To say that I loved the Arkham games would be a massive understatement. It was like someone was making the Batman game I’d always wanted. You played it, too. You know it. But for everything they got right – the gameplay, the voices, the exploration, the pacing – one thing in particular sticks out as being particularly questionable. The costumes were edgy as hell. Looking back, they feel closer to the Schumacher Batman movies than to classic Batman. There’s a line between cool and edgy and those games blew past it like they didn’t know it was there.
I don’t think people go in thinking “let’s make something that feels like it came from a 14-year-old’s sketchbook,” but sometimes it happens. Other times, they ride the line just right, as is the case with Batman: The Animated Series‘ take on Robin, an inherently silly character that can be hard to portray convincingly.
In this week’s episode, Robin makes his second appearance since the beginning of the series, giving us an insight into his life and his relationship with Batman. We also see the return of another character who helped kick off the series in its first few episodes: Scarecrow.
“Fear of Victory”
Something is amiss in the world of Gotham City sports. A boxer runs from his opponent in fear. A goalie tears his net from its supports and hides under it as if it’s a blanket. Each athlete was a shoo-in to win, just like college football player Brian Rogers – Dick Grayson’s roommate. The two are watching the news together in their shared dorm room when a strange telegram arrives that, honestly, should’ve clued the junior detective in right away, but soon he’s grabbing at the telegram, too.
Soon, Brian Rogers is another scared athlete. Some awesome monster transformation animation helps start to set this episode apart as the Scarecrow’s latest fear toxin takes effect, turning the star athlete into a startled kitten as a twisted silhouette watches from the shadows.
Cut to Batman and Robin patrolling. I wonder if Robin goes out patrolling every time he goes home for the weekend. Once again, we get some really cool animation as Batman and Robin happen upon a crime and hop out of the Batmobile to fire their iconic grappling hooks into the air.
Here we get a really good look at Robin’s uniform, and it’s so much better than it could’ve been. While Batman’s outfit has always been cool, Robin has spent most of his career looking like a big dork. Scaly underwear and a bright yellow cape. In the Titans TV show, Jason Todd observes that the bright nature of his costume makes him essentially a distraction. Batman is literally using Robin as a moving target. It makes the whole Batman-Robin thing somehow even weirder. This costume, while still pretty bright, though, at least looks functional. It seems to take after the Tim Drake version of Robin introduced a couple years earlier in the comics. He has full pants, and the outside of his cape is black. It turns the yellow inside into a cool-looking accent instead of a reflective matador’s cape. It takes that Tim Drake look and shaves off all the extra stuff, making for an iconic take on the character.
That pairs well with Robin’s age – as a college kid, he’s old enough to make his own decision about whether to work with Batman and seems comfortable with it. It’s less of a father-son vibe and more like partners-in-crime fighting. This all helps to age up Robin and mature him without taking him into that edgy territory we talked about before. It would be a real stretch to make Batman: The Animated Series edgy, but I still dig the way this rides that line.
Anyway, Batman and Robin were chasing down some jewel thieves. It’s just then that Robin’s fear toxin kicks in and he finds himself cowering against the side of a skyscraper while Batman tries to figure out what the heck is going on. It’s enough time for the amateur crooks to get the upper hand, sending Batman falling, then grappling, and then swinging through a conveniently open window (because the show wasn’t allowed to show lots of breaking glass).
Batman lands in a startled woman’s high-rise apartment, though she stays startled for about two seconds before switching over to downright thirsty as she sees that it’s Batman and lets rip with a George Takei-style “Oh My.” Despite Batman’s tenuous relationship with the GCPD, it seems like the citizens of Gotham are all about him.
The whole thing is enough to clue the Dynamic Duo into the fact that something is wrong. They investigate Robin’s dorm room and find the mysterious telegram, which Batman takes back to the cave for testing. Where he tests it on cats that he apparently keeps in small clear boxes to use in animal testing experiments. What the heck? That seems so weird.
Batman visits Arkham Asylum, which has switched from a classic old-timey prison look to the huge-plexiglass-window cells we see in every superhero show these days because it’s a lot easier to shoot characters through clear plexiglass than through tiny peepholes in doors. Batman quickly finds out that the Scarecrow in Arkham is literally just a scarecrow, which is kind of genius. But then we find out that Scarecrow is an idiot when it comes to being subtle.
Here’s what’s been happening: each of these athletes that Scarecrow has been poisoning, he’s been betting on and winning, picking up the winnings in the world’s most obvious disguise. Any good crook (and even just guys who write about comic books for the internet) knows that you don’t bet and win every time, even if you can. You win often enough to get away with it, but not so often that someone takes notice, which is exactly what happens at the bookie’s club, where said bookie sends his henchman after the mysterious gambler.
It’s time to get a look at Scarecrow. Surprisingly, he too has a new look, and I dig it. It looks more like a man wearing a costume than a cartoon character. The original BTAS Scarecrow had his charms, but this one feels more real and, thus, scarier. The black space around the eyes gives him a weird, inhuman look that reminds me of the Scarecrow mask used in Batman Begins, which I loved.
After looking at the henchman, Batman decides it’s time to be rude to everyone that works with him.
“Put 2 and 2 together, commissioner,” Batman says to Jim Gordon, who is operating on the limited information Batman is giving him.
Back at the Batcave, Robin is trying to overcome his fear by doing balance beam practice alone over a bottomless pit which seems like exactly the moment a G.I. Joe character should pop in to remind Robin what a stupid idea that is. Of course, he starts to fall, and of course, Batman catches him because Batman knows Robin is in a rough spot with the Scarecrow’s fear toxin running rampant through his system.
That’s why when he cajoles Robin into getting into the car to help him with the mission, he says in the most condescending voice I can ever remember Batman using:
“Don’t worry, I’ll drive REAL slow.” Dude, wow. Rude.
The two make it to the stadium where Robin is continuing to tangle with his fear but overcomes it to get the job done; first enough to figure out and foil Scarecrow’s gambling operation, and then enough to save the vial of toxin from breaking and infecting a whole stadium’s worth of people. Before he can do that, though, we get a fun sequence that has Batman and Scarecrow scrambling on a catwalk while the sports action goes on down below. As they move, the commentary matches up with the fight. It’s a cool way to bring some levity to the battle while also reminding us that when Batman is doing his job, no one knows he’s doing it.
The duo saves the day, of course, and Scarecrow is back behind glass in the Arkham Villain Zoo.
Despite how it might sound, I actually quite like this episode. Robin is grown up and Scarecrow is scary. We get some great-looking animation and a better look at Batman and Robin’s relationship. But why is Batman a sarcastic jerk who experiments on animals in too-small cages? Those moves are both so out-of-character. It mars an otherwise-cool episode.
Next week, we meet the Clock King and get one of the ugliest episodes of Batman: The Animated Series yet.
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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