Watching the beautifully animated Mighty Orbots made me want to watch the episodes that TMS animated for Batman: The Animated Series, so you get to read about them as I watch them.
Two-Face Part I (by Alan Burnett and Randy Rogel)
“The brighter the picture, the darker the negative.”
I’m watching these episodes on the Blu-Ray release, so the quality is excellent, incredibly clear, including the TMS-animated intro. Harvey Dent had been introduced in a few prior episodes to establish him as a friend of Bruce’s. This episode starts off with him suffering another nightmare related to his suppressed “evil” half. As that haunts him, even his creepy leitmotif is a whistling take on “Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah”. Richard Moll, who had a pretty calmly authoritative voice for Harvey, shows off his versatility with the menacing rasp of Two-Face. Facial expressions are varied and emotive.
The episodes prior to this one had created an authentic world for Batman to operate in, but this is the first one to go beyond the intended audience, taking on a mature theme and giving over the majority of the episode of the protagonist’s descent into villainy, becoming an instant classic. It’s also helped by the awesome John Vernon being along to help drag him down as the slimy Rupert Thorne. Animation high point has to be the counselling session Harvey attends with Dr. Nora Crest. As the lightning strikes, the twisted visage of Big Bad Harv appears over the left of Harvey’s face before the accident that makes him permanently look like that. Similarly, late in the episode, Two-Face appears for the first time in his physical and mental form, to the horror of a nurse and his fiancee, again set against lightning. It’s harder to determine what is more heartbreaking: his horrific howl as he sees himself for the first time or bidding his fiancee goodbye as he heads out into the night.
Feat of Clay Part II (by Marv Wolfman and Michael Reaves)
“You know what I’d’a given for a death scene like this? Too bad I won’t get ta… read the notices.”
In the previous part, actor and part-time criminal Matt Hagen had a chemical substance, effectively intended to cover up his facial scars, poured down his throat by the henchmen of Roland Daggett, turning him into a shapeless, putty-like mess. In this episode, he’s out for revenge. There had also been a subplot set up where Bruce Wayne (actually Hagen in disguise) was accused of assaulting his employee Lucius Fox, which is resolved in a throwaway moment at the end of the episode, but isn’t as interesting as Hagen stalking those that did him wrong.
There’s definitely a parallel with this story and the Two-Face story – a more standard criminal helping to give birth to a bigger and worse member of Batman’s rogues gallery. Great cast for the episode, with Ron Perlman as Clayface, blending the acting skills of Matt Hagen with the rage of his present form. He’s definitely a changed character, no longer what he used to be. Ed Begley, Jr. is fun as a hypochondriac henchman for Daggett, menaced with seawater in an amusing scene at the hospital. Ed Asner makes a lot more out of Daggett himself than the otherwise bland characterisation does, giving a sinister delivery to some of his lines, which the storyboard guys doubtless took advantage of when it came to capturing his facial expressions and body language. And Dick Gautier as Teddy Lupus, Matt Hagen’s old friend (and possible lover, from how the performance implies it), is sympathetic as he still tries to appeal to Hagen, but realises that only Clayface remains.
Great animation in Daggett’s chemical factory, with green lighting from the pools below the walkway offering excellent lighting. Clayface’s malleable and shape-changing form also allows for some creepy tricks, like tearing off a piece of his face to use as a gag and getting his arms ripped off as Batman runs him through a door. Even what he forms, like pincer claws at one point, look scary and weird. And that’s nothing compared to the scene in the TV control room, where Batman puts pictures on all the screens, backed by a mixture of pastel colours, of previous characters he played, turning him into a whirling dervish of morphing faces and body parts. Beyond that, the final scene is creepy, as an unknown character in the background begins cackling manically before it deepens and their eyes turn yellow, revealing that Clayface is out there and could be anyone. Classic episode!
Fear of Victory (by Samuel Warren Joseph)
“I make my own luck!”
Sports players, including a college football player friend of Dick Grayson’s, are going to pieces during games. It also seems like Robin, the Boy Wonder is all of a sudden not immune to this either. Not sure why this episode was afforded the high quality animation it is, but the scenes based around high buildings make you feel like the ground is disappearing from under your feet. Scarecrow was one of the worse characters in the show until they reinvented and recast him in The New Batman Adventures, with the hanged corpse look given voice by Jeffrey Combs. They try to give him some feeling of being scary with the strings leitmotif, but he ends up more goofy when he’s revealed. The bizarre, featureless disguise he uses prior, with a pair of glasses with a moustache attached, doesn’t help either.
The Demon’s Quest Part I and II (by Dennis O’Neil and Len Wein)
“Yes… I can see it clearly now, for the first time… You are completely out of your mind!”
Robin is kidnapped, as is Talia, as revealed by Ra’s al Ghul, who casually walks into the Batcave, showing off that he knows who Batman really is. This leads to a globetrotting adventure, led by Ra’s, testing Batman before revealing the real reason for taking him away from Gotham.
Ra’s became one of the classic Batman villains around this time, but I don’t feel that the writing here does him as much justice as it could. It doesn’t match the way that David Warner plays the character. The ultimate performance of Ra’s would be in Out of the Past, a Batman Beyond episode. I also felt that there were better episodes, like Showdown, with him in in this series too.
A meme moment is when Talia manages to break insanity’s grip on Ra’s as he emerges from the Lazarus Pit with a big slap. The animation isn’t up to TMS’s usual level either. A lazy montage is used to show Ra’s’ master plan and at times they avoid producing motion by just wobbling still shots to give the impression of movement. Plumes of smoke stay static in the background and flames form as towers, rather than flickering upwards. A disappointing end product, although fun in an Indiana Jones/Tintin way.
Read My Lips (by Alan Burnett, Michael Reaves and Joe R. Lansdale)
“Shut up! I want your opinion, dummy, I’ll pull your string!”
Back to Gotham for this final episode for now. The bluesy music firmly establishes it as a gangster heist episode, with the unknown mastermind behind some robberies. Turns out that the mastermind is Scarface, the volatile puppet “manipulated” by the meek Ventriloquist, although it feels the other way round. George Dzundza plays both sides of the split personality very effectively, making you feel scared of Scarface and sorry for the Ventriloquist. They also play it pretty straight by having his henchmen, including the massive Rhino, take Scarface seriously as well. Animation is better in the second half of the episode, just after a laughable shot of Batman’s shocked reaction to finding out a puppet is running the plot. They also take advantage of Scarface being an inanimate object to have him peppered with lead, dancing and recoiling around as he’s hit.
Tomorrow: A trio of Superman episodes from TMS!