The Batman Review: Riddled (S2E02)

(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: May 21, 2005
Writers: Christopher Yost & J.D. Murray
Director:
 Sam Liu

How can a villain be so beloved and yet so hated?

Okay, maybe “hated” is too strong a word – the perception, especially among the public, is that the Riddler is too pathetic to even be properly hated. Even critics whose views I usually respect sadly dip into this, to say nothing of people who actually work in comics. People ranging from Denny O’Neil, legendary creator credited with returning Batman to his darker roots during the 1970s:

O'Neil Riddler

To Neil freaking Gaiman, whose “When is a Door” gently but firmly told Eddie that he was a relic of the past – a past worth cherishing, yes, but not one with any place in today’s vicious world.

When asked to elaborate, their logic usually goes something like this*. This argument makes sense, but only through an annoying double-standard. The Riddler’s penchant for leaving clues constantly leads to his defeat, yes, but so does the Joker’s big man-crush on Batman, Two-Face’s obedience to a piece of metal… hell, when you think about it, all of Batman’s villains are to blame for their own defeats, simply by virtue of living in the same town as the World’s Greatest Detective.

Many Riddler fans blame the ’66 show for tainting the Riddler’s image – reasonable, given how Penguin faced a similar backlash during the ’70s and ’80s and only escaped it by hiding in the Iceberg Lounge reinventing himself as a “legitimate businessman” who conveniently no longer participates in stories except as a colorless mob boss/exposition box. But this can’t be the whole story either; Frank Gorshin’s portrayal of the Riddler is touted as one of the most, if not the only, threatening villains on the ’66 show, with an icy-cold menace that could instantly snap into a torrent of psychotic, high-pitched giggles and back again.

Sound familiar?

Joker & Riddler

Oh, shut up, Joker. Yeah, you were doing the whole send-Batman-clues thing way before Riddler was, but then you went and stole his actor’s shtick. Last I checked, that makes you even.

This is another common put-down hurled at the Riddler – that he’s a pale imitation of the Joker, meant for wimps who can’t handle Dark, Serious Batman. Setting aside how Dark, Serious Batman has never been the sole valid take on Batman (as much as some people would have you believe otherwise), there is a germ of a valid criticism in here. The Riddler was neither the first nor the last villain whose m.o. involved leaving clues for his enemies (that little club included everyone from Scarecrow to Lex Luthor), but few of the others made it their main gimmick.

And when that gimmick hit its expiration date? Joker still had the “killer comedy” angle. Scarecrow still had his fear gas. But poor Edward was left high and dry, the kind of comic-book villain who seemed like his own parody, like so. Oh, kinder writers tried to adapt him to the times, but I’ve found their success mixed at best. More and more, they’ve put a strong emphasis on intelligence as his key trait: his primary weapon, the focus of his personality, and the way in which he functions as a dark mirror of Batman.**

You may recall that this is the route That Other Show took with the Riddler, and as a Riddler fan, here’s my two cents: I hated him. No, not “love to hate”. Flat-out hated. “Started siding with the dickbag game company CEO who’d screwed him over” levels of hated.

Surprised Riddler

Don’t look at me like that, you little shit.

Here’s the thing: I’m not especially hot on That Other Show’s Riddler even in concept, but the execution – at least in his debut episode – made me taste bile. From beginning to end, he was a pompous douchebag whose only emotions were Smug, Really Smug, and Smugly Annoyed; there was no vulnerability, no humanity to him. Even his “mistreatment” by his boss did little for me, mostly because:

  1. You’d expect a supposed “genius” to look at a contract before he signs it.
  2. Eddie didn’t lose anything from his firing except his pride; he doesn’t seem to have loved ones to provide for, and even after getting canned, he did well enough to convert an entire amusement park into a giant deathtrap.
  3. Mockridge got way worse than he deserved, and Batman’s self-righteous “ironic” narration at the end, coupled with Riddler’s logical-but-deeply-unsatisfying getaway, just pushed the man into straight-up Mary Sue territory for me.

Would better execution have made me like That Other Show’s Riddler more? Probably, but it would leave other problems intact. And when I say problems, I’m getting into even more subjective territory than usual, so please bear with me (or just click the “Read More” if you want to see me get to some actual reviewin’).

A common defense from Riddler fans is that most writers aren’t smart enough to come up with a plot to do the Riddler’s intelligence justice – a valid defense, since the resolution of a Riddler story necessitates that Batman pick his scheme apart step by step, so you can’t just bullshit his intelligence with wacky inventions or vague schemes a la Lex Luthor or Reed Richards. But I believe that it misses a larger point.

