The Batman Review: Traction (S1E02)

(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 25, 2004
Writer: Adam Beechen
Director:
Sam Liu

Quick show of hands: how many of you know this guy?

Chuck Dixon

No one? Wait, wait… you in the back, you… oh. You were just stretching. Sorry.

So. The gentleman up there is named Chuck Dixon, and he will be popping up a lot over the course of these reviews. Why? Because he is, bar none, my favorite Batman writer of all time. He’s not one of the big names like Frank Miller or Jeph Loeb or even Denny O’Neil, but his accomplishments and legacies (in the DC Universe and elsewhere) are many. A small and select list:

  • Almost singlehandedly raised Tim Drake through the role of Robin, writing the first Robin solo for over a hundred issues.
  • Handled Nightwing’s first ongoing for 70 issues, giving Dick Grayson a second chance after The New Teen Titans went down the tubes.
  • Created the Birds of Prey, introducing a generation to the badassery that was Oracle and Black Canary.
  • Created Stephanie Brown, whom certain sects of the Internet will insist on pain of death is the greatest DC character ever.
  • Wrote some of the best damn Joker, Riddler, and Scarecrow stories I’ve read in my life.

Oh, and he created the villain of today’s episode. Shame or something.

“Would you care to repeat that, Señor?”

Meep.

Pleasedontkillme.

Okay – in all honesty, I’ve never liked Bane very much, even though he’s almost certainly Dixon’s most well-known creation and Dixon himself is immensely proud of the fellow. Yes, yes, heretic, Judas, how dare you dismiss the man who broke the Bat, etc., but there’s something disgustingly… safe about him.

A quick history lesson for those who need it: Bane served as the linchpin of the 1993 megacrossover Knightfall, breaking Batman’s back so DC could “experiment” with a new, more X-TREEM Batman. Anyways, Dixon spared no expense in establishing what a grade-A badass this guy was – raised in a hellhole Caribbean prison that severed all sense of morality from him, gifted with a sharp mind that allowed him to learn six different languages when most of the prisoners couldn’t even read, stronger than any mortal man could dream of when armed with the super-steroid Venom, and pretty damn strong even without the stuff.

But there’s no getting around the fact that he was grown in an editorial test-tube, so his character is more rooted in petty oneupsmanship than anything truly unique or engaging. Like the Joker? WELL THIS GUY’S TWICE AS RUTHLESS. Like the Riddler? WELL THIS GUY’S FIVE TIMES SMARTER. Like Killer Croc? WELL THIS GUY CAN MAKE MINCEMEAT OUT OF CROC WITH ONE HAND BEHIND HIS BACK. Like Ra’s al-Ghul? THIS GUY FIGURED OUT BATMAN’S SECRET IDENTITY IN A CAVE WITH A BOX OF SCRAPS WITHOUT ANY FANCY INTERNATIONAL CRIMINAL SYNDICATE! As for his motivations…

How utterly fascinating.
How utterly fascinating.

Now, fellow reviewer the Unshaved Mouse has noted that this type of Generic Doomsday villain can work in certain contexts, but I found Bane to be by far the least interesting part of Knightfall. And I say this as someone who thinks that Knightfall – at least, the first third – was the best Batman megacrossover DC’s ever done, and probably the only one that managed to not waste the premise of every Arkham inmate running loose at the same time. Surely it’s not coincidence that most discussions of Bane, no matter how gushing, can’t help but mention that his post-Knightfall career mostly consists of acting like mindless muscle or jobbing to DC’s other heroes?

(Disclaimer: I’ve heard that Gail Simone’s done some amazing things with him in Secret Six, but as that’s not a Batman book, my point about Bane being a rather dull Batman villain still stands.)

Maybe Bane’s whole luchador getup is more fitting than I thought. Much like pro-wrestling, his much-touted victory over Batman was carefully staged from the start for maximum publicity, and he got to be king of the ring for all of five minutes before the higher-ups swept him out like yesterday’s garbage once they’d gotten bored of fucking around with the status quo

get-on-with-it

Yessir. Sorrysir. Won’t happen again, sir.

Let’s look at today’s episode, written by one Adam Beechen. Now, Beechen’s a very divisive name in the DC fandom – long story short, he ruined Cassandra “the best Batgirl (according to Tumblr)” Cain beyond repair, but he also wrote one of the best (and most pants-shittingly terrifying) episodes of Teen Titans, so… can we at least call it squaresies?

We start with a telling little peek into Gotham’s status quo: thanks to Batman, organized crime is now an endangered species, and even the biggest bosses are running scared. But they’re not rolling over without a fight – and what better way to fight a freak, than with a freak…?

joker clapping darknight
Brilliant. Gold star.

