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Original Airdate: November 5, 2005
Writer: Christopher Yost
Director: Christopher Berkeley
Folks, before we start, there’s something you need to know.
One episode in this season has an evil toymaker as the villain. It is not half the toy commercial this one is. And all because-
WHO THE PLUPERFECT FUCK ASKED YOU?!
But yes, the Batmobile is right up there with Robin as one of the most iconic elements in Batman’s world (and if we’re being honest its hatedom is much smaller). Still, basing an entire story around it is… dicey, to say the least. It made for a cute twelve-pager back in the ’50s, but the last time a cartoon – a modern cartoon – tried to make it a full-length story…
If there’s one small mercy here, it’s that The Batman was sensible enough to not draft the Penguin again. Instead, this episode features Gearhead, who’s probably the most obscure baddie this show ever adapted from the comics. I mean, Spellbinder got to be in Batman Beyond, Cluemaster got to father Tumblr’s favorite Batgirl, and even Ragdoll got some quality time with James “I did stuff besides Cry for Justice, honest!” Robinson. There’s exactly one writer who cares about poor ol’ Gearsy: his creator.
Gearhead is far from my favorite Dixon rogue, but I’ll give him this – for a D-lister, he’s got one hell of an origin. It starts with all-around nogoodnik Nathan Finch plunging into a river during the dead of winter, and getting “rescued” by a guy whose idea of medical attention is this.
From there, the guy basically turns into an evil Ed Elric, using a variety of super-advanced cyborg limbs to get revenge on Batman (who was too busy dodging Finch’s bullets to pull him out of the water, the scoundrel). Like most of Dixon’s villains, he’s got roughly zero redeeming traits, but with the shit he’s gone through, it’s kinda hard to hate him for it.
And you know, I was all set to rant about how he deserved a better animated debut than an episode devoted to fellating Batman’s car. But then I went and read his second appearance in the comics, which was, in fact, devoted to fellating Batman’s car.
Well-played, Mr. Yost. Not that it can save the rest of this episode.
Lest you still think there’s any hope, we begin with a continuity nod to “Q&A”. Yes, the first character we see and hear is none other than Cluemaster’s first victim Ross and oh dear God did I actually spend time looking that up?
Ross is playing announcer for the Gotham City Speedway, a charity rally with none other than Bruce Wayne (representing the Children’s Hospital, natch) in the lead. And oh no! Looks like we’ve got an uninvited guest!
Don’t I wish.
No, it’s Gearhead, who leaves all the other racers in the dust because he had the foresight to stock up on Mushrooms and not just Blue Shells. Bruce, never one to settle for second place, pushes his own car until the nose digs up a chunk of macadam and he looks straight into the eye of the sun and this would be a good death-
Oop, no, my bad. He instantly hits the brake as soon as Gearhead passes him. Well, I guess all those sick children can go fuck themselves, because that’s an invitation for all the other racers to nab the prize even if Gearhead does get disqualified for jumping in mid-race.
And since this is Gotham, the rally’s prize money is conveniently in cash and located about ten feet from the finish line. All things considered, they’re lucky only one supervillain showed up.
Okay, some notes on animated!Gearhead before we continue. The full-body racing(?) outfit is a fairly clever way of toning down his cyborg body for the kids, since it’s now impossible to tell whether he’s missing body parts or just wearing some fancy armor over them. He’s voiced by Will Friedle, which may be a deliberate nod to Batman Beyond, but Friedle’s got no illusions this episode is about anything besides the wonderful toys, and he’s adjusted his efforts – or lack thereof – accordingly.
Speaking of wonderful toys, Gearhead’s ride comes with REAL MONEY-STEALING ACTION FOR THE LOW LOW PRICE OF $18.99 KIDS!, but his real gimmick are these nanobot pods that let him hack into any piece of technology, Tron-style.
No, that’s not fair. Gearhead wishes he could be a bargain-bin Riddler. He “borrows” a lot more from Firefly, down to the personality and color scheme, and it gets even worse when the mask comes off – seriously, compare for yourself.
