Once we’ve gone through and rewatched all of Batman: The Animated Series, we’re planning to do a BTAS playlist that keeps all the must-watch episodes and drops the clunkers. Because while Batman holds up better than perhaps any of the cartoons I grew up with and maybe even any cartoon ever, it is still a show for kids, and that means that sometimes episodes are overly simple and broad or that we get a kid as a main character instead of old Bats himself.
This week, we have one of each in “The Forgotten” and “Be a Clown.” The former relies on easy jokes that haven’t aged well to tell a story that’s not very interesting, while the latter does a bit more with its material.
I remember liking the music of this episode so much that it left a mark on my brain as being one of my favorite episodes. But this is one case where BTAS doesn’t hold up.
“The Forgotten” starts out with an interesting premise. Homeless people in Gotham are disappearing. It’s an acknowledgment that Gotham is a rough place and it puts Batman’s concerns squarely on some of the most vulnerable members of society. While homeless people do show up in the cartoon and comics, they’re often set-dressing, informants, and things like that. Here, we’re reminded that while Batman might be the person in charge of the body he and Bruce inhabit, Bruce isn’t helpless when it comes to the city’s struggles.
Instead of donning the cape and cowl, Bruce puts on some theatrical makeup and dyes his hair white. He heads out into town to investigate the cause of the disappearances, and things quickly go downhill. Sure, I love how completely jacked Bruce looks even when dressed like a hobo, but the fight that follows starts as a stunner and ends unbelievably. Bruce deftly dodges punches and gets two goons to knock themselves out, but he’s inexplicably distracted by a cat that gives a third goon the chance to blackjack him over the back of the head. From here, it’s all plot shortcuts and easy jokes.
Bruce wakes up with amnesia in his head and a shackle on his ankle – he’s been kidnapped to be a slave for Boss Biggis, a guy that looks too much like the endlessly-vomiting Mr. Creosote from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life for my comfort. Biggis’ morbid obesity is used both as a shortcut to show how sinfully degenerate and evil he is, and as a joke. It’s below the writers and the show. As Biggis literally sucks meat off huge bird bones, he makes absurd demands about how his slaves should work without eating so that you remember that he’s an Extremely Bad Person.
Meanwhile, Bruce’s convenient amnesia tugs at him. He dreams, and this is where the episode works. In his dreams, Bruce sees himself laughing creepily in a mirror. When he gets too close, he transforms into the Joker, helping to more closely draw the parallel between the two characters. Could a different version of Bruce have ended up in the Joker’s shoes?
Meanwhile, back home, Alfred wonders what’s happened to Bruce. That feels like it goes against everything we’ve learned about the two and the way they interact, but we watch Alfred track down Bruce’s car. Somehow, he knows that the thugs who beat up Bruce the night before are connected to the kidnappings, and moves the tracking device from the car Bruce had used to the truck as it rolls away. If it wasn’t such a huge leap of logic, it might be our first glimpse of what a badass Alfred actually is.
Back at the work camp, in Bruce’s head, we get the first true show of his origin story since the series began. Bruce gets into a fight with guards and finds himself locked in a tin shed meant to bake him in the hot desert sun, and the physical stress and a trigger word push his identity back to the surface. That the show has waited this long to show us how Batman came to be and spends so little time on it shows the creators’ commitment to exploring who Batman is – not how he got there.
When Bruce remembers who he is, his voice changes. Kevin Conroy’s performance really shines through here because, despite how cheesy and hackneyed the writing for the episode is, I couldn’t help but fist pump and say “Batman. Hell yeah.” Conroy is that good.
These scenes are really effective – unlike what follows. The first introduction of the Batwing is with Alfred at the helm, doing some serious slapstick work as he tumbles around inside the cockpit as he argues with the system’s AI, which Bruce apparently built some extra sass into. Alfred tumbles out of the jet when it lands and “claim[s] this land for Spain.”
Finally, Batman is back in costume and memory alike, and the fight that follows would’ve been super cool in any other episode. It’s still cool here, but it’s held back by the joke of a villain. In the dark of the mines, the battle is all in black and white and we see Batman as a predator who operates in the dark for the first time. He’s a ninja, a wolf. It’s so cool.
But then, he has to push the morbidly-obese slaver down a water chute and make a joke about prison food, totally spoiling the ambiance. It’s a silly episode with a dumb villain and a bad plot device in Bruce’s amnesia. But I still love the fight and the character development. When Bruce remembers who he is and switches voices, it’s not just a Hell Yeah moment, but it’s also very telling about how he changes when Batman is in charge -how those memories change him.
Oh, and the cool harmonica music is held back badly by the same funky electric drum beat from a few episodes back. I thought it was really good as a kid, but I found myself cringing here in 2019.
I just wish all of the good stuff was in a better episode.
“Be a Clown”
An episode strongly featuring a child as part of the cast always threatens to turn into a story where the child acts as a thinly-veiled cypher for the viewer. This year’s Shazam cleverly avoided this, but BTAS doesn’t always do so quite as well. In “The Underdwellers,” Frog went from victim to wacky troublemaker to Batman-emulating kid in one episode. It sucked.
We have all the pieces for that in “Be a Clown.” Young Jordan Hill is the son of the mayor, a politician who thinks first of his career, then of himself, and then of his family. The frustrated child literally runs away to join the circus, and it’s up to Batman to rescue him. This is, of course, a Joker episode.
You know how it goes: You’re standing up on a stage at a podium, telling people about how safe Gotham is under your mayorship, and then the police chase a runaway gangster car into the crowd right before Batman swings down on a steel bar and clobbers the two hoods as you watch. Maddening. That’s how Mayor Hill’s day starts, and he tells the media that Batman is cut from the same cloth as the Joker, setting off the clown prince.
Meanwhile, the mayor has been planning what is ostensibly a birthday party for his son, but is really more of an excuse to brown-nose the city’s richest citizens, such as wealthy businessman and philanthropist Bruce Wayne. In response to the Mayor’s assertion that Gotham will be as safe as his own home, however, Joker has decided to send a message: the mayor’s home isn’ safe, and neither is Gotham. Bruce foils the Joker’s plan with some graceful stumbling, but not before Jordan, frustrated with his father, sneaks into the back of the escaping Jekko’s van.
Joker sees a chance to have a protege, and this sets up a bunch of moments where we see how alike Batman and the Joker can be. The Joker seems like an agent of chaos, but he’s always planning ahead, and somehow even has a security system and series of traps set up around the park that would be enough to get a nod from Batman in other circumstances.
The two battle it out for Jordan’s safety, with Batman eventually winning out and Joker being left treading water.
I look at this episode and I imagine what could’ve been with just a little more danger to the proceedings. The comparisons between Joker and Batman are enough that I get the feeling they’re intentional, but they’re not so much that it really hits home. Despite being a kid episode, though, this one requires fewer logical leaps than the last one. Mayor Hill’s narcissism and selfishness cloud his judgment when it comes to raising his son, and his son responds in kind to his father’s over-the-top behavior.
There are a few great Joker lines too, like “The great Prosciutto! Now there was a ham!” that remind us that, yes, Mark Hamill is the greatest.
This episode ends up overall being a relatively middling one, but given the pieces it’s working with, the episode is remarkably good. That might just be in comparison to the previous one, though.
Next week, though, is the big one; Batman: The Animated Series‘ first two-parter. Next week will introduce one of Batman’s most tragic villains, the conflicted gangster Two-Face. I can’t wait to dig in.
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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