We’re now 20 episodes into our re-watch of Batman: The Animated Series, and a trend is starting to emerge. While the overall series holds up extraordinarily well, it’s hardly surprising that certain parts just don’t. Inevitably, though, it’s the villain-of-the-week episodes that stand out most often as being disappointing. We get an exception like the Gray Ghost once in a while, but most of Batman’s TAS-original villains have so far been disappointing. This week, we get to meet another one of those duds right before going into the first episode of a two-parter that reminds us how good Batman: The Animated Series can really be.
“Prophecy of Doom”
Batman doesn’t mess around with superstition, and neither does his show. This week’s episode is about a psychic foretelling the doom of his extremely wealthy clients. But before we meet him, we see water. An ocean liner. People dancing. A stick of dynamite. Whoever’s responsible for the explosion that occurs moments later, sending passengers scrambling for life rafts, we know it was intentional: someone sank the boat. Batman: The Animated Series isn’t even kind-of-stitious. When something like this happens, there’s a cause.
Of course, Bats doesn’t know that yet, and neither does his rich Monopoly-Man state banker friend Ethan Clark and his daughter, Lisa. Clark tells Bruce of the psychic named Nostromos who has been predicting one disaster after another with laser-precise accuracy, saving the banker from losing out on countless investments.
The high point of this episode isn’t Batman or Bruce Wayne, but rather Kevin Conroy, the actor behind both. He’s a legend for a reason, but this story is as much about Bruce as it is about Batman, and we get to listen to Conroy play in a wider range than he usually is allowed.
Clark drags Bruce to a meeting of Nostromos brotherhood of millionaires, where Nostromos calls out Bruce himself, causing the glass in his hand to shatter. Back in the bat cave, Batman blames this on “Psychic Vibrations,” delivered in the most sarcastic voice Batman is probably capable of, as he adopts a mock-spooky voice.
But it’s not long before Nostromos – who Batman has already identified – is trying to prove his predictions via the death of billionaire philanthropist Bruce Wayne.
This is where things start to fall apart for me. The idea of a con man using theatrics and special effects to hoodwink a bunch of people isn’t a bad idea – Marvel just made a billion-dollar movie about it in Spider-Man: Far From Home, after all – but a lot of the action in the episode is downright cartoonish.
After his personal elevator drops thanks to a literal wrench in the gears and some fast-acting acid, Batman is running after the henchman responsible. Keep in mind that Bruce Wayne stepped into an elevator alone and then Batman came out – that seems like something the henchman is going to figure out pretty quickly. And speaking generously, the elevator would’ve taken 10 seconds to fall to the ground, meaning that either Batman left some decidedly Bruce Wayne-style tearaway clothes in the elevator or the writing is lazy. (Spoiler: the writing is lazy). Batman stumbles around chasing after the guy despite having been able to keep up with the acrobatic Catwoman just weeks ago, and the henchman’s acid acts so fast that he can throw it at a pipe like it’s a grenade and instantly break a hole in the pipe.
We switch back to Bruce after this, though. Clark arranges a meeting between Nostromos and Bruce, and Bruce weeps in gratitude for Nostromos opening his eyes. These scenes are genuinely funny in a show that rarely gets jokey, and it’s fun to see the focus on Bruce once in a while.
We next meet Nostromo at another meeting of the Brotherhood, where wires and gears let him fly around the room. Outside, Clark’s daughter Lisa (voiced by Heather Locklear of all people), who is definitely one of the smarter one-shot characters on Batman, gets herself captured while trying to collect evidence of Nostromos’ fraud.
Things start to get silly again soon, but not before Bruce stops back at the Batcave to have a conversation with Alfred. There, Alfred loses his cool for what might be the first time ever.
“You gave them ten million dollars, sir? And to think I was fretting over the electric bill,” Alfred says of Bruce’s donation to the fund that Nostromos has persuaded his loyal converts to dump money into.
But back to the silly stuff. The time has come for Nostromos to put the screws to Clark. When Clark resists turning over the fund, Nostromos says “I see a bad moon rising!” just in time for the reveal of Lisa being tied to a planet in a way that seems like it would almost certainly be extraordinarily painful.
The battle moves quickly here. Batman manipulates the controls that Nostromos was using earlier to throw the so-called psychic around. Nostromos smashes the controls, which somehow causes the planets to start colliding with each other, which is definitely impossible.
Despite Batman’s ineptness earlier, he’s able to leap between planets and even aim one right as the fleeing Nostromos while still saving Lisa in time, as Batman does.
It’s hard to say anything deep about this episode because not only is it filler, it feels like filler. Batman was a revolutionary show in its time, but it came before the Peak TV revolution which turned every show into an ongoing serial story, so we get episodes like this meant to hold us over between the truly memorable ones. The sound and animation are passable in their best moments (and frequently less than that) and the story feels half-finished. Kevin Conroy deserves almost all of the credit for this episode being at all watchable.
“Feat of Clay Part I”
Normally when we get a two-parter, I find a way to review both parts as one episode. But in this case, I want to contrast the dismal “Prophecy of Doom” with how excellent Batman: The Animated Series could be – and very much still is.
This first episode lays out an interesting premise, gives us a sympathetic character voiced by Ron Perlman, and drops in a villain voiced by none other than Ed Asner. Watch the opening credits on this one closely, because you’re going to see a name you recognize. The story for “Feat of Clay” was penned by Marv Wolfman. He who wrote Crisis on Infinite Earths and created or co-created characters like The New Teen Titans and Deathstroke for DC, and Blade and Black Cat for Marvel, along with writing countless other stories for both publishers.
