Batman: The Animated Series straddles a weird line between being a story about a vigilante seeking justice for murder by fighting dangerous murderers and being a daytime kids’ show. That dichotomy has led to some of its very best and very worst episodes. In the best moments, the limitations forced the team to get creative. In the worst, the team was pushed into a corner and forced to create some dumb episodes. This week, thankfully, is the former. This week Batman: The Animated Series introduces us to a villain that sits somewhere between Mr. Freeze’s very personal story and Scarecrow‘s ability to hone in on one of Batman’s real weaknesses. This week it’s the Mad Hatter.
“Mad as a Hatter”
The first interaction between Bruce Wayne and Jervis Tetch doesn’t look at all like their final interaction. Jervis Tetch is an employee of Wayne Enterprises working on neural microchip technology. When Bruce steps in to see him, the billionaire is warm, congenial, and generous. Tetch’s boss, on the other hand, threatens decapitation if Tetch underperforms again. That’ll be important later.
Things start going downhill quickly, though. Tetch is obsessed with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and views his whole world through that lens. His assistant Alice has the misfortune of a certain name and golden blonde hair; Tetch fixates on her.
One thing that sets Tetch apart from most of Batman’s other villains is that he knows what he’s doing is wrong right from the start and says as much. Tetch, voiced by Roddy McDowall, carries a forest-sized flame for his assistant Alice, and finds out that she has a boyfriend. He says that it would be “better to withdraw like a gentleman.” It occurs to him, of course, that his mind-control technology could make her behave however he likes, but he doesn’t want to reduce her to a “soulless shell.”
Of course, the look on his face when he finds out that her boyfriend, Billy, has hurt her, tells us that his understanding of right and wrong is on deeply unstable ground.
Indeed, as soon as Jervis has Alice in his carriage, he’s using his mind-control tech to create a more impressive and likable version of himself to present to the much-younger woman. Thanks to his encounter earlier in the day and an observation from his erudite butler, it doesn’t take Batman long to figure out just what’s going on and to pursue Tetch.
Here, we start to really see how the limitations of the show’s timeslot and audience pushed the team behind Batman: The Animated Series to be more creative. This is a psychological sci-fi story about a guy with a pair of fixations on a person and a story. As Batman starts pursuing Tetch, the story fixation starts to really take shape.
As Batman enters Gotham’s Wonderland park – because of course, it has a Wonderland park – the show could’ve gotten cartoonish, but it doesn’t. It just gets creepy. I’m going to coin a term for it: Whimsicreepy. The way Tetch’s mind-controlled minions look in their Alice-themed costumes is downright spooky, with their little human faces poking out of these hilariously oversized costumes.
And then there’s Tetch’s boss, who’d threatened him with occupational decapitation earlier, threatening Batman with actual decapitation. Nice callback.
While Bats ends up on top as usual, the Hatter’s particular skillset seems to directly target Batman’s fear of hurting innocents. It’s easy to punch someone in the head, but hard to punch someone in the mind.
This time it’s personal
Part of what sets Tetch apart from so many of Batman’s other villains is that what he wants in this moment is very personal. He’s a lonely man seeking connections in the world. He feels what he thinks is love and wants the opportunity to express it. At this stage, it literally doesn’t go any further than that.
I can even see the defense attorney arguing in court that Batman essentially created the Mad Hatter and his future exploits by humiliating Tetch when he was crying out for help.
Tetch’s response to even minor provocation, though, reminds us that, indeed, he would not have stopped with Alice. With how he feels the world has slighted him, it’s unlikely he would’ve stayed happy with that arrangement for long.
The Mad Hatter is a great Batman villain in general, but his Whimsicreepy nature makes him a perfect fit for Batman: The Animated Series. The show is able to play in surprisingly mature spaces while looking downright silly and never stepping into the outright macabre.
Next week, Batman: The Animated Series brings us another powerful encounter between Scarecrow and Batman that was likely inspired by a pair of Batman stories and may have laid the groundwork for Batman Begins and the Batman: Arkham Asylum game.
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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