I can remember distinctly how it felt to watch Batman: The Animated Series every afternoon after school. The windows in the room I watched the show in as a 10-year-old let the setting sun in. As fall set in, the glare got worse and worse each day – even fully-closed blinds can only block out so much, and I was always fighting the sunlight to see Warner Bros.’ moody series. And even all these years later, it feels like it was worth it. Batman set the standard for what nerdy stuff could be – cool, serious, classic, artful, thoughtful. It was so wildly different from everything else at the time that I still can’t believe it got on TV. These days, though, I’m not fighting glare, and the screen I’m watching on – a Samsung KS8000 4K TV – is much flatter and has many more pixels. With the series now available in full HD resolution, it’s the 1,080 horizontal lines of pixels that are burning my eyes – not the sun. We began our rewatch with “On Leather Wings” last week. This week, it’s a twofer with episodes 2 & 3: “Christmas with the Joker” and “Nothing to Fear.”
“Christmas with the Joker”
Something I didn’t dig into with the last episode was the difference between the airing order and the “intended” DVD order. DC Universe lists each episode’s air date, but sometimes Wikipedia differs wildly. “On Leather Wings” is the first episode on the discs and in the streaming collection, but Wikipedia lists it as the 10th episode to air, on September 15th. “Christmas with the Joker,” the second episode in the collection, didn’t air until two months later, in mid-November, when Christmas could conceivably be in the air. “Nothing to Fear” was the second episode to air ever, according to Wikipedia, but the collection has this episode airing on September 15th. So, flip a coin.
But we’re watching these in disc order, because that feels like it’s probably closer to the intended order from the original creators.
And so we drop from the skies and into the snow for a great introduction to the Joker. In this episode, we see Bruce and Dick settling in for a chill Christmas evening, with the latter trying to get his mentor to just relax for even one night. Bruce, of course, knows that crime doesn’t take holidays. Despite a short patrol not showing anything, the Joker has indeed escaped from Arkham and kidnapped the Commissioner, Harvey Bullock, and reporter Summer Gleeson and has them wrapped up like Christmas presents.
Batman chases the broadcast signal all over the city, running into various traps, before finally stopping him in time to get home and watch some late-night Christmas cinema.
As with “On Leather Wings,” this is a show that knows we know who the Joker is. Our first glimpse of him is behind the pages of a Christmas carol sheet, for a view of a mental asylum from a much more innocent time, when we thought that prisoners might get humane treatment and all of that. Those were the days, right? They’re singing Jingle Bells, of course, so that our good and fair clown prince can edit the lyrics in the classic fashion, commenting on Batman’s odor and all that.
Immediately, this episode stands in sharp contrast to the previous one. It’s brighter, more colorful, and seems to feature much simpler lines. The episode doesn’t feature any of the wild, dynamic chase animation of the first episode and a lot less in the way of painted shots. At first glance, my thought was that this episode was given a much lower budget, and that’s probably the truth. But I get the feeling that this was done knowing that the episode would have a very different tone thanks to its titular character. The most cartoonish of Batman’s villains gets a more cartoonish episode.
The best part of the whole thing, is of course the first appearance (fourth by air date) of Mark Hamill as the standard-setting Joker, perhaps the perfect mix of genuinely funny and truly terrifying. It feels like he’s still perfecting the performance here, but it’s still that Joker we know and love, right down to some minor fourth-wall breaking when he throws to a commercial and the episode cuts to black. You know that’s exactly when the show cut to real commercials back when it was airing.
There are other things that indicate this is a more playful episode – Robin’s there, and he’s wearing short sleeves in the snow. As a Minnesotan, I respect him, but that’s a dumb move, boy blunder. There’s even a joke from Bats himself about how he’s never watched It’s a Wonderful Life because the title rang so hollow for him. (Side note: This movie being a ubiquitous Christmas film seems to place the series between 1974 and 1993 when the movie was out of copyright, just for you nerds out there).
Again, this show assumes we know what happened to Bats’ parents and doesn’t feel the need to flash away to it. Batman is a modern myth – we don’t need to mention Zeus making Cronos barf up all his brothers every time we consult a Greek mythological text. This is Batman in media res. Arkham exists, the Joker exists, and so does Robin.
One oddity I did notice – when Batman and Robin go out on patrol early in the episode, we see Batman swinging around with a thrown batarang attached to a rope, when in the episode before, he was definitely using the grappling hook on Man-Bat. Was this an animation order error, or were the creators playing fast and loose with chronology? Or, better yet, did they figure Batman would use the grappling hook because the streets were full of people and he didn’t want the gunshot-like blast going off above a crowded street?
