* A Crisis of Infinite Mousetraps tie-in
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Original Airdate: November 27, 2004
Writer: Robert Goodman
Director: Sam Liu
So I see that my
pathetic begging masterful gambit for some advertisement for Dublin’s greatest polymorphic web comedian has panned out after all. Excellent.
With so many Bat-fans’ eyes ‘pon this blog, let’s talk about the second-most famous split personality case in all of Arkham Asylum. You know the one…
Sorry, Harv. I said second-most famous.
… well, I can probably look forward to a “bisected by giant penny” on my headstone, but it’ll all be worth it once we talk about one of my favorite Batman villains: this guy.
Wait, where are you going? Don’t leave me here!
So, yeah. I love the one-man duo that is the Ventriloquist, and it confuses and saddens me to no end that he’s found on so many “Worst Batman villains ever” lists. For me, he’s always been an ideal mix of the silly, the serious, the sympathetic, and the just plain bizarre that make him a perfect fit for Batman’s rogues gallery.
A quick biography: Arnold Wesker is a perfectly mild-mannered senior citizen, who just happens to have a violent and greedy alternate personality called Scarface. Scarface prefers to express himself through a wooden ventriloquist’s dummy dressed like something out of a Cagney picture, see, and he’s got big plans to take over all the rackets in Gotham, see. Anyone who gets in his way can go take a swim in concrete shorts, see?
(Prison talent shows, albatrosses, and an old gallows tree all figure in there somewhere, but I don’t feel like doing Wikipedia’s job for it today.)
Despite being created by two Brits in 1988, the Ventriloquist feels like a villain who could’ve been created in the Golden Age, right alongside Joker, Penguin, and the rest. Vaudeville acts and gangster pictures were all the rage back in the 1940s, after all, and it would’ve been entirely believable that someone would combine the two. I used to agree with that, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to feel there’s something quintessentially British about this character.
Not British like this:
But more like this:
I have neither the time nor the resources to go in-depth on what British comics were like back when America still had to contend with the puritanical Comics Code Authority, but suffice it to say they were not for the faint of heart. Sex, drugs, and
rock ‘n’ roll blood were the order of the day, with the most iconic of the bunch being 2000AD‘s Judge Dredd, a strip hinging on the premise that ultra-violent totalitarianism was humanity’s only hope for survival.
The Ventriloquist was created by perhaps the most iconic writing team to ever work on Dredd: John Wagner and Alan Grant. Grant, in particular, is one of the most-overlooked members of the (other) British Invasion; in-between owning velociraptors and bonding with children, he held down a tenure on the Batman books that could easily rival Chuck Dixon’s. Over more than a decade, he fleshed out Arkham Asylum’s mythology and created dozens, maybe hundreds of Gotham’s B- and C-listers. You may have heard of one or two from all them newfangled vidya games.
When Grant and Wagner hopped over to DC, their very first story featured the Ventriloquist ordering a henchman killed and using the corpse to smuggle twenty kilos of hard drugs across the border. Directly followed up by this:
That, to me, is the defining thing about 2000AD and its ilk. No matter how many corpses they crammed the pages with, they never lost their sense of humor, and even Dredd himself was meant to be an object of both admiration and ridicule instead of a straight role-model (most of the people who worked on his comic trend libertarian in real life).
And so, much like the Joker, Wesker and Scarface can easily be played for humor or horror (or both, sometimes inside the span of a single page). Except unlike the Joker, there’s a powerful streak of pathos underlying it all. Arnold Wesker isn’t a bad man – at least, not the kind of bad man who wants to live on an empire of drugs and murder – but he’s far too much of a wimp to resist Scarface’s bullying, domineering personality. The little puppet physically and verbally abuses him 24/7, and all he can do is stand there and take it. And since this is Gotham, therapy (almost) never lasts.
Cartoons inevitably tone a lot of this down, but I can’t get too hung-up about that. Nothing about his gimmick says he has to commit ultra-dark crimes, and if the DID stuff also gets axed for The Sake of the Children, well… at least I’ve got the aesthetics to look forward to.
… won’t I?
Quick note: this is the first episode of The Batman penned by someone who’d worked on That Other Show. In Goodman’s case, he’d actually written That Other Show’s last Ventriloquist episode, which got fairly decent reviews as far as I can tell.
Maybe that’s why the cold open is so well-staged. I mentioned in the last review how Artie Brown’s mom kind of creeped me out, but Wesker takes it up a notch.
