(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 excellent timing.
Like it, hate it, that most infamous of Alan Moore yarns put its fingerprints all over this show’s first season finale, a fact I’m told continues to surprise newcomers to The Batman. I myself still don’t know why – or how – the showrunners 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 standard Saturday-morning fare. Sure, the comic was red-hot merchandise even back then, and I’m definitely not sorry about the resulting product, but what the hell, Kids WB?
Good enough for me. Let’s go.
At first glance, you’d never expect this to be anything other than a bog-standard Joker story. The big gimmick looks like something stolen from a Filmation script: the Joker now has a super-soaker thing that can turn whatever it splashes into Play-Doh. Don’t hold your breath waiting for the episode to tell us where this “Joker Putty” came from, by the way – Weisman’s got more important things to do.
Like giving Joker his own Kabuki twins.
They probably won’t be following Bob, the Bus Driver, or Mo-Lar-and-Cur into the Joker Henchman Hall of Fame anytime soon, but I find them satisfyingly creepy without entirely ripping off the Kabuki twins. And really, it kind of makes sense for the Joker to employ silent sidekicks that have no chance of overshadowing him during a
And since Joker’s finally smart enough to hold one of those performances during the day, the GCPD actually has to be productive for a change. Spoiler alert: they still fail, though how Joker and his goons actually escape (bouncing down the street like giant kangaroos) is so energetically goofy that I can’t bring myself to hate it.
The same, unfortunately, can’t be said about what comes next.
Y’know, with all the bad impressions he left on me when I watched this show as a kid, I was really expecting Chief Rojas to show up more this season. Not wanting, but expecting. Instead, he pretty much dropped off the radar after the series pilot, only to pop back up here, obnoxious as ever.
Rojas is reading his entire department the Riot Act for letting Batman do all their policing, something that’s made Gotham’s “safest city in America” reputation go up in smoke and replaced with “scariest city in America”
as it should be. Not exactly an original angle, but the script and the direction give it some actual weight, especially when Rojas takes the time to personally call out several cops.
(Interesting side-note: according to his rant, this whole season takes place over about six months.)
Anyways, it’s a lot more mature than the show’s usual “I WANNA DO EVIL ‘CAUSE EVIL” antagonists, since like him or not, Chief Rojas does pose a valid point. Sure, it’s nice that Batman’s saved the city’s ass so many times, but he’s still an unaccountable vigilante with a real risk of inspiring copycats who aren’t as skilled or moral. Worse still, if one man can do so much policing for the city, would the mayor/city council not consider downsizing the actual police department? After all, who wants to pay taxes for a service that one nut in spandex will provide for free?
… of course, I’m also free to think that the Chief is just taking “donations” from (what’s left of) the mob and wants to bury Batman before the reverse can happen. There’s a bit of precedent for that, too.
(Just in case you’re still thinking about sympathizing with Rojas, he literally calls his new policy toward freaks Zero Tolerance. Fun game – run those words through Google’s News tag and see how many people associate it with anything remotely good.)
And come to think of it, poor, poor Bennett is literally the only cop on the force who will even consider sticking up for Batman, which leaves him even more of an underdog than Year One Jim Gordon even without factoring his race into the equation. It’s a definite slap in the face compared to his earlier, jokier appearances, but it doesn’t feel out-of-nowhere. He’s always been a tentative supporter of the Batman; it’s only now that we see the potential fallout.
Meanwhile, the Joker’s gone full-on mad artist with his new toy, an angle I’ve always felt was rather underappreciated compared to his “agent of chaos” or “VILEST HUMAN BEING ALIVE WHO I MUST END RIGHT NOW BUT I CAN’T GRAAAAHHH” motifs. Playing him up as a twisted champion of the arts makes for an interesting contrast with Batman’s science-and-muscles approach, and in the hands of a truly talented writer it can produce some very effective comedy.
Or maybe I just like the sight of Joker in a beret. One or the other.
Now, this Joker can’t really go “I make art until someone dies” on Gotham, but using the Joker Putty to vandalize the Lady Gotham statue is a very natural thing for him to do (and a nice call-back to the pilot, to boot). Of course, Batman has to show up to spoil his party, and Bennett and Yin have to show up to spoil his party and… you know, for all the smoke that Rojas blew earlier, you’d think he’d send out a SWAT team or something instead of the two grunts he always has, especially when one of those grunts has already expressed sympathy for Batman. Dirty cop or not, do you really even want to catch Batman?
