Batman: The Animated Series “Christmas with the Joker”

05Dec10

Ah, the Joker. Perhaps the best villain Batman has, in any incarnation. I mentioned the visual contrasts that Batman’s best villains have, but the Joker is probably the best example. As noted by Mr. Chris Sims in his wonderful essay on the Joker, “The one in the bright colors with the big smile who does magic tricks… that’s the one you need to watch out for.” And he’s absolutely right. Clowns are pretty unsettling to begin with (I blame all the old toys and figurines for that societal idea, myself), so having one who isn’t trying to make you laugh, but wants to fit you into a lethal punchline? Yikes.

This episode is our first introduction to the Joker in the Animated Series, and unfortunately, it’s a bit of a rough one. The animation seems off almost the entire time. It’s not quite a step downward from “On Leather Wings,” as part of it is a stylistic change; more than one animation studio was used to produce the series, and you can tell the difference as it goes on. Instead, let’s say it’s a diagonal path down. Different in some areas, and just plain off in others. However, Mark Hamill’s masterful vocal performance as the Joker keeps it from getting too hard to handle.

We start the episode with what will become an iconic location for the series, as it already was in the comics-Arkham Asylum. It’s never as dark and disturbing as it could get in print, of course, but it was rare for the series to focus on a regular prison. After all, that’s not where the crazies are sent. The Joker breaks out by jumping onto the asylum Christmas tree, which is secretly a rocket, and flies through the roof to freedom. It’s a good question how he manages to get a rocket into the asylum, but at some point, you can’t ask too many questions about how the Joker gets things done-it’s just not as important as the fact that he has crazy gadgets and devices.

We also get to meet Robin, as he’s used to set up Batman’s worry about the Joker. We won’t get too much into Robin here, but even in his first appearance, he’s a good foil for Batman. He cracks a few jokes, has a better sense of humor-but more than that, he actually talks to Batman and has a real conversation, as a friend. Like when he gets Batman to admit he’s never seen It’s A Wonderful Life. In another grim bit of humor, Batman admits he could never get past the title. Robin makes the offer that if Gotham is quiet and without a sign of the Joker, they’ll go back home and watch the movie. And hey, everyone’s being nice and Christmasy! Batman is clearly annoyed at the prospect of having to watch an uplifting movie, but fortunately he’s “saved” from this as the Joker takes over every station to broadcast his own Christmas special. Which, leaving aside his use of Santa tanks and explosives, would be a pretty entertaining show. It’s a lot like the celebrity specials from the 70s and 80s. Except the Joker’s guests are Commissioner Gordon, Detective Bullock, and the as-yet-unintroduced Summer Gleason, kidnapped and held hostage to make sure Batman doesn’t ignore him. And after giving his time limit for when Batman can show up, he blows up a bridge to slow Batman down.

The show goes into remarkably dark territory from this-Summer Gleason says that her mother is on the train. The Joker responds by laughing, gagging her, and using a cheap hand puppet to say that’ll make it even more exciting, as Summer cries on camera. Which is just amazing. I don’t know if any other kid’s cartoon would have gone to that kind of place. Batman and Robin are able to save the passengers and engineer, but making the threat so personal still emphasizes just how twisted the Joker is.

They quickly reach what they think is the Joker’s location, where he greets them with an observatory dome turned into a giant cannon. Assuming that wasn’t there when he found it-who knows how many super villains have been in the observatory already? But it starts firing randomly into Gotham City itself before they’re able to disable it, and they find out he’s not there. Of course, the Joker himself gives them a vital clue on purpose, because he’s not that interested in killing the hostages-he just wants Batman. And after blowing up a bridge, firing a cannon at Gotham City, and sending both thugs and automated toys against the two of them, his grand finale is to threaten to kill the hostages…unless Batman opens a box. Which then hits him with a pie to the face.

The episode wraps up pretty quickly after that, but for all the animation issues, it’s a fascinating introduction to the Joker himself. He’s funny, psychotic, devious, disturbing, and a man whose constant laughter is both fascinating and repellent. He definitely has stronger episodes-including my favorite, “The Joker’s Favor”-but this is a fine introduction to the character, and the way he can completely turn Batman’s world upside down. Of course, he’s not as lethal in the Animated series as he is in the comics. But I think this isn’t a flaw. If anything, it’s a bonus. The threat of death is far more effective for his stories than him killing hundreds of people each time, and avoids the issue of why he’s still alive himself.

Merry Christmas, you jolly old clown.

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