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Original Airdate: November 20, 2004
Writer: Steven Melching
Director: Brandon Vietti
Everyone got their equipment ready? Shot glasses, vomit bags, the lot? I got gin, vodka, vermouth…
Overreacting? Maybe, but better safe than sorry.
For both fans and haters of The Batman, it’s generally agreed that this episode was the show’s absolute nadir. Even the usually (over-) tolerant folks over at The World’s Finest tore it a new one, and my own memories of it aren’t exactly peachy.
Damn shame too, since this is the first time The Batman went for a truly obscure villain (obscure here meaning “villain That Other Show never did”). Granted, said villain is Cluemaster, who’s never really been an A-lister, but ask yourself this: was That Other Show not facing the same odds – maybe even direr ones – when it tackled Mr. Freeze and the Mad Hatter back in the early ’90s?*
The Cluemaster began life as one of the Silver Age’s many, many forgettable Riddler knockoffs, with a debut story that I can’t remember a single damn thing about. But I suppose someone liked his costume or something, because he kept making little cameos here and there all the way up to the ’80s, enough to score an entry in Who’s Who in the DC Universe.
His luck started picking up around the late ’80s, as he was deemed so lame that a pair of folks named Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis picked him (along with such luminaries as Major Disaster and Multi-Man) to be a recurring villain in their Justice League books. I’m not especially familiar with that era of Justice League (I really only know DeMatteis from his more serious works), but suffice it to say that it wasn’t exactly an honor for ol’ Cluesy. The books were meant to be a mickey take on superheroes in general, featuring second-stringers like Booster Gold and Blue Beetle who acted more like sitcom characters than superheroes going up against equally ineffective villains.
Even in that environment, Cluemaster was a fairly nondescript straight man, existing mostly for other, zanier villains to bounce off of. It did, however, clear the way for his third (and last, as far as I’m concerned) evolution, helmed by none other than…
In many ways, Dixon’s Cluemaster is the guy I consider the quintessential Dixon villain. Dixon could write slick, (semi-) infallible masterminds with the rest of them, but like I mentioned in the last review, a lot of villains under his pen had a very blue-collar streak to them. Instead of rants about world domination or Ending the Bat Once and For All, they were street-savvy guys in it for the money more than anything else. Sure, they still relied on gimmicks like shock gloves or trained rats and looked every inch like stereotypical supervillains…
… but they certainly talked and felt more like people you’d find down the street. People who just happened to have a wonky moral compass and lived in a world where someone’s doomsday invention is sitting in every third basement and dressing up in colored underwear to punch criminals is an acceptable career path.
Cluemaster was one of the earliest villains that Dixon used in his lengthy (89 issues according to Comicvine) run on Detective Comics during the ’90s, and Dixon took active steps to superficially make him even more generic than before. He was given the civilian name Arthur Brown, stripped of his one kinda-unique character trait:
… and made into a much more competent thief and cold-blooded killer. When I write it all out like that, it sounds like a typical ’90s grimdarkification of a
classic old-time villain, but here’s the thing: Dixon didn’t so much ignore the previous characterization as built on it. His Cluemaster was still a cowardly loser that was often smacked around in the most humiliating ways possible (that fellow in purple up there? That’s his daughter Stephanie, and she did a lot of the smacking), but half the time it was due to the stupidity of his partners and/or the Universe just plain hating him. It became possible to believe that if you let his guard down, he could still kill you.
Personally? I love that. I realize that it’s tradition to build supervillains up to be as infallible as possible until their inevitable third-act defeat by the hero, but I find it much more organic and realistic when they occasionally trip and stumble and get dealt a raw hand just like the good guys. That’s not to say it’s inherently better, but…
The point of all that context, by the way, was so I could fully impress upon you just how badly The Batman‘s first (and thankfully only) Cluemaster episode botches all that. I want you to imagine the worst episodes of That Other Show (yes, they exist – if you really can’t or don’t want to imagine such things, the folks at Topless Robot have already compiled a list for you). Then stick them into a blender, hit puree for five minutes, and run the resulting goop through the same radioactive accident that spawned Disney’s DTV department. And you might have something approaching the quality of this episode.
I suppose I should applaud it for being up-front about its suckiness: our cold open involves a washed-up TV star at the “grand opening” of a grocery store getting taken out by these two:
And no, I do not mean they pump him full of lead as payback for a miserable life of shitty health insurance and no union benefits, or even pelt him with rotten produce. See that red stuff in their hands? It’s an opening ribbon except it’s actually a giant rubber band that they use to bounce him into a shopping cart, which tosses him into a Dumpster, which gets towed off by a garbage truck that they happen to be driving.
