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Original Airdate: September 3, 2005
Writer: Greg Weisman
Director: Brandon Vietti
Good evening, mhm, scholars and faithful readers. Dr. Hugo Strange, PhD, speaking.
I am rather pleased to report that the owner and operator of this blog has been reacting, mm, quite well to Arkham Asylum’s latest psychotherapy techniques. Why, at this point, I am reasonably certain he will be fit to rejoin respectable society within as little as two years.
Such are the wonders of isolation, electroshock, and their ilk, mm?
Mr. Lotus, however, remains stubbornly insistent on returning to the dreadful little reviews that keep this blog afloat, which no doubt stem from some narcissistic delusion that he is somehow irreplaceable. The Batman‘s one reviewer and champion in this day and age, he’d like to believe. Utter rubbish, of course, and the purpose of this review is to prove it so that I may
break his spirit for once and all time complete his treatment and further his recovery. Anyone may review an episode of a cartoon as forgotten as this one, and better, I daresay.
Ah, I see that some of you are already prepared to bombard me with accusations of narcissism equal to or even greater than Mr. Lotus’s, for does this episode not mark my “true” debut on The Batman? Not at all, I contend – that moment is quite far off, and today’s episode largely focuses on the psyche of another of Gotham’s inhabitants. You may have heard of him from some little gossip rag or another.
The inner workings of Joker’s mind have been an endless source of fascination to amateurs and professionals around the globe, and the theories, I daresay, are as numerous as the graves he’s filled. Aheh.
In terms of motivation alone, it has been theorized that he was once an ordinary, law-abiding soul, driven to become one of society’s greatest monsters by a tragedy that was largely out of his control; that he was an unrepentant albeit mundane monster inspired to deeper depravity by his first encounter with Batman; that he is in fact perfectly aware of what he is doing and only uses the veneer of insanity to steer himself away from the electric chair; that his mental abnormalities are in fact a kind of “super-sanity” which mocks the very idea of a single consciousness, sane or otherwise. Even my considerable intellect has not solved this conundrum, though I admit that the one opportunity I had to interview him in person was hampered by rather… disagreeable circumstances.
(The man also happens to be an inveterate liar. But that is neither here nor there.)
Hrm. That’s quite enough with the preliminaries. Let us see whether this cartoon, brought to us by perhaps the only writer on this program who even attempted any intellectual sophistication, might shed some light after…
Who dares… I mean, yes? How may I help you?
Ah, say no more. There can be only one logical reply to a situation like this.
No, wait, you were supposed to be my big comeback! The start of an epic metaplot that would’ve left Unshaved Mouse in the dust! Don’t… leave… me…
Aw, what the hell. Just start the episode.
More than one fan’s noted how Detective Yin seems to be a spiritual descendant of Weisman’s own Elisa Maza, but I can’t say he does Yin a whole lotta favors here. The plot is kicked off by Yin trusting a clown-themed business – always the number-one no-no in Gotham – and while she does show some initiative and brains, it’s all for naught in a kidnapping sequence where she literally gets beat by a pizza.
I mean, we do get pizza boy Joker out of the whole setup (another shout-out to That Other Show? Must investigate further), but this episode isn’t a terribly good showing for Yin on a character or a story level. I don’t subscribe to the idea that damsel-in-distress is an inherently worthless trope these days, but Weisman’s really going super old-school here: from here till the end of the episode, Yin’s going to have about as much agency as Princess Peach.
(And maybe it’s just me, but this all feels like another big, sloppy love letter to The Killing Joke. Y’know, in case “The Rubberface of Comedy” was too subtle. Well, at least Weisman made Yin smart enough to use the peephole and the chain.)
Meanwhile, Gotham is putting on a super-pricey rendition of Pagliacci, better known as the only opera that exists in
Batman superhero works period. In attendance: the city’s favorite son and his new buddy.
