(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.)
(Again – sorry for the delay, folks. Wisdom teeth extraction isn’t terribly conductive to productivity, a half-gallon of tranquilizers even less so.)
Original Airdate: November 19, 2005
Writer: Joseph Kuhr
Director: Christopher Berkeley
I recently came across a review of The Batman by one of my older e-buddies, in which he cited pacing as one of the show’s two biggest problems. My first instinct was to disagree, then mail him a hive of killer bees (only I get to criticize The Batman, donchaknow). Then I remembered today’s episode is the last time Catwoman gets anything resembling a spotlight, and she’s considered one of the less-wasted villains.
I don’t even like Catwoman that much, but after the bum deal That Other Show gave her, she definitely deserved better from this one. Instead, she gets a permanent demotion two seasons before the finish line, and her going-away party gets hijacked by Batgirl and the Joker, to boot.
But wait, maybe our special guest gatecrashers will do more good than harm! Let’s see what history has to say.
Catwoman and Batgirl got off to a fairly rocky start, since the latter was introduced in the ’60s and DC’s cure for writer’s block back then often boiled down to “rip off whatever Archie’s up to”. The Superman books got the worst of it, no doubt, but Gotham’s women were far from spared.
Fortunately, this angle was dropped after a story or two, and as Catwoman moved into grey hat territory, Batgirl became another upstanding Debbie Do-Gooder who could be teased and teamed up with – though never seduced, like Batman might be. Instead, Catwoman-Batgirl stories tend to be unapologetic girl-power affairs, with “Batgirl Returns” from That Other Show undoubtedly the most famous of the lot.*
(Of course, the two of them are nowhere near contemporaries in this show, so we’ll see how that shakes out.)
Catwoman and the Joker, meanwhile, have a much longer, twistier history. From a certain perspective, they’re almost siblings – not only were they both introduced in Batman #1, but they’d cross paths in the very next issue, in the first-ever meeting between two big-name rogues. And just like siblings, they could rarely stand to be in the same room for five seconds; team-ups were rare, and when they did happen the results were seldom pretty.
As the years went on, this animosity got worse. Modern writers love emphasizing Catwoman’s (relative) sanity almost as much as they love playing up how screw-loose the Joker is, and ever since Frank Miller introduced “Batman. Darling.” into Joker’s personality, well… the Bat-Cat-Bat love triangle might be dead, but the Bat-Cat-Clown one is still kicking.
Miller (and other writers like Mike W. Barr) would use that dynamic to turn out some of the most disturbing moments in the Joker’s history, but I seriously doubt this episode’s going to be anything like that. Still, one never knows…
Well, we’re not off to a promising start. After three whole episodes avoiding the environmentalism angle I so despise in Catwoman stories, this one kicks off with the theft of a Black Siberian Leopard (no, not a real breed as far as I can tell). Batgirl suspects Catwoman, Batman’s not so sure, yadda yadda yadda.
Our heroes go off to a circus storeroom, home of the only other Black Siberian Leopard in captivity. And whaddya know, Catwoman’s busy stealing the thing. The first meeting between Cat and other-Bat is a lot more banter-y than what “Batgirl Returns” gave us, which isn’t necessarily a plus, but you know what “Batgirl Returns” didn’t have?
That’s right: pro-wrestling gorillas.
Are they a transparent attempt to wring some actual conflict out of “two vigilantes gang up on a solo burglar”? Hell yes. Is there any reason they go after Batman and no one else? Hell no. But like the Egyptian statues from “The Bat, the Cat, and the Very Ugly”, this is the kind of comic-book stupidity I just can’t bring myself to hate; in some ways, it almost feels like a precursor to The Brave and the Bold.
Besides, the Bat-Cat brawl it opens up is fantastic.
It’s not even a minute long, but it’s a damn great showcase for Babs’ hand-to-hand skills, and I may even prefer it to the corresponding museum scene from “Batgirl Returns”. What can I say – cool, methodical mind-games might be the “mature” road to take, but this episode spares us Melissa Gilbert’s sleep-acting, and that’s half the battle right there.
Alas, Catwoman’s whip wins her the day, and by the time Batman’s re-caged the gorillas, his faithful sidekick’s been strung up like a Christmas ham. Our felina fatale handily escapes with the remaining leopard, not that she gets to enjoy it for long.
Well, there goes our big “mystery” – Joker stole the first leopard. Perhaps more surprising is that he stole it on someone else’s orders, though come to think of it, the DC universe has never been short on idiots who think it’s a jolly good idea to hire someone that treats money like tissue paper and has the discipline of a ’90s kid who just found out Power Rangers got preempted.
