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Original Airdate: May 21, 2005
Writers: Christopher Yost & J.D. Murray
Director: Sam Liu
How can a villain be so beloved and yet so hated?
Okay, maybe “hated” is too strong a word – the perception, especially among the public, is that the Riddler is too pathetic to even be properly hated. Even critics whose views I usually respect sadly dip into this, to say nothing of people who actually work in comics. People ranging from Denny O’Neil, the trailblazer credited with returning Batman to his darker roots during the 1970s:
To Neil freaking Gaiman, whose “When is a Door” gently but firmly told Eddie that he was a relic of the past – a past worth cherishing, yes, but not one with any place in today’s vicious world.
When asked to elaborate, their logic usually goes something like this*. This argument makes sense, but only through an annoying double-standard. The Riddler’s penchant for leaving clues constantly leads to his defeat, yes, but so does the Joker’s big man-crush on Batman, Two-Face’s obedience to a piece of metal… hell, when you think about it, all of Batman’s villains are to blame for their own defeats, simply by virtue of living in the same town as the World’s Greatest Detective.
Many Riddler fans blame the ’66 show for tainting the Riddler’s image – reasonable, given how Penguin faced a similar backlash during the ’70s and ’80s and only escaped it by
hiding in the Iceberg Lounge reinventing himself as a “legitimate businessman” who conveniently no longer participates in stories except as a colorless mob boss/exposition box. But this can’t be the whole story either; Frank Gorshin’s portrayal of the Riddler is touted as one of the most, if not the only, threatening villains on the ’66 show, with an icy-cold menace that could instantly snap into a torrent of psychotic, high-pitched giggles and back again.
Oh, shut up, Joker. Yeah, you were doing the whole send-Batman-clues thing way before Riddler was, but then you went and stole his actor’s shtick. Last I checked, that makes you even.
This is another common put-down hurled at the Riddler – that he’s a pale imitation of the Joker, meant for wimps who can’t handle Dark, Serious Batman. Setting aside how Dark, Serious Batman has never been the sole valid take on Batman (as much as some people would have you believe otherwise), there is a germ of a valid criticism in here. The Riddler was neither the first nor the last villain whose m.o. involved leaving clues for his enemies (that little club included everyone from Scarecrow to Lex Luthor), but few of the others made it their main gimmick.
And when that gimmick hit its expiration date? Joker still had the “killer comedy” angle. Scarecrow still had his fear gas. But poor Edward was left high and dry, the kind of comic-book villain who seemed like his own parody, like so. Oh, kinder writers tried to adapt him to the times, but I’ve found their success mixed at best. More and more, they’ve put a strong emphasis on intelligence as his key trait: his primary weapon, the focus of his personality, and the way in which he functions as a dark mirror of Batman.**
You may recall that this is the route That Other Show took with the Riddler, and as a Riddler fan, here’s my two cents: I hated him. No, not “love to hate”. Flat-out hated. “Started siding with the dickbag game company CEO who’d screwed him over” levels of hated.
Don’t look at me like that, you little shit.
Here’s the thing: I’m not especially hot on That Other Show’s Riddler even in concept, but the execution – at least in his debut episode – made me taste bile. From beginning to end, he was a pompous douchebag whose only emotions were Smug, Really Smug, and Smugly Annoyed; there was no vulnerability, no humanity to him. Even his “mistreatment” by his boss did little for me, mostly because:
- You’d expect a supposed “genius” to look at a contract before he signs it.
- Eddie didn’t lose anything from his firing except his pride; he doesn’t seem to have loved ones to provide for, and even after getting canned, he did well enough to convert an entire amusement park into a giant deathtrap.
- Mockridge got way worse than he deserved, and Batman’s self-righteous “ironic” narration at the end, coupled with Riddler’s logical-but-deeply-unsatisfying getaway, just pushed the man into straight-up Mary Sue territory for me.
Would better execution have made me like That Other Show’s Riddler more? Probably, but it would leave other problems intact. And when I say problems, I’m getting into even more subjective territory than usual, so please bear with me (or just click the “Read More” if you want to see me get to some actual reviewin’).
A common defense from Riddler fans is that most writers aren’t smart enough to plot something that can do the Riddler’s intelligence justice – a valid one, since the resolution of a Riddler story necessitates that Batman pick his scheme apart step by step, so you can’t just bullshit his intelligence with wacky inventions or vague schemes a la Lex Luthor or Dr. Doom. But I believe that it misses a larger point.