It looks like one little testimony for Bruce Wayne’s old buddy – even if it was all for nothing in the end – goes a long way. So Bruce has let Hugo get his oversized mitts on Wayne Industries tech for totally-not-nefarious research that he hasn’t even bothered keeping an eye on. Apparently, Bruce has learned nothing from Langstrom, but this is a smooth enough continuation of Hugo’s buildup as a respected member of Gotham society, so I’ll let it slide.
Now for something I unreservedly love: when Joker pops up to steal the show’s centerpiece, a mannequin wearing the first-ever Pagliacci’s costume. Weisman doesn’t always get the Ace of Knaves perfect, but this is pretty much the encapsulation of my ideal Joker: always up for a good heist, especially if he can finagle it into his gimmick somehow, but if he sees someone he doesn’t like at the scene, he’s not gonna think twice about using the loot to beat that someone to death.
Come to think of it, they should probably put that as an occupational hazard for anyone applying to work at Arkham.
By the way, Frank Gorshin is still an absolute delight in the role, and his Strange still talks with a creepy, unflappable kind of dignity, even when he should by all accounts be wetting himself. But then the script decides to hammer in the whole “OMG BATMAN AND JOKER R 1 AND TEH SAME!!!!!1!” stuff again, and, well… I’m sorry, Frank, but there are lines even you can’t save.
The inevitable fight between Batman and Joker ends before it really begins, so we can get to the real meat of the episode. The episode does a decent job at upping and keeping tension even though we already know that Joker’s not bluffing about Yin. And when we do check back in with the good detective…
Y’know, maybe it’s for the best that this show’s all but forgotten by the Internet these days. I don’t think the world is ready for the kind of fanfiction and art this bit would’ve… “inspired”, especially if you believe the rumors that someone in the show’s chain of command wanted to make Yin into Harley Quinn.
The good guys drag Joker’s ass back to Arkham, so Rojas and Strange can play good cop/bad cop with him.
I snark, but the voice work on all three of these guys is top-notch in this scene. Rojas actually sounds worried for Yin even as he’s going as Jack Bauer on Joker as a TV-Y7 rating will allow, while Joker – six appearances in – has finally realized that sometimes, quiet understatement can creep people out more than laughing like a hyena ever could. And Strange, of course, is playing everyone like a violin for his own inscrutable purposes.
Joker explains that he’s looking to stage his own opera, and as everyone knows, you can’t have one of those without a dead body or two. Strange’s response is to introduce a machine that will let him travel into the Joker’s mind, and extract the info without Joker having to say a word. This is a neat little reference the mind-scanner he built in That Other Show, though obviously heavier on the sci-fi bent, and I love how no one really questions whether (or how) the thing actually works.
Out of other options, the Chief agrees. And after the requisite fake-out, we get our first look at the Joker’s mindscape.
Weisman’s interpretation of said mindscape has to be simple enough for a Saturday-morning audience to grasp, but I nevertheless find it fun and pretty damn true to the spirit of the character. The Joker’s a massive narcissist no matter what the incarnation, so it’s no surprise that all the “residents” take after him (though I understand this is a common convention in most journey-to-the-center-of-the mind plots). And all the callbacks to earlier Joker stories – especially the laughing fish – are certainly welcome, though a few more wouldn’t have hurt.
Perhaps it seems a little too coherent for a character who’s suppose to be all about madness and chaos, but I suspect the Joker’s mind looks like this right now because he knows he has company over, so he’s going out of his way to put on a show. In more abrupt circumstances, it might look like what the Spectre saw the time he tried jacking the Joker’s mind.
Meanwhile, Bruce and Alfred gather up some doohickeys in the Batcave to hijack the machine’s frequency, so that Bruce can also pop into the Joker’s head to root out Yin’s location. I mean, Professor Strange might be a genius in psychology, psychiatry, and whatever the hell field building mind probes belongs to, but does he have a PhD in punching the mentally ill? I think not. And those worries are almost immediately proven right, as Strange forgets about the detective so he can play Dr. Applecheeks with kid!Joker up there.