And they don’t waste his talent. Like the show did with Two-Face and Mr. Freeze, “Feat of Clay” reinvents Clay Face as a tragic villain. Where Two-Face was rage and helplessness and Mr. Freeze was an avatar of loss and vengeance, Clay Face is addiction and shame.
But we don’t meet Clay Face until the final moments of Part I, so it’s up to his human form to pull us in along with the true villain, Daggett, and his henchmen.
This isn’t a great-looking episode overall – leave the next episode for that – but it’s well-paced and does a great job of setting things up.
We start with Wayne Enterprises’ executive Lucius Fox handing off some papers to Bruce – a Bruce that’s behaving very strangely. Bruce leads Fox into an abandoned tramway station to exchange some papers. Only that’s not Bruce Wayne, but someone impersonating him. Things go sideways when ‘Bruce’ decides to get theatrical and goons appear out of nowhere to put Lucius Fox down. The shots attract Batman, who shows up for a fun fight scene with the henchmen that has all the dodging, turn arounds, and near-misses that you’d want from a fight on this show. ‘Bruce,’ meanwhile, has run away.
This is where we meet Matt Hagen, a washed-up actor who was disfigured in a car accident. When his friend Teddy (voiced by Dick Gautier, best known as the voice of Rodimus Prime and Serpentor in the Transformers and G.I. Joe movies respectively) goes to find him, Hagen is ransacking his trailer looking for something. We get our first look at Matt Hagen’s face, and that’s when we learn what he was looking for – RenuYu Cream provided by Daggett Industries.
One slather of the circus-peanut-orange cream allows Hagen to shape his face from the man-without-a-face scarring he’s suffered and back into the chiseled Superman look alike he used to be.
But it doesn’t take a doctor to see that Hagen has a problem. This sequence is very clearly framed to message ‘addiction.’ Hagen is breaking what look like expensive bottles of all kinds, swiping them out of the way in search of his face cream. His concerned friend Teddy gives him that one last fix that he’d been hiding, and the exchange is every bit that of the junkie and his enabler. There’s a devotion in Teddy that feels like deep admiration that’s on the edge of souring, a devotion to a friend that is working hard to prove they don’t deserve it.
Once Hagen has his face on, literally, we cut to Daggett and his henchmen. I love everyone in this group. Again, Daggett is voiced by Ed Asner, but the weasley mustachioed guy also has screen actor Ed Begley Jr. behind him. I don’t want to give voice actors the short shrift by any means, but it’s fun to see screen actors popping up in roles like these, too.
Accompanying Daggett are his henchmen, Bell and Germs. Bell is always wearing a radio tuned to police scanners, while Germs is exactly the germaphobe you’d imagine. I love these quirks. What sets Germs and Bell apart from so many other henchmen on this show is that they’re surprisingly competent. During that first fight, they almost had the drop on Batman a few times. When Hagen inevitably breaks in looking for the RenuYu cream, they’re there and they catch him in the act.
There’s a bit of genius here. They walk in on Hagen as he’s applying the cream, and he pulls an idiot move by changing his face to match that of Bruce Wayne – the exact same trick they saw him pull at the beginning of the episode. But as he introduces himself as Wayne, the camera pushes in to suggest that he might have them.
When we come back from commercial, though, neither of the henchmen are fooled for even a second, and they know exactly how to go about making him as miserable as possible – spoiling the disguise of the “Man of a Million Faces,” dumping a bunch of the cream to which he’s addicted down the drain, and then giving him a massive overdose. Again, the shaming and taunting feel perfect for framing Hagen as a desperate addict.
The shadow on the wall as Bell pours the cream on Hagen is haunting, and where Hagen’s story shifts from one of tragedy to horror.
Meanwhile, Batman is working on two fronts. As the detective, he’s trying to figure out who those men were that he fought in the old tramway station. He doesn’t know about Matt Hagen, Daggett industries, or any of that. Alfred fixes that, though, informing Batman that his other identity is wanted by the police.
Here, we get to see a different side of Batman. He tracks down Bell and puts the screws to him in a way I don’t think we’ve seen Batman yet do. Sure, Batman has been mean, but dangling a guy by his wrist from the Batwing? Dang, dude.
It’s also here that the Batwing becomes not just something to sell more toys, but something to strike fear into criminals. It zips along quietly, but when it turns as Batman sets his eyes on his target, it screams with a haunting, distinctly TIE Fighter-esque scream as Batman chases Bell down and yanks him into the air. Batman interrogates Bell in the skies of Gotham, dipping him in the water and pulling him above the skyscrapers as necessary.
And it soon becomes apparent why. After Bell faints, leaving Batman in the lurch without a lead, Bruce has to go talk to his longtime friend – who still thinks that Bruce Wayne tried to have him killed. And while Batman is an untouchable ghost to the cops, Bruce Wayne is anything but, and the far more vulnerable man is being led away in handcuffs, with his visit being called a second attempt on Fox’s life.
And finally, we get a hint of Hagen’s grotesque new form, a ghastly silhouette of yellow eyes and crooked teeth in the mirror. An addict who overdosed and, instead of dying, changed his life irreparably.
Next week, we’ll get into some truly great-looking animation as Batman comes face to face with one of his weirdest villains in “Feat of Clay Part II.”
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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