I’ve been a Batman fan since I was very young. Six or seven years old. As much as I’ve loved Batman throughout my life, though, I’m realizing as I watch through Batman: The Animated Series that more than simply a Batman fan, I’m specifically a Batman: The Animated Series fan. It’s far from my only exposure to the character, but it’s what I go back to time and time again as the most genuine and sincere rendering of Batman’s serious and silliest elements. It manages to often elevate its script even when the script doesn’t necessarily warrant it. Even so, it sometimes drops the ball so hard it breaks into a million pieces. This week, we have one of each – an episode that’s better than it should be, and one that couldn’t be worse if they’d filmed it with popsicle stick figures instead.
First up, when is it too late to rethink your life choices?
“It’s Never Too Late”
Gotham is at war as this episode opens. On one side is the previous story’s villain, Rupert Thorne. On the other is aging mob boss Arnold Stromwell. Thorne seems to be winning and Stromwell is hanging onto his power for dear life. But Stromwell is at the end of his rope; his empire is crumbling and his son has disappeared.
In terms of visual excitement and detail, this isn’t the first episode of Batman I’d show someone. The story at play here feels like an after-school special-meets-soap opera. Before Stromwell meets with Thorne, he ends up stopped at a train crossing, calling to mind an old memory of him and another child, Mike, playing in the Gotham train yards, when trains do what trains do. Child Stromwell gets stuck, gets free just in time, only to see a train rushing the opposite way and straight for the other boy, Mike. The memory cuts off before we see the boy’s fate.
Stromwell meets with Thorne, whom he blames for his son’s disappearance. Thorne, for once, has no idea what Stromwell’s talking about, but he’s also not going to let a moment of weakness go by unexploited, and the stereotypical Italian restaurant the two men are meeting in explodes in a burst of flame, which Stromwell only survives because Batman was there waiting.
Stromwell wakes up to the Dark Knight’s welcoming visage, and old Bats takes him on a tour of the dark alleys, ending at a drug rehab facility, where Stromwell finds his son going through withdrawal in bed. Stromwell denies responsibility for his son’s fate until his wife curses him out, telling him, “it’s your drugs, and your people that sell them!”
Even then, Stromwell seems determined to hold onto his crumbling empire, handing Batman a set of cooked books to distract him while Stromwell pulls a rifle off the wall. Here, we learn what happened in that trainyard so long ago. Earlier in the episode, Batman visited a priest, warning him that Stromwell would need him. That priest is Stromwell’s brother, and the other boy from the memory. The train accident cost Mike his leg, and Stromwell still blames himself for it.
Mike acts as a reminder that Stromwell’s love of power, which began as a boy, has ultimately cost him everything – his relationship with his brother, his wife, and his son. With his crime empire falling apart, he’s left with literally nothing – though he can put a stop to it by accepting his brother’s forgiveness and beginning to make amends.
The most interesting thing about this episode, I think, is that it’s yet another case of Batman working to repair a father-son relationship, showing the ways a parent can affect their child just by being present or not – something the man behind the cowl knows all too well.
This episode should be really bad – the confrontation in the rehab facility recalls a very specific after-school special to mind, and these Moral Moments are some of the few times Kevin Conroy over-acts as Batman. But the crime drama puts a nice edge on it and what could’ve been a lot cheesier comes across earnestly. It feels like a smarter take on those old anti-drug ads and doesn’t depend on Batman saying “and knowing is half the battle” at the end.
“I’ve got Batman in my Basement”
Where do I even start with this absolutely terrible entry in the series. If it’s not the worst, it’s at least in the bottom two. Everything about this episode is bad. The writing, plotting, and even the visuals are far below the quality level of almost the entire rest of the series.
