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Original Airdate: June 25, 2005
Writer: Greg Weisman
Director: Seung Eun Kim
And here we arrive at Season 2’s first indisputable masterpiece, which unfortunately has to stand in the shadow of a certain other Batman episode with the exact same title, not to mention similar themes. But honest to God, I think today’s episode may actually be a contender, if not outright superior, thanks to that fellow whose name comes after the Writer tag up there.
Greg Weisman is back, people, and he’s here to kick ass, take names, and sweep the Emmys. Tell us, Sir – what is your secret?
Oh, Greg. You and your wacko radical theories. Good thing you’re handling the one villain this show allows a modicum of maturity and nuance, else we’d have to put you in the funbox!
Anyways, this is the first time The Batman‘s taken a stab at a villain reformation episode – something That Other Show absolutely loved, especially during its The Adventures of Batman & Robin season. How will the more simplistic, black-and-white world of The Batman handle the same theme? Let’s find out.
We start in the hallowed halls of Arkham Asylum with our old buddy, Stoner Guard. This entire cold opening would be a perfectly subtle thing with one hell of a twist, if it weren’t for this shot.
A single guitar riff (almost certainly added in postproduction) pours at least half the surprise down the drain, because now we know something’s definitely up. And sure enough, Slacker Guard enters Joker’s cell to give Laughing Boy his medicine. All 200 big, pointy pounds of it.
Fair’s fair – Kids WB’s promos already spoiled the hell out of this being a Clayface episode, but what’s less forgivable is that the guitar riff also spoiled how Mustache Guard up there was actually Batman in disguise. Still… I guess we can chalk one up for Ethan’s intelligence by the suspicious look he gives Mustache Guard?
And while it’s definitely not out of character for Batman to keep an Arkham guard disguise handy, I have to wonder how long he’s been doing this sting. Even knowing that Clayface will probably attack Joker first if/when he returns, he obviously can’t patrol Arkham’s hallways every night. Maybe some boring offscreen detective work led him to believe tonight would be the night?
Further complicating the timeline: Joker apparently doesn’t know who Clayface is (unless he’s deliberately trying to provoke Ethan for the lulz), even though he’s been out of Arkham at least once between this episode and the Season 1 finale. Guess he just didn’t have time to pick up a newspaper or something.
Anyways, Batman follows in his predecessors’ footsteps-
–most of his predecessors’ footsteps and saves the Joker’s worthless life, Clayface’s protests be damned. But it’s notable that this Bruce doesn’t pull out the old “I can’t cross THE LINE and neither will you!” canard; instead, his only goal is helping Ethan.
With freeze grenades, but hey, it’s the thought that counts.
the Batmobile lost a wheel Joker got away while they were doing all that male bonding up there. Nice going, idiots.
One presumably massive timeskip later, Ethan’s up for a probation hearing. Yeah, there could’ve been at least a little time spent on all the therapy he supposedly got in-between, but to be honest, That Other Show wasn’t a whole lot better in this department; even “Second Chance” opted for the rather fantastic realm of facial reconstruction surgery instead of anything that actually allowed us insight into Harvey Dent’s mind. Chalk it up to something that works well in the comics but no one wants to see on TV, I suppose.
Anyways, the hearing is a pretty slick way of getting new viewers caught up on Clayface’s whole backstory, and it’s sweet to see both Bruce and Detective Yin giving such heartfelt testimonies because they think their friend deserves another chance (not so sweet but nevertheless logical: Chief Rojas in all his mustache-twitching “glory”). But the real star here is the new kid on the block:
I know all of you are probably sick of me linking to this guy, but his series on who Hugo Strange is and why he matters is so well-researched and comprehensive that I can scarcely compete. But if you don’t have the time or don’t want to go through the whole tag, here’s the Cliffsnotes version: Batman’s original archenemy, invented fear chemicals before anyone had ever thought of the Scarecrow, and all-around badass whose pre-2000s stories were absolutely guaranteed to kick all kinds of ass. In that halcyon age before Wikipedia, the only writers who would use a character so obscure were ones who genuinely cared, and it showed – though his motives might have been a tad on the generic side, his competence was second to none, and his cheery embrace of old-school supervillainy (he trains attack snakes, fercryingoutloud) managed to touch even my jaded, Ultimate Batman Villain-hating heart.
