Last week, we talked about a one-off episode that showed Batman fighting a villain whose complicated and tragic family dynamic was a bigger part of the story than his gimmicky invisibility suit. This week, we’re talking about one of my all-time favorite episodes of Batman: The Animated Series: “Beware the Gray Ghost.” It’s a meta episode that is a fun watch with great animation that only gets better as you know more about the background. It’s also a reminder that every time I type ‘grey’ instead of ‘gray,’ my editor is rolling his eyes at me. (Oh how I wish that was the only reason I roll my eyes at you… – Sean, Editor-in-Chief)
“Beware the Gray Ghost”
When Batman debuted, he was the first of a new generation of detectives. Hard-boiled detective stories like those by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett had been around for years and were some of the most popular pulp literature out there. The pulp radio and comic-book character The Shadow had already laid the groundwork for Batman, creating a bridge between detective, vigilante, and superhero for Batman to walk across. This episode is an homage to these older characters and to Batman’s own legacy, while also winking at the observant viewer a few times – and offering a heartfelt redemption story for an aging actor.
The episode dives right into the Shadow homage. From the title card we dive into some blaring, heroic trumpets that immediately set the mood. Batman’s music usually has a mysterious, foreboding feeling to it appropriate to the character, so the blaring trumpets immediately convey that this character is a Hero. Then we get a classic title card and the warbling spooky narration that identifies it as part of the radio drama generation of story. You can almost hear the wavy edges of the title lettering in the narration.
“When crime haunts the night, a silent crusader carries the torch of justice! Those with evil hearts beware, for out of the darkness comes: The Gray Ghost!”
Phew, I get the shivers just typing that. I had a really strong emotional response to this particular episode. As soon as the horns are screaming, I get misty-eyed.
While Batman is a real person in the BTAS universe, though, Gray Ghost is a character – one that Bruce Wayne grew up watching. When the camera pulls out of the TV screen, we’re watching a young Bruce sitting in front of the TV with his Gray Ghost toy, as starry-eyed as we were watching Batman: The Animated Series the first time around, as a villain called the Mad Bomber strikes. Cut to an explosion in the real world.
There’s a beautiful shot of Batman here, who sees the explosion from a distance. As the blowback hits him, his cape whips in the wind and he’s rendered in black and orange colors. A ransom note clues him into the bomber’s modus operandi, and soon Bruce is helping Batman investigate. He ends up paging through a book of actors, zeroing on actor Simon Trent, who played the Gray Ghost – the only man to have fought the Mad Bomber and won.
Cut to Simon Trent, modern day. The aging TV star struggles to pay his rent. Another failed audition sends him angrily tearing through his shelves of Gray Ghost memorabilia in frustration at the way his typecasting has affected his life. Trent is voiced by none other than Adam West – Batman himself. Aside from bringing a great gravitas to the whole episode, West stepping into the Gray Ghost’s shoes is an amazing meta commentary on West’s own career, which was marked by his time as Batman until his recent passing. West worked steadily, but it wasn’t until he became the amplified, twisted version of himself on Family Guy that he was really known for something other than muttering throaty observations to Burt Ward as the Dynamic Duo tried to escape from yet another villainous trap.
It’s an especially strange pairing when he meets Batman in an alleyway after finding all his Gray Ghost Gear returned to his shelves. The way he backs up and says “You!” almost feels like it’s coming from West himself. And then, when Batman replies, saying “I need your help,” it’s almost like Kevin Conroy and creator Bruce Timm are asking for permission to take up the torch of Batman’s television legacy.
Trent reluctantly helps Batman, providing him with an old film reel, but it’s followed by a heart-wrenching exchange:
“I used to admire what the Gray Ghost stood for,” Batman says.
“I’m not the Gray Ghost!” Trent insists.
“I can see that now,” Batman says. Ouch. That one stings, Batman.
We get another look at this episode’s stellar art and animation after Batman has a chance to watch the reel and figures out how the new Mad Bomber is delivering his payloads: through old Gray Ghost RC cars.
Batman nearly finds himself the latest victim of the bomber, only for a rope to drop down. The Gray Ghost saves Batman.
“Like you said – you need my help.”
Batman invites the Ghost back to his batcave – a rare invitation indeed. The two are pursued by the bomber’s ultra-fast RC cars, though, and there’s a wild chase between both big car and little. The Batmobile stretches and bends a little more than I’d like here, but the whole chase still looks nothing short of amazing.
We find out next that not only is the Batcave modeled after the Gray Ghost’s cave, but that the Ghost has his own spot in the cave, behind a secret door. Batman is a huge nerd, you guys.
Together, the two heroes figure out that the antique dealer that Trent sold his gear to is at the bottom of the bombings. It’s worth noting here that the villain is voiced by none other than Batman: The Animated Series creative director Bruce Timm, who delivers an extraordinarily hammy performance as he tells Batman about how his love of expensive antique toys is what’s behind the bombing – only for the Gray Ghost to swing in through the window, interrupting the monologue.
The episode finishes out with Trent – back in the public eye after his heroic act – signing autographs of his restored videos. Bruce stops by to get a video signed, and drops a not-at-all subtle hint that he’s Batman.
It took me a long time to figure out what it is I like so much about this episode. There’s the great animation, sure. The pitch-perfect music. The awesome Gray Ghost outfit. The great voice acting. But tons of Batman episodes have those.
“Beware the Gray Ghost” is an episode of Batman written by Batman fans – about what it’s like to grow up watching Batman. The Gray Ghost is Batman’s Batman. This episode takes the idea of a self-insert episode – like the abysmal “I’ve Got Batman in my Basement” – and turns it on its head by making Batman the self-insert character. Batman is a fanboy just like us, it turns out, and he wants nothing more than to meet his hero, be impressed by his hero – and then have an adventure with his hero. And I think that’s what most of us wanted as kids, right?
It creates this feedback loop of nostalgia, homage, and metatext that seems laser-targeted on my tear ducts. It’s a great episode all around that puts our love – and the Batman: The Animated Series’ team’s love – at the center of the story without being condescending about it.
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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