Y’know, the more I think about it, the more this cold open seems like a summation of the whole damn episode. The first ten or twenty seconds are an especially painful bit illustrating how unimpressed the grand opening’s “audience” is with TV guy (okay, his name’s Ross), and I think everything after that speaks for itself.
And if you keep on watching, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself.
Cut to a fancy-schmancy concert hall, where we see Bruce in a tux for the first time. But no need to fear, kiddos – he’s young and hip as ever! Just watch how he oh-so-smoothly listens to the latest techno craze over that stuffy old violin!
I suppose I should give the episode continuity points, since that lady on the far left was the Penguin’s first victim in “Call of the Cobblepot”, but it would be a lot more impressive if these two episodes didn’t share a writer.
Actually, come to think of it, the crimes/kidnappings that start this episode would make a lot more sense if orchestrated by either the Joker or the Penguin. This one, in particular, has someone planting a whoopee cushion under a renowned pianist’s seat and hiding a guy in a giant duck costume in the piano, then kidnapping him while everyone’s too busy laughing – shit, that sounds like a great Joker plot!
(The Penguin is a little harder to justify, but it’s not exactly out-of-character for him – especially this version – to go humiliating members of the upper class.)
Naturally, Bruce realizes that this is no laughing matter, and summons the Batmobile from the Batcave’s closest exit: a hollowed-out school bus.
This scene does give off a nice vibe of Bruce as 007, and I’ll even swallow that hacky slo-mo shot of him seeing the pianist being taken away in the villains’ getaway car. But then we get to see what the villains in question actually look like…
… and we’re firmly back in change-the-channel territory. I’m not saying midget villains can’t work in a Batman story, but their silliness needs to be tempered by proper buildup and atmosphere. When it’s done right, you can get something genuinely stunning. When it’s not, you… still get something stunning, for all the wrong reasons.**
Perhaps I should note that these are just Cluemaster’s henchmen. We don’t see their boss till later, but rest assured, he’s not much better off.
We’re then treated to a CGI-tastic chase between the Batmobile and an ordinary sedan, which at least ends logically enough: the midgets escape down a sewer pipe too small for the Batmobile to go through. See, Bruce? Bigger isn’t always better.
Then it’s off to the Batcave for some pointless exposition and the gentle thwack of the foreshadowing stick. Alfred’s doing a crossword puzzle while Bruce drones on, and there’s a hideously dated reference to the Japanese game show craze of the mid-’00s. Good God, I’m half-expecting Alfred to start skateboarding before the season’s out.
computer mighty detective skills then draw a connection between TV guy and the pianist (Bert): they worked together on a game show called Think Thank Thunk decades ago. And Alfred’s apparently such a huge fan that he can recite the tagline by heart.
While our heroes continue to mangle what’s left of the English language, we check in on our two kidnap victims. This is probably the only scene in the episode that has genuine tension: two guys (who may or may not know each other) waking up to find themselves trapped in an unfamiliar and badly-lit place has been the setup for some of the greatest horror/thriller stories of all time (not to mention Saw). And fair’s fair – Glen Shadix (the mayor from The Nightmare Before Christmas) turns in a fairly threatening voice.
Back to our heroes, who are now suffering through one of the greatest evils known to man: reruns of 1970s game shows. I suppose I oughta give the show credit for capturing the sheer air of the era that gave us H.R. Pufnstuf, Super Friends, and the Night of a Thousand Scooby-Doo Clones, but it does that a little too well.
So for a change, we’re going to see the villain’s pre-villain life first. There’s a lot of Batman villains to whom this formula is almost mandatory (see Dent, H.), but I’m not so sure we need it for Cluemaster of all villains. Especially when the kid Arthur Brown looks like this…
… and sounds and acts every bit as obnoxious. “Artie” is a twelve-week winner on TTT, so I guess his swelled head is understandable, but he’s going up against a girl (Yelena) whose family recently defected from the USSR, so guess who my sympathies are with.
Thankfully, Bruce and Alfred fast-forward through most of the show to the One Question that will make or break the game. It sounds like a fair question for kid prodigies – name all thirteen of Jupiter’s moons, their years of discovery, and their discoverers – but I’m sure it’s nothing rote memorization couldn’t handle. Anyways, Artie blows it (off by one year on Lysithea) and there’s no way the glee in Ross’s voice is an act.***
You can probably guess the rest: Artie throws a YouTube-worthy tantrum, and even the consolation prize – a lifetime supply of candy bars – fails to calm him down. Naturally, no one does a damn thing about it.