More relevant to this blog: I think that Hugo Strange is the one thing that The Batman indisputably did better than That Other Show.*
Oh, sure, I’ve given this opinion before about the likes of Firefly or Riddler, but those are entirely debatable propositions that some of you did, in fact, debate me on. In contrast, I can count on one hand the number of people who remember the DCAU Hugo Strange, and half of them are probably remembering his two-second cameo in JLU. If his spotlight episode “The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne” is talked about at all, it’s for all the hilarious shenanigans that Joker, Penguin, and Two-Face get into; Hugo himself was little more than a colorless cog to move the plot along, every bit as forgettable as the likes of Boss Biggis or Nostromos.
The Batman‘s Hugo has a very… distinct design, no doubt, but from the second he opens his mouth you know that he’s a learned man, an unflappable man, a man who can peel you apart after two minutes’ small-talk.
His sinister wheeze, by the way, is provided by one Frank Gorshin, the same man who was capable of this forty years and forty thousand cigarettes ago. Like all performers of his caliber, he left this world far too soon, but I find it somewhat poignant that the man who brought Batman’s first TV archenemy to life ended his career bringing Batman’s first comics archenemy to life.
Strange’s professional credentials sway the judge toward believing that Ethan is fit for reintegration into society, while a scientist from Wayne Enterprises assures us that Ethan’s mutations will eventually fade (… I think?) if he refrains from shapeshifting for a long enough time. The scientist, by the way, is a neat little Easter Egg that shows off the depths of Weisman’s comics geekery. Good man.
By the way, am I the only one who finds the sight of Ethan in that capsule kind of uncomfortable? I mean, I know it’s a perfectly logical security measure, but…
Good thing he doesn’t have to stay in there for long. The judge puts him on probation, regular therapy sessions, no shapeshifting, yadda yadda yadda. Time for some hugs!
As soon as Ethan’s free, Bruce immediately names him head of security for Wayne Industries. Admittedly, there’s a whiff of nepotism about this (and I feel it somewhat weakens a later plot point), but hey – Ethan does kind of have experience in the field, and it’s not like security guards are actually expected to do anything in superhero shows.
And to his credit, Weisman immediately starts addressing the whole nepotism thing as soon as Bruce leaves the room. None of Ethan’s new subordinates are too thrilled to be working with him, and one of them actually comes out and says how lucky Ethan is to have a billionaire friend (later, he even calls Ethan “Wayne’s pet freak”). Ouch.
To my knowledge, there have been at least three times (The Dark Knight Returns, That Other Show, and Bruce Timm’s “Two of a Kind”) where Bruce was in some way responsible for resurrecting Harvey Dent’s life from the ashes of Two-Face – and spoiler alert, it never lasts. What I appreciate about Ethan and this episode is the introduction of class (and possibly race, if you care to look) into what seems like a familiar formula. While Ethan obviously has psychological demons of his own, he’s also more of a catspaw for external circumstances – a working-class guy being dragged out of a downhill life by a super-rich friend is bound to raise at least a few eyebrows of jealousy, and that’s the best-case scenario.
Ethan’s off-hours aren’t a whole lot cheerier, even when he gets back with his old partner for some coffee. I don’t think he’s a hundred percent sincere when he says that it’s just the lack of action at his new job that bothers him. Yin even calls him out on glorifying his GCPD days when it:
- Consisted of trying to not get killed by supervillains twice a week
- Produced so much stress that it was at least partly responsible for his… unique perspective as Clayface
By the way, Ming-Na’s really grown into the role now, though maybe that’s just because this particular scene calls on Yin to sound like a caring but stern big sister. One that needs to start kicking ass when a couple of asshole diner patrons recognize Ethan and start bringing up his past.
It is said that the next morning, the diner’s patrons found their sausages tasting a little… different from the norm.
And then… we come to the part that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense: the grocery store scene.
Okay, so maybe security chiefs working for multibillion-dollar companies don’t make as much as you’d expect in real life, but Bruce freaking Wayne not paying his best friend enough to buy groceries kinda-sorta violates every take on the character known to man (except that one story that might literally be The Worst Batman Story Ever). It would be one thing if Ethan were just short of money at this particular moment and the cashier doesn’t trust him enough to let him off on a debt of fifty cents(!), but it certainly doesn’t seem that way, and the cashier seems more apathetic than suspicious.
Well, I guess it’s a small complaint in the grand scheme of things. It’s not even really the focus of this scene, which happens to be:
So Rojas lives in Ethan’s neighborhood? Hoo boy – that must’ve been awkward even before the whole Clayface mess started. But after? Is it any wonder that Ethan turns into someone else when the Chief comes up to the counter?
That said, this is probably the most civil Rojas has ever been in the series – which shouldn’t be too surprising, since as far as he knows none of the people he hates are in this store. I don’t know if it was a deliberate decision to keep him silent throughout the whole episode, but it works wonders to paint him as someone that isn’t totally innocent, nor guilty enough to “deserve” death by Clayface. Yeah, what can I say – my sympathy for him plummets like a stone every time he opens that big mouth of his.
