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Original Airdate: August 20, 2005
Writer: Alexx Van Dyne
Director: Brandon Vietti
You may or may not recall how The Batman‘s first attempt at doing a “Wait, who?!” villain instead of one of the big names crashed and burned horribly. So horribly that any sane showrunner would’ve been entirely justified in making nothing but Joker and Penguin episodes for the rest of the series, never mind giving some other obscure C-lister a shot.
But Alexx Van Dyne does not play by your rules. Alexx Van Dyne does as he likes, and has been doing so since the day the Heavens themselves opened up to declare that from this day forth, only two X’s would do for a writer so mighty that he teamed up Jackie Chan with Santa Claus and managed to make our TVs not spontaneously explode from the sheer awesomeness.
And so, for his first episode of a Batman cartoon, he chose to do… this guy.
Oh, he may look like the guy Killer Moth and Kite-Man pick on for lunch money, his costume may be the most eye-searing abomination the Silver Age ever produced, and his entire m.o. might be a horribly dated product of the ’60s, but make no mistake – he’s a supremely underrated badass, with a rich, untapped history just begging to be-
Aw, who am I kidding? There’s probably only one reason either The Batman‘s producers or its viewers know about him, and that would be this guy.
I don’t exactly have my finger on the pulse of the Batman Beyond fandom, but I do know that Spellbinder is the very first villain to pop up in its theme song, and I’d say that’s got to leave a few impressions. And fair’s fair – I don’t care for the concept behind Beyond, but the first Spellbinder episode was pretty amazing for a villain-of-the-week story. Certainly not from a character standpoint, or a plot standpoint, but definitely from a visual one.
(And I just want to kiss whoever came up with that costume redesign. Platonically.)
Despite his entirely forgettable motives, Beyond‘s Spellbinder combined the Scarecrow’s and Mad Hatter’s gimmicks into a seamless stew of mindfuckery, a top-notch entry into the delightful subgenre known as “Batman trips balls”. Well, delightful before Grant Morrison came along and ruined everything. But let us not think of The Scottish One right now, for his very name tends to depress me.
Instead, let’s take a look at whether The Batman can do its mindfucking predecessors proud.
Oh, yeah – one more thing I should’ve mentioned outside the cut: this is going to be another Alfred-centric episode. A quick refresher: That Other Show’s attempts at the same consisted of a drab, science-fictiony romance story and a weaksauce James Bond tribute, so there’s not that high a bar to clear.
Indeed, we begin on a fairly startling note: Alfred stealing a vase from the manor and running away with Batman in hot pursuit. I think this is the first time since the pilot where we saw a chase from the criminal’s POV, and man – when it’s used sparingly, there’s really nothing cooler than Batman the all-seeing, all-knowing, inescapable hunter.
… holy shit.
Holy fucking shit.
Donald Trump was right?!
Guys, I think I’m tasting colors and hearing smells. Time is an illusion all hail the cheese people but the monkey paste goes on BEFORE the blind lady saw why is my cat barking and my dog meowing?*
Okay, okay, I’m good.
Damn, we’re forty-five seconds into the episode and my brain already feels like it went a round with David Lynch. Well-played, Alexx.
The cold open then tries to pretend for a few seconds that everything’s all right, it was just a dream, The Donald isn’t Batman and never will be, except…
Why did Alfred wake up in his day clothes instead of his PJs?
And where’d all the mud on his feet come from?
And what’s with that key in his pocket?
Well, hey, sleepwalking happens to the best of us. I mean, so long as the vase is still where it’s supposed to be, there’s no way–
All right, the episode insists on playing coy with the cause behind Alfred’s “amnesiac kleptomania”, but I think anyone old enough to be reading this blog and my many uses of the word “fuck” knows what’s really going on. Spellbinder’s running around hypnotizing a bunch of butlers, programming them to steal their masters’ swag for him, yadda yadda yadda.
So far, nothing really groundbreaking for a mind controller villain. Hell, even his victims’ expressions seem to have been done on the cheap.
(Maybe I’m just biased toward droopy/blank eyes for hypnosis victims, but still…)
There is something fairly delightful, however, about how Spellbinder uses his powers to assemble Alfred and two other butlers into a league of extraordinary gentleburglars. I wish they’d kept at least some of their personalities instead of being total speechless zombies, though – could you imagine the trio using their English snarkiness for evil instead of good? It’d be the battle to end all battles.