In That Other Show as well as most of the comics, Wesker has a meek, mousy personality, but it’s a very distinct one. This, however, pushes things even further into horror-movie territory; it’s not difficult to imagine this Wesker as a man whose brain has been so thoroughly hollowed out by his mental roommate that there’s nothing independent left. Just a meat shell who mindlessly smiles and nods along as his wooden “boss” tortures and mutilates to his heart’s content.
But again – this is a kid’s show, so all that is just my imagination going off the rails. What the script actually gives us is a fairly traditional take on Wesker and Scarface. In a manner of speaking.
Yeah… while Wesker was pretty faithfully translated from the comics/That Other Show, Matsuda decided to get quote-unquote clever with the Scarface puppet. I’ve heard mixed reactions to how the new, hipper Scarface is based off Tony Montana instead of Tony Camonte (not helped by how “Which is better? ’32 Scarface or ’83 Scarface?” is still a dangerous question to ask on certain forums), but personally I’ve got no problem with it.
Perhaps “classic” Scarface is more dapper, but Scarface does seem like the kind who’d jump on whatever the tough-guy look of the week is. In That Other Show’s noir-steeped atmosphere, fedoras and herringbones may rule, but in The Batman‘s post-millennial glow, it’s all about the leisure suits and bling. And truth be told, I like how his arms and legs just hang there like a corpse’s 90% of the time, instead of Wesker going out of his way to hold them up all the time.
(I won’t pretend, though, that I don’t miss the little tommy gun.)
Once revealed, Scarface goes through the usual routine: berating Wesker as a mere stooge, hatching evil plots, and blowing his top at anyone who disrespects him. Before you ask – yes, Wesker and Scarface are voiced by the same guy, who you may have already heard somewhere else.
Yes, they went out and got Dan Castellaneta to play a DID-plagued crime boss. Not the weirdest casting choice on this show (there’s a reason they got him to take over for Genie and his many impersonations in the Aladdin TV series), but I still did a double-take when I first saw the credits. For his part, Castellaneta is pretty damn good in the role, though there are moments that feel like he’s just aping George Dzundza’s performance on That Other Show.
The Ventriloquist’s gang have been stealing a bunch of apparently worthless and unrelated crap lately, but since it’s either this or busting jaywalkers, Batman gets right on it.
But Alfred’s got other ideas.
Yes, ladies and germs, in this show’s unending quest for hipness, today’s B-plot will involve (the) Batman trying his hand at online dating.
Okay, look – I have no problem with this in theory. Online dating’s been here for a while and it’s probably not going to go away anytime soon, and Alfred trying to get Master Bruce laid has been a thing since at least the first Burton movie. But that kind of plot only works when Batman’s looks like he’s drifting toward this:
And The Batman‘s Batman, whatever his faults, has never come close to that territory. I would go so far as to say that he’s one of the most well-adjusted takes on Batman – he doesn’t stuff dynamite down people’s pants, he doesn’t try to relive his glory days through teenage boys who come knocking on his door, and he doesn’t even put nipples on his costume.
But the Will of Alfred cannot be denied, and Bruce is soon teaching all the kiddies at home the sacred art of stuffing your dating profile with half-truths.
Meanwhile, Scarface and his crew break into Gotham’s aeronautics museum, and I have to say – I kinda like how much of Scarface’s abuse gets “toned down” into passive-aggressive snark. Also, Wesker seems to have actual life plans beyond “go with what Mr. Scarface says, hope he doesn’t have me whacked” – he’s got his heart set on retiring to a ranch in Texas (or Montana) after just one last heist.
Castellaneta’s voice as he assures his two thugs “[Mr. Scarface]’d never leave me” is just plain sad. In a good way.
What’s sad in a sad way: the gang just walks through a security laser without missing a beat. I guess this is the fastest way to get Batman on the scene, but really?
It’s good news for Batman, at least. Alfred’s just found him a generic-looking girl (Becky) who specializes in psychology, and Bruce wisely tears ass before Jim Carrey can start knocking on the Batcave’s door.
By the way – it’s somewhat interesting that Wesker and Scarface are the first villains since the Joker (maybe) to not know who Batman is. I guess maybe you could explain that Wesker doesn’t watch the news that often, but this should be Crimeing 101 for someone like Scarface.
So Batman and Scarface’s two thugs start
smashing up the place to their hearts’ content their honorable and totally unavoidable battle, and Scarface quickly realizes that it ain’t looking good for his crew. Most versions of him would run away with tail between legs, but we all know by now what kind of show this is.
And so, the evil doll and his senior citizen sidekick charge right into the front lines. It’s that time aga…
No, wait. Goodman decides he wants to be “realistic” and deny us the awesome kung-fu fight that would’ve surely occurred on Steven Melching’s watch.
Dammit I mean yippee!