(Sidenote: I’m amused by how Stoner Guard seems to be Ethan’s go-to disguise now, though he probably just instinctively went with the last guy he’d morphed into.)
Ethan beats himself up pretty good when he gets home, knowing that keeping up the shapeshifting means a one-way ticket back to Arkham, but it’s too late. This is not the face of a man who lets go of the good ol’ bad ol’ days.
To get his mind off things, Ethan switches on Exposition News, which has surprisingly decided to cut him a break and not air the Clayface retrospective it had no doubt filmed. Instead, it talks about how Joker’s been looting the shit out of Gotham high-rises lately, which Ethan surely doesn’t give a shit abo-
(What’s that, you say? Ethan’s access to the GCPD database should’ve been scrapped months ago? There are city bureaucracies today that can barely be arsed to erase a mistaken parking ticket, so I call this some A-plus realism.)
Ahhh, no worries. I’ll bet Batman’s on the case already! I mean, if the World’s Greatest Detective can’t piece things together before a mere civilian can, he might as well hang up his…
Okay, Batman’s inexplicable absence aside, what the hell was Ethan’s plan here? He’s apparently not even armed (who knows, maybe Wayne Industries is so ahead of the curve that none of the guards have guns, since Kids WB woudn’t let them fire anyhow). So… is he looking to take Joker down in an awesome kung-fu battle?
… apparently not. By the way, you may have noticed that Joker’s wearing shoes for a change. These are his big gimmick for the episode, and long story short: they let him turn into Stilt-Man. Seriously.
This does, however, lead to a pretty cool exchange:
“To the sound of you going splat? Great idea.”
Joker then drops the good former detective, giving us our first-act cliffhanger
and no doubt setting Batman up for a romantic rescue wait never mind Ethan just goes splat on the pavement.
(Okay, to be fair, the episode shows Ethan turning into Clayface even before he hits the street, but I like to imagine Weisman’s original script meant to keep the re-transformation subtler until the last minute. More tension that way.)
Keep in mind: it’s only now that the Joker realizes the whole Bennett/Clayface connection, which is especially odd seeing as how even random diner patrons knew. Guy must’ve been really busy drawing up contracts with Wilbur Day.
Anyways, Joker and Clayface duke it out a little, which in their current forms is like the most Batman-y kaiju battle to ever hit a TV screen. Sadly, it ends all too quickly so Batman can engage in some of his patented Bat-Dickery.
So Batman reads Ethan the Riot Act for letting Clayface “rear his ugly head” again, and there’s a surprisingly large amount of nuance here, even for a Weisman script. Ethan shows a lot of restraint given Batman’s spectacularly bad timing (and if this were comics Batman, I’d almost suspect that he deliberately held back on the Joker investigation to see what Ethan would do), immediately changing back as soon as confronted. Shit, even his transforming in the first place wasn’t wholly deliberate – more than anything, it seemed like a reflex to, y’know, imminent death.
I’m somewhat reminded of the very first time Two-Face got reformed via plastic surgery, where it all got undone because Harvey got into a tussle with a couple of safecrackers. In both cases, our reformed rogues tried to do the right thing and suffered for it, only The Batman – being a tad more mature than a Golden/Silver Age comic – uses it as more than a mere plot device to bring back an iconic villain.
But Batman makes a few valid points too: Ethan’s not a cop anymore, so he really has no business trying to go after the Joker, by the book or not. And Ethan’s defense – that he’s doing this not for revenge, but to make sure no-one else will be destroyed by the Joker like he was – is simply a pitch-perfect summation of all that makes Batman Batman. Yeah, it’s more than a little mawkish (and Bruce’s flashback to his dead, dead parents really wasn’t needed), but no one can say that Batman backing off at this isn’t true to the character.
Actually, he does more than back off. Come to the next morning, Bruce explicitly talks the law out of sending Ethan back to Arkham, a move that’s all kinds of d’aww from a friend perspective but kinda dodgy from a legal one. Bruce straight-up says that he’s talking as Ethan’s friend instead of his boss, but I can see how that might just make it worse for some people. Were Alfred and/or Robin around, you just know they’d be
gently prodding Bruce about whether Ethan is worth all this.
So of course, Joker comes to rob Wayne Industries that exact night. Cue Ethan struggling with…
Can he do it, folks? Can he resist the temptation to NO NO HE CANNOT, WEEP PEOPLE, WEEP, and so off Clayface goes to take care of Joker once and for all. And irony of ironies, it’s Ethan’s
Mutie-Clayface-hating deputy who alerts Bruce.