So, as usual, it’s up to Batman to do everything. Well, at least he’s got the element of surprise on his side. As long as he doesn’t tip off Joker’s consciousness-
In all fairness, maybe this was inevitable. If you believe Grant Morrison’s “super-sanity” theory, particularly, the Joker’s mind is so tight-wound that it can’t ignore new sensory information, no matter how subtle. And the one guy he obsesses over day and night suddenly appearing in his mindscape? That’s not exactly subtle by any definition.*
But, ah, Jokerland doesn’t judge illegal entrants. Why, it even rolls out an extra-special treatment for them!
And yes – in case you were wondering, the only reason Joker does this is to pull a “howling at the moon” pun. The puns come a lot thicker and faster from here on out, but for once, I don’t really mind. I mean, if any villain is entitled to pun his way through an episode, it’s the Joker, but more than that, Weisman goes and shows how those puns can literally be deadly: Since this is a setting where the Joker is effectively God, any piece of wordplay that occurs to him can be (and is) immediately turned into a deathtrap. Remind him of loose screws, and this happens.
Needless to say, this isn’t played to its full potential since we’ve only got about 20 minutes and Weisman can’t make the humor too black, but it’s definitely an idea worthy of expansion.
Anyways, the giant screw isn’t too much of a problem for Batman, but it leads to what might be my favorite part in the episode: when Batman sees a woman and her baby running from the thing, swoops in for the save, and sees this.
As a twist, it’s not all that disturbing or funny, but it sums up their characters in a heartbeat. Batman simply has to save people, even in a world crafted by his worst enemy where nothing’s “real”, anyhow. And the Joker understands this and will exploit it for all it’s worth, compounded by the fact that in his world, there are no innocents.
(It’s even more brutal if you assume the Joker’s backstory in The Killing Joke – or something resembling it – to be true. There, the thought of his wife and unborn child was all that really kept him tethered to humanity. If even they’re not sacred to him anymore, what is?)
Unfortunately, this tapers off into an awkward bit where Weisman, upon realizing none of Bruce’s usual exposition boards can be here, just has him internally monologue about what his next move’s going to be. Maybe it’s just me, but when internal monologues pop up on movies or television, the immersion tends to get popped like a balloon. It’s the ultimate in tell over show.
So what is Batman’s next move? Look for clues in the sane part of the Joker’s mind.
The idea that the Joker still has a tiny speck of goodness/sanity left in him goes way back to the Golden Age, though in modern times it’s probably most well-known through J.M. DeMatteis’ “Going Sane”, where it took over his personality entirely after he thought he’d actually killed Batman and tried to settle down as a good, productive citizen. In any case, the take seen here seems almost resigned to his place amidst a world of chaos and cruelty. He doesn’t try to antagonize Batman, but he doesn’t seem particularly remorseful either, which doesn’t quite jibe with the Joker stories where the Martian Manhunter rearranges his synapses or the shock of a Lazarus Pit hits him.
I know, I know – different continuities – but to me, this is a surprisingly good metaphor for the state of the Joker’s mind in general. As much as the man loves selling himself as chaos incarnate and behaving accordingly, he needs a touch of order and rationality to carry out his crimes (do the guns need oiling? Have the henchmen been paid? How’s the bank laid out?). I may have mentioned this before, but I remember a lot of people who saw The Dark Knight noting that the Joker was a liar/hypocrite who actually did the most planning out of any of the characters, and really, couldn’t you apply that to virtually any incarnation of the character?
The Clown Prince might be in the director’s seat, but the Joe Schmoe in the tie is what keeps the show from falling apart. I can’t imagine a truth more galling to the Joker.
Okay, so maybe “said Joe Schmoe is also brave enough to try helping Batman” comes close.
