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Original Airdate: February 11, 2006
Writer: Steven Melching
Director: Brandon Vietti
Well now, here’s a sight for sore eyes: a Joker episode that actually tries to be about the Joker.
I mean, whatever strengths “Brawn” or “The Laughing Cats” may have, I think we can all agree the Joker’s presence in them was unremarkable at best, outright deadweight at worst. All the more reason to appreciate this Joker outing, which happens to be Season 3’s last – making this, if I have my math right, our least Joker-y season thus far.
On top of that, we’re returning to the well of Joker-as-corrupter, which is not only one of my favorite aspects of the character but also something that’s almost mandatory for a successful take. The Joker may give off the vibes of a rabid animal, but consider this: would we be half as afraid of those if we didn’t know they could bring us to down to their level with one bite?
So it was with the Adam West show and its Bad Pennies. With That Other Show and Harley Quinn. With The Dark Knight and Harvey Dent. With Ethan Bennett on this very series. And of course, we mustn’t forget the most successful one of all, which corrupted me into never giving DC another cent of my money for as long as I live.
But the clearest precedent is probably “Be A Clown”, deemed by many to be That Other Show’s worst Joker episode. Personally, I feel that’s a little harsh – it’s no “Joker’s Favor” or “The Laughing Fish”, but it did touch quite a few interesting ideas before the big inevitable rollercoaster punch-up.
Can Steven Melching do one better? Let’s find out.
Would ya look at that, we even begin like “Be A Clown” did: with Joker attacking the Hizzoner ’cause he’s got nothing better to do. On the one hand, there’s no attempt at political satire like there was with Mayor Hill, which I guess is a step down. On the other, Joker’s plot now involves spiking the entries at the local chili cookoff (which Mayor Grange is judging, ’cause he’s got nothing better to do either), a perfectly creative seed that bears some damn horrific fruit.
Water doesn’t do the Hizzoner a lick a good against the might of Five-Alarm Ha-Ha-Jalapeño, but never fear – the Gotham City Fire Department is here!
Sadly, it doesn’t take long for Gotham’s biggest party-poopers to get to the scene, and they’ve only gotten better since “Brawn”. Poor Joker, having nothing but two musclebound thugs and a twenty-ton chunk of metal on wheels, immediately amscrays, with only
the Iron Law of First Acts a large cloud of poison gas stopping our heroes from nabbing him outright.
So begins the quasi-subplot of Bruce being an icy douche to Babs all of a sudden, which… doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in light of Babs’ last couple showings, but I guess it’s here to provide an equal-and-opposite number to Joker’s big scheme. Said big scheme being to get himself a sidekick, and also hurt Punch and Judy’s feelings with a perfectly-delivered “You’re not sidekicks! YOU’RE GOONS!”
This is, by the way, the first episode that treats P&J even remotely like human beings. It doesn’t really go anywhere, but it’s just enough to make me curious about what their deal is. Do they stick around for the pay? The violence? The celebrity? Are they professional crooks? Runaway circus men? Do they ever take those suits and makeup off? Can they? Fuck, the Kabuki Twins have a bigger dossier than these two!
But the point is, neither of them has the qualifications to be Joker’s Number One Guy. This toerag, on the other hand…
Meet Donnie Nolastnamegiven, Barbara’s classmate and self-appointed class clown. He’s a big, steaming bag of lame with an instantly forgettable voice, but for once, that’s the whole point. No one at Gotham High is even remotely amused by his antics; if he makes them laugh at all, it’s only because they’re laughing at him. He’s a fourth-grader in a teenager’s body, a walking migraine to teacher and student alike, a showoff with nothing to show off.*
And godfuckingdammit, he’s me.
You lot are lucky you never knew me in high school, because I was as insufferably “funny” as Donnie, and then some. I’ve since
found a new audience to inflict it on outgrown that phase, but I can still remember the stupid shit I said and did back then like it was yesterday. So when this episode sets out to explore how that kind of person might join up with the Joker? That makes me squirm just a little bit more than it should.
Of course, The Batman is still The Batman, so the execution mostly lags behind concept and potential. There’s no exploration of why Donnie acts the way he does beyond a generic “I just want to make people laugh”, and given the general thrust of the episode, Melching could’ve done more to set him up as an explicit anti-Barbara. None of which, you understand, makes Donnie’s “Screw y’all, I’m going pro!” attempt any easier to watch.