Whoop – spoke too soon. Horrible track record be damned, Bennett gets the drop on Batman anyways.
Another nice touch: Joker himself comes down and curses both of them out for fighting each other instead of him. Maybe this seems like a tremendously stupid thing for him to do, but the Joker putting his ego over practicality is hardly anything new, and I’d actually call it better than the time That Other Show tried to explore the same territory. What better way to show how fucked the city administration is than to have the Joker actually start making more sense?
Couple more scuffles, and Joker and his trained gorillas escape again. But Bennett – bless ‘im – is determined to go back to the Chief with at least one freak in cuffs. Now, I’ll admit that Steve Harris’s voice-acting doesn’t really do much justice for what could be one of the most interesting cops in any incarnation of Batman, but this is one time the show’s crisp, angular animation really helps it out. Where Ethan’s voice lets him down, his face picks up the slack.
Desperate, Bruce resorts to judo-throwing his old pal, which only summons a much, much worse member of his rogues gallery: shitty construction standards.
Fortunately, Yin saves Bennett before he turns into street pizza-
(A moment’s pause for all his haters to “NOOOO!” at the Heavens)
-and Batman beats feet while he’s still got the chance. But he doesn’t just file this incident away and start concentrating on the Joker again. No, the very next time we see him, he’s discussing the idea of letting Ethan in on the big secret – an idea that’s absolutely brimming with potential.
Generally speaking, Bruce revealing The Secret is a privilege reserved for
children he’s kidnapped off the street Robins and Batgirls; surrogate parents like Alfred and Leslie Thompkins are given a pass, but everyone else (hero or villain) generally finds out through either circumstance or force. In any case, there’s almost never someone in legit law enforcement who knows The Secret; even Frank Miller, king of the straight-shooters, got cagey about it.**
More than that – most other incarnations of Bruce, from Adam West’s to That Other Show’s, rarely even considered revealing the ID except as a last resort. But this Bruce does – and not even because the police have some super-valuable intel or because there’s some huge, unprecedented threat bearing down on all Gotham, but because he doesn’t want to hurt his friend if they clash again.
Childish? Maybe, but it’s the kind of childish I can get behind.
Meanwhile, Rojas is crawling up Bennett’s ass for letting both Batman and Joker escape, and it’s here that Yin rouses some emotion other than “utter apathy” or “mild annoyance” in me for the first time. Even though she has to know that they stand on opposite sides of the Batman issue, she tries to cover for Ethan – and Ethan talks her down from it, even though Rojas is dangling his badge over the trash can.
Afterward, Ethan goes to
drown his sorrows enjoy some perfectly kid-friendly non-alcoholic beverage with Bruce, they chat about each other and Detective Yin for a bit, and Bruce winds up to pitch The Secret. But sadly, duty comes first: Joker’s been spotted again.
Poor, naive Bruce. If only you hadn’t said “It’ll keep”, the dramatic irony gods might’ve kept minding their own business.
Speaking of which, now Joker’s after a pair of solid gold drama masks (well, one of them – he doesn’t quite take to the “Tragedy” one), and Weisman throws Ethan a bone in the competence department…
… only to snatch it away seconds later. Not keeping the henchmen in mind, Ethan? Rookie mistake.
So now Ethan’s been dragged off by the Joker, but not to worry – both Yin and Batman are working round the clock to find him! While that’s happening, let’s exploit our God-given audience powers and sneak a peek at the answer key.
Alright, that’s enough stalling. Who wants to talk about Alan Moore’s greatest contribution to Batman?
Too bad. We’re still talking about this one.
There’s no way to say this without sounding like the most insufferable kind of elitist possible, but here it is: I like The Killing Joke, but not for the reasons most other fans do. I find the constant harping on about how it’s a “cornerstone” of Batman/DCU continuity (or worse, that it had somehow “created” Oracle) laughable, since “continuity” has never been anything but a marketing ploy for DC; I find the Joker’s (possible) backstory so over-the-top melodramatic that I half-believe it’s mocking conventional supervillain origins; I find the whole “one bad day” theme trite and uninteresting, at least given how the comic presented it; and while it’s undeniable that it kicked off a whole wave of blood-n-guts-n-self-doubting “maturity” in Batman comics, I can’t bring myself to wholeheartedly embrace or hate that legacy, as it’s produced some of DC’s best and worst stories.
