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Original Airdate: November 12, 2005
Writer: Alexx Van Dyne
Director: Brandon Vietti
People like the Joker, right? What if… we gave him steroids?
You think it’s stupid. I think it’s stupid. But apparently Rocksteady didn’t, and as of 2016, this is still probably the closest thing The Batman has to an actual legacy.
Anything else I can add to the history lesson? Well, the general idea of Venom falling into non-Bane hands is certainly older than this episode (hell, it’s older than Bane). That said, this episode was probably made around the same time Jose Canseco’s Juiced came out, so there may – may – have been a tiny seed of influence there.
This episode is also a Batgirl-centric one, so the choice of Joker for the main villain leads to some pretty inevitable parallels with a certain other work from DC’s past.
But we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of that later.
We begin at that most beloved of Gotham institutions, the circus. Barbara is there because… I dunno, Bruce wanted her to keep an eye on that Grayson kid who’s been outperforming Olympic gold medalists lately.
Our nefarious villain crashes the show right on time, and in a small but excellent touch, even the super-buff strongman shits a brick when he sees just who he’s been knocking around. To be fair, though, maybe he’s just reacting to the Joker’s new fashion sense.
Joker goes through three new designs in this episode, each more hideous than the last, though I guess that’s the whole point of his Venom’d form. It’s the face I find most disturbing, though – who knew getting his hair out of the way could make that big of a difference?
Needless to say, Batgirl’s in way over her head, and to add insult to injury Joker literally brings the house down on her as he leaves. The cold open ends with a stupid crack about joining a gym, probably to assure kids Babs is fine, but at least this instance of suspense-killing leads – however clumsily – to some character work.
Young sidekicks angsting about their usefulness is obviously nothing new for the superhero genre, but it feels kind of surreal for Babs to be in the role. Like I mentioned back in the “Batgirl Begins” review, Batgirl is traditionally more of an affiliation than a straight-up sidekick, and while she does screw up from time to time, I can’t remember the last story that focused this much on her drive for self-improvement.
… oh wait, yes I can, no matter how many walls I apply to my head.
In any case, this Babs is obsessed with beefing up, which is rare for any female character (they tend to go through the exact opposite conflict). The episode doesn’t do anything particularly groundbreaking with it, but it’s still worth noting.
Another nice moment: next time Joker strikes, Babs doesn’t think twice about jumping back in, even though literally no one would blame her for sitting it out. After all, she’s facing down Batman’s most brutal and experienced foe, and that was before the man got jacked. To make things worse, now he’s got a gold-plated globe to play with.
And yes, this is literally all the GCPD gets to do in this episode. It’s weird, since the previous scene specifically had Commissioner Gordon driving off to stop Joker, but maybe Mitch Pileggi read ahead in the script and refused to have anything to do with that nonsense.
Either that, or the Commish knows to not get in the way when Batman (a coffee-deprived Batman) is on the job.
… okay, I run pretty hot and cold on this part. Batman immediately going after the Venom hose, and with heavier artillery to boot, is great proof he’s learned from the events of “Traction” (and trust me, half the time even grown-up comics Batman can’t be expected to learn from experience). At the same time, a friggin’ anti-tank rocket is pushing things a little too far, and unlike Bane, who at least wears something that could be construed as armor, there’s no real reason for Joker to not be jelly on the street.*
(And if he’s supposed to be relying on the kaiju principle, then he’s not big enough…)
Nevertheless, survive the Joker does, and in the three seconds or so it takes the smoke to clear he tunnels up behind Batman like a goddamn Diglett. Beatdown ensues, though there’s nothing quite as brutal as what “Traction” had.
Meanwhile, Van Dyne tries his best to add a layer of depth and dignity to this episode’s big gimmick. Emphasis on tries.
“You only have yourself to blame for me, Batsy. We’ve always taken turns outsmarting each other, but you had the muscle! So I thought I’d stack the odds in my favor!”
Folks, I’ve spent way more time than is healthy going over how to tackle this line. Somehow, it manages to be everything wrong with this episode in a nutshell and yet a fairly insightful look at Batman in general. It’s true that the Joker traditionally doesn’t have much going on in the physical department, so the intellectual deadlock between him and Batman is usually broken by the latter’s muscles (and wonderful toys). And there’s certainly some potential in exploring that, and analyzing how often the World’s Greatest Detective relies on the tactics of a thug.
But for better or worse, this show gave us kung-fu action Joker, and while the previous season toned that down, it didn’t last anywhere near long enough for this episode to feel subversive in any way, shape, or form. In the end, all the Venom gimmick does is turn the Joker into a more wisecracky Bane, who’s not terribly funny, scary, or creative.
Fortunately, Batgirl is here to cut that Venom feed down to size. Unfortunately, the plot requires her hand-eye coordination to suck again, and Big Daddy Bats has to step in.
I’m sure everyone reading this blog is at least somewhat aware of the Joker’s long, long history with Batman’s sidekicks, and Barbara in particular. Accordingly, modern Batman has the “You’re not ready to face the Joker” speech down to a tee, and it’s rare for a sidekick’s first Joker case to have Batman’s explicit approval. Now, The Batman‘s Joker has (as far as we know) a body count of 0, but his attack on Ethan Bennett alone more than justifies Bruce’s caution.
What I find interesting is that Barbara listens. Oh, she spouts off a little, but she almost seems relieved as she takes to the roofs and resigns herself to civilian-warning duty. It might not seem very heroic, but there’s a stream of rationality here that nicely differentiates her from a palette-swapped Dick Grayson (or, for that matter, Jade Chan in a Batsuit).
