The Batman Review: The Clayface of Tragedy (S1E13)

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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 (most 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…

Last time on The Batman, we saw a good man undergo psychological torture, get canned for his beliefs, and start melting into a goo monster (you know – for kids!). But not to worry, I’m sure it’ll all be fine by…

Clayface01
Yes, I also thought the Euro crisis would improve this year. Why do you ask?

While The Batman uses Clayface’s “birth” to bridge a two-parter just like That Other Show did, it’s worth noting that the executions are almost polar opposites. That Other Show played coy with actually showing us Matt Hagen’s mutation – after Daggett’s thugs poured the RenuYu formula down Matt’s throat and left him in the car, we mostly got partial or obscured shots of Matt’s body melting (one image that still sticks in my mind is that of Matt as just a big, pulsing, but barely-visible lump taking up the entire car). When we finally got a good look at him, the transformation was already complete.

That whole process made for some very effective horror, but I have to admit that Bruce Timm’s actual design for Clayface kind of let me down. As far as I can tell, Timm looked at how Two was a little bulkier when he Clayface’d up, and just ran with it – the resulting look is probably the iconic Clayface for a lot of people, but I dunno, it kind of feels like That Other Show had swiped a design sheet for Ben Grimm when Marvel wasn’t looking. This overly monstrous appearance made Clayface vacillate between “over-the-top evil cartoon supervillain” and “oddly adorable cartoon supervillain”, but rarely did he feel like a man who’d lost his humanity.

But then, I suppose that was the whole point behind That Other Show’s Clayface. Since Two-Face and Mr. Freeze – despite the best efforts of later writers – already had the “monster outside, man deep within” market cornered, Matt Hagen went for something else: a man so consumed by an obsession (ham acting) that his mental and spiritual humanity were on life support long before his physical humanity bit the dust. This is why his motivations bounce from One’s warped revenge scheme to Two’s petty thuggery to Three’s melodramatic “I must find a cure!” to even semi-sympathetic friend of children so easily: they’re all roles to him. To shamelessly steal from Kubrick: there is no such person as Matt Hagen.

On the other hand, The Batman‘s Clayface is meant to draw not just from Clayface but Two-Face – and thus, we see every panicked second of Ethan’s transformation and its aftermath. To be honest, I personally prefer this design. Maybe I’m unfairly lumping my love of Two-Face into the mix, but the thinner, asymmetrical look really shows off how Ethan’s a mockery of a man instead of just someone/thing that’s not human.

Clayface02

(Also, I hear that it makes for one boss action figure.)

More than that – this Clayface trips over his own feet, can’t speak coherently (another thing that kind of bugged me about That Other Show’s take – not to diss the great Ron Perlman, but the “natural” voice he used for Clayface made it seem like the showrunners were too lazy/cheap to spring for effects), and I can almost feel the sheer panic as he realizes his clumsy, monstrous body won’t even let him dial for help. Your mileage may vary, but I’ve always been fond of watching a character go through a learning curve with new powers – whether played for horror or not.

As Ethan stumbles out of his apartment, the predictable happens: pedestrians scream their lungs out and run like hell, and the police show up to Taser his ass. All this could be absolutely magnificent (Ethan explicitly tries to reach out to one of the cops, who doesn’t even recognize him), but again – the execution kinda lets it down. Steve Harris’s voice still waffles too much between true anguish and melodramatic silliness, and the bubbly garble becomes more of a hindrance than a perk.

He also beats up a ton of cops – apparently by accident – which is another tiny ping on my nitpick-o-meter. In That Other Show, Daggett’s thugs poured an ass-load of chemicals down Matt Hagen’s throat, which is presumably where that Clayface got all his extra mass. But Ethan turned into Clayface from just breathing chemical fumes – so where’s he getting his super-strength from?

Hatred
Okay. Seems legit.