Simply, when intelligence is your character’s key trait, that character might as well not have a trait at all. This goes especially hard for Batman’s rogues gallery, where “mastermind” has always been the in-thing and pure, unintelligent brawlers are an endangered species. Even Killer Croc, that patron saint of stupid villains, can outwit the Bat if someone feels like using him as the main villain (don’t believe me? Watch his debut episode on That Other Show again, or just wait a couple reviews for his debut on this one).

You can try to circumvent this by crafting a hierarchy of Gotham’s criminal geniuses, with Riddler at or near the top, but I doubt you’d have much luck. Intelligence – especially superhero comic intelligence, which usually translates to “I made a string of decisions that let me get one over the other guy” – isn’t really a thing you can objectively measure. With the other rogues, it’s a tool, a plot device at most, certainly not their raison d’être.***

But let’s say you don’t give a damn if Riddler’s unique or at the top of the pecking order or whatever, and just want one that’s suitably intelligent with an ego the size of Jupiter. Very well – but to be frank, I don’t think the kinds of stories you could tell with him would be terribly popular with the public.

I’ve spoken about this elsewhere, but I’ve come to believe that the Riddler is Batman’s most civilized enemy. Not just in the sense that he’s less murder-happy than the others, but in the sense that Riddler stories don’t have much to hook Batman – and thus, the readers – on an emotional level. And in this era of Batman, at least, emotional blows are king – the Joker’s terrifying, yet disturbingly amusing cruelty, Two-Face’s descent into insanity and immorality, Freeze’s tragic, hopeless love story. Batman himself is appreciated less for his detective prowess (which in any case rarely amounts to much) than for his emotional turmoil and/or inner humanity, which make him not only more interesting but more real.

The Riddler is a left-brain villain in a sea of right-brainers – in the hands of a smart writer, he could be the centerpiece of a mindbogglingly complex and meticulous story, but that story would more likely than not feel artificial. Entertaining, maybe, but with all the soul of a mechanical birdcage and featuring an antagonist who has little reason for existing other than to give Batman someone to chase.****

(Maybe it’s just me, but I have a much harder time envisioning a Riddler story without Batman, or even just told from Riddler’s POV, than equivalent scenarios with the likes of Two-Face or Freeze, who are rich enough in personality and thematic depth to support solo tales.)

Not all portrayals of the Riddler are like this, I must hasten to add. I’m a Riddler fan for a reason, and there have been a handful of appearances that have made me love him as I do few Bat-villains. And hell, even the take I’ve spent so long dissecting and dismissing can be perfectly enjoyable given the right execution – though it admittedly faces an uphill battle in TV and film, since those mediums generally emphasize action and constant, inevitable progress instead of contemplation and problem-solving.

Let’s see if today’s episode can hit the mark and, uh…

Snoozing Audience
Good thing I locked all the exits first.

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The Batman Review: The Bat, the Cat, and the Very Ugly (S2E01)

(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: May 14, 2005
Writers: Thomas Pugsley & Greg Klein
Director:
 Brandon Vietti

Welcome back, everyone. Didja miss me?

Okey, those of you who are still here, your wait has not been in vain. It’s time to tackle Season 2 of The Batman, a distinct improvement over Season 1 in most every way. Though admittedly, that might not be very apparent with this premiere episode, scripted by the same folks who brought us “The Man Who Would Be Bat”.

More than that, this is the show’s first bona-fide supervillain teamup, a formula that many superhero fans tend to approach with caution. In the movies, it often carries a whiff of executive interference, of number-crunchers who want to attract the widest audience possible by tossing together as many big-name characters as possible. And in the TV shows – at least in my opinion – it often signifies that the writers have run out of interesting things to say about or do with the villains in themselves, and have resorted to throwing them at each other in hopes that the script will write itself.

As for the history of this particular teamup… well, most of Batman’s big-name villains have been around long enough that everyone has met everyone else at least once, but Penguin/Catwoman tends to not be one of the more popular pairings, for reasons that Neil Gaiman explains here:

CatsEatBirds

Nevertheless, their mutual big-name status has ensured that they’ve teamed up not once, but twice on the big-screen. One a flawed but still very enjoyable and idiosyncratic picture, the other quite possibly the greatest Batman movie ever made, if “greatest” is taken to mean “fulfilled all potential that it promised, and no more”.

