(DISCLAIMER: The author of this blog owns none of the properties depicted below. All images used below are property of their respective companies unless stated otherwise.)
(This review dedicated to the late Darwyn Cooke.)
Original Airdate: October 1, 2005
Writer: Joseph Kuhr
Director: Brandon Vietti
Okay, everyone’s waited long enough for this, so let’s just get something out of the way. Fat, obnoxious villain? Batman having memory issues? I think we all know where this is going.
I mean, if I had the slightest cause for hope, I’d be trying to link this episode’s inspiration to Puckett, Templeton, and Parobeck instead. But that part of my brain has been on life support ever since I found half my family are voting for The Donald, so let’s just dive in.
Well, I see the writers aren’t wasting any time getting Batgirl acquainted with the old-school villains. Penguin is a somewhat interesting choice for this, since he was the closest thing Babs had to a legitimate archenemy on the ’66 show. Will Kuhr capitalize and expand on this historic connection in any way?
Of course not. But at least Penguin’s fight banter has evolved from second-grade playground bully to third-grade playground bully.
And if nothing else, we’ve got another kickass Kabuki Twins fight to look forward t-
Oh Jesus Christ, really? One freeze grenade and the most badass henches in this show are out of the game? Are you that eager to do the boat chase?
Fine. Whatever. Let’s do the boat chase.
Perhaps remembering what happened the last time he left them alone for two minutes, Batman orders Batgirl to babysit the Kabukis while he goes a-penguin hunting. And for some reason, instead of using the Batboat to ram Penguin’s getaway dinghy (or towing mines into it), Batman catches up to Penguin the old-fashioned way and fights him one-on-one instead.
Fortunately, Penguin gives up on the loot pretty damn quick.
Unfortunately, it’s because his dinghy’s headed straight for a bridge.
Fortunately, Batman rappels out in time to keep up the chase!
Unfortunately, the dinghy doesn’t take abandonment well, and it’s got a rather explosive temper.
Fortunately, Batman’s wonderful toys sense his vitals dropping, and save his drowning ass without anyone needing to lift a finger!
So our heroes are – may Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson forgive me – batting zero. Not only did they not catch Penguin and his henches, but the statue Penguin stole’s been totaled. Not that anyone bothers bringing that second part up, because there’s a much bigger problem afoot.
I’ll credit the script on two points. Bruce losing his memories from an explosion and near-drowning isn’t quite as cliché as that tap-on-the-head routine the hacks behind “The Forgotten” resorted to. And it did try to establish what made this particular explosion so special – Penguin’s boat had extra gas cans onboard, which presumably made for a bigger boom.
Which isn’t to say it’s off the hook for everything else. Some of the problems are baked into the concept – even circa 2005, amnesia had lost most of its teeth as a plot device, and the usual approach to was to either use it as the starting point of a whole series or else milk it for laughs ’til the credits rolled. Now, I understand neither of those are really an option for The Batman, but it could’ve at least met the audience halfway by casting one of the show’s professional mindfuckers (Spellbinder, Hugo Strange, Ivy…) as the Big Bad instead of… y’know, the Penguin.
Even worse, the script tries to cover its ass by having Alfred bring up amnesia first, but only succeeds in making him look like a total chump. Newsflash, buddy: if Bruce can’t even remember how he wound up in bed with the mother of all migraines, that is not your cue to assume everything’s a-okay!
The amnesia itself isn’t really what anyone would call realistic – Bruce loses his memories of being Batman but literally nothing else, so he still understands the concept of Batman perfectly well. To be fair, this isn’t a dealbreaker – “The Forgotten” steered clear of this cheat, and wound up being… well, “The Forgotten”. Meanwhile, Puckett and Templeton plunged right ahead with it in their Bruce-gets-amnesia storyline, and it led to one of my favorite pages in all of Batman.
Not that Kuhr’s script goes anywhere near that level of writing – and in fact it leads to a pretty big plothole down the road – but a guy can fantasize.
So, without a superhero identity to worry about, Bruce gets to double down on being a party animal with millions to burn. Sadly, BS&P means he can’t buy drugs, solicit hookers, gamble, hunt endangered animals with a crossbow, or hold fundraisers for quasi-Fascist politicians, so the party animal-est he can get is heading down to the local VMA ceremony.
And who should he meet there but…
No, the script doesn’t even try to explain how Barbara (and her Duelist Kingdom-worthy ‘do) talked her old man into coming here instead of, y’know, doing actual work. It’s even weirder because the Commish is wholly superfluous to this scene, if not the entire episode; all the focus is on Barbara being a better detective in five seconds than Bruce managed in four/five-ish years:
“Muscles on his muscles… rich enough to finance all his gadgets… and has a jaw I’d know anywhere! Brucie, you are so totally the Batman.”