So why do I like it? For one thing, Brian Bolland’s art remains unimpeachable decades after the fact, outshining not only every attempt at homage but a good 90% of Bolland’s own portfolio. As for Moore’s script – it may have been (by his own admission) the weakest of his DC works, but the layouts and pacing were still lightyears ahead of the plodding, creaky, fifty-words-a-panel Batman comics everyone else not named Frank Miller was putting out at the time. Even Moore’s dialogue has aged pretty damn well… though I have to admit I’m not sure whether this was him being ahead of his time or just his work retarding the ability and willingness of the comics industry to try new things.
(Now, if the management would please give me a moment to deflate my head…)
Most of all, though, I like it as a historical artifact (maybe that’s not the right word, but I can’t find a more fitting one), a cap to the Joker’s evolution from the 1940s to the mid-1980s. I might expand on this in another post, but here’s the short version: the Joker, whether the sneering taskmaster of the Golden Age, the guffawing hoodlum of the Silver Age, or the cackling murderer of the Bronze Age, had always been one of the purest supervillains. He had no semblance of a life or interests outside troublemaking, and even at his most “harmless”, he was dignified and competent enough to always stay ahead of Batman until the very last minute. More than that, his endurance seemed superhuman; oh, Batman could catch him, but he’d never go down without a fight, never be put in a cell without ranting or railing, never consider anything other than a life of crime.
You might say that this all came to a head with The Dark Knight Returns, which gave us a Joker who was introduced with a body count in the hundreds; who barely broke a sweat killing hundreds more; who went out on his own terms, defiant to the last. If Batman was going to be tougher than ever, then by God, so would his greatest foe.
The Killing Joke turned that all upside-down, giving us a Joker who had all the cruelty (maybe even more) but none of the majesty. Oh, him being undone by his own gadgets at the end of a story wasn’t anything new back then, but the sight of him sitting in the mud, suit rumpled, lacking even the energy to fight back, certainly was.
For the first – and perhaps last – time in history, the Joker was tired. Tired of being all evil all the time. Tired of running on a hamster wheel that would keep on going so long as DC could squeeze just one more buck out of his war with Batman. So tired that all he could offer were a couple of crimes any sufficiently depraved thug could’ve thought of, and a handful of third-rate deathtraps when Batman came a-knocking.
The Clown Prince of Crime was hardly a clown, barely a prince, and – at least for the moment – sick of crime. Sick enough to listen to, if not accept, Batman’s offer of help.
Sometimes, I like to imagine that this was the last Joker story ever told – within the DCU, if not literally (most of my favorite Joker stories came out after 1988, and I’d rather not lose them). This isn’t to say I accept Grant Morrison’s theory that Batman literally killed Joker on that last page (one of his most eye-rolling “insights” in a career full of them). Rather, I like to believe that their world simply ended as the police cars closed in – matter breaking down, stars going out, the whole nine yards – to compensate for the two of them breaking the most fundamental law of their world.
It’d probably be the closest thing either of them could get to a happy ending.
Well, screw you two. I think it’s a neat idea!
Now, assuming you managed to read through all that without quitting my blog in disgust (or just skipped ahead to this part – my heartiest congratulations to you, either way!), you’ll probably have guessed that The Batman could only do so much with the stuff in the text of The Killing Joke, never mind wanky subtext extrapolated by geeks like me. And really, that alone is a big enough accomplishment on Weisman’s part.
First off, Weisman’s script tries to give us Joker the slow, deliberate torturer (as opposed to Joker the hyperactive hooligan), and while things don’t really get physical like the Moore/Bolland ghost train or even the “reeducation” of Tim Drake…
… it’s held up pretty well. Kevin Michael Richardson puts those pipes to good use, making his Joker sound truly sadistic for the first time, and the animated hallucinations are a marvel to watch. Plus, Steve Harris starts injecting actual emotion into Ethan’s voice – something his last couple appearances haven’t really demanded of him, but which he’s slipping into nicely.
