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, for Christ’s sake. You should know who he is. If you don’t, you’d better get back to Remedial Batmanology.

Let’s take a look.

We begin with what TV Tropes calls a Batman Cold Open: a scene where the hero takes down a bunch of small-time punks unrelated to the main plot. So yeah, it’s basically The Batman‘s attempt at 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, Meaningful 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.

Meanwhile, The Batman gives us some cool-but-rather-forgettable guitar music, the character designs of 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?”

In any case, the villain they’ve volunteered for the Cold Open is one Rupert Thorne. I’ve always found Thorne kind of a non-presence no matter what medium he’s in – B:TAS whipped him out whenever they needed a generic mobster type, and even in the comics his only legitimate claim to fame is that time he killed Hugo Strange but not really. The Batman doesn’t do much to change that, unless you considers ’70s-ing him up beyond recognition to be a change worth noting.

Thorne01
I’d make some witty ’70s joke here, but I literally wasn’t even alive back then.

This is another thing that instantly differentiates The Batman from B:TAS That Other Show –  it’s got a very post-millennial feel to it. 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 in this episode: realistic guns of any kind. Goon Number One gets a bazooka, but gets disarmed before he can fire it and… doesn’t even bother picking it back up before grabbing a pole and charging Batman. Goon Number Two gets a set of glowy laser nunchucks (coming soon to a Wal-Mart toy aisle near you!). Batman beats the shit out of ’em, and I have to say – I like how the show goes out of its way to keep him obscured from the viewer ’til the very end of the cold open. It’s not terribly original, but hey, if it ain’t broke…

Thorne panics, and does something that’s pretty realistic for a Batman story (at least the lighter ones) but I can’t recall ever seeing before: offer Batman a cut of the loot. When it becomes clear that Batman’s not interested – or maybe he’s just realized that there’s nothing stopping Bats from taking all the loot for himself – Thorne takes to the rooftops. Hey, if some nut in a Dracula suit hops across these all the time, how hard can it be?

Give the guy some credit. He made it 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.

For all the shit that older Bat-fans throw at this show’s character designs, Batman himself usually gets off light, and it’s not hard to see why. Anime stylings aside, it’s a fairly conservative take on Batman, and the storyboarders are pretty fond of having him walk around with his whole cape wrapped around him like a cloak, which I absolutely approve of.

So Thorne’s off to the clink, but not before he cues Batman’s first line:

“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 a Big Name in the VA industry, Rino Romano does a fair job as Batman, and it’s not really his fault that this show rarely gives him the deep, emotional story beats That Other Show 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… well, it still holds up a decent amount, even though the gadget toy advertising has zero sense of restraint. Still, eleven-year-old me was dense enough to think that noise at the end was the Batmobile revving up, not an awkwardly stage-whispered “The Batmaaan”, so you be the judge.

By now, it should be clear that the show loves sticking to its aesthetics. Which in this case means that all of Batman’s stuff is glowy against a dark backdrop like we’re in the world of Blade Runner. Hmm… a combination of Batman and the aesthetics of Blade Runner, all meant for a younger audience than the… OH GOD NO.

One day I will watch this all the way through. That day is not today.

Nah. It’s not that bad. Yet.

Anyways, Bruce returns to the Batcave after a hard night’s work, only to find Alfred’s whipped up a little surprise:

Alfred01
“… Alfred, is this going to 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, and this whole scene carries Batman’s backstory effectively, if a little too mawkishly (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 anti-Batman cop and everything, it would be easy to compare Rojas to Harvey Bullock from That Other Show, but that’s quite frankly an insult to Bullock. Rojas has no redeeming features whatsoever. He’s loud, unpleasant, ugly, abusive to his men, and horrifically incompetent as a cop, and can’t even manage to be funny with any of those traits. I tend to be annoyed at how Batman stories in general turn almost every anti-Batman cop into an out-and-out villain sooner or later, but I think I’d have preferred it in this case – at least him being flat-out evil would’ve given us some sense of catharsis, as with the dirty cops in Frank Miller’s Year One.

Long story short: a lot of The Batman get too much fan-hate in a lot of quarters, but Rojas is one element that I don’t think gets enough.

Anyways, Rojas’ primary function in the first few seasons (aside from making me wish for his slow and painful death) is to establish that this is still the Early Years era, where the Gotham City Police are reluctant to trust Batman or even admit to his existence. To be fair, though, Bruce himself seems perfectly happy with this status quo.