I’m not going to pretend homages to The Killing Joke are still groundbreaking for this show, but there’s still something delightful, almost elegant, about Joker hunting for new recruits at comedy clubs. I’m one of those Joker fans who likes the guy’s fondness for comedy to be more than gimmick-deep, and depending on how mushy you want to go, he may even feel genuine empathy for other failed comedians (I’m just saying, tough crowds can get a lot nastier than this). And hell, even if you don’t think Moore’s failed-comedian origin ever happened, there’s at least one writer who posits that doesn’t matter, so long as the Joker thinks it happened.
Anyways, what it boils down to is that for once, the Joker has to rely on charisma. There’s still plenty of intimidation in there, of course, but Kevin Michael Richardson does a pretty good job of at least sounding like he just wants to make a new pal. More than that, he’s the Only One In The World™ who gets Donnie. What are his crimes, but big-boy pranks? What’s Arkham, but big-boy detention?
The Joker’s corrupted plenty of people in his 75-year history, but it’s rare that he tries to build an actual rapport with his
victims students, and even rarer for that rapport to be based around something as (apparently) harmless as comedy. The Adam West show’s Bad Pennies were seduced by easy money. Ethan Bennett and Nolanverse Harvey Dent, by a general disillusion with the law. Harley Quinn comes the closest, but even she seemed more charmed by Joker’s general freespiritedness and her shitty taste in men than by his humor specifically.
None of this necessarily makes Donnie’s story the most interesting of the bunch, but it’s relatively virgin territory (stop looking at me like that). Hell, in the right hands it could even take the road “Be A Clown” passed up; there, Jordan Hill’s falling-in with the Joker reflected nothing other than Mayor Hill’s godawful fathering skills, but here, it could further what “Strange Minds” teased, that even the Joker isn’t beyond all humanity. Hey, if post-Columbine broadcast standards mean this Joker is always going to be lighter and softer than his animated predecessor, why not run with it?
Of course, more moving parts also means more chances to disappoint, and there’s a certain hurdle in how lackadaisical Donnie is about this whole situation. Jordan Hill was at most middle-school age and spent most of “Be A Clown” not knowing his idol was actually the Joker. Donnie doesn’t have either excuse, and while he’s suitably terrified when the Joker steps out of the shadows, a little more internal conflict would’ve gone a long way. Imagine if, after Joker’s made his pitch and bowed out, Donnie runs for a phone first thing but just can’t make himself dial 911. So what if there’s a dangerous felon at large? It’s not his job to catch them.**
But to the actual script’s credit, it does take more than one conversation to actually sway Donnie. Fast-forward to tomorrow afternoon, where Joker pulls a Sleepaway Camp 3 on the mean old teacher who keeps giving Donnie detention (I’d post a link but that would entail making you all watch Sleepaway Camp 3). The results speak for themselves.
No, I don’t know how Joker’s groundskeeper “disguise” worked, either, but let’s focus on the important part: Joker doesn’t just get payback on Donnie’s behalf, but uses it as a teaching opportunity. For all their groans and eye-rolling at Donnie’s jokes, the rest of Gotham High certainly doesn’t have a problem pointing and laughing at something that could easily have ended in a funeral. Conclusion? Donnie just wasn’t thinking big enough, mean enough.
(In a nice touch, Barbara is the only one on campus who’s not laughing. I think I would’ve preferred to see her actually trying to get the teacher down, but that’s easy enough to infer.)
Soon as the sun goes down, Joker takes Donnie on a tour of his workshop. Meanwhile, Gotham’s other Dynamic Duo is in for an exciting night of gargoyle sitting.
This part contains predictably cringeworthy banter, but I guess it serves its purpose well enough. Barbara wants to be taken seriously as a partner, and Batman keeps stonewalling her. It’s somewhat understandable if you interpret this as Bruce learning the worst possible lesson from the Season 1 finale (don’t trust anyone ’cause you never know when they’ll go evil!), but even then I’m not sure it does anyone any good to have Barbara swinging around with nothing but homemade equipment and gymnastics training.