Now, this was probably inevitable from a storytelling perspective, and it’s brimming with mostly-fulfilled potential, but I can’t help feeling a little… dissatisfied.
Joker going to WI just to keep fucking with Ethan is entirely believable, and I suspect that Weisman having him steal Ethan’s jacket during their last encounter was meant as a setup for a “Just returning this” one-liner, but that would reflect even more badly on Bruce. Batman of all people should’ve realized that Joker learning Clayface’s “secret identity” is an extra-doubleplusungood development that means he probably won’t stop hounding Ethan for the lulz till the day either of them dies. The least he could’ve done was put Ethan into protection, and hell, that setup might have even more potential given the direction this episode eventually takes.**
Anyways, Joker and Clayface square off in an elevator shaft, but Batman shows up right on time to spoil the fun. This time, he and Batman are a lot less civil to each other, which may just be because this episode hasn’t hit the show’s one-liner quota but is nevertheless really, really depressing to watch. Especially since at this point, Ethan flat-out admits that he chose to confront Joker in the shaft because it’s the one place in the building with no cameras.
But that’s not to say there can’t be some bright spots…
When I was little, I daydreamed a lot about Ethan using his Clayface powers to be a part- or even full-time member of the Bat-Family, but now I’m older and wiser enough to know better. Disregarding how he’d probably upstage Batman 24/7 unless the writers nerfed his powers beyond all recognition, Ethan’s a definite case of With Great Power Comes Great Insanity, and like I discussed back in my review of “The Clayface of Tragedy”, the struggle at the core of his character is whether or not to conform to society and its rules when he’s got the powers of a god. An extra-cynical take on it may posit that the whole “lethal revenge on Joker” thing isn’t really his endgame; it’s just his darker impulses testing how much he can get away with.
Let’s suppose that by some miracle, Batman had to go stop Mr. Freeze or Bane on the other side of town. Ethan kills the Joker without anyone knowing, and hides the body (or maybe, in an extra-charitable mood, just beats Joker half to death and leaves him on the GCPD’s front step). Would he really be satisfied with that and never turn into Clayface again? I suspect that the answer is no.***
And while Batman himself could’ve been a little less… snippy when re-introducing himself to Clayface, there’s really no excuse for lines like this.
Not justice. Not even revenge. It’s all about what he’s free to do.
And when Batman insists there are still options? Even Ethan knows (believes?) that there’s no way the probation board’s letting him off the hook now. There’s only one thing left to do: eliminate witnesses.
But unlike a certain fellow from a certain Game of the Year, this Clayface actually learns from experience. When the freeze grenades come out again? All he has to do is harden his body to brick, and they bounce right off.
So yeah, Bruce is pretty much fucked. But seconds before he gets a Robespierre Special, Laughing Boy decides to open his big mouth again:
Okay, so that’s not exactly how it goes down, but it’s close enough. In some ways, it’s an all-ages take on the hospital monologue from The Dark Knight, only more… egalitarian. This Joker’s point isn’t so much “life/logic is pointless” or “become a supervillain like me”, so much as “be a selfish asshole whenever you can get away with it” – whatever one’s definition of “selfish asshole” might entail. Everything from a full-on homicidal maniac to someone who spends his days trolling message boards.
So I what I’m saying is that The Batman‘s Joker is Ayn Rand. I think.
Even more interesting – and perhaps disappointing – is how Ethan’s grudge against the Joker seems to have entirely evaporated by now. He barely bats an eye when the Joker says that he’s essentially Joker Jr., a statement that’s both massively creepy (especially given its… history elsewhere) and more true than any of us would like to think. Even his stealing Joker’s loot (and KMR’s “Wait, what about my cut?!” is delightful) seems less like an act of revenge or spite than simple greed.
By the way, I neglected to mention this earlier, but the animation they use for Clayface has grown leaps and bounds. The sight of him swallowing Joker’s swag-bag is one of the creepiest things I’ve seen in this series.
And when Batman calls him Bennett again? His only reaction is a cold glare and a “Who?”. God damn it.
So the question is… was Ethan faking his attempts at reformation the whole damn time? I’d say “not entirely”, given how he struggled with hitting that security button even when there was no-one around to put on a show for, but probably more than Bruce, Detective Yin, or most of us would’ve hoped. But hey, let’s see the man speak in his own defense when Yin holds him at gunpoint.