The episode opens on two men cutting a hole in a glass window so that they can steal a glowing egg patterned after the famous Faberge eggs. Batman attempts to stop the robbery, but is interrupted by a vulture attack. Meanwhile, across town, a plucky young man named Sherman has a new sky kit complete with binoculars, which lets him spot the vulture flying over the city – which he for some reason immediately knows is out of place. Meanwhile, two older boys bully him and his friend, the stereotypical Cool Baseball Hat Girl who can hang with the boys but is still feminine enough to say “Pff, Men.” when Sherman does something impulsive.
After Roberta shoos the boys away, she and Sherman chase after the bird. This episode, as you might’ve already guessed, is the inauspicious and unfortunate premiere of one of Batman’s classic villains, the Penguin. After such a great intro to Two-Face, it’s disappointing to see a Batman villain get this treatment, especially when I know there are better episodes to come.
Batman and Sherman are both hot on the Penguin’s trail and end up chasing him to a factory. Unfortunately a misstep by the amateur detective Encyclopedia Brown, I mean Sherman, gives the Penguin an opportunity to bop Batman with a gas cloud that will render him useless for a week.
Now, the episode turns into every kid’s fantasy. The two kids somehow drag the burly Batman out to his Batmobile and get him into it. Sherman jumps in and they start hitting buttons, setting off a cavalcade of bat-gadgets from wall-blasting rockets to wheel rippers to green smoke. Finally, he gets the cockpit to close and he and Roberta drive off with Roberta at the pedals and Sherman at the wheel. Take note, the Batmobile has an H-shifter, so it seems that young Sherman knows how to drive a stick shift, because the Batmobile doesn’t seem to be redlining and the car is crashing into too many things to be on autopilot.
Finally, the kids get Batman back to Sherman’s house, where Batman mumbles something about pills in the visor while Sherman tells him that his detective’s lab isn’t as cool as the Batcave.
Now, in the episodes that have preceded this one, people in Gotham frequently don’t even believe Batman exists. And yet, this kid knows about the Batcave? Not to mention he has a creepy poster of a psychopath up on his wall like that’s just an okay thing.
The dumbass bullies are back, though, and they’re ready to throw bricks at whatever needs bricking just for fun. The pair accidentally reveals the Batmobile, revealing Batman’s location to the Penguin’s vulture and giving them a chance to try to take away Sherman’s cool thing again. Lucky for Sherman, the scuffle knocks loose the sheet of anti-toxin pills Batman keeps in his visor, which apparently he keeps by the dozen and which work on just any toxin that the Joker, Penguin, or Scarecrow might use. That’s handy. The bullies follow Sherman downstairs and go right for Batman’s mask, though apparently, Sherman is now assertive enough to fend them off.
The Penguin and his goons show up with enough puns to make a man beg for mercy, and the episode turns into Home Alone: The Animated Series, as the kids plan and then hatch Operation Fowl Play in a matter of seconds, which mostly involves throwing stuff from Batman’s belt at the Penguin while he breaks all of Sherman’s mom’s stuff.
The group ends up downstairs, where they get to watch a Real Live Batman Fight in Sherman’s basement. Batman prevails, Sherman tells him his mom is single, and the day is won. Of course, Sherman is now launching his own kids’ detective agency and, for some reason, the bullies now respect him because he met Batman? And they follow his orders with resignation because they know who’s boss now.
The release of Shazam in theaters this year shows us that a child’s self-insert fantasy story doesn’t need to be condescending or play to the lowest common denominator. I realize Shazam has almost 30 years on this episode of Batman, but it still doesn’t give the series any excuse. Series creator Bruce Timm allegedly hates this episode, and it’s easy to see why. It absolutely reeks of cigar-chomping exec telling the creators of the show “now here’s what you’re gonna do, see, the kids want to meet Batman, so you’re gonna let the kids meet Batman!”
While I would call almost every element of BTAS art without a second’s hesitation, this episode is anything but. It’s bad. It’s just plain bad.
Next week, though, we’ll be talking about one of the series’ very best episodes. Get your winter jackets ready.
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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