If he didn’t hate the entire force before, he’s definitely got a reason now. The GCPD get backup and turn a firehose on Ethan (… this is getting uncomfortable), washing him right down into the sewers. The cops all high-five each other, but the World’s Greatest Detective knows it’s too soon to start celebrating.

SpyingBatman
“… you guys know we haven’t even hit the first commercial break, right?”

While Batman tracks Clayface’s heat trail through the sewers, Chief Rojas holds a good ol’ Gotham press conference. I know it’s almost certainly a coincidence, but I can’t help but be reminded of this page from Ed Brubaker’s The Man Who Laughs (published just a little before this episode aired).

Gotham Press Conference

To be scrupulously fair, Rojas is semi-honest (his men did “take down” Clayface without Batman’s help), but since he leads with a lie that Yin brought in the Joker solo, he’s not a whole lot better than the Mayor up there. How I’d have loved to see at least one of the reporters call him out on Ethan’s little outburst last night…

(Stray observation: the cop who orchestrated the “defeat” of Clayface is named Sergeant Beechen. I wonder if Detective Melching might show up anytime soon.)

And all the time, Ethan’s watching them all with the eyyyyyye… of the euggghhh.

ClayfaceEye

Clayface in any incarnation (Three especially) can be pretty high-class nightmare fuel, but this is something else. Bad enough that a ruthless criminal can flawlessly impersonate your friends and loved ones with just a thought, but this one can split off bits and pieces of himself to spy around the city, too. Motherfucker’s a one-man bodysnatcher colony.**

Anyways, the press conference ends, and Rojas retreats to his office to finalize the details of his Zero Tolerance policy and presumably fudge some autopsy reports. What happens next should be obvious.

Clayface03
“Forgot to turn in my badge yesterday, Chief. Here.

For such an unlikable and incompetent waste of space, Rojas thinks – and moves – surprisingly fast when Clayface corners him. Not fast enough, though, thus necessitating Batman to swing by and save his oversized ass.

The first interaction between Batman and the post-Clayface Ethan is pretty violent and confrontational for two men who used to be… well, not quite allies, but certainly on the same side – Clayface gives Batman exactly one warning to stand aside, and Batman shoots back one of his hi-lar-ious one-liners. To be honest, though, most confrontations between Batman and a post-scarring Harvey Dent are about this friendly, especially in the comics where they’re usually (former) allies of convenience instead of old friends.

(Of course, That Other Show had Batman kinda get through to Harvey by bringing up his fiancee, but Ethan sadly doesn’t seem to have any kind of family, and I really don’t think Detective Yin’s gonna cut it.)

Clayface then runs away out of… frustration? Calculation? Whatever semblance of a moral code he has left? Given that he screams right before he does it, it’s probably mostly the first. And if you’ll pardon me, I’d like to take a sec to gush about how he does it.

The only way to travel, boys. The only way.

This is a pretty neat shorthand for how this Clayface is physically distinct from That Other Show’s. While Matt Hagen did display a sludge-like consistency every now and then, he generally evoked baked clay – malleable, but defined by its weight and sturdiness. Meanwhile, Ethan is almost watery in composition – lightweight enough to fling himself from building to building or flatten himself to the ground where no-one can even tell him apart from ordinary mud.

(He also makes a pretty gross squeaking sound when he’s slithering around in liquid form, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Batman chases after Ethan, and the other cops arrive just in time to make everything worse. Not as bad as they could’ve been (Rojas says that he’s not sure whether Batman is partners with Clayface, which is a monumental admission by his standards), but worse.

I don’t know whether it was intentional, but the part where Clayface walks along a rooftop right before Batman swoops down really makes Ethan look like a guy who’s just minding his own business before that big meanie Batman came along.

Clayface04
“Welp, maybe I should go get a mannequin girlfriend.”

Okay, now I’m probably just getting bleed-through with Three (his debut story has one of the most unsympathetically dickish Batman portrayals ever). Ethan did, after all, just deliberately attack one man and try to attack another. Even still, I’m a tad disappointed by how quickly he resorts to cold-blooded murder. Joker’s mind-games must have done a real number on him.