But aside from all the Joker shenanigans throughout the episode, the crown jewel is at the very end when Batman’s finally caught up with the Joker, and Mr. J forces the Dark Knight to open a Christmas present – a spring-loaded pie tin full of whipped cream.
And this is what BTAS gets so right about the Joker. He’s trying to tell the ultimate joke at the expense of the world’s straightest straight man, Batman. Being funny and making a joke that only he truly enjoys is the Joker’s first priority. Everything else is a distant second. He just wants the whole world to laugh, and his antics always come through that lens. An episode ending in a faceful of whipped cream is peak Joker. This is who he is.
While the episode lacks some of the detail of some of my favorite episodes, and isn’t my favorite Joker episode, it’s still a solid statement by Bruce Timm and crew about just what this Batman is and what we can expect from his rogues’ gallery. That it had to pass standards and practices for airing during after-school hours ended up being a benefit, forcing more elegant storytelling that depended less on shocks, and Joker may have benefitted from that more than even Batman himself.
“Nothing to Fear”
The third episode, “Nothing to Fear,” introduces us to Scarecrow, a then lesser-known villain in the Batman universe. We’re back to the moodier tone of the first episode.
If “Christmas with the Joker” hinted at Batman’s relationship to his parents, though, this episode dives right into it. It’s still not an origin story, though, at least not for Bats. No, this is Scarecrow’s origin story. Jonathan Crane is a former professor of psychology specializing in fear and fear induction, pushed from his position for his unethical experiments.
First, though, it’s time for the university dean to shame Bruce for being a playboy instead of a doctor – a common go-to when it’s time to criticize Batman’s alter-ego. We see Bruce mourn for a moment – invoking his father’s name stings. But then he spots a chopper outside and we get that awesome four-note stinger – you can hear it in your head – to let us know it’s Batman time.
I love how unafraid Batman: The Animated Series is of risking being scary. This was a show that was on television when 10 year olds were watching, and the villain for this episode is a vision of terror with a decidedly spooky voice. It’s not the Ghostbusters’ cartoon’s Boogieman, but it’s still definitely not just a man’s voice.
At first, Batman seems to know the Scarecrow’s tricks, and the Batman theme chimes in as Bats battles the Scarecrow and his thug, but it stops abruptly as soon as the fear dart sinks into his neck.
Now, we see Batman truly vulnerable for the first time, and we’re reminded that it’s not beating him up or scaring him that manifests his weakness, but rather his eternal driving guilt and anger – showing how these things are limitations as much as they are fuel.
Back at the Batcave, we get another great scene with Alfred talking sense into Bruce. After commenting on the absurdity of a man in a costume running around scaring people, Alfred reminds Bruce that he is – and that Thomas would be – proud of him. Alfred may have a wit drier than a thousand deserts, but he’s an extremely good dad.
The next time Batman goes after the ‘Crow, we see a shade of what we get en masse in Batman Begins – how Scarecrow’s fear toxin can turn people on Batman in an instant because of the way he plays into their fears.
Just two episodes later, Batman ends up running head first into a blimp, but this time it belongs to our villain.
Batman has to face his fear before he can fight Scarecrow and his gang off, and that leads to what is either the coolest or corniest line in the show’s entire run: “I am vengeance! I am the night! I.. am Batman!” Shivers.
When Batman catches up to Crane at his lab, we see a subtle effect that stands out really well with this remaster. Batman sets a trap for Crane in the form of a leak from his tanks of fear gas. As Crane steps forward to shut the valve, the screen blurs just a little. It’s a great effect that portends danger for the professor. Batman shows up and terrifies Crane, and we watch him scramble backwards beneath a huge skylight, with the panes of glass shadowing across his body. A small, unnecessary visual effect that adds a ton of mood to an already great shot.
Back at police HQ, we find out that the ceilings there are so high that Bullock can’t see Crane dangling from the ceiling fan with a whimsical Bat symbol taped to his chest, and then we see Bruce visiting his parents in some very unflattering sunglasses. As he walks away, the shadow behind him is that of his true self. Another one of those cool touches that remind us of how the people making this show were big geeks making a show for themselves first.
Tune in again soon for part 3 in this series. We’ll continue to dig back into Batman: The Animated Series as we re-watch the remaster to remind ourselves what made the series so special and why it looks so good. But if you need more BTAS commentary now, we have every episode of the series ranked from the worst to the best!
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