Still, I can’t help but feel there could’ve been more build-up done from a character perspective. Counting this episode, Ethan’s really only had two interactions with the Chief so far, and only one of them revealed any real mental vulnerabilities (humiliation in front of his fellow cops, plus the fear of being fired). Perhaps if someone had established that he had a family to care for, or that being a cop is the only support network he has…
The Joker’s own taunts during this sequence also feel strangely de-fanged and impersonal – instead of hitting Ethan where it could really hurt, he skips straight to the One Bad Day spiel, coupled with a not-so-subtle shout-out to his own origins.
(Given the distinct lack of any red hoods during this part, I have to wonder if Weisman was specifically paying tribute to the first Burton movie. Down to the fingerless gloves!)
By now, you lot will probably have realized similarities with a certain other critically lauded Batman story. The idea of the Joker being involved in Two-Face’s origin goes back earlier than you’d think, but the Nolan take is certainly the one on everyone’s minds, and… honestly, I think the most interesting part is how different they are from each other. Modern takes on Two-Face’s origin like to emphasize Harvey Dent’s mental illness prior to the acid (or explosion) ever hitting, which I absolutely approve of, but I also approve of how Ethan’s story doesn’t go down that direction.
Why? Well, first of all, he’s (at least nominally) not Harvey Dent, and so deserves his own semi-unique story. But more than that, I feel it helps tie Ethan’s whole story together with the themes of The Killing Joke – that One Bad Day can be all it takes to make an ordinary man cross the line. Don’t get me wrong, but “ordinary” is not really a word I’d use to describe Harvey Dent, even before the scarring; he was D.A. of an entire metropolitan city, which already gave him more power than most of us could ever dream of, and he was one of the few honest officials when the city practically breathed corruption, which also made his personality downright superhuman.****
On top of that, there’s the matter of his split personality – or Disassociative Identity Disorder, as the psychology community prefers these days. Now, DID is no stranger to fiction, but it’s still an idea far removed from “ordinary” life – enough so that some medical professionals debate whether it even really exists. Assuming it exists, it’s an extremely rare disorder, and it becomes far easier to write Harvey Dent off as an anomaly in a fictional city full of anomalies.
But Ethan? Ethan is us – or at least closer to us than Harvey Dent could probably ever be. He’s still best friends with the richest guy in town, sure, but he’s a cop – a foot soldier in the city administration instead of a general. He’s moral enough to believe in the Batman as Gotham’s best hope, but not crusading enough to do something like give Bruce police files behind the Chief’s back. He’s human enough to crack bad jokes and need to be rescued, and just “super” enough to remain in Batman’s periphery instead of fading into the background.
Perhaps it makes his actual fall less shocking from a moral/dramatic perspective, but I find it more disturbing from a personal perspective. And as we’ll see in the next part, The Batman comes up with something of its own to substitute for Harvey Dent’s DID, which only compounds Ethan’s tragedy.
Buuut we’re not quite there yet, so let us check back in on Yin and Batman, who have presumably finished tossing every other clown-themed place in town. Yin in particular gets a very awesome but sadly offscreen victory.*****
When it comes to the actual rescuing, though, things get a bit thornier.
I don’t know why, but this strikes me as the most disgusting thing Joker’s done on this show so far. I mean, hell, bad guys have pulled the whole “back off or your friend gets it!” shtick in shows way kiddier than this, and it’s not like this Joker has ever been above using horrible chemicals on people, but… Jesus. Maybe it’s because we’ve already seen this stuff eat through a goddamn bank vault…
… or maybe it’s just Captain Hindsight talking. Or both. Both is good.
Yin throws down her gun (which I’m sure breaks every stripe of police protocol on the planet, but it’s not like other Gotham cops have a better track record), at which point Joker predictably tries to pull the trigger anyways.
He doesn’t. For all the good that does Ethan.
(It’s probably another coinkydink, but this seems awfully reminiscent of most of the earlier takes on Two-Face’s origin, where Batman’s interference lessened but couldn’t prevent the chemical damage.)
With his toys all gone, Joker starts running with tail between legs. And here… here’s where the episode’s designs really start to pop.
If this funhouse is less lethal than the one from The Killing Joke, it gets points for being several times wilder, while never quite crossing the line into flat-out impossible. Aesthetic-wise, it almost feels like a super-sized model of Joker’s brain – and why not? We’ll be getting the real deal next season, but for now, what better way to show all Joker really wants is for everyone to take a turn in his head?
