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Original Airdate: September 18, 2004
Writer: Steven Melching
Director: Brandon Vietti
Poor, poor Oswald Cobblepot.
Fandom’s a fickle thing, innit? One minute you’re the undisputed number-two of Batman’s rogues gallery, with page and screen alike portraying you as a cunning, ruthless, yet classy threat who can stand alongside the Joker himself without looking out of place. The next, you’ve become an embarrassment to all things Batman, a symbol of silliness and camp best left forgotten, and fans start treating you like the other number two whenever your name comes up.
Generally, if a Batman fan has anything besides sneering contempt or crushing apathy for the Penguin, it’s because of either his Arkham City or Gotham incarnations, neither of which I particularly care for. I don’t want to sound hipstery-
– but the whole idea of the Iceberg Lounge and the mob-boss gig is something I’ve become very ambivalent about. Even at the best of times, it makes the Penguin look like a bargain-bin Lex Luthor, someone who’s not good enough for real supervillainy and thus has to stick to a desk before Calendar Man sends him crying home to mommy (for related reasons, I have a knee-jerk reaction against people insisting that Penguin has to be the token “sane” rogue in Gotham). And more often than not, writers just portray him as a sleazy stool-pigeon to get beat up by Batman (or one of his sidekicks) or outsmarted by a newcomer. In short, Iceberg!Penguin is a colorless symbol of the status quo, and there’s nothing Gotham likes breaking more than a status quo.
I mean, I don’t want to rag on whoever thought up the Iceberg Lounge, but…
I love most of his stuff, guys. I swear.
So, yeah. I like me some openly criminal (and loving it) Penguin, the kind of guy who whips out boxing-glove umbrellas at a second’s notice and thinks nothing of sending poison-beaked hummingbirds after Batman, all while hamhandedly romancing the star of his favorite soap with overpriced chocolates. At knifepoint.
And it seems that I’m in luck. The Batman‘s take on Penguin is renowed for being a black-hearted bumbershoot bandit through and through. Surely this is just what I’m looking for!
We begin with some obnoxious high-society lady, exactly the kind of character who exists to get robbed without us feeling too bad about it so we can concentrate on how cool the robbery method is. The atmosphere is pretty decent, as an albino owl swoops in, does that obligatory head-turny thing, and swoops off with a priceless necklace.
And Yin and Bennett are handling this case too, since they’re apparently the only cops in Gotham City now. As always, they make absolutely no progress and leave so Batman can swoop in and Detective Vision his way to all the clues (that’s the last Arkham joke I’ll be making in a while so savor it). But wait! Our two cops suddenly come back in for… some reason… just in time to catch Batman on his way out.
Bennett quietly whistles his appreciation. Yin is not amused.
As is inevitable in a kid’s show, computers do 90% of Bruce’s detective work for him, and he’s soon determined that the necklace was stolen by a rare breed of Chinese owl. Alfred, annoyed at these Yanks and their newfangled ways of detectiveing (back in his day all they had was a magnifying glass and some cocaine harrumph harrumph), reminds Bruce that he’s supposed to be hosting a charity gala. This is a common enough plot element in Batman stories, but chances are that you thought of something like this:
Instead of something more like this:
Yeah. Bruce is holdin’ a rave. ’cause he be young and hip now, fellow young people. Howdyado? Neato bean! Gotta catch ’em all!
The real star of the party, of course, is fashionably late. Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together fooor…
… the hench(wo?)men to our star…
Now, the Penguin’s redesign for this show isn’t quite as drastic as the Joker’s, in that it actually has precedent. Thing is, though… I’m not sure that’s something to be proud of when your precedent is this:
Yeah. Far as I can tell, it was the Burton/DeVito take that introduced the idea of the Penguin as a mutant freak who acted like a literal animal, instead of just a chubby little man who really liked birds and umbrellas. Since That Other Show began life as a tie-in to the Burton movies, it was pretty much forced to use the DeVito design as well, but it played to an interesting contrast by casting the posh, urbane Paul Williams in the role.
(Incidentally, that’s almost the sole thing I like about That Other Show’s Penguin. Even its most rabid fans tend to agree that its portrayal of the Penguin was a colossal misstep, and his debut episode in particular is regarded as one of the most infamous of the series. Even after the show had found its footing, Penguin’s episode record was mixed at best.)
The Batman, on the other hand, went and got Tom Kenny, whom you might remember as…
Look, I don’t know how many people reading this blog (who am I kidding, this early in the game I’ll be lucky if there’s one) belong to the generation that treats Spongebob Squarepants – at least, the pre-Movie seasons – as its Scripture and how many hate the little yellow guy with all their heart, but Kenny’s performance here is a very, very acquired taste. While he does a decent riff on Burgess Meredith’s chain-smoking rasp, the script has very little of the ’66 show’s charm, and the “wittiest” it gets is having Penguin making “abroad” puns while eyeing female guests.