Sure, it’s set up solely so Bruce’s amnesia can snatch it away later, but you gotta give the kid props. She’s known Batman for a couple nights at best, and Bruce Wayne for literally a few seconds, but she’s already connecting dots that two grown-ass police detectives (one of whom grew up with Bruce) couldn’t. And the jaw thing might sound weird, but it actually has precedent in the comics.
Only without the boyfriend angle, because unlike some people, The Batman‘s showrunners know better than to have Batman romancing a girl half his age who’s also his buddy’s daughter.
Everyone gets seated, the Commish desperately tries to drink himself into a stupor, and the party gets crashed by guess who:
Penguin’s heavy-metal cover of The Campfire Song Song proves less than a hit with the attendees, but he ends it quickly enough so the usual stickups can begin. Though, judging by their reactions, he probably could’ve just killed two birds with one stone and threatened to keep playing unless they pay up.
And of course, Commissioner Gordon instantly proves useless, so it’s time for the Dynamic Duo to save the day!
The funny thing is, I’m only being half-sarcastic. Although 100% less Batmanny than before, Bruce still kind of saves the day, by enticing Penguin to forget the stickups and kidnap him for ransom instead. The Wayne-Cobblepot feud also gets a brief comeback, mostly to show why Penguin’s last several appearances did fuck-all with it: it’s got nowhere to go besides rehashing what we already know.
Penguin and the Kabuki girls fly off with Bruce, and unfortunately, Barbara doesn’t have a billion-dollar supercomputer to track them down with. So she compensates by throwing together some junk from her photography class and straight-up inventing Detective Mode.
With this wondrous stroke of intellect, Babs painstakingly deduces that Penguin’s holed up at… the zoo. No points for guessing which exhibit.
Fearing for his life (and probably half-delirious from the smell), Bruce writes Penguin a giant check, and gets booted into the water for his troubles. I’m not very read-up on the legalities of cashing something written by a guy you murder three seconds later, but it’s probably to both their benefits that Batgirl saves Bruce’s ass.
Alas, while the rescue goes swimmingly, the aftermath does not, especially when Bruce runs away the first chance he gets and leaves Batgirl to fend for herself.
So our third-act stakes have been made nice and clear, but the plot feels almost trivial next to the subject the episode really wants to sink its teeth into: strip away Batman, and what’s left of Bruce Wayne?
It’s a question that a whole generation of writers – maybe more – have explored, dissected, deconstructed, and reconstructed in every direction imaginable. Frank Miller, (in)famously, taught a whole generation of fans to treat Batman as the only part of Bruce Wayne that’s truly alive – everything else being little more than ballast. Fast-forward a decade and a half, and Mark Waid would refine this into a Bruce unable to escape his Batman impulses even when other-dimensional Gods had purged the Bat from his very being. In-between, That Other Show gave us a kinder, gentler Batman-less Bruce, functional in polite society if unpleasantly spoiled and vaguely restless – and of course, we can’t forget that before Miller, Batman was more of a hobby than a crusade for Bruce, and there’s no shortage of modern writers who prefer that dynamic.*
Each of these takes have their strengths, but for your truly, the gold standard remains Darwyn Cooke’s Batman: Ego.
Ego is easily overshadowed by the countless masterpieces in Cooke’s all-too-short career, and while not exactly perfect – it was, after all, Cooke’s first solo gig – I’d be hard-pressed to name a better synthesis of all the above takes. Cooke’s take on the Bruce-less Bat is every bit as brutal and uncompromising as Miller’s, but his Bat-less Bruce isn’t some lethargic shell or revenge junkie. As the title suggests, he’s the ego who has to control the parts of his brain too volatile and too logical for their own good – parts that add up to a Bat snarling for the Joker’s death while trotting out justifications like cells on a spreadsheet.
And how does Bruce handle a headmate like this? Not by beating it down with superior willpower or drowning it in bourbon, but by negotiating. He may not spend as much time in the boardroom as your average CEO, but he has to know something about wheeling and dealing.
(I mean, how else is he going to wheedle the R&D funds for all his wonderful toys?)
Granted, the contents of Bruce’s negotiations aren’t especially impressive – Ego as a whole really likes asking Important Questions whose answers boil down to “Batman’s not real, doofus” – but the idea is rock-solid. While Bruce Wayne can be a facade, or an anchor, or a nagging conscience for the Bat, he is first and foremost his own man, with the skills and psyche to at least face the Bat as an equal.
The Bruce-without-Batman of this show, surprisingly, isn’t too far from that mark. Sure, he bolts the second Barbara gets him untied, but he calls 911 as soon as he gets the chance and rakes himself over the coals for running in the first place.
“You just left behind the kid who saved you. Bruce, you’re a coward.”