Bruce explains the rest: Mrs. Brown later sued the game’s producer (that pianist who was kidnapped earlier) for supposedly rigging the game, but said producer’s connections in City Hall got the charges dismissed. If Melching is trying to make us feel even the slightest shred of sympathy for Artie, he’s failed – almighty, infallible Wikipedia says that he was wrong on Lysithea’s discovery date, and even if they didn’t have Internet back then, anyone with an encyclopedia would’ve been able to take the Browns apart.
Alright, you can probably guess who Cluemaster’s next target is, and by edict of the Plot Gods, she’s become an international chess champion who’s playing in Gotham that very night.
In true Gotham fashion, the chess game is being played with giant pieces, and of course, Cluemaster’s little helpers (disguised as one of the Bishops) screw everything up before making off with Yelena. But Batman swoops in right on time and delivers the episode’s one halfway-decent quip.
He then unmasks one of the little creeps (how those bedsheets even stay on is an exercise left to people who actually give a crap), and, uh…
… moving on. It’s that time again, folks.
Yes, really. It’s mercifully short, but six Oompa-Loompas kung-fu fighting Batman is not my idea of a good time, especially in an episode as inane as this. And since we’re not even halfway through the episode, they get away with Yelena.
And in the unlikely event that there are still people over the age of five enjoying this cartoon, the episode proceeds to kill all hope:
That’s our villain, people. Arthur Brown’s been spending the last thirty years living in his mom’s basement and munching on the candy bars he won from the show. Oh, and plotting his sweet, sweet revenge.
I… I just… what the hell is there to say? “It’s not as bad as it could’ve been”? Well, since this design was apparently originally meant for the Riddler, I suppose that’s true in the most pointlessly literal sense. “There are worse villains to rip off than Oogie Boogie”? Again, true, but Oogie worked because he was literally a giant burlap sack being puppeteered by a swarm of insects. And if the more delusionally optimistic of you continue holding out hope that that might be the case for Cluemaster too, the episode removes all doubt by having him unmask.
(For extra “fun”, I think those numbered pouches on his body are what he carries his little helpers in. Sweet dreams.)
Spoiler alert: we’ll be meeting the Ventriloquist next episode, and Artie makes him – a villain who’s supposed to look as nebbish and unthreatening as possible – look like the Joker, Bane, and Ra’s al-Ghul put together. I mean, being a loser is part of my ideal Cluemaster characterization, but making it this one-sided is just plain wrong. Cluemaster should be at least somewhat competent and menacing in both aesthetic and narrative, and this episode can’t do either.
And if you don’t really give a crap about the “right” way to write Cluemaster? He’s still entirely unsatisfactory as a villain – he can’t even be the slightest bit threatening, and he’s such a whiny, self-centered waste of space that you can’t summon up any sympathy for him, either. All he’s really good for is some cheap laughs of pity like something off The Big Bang Theory and… wait…
Big, fat, pathetic excuse for a villain… associated with candy… inexplicable little henchmen…
I… is Steven Melching trying to update Sweet Tooth, of all villains?!
… I’m gonna need some stronger stuff.
(By the way, Melching really can’t seem to decide whether Artie was legitimately screwed over by the show. All his accusations of “You gave HER an easy question!” sound like bullshit of the highest order, but Bert the producer seems strangely reluctant to actually call him out on it. Then again, maybe he just doesn’t want to dive back into that mess unless he literally has no other choice.)
There’s another bizarre bit where the script tries to draw parallels between Bruce and Artie – children who abandoned their childhoods and thus ironically never grew up, and continue living out revenge fantasies to this day – which might’ve worked with a less terrible villain, but here is simply too much to swallow.
Alright, let’s see what Cluemaster’s terrible revenge is. You might’ve already guessed, but it’s a rematch of that game from thirty years ago. If the “liars” win, they get to go free.
And if they lose…
But honestly, anyone who’s gone this far into the episode has already lost. Hard.
Cluemaster then makes a hideously weak word-from-our sponsors joke, cuing the second-act commercial break. By the time it ends, Batman’s gone over to the Brown house (in broad daylight, by the way – rarely a good sign in a Batman story), which leads to the flat-out strangest part of the story.
No, that’s not me being snarky. Batman actually tells a random neighborhood kid to keep watch over the Batmobile. This might’ve worked as a joke in the Adam West show, but The Batman is at least a nominally serious show; even if it’s geared toward a younger audience than That Other Show, it’s never gone (and should never go) this far into self-parody. Good thing Bennett and Yin aren’t in this episode, or Bruce could be facing a lot of awkward questions once he comes back out of there.