In contrast, the Joker is remarkably patient with his new recruit, even when Donnie proves about as good at brainstorming evil as he is at brainstorming jokes. But then, Punch and Judy seem perfectly happy to play bad cop, and can you blame them? Three whole seasons being Batman’s punching bag, not one peep of complaint, and their boss literally promotes some kid he found yesterday over them.
Which just makes it extra fucking hilarious when they end up giving Donnie his first good idea.
O, horror of horrors! Is there no hope for our fair city? Who (who, I ask you?!) could possibly defeat this grinning, gumslinging gargoyle and his cackling companion?
What? Aw, c’mon, guys, I’ll grant there’s a few similarities, but that’s just creative coincidence at work. I mean, it’s not like Donnie’s calling himself-
Uhhh… anyone want Subway? Anyone? My treat!***
I think I read somewhere that this episode was chiefly written to gauge interest for a future Harley Quinn appearance. Which, to be honest, faintly reeks of bullshit. I’ve heard of no superhero show that shied away from gun molls, and even in the ancient, magical year of 2006 Harley had already proven popular enough to grab herself an ongoing title (which incompetent writers then ran into the ground, but still).
Even if that were true, though, I’d argue that Prank occupies a place Harley (indeed, most if not all other Joker sidekicks) never could: an emotional Kryptonite for both Bats.
An adolescent supervillain in itself would be a walking nightmare for Batman, given his legendary protectiveness toward children, but in this particular situation it’s pretty much Ethan Bennett: The Sequel. Self-flagellating perfectionist he is, Bruce usually can’t forgive himself for one failure in any vein; two and he’d probably contemplate burning the cowl and perhaps himself along with it.
Meanwhile, replace “Ethan Bennett” with “Pam Isley” and you’ve pretty much got Babs’ side of things. Sure, Donnie was probably never as close to her as Pam was, but that also means he had fewer chances to disillusion her (plus, while Ivy is a mutated superbeing who barely looks human anymore, Prank is clearly still a kid playing dressup). And while Babs is typically less of a guilt junkie than Bruce, she has to feel at least a little torn about how her last “interaction” with Donnie consisted of directing a whole classroom to laugh at him. Another fine villain made possible by a grant from the
Wayne Gordon Foundation!
But even if this script had been written with that kind of ambition (and let’s be honest, it probably wasn’t), a single episode simply isn’t big enough to give all those threads their due. Hence Batman not really interacting with Prank at all. Hence Batgirl having just enough time to discover Prank’s “secret” identity before this happens.****
With Batman incapacitated by
plot demands Joker’s super-gum, Batgirl’s life is left in Prank’s gawky little hands. But wait, what’s this?
Note that at this point, Prank has already fired on both our heroes, and yet… that’s kind of what makes this scene work. Shooting at a freely-moving superhero is villainous enough to give Prank some actual teeth, but I can see how a teenager would brush it off with “Aw, they’ve handled worse”. Batman’s defeats, in particular, are rarely made public and never permanent; combine that with the Signal all but screaming his superiority over the police, and it becomes difficult to wrap your mind around a Bat getting hurt, much less bleeding, much less dying.
But once a Bat’s been all chained up? Poof goes the mystique, and with it, the idea that you’re party to anything besides first-degree murder. In the end, even this show’s lighter-and-softer Joker is a criminal first, an entertainer second if at all (notice how there’s no “audience” this time to prop him up as the latter), and for all the apparent camaraderie between him and Prank, they’ve got precious little in common. Less, I daresay, than Batman and Batgirl on their worst day.
(Speaking of which, why does Batgirl keep her yap shut the whole time? Maybe she doesn’t want to risk Donnie recognizing her voice, but surely that can’t be her first concern when he’s literally inches from killing her?)
The Joker, of course, reacts to this attack of Creative Differences with nothing but class and composure.
Fortunately, it’s at this exact moment Batman’s brain cells start working again, and a quick Batarang saves Police HQ from a Babs-colored paintjob. As you might suspect by now, this episode isn’t one of Babs’ better showings, but Melching does try to throw her a bone in the next thirty seconds. Not planting a tracer on Joker – which is already SOP for Gotham’s heroes and also a bit of a continuity cheat – but how she reacts when Batman accuses her of stealing said tracer from the GCPD.