Yep. As soon as he shows the slightest bit of compassion, the rest of Joker’s mind tosses the poor sap right into a conveniently placed chemical bath, replaying his death and rebirth before Batman’s horrified eyes. But never mind, Batman got the clue he came for.
Still… did Batman just get an innocent killed? I prefer to think that, like Cain and Abel of Sandman fame, the sane part gets “killed” by the insane one over and over again, but it never sticks. Because the insane part needs the sane one, and in some twisted sense, even thinks of it as “family”.
At this point, Joker decides that it’s time to stop fucking around and cut off any chance of Batman finding out where Yin is… by tossing him into the same room as Professor Strange and, I dunno, hoping they’ll go Thunderdome on each other. This is the first time in the show that Batman and Strange come face to face, and while their interaction lasts all of ten seconds, it’s damn truer to Strange’s character than anything from That Other Show.
One conversation, and Strange has gotten under Batman’s skin worse than anyone else in the rogues gallery. And perhaps the most ironic part is that he’s not really a villain in the conventional sense. Oh, he’s definitely amoral, and later in the series he undoubtedly becomes immoral, but he’s not out to take over Gotham or kill people or even rob banks. The most we get of his motivation here is that he wants to understand how criminal insanity – especially the Joker’s – works, and, well, can anyone say with a straight face that that wouldn’t be a huge help to rehabilitation?
And yet, this seemingly innocent motive is stapled onto one of the most callous, unsympathetic characters in the series, creating a beast who might well have more claim to being Batman’s greatest enemy than even the Joker. It’s extra-bitter when you take Bruce’s background and parents into account; Strange, I’d reckon, is about as old as Thomas Wayne would be if he’d lived, but he stands as everything a doctor shouldn’t be. A perversion of the talent and societal respect Thomas held.
Y’know, a little like a Hush that works.
Whoop, this episode was supposed to be about the Joker, wasn’t it?
Joker, short-sighted hypocrite he is, realizes that he doesn’t like being ignored and splits our Dynamic Duo up so he can needle Batman at his own leisure. And what better way than with a night at the theater?
Whether it was intentional or not, I find the Joker’s little puppet show to be disturbingly reminiscent of a trick Strange himself pulled in the comics, and there’s something fitting about how Batman’s crudest, most primal fears are being dragged out of him – and mocked – through equally crude means. Yin’s executioner being an exploding jack-in-the-box is also a nice choice – as you may recall, a jack-in-the-box was the first Joker gadget Batman and Yin encountered, only this time, it’s not a bluff.
(On a lighter note: Richardson’s imitation of Gorshin is hilarious. He even keeps the wheeze!)
Not that there’s much competition, but this whole sequence has my vote for the most potentially powerful moment in the series so far. Bruce is faced with an entire theater full of Jokers, constantly reminded that the clock is running down on Yin’s life and there’s not a damn thing he can do to make Joker talk. Because in this world, the Clown Prince is God, and if he likes, he can make you watch Yin’s body get blown to bits again… and again… and again…
… until your mind does the only thing a sane mind can do.
The ingredients are all there: it’s Batman’s darkest hour, the odds are ridiculously stacked against him, and from the looks of things he can’t even save himself, much less his friend and partner. It’s Ethan Bennett all over again, only Yin’s set to lose her life instead of just her humanity.**
Plus, as Harley Quinn said: there’s just something inherently wrong about Batman laughing.
So why potentially? Because there’s one big thing that lets it all down: Batman, due to either Rino Romano’s inexperience or considerations for the show’s demographic, never musters up any believable emotion. When he screams, it sounds like a guy upset that someone chipped the paint on his car. And when he laughs, it sounds more sarcastic than anything. I know it’s not really fair of me, but I can’t help imagining how Kevin Conroy would’ve been absolutely nailed this scene.
On seeing his master is in some deep, deep shit, Alfred… somehow… beams himself down into Bruce’s (or Joker’s?) mindscape and begs Bruce to call it quits, but in true Batman tradition, all that does is make him try harder. At which point Joker stops fucking around and straight up eats him.