Which is which? I’ll leave that for you to decide. But I will say one thing: the writers probably had Returns more in mind when they made this episode.

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Intermission: The Future of Manhattan Below Fourteenth Street

Ladies, gentlemen, assorted polymorphic rodents…

There comes a day in every geek’s life when Real Life and Adult Responsibilities must take priority over online fun and games and obsessive, nitpicky blogging, resulting in the slowdown (if not elimination) of the latter. It’s a sad, but true fact of life, and I’ve seen many of my friends and inspirations go down this path. ’tis rarely a pretty sight when it happens, and my standard reaction is usually within the ballpark of this:

FunInFuneral

But there is no use cursing such developments – with few exceptions, they are as inevitable and irreversible as the cold hand of death him/her/itself. We can only sit silently at our computers or phones or iPads, thanking those brave, geeky men and women for devoting such an enormous chunk of their time – often at no personal profit – to make our lives a little brighter.

The specific reasons are many – family responsibilities, job-hunting, higher education… mixtures of all of the above are not uncommon. That they would find their way to me one day is something that has always loomed in the back of my mind.

But ah, I’ve beaten ’round the bush too much as it is. I am here to tell you…

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The Batman Review: The Clayface of Tragedy (S1E13)

(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: May 7, 2005
Writer: Greg Weisman
Director:
 Seung Eun Kim

And now, I suppose, it’s time to talk about these guys.

Despite my fondness for (almost all of) Batman’s rogues gallery and my obsession with nitpicky little details, the name Clayface has always left me kinda cold. Part of it probably has to do with how I usually don’t like Batman’s villains to be genuinely superpowered, but mostly it’s because the character gives off the feel of that one “meh” movie that just kept on pumping out sequels even when no one was asking for any.

I mean, shit – even I couldn’t bring myself to care any more after the fifth one popped up, and if my ten-second glance at the Wikipedia page is right, twice that many people have now worn the name. If you’re really curious, here’s a quick overview of the first five.*

  • One was Basil Karlo, an old-timey horror actor gone cuckoo and one of the earliest Batman villains. Just a standard knife-wielding maniac until he conned some sweet, sweet shapeshifter blood out of Three and Four. If Clayface pops up in any Batman story published after the ’90s, you can usually bet it’s this guy.
  • Two was Matt Hagen, all-around generic thug and the first one to have actual shapeshifting powers. Lent his name to That Other Show’s Clayface and his powers to Three, but not really remarkable beyond that, unless you want to talk about how he was one of the few villains to get adapted into Jiro Kuwata’s ’60s Bat-manga.
  • Three was Preston Payne, generally thought of as the most (potentially) interesting of the bunch. In a nutshell: genius scientist born with facial disorder, tried to make himself pretty by getting a blood transfusion from Two, it went horribly wrong and turned him into a monster whose touch melts flesh into protoplasmic goo. Kind of a precursor to the modern version of Mr. Freeze, super-strong exoskeleton and all. Also, he had a story written by Alan goddamn Moore, so check that out quick if you haven’t already.
  • Four was Shondra Fuller, who… I don’t really know much about, since I’ve yet to start reading Mike W. Barr’s Outsiders run (though one quote – whose source I can’t place right now – claims that Barr went out of his way to give familiar villain names to totally new characters). Generally has the same power-set as Two, eventually got together with Three.
  • Five was Cassius Payne, the kid of Three and Four (I don’t quite remember how they did it, and I’m not sure I want to revisit it). The most heroic least evil of the bunch (I think) and got experimented on a bunch by the men in black (I think).

Mind you, none of the above is really essential to understanding this Clayface, since most people (including, I reckon, The Batman‘s showrunners) are chiefly familiar with the version from That Other Show. That fellow boasted a dramatic two-part origin featuring some of the most gorgeous animation in the history of Batman, though I don’t really know anyone who considers him That Other Show’s most interesting villain. Or even its most interesting villain whose name ends in “-face”.

TwoFaceFrowning
“Denied second place AGAIN?! Someone will pay for this!”

Still, he was almost certainly the most interesting take on Clayface circa 1992. Now, however, we’re in the wonderful world of 2005 – and I figure it’s time that the younger, upstart challenger got a second look…

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The Batman Review: The Rubberface of Comedy (S1E12)

(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.)