So how does the one-man duo take on the Big Bad Bat? Does Wesker alter his voice to a dozen different pitches and throw them all around the museum as a distraction? Is Scarface secretly loaded with guns like a mini-Gundam?
… or they could just reenact Scarface ’83 and hope that Batman is
frozen with rage by people disrespecting the classics too freaking confused to do anything.
It works like a charm, Batman gets sideswiped by one of the thugs, and Scarface’s boys build a nice little deathtrap with what they can find in the museum.
It’s no razor-nailed mannequin pit, but if this newer, hipper Scarface wants to reenact Raiders of the Lost Ark, who are we to stop him? Shit, “80s cinema” sounds like a pretty great secondary gimmick!
… who are you, Sir?
Ah. Well, you’ll be in good company, and mi casa es su… waitaminute. I think I’ve heard of you before. What… what was it Mouse told me when we first met…?
Okeydokey then. You’re not a canon, a Horned King, or a crow! Make yourself comfy, and… can I get you anything?
Gotcha. Be right back.
Sir? I heard screaming. Is everything alright?
I’m… sorry, little buddy. This show’s got a Y7 crowd to please.
After that narrow escape, Bruce goes back to the Batcave for some detective work. Figuring that there are fewer dummies in Gotham than thieves, he goes combing through the city-wide ventriloquist database until he finds Wesker’s profile.
Unlike That Other Show (tie-in comics notwithstanding), The Batman gives Wesker a bit of backstory: he was a small-time entertainer with Scarface as his main act, snapped when he got booed off the stage, and later returned to rob the audience. And yes, both he and the puppet looked exactly the same back then, so now I’m imagining that his specialty was doing G-rated reenactments of Scarface at birthday parties. He certainly wouldn’t have been the first.
But the Batcomputer’s search gets interrupted by Becky responding to
Bruce Alfred’s chat request. Bruce has nothing better to do since Alfred says so, so he gives this whole “interaction with women” thing a shot.
Ummm… moving on…
While Bruce makes plans for a dinner date with Becky, the Ventriloquist’s men start discussing their choice in bosses. This being my blog, I’m gonna take a devote a minute or five just to them.
The guy on the left is Rhino, traditionally the Ventriloquist’s oldest, toughest henchman and chief bodyguard. In the comics and That Other Show, he believes in Scarface as a living, breathing entity – sometimes more than Wesker himself does, to the point where he helped “resurrect” the little puppet a bunch of times when Wesker had given him up for dead. Here, he seems to more tolerate the Ventriloquist’s “eccentricities” with good humor, probably since he seems a lot smarter than any of his other incarnations.
On the right is Mugsy, an invention of That Other Show – there, he mostly existed to contrast Rhino visually (thin and reedy as opposed to big and bulky). Since both of them are muscleheads here, Mugsy instead serves as the token skeptic (who still sticks along because he respects Rhino’s magnificent sideburns that much), and half his dialogue is “why the fuck are we taking orders from a dead tree”?
Well, uh… you wanna field that one, little buddy?
Ah, well. More yummy, yummy cake for me and… hey, where’d the knife go?
Guess I’m eating this thing the way God intended.
Wesker and Scarface hit a big-shot computer factory next (no security again – the recession must’ve been brutal for Gotham), but inexplicably tell Mugsy and Rhino to stay outside. This comes back to bite ’em in the ass when Batman shows up, head still in one piece, and mops the floor with them.
Anyone in the audience who’s got a thing for Batman beating up senior citizens? Today’s your lucky day.
Not to worry, though. Upon realizing that Wesker is just a poor, innocent, mentally-ill man, Batman shows him his famous compassion and understanding… by tossing Scarface right onto the closest conveyor belt o’ doom.
(Castellaneta’s scream of pure horror during this scene is pretty great, all told. I still remember it from my first viewing.)
If you remember anything of Scarface from That Other Show, you’ll probably remember how the writers gleefully treated him to one gruesome “death” after another – shot by a tommy gun, beheaded by the Scarecrow, smashed by falling logs, and more. Since he was “just” a wooden doll, S&P couldn’t be bothered to give a shit.
The Batman does this particular tradition proud – as Scarface travels down the conveyor belt, the machines drill nuts and bolts into his head, and the lighting is perfectly framed to make it look like he’s a human being getting experimented on.
(For extra fun, consider that Wesker can hear Mr. Scarface’s every scream of pain in his own head.)
Oh, you’re back. Where have you been?
