Sunday, July 26, 2015

[Batman: The Animated Series] Episodes 11-15 Review

My Batreading list for July were four graphic novels (plus New 52's The Dark Knight volume 2) that were highly recommended by online lists but I was really only able to fully enjoy three of them (TDK, Gates of Gotham and Death in the Family). The other two which were written by Jeph Loeb were said to be classics. I'm referring of course to The Long Halloween and Dark Victory which did not resonate with me in any way at all and it baffles me why these two stories continue to be rated high in a lot of Top 10 to 20 Best of Batman. This was why I found it incredibly redemptive that I'm also watching and reviewing Batman: The Animated Series alongside my readings because the cartoons' take on the origin story of Harvey Dent was "streets ahead" of the convoluted and needlessly complicated one provided by Loeb in his two works. Hell, Peter J. Tomasi's own take of this origin in his five-issued Batman and Two Face title was more unique and compelling than Loeb's. I bring this up here in my review of the show because, aside from sore disappointment and some lingering biter aftertaste, it turns out that the Two Face storyline in BTAS happened to be a two-parter (and quite inevitably so). The seventh episode tackles what happened next after Harvey Dent's transformation to Two Face, and it was a concise and moving twenty-two-minute episode about a man torn apart by two separate identities--one light and one dark--and the one which becomes victorious is the one he feeds. So let's get right to it.

Two Face Part II throws the viewers into the middle of the action. From what we can tell from the first scene, it seems that Two Face has been busy hitting up banks and other establishments that serve us fronts for mob boss Rupert Thorne's illegal activities for his criminal enterprise. Driven by vendetta, Two Face hired two thugs to work for him. All these preparations happened off-screen which was acceptable enough; the show has done well in the past when it came to burying its lead and not wasting too much time on laying every minuscule detail. This installment was absolutely enjoyable. The great moments of character build-up and conflict are earnestly well-made. Like I said, I cared little about Jeph Loeb's own characterization for Dent/Two Face while the BTAS writers have done a more than competent service in delivering a believable character arc for the titular "villain" for this episode. Bruce's friendship with Harvey Dent, though we only managed to see in two episodes, was still present and consistent in the way he interacts with Two Face; there is recognition there as well as guilt and this was further illustrated with that short dream sequence where Bruce fails to save Harvey as he falls from the bridge right after his face was disfigured. And then it cuts to a shot of Bruce's late parents asking him why he couldn't they save them. This small yet significant scene illuminated Bruce's own fear and insecurity about losing his friend; it once again called back to his childhood trauma where he feels the most powerless. So, as Batman, he tries really hard to make sure that Dent can recover from his dissociative disorder, the malevolent personality known as Two Face who makes all his decisions based on luck through flipping a coin. I'm also glad that the episode highlighted Two Face's obsession with the number two, or rather, the duality of everything. This further reflects the moral dilemma of his psyche; being unable to free himself from the crippling dichotomy of things. In his mind, there are only two sides of a single coin and he is doomed to always choose one option of the other instead of opening himself up from a world with multiple options, such as the reality humans are presented. Because of his refusal to come to terms with this, Dent's personality as Two Face only worsens. His vendetta against Rupert Thorne is based on the fact that his evil impulses were awakened because of this man, and Dent is determined to destroy Thorne. The episode ended with an optimistic note, though: Dent's fiancée Grace was able to reach out and sustain a connection with the part of Dent that remains very much human and intact. Thanks to that, he allows himself to be taken to a psychiatric ward and hopefully to get better. Bruce certainly hopes so himself. Personally, I like this version better than Loeb's because it's more earnest and consistent and there are potential scenarios in the future seasons of BTAS where Dent's ongoing battle with his schizophrenia can be utilized to tell more compelling stories. 

The next episode marked the first time the show has actually followed a continuity since the Two Face two-parter. This time, we focus on another mob-centered story tied to Rupert Thorne and his counterpart, Arnold Stromwell, head of a prominent drug trafficking operation. I find it curious that the show didn't just use the known mobsters in the comics (Carmine Falcone and Salvatore Maroni) but I think this decision worked to their advantage. Initially, I didn't care much about Rupert Thorne although his role in the previous two episodes was important enough. Here we see him make yet another appearance, this time concerning his rivalry with Stromwell. The latter is actually the real focus of this episode which is a ballsy move for the writers, considering he's a bad guy and viewers automatically wouldn't respond to bad guys being the main highlight of a story especially if he's not rogues gallery material like the Joker or Scarecrow. Still, this episode's writing was concise and straightforward enough to hold my attention. Stromwell is a crook through and through but there might still be hope for reform and that is exactly what happened in the last scene of this episode. It's a message about positive change and I think this is one of those stories that remind adult viewers like me that though BTAS can deliver complex and intelligent hits, it's still primarily kid-friendly. This redemption story is simplistic to the point of being slightly cheesy. Though the tone of the narrative is more hopeful than cynical, for someone of my age and experience the resolution at the end was a bit contrived and silly. I can't actually believe that a long-time career criminal like Stromwell can change even if he's genuine about it. But then again, this is still a child's program so I think it's more important for the young viewers of this show to see an episode where goodwill triumphs that even a bad person can be saved if he just decided he wants to be good from now on. I can understand why we should promote this message in a kids' show.

