatman01
Fighting evil by moonlight.
Winning love by daylight.
Never running from a real fight.
He is the one called the Batman.

Now, pretty much every design in this show has gotten shit at one point or another, but the star usually gets a free pass, and it’s not hard to see why. Beneath all the anime stylings, it’s a pretty conservative take on the character – and the overlong cape gets two thumbs up from me, splayed across the ground like a big black claw while doubling as a reminder that the guy wearing it still has some growing to do.

So Thorne’s off to the clink, but not before cuing our hero’s first dialogue:

“H-How’d you do that?”
“I’m the Batman.”

A little on-the-nose, maybe, but you certainly can’t accuse it of not respecting tradition. As for the vocals… while not exactly a big name in the VA industry, Rino Romano puts in a fair job as a green-but-tough crimefighter, and it’s not really his fault that this show rarely gives him the rich, emotional story beats That Other Show so lavished on Kevin Conroy.

Meanwhile, Thorne sounds pretty dopey throughout, but let’s face it: how many of us would do better if we were getting stared down by the Batman? And yes, the “the” is mandatory. This show commits to its l33t edginess, yo.

Want more proof? They literally got a guy called The Edge to do the theme song.

I thought this opening kicked all the ass in the world when I was eleven, but now that I’m older and wiser… I still think it kicks ass, barefaced gadget toy advertising and all. That said, older-and-wiser me still needed someone else’s help to figure out that sound at the end is an awkwardly stage-whispered “The Batmaaan” and not the Batmobile revving up, so you be the judge.

Those wonderful toys, by the way, get their very own aesthetic: neon glows against blacks and grays, like something straight out of Blade Runner. Hmm… Batman with the aesthetics of Blade Runner, all meant for a younger, more toy-loving audience than the OH GOD NO.

One day I might stomach more than 30 minutes of this. That day is not today.

Well, at least we’re not seeing Happy Meal plugs yet. Instead, our hero returns to the Batcave after a hard night’s work, and finds his faithful servant waiting with something a mite more wholesome.

Alfred01
“… Alfred, this better not go to my hips.”

Turns out it’s been exactly three years since Bruce donned cape and cowl. Alfred tells him to make a wish, getting the all-important backstory across crisply if a little too cloyingly (did we really need to fade out to a photo of li’l Bruce playing with mommy and daddy?). Then it’s time for us to meet… urrrrghhhh…

Chief Angel Rojas.

Rojas01

Since he’s a fat cop who hates the hero and everything, it would be easy to compare Rojas to Harvey Bullock from That Other Show, but I can’t slander Bullock’s name so. Rojas has no redeeming features whatsoever: he’s ugly, loud, surly, abusive to his men, and horrifically incompetent as a cop, and can’t even manage to be funny with any of those schticks. I’m no big fan of how often superhero writers push Javert-types into out-and-out villainy, but I think I’d have preferred it in this case – at least Rojas being straight-up evil would’ve provided some sense of catharsis, like the dirty cops in Batman: Year One.

As-is? I maintain that a lot of The Batman get too much hate in too many quarters, but Rojas is one that really doesn’t get enough.

Speaking of Year One, Rojas’ main role in these early episodes – aside from making me wish for his slow and painful death – is to evoke that very setting, where even non-criminals at best dismiss the Batman as an “urban legend” and at worst actively gun for his cowl on a plate. It’s a bold departure from That Other Show’s Gotham, which usually took the resident vigilante for granted (unless the villain-of-the-week was pulling a frame-job). Or at least it would be, if Bruce weren’t all “The Batman’s right where he likes, hovering below the radar” like Rojas is doing him a damn favor.

That, right there, sums up the show’s biggest hurdle: it wants this edgy young hero who’s got the whole damn world against him, but it also wants this cool trendy hero who’s totally With It™ so buy his toys please please PLEASE. At a time his mission should be at its rawest, he’s practically got Gotham’s biggest, best-armed bunch of Bat-haters eating out of his hand – all while Exposition News gushes about how Gotham’s crime rates have dropped to a nationwide low since he showed up. Geez, I’m not sure Adam West’s Gotham ever got that rosy.