Regardless, it still leads to a fairly strong scene where Batman catches up to their getaway van and has to duke it out with his closest friend and surrogate father. Y’know, for such a surefire way to tug at the heartstrings and jack up the stakes, this is a setup that’s used surprisingly little in the comics; and when it is, the results are more really fucking weird than anything. Maybe that’s just a sign of how Alfred is so taken for granted as a pillar of competence and emotional stability that putting him in such a position means you’re just tossing the whole rulebook out, but you have to admit it’s a nice spin on his semi-usual role as hostage for the villain of the week.
Anyways, the way The Batman presents it isn’t perfect (Alfred’s expression is just silly enough to be distracting, and the UFO music definitely doesn’t help), but something definitely wibbled in me when Batman freezes mid-punch, unable to go through with it.
Alfred and his fellow brainwashed butlers then toss him off the van, and presume that he’s roadkill. I’m a bit bothered by how Alfred doesn’t show even a shred of resistance at apparently killing his surrogate son, but on second thought, maybe it’s just subconscious confidence that the goddamn Batman could never die from something so… ordinary.
Needless to say, Bruce isn’t dead, and he starts doing what he should’ve done in the first place: tail our snazzily-dressed thieves back to their handler. It might be an oversight in the script, but in-universe I can definitely buy it as Bruce letting his emotions override his logic.
Anyways, I haven’t shown what this show’s take on Spellbinder looks like yet, have I? Very well.
So ol’ Spelly is one of the show’s more… creative redesigns. Scratch that, I think he’s the most flat-out bizarre redesign on the show, and that’s with KISS Riddler and Tarzan Joker in mind. I can understand not wanting to tread too closely on the Beyond version’s tail, but this kind of gives me the impression that Jeff Matsuda (or whoever the hell was responsible) got a third-hand account of what Spellbinder’s deal was, decided to toss Cornelius Stirk and Deadman in a blender, and called it a day.
Personally? I loved the shit out of him when I was little, and I think it’s held up a decent amount. It might not look anything like the character’s comics incarnation, but it’s a wonderfully creepy design that easily sticks to a guy’s brain. A subtle touch I wish they’d kept throughout the episode: we almost never see his mouth, moving or otherwise.
Anyways, upon seeing who’s hitched a ride with his burgling butlers, he immediately mind-whammies Bruce with the most horrific visions he can muster.
God, no. Even supervillains have standards.
It’s pretty clear from here on that The Batman is aiming for more… stylistic hallucinations instead of Beyond‘s more realistic, immersive ones, but I suppose sacrifices had to be made to not scare the five-and-up audience too badly. In any case, they’re a dream to look at, and some do manage to look pretty freaky.
When Spellbinder starts turning the three butlers into demonic pandas, though, it just starts being stupid. I mean, this entire episode already has “Oriental” running out its ass, what with Spellbinder’s motif and the
Dalai Lama High Priest of Sarkana playing a not-insignificant role, but… I’m sorry, I’ve seen real-life footage of pandas mauling people, and I still can’t take them seriously.
Anyways, Bruce’s bacon is saved from the impending Wuxi Finger Hold(s) by the Bat-Wave in his utility belt going off, which wakes up the three butlers and sends Spellbinder running because the plot says so. To be fair, Bruce does acknowledge that Spellbinder’s hypnosis seems to affect him and the butlers differently, but the explanation the script comes up with later on doesn’t make much sense anyhow.
The episode then dives into Spellbinder’s backstory. Sorta. Basically, a bunch of monks in the Far East can turn their brains into hologram projectors after they’ve gone through grueling training and grown a literal third eye, presumably from drinking sacred brews provided by one C.M. Burns. Now, this actually has some basis in real-world Asian religions (and Western schools that shamelessly ripped off them), but I think it’s for the best that Van Dyne doesn’t namedrop any specific faiths or even countries.
So… long story short, The Batman‘s Spellbinder is pretty much a wizard, unlike most of his cross-continuity brethren. I’d almost think is meant to be a shout-out to his Hell-powered successor in the comics and… oh, goddammit, who the hell thought Homicidal Pantsless Lady Spellbinder needed to be a thing?
By the way, it’s implied Bruce knows all this because he trained with those monks too, which makes this episode an interesting echo of That Other Show’s ninja duology. Two immediate improvements – no more hacky rival-student plot, and Ye Olde Magic Monastery now teaches things besides how to beat people up real good. To be honest, though, I’m a little disappointed that “The Cat and the Bat” is the only time The Batman really ventured into the martial arts side of Orientalism. There’s a very rich subset of Batman stories rooted in chop-socky cinema, and come on… tell me you wouldn’t have liked to see this show’s take on Lady Shiva.
And not a day goes by when I don’t lament it. Now get back in your hole or it’s no soup tonight!