In short, this Penguin looks like a jerk, acts like a jerk, and talks like a jerk. No subtlety. It’s the Joker all over again. But then, I’m slightly more willing to forgive this, since most people will probably be watching this with the preconception that Penguin is some kind of harmless, roly-poly milquetoast anyhow.
He also gets more backstory than That Other Show’s Penguin did – apparently, he hails from a Newcastle family that used to employ Alfred’s grandpa, whom they treated like shit and then fired. I’m… not a terribly big fan of this either, sorry to say. I know that exploring Penguin’s old-money family to ramp him up as some twisted counterpart to Bruce Wayne (rather than Batman) has been all the rage in comics these days, but I’ve always found it a positive snooze.
Anyways, while Bruce finds Bennett and Yin staking out Wayne Manor, Ozzie makes such an ass of himself that even his fellow millennial frat-boys find him too much.
Feeling bloodthirsty tonight, Alfred pulls the guest-list card and the “this is a charity, so donate something or GTFO” card on Ozzie. Now the show starts doing something in its favor (aside from snazzying up his trademark umbrella) – Ozzie’s retaliation is wonderfully in-character for him, as he takes out a roll of bills and tosses it right into the fireplace, no doubt deliberately aiming for a spot that would make it roll back out and onto the carpet.
Sure, Alfred stamps it out a second later, but it’s the thought that counts. And as Alfred unrolls the donation (hey, money is money), he finds something rather amiss:
Now, Penguin donating a roll of mostly one-dollar bills could just be another fuck-you to his hosts, but that looks like a legitimate Ben Franklin on the outside. That’s what makes me think this is only 90% a fuck-you; the other 10% is him trying to keep up appearances of wealth and prestige (a must in any Penguin portrayal), because as Alfred tells us later, the Cobblepots are supposed to be dead broke by now.
Oh, and in all the commotion, another guest got her jewelry stolen by a “rogue” bird, so it’s time for Batman to do some birdwatching. Bruce’s words, not mine.
Even better: Wayne Manor’s entrance to the Batcave is no longer behind the traditional grandfather clock, but an old-school arcade cabinet. And now I can’t help but imagine that Bruce’s pre-Batman training trip took some interesting stopovers.
But wait, there’s more!
Since Steven Melching seems determined to keep the spotlight on Alfred, he decides to make Alfred dogged enough to personally go after Ozzie just for stealing a serving tray (to be fair, it was a shiny tray). Now, while Alfred is much beloved in pretty much all incarnations of Batman, writing him into a starring or co-starring role is much harder than it looks (That Other Show tried it a few times and none of them were very good), mainly because his dry wit and disarming compassion works better in smaller doses.
That said, Melching’s Alfred does have a wonderfully English sense of insult. Who else would call Ozzie a “homunculus”?
Meanwhile, Bruce gets out of doing any actual detective work again. All he has to do is brood on the highest building in Gotham for a sec or two and the lead comes right to him.
Now, Penguin having birds as assistants/pets has been a staple of the character since at least the 1950s, but I don’t think any of them pushed it as far as this episode does. Personally, I dig it – the showrunners try a little too hard to make the birds look as demonic as possible, but the idea of Penguin an endless, airborne swarm of minions is one that’s well worth experimenting with.
Sadly, these feathered fiends are quickly and rather horribly upstaged by the Penguin’s other help: the Kabuki twins.
I. Freaking. Love these two. For one, they headlined one of the best boss fights of my childhood…
For another, they’re really, really unsettling. I know – unsettling seems like the last word you’d use on a Penguin story, but these motherfuckers pull out every last trick in the book: makeup (or is it makeup?) so thick that it’s impossible to see their faces, stony silence broken only by whispering that feels more like background noise than speech, movement that no human skeleton should be able to achieve…
And that’s before the big disrobing.
Are they trained assassins? Robots? Giant mutant birds? Secret children that Wolverine sired while he was in Japan?
They’re not telling, and neither is the show.
And when they kick Batman’s ass, they do it with style. Bane knocked aside a couple Batarangs last episode, but these guys snatch ’em out of the air and throw them back.
So the Kabuki twins get away with the loot, and we cut to next morning, where Alfred has infiltrated the molding wreck that is Cobblepot Manor. Which is apparently no longer in Newcastle, but right down the street in good ol’ Gotham.
By the way, Alfred can’t detect worth monkey feces in this episode. He forgets to turn his phone off, of all things, and he can’t even sneak his way out of the manor when he’s got a good head start on the Penguin. The only redeeming scene is the bit where he discovers the Penguin’s aviary, which is a nice (if none too original) shot of a massive dead tree against a blood-red sky.