I think there’s some in the shed, but what do you…
As Scarface’s thugs try to hold off Batman, Wesker rescues his boss and leaves them to fend for themselves. This leads to a tender and very, very fucked-up moment that we never got to see on That Other Show: what happens when Scarface is near-“death” but not totaled. Wesker predictably screams bloody murder every time the latter happens, but here, he whimpers a pathetic yet touching “Don’t leave me…”
And Scarface, surprisingly enough, actually comforts him. They did get the computer board they came for, so the night was a success after all.
Back inside the factory, we get this series’ first Bat-interrogation, and… it’s kinda disappointing. All Batman has to do is hang Rhino and Mugsy upside-down for a few seconds before they start singing. They’re going to be the laughingstocks of the entire jail.
Anyway, the Ventriloquist’s target: the Federal Reserve. All the crap he’s been stealing throughout this episode has been to build something that’ll help him take the place apart. The thugs don’t know what, but the World’s Greatest Detective can guess.
… you get one more try.
Yes, this show’s take on Wesker/Scarface just happens to be a genius robotics engineer. Well, there’s certainly nothing that quite screams “EIGHTIES!” like giant robots, and I think we can all agree that Scarface would’ve been a much cooler movie if either Tony got one of these instead of a vaguely incestuous sister.
Still, outside of a slightly clever visual gag/metaphor, nothing about this robot’s setup makes any goddamn sense. How is Wesker driving the thing? Is he driving the thing? Is the “Scarface” side of his brain just plugged into it NERV-style? Either way, why the fuck is Scarface carrying him around out in the open, where any cop’s bullets could make Swiss cheese out of him?
(Oh, and there’s another tortured attempt at metaphor with the Bruce/Batman vs. Wesker/Scarface thing, but it’s not worth getting into.)
After stealing a load of gold bars, the Scarface-Bot is confronted by Batman (who even points out that Wesker is one giant honking weak spot). Some of you may be wondering why Batman isn’t bringing his own giant robot to the fight, but I guess there can be a weak handwave that it’s still totaled from the events of “The Cat and the Bat”.
Predictably enough, the Scarface-Bot fights like a giant action figure, complete with twist-and-strike waist and removable gold medallion. In a matter of seconds, he’s got Batman in an iron grip, and he’s got plans to hit every bank in town after offing the Bat.
Wesker is shocked (shocked I say!) that his boss isn’t going to retire after just one heist, and declares that he’s retiring alone. While the two argue, Batman whips out a flask of acid and throws it right into the robot’s eyes, which… for some reason blinds it.
Okay, I guess it’s a common enough thing in kids’ shows, but it would’ve been way cooler (and more ironically fitting) if Batman had done something like this:
Did I mention that all this is happening on an elevated railway?
Naturally, Mouse’s Thirty-First Law of Disney Movies (along with the Samurai Jack Corollary) kicks in, and the CGI Express shows up to send this Scarface to meet Camonte and Montana. But not before he tosses off one final farewell:
By the way – as soon as Wesker’s no longer in his palm, he stops moving, so I guess Wesker is piloting it NERV-style? Anyways, robot goes BOOM, gold bars come raining down the street, and the hobos of the district eat well that night.
Gaaah. Don’t scare me like that!
While Wesker angsts over his boss’s (temporary) demise, Batman comforts him. By which I mean whines to Wesker about his own “double life”. That said, I’d still trust his “therapy” over Arkham any day.
Speaking of which, poor Becky’s been stood up, but at least Bruce sent Alfred over to apologize. The guy she’s here to meet is married to his work, har har har, Becky leaves utterly heartbroken
and halfway down the path to supervillainy, while high above, Batman… stalks her without even going down to say hi.
Christ, what an asshole.
Given how much I liked this episode as a kid, it’s not particularly pleasant to admit that it doesn’t really hold up. I still love the idea of the Ventriloquist with all my heart, and this episode does a handful of interesting things with the one-man duo, but the A-plot’s not particularly exciting (the Scarface-Bot seriously needed more screentime to hit Stupid Awesome territory), and the B-plot’s just plain pointless. In the end, I do much prefer That Other Show’s take on Scarface, with his pimpin’ Prohibition-era duds and jazztastic leitmotif. He wasn’t particularly smarter, but he sure felt like it.
Still, Goodman tried. And as Wesker himself said once upon a time:
The world’s still yours, guys. The world’s still yours.
You got any thoughts, little guy?
Couldn’t have said it better myself. I think.
S’pose I will. Thanks, fella, and goodnight!
Next time: The Joker and his awesome hair return after
years days of training with Mr. Popo! Can he overcome the fearsome Majin Bat? And will anyone in the audience actually get all my horrifically outdated top-of-the-line DBZ jokes?
To be continued…?
(Note: The Unshaved Mouse supporting characters used here have been used with permission from Mr. Neil Sharpson. The management would like to thank him profusely.)