And maybe Yost of all people has every right to do this, since he co-wrote Firefly’s (and Riddler’s) debut ep. But that just means he has even less excuse for how this episode turned out. “The Big Heat”, despite its utterly one-dimensional villain, managed to be the best Season 1 episode not written by Greg Weisman because its B-plot had genuine heart – so much heart that you could argue it was the real A-plot. In the same department, this episode has…
While Barbara’s stuck getting her learner’s permit, Batman takes on Gearhead in the episode’s first legit car chazzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…
Folks, there are few things I love better than a good chase. It’s why “The Last Roundup” is pretty much the only episode of MLP: FIM I will rewatch. It’s why Castle of Cagliostro remains my favorite Miyazaki movie, and why I consider the first 15 minutes or so of Ed Edd n Eddy’s Big Picture Show to be the reason God put Danny Antonucci on this planet. But there’s more to a good chase than slick animation. You need meaningful stakes, creative use of the environment, or better yet a combination of both.
This chase has neither. Tellingly enough, the part where Batman plunges over a cliff isn’t even made the first-act cliffhanger.
Instead, the first act closes on the Batmobile’s burning wreck, with Batman making mildly dismayed faces at it while Gearhead drives off. This “your old toys are dead, now bug your parents for new ones” tactic is at least as old as Transformers: The Movie – probably older – but at least ’80s Hasbro had the foresight to do it with toys that could be treated as genuine characters.**
After two seconds of mourning, Bruce and Alfred set out to find the Batman a better class of car.
Well, I guess if you want something done right these days, you still have to do it yourself. Our heroes dutifully roll up their sleeves and start retooling one of Bruce’s prototype Batmobiles into something “Gearhead-proof”. I suspect this is a holdover from some earlier script that had Gearhead jacking the old Batmobile (the nanovirus gimmick feels like a waste otherwise), but as-is it does make Batman look more proactive than usual, which I like.
(Oh, and lest you think I’m pushing the toy connection too far, Bruce mentions that his new-and-improved car runs on a “dual EXP power core”. Guess what Mattel titled its 2006 toyline for this show?)
Being the thoughtful, accommodating chap he is, Gearhead doesn’t strike again until the Batmobile Mark II is 99% complete. But Batman, knowing that 1% can mean the difference between a safe drive and the engine leveling half of Gotham, leaves it in the cave and goes after Gearhead’s ride with something a little more low-tech.
Oh, and the Batcycle was involved too, I guess, but right now it’s too busy getting jacked by Batgirl.
It’s a small thing, but I really do appreciate Yost using this episode to give Batgirl her trademark wheels, too. Sure, it’s a loaner from Bruce, but that was pretty much the state of things in contemporary comics. It’s been a long, long time since a librarian, never mind an unemployed teenager, could believably buy a motorcycle.
Meanwhile, Gearhead’s had about all the Bat-crotch he can take, so he bails out and grabs a scooter off some guy who wasn’t smart enough to run away. We’re almost at Commercial Break #2, so what stunning cliffhanger awaits us?
Yep. Gearhead’s part-Transformer. Because what this episode needed was even more toy shilling.
So Batman’s been left in the dust, but not to worry – that 1% on the Batmobile Mark II is finally taken care of, and so Alfred sends it to join its master. While that’s happening, Batgirl follows Gearhead into the local junkyard and I foolishly get my hopes up there’ll be a shout-out to The Greatest Batman Comic Ever waiting in the wings. There isn’t, and to make things worse Gearhead hits the Batcycle with a virus that makes it do this.
But our Babs gives back as good as she gets.
This is probably my favorite part of the episode, since it’s a pretty faithful lift from Gearhead’s comics debut – down to how it’s a female supporting character, not Batman, behind the electromagnet.