This looks like the definition of selfishness at a glance, but upon consideration, it’s not entirely unsympathetic. From what we saw earlier, society’s reaction to the “reformed” Clayface is mixed at best, and there’s plenty of blame to go ’round there. Even if you do decide to pin it all on Ethan’s own moral failings, well… like I said in my last Clayface review, would any of us really do better were we given so much power?
In any case, Bruce and Yin aren’t interested in playing the blame game. All they want is their old friend back. And all Ethan – all Clayface – has to say to that?
“Say your goodbyes. This is the last you’ll ever see of him.”
The colors are struck. The bridges are burnt. But wait, what’s this?
Out comes the freeze grenade. And Clayface falls for it.
I’ll be honest: I think Yin got too little screentime in this episode for this part to exercise its full potential, but it’s powerful nonetheless. Was she, off-screen, playing the cynic to Bruce’s optimist and more leaning – however reluctantly – toward the possibility that he’d relapse into Clayface? I think that’d make the most sense – she doesn’t have Bruce’s nostalgia to blind her, but she has worked with Ethan long enough to know what he’s like. And however callous her line looks on paper, her expression (not to mention Ming-Na’s delivery) is just brutal.
That said, someone must’ve given her that pellet, and it speaks well of Batman’s developing intellect – maybe even ruthlessness – that he’d have a backup plan like this handy. Ethan would obviously consider Batman a threat of the highest order and be on guard for any of his tricks, but when it’s his old partner? Naw, no way Yin would do something like that…
Maybe Clayface’s underestimating Yin/Batman’s competence, or maybe it’s a legitimate soft spot for his old partner and the last real shred of the “old” Ethan that remains. Or maybe it’s just good old plot-induced stupidity because we’ve only got about a minute left. Even if it’s the last one, though, it doesn’t make his parting shot any less poignant.
It’s a bitter callback to the end of “The Clayface of Tragedy” – once again, Ethan’s shocked by the changing relationship between Yin and Batman, except this time, it’s not even a setup for him to do something vaguely noble like leave them alone. And this time around, the discovery is much more unpleasant: it’s one thing to see your old Batman-hating partner momentarily defend the guy, but for her to actually replace you with Batman… well, what better proof is there that Gotham has no place for the old you anymore?
And so it ends at Arkham Asylum, with Clayface divided from his former friends by a Plexiglas cell. There’s not a smile in the house as Bruce wraps things up:
“Ethan’s passed the point of no return. Now, only Clayface remains.”
The day might be saved, the bad guys might be all locked up…
… but did the good guys win?
To be honest, I find this episode even more depressing than when I watched it as a kid. It might just be nostalgia talking, but I have a hard time thinking of any episode of That Other Show that ended on such an utterly hope-crushing note. Maybe “Growing Pains” (another Clayface episode, funnily enough), but that’s about it.****
And if we narrow the competition down to just rogue-on-parole stories, it starts getting even more lopsided. Most of the DCAU’s villain reformations – spoiler alert – also crashed and burned, but they generally ended with a tiny shred of optimism (“Harley’s Holiday”, “Second Chance”) or else featured villains who never really wanted to reform except on their own terms (“Mudslide”, “Riddler’s Reform”, “House and Garden”). The only one that can really put up a fight? This episode’s (accidental?) namesake.
Next time: We take a little breather from the heavy stuff with another trip into the Orient, and the arrival of a new writer! Be prepared for thrills! Chills! And minor political incorrectness!
* Once again, this does not apply to That Other Show’s tie-in comics, which provided an absolutely heartbreaking Hugo story… that has almost nothing to do with the character’s portrayal on the show. C’est la vie.
** Less importantly, the jacket thing also kicks off a headache about how exactly Ethan’s clothes function. See, when Joker dropped Ethan earlier, Ethan’s whole body – clothes and all – turned into Clayface with him. Does that mean he can turn non-organic materials into clay, like the Logias of One Piece? Or were all of his clothes (except the jacket, I guess…?) part of a morph all along, meaning that he was technically walking around naked the whole time (and also violating his probation conditions 24/7)?
*** I’m also not sure what role, if any, physical/chemical brain damage might play in Ethan’s condition. In real life, inhaling fumes from weird chemicals pretty much guarantees something’s going to go wrong with the noggin, but maybe it’s for the best that this angle isn’t even brought up on the show. Aside from how there’s only so much you can cover in 22 minutes, it keeps the moral dilemmas more within Ethan’s choices instead of introducing an element that’s entirely out of his control.
**** If movies counted, I’d definitely say Mask of the Phantasm, but it seems a bit unfair to pit a big-budget, bells-and-whistles movie against mere meant-for-TV episodes of either series.