“When you don’t have access to the official Bat-Arsenal, you improvise.”
It’ll take one more episode before Batman actually does anything about it, but his wow-I’m-an-asshole look is a sweet down payment.
Anyways, the tracer leads our heroes to a special place. For only special boys to see.
Yes, ladies and gents, turns out Joker’s hideout was literally built inside everyone’s favorite OSHA-defying factory, Ace Chemicals. As usual, it’s not explained why the hell this place is still operational, let alone why Batman isn’t keeping it under 24/7 watch, but The Batman does have a slight fig-leaf in that no-one connects the place with Joker’s birth except Joker himself.
I AIN’T CALLIN’ YOU A TRUTHER!
Either way, Donnie’s in for a nice, painful chemical disfigurement, and y’know what? Joker’s logic here is actually pretty sound. Seriously, look at all the villains in this show alone who got their full potential unlocked by dangerous chemicals!*****
Sadly, Donnie is one of those pantywaists who think their skin and/or sanity is way too high a price for superpowers, so he hangs on just long enough for the Bats to come save his ass. Well, for Batman to save his ass. Batgirl, her thirty seconds of competence all used up, literally does nothing but damsel herself alongside Donnie.
Anyway, with Melching at the helm, Joker’s mad kung-fu skillz make a brief return, but they’re still not enough to stop Batman from wiping the floor with him. Which means it’s time for the big guns.
As far as I know, this is the first and only time any villain on this show pulls an actual gun, and believe it or not, there’s more than a dash of “Mad Love” peeking through. The message in both is simple: the Joker is a big, steaming hypocrite. For all his talk of being a criminal Artiste, he’ll never say no to the tool of a 7/11 stickup man. He’s not worthy of Donnie’s admiration, and never was.
In that light, I’m almost tempted to say that being handcuffed to Y7 violence does The Batman a favor. Where That Other Show’s Joker was tossing bullets around from the start, this one had time to build up the image of a we-don’t-need-no-stinkin’-guns mastermind before it all got torn apart. Of course, I say almost because we’re still stuck with that embarrassment of a gun design, and literally nothing about it is the slightest bit dramatic or mundane, so what we end up with doesn’t work as a straightforward climax or a deconstruction of the Joker.
So what does it work as? An opportunity for the Bats to be total nitwits
again while Donnie saves the day, of course!
By the way, it looks like that mini-essay I wrote up there was all for nothing, since Joker was apparently holding a pop-gun all along. I’m not saying those can’t be deadly in his hands, but there just isn’t the same connotation, and it just gives this show even less excuse to use that dumbass pseudo-nailgun design.
Aaaand that’s pretty much it. No Donnie’s-learned-his-lesson epilogue – which I can only applaud – but we do leave on a vaguely moralistic note. Something something don’t complain about your current boss, because at least he’s not the Joker? Eh, I’ve heard worse.
In all seriousness, while the after-school special haunts certain parts of this episode’s DNA, it never quite sinks the whole thing, and that alone is a pretty big leg-up on That Other Show’s attempts at the same. Otherwise, the script has the usual assortment of neat concepts, untapped potential, and delightful (if unchallenging) action – hardly the show’s best Joker story, but the novelty of KMR juggling menace with charm makes it a worthy experiment, indeed.
Next: Sick of the election yet? Too bad, ’cause the ballot box is about to take center stage, and the wonders of mob rule are coming along for the ride.
* Admittedly, “age-appropriate” pranks for a high-schooler would probably call for a TV-14 at minimum, so there was no chance of Donnie doing those anyhow.
** On the other hand, the rimshot drummer also saw the Joker, and ran away before Joker could do anything about it. He’s got even less excuse for not calling the cops.
*** To my knowledge, Hamill actually has two gum-slinging supervillains in his résumé. Indeed, the Trickster comes in a distant second to the awesomeness of STICKYBEARD!
**** Melching predictably never goes into it, but I’m fairly curious about whether Donnie thought at all about the logistics of sidekicking for the Joker. Was he still planning to finish his education? Was he just going to sneak out of the house whenever he had the time? Where do his parents figure into all this?