Now that Batman’s well and truly been cut off from all support, Joker turns the mind-fuckery up to 11, even letting Batman hear Detective Yin’s voice just so he can see this:
fun horrific as this all is, we all know there’s no way Batman will actually lose, which leads us to the episode’s last and perhaps weakest leg: the resolution. Long story short, after Joker’s trapped him in a facsimile of Arkham, Batman has another internal monologue about how Strange’s machine is supposed to act on a two-way frequency, so… all he has to do is make an exit with some…
And then it’s over. Really.
Yep. That’s it. Episode’s over. Batman and Yin go out for nachos. Joker is left wondering what the fuck happened. The end. Really.
Next time: A little late for Halloween, but when you’ve got a seven-foot zombie on theeee…
Oh, all right. There is this little complication.
So that’s the big twist: Joker thought the mind-scan was over, but all that really happened was he got dragged into Batman’s mind. From there, Batman put on a little masquerade of his own, making Joker think the good guys found Yin so he’d no longer see a point in keeping her location secret.
I thought it was pretty damn cool as a kid, but I can’t deny it’s very deus ex machina-y and relies on the vaguely-established “rules” of an invention that was just introduced this episode and will never show up again. Moreover, it relies on the assumption that the Joker is both dumb and thorough enough to say aloud exactly where he hid Yin (under the opera house – a solution that’s bleeding obvious when you think about it, and shouldn’t the police have combed the place anyways since it was where Joker was last arrested?). The dialogue could’ve been more natural on that count.
Still, principle is sound, and a very Batman-y use of unconventional tactics (don’t tackle your enemy head-on; herd him, confuse him, make him see what you want him to see). And the payoff is pretty adorable.
Yin’s casual “what took ya?” is perhaps the closest the show ever comes to anything resembling romantic chemistry between her and Batman, and Ming-Na delivers it with just enough sass and heart to make me regret the showrunners never really went further with it. I know Bruce has had a zillion love interests over the years, but I don’t think any of them occupied that gray area between “partner” and “civilian” so much like Yin does.
But whatever. All’s well that ends well. Nobody’s dead, the Joker’s crying himself to sleep…
… and unbeknownst to them all, Professor Strange smiles quietly to himself in a dark little office. For him, the night was an unqualified success, bringing him one step closer to understanding the Joker’s madness. And thus, one step closer to his true objective…
All in all, it’s no match for “Meltdown” as Weisman episodes go, but it’s a pretty powerful – and fun – Joker episode as long as you don’t poke at the seams too much. The pacing could be better and the sci-fi definitely won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it’s got a hell of a lot more insight into the Joker than a show of this caliber could really be expected to have. And as far as I’m concerned, Hugo Strange alone is worth the price of admission.
[Note: I’m seriously, seriously sorry for the massive hiatus, people. A combination of the new semester and my developing new geeky interests made me stick this project on the back-burner, but I wanted to pump out at least one review before October ended – and before anyone says anything, there’s still about fifteen minutes of it left where I am. From where I’m standing right now, this blog isn’t dead, but reviews will undoubtedly come at intervals slower than my post-a-day pace from the summer. I have nothing but the deepest respect for those patient enough to keep checking on this blog every day.]
Next time: A little late for Halloween, but when you’ve got a seven-foot zombie on the loose, I think we can stretch the spirit of the holiday just a little longer.
* Though this does raise the question: if Batman is so important to the Joker, shouldn’t Joker’s mindscape contain its own Batman construct to serve as a straight man for all the comics? Or is this meant to tie into the “Joker thinks he and Batman are the only two “real” people” theory, and show that he “respects” Batman enough to not do such a thing?
** This part would’ve been even stronger, I feel, had Joker actually interacted with Yin after the Season 1 finale, perhaps even discovered her new partnership with Batman. Come to think of it, a callback to Ethan or two would’ve also been nice.