The inside of the Brown house tries its best to look creepy (there’s also a sorta-origin for Cluemaster’s goon-squad – his mom apparently used to coach pee-wee football), but it’s too little, too late. The part where Mrs. Brown calls Batman one of “Artie’s little friends” is priceless, though, if only because Rino Romano’s voice sounds like the exact moment he realized he should’ve called in sick for this episode.
Now back to the world’s second-worst Jeopardy! ripoff.
I forgot to mention this above, but Artie’s given the “contestants” a bunch of books and allowed them to ask whatever questions they like. The first two are too stupid to try any trick questions (okay, he probably would’ve killed ’em anyways, but I would’ve liked to see him react to “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?”), meaning they’re just one question away from the Jack Napier Special.
But Yelena, bless her heart, comes up with a pretty decent stall: recite the value of pi. Unfortunately, since Artie’s not a rogue A.I., he decides he’ll only do it up to the 100th place.
Nevertheless, it buys ’em enough time for Batman to come end this sorry mess. Cluemaster calls him the “one intellect in Gotham City” worthy of him, which makes me suspect that more than just his design was meant for the Riddler. And now I’ve made myself sad.
In the “spirit of gamesmanship”, Artie presents a bonus round: if Batman can ask a question to stump him, he’ll let the hostages go. Batman (mockingly?) asks him if there’s anything he doesn’t know, and in a more competently written episode, that could be the question that gets them out of there.
Alas, such things are beyond this script. After making Arthur insist that no topic is off-limits, Batman’s actual deal-breaking question:
“Name the true identity of the Batman.”
A sore loser to the last, Artie tries to kill the three contestants, but Batman stops him cold. Then Artie takes him down by… throwing boxes of candy bars at him.
Do you hear that sound, Bruce?
That is the sound of every other incarnation of Batman in history laughing at you. Even Super Friends Batman.
Wait a minute. Fat, bumbling antagonist… all the action takes place in someone’s basement… full of terrible one-liners and nonsensical plot developments… carry the one…
Who the FUCK thought it was a good idea to remake That Other Show’s most notorious episode?! Were they so sick of all the comparisons that they went looking for an episode they could beat without trying? Well, joke’s on you, suckers – at least “I’ve Got Batman in My Basement” still has Kevin Conroy and Paul Williams. You don’t even have that.
Because this episode apparently feeds on our pain like some demonic South American butterfly, the “fight” between Batman and Cluemaster goes on a little longer, including a “weaponized fat” scene that even the Adam West show at its lowest wouldn’t have dreamed of using.
Batman finally displays the decency to end this sorry affair, by using his grappling hook to pull an AT-AT on Cluemaster. And to cap it all off, Mrs. Brown shows up to offer him some snacks for a job well done.
I have to admit – this is one of the parts of the episode that really stuck with me as a kid. The faraway look on her face kind of creeped me out back then, and I’d originally thought that Arthur was drugging her water or something. But it’s probably just senility. That is, if the script even thought that hard about things.
Epilogue: Bruce and Alfred have a talk about Games or the Nature of Evil or something and start playing checkers. That’s… about it.****
Probably the only good thing that I can say about this episode as a whole is that (to me at least) it’s not boring. When it’s not making you bang your head against the closest wall with its sheer inanity, it’s making you goggle in slack-jawed confusion. Parts of it feel like a rejected SNL sketch, parts of it feel like a horror pitch, and the rest is just plain ol’ inept superhero writing. So it’s different… but as a man wiser than I once noted: different doesn’t always mean good.
So sorry, Arthur. Better luck next time.
Next: the giggest, gaddest, most gadass Gatman villain of ’em all takes center stage, in what will surely be a most enjoyable experience for goys and girls of all ages. Be there, won’t you?
* I suppose you could say that at least Freeze and Hatter had been taste-tested by the Adam West show, but in his own, circuitous way, so had Cluemaster.
** Fun fact: Moore’s original script named those little bastards Huey, Dewey, and Louie.
*** Admittedly impressive attention to detail on Melching’s part – as of today, Jupiter has more than sixty confirmed moons, but back before the Voyager launch in 1977, there were indeed only thirteen known ones.
**** In retrospect, maybe we should be relieved this episode was made in the ’00s. Had it aired in the ’10s, you just know someone would’ve interpreted the whole thing as a critique of gamers, and I don’t think the Internet is ready for that kind of #discourse.