66Batman
“Back in our day a man could get killed over a surfing contest! Uphill both ways!”

It’s a throwaway line in the grand scheme of things, and later episodes will do a lot more to emphasize how thankless and grueling the Batman’s early years really are – but still. How hard would it have been to give Bruce a tiny frown, the slightest edge in his voice as he assures Alfred that no, he’s totally fine with being persona non grata among cops and robbers both?

Over at police headquarters, Chief Rojas makes himself marginally useful for the first and last time in the series, partnering local detective Ethan Bennett with Metropolis transfer Ellen Yin. I’ll get in-depth on these two later, so for now let’s just call it a tentative win for social progress that the GCPD is so diversified.

Fast-forward to sundown, and Bruce has to keep up the good ol’ zillionaire layabout image by filling the celeb seat at an NBA game. This is an interesting byproduct of that whole With It™ mandate – Bruce’s civilian half is played up as a very noveau riche type, with zero taste for his predecessor’s country clubs and black-tie dinners (hell, he starts the morning with cereal on the couch; That Other Show’s Robin would probably be scandalized). And if trouble should rear its ugly head during an engagement? No need for a big, clunky Signal when he’s got a handy-dandy Palm Pilot Bat-Wave that can tap straight into the police band.

Okay, enough with the good guys. Much like Disney, any Batman story worth its salt knows evil has all the real stars. Anyone wanna guess our next stop?

Arkham01
My mind feels healthier already.

With so much else in The Batman reeking of the lighter-and-softer, it seems that the showrunners felt they had to balance things out by pushing Arkham as far in the other direction as humanly possible, and they seriously knocked it out of the park. I mean, That Other Show’s Arkham was never sunshine and lollipops, but here the place looks downright medieval – never mind the inmates, the staff dress like they wade through people’s insides for a living.

Now, starting off your shiny new Batman series with a Joker story seems like a no-brainer, but history shows it’s actually something of a rarity. Aside from this show, the only examples I can name offhand are the ’70s Filmation cartoon and the Tim Burton movies. Some fans will, of course, contend that there’s no better sign of a show being written by corporate number-crunchers instead of true artists (sniff), and fair’s fair, I suppose it does signify fewer chances being taken.

After all, That Other Show used its first episode on Man-Bat, of all villains…

Wish they’d made him interesting too, but I guess you can’t have everything.

So Joker gets a horror movie sort of intro, shot from the POV of the guard he attacks. I heartily applaud the concept, less so the guard sounding like he’s inhaled half the weed in Gotham. Whatever strengths that trope has in horror, it just doesn’t work in a superhero setting.

Time for Another Gratuitous Comparison: That Other Show’s Joker premiere also used a horror intro, to much stronger effect. Most of us don’t work at a mental institution that would make Ted Bundy crap himself, but cussing out some asshole in the middle of rush hour? We’ve all been there before. So when the big reveal comes…

JokersFavor

… it just hits so much closer to home.

Anyways, bravely stepping into Mark Hamill’s spats is one Kevin Michael Richardson, proud alum of every goddamn cartoon with even a shred of popularity stateside (and several dozen without). And let’s get something out of the way – I like the baritone Richardson brings to the role. The Joker, of all characters, should always be free to experiment with every stripe of voice out there.

We’ll get to his looks later, but for now, lemme just say that this Cheshire Cat shot – two red eyes and a yellow smile in midair – is probably the scariest he gets all episode.

Joker01
“I’m not crazy. My reality is just different than yours.”

After the guard’s out of the way, Joker hits the asylum’s plot-mandated Open All Cells button. Do the inmates who clamber out look familiar? They should. They made That Other Show.

Inmates
Some folks go gentle into that good cancellation. Some folks aren’t Bruce Timm.

Does this big breakout amount to anything other than an excuse to get Batman and the police over to Arkham? Not really, but I suppose that was inevitable. At this point, there’s exactly one big-name supervillain on the scene, and he’s technically hasn’t even been committed; whatever charges Arkham does have might make for good primetime TV viewing, but I shudder to think of how any writer would be able to squeeze them past a Y7 rating.