Sounds pretty familiar to any geek who was alive in 2008, doesn’t it? But check the airdate again – never mind The Dark Knight, this episode predates Begins. In fact, it’s probably the first adaptation to really touch on the freaks-versus-mobsters backdrop of early-years Batman comics like The Long Halloween, and all the uncomfortable “is Batman just encouraging crime to evolve?” questions thereof.*

Unfortunately, this episode – and the series as a whole – doesn’t do much more than nibble at the subject. The mobs pretty much disappear after the cold open’s done; hell, “normal” crime in general won’t be seen again ’til Season Four.

Now, Bane’s “classic” origin was pretty elaborate and took up 64 pages of comic, so The Batman, like most adaptations, trims it down and turns him into a generic mercenary with a steroid gimmick. Which still manages to be more faithful than certain other takes.

HardyBane
“I wondered which would break first: your patience, or your pedantry.”

To be honest, I like this version of Bane – at least, his un-Venomed form – a lot. Sure, he’s about two zippers away from full BDSM getup, but the skinny, faceless look legitimately creeps me out (a friend of mine posits that Bane’s mask should never expose any part of his face, and I’m inclined to agree). That Other Show’s Bane was, I’ll admit, way more faithful to the comics in detail, but this guy? This guy’s got the atmosphere.

Slender Bane, Slender Bane.
Don’t you mind his frame.
Slender Bane, Slender Bane.
He’ll break you just the same.

He’s voiced by Joaquim de Almeida, a fello I’m told holds the distinct honor of having opposed both Batman and Jack Bauer. For the most part, I’m just happy this Bane has a better accent than what Henry Silva gave his predecessor.

After Bane’s big intro, we zoom through the theme song and down into the Batcave, source of all your Subtle Foreshadowing™ needs. There, we see Bruce playing Tony Stark and Alfred completely destroying the Batman mythos forever.

With these.

Crazier than the Joker. Deadlier than Ra's al-Ghul.
Crazier than the Joker. Deadlier than Ra’s al-Ghul.

I don’t have a precise idea of how big the “BATMAN DOES NOT EAT NACHOS” backlash was when this show first came out, but if The Brave and the Bold devoted an entire scene to homaging/mocking it, it was probably pretty big. Then again, The Brave and the Bold once adapted a minor Black Mask henchman who’d literally been in all of two comics, so don’t take my word for it.

Even funnier: Bruce doesn’t actually eat the nachos in this scene. His new Iron Man suit gadget accidentally bitchslaps Alfred and covers the poor guy in the stuff, and it’s probably taking all of Alf’s willpower to not evaporate from the sheer unposhness.

I cannot stress how badly this scene wants to be hip with the kids; Bruce apparently plays rock-n-roll while he works in the Batcave, and he and Alfred start trading one-liners like there’s no tomorrow once Alfred gets his attention (Alfred even references Monty Python and the Holy Grail once, I think). And yet… I can’t help but smile at it – it’s a version of Batman who’s literally a big kid (even the Adam West version was more “little kid acting like a grownup”), and I guess in some ways you could call that a logical extension of the mantra that Bruce’s mind is eternally stuck at That Night when he was eight years old.

Back to the plot: Bane decides to draw Batman out by hijacking a bank van, and it works like a charm. He trades a couple hits with Batman and… promptly eats a judo throw hard enough to dent ballistic steel.

Well, no way Batman did that without illegal drugs, so it’s a good thing Bane brought his own.

 batman bane the batman GIF

This is probably the most cartoon-y take on Bane in history, having more in common with pop-culture takes on Jekyll and Hyde than with the mostly-human Bane of the comics. Not that that’s a bad well to draw from, or anything…

And in any case, this admittedly-silly transformation is succeeded by Bane beating the shit out of Batman. I mean, there’s no blood or anything, but he flings Bruce around like a goddamn ragdoll, into the pavement, into walls… if this weren’t a cartoon, Batman would be freaking dead. And the episode just keeps on pounding in how implacable Bane is; hell, at one point he laughs off a barrage of grenades.

For those who haven’t seen Bane’s debut on That Other Show: trust me when I say it just can’t compare. That episode might have had more atmosphere and a decently pulpy plot, but it made the mistake of leaving Bane’s first fight with Batman to the third act. In a one-part episode. So while Batman’s on the ropes for a minute or two, he never really gets beaten, much less broken, before handing Bane a genuinely humiliating defeat.

 batman bane batman the animated series GIF
“Is this the best you can throw at me, Rupert?”

But here? Batman’s defeat concludes the first act, and it’s so brutal that even Bane walking off without unmasking him feels less like a narrative cheat (Batman does, after all, need a chance to recover) and more like the last spit in Bruce’s eye. I do wish he’d jacked up the Batmobile like his predecessor had, though.