Oh, and this part:
Penguin then learns of Alfred’s family tree, and launches into a typical motive rant: all the stealing he and his birds have been doing is meant to restore the Cobblepot wealth and thus its name and glory. I still don’t find this terribly compelling as a motive, and it leads to a weird part where Alfred – who’s been backsassing Ozzie pretty much nonstop – suddenly loses his spine once he realizes how much loot Ozzie is sitting on. I guess it’s supposed to be him realizing that there’s no freaking way the little goblin intends to let him go, but it’s still weird pacing.
Penguin has the Kabuki twins shackle Alfred to the floor of the
Aviary of Doom Big Birdhouse, and then tells his birds to get snacking. Y’know, judging by how those birds immediately attack an adult human who looks nothing like ordinary bird food and bother to swoop up into the air before diving down, I can only assume that Alfred isn’t close to their first victim.
Good thing Bruce picks that exact moment to swoop down. Whereupon he proves strangely ineffective against six or seven birds.
Eventually, he drives them off with his Anti-Bird
Bat-Spray sonic doohickey. Penguin then sics the Kabuki twins on Bruce (by the way, he presses a button on his umbrella as he does this, lending more credence to the “robot” theory), but in the interest of time, Bruce takes them down pathetically easily. What’s this meant to make time for, you ask?
The only thing more stupidly awesome than a Batman/Joker kung fu fight.
A Batman/Penguin kung fu fight.
When people complain about how this show turned “every” villain into a kung-fu master so the audience wouldn’t have to think, they typically mention Joker and Penguin in tandem. Funny thing, though – unlike Joker, Penguin having formal combat training is straight out of the comics.
On the off-chance that you haven’t read that rather obscure one-shot from 1989 (the very idea!), the episode reminds you every chance it gets that Penguin’s been hanging out in “the Orient” for quite a while. I just didn’t bother recapping most of those because even my brain can only take so much bean-counting.
(I should probably also mention that Ozzie christens himself “The Penguin” right before the fight starts, but it’s got zero relevance to the story and even less reasoning.)
Honestly, though, I’m not sure why the “tricks from the Orient” are even necessary here. Penguin’s already got an army of killer birds, two creepy-ass Wolverine-clawed… things, and no fewer than three separate trick umbrellas: knife, flamethrower, and lightsaber whip.
This motherfucker could probably shoulder an entire toyline by himself. But no, nothing’s ever enough for the number-crunchers at WB, is it?
Buuut to be fair… Batman trashed his hat. Between two guys, that’s real personal.
During the fight, a stray Batarang gets thrown Alfred’s way and the guy uses it to cut himself loose (the first time this episode he’s shown any competence). I kind of suspect that Alfred was meant to play a bigger role in the final fight, only it got cut for time – seems a bit of a waste of setup when Batman just heroic willpowers his way through the lightsaber chain and uses it to pull Ozzie straight into his fist.
Our heroes reunite, agree that Alfred should leave the sleuthing to people actually good at it, and go call the cops. The e… no, wait…
Like most emotional scenes in this show, it’s got all the subtlety of a 90s PSA, but I have to give Melching some credit for effort. It’s entirely natural that the bad guy would stew and glower after their evil plot’s been foiled, but for one (especially one as arrogant as this take on the Penguin) to actually cry as his own boast rolls around in his head… it’s not precisely sympathetic (drop the “sym” and you’ll be a lot closer), but it does hint at something deeper. Maybe Ozzie’s attempts to restore the Cobblepot name isn’t solely out of ego?
What the hell – I like it more than That Other Show’s attempt to mine ol’ Oswald for pathos.
Penguin attempts a sneak attack while forgetting the “sneak” part, and Batman just kicks him aside like yesterday’s Internet meme. Even worse – Alfred tosses a tray at him, and while it misses him, it doesn’t miss the lever to the Big Birdfeeder (of Doom).
Fittingly, the Kabuki twins are far too dignified for a defeat like that. When Batman and Alfred turn to them, they’ve already flown the coop without having made a sound.
Epilogue: Bruce and an off-duty Ethan shoot some hoops at the local community center and my God they do everything short of draping Ethan in bling to emphasize how “””Black””” he is. Beyond the obnoxious stereotyping, though, he remains a decent guy – decent enough to admit to Bruce that the GCPD is full of crap for claiming credit on the Penguin bust when Batman did everything.
The episode ends on a rather out-of-nowhere “Batman creates his own enemies ooooo~” moment, but it’s not too distracting, and I suppose it is the kind of question Bruce should be toying with at this stage in his career. Cut to ominous shot of pigeons, roll credits.
All in all, it’s leagues ahead of That Other Show’s first Penguin episode (at least Ozzie isn’t getting outsmarted by Encyclopedia Brown and friends here), but it’s not exactly rewatch material unless you’re really into crazy awesomeness and less-than-logical “mystery” plots. Or if you’re just that big a Penguin fan.
Far as I’m concerned, though, ’66 Penguin’s debut still holds the crown.
Next time: the one Bat-villain I give even less of a shit about than Bane takes to the skies! But… at least we’ll get some cool action sequences? I hope.