Clayface05
Alright, Mattel, where the hell was THIS action figure?! I had two months’ allowance saved up!

And yeah – the learning curve bit is skipped during this part, save for one quick moment where Ethan hardens himself into brick without meaning to, and the matter of Ethan’s speech impediments.

That last part becomes kind of a problem when Yin comes into the picture.

Clayface06
“Yin! It’s me!

Yep – where the Batman fails to make Ethan’s humanity resurface, Yin succeeds. Sure, Batman wasn’t exactly being diplomatic, but Yin literally introduces herself to Clayface gun-first, so they’re on even ground as far as that’s concerned. Ethan’s voice and expressions during this part are both top-notch – he even turns his blade-arms back into hands to not scare Yin – but I have to wonder why. She has tried to save him a bunch of times already in the six months he’s known her, but Batman’s done the same (and actually succeeded).

Was there, then, something else between the two of them off-screen? Perhaps something not quite professional?

There are some further comparisons with Two-Face to be drawn here; in several takes from the comics, society shunning Harvey Dent for his scars was a core part of his motivation to become a criminal. That Other Show, however, explicitly refused to go down that route, Harvey’s fiancee might have fainted upon first seeing the scars, but later let love (blech) conquer all; Two-Face himself did most of the work pushing himself away.

Here, it’s everyone else that’s pushing Ethan away, and while he’s hardly an angel anymore, it’s hard to not feel sorry for him. At least Harvey’s old friends could still recognize him; right now, Ethan’s stuck in the same boat as Swamp Thing.

SWAMP THING 001 030

Yeah, spoiler alert: Yin doesn’t recognize Ethan either. Ethan is so heartbroken by this that he throws himself off the roof.

Once again, his in-story reason(s) for doing this are debatable, but the imagery and timing are nevertheless chilling. It’s not unreasonable to imagine that for a moment, Ethan just plain gave up on life, and impulsively tried to kill himself (which probably would’ve only led to more disappointment, since his clay body likely can’t be destroyed that easily). He does save himself before he hits the pavement – which may have been his plan all along, or may have been a last-minute choice or even wholly instinctual.

How he saves himself, though, is… uh…

Clayface07
“This isn’t flying! It’s falling! With style!”

Shut up. You’re flying. And I hate it.

Okay, this isn’t without precedent in the comics; Two and Four, at the very least, could grow functional clay “wings” whenever the hell they felt like it. But that doesn’t make it look any less… y’know, dumb. And frankly, it makes the most stupidly overpowered member of the rogues gallery even more stupidly overpowered; when you’ve got shapeshifting, super strength, self-duplication, and (at least in That Other Show’s continuity) no need for food or sleep, do you really need flight, too?***

By the way – the “No!” that Detective Yin gives when she sees Clayface (and Batman) jump off the roof sounds ridiculously underwhelming, especially when you consider that her VA is Ming-Na Wen, AKA fucking Mulan. I know they’re both strangers to her at this point, but still…

Anyways, while Ethan flies falls with style off, Bruce gets back to the Batcave, puts a sample of Clayface’s body under the microscope, and quickly realizes it’s mutated human DNA. Y’know, I’m always up for seeing the scientist side of Batman, but the way Bruce straight-up concludes that this proves Clayface “may be more victim than criminal” kinda strains belief.

It seems that the scrap of clay agrees with me, since it vamooses as soon as Bruce looks away. You go, little guy.

While all this is happening, Ethan oozes back to his apartment for some more aaaangst. And goddamn it, at this point even I want to give him a hug.

Clayface08

Ethan’s humanity bubbling back up at the sight of a photo showing the Good Old Days™ isn’t exactly original, but the execution is a slam-dunk. At first, he can’t even bring himself to touch the photo of himself and Bruce on the basketball team – but then…

 batman the batman clayface GIF
“Je pense, donc je suis.”