But we’ll get to Laughing Boy’s business arrangements later. For now, let’s sample the deathtrap du jour. A delightful blend of old-school American kitsch with the tiniest smattering of Freudian terror…
… that suffers from one fatal flaw: its competitor from That Other Show is one of the greatest deathtraps the Joker has pulled in any medium, in elegance, sadism, realism, you name it. Sorry, kid, but you never stood a chance.
(I will, however, congratulate The Batman on giving Catwoman more agency than its predecessor did. “Agency” meaning “dodged the teeth for a half-second while Batman and Batgirl did all the actual freeing”, but hey, it’s the thought that counts.)
Anyways, Punch and Judy leave our heroes in the dust by… knocking down a bunch of crates (and Batman can’t just jump over them because…?). This means Joker’s gotten away clean with the leopards, and also that it’s time for the obligatory team-up.
On the one hand, Babs deserves kudos for realizing this entire situation is a load of guano. Even if Batman doesn’t know where Joker’s taking the leopards – and he certainly didn’t seem to have a problem tracking down Laughing Boy just now – he’s got a fucking rocket car. Joker’s van has a minute’s head start, tops. There is no logical reason Batman would accept her help on this (and that’s assuming he has any reason to believe she knows where Joker’s headed in the first place).
Well, aside from this.
On the other, you’d think someone as sharp and irreverent as Babs would directly call Bruce out on not keeping it in his utility belt, instead of a halfhearted crack about getting Penguin for backup next.**
That said, the show does build a fairly cute dynamic between Babs and Selina, with their mutual Batman-ribbing as the cornerstone (“I bet he never lets you drive.” “He barely lets me sidekick.”). Shame it’s intercut with another big Planeteer speech, but I guess some things are inevitable when your script includes a billionaire poacher with his own island.
Meet Kilgor Steed, our secondary (tertiary?) baddie, Joker’s mystery employer, and indisputably the point where this episode as a whole starts getting interesting. The Batman has a not-undeserved reputation for trying too hard to be cutting-edge kewl, which only makes this expy of the good General Zaroff all the more refreshing. He and his lovely little island of death have a delightfully pulpy feeling about them, something that predates even the film noirs which so informed That Other Show.
In fact, my biggest sticking point with this episode is that Joker isn’t really necessary. Heck, Batgirl probably isn’t necessary. You could get twenty-two solid minutes of entertainment just out of Batman and Catwoman running this old coot’s islandwide death course, trying to survive hounds, punji pits, saltwater crocodiles… the sky’s the limit. Y’know, kind of like “Tyger, Tyger” without all the yiffery. It would’ve made an exponentially better send-off for Selina.
(On an infinitely more nitpicky note – if this episode needed a villainous big-game hunter, wouldn’t Tom Blake have been ideal? Eh, maybe Kuhr just isn’t the comics fanatic his fellow writers are.)
All that said, there is one part of the script specifically tailored to the Joker, and it’s not an unwelcome one.
Ahh, the hyenas. Another sorely underrated Dini contribution (there’s only about two hundred others fighting over whatever scraps Harley and Mr. Freeze allow them) and one of my personal favorites. Here, they’re Joker’s payment for stealing the leopards, and honestly, that alone bumps my respect for Steed up five points. Lex Luthor usually isn’t that savvy when he tries for Laughing Boy’s services.***
In fact, if there’s one thing about this episode that makes it somewhat unique as a Joker story, it’s that Joker gets to show off emotions that usually can’t stand being within fifty feet of him. In pretty much every incarnation – and especially this one – he generally has two settings: sadistic smugness and whining defeat. But faced with Steed’s hyenas (and hell, Steed’s island in general), he seems genuinely impressed, like a five-year-old seeing DisneyLand for the first time. And it leads to some pretty memorable work from both Kevin Michael Richardson and his facial animators.
Not that it saves Steed from the Sal Valestra Special.
Aaaaaand that’s pretty much it for Steed. There’s a line at the end about getting him some antidote, but you can pretend he’s kicked the can and it wouldn’t affect the rest of the plot one bit. Poor bastard’s setting snares for hellhounds now.
So now that Joker’s got free run of the island, it’s Open Season on all Cats and Bats. Our heroes conveniently reach the island right then, and as soon as Batman’s out of earshot Batgirl and Catwoman engage in some good old “Join me, and we can
rule the galaxy steal lots of shit together as father and son queen and kitten” repartee.
It’s another bit of ground “Batgirl Returns” has covered, obviously, but I do appreciate how this take begins with Batgirl broaching the idea of Catwoman swapping sides. They’ve still had too few scenes together for me to swallow it as Babs genuinely respecting Selina (ideally, this should’ve been seeded over multiple episodes), but it’s a sweet little concept.