Sadly, electromagnet still has electro- in it, so by the rules of this episode it’s fair game for Gearhead’s nanovirus. And before you can say “Penelope Pitstop”, Babs gets damseled again. Foolish female, thinking you could snag the spotlight from this episode’s real star!
Just look at those wheels! That hood! That-okay, I’ll be honest, the biggest reason this episode doesn’t work for me is because I’ve never particularly given a crap about The Batman‘s Batmobile, old or new. I hate to resort to a cliche, but That Other Show gave its Batmobile more personality in the theme song alone.***
(On the bright side, the “Rematch!” that Gearhead yells as soon as he sees the thing is probably Friedle’s best work in this ep. It’s not much, but it’s the closest he comes to any genuine emotion.)
Gearhead nabs himself another ride by merging with one of the many scrap cars, while in another historic moment, Batgirl gets to take her first ride in the Batmobile without being KO’ed. Seriously, Batman is way too fond of doing that.
And now, for the moment of truth.
Oh, I’m sorry, you thought I was talking about the rematch? Batman wins. It’s the third act in an episode devoted to fellating his car, remember? At this point in the game, Dick Dastardly vs. the War Rig would be a fairer match.
Which is to say no, this sequence doesn’t do a damn thing to improve on the first chase. No stakes, no creativity, nothing to keep my interest. Well, except maybe the part where Batman deliberately rams Gearhead off the road, which is actually more than Gearhead ever did to him.
What happens next is a pretty shameless retread of the mano-a-mano scene from “The Big Heat”, except Gearhead is just good enough of a fighter to not totally humiliate himself. In other words, way to miss the point of the original, guys.
Oh, and Babs gets out of the Batmobile off-screen, for no fucking reason, except to show that Batman’s new ride can protect itself. By reverse-engineering Gearhead’s tech (or something) to download a virus into him.
Some of you hippies may think this is too extreme for the least ambitious crook in Gotham since… I dunno, Ragdoll, but I for one think Kevin Conroy and company would approve.
And we wrap things up with Bruce taking the Mark II out for another spin, just for the hell of it, because there was a rumor that some kid somewhere still wasn’t putting it on his Christmas list, and we just can’t have that, can we?
In terms of sheer badness, this isn’t the worst The Batman has to offer. It’s probably not even the second-worst. But it is the most soulless. Between Romano, Judovits, and Friedle, you’ve got maybe thirty seconds of heartfelt voicework, and when the plot isn’t busy being a subpar clone of “The Big Heat”, it’s not much of anything at all.
And maybe it’s not fair to blame all of that on Yost. The Batman may not be My Little Pony, but the toy companies still have a fairly big amount of pull. According to BatmanYTB, the Mark II debuted in toy stores around the same time this episode aired, so there may well have been some heavy-handed “coordination” between Mattel and WB. Perhaps Yost simply drew the short straw and was told to dress up a toy ad or go look for a new job.
But you know what? Teen Titans did a car-centric episode two years prior (almost to the day!), and pulled it off with aplomb. The show’s freedom to go goofier places undoubtedly helped, but at heart, it worked because the toy plug was used to develop the relationship between two of the show’s most mismatched characters. This episode could’ve at least tried something like that, instead of 22 minutes emphasizing that yeah, Batman is all about the wonderful toys.
And did the shilling at least pay off? I don’t have exact records of how well the Mark II sold, but either it bombed or toy execs have the gratitude of Peter Griffin. ’cause when ol’ Gearsy finally made it into plastic? Mattel didn’t even give enough of a shit to get his name right.
Next: The Batman tackles the biggest question of our time: do chicks dig giant robots?
* This isn’t impossible to pull off with (non-transforming) vehicles, mind you. Being named Eiichiro Oda certainly helps.
** Interestingly – for a given definition of interesting – Friedle seems to have become the go-to voice for Bumblebee these days.
*** Not helping matters is that the one element I vaguely liked about the Batmobile Mark I – the massive grill-shaped afterburner – got the boot when Mark II rolled along.