Speaking of children: this episode is definitely catered to them. This was a cutesy standalone installment about a group of kids getting to interact with Batman. Sherman is a ten-year old boy who wants to become a detective. Aided by his friend Roberta, they found themselves finding a trail of clues leading to a compound where the Penguin and his goons were planning their next scheme. This is the Penguin's very first debut but he wasn't at all the star of this episode but rather Sherman himself and his friends. It's like the Scooby-Doo gang tagged along with the Dark Knight and was actually useful. Some scenes in this episode were downright ridiculous like that opening scene with Batman apprehending thieves and getting attacked by a giant South American vulture. A goddamn vulture! It was just like in the sixth episode The Under Dwellers where Batman had to wrestle motherfucking crocodiles. I think scenes like this is when BTAS allows itself to get campy and it's just enough of it that adult viewers can accept every now and then so it still works fine. Overall, this episode was plain fun; nothing deep or insightful, just written to entertain th children in the audience since it put Batman in a situation where he had to interact with kids in the first place. The kids themselves were engaging enough. Sherman is clever and even got to drive the Batmobile and embarrass Penguin and his goons in one fell swoop. I liked it enough. I think this may be considered a filler episode and that's fine, considering the story that follows after it which is inarguably one of the classics of BTAS. Written by Paul Dini, it's easily one of its finest installments in the entire series.

Heart of Ice was a singularly well-crafted and marvelous tale about Mr. Freeze whose only interpretation of the character I immediately go to is the pitiful one from Joel Schumacher's epic-fail Batman and Robin. I don't know much about Mr. Freeze in the comics either unless you count Snyder's Batman Annual issue #1 which I think contradicted what Paul Dini wrote for this episode. I liked Heart of Ice for its humanizing characterization of Victor Fries. I believe it was Dini himself who defined the character's backstory, retelling his origin altogether and making it officially canon (that was until New 52). In Heart of Ice, we learn about Victor Fries, a scientist who suffered an industrial accident while attempting to cure his terminally ill wife Nora via cryogenically freezing her. The accident turned his body extremely cold which mean that he can only live in subzero temperature at all times, hence his special suit. One can say that it also rendered him truly a cold-blooded monster, no pun intended, if it weren't for the fact that his heart may not be completely made of ice since he grieves and pines for his wife. This motivated him to hunt down the greedy businessman who was his former boss and was the reason of his accident in the first place. Batman apprehended him and he was placed in Arkham Asylum. That last shot of him still reminiscing his wife was poignant. There is something to be said about the way Mr. Freeze was introduced in this show in comparison with the earlier rogues gallery contenders. The Joker was just dropped in without rhyme or reason, like the chaotic representation he embodies; the Man-Bat and the Scarecrow were both manically enthusiastic scientists who took the experiments to the extreme; and Two Face was a personality disorder that eventually took over. In the case of Mr. Freeze, this was simply a man who lost too much and could not cope and was driven to commit crimes just to feel a semblance of warmth and wholeness again. There are layers to the episode's writing that I quite liked. Fundamentally speaking, Fries' motivation was about love; or at least the salvaging of a lost one. With this villain, Dini fleshed him out as someone so tragic and easy to sympathize with, almost at par with Harvey Dent when he became Two Face a few episodes ago. No pompous ego, anger issues or deranged impulses for Mr. Freeze--this was just a suffering man who wanted to feel he was human again. This was one of the most outstanding episodes of the first season and must have set an example for future installments. I can only hope that it did.

The last one for this review's batch is the first part of another two-parter. The Cat and the Claw was the very first time we see the Bat and the Cat interact with each other. Personally, I've always loved this relationship and their dynamics in a lot of the comics and adaptations. The first five-minute sequence of this episode showed a pretty fun chase between Batman and Catwoman on the rooftops, each one just as relentless and in top form; seeing Batman in-pursuit and Catwoman on-the-run magnificently captures just what it was that draws this two together almost as naturally as gravity and breathing. It occurred to me that perhaps Batman finally had someone who can keep up with him, who shared his penchant for the nocturnal dangers even if hers is more of committing crimes and he's the one who has to stop her. The attraction was inevitable. As a shipper, watching this episode was already a pleasant experience. I remember being just as enticed back when I was just a kid and I watched Batman Returns with Michael Keaton and Michelle Pfeiffer for the roles. The vibe shared between Bruce and Selina once they were out of their costumes was very reminiscent of that. Selina Kyle is an environmentalist socialite passionate on defending the mountain lion reserve in Gotham while Bruce was completely infatuated with her at first sight and the more he saw the fire in her commitment. Seeing him acting like a nervous boy with a crush was great. However, this episode is a twofold story, one with the Catwoman and the terrorist leader of infamy known only as the Red Claw--who turns out to be a woman. I could commend these episodes for giving more active roles for females and doing them so in the most riveting way possible. The last scene was amazing! Catwoman kisses Batman and he actually kissed back in spite of himself. The dialogue exchange between them too was shippage-inducing for me: "You can't deny there's something between us"; to which Batman responds, "You're right. And I'm afraid it's the law."  Overall, this had been a fantastic opener. There were enough of great character details for the players, the establishment of the key elements of the plot, as well as the tension and action that dominated the entire episode had been strong. I very much look forward to the next installment and the continuation of this story soon. 

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