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, naturally, with a Batman Cold Open: a scene where the hero kicks some ass completely unrelated to the main plot. 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, 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.

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.

So anyways, 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 big-timers. 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 in this episode: 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 incredibly dumb and entirely reasonable for a guy in his position: 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 lead 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 Dark Knight – 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 he cues our hero’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 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 like it a decent amount, 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 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 the all-important 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 schticks. I’m no big fan of how often Batman stories push his detractors into out-and-out villainy, but I think I’d have preferred it in this case – at least Rojas being flat-out evil would’ve provided 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 hate in a lot of quarters, but Rojas is one that I think should’ve gotten more.

Speaking of Year One, Rojas’ main role in the first couple seasons (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 framed him for something… or at least it would be if Bruce wasn’t all “The Batman’s right where he likes, hovering below the radar” like Rojas is doing him a damn favor.

This, alas, will be a recurring issue with The Batman: it wants this young, edgy Batman who’s got the whole world against him, but it also wants this cool, trendy Batman that The Youth™ can instantly relate to so buy his toys please please PLEASE. So he’s an outcast, but more often than not he still has all the answers, and instead of gritting his teeth at the monumental crusade ahead of him, he’s eating cereal in a T-shirt, watching Exposition News yak about how Gotham’s crime rates have dropped 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 evil 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?”

… simply feels much more personal.

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 in the US. And several dozen without. And whatever criticisms Bat-fans have about this show’s Joker, I like the baritone Richardson brings to the game – the Joker, of all characters, should never be constrained to a certain tone or pitch.

We’ll be getting to his looks 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 drawing 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 Batman ’89 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, the Batman finds a pretty chilly reception… whoop, my mistake, one guy seems happy to see him!

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 clear look at the Joker.

TarzanJoker
Well, that’s just all kinds of wrong. His tongue’s supposed to be blue!

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 anyone associates with the Joker, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s vital to all the best 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 is a neat touch, and as a kid I was always fascinated 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 get things done?

“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 do anything else.

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 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, the 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 back in ’89, but at least that version had some choice lines delivered by Jack Nicholson at his Nicholsoniest and a passable attempt at social satire. And then That Other Show pretty much recycled the plot for one of its earliest scripts, creating what most fans agreed to be its weakest Joker episode, a dreary slog that even Mark Hamill’s wicked scenery-chewing couldn’t salvage. 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!

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. And loses a fourth wall.

As Bat-debuts go, this isn’t really what I’d call a 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 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 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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