(FURTHER DISCLAIMER: The author of this blog will engage in massive amounts of fanwank about tangentially related topics about halfway through this review. If such things make you sick to your stomach – and really, who could blame you? – it is recommended that you skip the paragraphs between the first shot of the carnival and the final page of The Killing Joke.)

Original Airdate: April 30, 2005
Writer: Greg Weisman
Director:
 Sam Liu

So, uh… this was recently announced.

What fitting timing.

It’s not really possible to talk about The Batman‘s first-season finale without discussing Alan Moore’s last (and perhaps most famous) DC project, even though right now, most fans probably think of Nolan’s The Dark Knight as the closest thing we’ve got to The Killing Joke: The Movie. To be honest, I’m not sure myself how such a safe, Saturday morning-driven cartoon suddenly went “Hey, let’s do a story based off one of the most grimdark Batman comics of all time!” after eleven episodes of largely harmless plots. Sure, it was red-hot merchandise even back then, and I’m definitely not sorry about the fruits of that decision, but what the hell, Kids WB?

Greg Weisman
“We had an agreement. I’d prove that I could bring myself to their level, and at season’s end, they’d prove they could bring themselves to my level.”

Well, that’s as good an explanation as any. Let’s dive in.

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The Batman Review: Bird of Prey (S1E11)

(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: February 12, 2005
Writer: Steven Melching
Director:
 Brandon Vietti

Good evenin’, all you Penguin fans, wherever you may be…

U.S., Russia, Ireland, Mexico or Greece…

What a mediocre tale that we have here today…!

You nerds can simply call it… the one and only Bird of Prey!

Okay, not really. Today’s episode has nothing to do with Oracle, Black Canary, or any other sexy, asskicking ladies. One “s” makes all the difference.

What it is is basically “(the) Batman vs. reality TV/news media”, an idea that sounds like an instant winner but which has never worked for me outside the grimy, super-political, dated-but-not-too-dated atmosphere of The Dark Knight Returns. Why? Search me – maybe pre-Sin City Frank Miller was just that damn good.

btdk-042

In any case, you may have surmised that this kind of plot doesn’t really need a specific villain to work, and you’d be absolutely right. The Batman volunteers Penguin for the job, which should surprise no one familiar with That Other Show; Penguin’s always been harder to nail down specific, character-driven plots for than the likes of Joker or Two-Face, so he’s often saddled with the thankless task of carrying “gimmick” pitches (Batman gets KO’ed in some kid’s basement! Batman’s car gets jacked! Batman is blind!) that the writers were too lazy to invent a new villain for.

That’s not to say, however, that such episodes are inevitably terrible. The Adam West show used this sort of plug-in-villain-here plotting with abandon, and the results – at least in small doses – were often delightful. It was an approach that let the actors, rather than the writers, scope out the villains’ personalities and quirks – and when you have dedicated souls like Frank Gorshin or Burgess Meredith on the job, you get character portrayals that are still kicking in the public consciousness to this very day.

Let’s see which side of the divide today’s episode falls on.

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The Batman Review: Topsy Turvy (S1E10)

(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: February 5, 2005
Writer: Adam Beechen
Director:
 Seung Eun Kim

So. Our first story to reuse a villain. And it’s the Joker.

Yippee.

I'm paying you motherfuckers fifty bucks to sit here. You could at least smile.
I’m paying you guys fifty bucks to sit there. Would it kill you to smile?

I’m probably not shocking many of you when I say: get used to it. The Batman‘s Joker has something of a reputation for being horrifically overused, and usually in badly derivative plots to boot. I mean, I’m sure That Other Show’s Joker popped up just as often, but even I must admit that the malevolent mirth of Mark Hamill can make one forgive a lot of things.

Either way, I do not look forward to the day we hit this The Batman‘s fifth or sixth Joker story and I’ve run out of things to say about the character or even points of comparison. But at this stage in the game, I’ve still got plenty to blather on about.

The Joker methodically hunting down individual people – often people who he claims have wronged him – is a plot that literally dates back to his first appearance. It’s the kind of setup that, in theory, combines the best elements of the comic-book supervillain and the serial killer into one pants-wetting package. This is a character who’s known for being a seamless master of disguise and for knowing about five hundred ways to kill a man with nothing but a pie. When you’ve got someone like that on your tail, who can you trust? Not your friends, not your family, not even the money in your wallet.

And when it works, it works wonders.

Five-Way Revenge

The Batman, however, does not have the benefit of Denny O’Neil’s writing or Adams/Giordano art. But you know what it does have?

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