Yep – about halfway through the episode, Clayface’s most iconic power has finally shown up. And I love it – love that it’s an artifact of his friendship with Bruce that brings him back – however tentatively – to humanity. Love that even then, his first “impersonation” takes a lot of effort – eyes-closed, gripping-the-sink effort. Love that smoothing his voice out takes the most effort of all, and we even get to see what his “throat” looks like.

I could’ve done without this shot, though.

It's Alive
“AND THEY CALLED ME MAD! MAD! BWAHAHAHAHAHA!”

Ethan’s new “mastery” of his abilities comes just in time for him to bullshit Yin, who’s come to check up on him (presumably out of her own volition – d’awww). Yin tries to cheer him up, but Ethan’s not really in the mood, and really, who can blame him? To quote the man himself: the freaks are Rojas’ problem now.

But Yin starts having suspicions of her own.

YinHand
“Jesus, Ethan… what’ve you been DOING off the force?!”

I’m not really sure what to make of the fact that as soon as Yin leaves, Ethan turns back into Clayface with a groan. That Other Show established that shapeshifting into people was like tensing a muscle – something Matt couldn’t hold for long. That could be the case here, too… or, if you’re in a more pessimistic mood, it might be a sign that Ethan’s already too far gone and now prefers his Clayface form.

Meanwhile, Greg Weisman decides to use up precious runtime to homage Alien, of all things.

Alfred Facehugger
It’s like a combo shoutout to Three, Four, and Five.

To be honest, we really didn’t need two scenes of Bruce and Alfred analyzing the clay sample in the Batcave, and the only point of this one is a downright juvenile piece of detective work that lets Bruce figure out Clayface is Ethan. Personally, I feel it would’ve been better to combine the two into one scene and have Bruce trace the DNA to Ethan instead of relying on some coincidental wordplay from Alfred.

Now it’s over to Chief Rojas’ house, being watched 24/7 by a cordon of policemen. Serious question to my fellow Bat-fans – have police cordons in Batman stories actually worked? Like, ever?

Detective Yin shows her badge and gets waved right in, and this here should probably alert any older viewer that something’s wrong. Maybe I’m just being cynical, but I feel that if it were the real Yin, the scene would’ve started inside the Chief’s house.

Which isn’t to say that Clayface revealing himself isn’t pants-wetting, because it is.

Yin to Clayface
“Ready for my closeup, Mr. Kim.”

All told, Rojas is surprisingly passive in this stock “asshole civilian who pissed off a future supervillain and now gets to be the first victim” role. Maybe it’s because he never really learns who the villain in question used to be, like Ferris Boyle or Daniel Mockridge had, but the only meaningful piece of dialogue he offers after sacking Ethan is what he says to “Yin”:

“Bennett never knew how to play ball.”

This could fit either the “honest but assholish (and also totally incompetent) cop” or the “dirty cop” interpretations of Rojas, but what really interests me is Clayface’s reply.

“No. I guess he didn’t. But he’s learning.”

I’ll get into this later on, but this one line, for me, more or less sums up the essence of Ethan Bennett as a character who’s half-Two-Face, half-Clayface, and in sum is something entirely his own.

Meanwhile, Detective Yin calls Bruce – she might not like him, but he has known Ethan for a lot longer – to share her worries. This conversation doesn’t tell us much we didn’t already know, and Ming-Na’s voice is still lackluster, but this scene really shows how Romano’s began stepping into (the) Batman’s boots. In the series premiere, his “Bruce” and “Batman” voices were virtually identical, but now, the sight of (the) Batman using Bruce’s voice is downright jarring.

That’s a good thing. Even if he still doesn’t have a patch on The Master.

THE Batman.
Please don’t eat me.

The only real point of this scene is for Yin to also realize that Ethan is Clayface (her chain of reasoning is somewhat more organic than Bruce’s, but it’s still pretty rushed). What she does right after, though…

YinCrying
“It’s dust in my eyes, and if you say different you’ll wake up tomorrow under an avalanche.”

