Are Easter gifts a thing? When I was 11 or 12 years old, when Batman: The Animated Series was still fresh and new, and I was still young enough to be receiving candy on Easter Sunday (instead of just buying it for myself the next day at half-off), I remember the best Easter gift I ever received. I don’t remember any of them before or after that, though, hence the question.
But that year, I got a Batman: The Animated Series action figure. After some digging around online, I’m pretty sure it was “Combat Belt” Batman. This figure was a pretty plain-looking Batman figure that came with some bright-yellow accessories including a grappling hook, the coolest kind of rope, and a launcher for it. Childhood TV misled me about a lot of things, like how common grappling hooks would be, and how dangerous venus fly traps actually are.
In this week’s entry of Batman: Remastered and Rewatched, we’re watching two episodes of Batman: The Animated Series‘ remastered edition: “The Last Laugh” and “Pretty Poison.” And it’s pretty great that we get a couple of really solid episodes, because next week features a real stinker. But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
“The Last Laugh”
The Last Laugh is the Joker’s second appearance in the official series order. DC says it aired originally on September 22, 1992. While our first look at Joker was bright and comparatively whimsical, this week we get a much more classic look at the clown prince that stands up to viewing at any time of year.
The episode opens with a reminder that Gotham is a big, busy city. Newspapers are being delivered, cars are driving back and forth, and trash is being dragged downstream on a barge, stinking up the riverbanks around it. A nasty green cloud rises from the trash heap. And then we see something out of place: a clown is driving (these clown masks remind me vividly of those used in The Dark Knight – did Nolan watch BTAS?). Uh oh.
As the stink spreads, we start to see the effects of the “stink” cloud as repairmen and then civilians start to giggle uncontrollably – a classic Joker move. As people begin to laugh, we get some truly haunting expressions. People are laughing so hard they’re crying and they don’t know why. People giggle with empty eyes and open mouths, and there are teeth everywhere. These scenes border on body horror almost. Batman: The Animated Series is such a great-looking show that most of its art doesn’t need to be in high definition to look good, but we get glimpses here and there like this one, where the additional detail adds extra horror to the goings-on.
The real highlight of the episode, though, is Mark Hamill’s Joker, come thoroughly into his own. But we’ll get to that. The overall plot of this episode is pretty thin and not especially interesting, and the amount of time spent on Batman chasing the Joker means less time spent developing either of these characters in any meaningful way. That gives way to some good movement and just enough time for some great Joker one-liners, but little else.
And underlying it all, there’s this weird drum-machine music track that plays anytime Joker’s henchmen are on-screen. It’s weird because Batman: The Animated Series so viciously resists being placed in any particular time frame, but the music track tells us exactly when the show was made, and it stands out from the rest of the very timeless orchestral music of the show.
Watching the fight between Batman and Joker, it feels like the team was reaching for a genuinely interesting episode, but was hamstrung by something – the budget, standards and practices. Over and over, we see the Joker one step ahead of Batman, which suggests that the Joker is not just dangerous but also incredibly intelligent and a great planner – despite being almost an avatar of chaos. It’s worth noting that while Batman appears to be a very skilled programmer, building machines that can take voice input and provide dynamic voice output, the Joker seems to be quite the engineer. This is the second time he’s sent bi-pedal robots after Batman, and the one inside the Captain Clown outfit is definitely Terminator-inspired. I don’t know if the creators of BTAS intended to make that implication with the Joker’s frequent use of robots, but it’s there.
But instead of having Batman face off against a clever villain, we spend a huge chunk of the episode on a slapstick chase that doesn’t feel worthy of either. It’s close – I can definitely see this incarnation of the Joker skipping through a bunch of traps he’s set for Batman – but it’s a clear reminder that this was indeed meant to be a kids’ show at times.
Even so, we get some great lines out of the Joker, and it’s clear what a blast Hamill was having with the character.
“Justice is best served hot, Batman! You’re going to melt just like a grilled cheese sandwich!” is a highlight, as is “You killed Captain Clown! You killed Captain Clown!” The second especially shines thanks to Hamill’s performance. He elevates okay lines, turning them into deranged quotables.
There is one absolutely incredible, iconic Joker moment. After Batman has, indeed, killed Captain Clown, Joker hops on the resulting steel cube and lets the conveyor belt take him away. As he pulls back from the camera, the belt takes him under some grating, and the light ripples across his face as he disappears, grinning impishly but otherwise completely still. If nothing else, the whole episode is worth it just for this shot:
Our second episode for this week is “Pretty Poison,” which features the series debut of Poison Ivy, the first curvy femme fatale to join the Batman: The Animated Series cast. The episode originally aired on September 14, 1992, a full week before “The Last Laugh.”