(Side note: I kinda like to think that the armored car’s guards try to get Bane to take the money in an attempt to dissuade him from killing Batman, but I guess there’s no evidence either way.)

Bruce regains enough consciousness to radio Alfred for pickup, but unfortunately for him, the police arrive seconds later and he’s in no condition to lift a finger. Upon seeing the Batmobile at the scene, Bennett and Yin draw their guns and…

Pff…

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

BennettYinGuns

Okay, I know this is a post-Columbine world and the show is airing on Kids WB instead of Fox or Cartoon Network, but seriously? Did they tap 4Kids Entertainment to design those things? And if so, was there not enough budget to get them the slightly-more-dignified invisible guns? Actually, given that 4Kids Entertainment later swallowed up the Kids WB block whole, there may be something…

get-on-with-it

Yin and Bennett get the van’s guards to safety, but Batman narrowly manages to avoid getting caught by ripping off homaging Raimi’s Spider-Man (seriously, I haven’t even seen that movie and I know that). In another cute touch, the site of Bane’s fight with Batman is the corner of Englehart and Rogers, after two men who brought us what just might be the greatest Batman run of the 1970s… and have absolutely zilch to do with Bane. Wouldn’t Dixon & (artist Graham) Nolan be more appropriate here?

Batman stalls long enough for Alfred to arrive, but Alfred is adamant that he needs to go to a real hospital, and only admits defeat when he realizes that the closest ER (and probably every other one in the city) has cops hanging around on orders from Yin and Bennett.

Down in the Batcave, we get the first genuinely enthralling scene in the show, where Alfred prepares to operate on his master. Alastair Duncan (of Taggart fame) summons up just the right amount of horror and grief with the line:

“Being summoned to pick you up has never been a good omen, Master Bruce.”

Semiconscious, Bruce begins flashbacking to the only thing any version of Batman is capable of flashbacking to: his dead, dead parents.

Well, it’s a little less cliché than that. Instead of a movie theater or an alleyway, it’s a silent, crying little Bruce at the police station, fiddling with Mommy’s pretty necklace while Gotham’s Finest just walk on by. I could’ve done without the church bells, but the cap on Bruce’s head is an especially poignant touch, especially when you learn it’s from the one cop that does care.

“Someone’s here for you, son.”

(This is Season One’s only Jim Gordon appearance, by the way. Enjoy it while you can.)

It all comes full circle as that someone turns out to be Alfred, who confesses that he can’t replace the Waynes but will eternally stick by Bruce’s side. Maybe I should’ve gone and seen Batman Begins for full comparison purposes, but I have a medical condition that makes me incapable of caring about anything featuring Ra’s al-Ghul, and it’s probably not going to go away anytime soon.

Speaking of which, while I do wish that they’d pushed the envelope further with Bruce’s condition (at least give him a black eye or something), it’s nicely established that Batman’s not gonna just bounce back from this one. He stays on his back for weeks, with a medical staff of exactly one.

On the bright side, this show’s designs allow him uncontested access to Animu Rule #142.

In the meantime, Bane loots the city like a Bethesda protagonist, his every assault lovingly relayed by Exposition News. There’s only so much of this Bruce can take, and soon he’s making plans to get back in the cowl. Alfred is… less than sympathetic, which isn’t exactly out of character, but the execution kind of makes him look like an asshole. I’m sorry, arsehole. Let’s look at his lines, shall we?

“If Gotham thinks Batman is no more, perhaps it is for the best. Perhaps Bruce Wayne can heal… and finally get on with his life.”

“Know that if you intend to face this ‘Bane’ again, Sir, you may need to find another butler-slash-medic-slash getaway driver!”

I can see what Beechen’s trying to do. He’s trying to squeeze Knightfall into a single 22-minute episode, which sounds reasonable until you realize Knightfall – resolution and all – ran for almost 1500 pages’ worth of comics. Throw in the preludes, epilogues, and other supplementary material and you’re headed straight for 2000.

Now, in the grand scheme of things, a lot of those pages were fluff. A lot of those pages were pretty stupid fluff. Once you trim them out, Knightfall becomes a fairly conventional three-act story… that’s still way too big for one episode. Case in point: its second act had Alfred giving Bruce the same ultimatum, and then following through on it

(Okay, so he came back a year later. It’s the thought that counts.).

-but the circumstances just aren’t the same. When this went down in Knightfall, Bruce already had a successor up and running, and hell – I’m no big fan of Jean-Paul Valley, but the guy did kick Bane’s ass straight into prison and keep on fighting crime the best he could. On the other hand, this episode offers no backup crimefighters while making Bane way more of a public menace (Bat-breaking aside, the comics version was more Lucky Luciano than Butch Cassidy) while making it clear the police couldn’t hope to scratch him on their best day. That’s not the kind of situation anyone should be calling “for the best”.