… seems like the unprofessionalism wasn’t exactly one-sided.

We’re getting into the final stretch, but surprisingly enough, Weisman manages to give one last shot of competence to the GCPD’s grunts. When they see a cop they don’t recognize, they immediately get suspicious, something that a lot of guards even in more serious works have trouble with.

Not that it does them much good.

ClayfaceCop
Sweet dreams.

The cops back off when Clayface reveals himself, but Ethan beats them up anyways because fuck the police. But when Yin confronts him, he runs off immediately – and this time, it has to be whatever’s left of his humanity. Yin has no backup, and I think Ethan should know by now that bullets (even if Kids WB would let any fly around) would do jack shit to him. Hell, he probably could’ve killed Rojas right there if he felt like it.

Come to think of it, though, we never really learn why he’s going to so much trouble to lug Rojas around when he could’ve slit the old bastard’s jugular, smothered him in clay, dropped him off a roof, or any number of things right inside the Chief’s house. Instead, he goes all the way over to the (abandoned?) East Gotham Gym for the job.

Does he think there’ll be fewer witnesses/potential interlopers there? Does he not want the cops guarding Rojas’ house (who are still his brothers in blue green) to get mixed up in a murder investigation? Or does he genuinely want to kill all that’s left of his humanity by shedding blood at the place where he and Bruce used to shoot hoops?

We never do get an explicit answer, as Weisman’s script is more interested in discussing the broader bits of Ethan’s morality (or lack thereof).

Clayface09
“What, you don’t approve? After all, to Rojas here, we’re both on the wrong side of the law!”

                                                               

Batman Rebuttal
“It doesn’t matter what he thinks. It’s the code you live by that matters.”

I have to admit – at first I thought Ethan was going way overboard (partly a holdover, I suspect, from all the unfortunate “Insanity = Evil = Criminal” and Being Tortured Makes You Evil themes in The Killing Joke), especially when he starts thinking that Batman might be cool with murder when Batman was, y’know, trying to stop him ten minutes ago. But when you remember that cops attacked him on sight for looking like a freak, how much Rojas loved hammering in that “Zero Tolerance” thing, and how even Batman and Yin treated him with fear and disdain before they found out who he was, it’s suddenly not so farfetched at all that he’d think society no longer has a place for him. Even shapeshifting can’t help him entirely; no matter what he looks like, he still feels like clay.

And even if a cure for his condition were possible (which we have no assurance of – remember, the Justice League are still years away, and Mr. Freeze, the most comparable metahuman, is still an undead cryogenic freak), we could easily conclude that Joker’s mind-fuckery from the last episode has made Ethan too unstable and paranoid to accept it. To hammer it in, Ethan even turns himself into Joker for a moment and repeats the “one bad rotten day” stuff near-verbatim.

ClayfaceJoker
You had a bad day once, am I right?

(Hell, what’s to say the CIA wouldn’t kidnap him in the dead of night and subject him to lots of painful experiments to see if they can duplicate his powers?)

But to be brutally honest, I fear there are less… flattering possibilities here. See, one of the things I’ve always had a problem with most Two-Face origins is that Harvey Dent often goes full-on supervillain after getting the scars, getting himself a neat bisected suit, trying to take over the mobs, and hanging out with Joker and Penguin like he’d always been one of the gang. Both his motives and his means for this tend to be under-analyzed; never mind that the split personality – even in That Other Show – is usually portrayed as violent and short-sighted instead of patient enough to amass power like that, but becoming a professional criminal should be twice as hard for him. Law enforcement no longer trusts him, and most of the underworld probably hates his guts for the stuff he did as District Attorney.****

But Ethan’s gotten a whole lot more than just a rearranged mug and a rogue personality; he virtually has the powers of a god now. It’s a lot more believable that he – or at least part of him – considers himself not just outside respectable society, but above it. And truth be told, how many of us would do better, given his powers? Maybe we wouldn’t go murdering anyone, but would we not at least be tempted to use them for less-than-commendable purposes?