This show really goes out of its way to portray Bruce Wayne as young and hip, which isn’t exactly easy when he’s an Old Money White Guy, aka the squarest background known to man. Still, I can’t make myself see this Bruce going to art shows or operas, and he even comments on Exposition News in a T-shirt over breakfast instead of while exercising/inventing some new doohickey down in the Batcave, so… mission accomplished, I guess.

Oh, and apparently Batman’s operations over the last three years have made Gotham’s crime rates drop to a nationwide low. Geez, I don’t think even the Adam West show was that optimistic.

66Batman
“No time to waste, old chum! The Riddler’s on the loose!”
“AGAIN?! Holy bleeding-hearts, we just put him away THREE DAYS ago!”

Cut to police headquarters, where Chief Rojas does the least assholish thing he does in this series: pairing up local detective Crispus Allen Harvey Dent Ethan Bennett with Metropolis transfer Eliza Maza Renee Montoya Ellen Yin. I’ll get in-depth on them later, so for now let’s just call it a tentative win for Progressivism™ that all three central cops in this series are minorities.

As night falls, Bruce has to keep up appearances by going to a basketball game. I don’t really like how Romano sounds here – a little too petulant and childish for my tastes – but it’s still the first episode so I’ll let it slide. Since it’s still too early for the Bat-Signal and Commissioner Gordon, Alfred presents Bruce with a little PDA thing called the Bat-Wave (complete with cringeworthy salespitch) that’ll alert him if there’s any supervillainy afoot.

Okay, enough with the good guys. Much like Disney, the villains are the real stars in any Batman story worth its salt. Anyone wanna guess what our next stop is?

Arkham01
My mind feels healthier already.

While a lot of elements in The Batman were kiddified compared to That Other Show, it seems that the showrunners felt they had to make up for it by pushing Arkham as far in the other direction as humanly possible. The Other Show’s depiction of Arkham was often fairly creepy, but this show’s depiction gets downright medieval. For Christ’s sake, all the staff walk around in robes like they’re prepared to do an old-fashioned lobotomy at a moment’s notice.

(Not that they’re going to – fucking S&P – but it’s the idea that counts.)

Starting off your Batman series with a Joker story seems like the most obvious choice in the world, which only makes it stranger when you realize how few Batman series – comics or otherwise – actually do so. Aside from this show, I think only the ’70s Filmation cartoon and the Tim Burton movies did it. I’ve heard from other, grumpier Bat-fans 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 that they’re taking fewer chances with this one.

After all, That Other Show began its first episode with Man-Bat, of all villains…

Y’know what would’ve been more impressive, though? If they’d managed to make him INTERESTING.

(Sure, the network made them air a Catwoman story first, but we won’t count that against them.)

The Joker gets a horror movie sort of intro, which mostly takes place from the perspective of the guard that he gasses, but I’d like it a lot better if said guard didn’t sound like such a stoner. I know, I know, it’s part and parcel with the horror genre, but still…

Yet Another Unfair Comparison: The Other Show’s first-aired Joker episode also used horror overtones, but a lot more effectively. Most of us don’t work at a mental hospital that would put Bedlam to shame, but yelling at a car that’s cut you off on the road and coming face-to-face with this…

JokersFavor
“There’s my two cents. Now, WHAT are you going to do to me?”

… tends to feel a lot more personal.

Anyways, The Batman‘s Joker is voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson, one of those voices that seems determined to pop up in every goddamn cartoon with even a shred of popularity in the US. And several dozen without. And whatever criticisms Bat-fans have about him, I like the abnormally deep voice Richardson gives him – the Joker, of all characters, should never be constrained to a certain tone or pitch.

We’ll be getting to the Joker’s design later, but for now, lemme just say that this Cheshire Cat shot of him – two red eyes and a yellow smile in midair – is probably the scariest he gets in this episode.

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

After gassing the guard, Joker hits the asylum’s Open All Cells button (presumably installed in case of alien apocalypse). Do the inmates who clamber out look familiar? They should. They worked on That Other Show.

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

This plot point, by the way, doesn’t really have any impact besides attracting Batman and the police to Arkham, but I suppose that was inevitable. At this point, Arkham hasn’t got any big-name supervillains incarcerated, and while mundane homicidal maniacs can make for good primetime TV viewing, they’re not really suitable for the young’uns.