So Bruce stands up his two beards dates at the big game, steals a joke from Batman ’89 while he’s at it, and makes a beeline for Arkham. Which, thanks to the magic of high explosives, has been sealed off to absolutely everyone else.

ArkhamGame
Waiting for a reference to this? Keep waiting because my potato laptop can’t even load the intro.

Inside, the Batman finds nothing but cold shoulders and stern… whoop, my mistake, one guy’s pretty glad to see him!

Gassed
Joker Gas: Not Even Once.

Now, obviously, the Joker’s trademark poison can’t get too hardcore under a Y7 rating, and I think it’s fair to say this would’ve been enough to spook most eight- or nine-year-olds in the audience at the time. Still, I’m more inclined to the smaller, subtler grins of That Other Show’s Joker victims. I don’t think gritty naturalism is best for every facet of Batman (and I may never forgive Chris Nolan for making that gospel among a whole generation of fans), but it usually is the way to go if you’re dipping into the horror side of things.

Then it’s time for our first proper look at the Joker.

TarzanJoker
Fear not, this is just a little conceptual doodle. In the actual show his tongue is blue!

Okay, there’s a lot to hate about this design, starting with how it drop-kicks every ounce of subtlety out the closest window. I know that subtle usually isn’t a word anyone associates with the Joker, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s vital to all the best portrayals. For maximum punch, a Joker design should contain something that hides the brutal, merciless monster clown underneath – be it the candy-coated jolliness of ’66, the smarmy kitsch of ’89, or even the meth-head shabbiness of ’08.

This, on the other hand, just shrieks “I’M DANGEROUS! NOTICE MEEEE!!!” through a tin-plated megaphone. It’s not the absolute worst of its breed…

DeathOfTheFamily
Pictured: why people named Snyder should just stay the hell away from DC.

… but even fans who like their Jokers a little more demonic are usually all too happy to sweep this one under the rug. The one part I’m willing to thumbs-up is the straitjacket – it’s a clever-ish spin on his motif, and after all these years I’m still a little creeped out by the way his arms just kinda taper off into five-foot sleeves. So naturally, he loses those about two minutes later. Baaah.

Anyways, after “mistaking” the new trespasser on the block for a straggling inmate, Joker handily pops off his nom de crime. Now, That Other Show never really covered this iconic first encounter (viewers were apparently supposed to let Burton’s stuff fill in the blanks), which means Capizzi’s script has some extra-fertile ground to work with. And to its credit, it does take a swing at some fairly sophisticated ideas… if with about as much subtlety as the Joker’s design. I know – today’s comics have beaten the “superheroes and villains are BOTH kuh-razy!” drum into the ground and then some – but it’s still not a light concept to drop on the young’uns.

For his part, the Batman just marches on in and starts getting all handsy, as Batmen are wont to do in situations like these.

Exhibit A.

He’s quick to learn, of course, that this clown’s getup comes au naturale. Rallying quickly like a good hero should, he offers to find some professional help for his foe’s rampantly untreated skin condition and/or criminal psychosis.

Then this starts happening.

By now, all the old-school fans (who haven’t already run away screaming from the concept art) have probably stormed out in disgust. Me – I was going through my One Piece phase when I first saw this, so I just thought it was awesome. Seriously, what’s the point of touring the world and studying eighteen different martial arts if every crook in Gotham is going to fold to some good ole fisticuffs?

“Oh, my. An angry mob reaction image. How original.”

Also, the Joker’s playing-card shuriken kick ass, and anyone who says different can meet me in the pit.

Joker explains that he took over Arkham because he needs a new hideout (or something), but all this kung-fu fighting is too much for him so he runs off with tail between legs. This leads to what’s probably my favorite part of the episode, where the Batman tries to give chase and finds himself facing a giant jack-in-the-box.

Did I mention that was exactly what Joker’s high explosives were packed in?