I’m especially reminded of Two – always the least memorable in terms of personality, but probably the most realistic:

TwoTestingPowers

Unlike Two, Ethan began as one of the angels. Obviously not as competent as Batman, but definitely with his heart in the right place. But as a wise man once said:

Nearly all men can stand adversity. If you want to test a man’s character, give him power.

This, to me, is why his fall isn’t just tragic, but disturbing. There’s just enough “hero” in Ethan to make his fall dramatic, and just enough of us in him for it to feel like a cautionary tale.

Listen to him as he says “It’s not cool to give away secret identities” to Yin – maybe it’s just me, but it sounds a lot more taunting than bitter or conflicted. It also works as a twisted callback to “The Big Chill”, which I doubt was unintentional on Weisman’s part.

As for how he tries to kill Rojas – when I was little, I always thought it was awesome how he morphed his arm into a crossbow. As an adult, I find it oddly impractical and flashy (and let’s be honest: its main purpose was probably to make something that Batman could easily stop), but to apply the fanwank speculation stick once again: maybe Ethan isn’t as comfy with cold-blooded murder as he’d thought? Maybe he has to distance himself figuratively and literally to make all of him go through with it?

In any case, he lets the arrow fly. Good thing Batman has some handy-dandy Freeze Grenades – another neat little toy that goes back further than you might think.

Freeze versus Clayface
By which I mean 1998. Everyone was reading Batman back then, right?

Rojas’ worthless life is saved, but Clayface breaks off his frozen arm before the ice can spread and runs like hell. While Yin stays behind to thaw out the Chief, Batman chases his former friend into the locker rooms and promptly gets his ass handed to him.

“In retrospect, I really should’ve brought more than one Freeze Grenade.”

In desperation, Batman tries to drench Clayface with the showers (at best, this would just give Clayface another chance to escape, but Bruce is obviously fighting for his life by now). But once again, he’s outgunned by the ruthless, omnipresent foe known as shitty construction standards.

Clayface11
“Nice try, Bats. But the water pressure in this dump always DID stink!”

Good thing Yin is here to stay Ethan’s hand of large, spiky death.

Okay, Ethan begins with a truly groanworthy joke (“Boys’ locker room, Yin. You could get expelled!“), and Ming-Na still sounds more like a stern big sister than someone who’s seen her partner (and possible love interest) turned into a murderous mud-man, but that aside…

“You defending the Batman? Never thought I’d see the day.”

                                                                   

Become of Us
“Yin… what’s become of us?”

The part where a tear slides down Ethan’s face and turns into clay – along with the rest of him – sounds corny, but something (maybe the animation, maybe the music) makes it work. Without another word, he oozes down the drain, leaving his former friends alone.

Unfortunately for Bruce.

MaskComesOff

Nah – she doesn’t even peek because we’ve still got four seasons to go she’s come to accept that Ethan was right: Gotham needs (the) Batman. I have to say – Yin’s face and body language during this part are excellent, and even Ming-Na’s bland voice complements them as a woman who’s been through far, far too much in one night and needs something – anything – familiar to hold on to.

But I’m not sure how much logical sense it all makes. Batman’s existence was at least somewhat responsible for the Joker and Chief Rojas’ “Zero Tolerance” policy, and thus Clayface, and tonight really wasn’t the best show of his competence. But if we can be generous, maybe Yin’s just remembering, accepting the events of the past twelve episodes. Without Batman, she – and probably all of Gotham – would’ve already been dead several times over.

I’ve talked a lot about “Feat of Clay” and “Two-Face” here, but there’s one more episode of That Other Show worth mentioning: “Trial”. I feel that this episode handles an anti-Batman professional coming around much better than did the story of Janet van Dorn – partly because Janet only had one episode’s worth of buildup (that mentioned nothing about her being anti-Batman) before “Trial”, and partly because I can buy a somewhat bullheaded rookie cop not understanding the importance of Batman a lot more easily than the city’s freaking D.A. in that position.