Selina’s counteroffer? “With a few costume adjustments, you’re not too far from being a Catgirl.”
Well, isn’t that-
Fuck you, episode. Fuck you. You’ve fouled up a perfectly good premise and made me post Tony Daniel on my blog. Give me one good reason I shouldn’t have you shot into geosynchronous orbit!
… ahem. Judgment suspended.
(There are a billion reasons this part shouldn’t work, not the least of which is that even Scooby-Doo doesn’t play this kind of trap seriously anymore. Somehow, none of those reasons matter, because this – assuming it’s intentional – is a brilliant piece of comic timing.)
Well, after ten long minutes of setup, we’re finally ready to give Steed’s death island a little death. But off with those gadgets first, heroes, or the kitty-cats get it!
Catwoman lets out a desperate “No!”, probably the most emotional she’ll ever get to be on The Batman, and… well, let’s just say the animators sell it a lot better than Gina Gershon does. And Joker using the leopards’ lives to cajole our heroes into giving up their wonderful toys is an inoffensive enough idea on paper, but something about the execution just rubs me the wrong way.
But honestly, who cares? The next four minutes are a positive feast of B-movie goodness, unapologetically goofy and yet maintaining just enough real danger to not degenerate into self-parody. Of course, your tastes may vary on any particular bit, be it Joker’s new hunting duds…
… Babs tackling a spider that shouldn’t even be able to breathe, let alone hunt…
… or Selina… well…
But ultimately, it’s never more “The Most Dangerous Game starring Batman and Catwoman” than it is “Joker fight with some fancy setpieces”, and the whole thing begins losing steam once Punch and Judy are out of the picture. Next thing you know, their boss is getting handed what may be his lamest defeat in the entire series. That shiny utility belt he stole? Bio-locked, so he can’t use any of the toys inside. It isn’t quite Firefly/Gearhead levels of pathetic (and I guess it’s a nice reference to Catwoman’s debut ep), but there’s still nothing pleasant about watching Batman’s archnemesis get taken down like a common mugger.
Meanwhile, Batgirl and Catwoman go back up to Steed’s mansion aaaand let’s cut to the chase.
I know, I know – tradition demands that a Catwoman episode end with her going Fujiko Mine on the good guys. But it’s a tradition that’s damn near impossible to spice up (though Arkham City did give it the old college try), and as a result I have a tough time just telling each instance apart, let alone picking one I actually like.
To add insult to injury, Catwoman doesn’t even get away with the leopards. Seems they don’t care for water, and Selina doesn’t have a couple of thugs handy to drag them onboard, so she ends up having to leave them with Batman. I think we can all agree that no Catwoman story should end with Batman letting Catwoman go out of sheer pity, and yet that’s exactly what Catwoman’s exit ends up looking like.
Maybe it’s a good thing, then, that this isn’t precisely the note we end on. The episode’s last thirty seconds mainly consist of Kuhr desperately trying to prove there was a point to all this, by framing the whole thing as another episode in Batgirl’s learning curve. It’s Bruce praising Barbara, so it’s not all bad, but is “don’t trust the lady who steals for fun” really something to be proud of knowing/learning?
Good God, this episode. This fucking episode. So much potential, so little of it used right. I mean, yeah, it was always going to be a campy, action-packed romp, but with the right decisions it still could’ve served as a perfect send-off for Catwoman. Instead, Joker clamps onto the story like a big albino leech, and whatever minor perks he brings come nowhere close to redeeming all the pacing and cohesion he’s drained away. Any hints of an actual dynamic between him and Catwoman? Forget it.
Batgirl, as I mentioned, also feels superfluous, but had Joker been booted from the script I think she could’ve done some real good. Maybe it would’ve ended up nothing but an inferior takeoff of “Batgirl Returns”, but I think the Selina/Babs dynamic here is different enough that that wouldn’t be a real danger. And even if it was, there are worse things for an episode to be.
Anything else I can add to the final analysis? No? Well, I guess this is…
Next: Who is this thing that leads us wayworn into waste untrod? Into boundless Boredom, out of sight of God?
* Possibly excepting that Batman Confidential arc where Bat chased Cat into a nude club and gave some poor mother in North Carolina a heart attack.
** Come to think of it, I don’t think there’s ever been a story where Penguin teamed up with the good guys. Not out of deception, not out of desperation.
*** Okay, pedants – the 1977 Filmation cartoon gave Joker a hyena sidekick, but Dini still gave him the hyena sidekicks.
**** As a quick Google search will show, yes, that name is inextricably attached to both furries and post-2000s Frank Miller. I continue to maintain that Tony Daniel is literally the worst thing to have happened to it.