Speaking of rationality, Batman finally regains his and calls Alfred to send in the thing that let him beat Venom the first time around. Unfortunately, a certain part of his costume makes getting to the thing a smidge more difficult.
It’s only now that Barbara goes back on that whole “stay back” thing, but I can hardly think of a more reasonable time to do so. All civilians in the area are long gone, her mentor’s in mortal danger, and – most important of all – there’s a new toy in the pram.
I’m a bit irked by how easily Barbara hijacks the Bat-Bot (after “The Cat and the Bat” you’d think Bruce would’ve improved security on that thing a millionfold), but other than that, the continuity is surprisingly solid. Lest we forget, the Bat-Bot barely let Bruce hold his own in “Traction”; it sure as hell didn’t let him outmuscle Bane.
But poor Babs has no way of knowing that, and “steel beats flesh” is certainly a reasonable assumption to make, even if the most responsible choice would probably have been to swoop in and fly Batman somewhere safe so he can take over. Since, y’know, he’s the only one who knows how the thing works.
Long story short, Babs still doesn’t stand a chance against the Joker, who punches the Bat-Bot so hard that Babs momentarily turns into a RAIDEEN pilot.
And our second act ends on a pretty… evocative note: Barbara on her back, all but paralyzed, watching helplessly as the Joker hauls away a badly-beaten father figure.
Okay, let’s be fair. The Batman is no stranger to The Killing Joke homages, but there’s certainly room for reasonable doubt on this one. Especially since Barbara gets out of this jam all by herself, by making the entire suit do a backroll.**
Besides, it’s not like Joker’s going to take his hostage to some garish, ugly carnival (which derelicts may or may not have used for a toilet) for further torture-
(Yes, this is the exact same carnival from “The Rubberface of Comedy”. No, I don’t know who spilled all that orange Jell-O on the background, but you have to admit it’s more faithful to John Higgins than the movie will ever be.)
Man, this show’s gotten real big on deathtraps, hasn’t it? Joker’s high-striker here can’t quite compete with Penguin’s cannery clocktower in style, but I gotta give him props for throwing that thing together when he had about an hour, tops. Complete with working lights and sounds!
Fortunately, Joker was too dumb to get rid of Batman’s belt, so Batgirl finds them in a jiffy. Now it’s time for the rematch, and since Babs is fighting with actual strategy now, the odds are looking a lot more even. Things get even funner when Batman frees himself (turns out those fins on his gloves aren’t just for show), but unfortunately, they also get a whole lot dumber. Case in point, this line from Babs.
“Batman’s aiming for Joker’s fuel pump… he’s using brain to beat brawn!”
First of all, you’re seriously figuring that out just now? I know Bane isn’t the type who runs amok every other week, but you’re the Commissioner’s kid and a superhero-in-training. You should know to go for the Venom hose first. Hell, are you telling me that wasn’t what you were trying to do with that first Batarang?
Second of all, didn’t we get the “brains > brawn” lesson three minutes ago? What the hell was that backroll scene for? Or does it not count, since Babs wasn’t following Batman’s example? Guhhh. Way to ruin an episode that was starting to border on enjoyable.
That said, how Babs takes down Jokerzilla is still a stone-cold classic in my book. It starts with a game of chicken, combined with a perfectly-timed ejection. The result?
I don’t know why, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Davids who win by tricking the Goliath into attacking something that leaves a limb or two completely useless. Batgirl exploiting her size, of course, is just the icing on the cake, and before you can say “Don’t do drugs”, Laughing Boy is un-Venomed and fueling a whole new generation of nightmares.
Of course, since the show is still named The Batman, the last punch goes to Bruce. But the sight of our two heroes reconvening, each immensely proud of what they’ve accomplished together (and in a place that previously hosted one of Batman’s most crushing defeats)? That’s a golden ending, right there.
(By the way, I think this is the first episode to 100% take place during the day, which probably hasn’t happened in a Batman series since… shit, the ’66 show? Anyone wanna guess why that is?)
As the first Batgirl-centric episode since the season premiere(s), it’s a generally decent, if flawed, attempt to showcase both her strengths and weaknesses in combat. As a Joker story, though, it mostly vacillates between bland and embarrassing, and the novelty of Joker stealing another rogue’s gimmick wears off pretty damn fast. Which is a real shame, considering the comics already have a deficiency of good Batgirl-vs.-Joker stories.***
But not to worry. The J-Man’s shot at redemption is right around the corner…
Next: The Clown Prince of Crime. The Princess of Plunder. A match made in Heaven? Or another Kuhr blunder?
* Incidentally – I don’t know if the comics proper ever ran with this, but Denny O’Neil’s Knightfall novelization explained that the doctors who did the Venom experiments on Bane also grafted bulletproof shields into his flesh. Probably because he realized that Venom on its own just makes Bane a bigger target to anyone with a gun.
** I don’t know how much sense this makes in-universe – if the Bat-Bot is too top-heavy to get up like a human being, would a backroll really be more feasible? – but it’s such an awesome encapsulation of Babs’ strengths that I can’t bring myself to care.
*** Partly – who am I kidding? – mainly because most of them are way too busy trying to foreshadow/justify/wallow in The Killing Joke (funny thing, Barbara had retired as Batgirl when it was first published) to tell an actual story. Guys, I like The Killing Joke too, but c’mon.