Simply, when intelligence is your character’s key trait, that character might as well not have a trait. This goes especially hard for Batman’s rogues gallery, where “mastermind” has always been the in-thing and pure, unintelligent brawlers are an endangered species. Even Killer Croc, that patron saint of brainless baddies, can outwit the Bat if someone feels like using him as the main villain (don’t believe me? Watch his debut episode on That Other Show again, or just wait a couple reviews for his debut on this one).
You can try to circumvent this by crafting a hierarchy of Gotham’s criminal geniuses, with Riddler at or near the top, but I doubt you’d have much luck. Intelligence – especially superhero comic intelligence, which usually translates to “I made a string of decisions that let me get one over the other guy” – isn’t really a thing you can objectively measure. With the other rogues, it’s a tool, a plot device at most, certainly not their raison d’être.***
But let’s say you don’t give a damn if Riddler’s unique or at the top of the pecking order or whatever, and just want one that’s suitably intelligent with an ego the size of Jupiter. Very well – but to be frank, I don’t think the kinds of stories you could tell with him would be terribly popular with the public.
I’ve spoken about this elsewhere, but I’ve come to believe that the Riddler is Batman’s most civilized enemy. Not just in the sense that he’s less murder-happy than the others, but in the sense that Riddler stories don’t have much to hook Batman – and thus, the readers – on an emotional level. And in this era of Batman, at least, emotional blows are king – the Joker’s terrifying, yet disturbingly amusing cruelty, Two-Face’s descent into insanity and immorality, Freeze’s tragic, hopeless love story. Batman himself is appreciated less for his detective prowess (which in any case rarely amounts to much) than for his emotional turmoil and/or inner humanity, which make him not only more interesting but more real.
The Riddler is a left-brain villain in a sea of right-brainers – in the hands of a smart writer, he could be the centerpiece of a mindbogglingly complex and meticulous story, but that story would more likely than not feel artificial. Entertaining, maybe, but with all the soul of a mechanical birdcage and featuring an antagonist who has little reason for existing other than to give Batman someone to chase.****
(Maybe it’s just me, but I have a much harder time envisioning a Riddler story without Batman, or even just told from Riddler’s POV, than equivalent scenarios with the likes of Two-Face or Freeze, who are rich enough in personality and thematic depth to support solo tales.)
Not all portrayals of the Riddler are like this, I must hasten to add. I’m a Riddler fan for a reason, and there have been a handful of appearances that have made me love him as I do few Bat-villains. And hell, even the take I just spent ten paragraphs dissecting and dismissing can be perfectly enjoyable given the right execution – though it admittedly faces an uphill battle in TV and film, where action and constant, inevitable progress are emphasized over deliberation and problem-solving.
Let’s see if today’s episode can hit the mark and, uh…
We begin on a pretty strong note: Riddler’s stuffed City Hall with a bunch of bombs, and the only way to deactivate them is by solving the riddle he’s left at the scene.
Not terribly hard, I’ll grant you, but it’s still more elegant than anything from Batman Forever.
For plot convenience, Yin’s suddenly part of the bomb squad, but if you can look past that, this is a crackerjack opening. The music manages to deliver a note of tension, the set is kid-friendly without being silly (if you have to have a giant prop, you can’t get much classier than an hourglass) and Chief Rojas even shows something vaguely resembling humanity when he yells at Yin to get the hell out before the place blows.
Yin’s uneasy partnership with Batman also gets much more of a workout here, starting with Batman’s suggestion that she treat him like a captive if any of the other cops see them together. Bruce then cracks the riddle in a matter of seconds, though he doesn’t hit ENTER until the hourglass is literally down to its last grain.
Christ, what an asshole.
But the bombs power down, City Hall is saved, and Gotham’s taxpayers breathe a sigh of relief. And the man behind the bombs is so impressed that he comes to congratulate our heroes in
Yes, ladies and gents. You’ve heard it from your friends, you’ve read about it in the message boards, now… shudder as you observe, with your very own eyes, The Batman‘s Riddler design!
Personally? I kinda like it.
Wait, wait! Hold on! I’m not insane and I haven’t been drinking paint thinner! Honest!
Obviously, this design is no match for the classic bowler-and-suit combo, but worst Riddler design ever? Not even close. It’s a 5 on the Bad-Riddler-Design-O-Meter, at most.
While I’d rather not see this design pop up elsewhere, it’s actually a surprisingly good fit for The Batman‘s Riddler in terms of theme and personality. I’ll elaborate on this as we go along, but for now, just trust me when I say that it looks better in motion than on paper.