Now that the good guys have Spellbinder’s number, Alfred volunteers to be locked up so he’ll be absolutely useless to Spellbinder even if the hypnotic suggestions are triggered again. This is one of my favorite moments from him in this series, since it speaks of not only his competence but his humanity. I neglected to mention this earlier, but there’s another big charity bash thingy in this episode, held for blind children (lazy symbolism ho!), and Alfred’s horrified at the very thought of robbing it.
That said, this only leads to a bunch more plot holes. For one, Bruce’s logic behind Spellbinder’s next target literally amounts to “Spellbinder has three eyes -> He’ll want a fourth one -> the not-Dalai Lama will be bringing a jewel named the Eye of Sarkana to my next charity bash”. For another, why aren’t he and Alfred warning the other butlers and their masters? Hell, get Detective Yin to make the call if you’re worried about them not believing you!
I’d excuse the second one as Bruce wanting to tail the other two back to Spellbinder again, except Alfred says he’s looking forward to seeing Bruce whale on the other butlers on live TV, who I might remind you are as much Spellbinder’s victims as he is. Our hero, ladies and gentlemen.
(That said, Bruce doing an English accent when he furnishes Alfred’s “cell” is adorable.)
Meanwhile, Bruce shores up his mind via meditation and candles
and relentlessly humming Frère Jacques over and over. The big charity bash rolls around and… no zombie butlers anywhere.
Their masters, on the other hand…
Alfred noticing the other two billionaires falling under Spellbinder’s power is a fine moment for him, but his “deductions” afterward… well, let’s break it down:
- Spellbinder was one of the many photographers covering the bash
- He used the camera flashes to cover up his hypnotizing the butlers and their masters (a trick borrowed from the Beyond version, I might add)
- The suggestions he planted are meant to be triggered (and stopped?) by clocks ringing a predesignated hour
- Batman, as one of the three billionaires funding the bash, is going to turn into one of the thieves
Okay, Alfred actually has something of a history as a detective, especially in the comics, and when you write it all out like that it’s more logical than Bruce’s deductions this episode, but it’s force-fed to us in the space of about fifteen seconds. I can’t imagine a whole lot of kids at the time following the pieces, which is probably why the script ends Act Two on a more digestible peril: Batman’s hypnotized, ergo his secret ID’s in danger.
Meanwhile, poor Spellbinder has to deal with the show’s pun quota.
(Spellbinder’s target is actually a smidgen more interesting than just him wanting a big shiny rock; it’s a big shiny magic rock that boosts his hypnosis tenfold or something. Honestly, I’m just kinda disappointed the not-Dalai Lama didn’t come to lay a smackdown on his wayward disciple.)
By the way, I’m not sure why the hypnotized Batman has to grab the gem from the other billionaires and give it to Spellbinder personally. If he saw them already doing fine without him, wouldn’t he have just shadowed them from above, waiting to provide backup if something goes wrong?
Speaking of backup, it’s all up to Alfred now, and the sight of him escaping his “cell” so he can go trigger the Bat-Wave makes me kinda disappointed that Alfred:
Arkham Asylum Wayne Manor isn’t a thing.**
Alfred wakes Bruce up in the nick of time, so here’s the part we’re all really here for:
It’s off to Bahia, folks.
But with his almighty Bat-will, our hero punches his way right through those gorgeously animated hallucinations and FBI lockdown scams to perform a little magic of his own: making his boot disappear right up Spellbinder’s third eye.
Anyways, epilogue: Spellbinder gets dragged off to Arkham or jail or whatever, presumably blinded for life in his third eye, and to add insult to injury Bruce buys the Eye of Sarkana for his
kleptomania shrine trophy room. By the way, at this point he’s got both of the Egyptian sun laser statues down there, so if this season doesn’t end with him using all those toys to fend off an intruder, I’m going to be very, very disappointed.
Okay, I don’t remember if I’ve shared this before, but I was really big on mind-control villains when I was little.*** So I quite liked this one when I first saw it, and some scenes (especially the part where Spellbinder turns the jewel into an insect and makes it burrow into Batman’s hand) still hold up damn well, but overall it’s another generic villain-of-the-week story with some admittedly delightful emphasis on the Bruce-Alfred relationship. As “Batman trips balls” stories go it’s… serviceable, and as mind-controller stories go it sits comfortably between “Mad as a Hatter” on one end and “Attack of the Living Brain Puppets” on the other. Nothing more to say, really.
Next: Time to kick some ice. Again.
* Disclaimer: I don’t have any pets in real life. And I’m rather thankful for it.
** Until that day comes, we’ll always have this.
*** Though I thankfully grew out of it before I started doing all that soul-scarring Kaa “fanart” clogging up Google these days.