In the end, though, neither story was really as good as it could’ve been. That Other Show choked what could’ve been a phenomenal story with too much lowbrow comedy, and this show skipped to “Welp, guess I gotta be on (the) Batman’s side after all!” way too quick for me to give much of a damn. I don’t want to play armchair editor…

conceptual image of an alarm clock showing that you are too late

… but here’s how I would’ve streamlined the final confrontation between Batman, Yin, and Clayface: instead of straight-up trying to murder Batman, Ethan tries to unmask him, and only Yin’s intervention saves Bruce. Ethan stops, gets teary, and exits as normal – but Batman’s not out cold. Wounded but very much awake, he asks Yin why she stopped him, and Yin says… maybe, that she doesn’t know either.*****

Not only would this illustrate that Ethan isn’t too far gone yet, but it would make the connections back to Weisman’s first episode of The Batman that much stronger, and leave a little more runtime to expand on Yin’s character. Is she anti-Batman because she’s just that big a stickler for rules? Or is there some deeper, more personal prejudice against masked vigilantes?

But that’s enough with what-ifs and might-have-beens. Fact is, Yin is Batman’s friend on the force now.

YinBatwave
“A Bat-PDA? Okay, but I draw the line at green booty shorts.”

The next morning, Bruce and Yin have coffee at the place Ethan had arranged right before everything went to hell. I’ve no idea which one of them is hurting more on the inside, but on the outside, Bruce is putting up all the appearances. For the Detective’s sake as well as his own, I’d reckon.

And when Yin tells him (but not really) about her new “partner”? Bruce’s “I’m sure whoever you have in mind, Ethan would approve” may be the first time that Romano gets somewhere within Conroy’s ballpark.

But speak of the devil…

 batman the batman clayface GIF

This ending is one of my favorites – not just from The Batman, but all Batman. With a single nod, Ethan conveys so many things: sorrow, well-wishes, and above all resignation. Whoever – whatever – he’s become, he knows he can’t go back to the way things were.

Bruce and Yin naturally beg to differ, but by the time they get out of the coffee shop, it’s much too late. Cue the three-layer flyaway shot, daring them to search for a shapeshifter in a city of millions – a city that, in little more than a day, had beaten, broken, and ultimately swallowed Ethan Bennett whole.

It’s a perfect combination of the horror-movie ending of “Feat of Clay” and the melancholy-but-hopeful ending of “Two-Face”, creating something that’s fraught with paranoia, loss, and just the tiniest sliver of optimism. Ethan’s not gone yet, not totally… but he can be anything, anyone in Gotham. And one day, he may well cross The Line.

That Kids WB would’ve let this two-parter go to air at all still surprises me; that it would’ve let it end on a note like this surprises me further still. There’s little sense of triumph here, and absolutely no humor; but nor is it utterly dismal and depressing, which I actually think would’ve been easier to swallow (who doesn’t like seeing the Dark Knight bounce back from his deepest depths of despair?). Instead, it’s uncertain – as befits a young Batman who’s triumphed over all manner of foes so far but has just come face-to-face with his first genuine failure.

Make no mistake – I am in no way claiming this two-parter surpasses the best That Other Show had to offer. The script still has holes and room for improvement (Rojas’ “Zero Tolerance” thing particularly needs expansion – something to show the police might actually be a threat to Batman could’ve gone a long way), the soundtrack’s as one-note as ever, and none of the VAs are quite there yet. But as something that evokes both “Feat of Clay” and “Two-Face” (with just a little bit of “Trial”) and yet slavishly copies neither of them so it can build its own take on the Bat-mythos… yeah, it’s a home run. And as a season finale, it’s got quite a bite.