(There’s also the standard defense: it could’ve been much, much worse.)
Besides, even if you hate the design, you have to respect the showrunners for getting Robert Englund of all people to voice him. “Freddy Kreuger” and “Riddler” are not two names that anyone would put together, but Englund takes the haughty-yet-playful voice that John Glover used in That Other Show and gives it a sadistic, inhuman edge that can make all but the hackiest dialogue fly. It’s fantastic.
Anyways, Riddler declares that Yin is qualified to participate in
his reenactment of Die Hard 3 a city-wide bomb hunt where solving his riddles are the only way to save Gotham. Help from anyone else is off-limits, which Englund hammers in like so:
“You never know when I’ll be watching, or listening.”
I assume that a large number of you are familiar with the Arkham games and the whole idea of Riddler as a disembodied voice guiding you from deadly minigame to deadly minigame, but from the cutscenes I’ve watched, that Riddler was more smarmy and smug than truly threatening. I know a lot of people like that take better, but when the emphasis is on Riddler as an all-seeing, all-knowing games-master, I prefer him sounding a bit more… dignified.
By the way, the second riddle is a step down from the first (one of the writers apparently thought above rhymes with move), but I do like how Yin gets an accidental potshot in at Chief Rojas.
Guess who can’t figure it out, and thinks it’s a good idea to annoy the loony with the detonator by ordering the GCPD to tail Yin?
With Batman watching over her on an unhackable frequency, Yin finds the third riddle in a conveniently marked van on the bridge.
I won’t recap it because it’s a video game thingy I can’t make much sense of never mind apparently it’s this thing, but the important thing is that Riddler doesn’t have much patience for people who don’t play by his rules.
Bam go the doors. Screech go the wheels. Eep goes the wimpy-ass reviewer.
So Yin gets through the puzzle with Batman’s help, and the bombs on the bridge power down. But since we’re at the first-act commercial break, Riddler decides to be a total dick about it.
Riddler then drives the van through the guardrail, forcing Batman to zoom in on his jetpack glider and save Yin
while Superman’s lawyers quietly rub their hands in glee. Miraculously enough, the van doesn’t go boom when it hits the shore below, and the computer screen is intact enough to spit out Yin’s next assignments.
The following montage is probably impossible to recap in any meaningful way, but I’ll try anyways: it keeps the tension humming all the way through, which is especially impressive when we don’t see a single civilian about. This episode’s Gotham City makes Beware the Batman‘s look downright overpopulated, but instead of feeling lazy or sanitized, it feels… eerie.
Among his fellow rogues, the Riddler’s always kinda lagged behind in atmosphere; I say Joker and your mind probably goes to twisty, eye-popping fairgrounds, I say Poison Ivy and it’s muggy, overgrown greenhouses, I say Killer Croc and it’s dark, slimy sewers. But the Riddler has no distinct domain; at most, he slaps a bunch of question marks over his stuff and calls it a day. Hell, the big setpiece anchoring his debut on That Other Show might as well have been recycled from a Joker script.
But when The Batman‘s Riddler is running the show, the entire city becomes a ghost story: engines start by themselves, voices whisper in your ear without warning, and hideous green lights start shining where they shouldn’t. This is why I don’t mind Riddler’s “mall Goth” design that much; in the context of the episode, it makes him look cold and ethereal, almost like a sentient computer virus. And yes, I know that sounds like the ninetiesest idea ever, but coupled with the direction and Englund’s inhuman voice, it just works.*****
Also, there’s a part where Batman almost gets Yin squashed by a piano.
And I swear to God, Chief Rojas is actually getting dumber as the episode goes on. Riddler practically gives him the location of the last riddle (“Everything in me is ancient”) and the idiot still can’t figure it out.
So to the museum we go, where the final problem runs as follows:
You may remember this one from a Scout meeting or something, only with one key difference.
All told, pretty silly mistake to make (fun fact: Antarctica was named for not having bears). Still, Ming-Na’s acting is panicked enough for me to buy it, especially with the extremely tight countdown.
Good thing we’ve got the goddamn Batman here to straighten things out.
Just kidding. Yeah, the bombs were fake all along – nothing but some glowy, impressive-looking canisters of lime gelatin. Still, kinda taking a big chance there, Bruce.