Alas, it’s over far too quickly, and the big showdown takes us somewhere a little more… standard-issue.
Look, I’ve got nothing against a good ol’ hall of mirrors, and this one boasts quite a few clever angles, but there just aren’t as many options open to the storyboarders. The Killing Joke used this setting for introspection; The Dark Knight Returns mined it for savagery; this show, squeezed by S&P on one end and time constraints on the other, can’t really do either.
I suppose we could keep gabbing about the Symbolism™ of Batman finding Joker by attacking the fourth wall, or Joker literally using the face of Comedy as both sword and shield, but this thing’s probably running overlong as it is, so…
Excellent question. Bats?
And lookit that – Yin’s conveniently found the party, right after all the real danger’s been taken care of! One way or another she’s taking both of them in… is what she would say if Batman hadn’t just saved her partner’s ass twice in the last twenty-four hours alone. Because even a hardcase like her recognizes debts, she gives the Bat a once-in-a-lifetime free pass.
(Part of me wants to suspect she found Bats and Joker much earlier and just hung back waiting for them to KO each other, and is now too ashamed of herself to take Batman in, but considering that she was bullheaded enough to go after Bane solo, I think it’s more likely that she just got lost in the funhouse.)
So… happy ending for everyone, right?
Ha. A ha ha.
This is a pretty good warning to all viewers that today’s episode doesn’t plan to end with everything wrapped up nice and neat, but I still feel it could’ve been better. I’m definitely sympathetic to Ethan calling out Chief Rojas in front of the press (and his “We’re playing cleanup, like always!” comment makes each of his earlier appearances just a little harder to watch), but not as much as the episode probably wants me to be. Yes, the Chief is an asshole, but Batman (especially this Batman) has never really been the type to care about getting credit for a bust. So when Rojas denies him that credit – when Bruce isn’t even in earshot – I can’t help but feel it’s kind of petty for Ethan to jump on.
But hey, let’s not be too hard on the good detective. He did just undergo horrific psychological torture and breathe in fumes that could’ve given him brain damage for all we know. Hell, he tells Yin right afterward that he’s starting to feel the badge isn’t worth it.
Chin up, old boy. You’re suspended, not fired. And Bruce is going to tell you The Secret tomorrow over some hoops
(and I’m just sayin’ – one phone call to Mayor Grange and he could probably get you the Chief’s seat). Right now, all you need is a nice, hot shower and everything will be…
In terms of quality, this is easily the best of The Batman so far – Kevin Michael Richardson’s slipped nicely into the Joker’s spats, Bennett’s and Yin’s VAs actually sound like they’re working for that paycheck, and Weisman seems pretty determined to start punching the status quo in the balls. The script draws pretty heavily from elements of The Killing Joke that I don’t particularly care for, but I’ll happily admit that it did a damn good job of it – and all within the confines of a Y7 rating, too. Even the more childish aspects like the Joker Putty have a lot more imagination put into them than standard for this show; and the little comedy moments (like Ethan cuffing the Joker) have almost pitch-perfect timing.
As a setup for this show’s Two-Face origin, it doesn’t quite have the atmosphere or the raw, horrifying cliffhanger of That Other Show’s take, but like I said above, Ethan Bennett and Harvey Dent are different enough beasts for such things to not bother me too much.
Don’t get me wrong – there’s still quite a bit of room for improvement (a single guitar riff did its best to ruin Ethan’s transformation) – but if you want a sign that this show just might deserve the Batman brand, look no further than this episode.
And if my foggy memories serve, the
best worst is yet to come.
Next: Ethan Bennett’s terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day gets even worse. Same Bat-Time, same Bat-Channel!
As my French followers (I know you’re there!) can probably tell, this “French” was just the Dirty Harry quote run through Google translate. An accurate translation would be very much appreciated. All praise Triphon for their invaluable help!
*** Yeah, I like Higgins’ original coloring better. Wanna fight about it?
**** This is also why I could never quite buy Jim Gordon, police commissioner of that same city, as an appropriate test subject for Joker’s little “experiment” – assuming that Joker was being honest about his motivations in the first place.
***** I couldn’t find room to mention this in the review proper, but Batman’s detective work in finding Ethan hinges on him realizing that the key evidence is cotton candy. The way Romano says it is hilarious and badass all at once.