That aside, the placement for this story feels all wrong. Quite simply, “To be or not to be the Batman” is not the kind of question a Batman show should be grappling with in its second episode. Setting aside the fact that Bruce’s answer will always be “to be”…

This misbegotten little experiment can go bite me.

… this would have worked infinitely better as a season finale, after we’d gotten nice and invested in this take on Batman, Alfred, and Gotham. Imagine if we’d gotten a whole string of close calls from the likes of Mr. Freeze or Killer Croc, with Alfred silently, dutifully patching up Master Bruce after each one, feeling like a filthy enabler all the while. Imagine each close call taking a toll on Bruce’s mental health, driving him to shun dates, board meetings, even charity work in favor of upgrading the cape and cowl so no lowlife can hurt him so again. Now imagine Bane storming in, an instigator above instigators that pushes both Bruce and Alfred to the extremes of their respective positions.

You’d better imagine, because last episode’s Joker plot doesn’t cut it in any direction. Hell, that episode’s Alfred approved enough of Bruce’s crusade to bake a freaking anniversary cake!

So Bruce gives Alfred a soft, raspy “I understand”, and the tension lasts for all of five seconds before Alfred changes his mind and starts helping Bruce rip off Stark Enterprises. Meanwhile, Bane’s making another withdrawal at the closest bank, and Detective Yin, having apparently lost half her IQ, decides to go in alone. Even though Bennett already had backup on the way.

This goes about as well as you’d expect. Good thing Batman and the toy of the day Bat-Bot are here to help!

Round two. FIGHT!

The sophisticated Batman critic may look down his nose at the ensuing brawl, but this is more or less how Bane’s defeat in Knightfall went down: Jean-Paul Valley put on an assload of gadgets (including a Batarang machine-gun because nineties) and just went to town on him. Me, I’m getting back in touch with my inner five-year-old, and I love it. And really, the Bat-Bot’s advantages just barely level the playing field; Bane still puts up one hell of a fight, and even starts tearing the arms off a couple minutes in.

(I suppose the lack of any artillery in the thing can be chalked up to Batman’s no-guns policy, but couldn’t he have at least installed a knockout gas dispenser or something?)

Meanwhile, Detective Bennett sees all the commotion, takes care of his partner, and – I shit you not – cancels backup when he sees Batman duking it out with Bane. That’s a hell of a lot of faith, especially considering the fact that Bane does this to the suit about a minute later.

“Now give my your lunch money, punk, before I REALLY lose my patience.”

Since Bruce left his wallet at home today, Bane settles for the next best thing and prepares to tear the robot’s head off so he can see who Batman really is. And Bruce, in one last moment of desperation, jams one of the suit’s exposed wires straight into Bane’s Venom tubes.

Now, fucking around with the Venom tubes has been the tried-and-true way of defeating Bane since his debut, but I think this might be the first time (but definitely not the last) that electricity figured into the mix.** It’s not as body horror-y as Bane’s defeat on That Other Show, but it’s still not for the squeamish.

So. Bane falls, Batman and the suit aren’t in much better condition, and miraculously enough, there’s not a single news-copter to capture the scene before Alfred comes and gets Bruce out of there. Again.

Epilogue: the cops discuss Batman a little more (surprise, they’re still going after him) while Bruce – apparently all healed now – prepares for another night of kicking the impoverished and mentally ill in the face. The episode ends on a surprisingly effective joke, as an injury interrupts Batman’s already-overdone suit-up sequence.

'tis but a scratch.
’tis but a scratch.

In conclusion… I’m really not sure whether to praise or “ehhh” this episode for being a fairly ambitious adaptation of the Knightfall saga and all that Bane represents. As I mentioned at the start, Bane bores me to tears, and I like Knightfall almost solely because of how it was such a great showcase for the rest of Batman’s rogues gallery – most of who, as you might’ve guessed, haven’t even been introduced yet. The elements in the cold open are a lot more interesting, but they can’t really carry the episode since, again, they’re gone as soon as the theme song rolls.

But here’s something I don’t feel ambivalent about: it’s miles ahead of “The Bat in the Belfry”.

Next time: Batman’s second-greatest villain of all time steps into the spotlight. Are ya ready, kids?

Spongebob
“HELL NO, CAPTAIN!”

Too bad.

* Burton’s first Batman movie has a rudimentary form of this if you squint really hard, but between the eight zillion threads in its mess of a plot and the generally nonexistent continuity of the Burton-Schumacher “series”, it’s around 99% inference.

** I’ve since realized this isn’t the case; the honor seems to belong to “Over the Edge”, but I suppose this episode still features the first instance to take place in reality.

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2 thoughts on “The Batman Review: Traction (S1E02)

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