This is a plot twist that a lot of Riddler stories tend to use to deflect the whole “What, the bad guy just tells Batman his plans?!” criticism. Riddler’s riddles – at least, the ones he says out loud – are actually misdirection to keep the good guys busy while he gets on with his real crimes. But predictably, it goes hand-in-hand with a second twist: Riddler’s words/methodology hide sub-riddles that do, in fact, lead to the real crimes.
I get that you have to do something to assure the audience that Batman solving all the “surface” riddles isn’t a waste of time, but it can still come off as rather tacky if not executed carefully. This episode… doesn’t really hit the mark, mostly because Batman figures out the sub-riddles in a matter of seconds and some of his “deductions” are almost Adam West levels of free association (boring = like a drill = underground? Ooookay…).
The one time That Other Show used this gig wasn’t perfect, but it did at least try to work as a commentary on Batman’s paranoia and obsession with breaking everything down into logical clues.****** Here, on the other hand, it’s just another cog in the script to hurry us toward the final act. Bleh.
So back to City Hall we go. More accurately, below it we go, into the bowels of the city mainframe and… can I just take a second to say that I really like the designs on Riddler’s henchmen?
The show’s already got some pretty out-there ideas for henchmen, but these guys are both creative and fitting for the character. Of course Riddler would have a bunch of hackers for goons, obsessed with brains as he is. And while common sense might dictate that he keep some brawn around, I can completely buy that he’d disdain the very idea of relying on jocks in any circumstance.
Riddler’s endgame, admittedly, isn’t too impressive. He’s just going to steal a bunch of data from the city’s mainframe so he can have access to bank codes and other junk. How depressingly bourgeois. Buuut at least he’s not trying to drain Gotham’s “brain” with a blender full of packing peanuts this time.
And is it just me, or do things start getting shippy when Yin bursts in?
Oh, and spoiler alert: Riddler knew Batman was helping Yin the whole time. I like this twist in theory, but it’s a lot less impressive in the actual episode, since Batman did a pretty crappy job of hiding himself to start with. The sheer mockery in Englund’s voice when he scolds their little liaison is pure gold, though.
And since we’ve still got a whole third act left, Riddler and his gang take down the not-quite-dynamic duo tout suite.
One commercial break later, we’re introduced to Riddler’s other endgame: solve the greatest riddle in all of Gotham.
This is a predictable enough motive for the Riddler, but it actually crops up less than you might think (perhaps because “Bruce Wayne is the mask, Batman is the real person” has become something of a creed among today’s Batman writers). As far as I can remember, That Other Show’s Riddler never tried it, which is fair enough: discovering Batman’s secret ID isn’t a particularly good show of intellect unless you get really creative.
Which is exactly what this Riddler does. Oh, he acts like he’s going to unmask Batman, but then sneers a “Too easy” and shows off his real method: Twenty Questions, Gotham Style. Every time Batman tells a lie, he’ll set off a lie detector. Attached to a fucking lightning gun pointed straight at Yin.
For all my criticisms so far, this is an absolutely brilliant Riddler plot. Asking Batman a bunch of questions (the more trivial, the better) and then piecing together his secret ID from yes-or-no responses alone definitely plays to his vanity, his intellect, and his sense of showmanship, and I have to admit – as a kid, I was biting my nails wondering how Batman was going to get out of this one.
The resolution isn’t exactly what I’d have preferred (Batman using doublethink and/or ancient meditation techniques to lie without setting off the detector), but it does give Yin a chance to shine.
I’m not sure if Yin just panicked and picked the first stalling method she could think of, or whether she’d planned it all out from the start, but it gets Riddler running across the platform to shut her up. Undaunted, she spits out a name anyways: Ethan Bennett.
Assuming that the writers didn’t just toss that out as a throwaway reference, there are a lot of interesting characterization angles here. I can’t imagine that bringing up Ethan’s name would be a pleasant experience for Yin, so does Batman mean that much more to her (it should be noted that when Riddler made to unmask Batman earlier, she wasn’t exactly looking away)? Did she not pick another name because she thought Ethan would have the best chance of defending himself if Riddler ever came after him? And come to think of it, was Ethan’s dual identity as Clayface ever made public?
In any case, Riddler’s reaction is hilarious.
And it also gives Batman an opening to tell a lie, making the lie detector shoot Riddler instead. Granted, this part could’ve been animated much better (he looks like he’s running toward the bolt of electricity), but damn.