So Bruce stands up his two beards dates at the basketball game, steals a joke from Tim Burton’s Batman while he’s at it, and runs off to Arkham. Which has conveniently been sealed off to the police since Joker blew up the only bridge.

ArkhamGame
I suppose you lot are waiting for a reference to this. Well, keep waiting because I don’t have it yet.

Inside, Batman finds the entire asylum (or at least the east wing) empty, save for one straggler:

Gassed
Joker Gas: Not Even Once.

Now, obviously, the Joker’s trademark poison can’t be lethal in a kid’s show, and fair’s fair – I think any seven- or eight-year-olds in the audience at the time would’ve been pretty spooked by this. Me, I find that I prefer the (usually) subtler grins of Joker victims from That Other Show; I don’t believe that realism is the best option for every facet of Batman (and I kind of hate how Chris Nolan instilled that thinking in a whole generation of Bat-fans), but it usually is for the horror-inspired elements.

We then get our first unobscured look at the Joker.

TarzanJoker
Uhh… A for originality?

(That model sheet isn’t really accurate, by the way. Joker’s tongue in the show is blue, not green.)

Okay, there’s a lot to hate about this design, starting with the fact that it drop-kicks every ounce of subtlety out the closest window. I know that subtle usually isn’t a word you think of when it comes to the Joker, but I’m of the opinion that it’s always a part of the best Joker portrayals. For maximum punch, there should be some part of him that gives off an air of non-homicidal-clown-ness – be it Cesar Romero’s grandfatherly grace, Jack Nicholson’s chubby, jovial (if slightly gross) uncle, or Heath Ledger’s slurring bum who seems like he couldn’t even tie his own shoes.

That said, this isn’t even close to the worst that Mistah J’s seen.

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

Even people who like their Jokers a little more demonic accused this of being different for the sake of being different, but I have to admit – the straitjacket makes a fair amount of sense, and as a kid I was always enamored by how his sleeves seemed to be longer than his entire body. Batman ruins that about two minutes later, but still…

Hem. Moving on. Joker (mockingly?) accuses Batman of being a straggling inmate, and gives his nom de crime while he’s at it. Now, That Other Show never really covered Batman & Joker’s first meeting (viewers were apparently supposed to see the show as a soft tie-in to the Burton movies), but this show’s depiction of it actually touches on some fairly sophisticated themes… if with as much subtlety as the Joker’s design. I know – seasoned Bat-fans these days are justifiably sick to death of hearing about how “OMG BATMAN AND JOKER R 1 AND THE SAME!!!!1!”, but it’s still a rather high concept to introduce to young’uns.

Batman gets bored with the Joker’s material, grabs him by the collar, and tries to wipe his “disguise” off. Spoiler: it doesn’t work.

batman - the killing joke 06
Probably a coincidence instead of intentional homage, but there’s no fucking way I’m passing up a chance to post Brian Bolland art.

Then this starts happening.

At this point, any older Bat-fans who haven’t run away screaming from the character designs have probably stormed out in disgust. Me – I was going through my One Piece phase when this show was on, so I just thought it was awesome. Seriously, what’s the point of touring the world and learning eighteen different types of kung-fu if all you need is some good ole fisticuffs to take care of your enemies?

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

Also, the Joker’s playing-card shuriken kick ass, and I will never believe any different.

Joker explains that he took over Arkham because he needs a new hideout (or something), but Batman is too much for him so he runs off (presumably while sticking his tongue out over his shoulder). This leads to the most genuinely Joker-ish bit in the episode, where Batman tries to chase him and comes face-to-face with a giant jack-in-the-box.

Exactly like the one Joker blew up the bridge with.

Our hero tries to stop it with all his might, but the infernal machine is just a little too strong for him. And right when it looks like Arkham’s going to get a Batman-colored paintjob…

JackInTheBox

Call it a cop-out if you want, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s the most Jokerish moment in this whole episode.

Batman hears the police sirens outside, and takes the poisoned guard with him as potential Robin material to whip up an antidote. Bennett and Yin show up just in time to see him swinging off into the night (with his grappling hook hanging onto… I dunno, the moon), too late to catch him.

Next morning, Bruce gets the customary soundbite from Exposition News (which is really impressive, since they were apparently too lazy to animate the newscast, so all we get to see is a blank TV screen). Oh, and it’s implied that Joker’s gas, while not lethal, actually inflicts locked-in syndrome on its victims, which… Jesus.