This episode is a big improvement on the previous one for a few reasons. It’s not just the debut of Pamela Isley and her dangerous plants, but also the first appearance of Renee Montoya, one of BTAS’ contributions to the overall Batman canon. Further, this is the writing debut of Paul Dini on the series. BTAS wasn’t his first credit, and it definitely hasn’t been his last. He’s been working on different incarnations of Batman ever since, including Batman Beyond and the first two Batman: Arkham games. If we can credit Bruce Timm for the look of the series, much of the credit for the show’s feel goes to Dini.
This episode plants some interesting seeds, pun totally intended, and gives us a lot to digest. First, it does a lot to flesh out Bruce himself. We spend a much more significant amount of time with Bruce, but also see again how Bruce is a secondary to Batman.
First, the episode opens with a sepia-toned flashback to Bruce helping fund the opening of Stonegate Prison, the dream project of future Two-Face, Harvey Dent. As they’re breaking ground on pretty clear proof that Batman is a racketeering operation (I’m kidding, mostly), we see a pair of hands carefully unearthing a single rose.
Cut to a helicopter lifting off from Stonegate five years later as a random criminal escapes by helicopter, only to be quickly chased down by Batman who offers up another classic line in follow-up to his “I am the night” line a couple episodes ago: “I’m your worst nightmare.” In these opening scenes, the score backing the action is already better than that weird beat in the previous episode, setting the tone for things to come.
As Batman is fighting, Harvey Dent is bragging about his relationship with Bruce a few floors down with his date and her bright red hair. The reds in this episode are shockingly bright compared to the rest of the palette (can I compare vs. amazon stream?), and it looks great in this remaster. Bruce finally drops in late enough to wonder if this mysterious redhead has a sister and to question Dent’s sudden decision to marry this woman he’s known for a week before he goes facedown in his chocolate mousse, poisoned by his date’s lipstick.
Bruce heads to the hospital to keep an eye on his friend while Gotham PD scrambles to find out what they can. Harvey interviews the chef and waiter with absolute certainty that one of them is responsible while Bruce talks to the chemist looking into the poison. Here, Bruce is working for Batman and snatches the blood sample, literally removing evidence from police custody (again, are we sure Batman isn’t part of the problem?!)
The evidence – Isley’s past and the source of the poison – lead Batman to Isley’s greenhouse, where she keeps, among many other plants, the very rose we saw in the opening, a rose that went extinct supposedly as a result of the construction of the prison.
Poison Ivy is one of the more interesting and sometimes problematic characters in Batman’s rogues’ gallery. On the one hand, she’s one of the few women characters that doesn’t show up attached to another character, and her base cause is a genuinely good one that holds up even now. Most of the best villains seem to have a point, and Ivy very much does indeed. She just goes all the wrong ways when it comes to proving the truth of her cause. She’s also not just a scientist, but a very talented one. On the other hand, she’s very much the stereotypical femme fatale character with a chemist twist, right down to the way mens’ heads turn in the restaurant and the almost-strip-tease as she changes from Pamela Isley into Poison Ivy. She’s ostensibly using sex as a weapon, but it’s always tough to tell where it fits the character and where it’s more meant to make boys giggle about the sexy lady.
As Batman and Poison Ivy battle, Batman makes it clear one move at a time how poor Ivy’s decision-making process is – her crossbow bolts thud into her plants one after another, until they finally rip through her apparently intelligent and growling Venus Fly Trap with teeth that are hard enough to shatter when Batman kicks them.
Finally, Ivy ends up in Arkham, where they apparently let her keep the very rose she used to poison Harvey just days earlier. Really, Arkham?
Despite my jabs, Pretty Poison is an overall excellent episode that reminds me once again why I love Batman. We get moments like the intercut of Harvey talking about his relationship with Bruce while Bruce leads his second life floors away. We have the beginnings of the interplay between Bruce, Harvey, Poison Ivy, the eventual Two-Face, and Batman – five different characters all tangled together by Bruce and Batman’s mistakes. Bruce and Harvey create Poison Ivy by building Stonegate. Just episodes later, Harvey becomes Two-Face, and it’s hard not to wonder if being taken to his deathbed by the betrayal of someone he trusted contributed to that. Even if it didn’t, the show is building the relationship between Bruce and Dent for that later turn, and that’s pretty awesome for a television cartoon at this point in TV history.
Actions have unintended consequences, whether it’s robbing a rich kid’s parents in an alley or putting in prison without doing a proper environmental impact review beforehand, and Batman is starting to build up these relationships.
Next week, it’s time to delve into the Dickensian underbelly of Gotham for one of the show’s worst episodes, and then a full-on Rashomon-style episode that gives a proper introduction to Officer Renee Montoya.
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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