And what the hell – Ethan Bennett might just be my most favorite Clayface of all.

Next:

SeasonEnd

* Why am I referring to them like the leads of Doctor Who? Because I am desperate for views and mentioning Doctor Who in a post increases the chances of it popping up in a Google search by 07700900461% feel like it.

**  That Other Show’s Clayface, I believe, developed a similar ability – but at least his spies looked like people.

*** I guess it could be worse, though. Two once turned into Superman, complete with all his powers. Did I mention that this was Silver Age “I juggle planets and time-travel to pass a rainy Sunday afternoon” Superman?

**** The Dark Knight is the one real exception; whatever problems I had with it, I appreciated that Harvey never became a full-blown supervillain, and only targeted people he felt had personally wronged him.

***** A part of me really wonders what would’ve happened if Clayface had succeeded in this hypothetical scenario – thanks to a certain someone, I have an endless fascination with whether or not Batman revealing his ID would’ve helped Two-Face’s sanity, especially in That Other Show and The Dark Knight. The one time Bruce did it, it… well, led to one of the greatest Two-Face tales of all time.

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6 thoughts on “The Batman Review: The Clayface of Tragedy (S1E13)

  1. “and most of the underworld probably hates his guts for the stuff he did as District Attorney.”

    Then again, he balances that out by having lots of useful information on them, And after a while, when the crooks he sent to jail start being replaced by younger criminals who grew under the Two-Face days rather than the Harvey Dent ones, it probably stops mattering that much anwyay.

    Gotham crooks will work for Joker, who probably has iced at least one henchman they worked with/were closed to at any given point. I suspect they are just used to hate their bosses anyway by now. Do you remember that Alan Grant post-Knightfall tale where, when the Arkham inmates are brought to Blackgate, the normal prisoners, now with the home advantage, reveal how much they hate the maniacs and try to make their lives hell?

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    • That’s fair enough, I s’pose, though as I recall, the softball story mostly played up the Blackgaters’ antagonism as good old-fashioned prejudice against the insane. Only one Arkhamite had to deal with old henchmen, and that was an OC Grant had created specifically for the story.

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  2. Being one who’s only familiar with inklings of Hagen and Karlo Clayfaces (and usually prefer whichever of those did horror films), I appreciate the shout-out to Alien, as well as The Blob vibes coming from the little bit scuttling about. Unfortunately, his flight bit reminds me a bit too much of Godzilla’s foe Hedorah.

    As you could probably guess, I LOVE this design for Clayface, especially the stringy pieces around his mouth. His eyes help work his trauma in the very first scene and draws up all my sympathies. Then I see that cute, big eye disembodied and veiny and, man, this was a fun one.

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  3. “Yep – where the Batman fails to make Ethan’s humanity resurface, Yin succeeds. Sure, Batman wasn’t exactly being diplomatic, but Yin literally introduces herself to Clayface gun-first, so they’re on even ground as far as that’s concerned. Ethan’s voice and expressions during this part are both top-notch – he even turns his blade-arms back into hands to not scare Yin – but I have to wonder why. She has tried to save him a bunch of times already in the six months he’s known her, but Batman’s done the same (and actually succeeded).

    Was there, then, something else between the two of them off-screen? Perhaps something not quite professional?”

    …I kind of inferred that there was “something off-screen” but I was thinking more along the lines of plain ol’ human bonding? Basically, Yin’s been his coworker for half a year, they’d have had time to chat and get to know one another, and she’s been shown sticking up for him at least once even if they disagree on the whole Batman issue.

    Contrast that with the Batman, who has rescued Ethan several times, but who’s never said much and whose background and even his face are all shrouded in mystery, and who’s SORT OF to blame for Ethan’s trouble with Rojas- or at least it might feel that way on an emotional level for the currently fucked up Ethan.

    Basically I think Yin succeeds in making Ethan’s humanity surface, in contrast to Batman, because from Ethan’s POV she’s a much more human and reliable figure.

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