Our hero tries to crank it back with all his might, but the calamitous contraption is just a little too strong for him. And right when it looks like this show should be renaming itself The Splatman

JackInTheBox

Call it a cop-out if you want, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s the most genuinely Jokerish bit in the whole damn script.

And speaking of cops – seems Gotham’s Finest are finally starting to catch up, which means it’s time for the Batman to make tracks and take the Joker’d guard with him as Robin antidote material. Bennett and Yin show up just in time to see him grapple onto… I dunno, the moon… and vanish into the night, before they can so much as flash their badges.

Next morning, Bruce gets another handy soundbite from Exposition News – or his hallucination thereof, since they apparently forgot to draw the newscast, so all we get to see is a blank screen. On a brighter note, Alfred confirms that Joker’s gas doesn’t kill – it just locks up every muscle in your body while leaving your mind in total conscious agony!

After some kid-friendly detective work (find Joker’s old hideout, get sample of his poison, yadda yadda), we come to our second-act cliffhanger: Detective Bennett’s storming Wayne Manor, and no amount of excuses is gonna keep him…

… from some much-needed downtime with his best bud Bruce Wayne.

The amount of Totally Radicalness in this scene must be seen to be believed.
“In the Gotham City justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police who investigate crime, and billionaire nutjobs. These are their stories.”

Okay, let’s talk about Ethan Bennett.

He’s a pretty transparent stand-in for Harvey Dent – supporting player in the city establishment, old friend of Bruce Wayne’s – who exists mainly because Chris Nolan already called dibs on Dent and the brain donors running Time Warner thought their viewers’ feeble little minds couldn’t handle the same villain showing up in multiple productions. That, by the way, is a good chunk of the reason so many people hate this show, as that exact same non-logic barred Joker and all his fellow Arkhamites from later seasons of Justice League.*

Ethan’s kind of obnoxious in the first few episodes, since his dialogue is at the mercy of middle-aged white guys trying to write Black Talk™, but the concept is something I can really get behind. The two of them have to be at least five tax brackets apart, and yet here he is, ringing up Bruce about weekend hoops like a they’re couple of sixth-graders who’ve lived on the same block all their lives. A mite unrealistic, maybe, but it really sells Bruce as a more approachable breed of zillionaire.

(That said, I’m not exactly in a position to finger-wag people who hate the Black Best Friend trope with a burning vengeance. Let’s leave it at that.)

So Ethan’s in the market for a sympathetic ear: he’s the one cop in Gotham who’ll even consider the Batman being a good thing, and the department has rewarded such outside-the-box thinking by cuffing him to the case. You might think – Alfred’s “only a Ming” bit aside – this is our cue for some heavy-duty character work…

… and you’d be dead fucking wrong. The episode’s only got five minutes of runtime left and hasn’t even started setting up the big climax. Cut to who-knows-how-long later, as the Batman displays more genre savvy than all of his predecessors put together and just cruises through the abandoned-factory district until he spots something with a clown on the roof.**

Sure enough, out comes Laughing Boy with his latest knee-slapper.

Stop Me If You've Heard This One
“See, there were these two guys in a lunatic asylum…”

Actually, it’s even less subtle than that, and without the novelty of the first go-round, it’s exponentially emptier. Let’s just cut to the chase: Joker’s got a hot-air balloon filled with laughing gas, and he’s going to run it right against the big Joan of Arc Gotham statue downtown. This… is not exactly what you’d call a riveting Joker plot. In fact, “Joker tries to poison the city” may well be the driest one next to “Joker attacks someone close to Batman, Batman swears to end him ONCE AND FOR ALL, cue navel-gazing.”***

It might’ve passed muster back in ’89, but at least that take had some choice lines, Nicholson at his Nicholsoniest, and a passable stab at social satire. And you know what happened when That Other Show tried to recycle it? A miserable dud that even Mark Hamill couldn’t keep afloat. What this episode needed was some long-overdue innovation on the concept.

What it got was a new hat for Laughing Boy.

JokerFlight
My interest! Ze goggles do nozhing!