After some kid-friendly detective work (find Joker’s old hideout, get sample of his poison, blah blah blah), we come to our second-act cliffhanger: Detective Bennett’s come to Wayne Manor, and he knows exactly who he’s looking for…

… his best pal Bruce Wayne.

The amount of Totally Radicalness in this scene must be seen to be believed.
The amount of Totally Radicalness in this scene must be seen to be believed.

Okay, let’s talk about Ethan Bennett.

He’s a pretty transparent stand-in for Harvey Dent (sympathetic character in law enforcement, old friend of Bruce Wayne’s), who primarily exists because Chris Nolan already called dibs on Dent and the brain donors at WB Entertainment think kids will get “confused” if their feeble little minds have to contend with multiple versions of the Bat-villains. That, by the way, is at least 50% of the reason that so many people hate this show, because it was that exact same reasoning which prevented Gotham villains (even the Joker) from popping up in later seasons of Justice League.*

Ethan’s kind of obnoxious in the first couple of episodes, since a lot of his dialogue is old white dudes trying to write “Black talk”, but the concept is something I really like. He’s a presumably working-class guy who’s old friends with the richest guy in Gotham, and even plays basketball with him every once in a while. Maybe you think this is way too unrealistic, but I think it’s a much better way of depicting this Bruce as a more approachable noveau riche type, instead of a member of the Old Boys’ Club.

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

Ethan’s dropped by because he needs a friend to talk to: he’s the only cop in Gotham who even thinks Batman might be good for the city, but the entire department’s put the Batman case on his shoulders, a la Jim Gordon’s position from Year One. Also, Alfred suuuucks at being inconspicuous (“It’s only a Ming” made me chuckle, though).

Since we’ve only got five minutes left in the episode, Batman displays more genre savvy than all of his predecessors put together and just goes to the first clown-themed abandoned building he sees. In a cute touch, it’s named “Monarch”, presumably after the playing card factory that usually pops up in Joker origin stories.

Joker comes right out to greet his new guest, and winds up for another joke.

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 it’s around this point that even I’m getting sick of the writers using this theme as window dressing. 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 Joan of Arc Lady Gotham statue in the town square.

This… is not exactly what you’d call an original Joker plot. In fact, “Joker tries to poison the city” may well be the laziest one next to “Joker attacks someone close to Batman, Batman swears to end him ONCE AND FOR ALL, cue navel-gazing.”**

It might’ve felt kinda fresh when Tim Burton and Jack Nicholson did it, but at least that version had some choice lines (“He stole my balloons!”) delivered by Nicholson at his Nicholsoniest and a passable attempt at social satire. And then That Other Show pretty much recycled the plot for its second-ever Joker script, creating what most fans agreed to be its weakest Joker episode, a forgettable slog that even Mark Hamill’s wicked scenery-chewing couldn’t salvage. What this episode needed were some long-overdue innovations on the concept.

What it got was a flight cap for Laughing Boy.

JokerFlight

You can probably guess the rest: Batman tows the balloon away from the statue (missing it by inches), the police figure out that Joker was the guy behind everything, and Batman drives the balloon into Gotham Bay, where he cuts it open with a Batarang so he can collect a sample of Joker’s poison. No, there’s no attention paid to how badly this will wreck the ecosystem. Why do you ask?***

Oh, and Bats and Joker engage in a Schumacher-worthy battle of puns and the Batboat (coming to stores this Christmas!) makes a gratuitous ten-second appearance, but who gives a crap?

Epilogue: antidote’s been invented through the miracle of Bat-science, the guard’s a-okay, and Arkham gets a new patient. Who can break the fourth wall, apparently, but is anyone really surprised?

“Blame it on the BATS in my belfry.”

As coming-out parties go, this isn’t exactly the gold standard. Batman ’66 kicked off by introducing the world to the sheer loony glee that was Frank Gorshin’s Riddler and the Batusi. 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 obscure as Jaime Reyes to establish its anything-goes premise.

This, though… it’s basically a poor man’s Batman ’89, so if you’re not a fan of the character designs or guitar riffs, there’s not much to recommend it. Please do believe me, though, when I say that it gets much better later on, and if nothing else, Richardson’s Joker voice does kinda grow on you.

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

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

** That said, given the choice between the two, I’d take the former every damn time. The latter is such a 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 actually meant to homage yet another classic Joker story, but the scene got trimmed for time constraints. Nice to know he’s got his heart in the right place, at least.

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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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