There’s a lot of different interpretations to take here, but the one I find most interesting is that Kuhr apparently believes Batman embodies all of Bruce’s courage. While not the most groundbreaking conclusion in the world, I feel it’s a pretty good illustration of how this show’s Bruce actually likes being a billionaire layabout, to the point where he’ll mix elements of it into his Batman hours (can you imagine That Other Show’s Batman ordering nachos into the cave, or Bale’s playing pop music as he works on the Batmobile?). For this Bruce, Batman is optional – or at least, more optional than it ever was for most of his cross-continuity peers.
Still, optional doesn’t mean he gets to sit around and let Penguin murder a teenage girl, so it’s around now “Bruce has amnesia” finally gets through Alfred’s skull (and honest to God, I’m not sure whether Kuhr meant for that to be a twist). And here’s where we run into that plothole I mentioned way up there: namely, that Alfred could have ended this entire mess with seven little words.
Or, if he were feeling extra-British, just one.
Instead, the closest the episode gets to acknowledging why Batman exists in the first place is this shot, coupled with a few words about how Bruce has a need to save people.
And it’s not like any of that’s untrue, but surely the bigger, harder emotional shock stands a better chance of bringing back the Bat? I really doubt it’s a censorship issue, since Kids WB let this show allude to the Wayne murders as early as Season One, so what gives?
Okay, so maybe Alfred can’t bring himself to make Bruce watch his parents die all over again. But apparently, he can try to split Bruce’s skull with a Batarang if he thinks it’s for The Greater Good.
You’re probably thinking this is all leading up to a hilarious training montage, and you’d be wrong. Our heroes have until midnight before Penguin kills Batgirl, so as soon as Alfred gets the tiniest shred of Bruce’s “Inner Bat”, it’s off to the Batmobile. Apparently, mortal terror is supposed to jog the rest of Bruce’s memories, and take it from someone who tried it on every one of his exams this semester: it’s a dumb idea. What makes it even dumber is that Penguin’s choice of execution site is a very distinctive cannery, which takes Alfred seconds to identify. In any world that made sense, all he’d have to do is give the GCPD a quick ring, and there’d be a SWAT team ready to blow Penguin’s oversized ass to Hell in no time.
Still, the cannery itself is a fun little deathtrap, over-the-top yet believable enough to feel genuinely grisly. ’cause let’s face it, a cuckoo clock flanked by giant fishmongers wielding live steel…
… wouldn’t be enough to crack a Top 20 of America’s weirdest tourist attractions.
But don’t you worry your pretty little head, Babs, ’cause here comes not-quite-Batman, ready to kick ass, take names, and… make Droopy faces?
I joke, but that dopey exterior does hide something you don’t want to underestimate. Because when a guy wears enough explosives on his hip to make the Mythbusters cringe? Not knowing what the fuck he’s doing just means more chances for awesomeness like this:
But the Kabuki girls strike back with their own awesomeness: a boom that big, point-blank, barely slows them down. At this point, I think “well-programmed robots” are the only explanation… though come to think of it, I don’t think they’ve ever been dragged off to jail so anyone can check, and this episode certainly isn’t looking to break tradition.
So. The Kabukis are implacable, their boss even moreso, and midnight’s about to turn a teenage girl into chum. There’s no time for amateurs anymore, but how-oh-how will our hero get his memories back?
Why, by clinging to the one thing that gives Batman’s mission any meaning at all: shutting Tom Kenny’s giant pie-hole.
What? Memories of his parents? Preventing another senseless murder like theirs? Nonsense! Our Lord and Savior Alfred Pennyworth acknowledges no such thing, and neither will I!
The last bit of praise I have for this episode is that it doesn’t make Babs a total damsel. She actually does a fairly decent job freeing herself while Bruce is busy getting his shit together, even though Bruce does the lion’s share of rescuing. After that, Bruce pretty much takes care of Penguin solo, while Babs just stands around and makes a quip so brain-murderingly stupid that I refuse to recap it here.
Oh, and the cops show up long after anyone actually needed them, but at this point, is anyone surprised?
Inna final analysis – this ep doesn’t do nearly as much with its central gimmick as I’d have liked, but between all the contrivances, plotholes, and stupid dialogue, what it manages to say about this incarnation of Batman is insightful enough to keep it away from “worst Penguin episode ever” territory. As for Batgirl, while she’s back in the dark about Batman’s secret ID by the time the credits roll, she still gets thrown a decent bone or two.
And hey, at least it’s not “The Forgotten”.
Next: Guess who’s gack to gattle, geleaguer, and gewilder the Gat again?
* I keep hearing reports that Paul Dini argued for a three-identity model, with the violent, humorless Dark Knight, the dimwitted, careless playboy both being masks and the “true” Batman/Bruce being the detective who sits surrounded by friends and allies as he solves a case. However, I’ve yet to pinpoint any official source on this – help would be appreciated.