That said, how Batman actually frees himself and Yin is much less impressive. Riddler was apparently stupid enough to leave him with the utility belt, so all Bruce has to do is Remote-Control Batarang a button or two on Riddler’s cane. The worst part is that this would be easy to work around: just have Bruce hide a spare Batarang in his boot or something, and spend maybe two extra seconds on him grabbing the belt after he’s been freed. How hard is that?
Anyways, Riddler’s down but not out, and beats feet as Yin and Batman close in. The dynamic duo follow him into the depths of his hideout – an appropriately creepy Tron-like electronic brain – and split up because that’s totally a good idea when dealing with a guy that has horror movie experience. Then again, since Bruce insists on facing Riddler, maybe he’s just scared Yin’s inner Mulan will surface and tear Riddler to a bloody pulp if they meet up again.
If you’re still miffed that Yin spent most of this episode being fed instructions by Batman, worry not – she starts kicking some serious ass when she finds Riddler’s hacker squad, and even gets in a decent one-liner.
Meanwhile, Bruce is doing… surprisingly poorly against a nerd in green spandex who doesn’t seem to have any combat training whatsoever. I get that Riddler tends to be at his angriest and most dangerous when he’s on the losing side (and Englund’s voice is still pretty intimidating), but this is kinda pushing it.
Or, given how quickly Batman regains the upper hand, maybe he was just toying with Riddler till he got bored.
Amazingly enough, neither this quip nor the accompanying knuckle sandwich are painful enough to KO Riddler. Indeed, our gangly genius stays awake long enough to call for backup, only to be greeted with this:
(It’s the little smirk from Batman right before this that really makes the scene. He has no doubt whatsoever that Yin would take them all down.)
Epilogue: Riddler gets his ass dragged off to Arkham, but not before he poses one more riddle for Chief Rojas.
No, Rojas can’t even solve this one on his own. And when Yin does it for him, he doesn’t believe it anyways. The look on Riddler’s face just before he gets shoved into the wagon is priceless.
Besides, how would he know? We all know that Batman was nowhere near the scene tonight…
As you can probably tell by the sheer length of this review, I quite liked this one. The pacing is terrific and heart-pumping (for the first time, there are no scenes of Bruce out of costume, so no Batcave/Wayne Manor bits to kill the momentum), Yin gets a real chance to shine, and in a rarity for this show, there’s a genuine sense of atmosphere. I don’t like hi-tech stuff in my Batman all that much, but there’s no villain it’s more suited for the Riddler, and I can definitely dig an episode that treats it almost like… witchcraft instead of just an excuse to give Batman another shiny toy.
That said, it’s definitely not without its flaws and incongruities, and I consider the Riddler in the episode’s first half – a cold, disembodied games-master who barely seems human at all, tugging the whole city along like a puppet on a string – to be superior to the one in the second half, who’s a more conventionally human (and punchable) bad guy. The riddles could definitely have been better, too, even if they are for the Saturday morning crowd.
But Englund, God bless ‘im, makes all but a few parts work, and I would argue that his Riddler is easily the best villain on this show so far. Is he better than the Riddler from That Other Show? Well, that depends on what you mean by better, but he’s certainly less annoying and more threatening. In my book, that’s good enough.
Next time: The return of Adam West! Extra-special guest star Patrick Warburton! Also, the Joker goes on TV or something. Be there.
* I’d originally meant to link to Seanbaby’s thoughts on the matter, but my “better” judgment won out.
** I know that this is a pretty popular way of looking at Batman’s villains and how they “should” be written, but I’ve never cared much for it. It can lead to some pretty great stories, but I think it also inhibits their ability to grow as their own characters.
*** I have similar issues with the Scarecrow, as a matter of fact. When all (or at least most) supervillains use fear pretty effectively, having one guy make it his raison d’être just looks kinda ridiculous.
**** There’s also the fact that people employing their left-brain energies to understand and enjoy a Riddler story run a higher risk of realizing that all this brainpower really, really shouldn’t be spent on funnybooks about a guy in a Dracula costume beating up crime one punk at a time, but that’s another matter.
***** For the record, my favorite Riddler episode from That Other Show is “What is Reality?”, which provided similar atmosphere with Riddler’s VR world: surreal and strange, but also sterile and cold. In a further parallel, that episode began with Riddler deliberately erasing all traces of his human identity; in this one, nobody suggests Riddler even has a human identity.
****** Admittedly, that episode kneecapped itself pretty badly by removing any ambiguity early on: no, Riddler’s not reformed in the slightest, and yes, he’s still doing bad things and taunting Batman to figure it out.