The rest just digs deeper and deeper into paint-by-numbers territory: more quips, more kung-fu fighting, a needlessly last-millisecond save (seriously, Bruce, couldn’t you have just cut the lines instead of trying to tow the whole damn balloon away?) and Joker folds like a lawn chair right after. Ten stories below, Bennett and Yin witness the whole thing… somehow… and make one last, brave effort to be relevant to the plot.

Alas, said effort amounts to precisely jack shit, because the Batboat (in stores this Christmas!) wants its 30-second plug and wants it now.

So Bruce makes his landing in Gotham Bay, where he immediately cuts the balloon open so he can grab a sample of the gas. No, there’s not a peep about what the rest of the gas will do to the ecosystem, why do you ask?****

Epilogue: antidote’s been invented through the miracle of Bat-science, the guard’s a-okay, and Arkham says hello to a new patient. And goodbye to its fourth wall.

As Bat-premieres go, it’s… a pretty long way from the gold standard. Batman ’66 kicked off by unleashing the sheer loony glee of Frank Gorshin’s Riddler – and the Batusi – on the world. That Other Show provided some truly gorgeous music and animation that more than made up for the ho-hum Man-Bat plot. Batman Begins, for better or worse, launched a new Renaissance in superhero filmmaking. Hell, even The Brave and the Bold gets points for using a hero as bush-league as Jaime Reyes to lay down its anything-goes premise.

This, on the other hand, is basically a low-rent Batman ’89, and if the designs and soundtrack didn’t grab you from the start, you’re probably gonna have a hard time finding pros to balance out the cons. Please do believe me, though, when I say that it gets much better later on; and if nothing else, Richardson’s vocals do tend to grow on a guy.

Next: Now is not the time for too many Chris Nolan jokes. That comes later.

* I’m actually pretty grateful to the so-called “Bat-Embargo”, but that’s a rant for a whole ‘nother day.

** Fair’s fair, though – the “Monarch” nameplate is a pretty clever nod.

*** That said, given the choice between the two I’d take the former every damn time. The latter is such an obnoxious cliché that Sergio Aragonés was able to tear it a new one in 1996, and modern writers still won’t stop doing it.

**** According to Capizzi, this was in fact meant to homage yet another Joker classic, but the scene got trimmed for time constraints. Nice to know he’s got his heart in the right place, at least.

7 thoughts on “The Batman Review: The Bat in the Belfry (S1E01)

  1. Man, all I can remember from my early encounters with this show is my older, die-hard B:TAS!Joker fan of a sister shitting on this Joker’s design everytime she so much as heard it. Well, Jaime, now that you can’t hear me, I LIKE his jester-esque hair!! Take that!!

    (This episode was so bland to me I don’t have a specific comment on it. Whoo!)

    Like

    • ‘ello, welcome to the blog! Stay awhile – gift shop is to the right.

      (I’d originally wanted to make a DBZ crack about Joker’s hair, but forgot. Never saw too much DBZ anyhow, so no big loss.)

      (… you have a sister?)

      Like

  2. Good on you, Lotus! I may hate this show with a fiery passion of a thousand suns, but you make it seem mildly tolerable (plus Kevin Michael Richardson is a precious resource no matter what role he’s in).

    Like

  3. Really enjoyed this show as a kid, I don’t think it holds up quite as well as I remember but it does have it’s good points. Heck, even TAS doesn’t hold up completely; few childhood shows do. Still, I don’t think this show deserves nearly as much hate as it got and still gets.

    Like

  4. Regarding the opening animation for That Other Show, you were right the first time here; it was TMS. They just didn’t do “On Leather Wings.” Sorry for the confusion.

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  5. We didn’t watch TV much when I was a kid, and while I have encountered That Other Show before, I’m not even sure The Batman ever aired down here, except maybe on pay TV, which we didn’t have. On top of that, comics don’t do it for me, so I’m adrift in a sea of confusion here.

    But for what it’s worth, RL, I just watched both shows’ intros right now, and The Other Show’s struck me as bland. Preteen You (Rubber Bud?) was right: it’s awesome. As an outsider to the Batman universe (except the Nolan movies), it gave me a much clearer sense of what I was looking at. Stick to your guns, I say.

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