Batman: The Animated Series, “The Last Laugh”

20Dec10

Last week, in talking about the Scarecrow, I discussed how he’s basically stuck in the Joker’s shadow. Oddly enough, that fits even with his introductory episode, as it’s sandwiched between the first two Joker episodes of the series. Of course, this highlights the fact that if the Joker has a weakness as a character, it’s overexposure. That’s certainly a nice weakness to have, considering the alternatives. But he’s so menacing, so dangerous, so willfully destructive, that you almost have to ask why he’s still around. The Animated Series mostly got around that issue due to the network restrictions it operated under-no one could explicitly die onscreen, and even off-screen deaths were frowned upon. It makes this version of the Joker curiously bloodless, and thus avoided raising hard questions like “If he’s killed hundreds of people, why hasn’t he been ‘accidentally’ killed in the asylum by now?” Still, there’s that menacing aspect to him. There’s never a doubt in the viewer’s mind that just because the Joker isn’t explicitly killing people in the Animated Series, it doesn’t mean he wouldn’t do it, and I think this episode is one of the clearest examples of that.

The reason I say that is because of the Joker’s scheme, which appears from the very start of the episode. On April Fool’s Day (told to us through a newspaper bundle), a garbage scow starts to float down Gotham’s river. The first sign that something is wrong is that the garbage is all green. Then, when people start to get a whiff of the odor, they start to laugh hysterically. And in Gotham, uncontrollable laughter is always a bad sign. It’s obvious that people in the city don’t have much of a sense of humor, but considering how much laughter must be associated with poison, robbery and death, it’s hard to blame them.

There’s also a quiet change in the series starting in this episode. Clive Revill played Alfred in the first three episodes, but he’s been replaced by Efrem Zimbalist Jr starting here. There was nothing wrong with Clive Revill’s version of Alfred, but Efrem Zimbalist (a man who possesses both an amazing name and a very, very long career) brings a more subtle dignity to the character most of the time. His first scene is mostly used to establish how Batman learns of the Joker’s plot, but it also gives us a nice bridge into our return to the Joker, as the same announcer that’s heard in Wayne Manor starts to lose control while the Joker finishes preparing his outfit. He and his henchmen then go on a bizarre shopping trip, parking the scow and rolling out several shopping carts, robbing people in broad daylight as they laugh uncontrollably.

The animation for the episode is slightly cartoony, though it’s more restrained than in the Joker’s first appearance. But there’s a disturbing contrast to it, as people look and move like cartoons from afar…yet as the Joker rolls around town, we get the occasional close up on people’s faces, detailed and realistic, lips pulled back as tears rolling down their cheeks, laughing long, hard, and involuntarily. It’s an arresting contrast, and it makes the Joker’s hackneyed jokes disturbing; no one is laughing at him, but he’s reveling in the forced hilarity.

I have to stop a moment and take note of the fine use of music in the episode. In the beginning and throughout the episode, there’s a repeated music theme that’s like a slightly threatening combination of jazz and circus music, that helps to emphasize the dangerous nature of what the Joker is doing to the city’s residents. But in the shopping cart scene, we also get to hear Joker’s signature theme, that will recur for him throughout the series. It’s actually not the first time we heard it-a more late night spin on it was used in “Christmas with the Joker.” But here it’s more like a something you’d hear in the big top, and it’s probably the perfect music for the Joker-playful yet unsettling, with variations that increase the threat. The Animated Series almost always has good music-hell, the original opening is almost a classic, in my opinion. But this is the first time in the episode proper that it really struck me how well it was used.

We cut away from the Joker to the outskirts of Wayne Manor, where Batman has used a weather balloon to analyze the gas from afar. And this is where we get to hear just how far the Joker will go, as the computer analysis reveals that prolonged exposure to the gas risks causing permanent insanity. Think about that for a minute. The Joker is perfectly willing to drive everyone in Gotham permanently insane…just to leisurely rob a few people and jewelry stores. Hell, the robbery isn’t the point-it’s the fact that he can reduce everyone in Gotham to a laughing wreck and walk amongst them with impunity that amuses him. The money is just for fun.

Naturally, Batman isn’t going to stand for this, especially once he finds Alfred destroying his study in a fit of forced hilarity. He runs off to stop the Joker…but his first attempt doesn’t go so well, thanks to one Captain Clown. He’s stuck in a fairly simple but effective deathtrap-a sealed canister that the Joker punches a few holes in, then shoves into the river. Batman is able to get out of it, of course, though it’s a good example of a theme the show would use a lot-Batman being less than infallible. He’ll always win, of course, but the creators usually make sure it was a hard fought victory.

Once the episode’s third act starts, Batman tracks the Joker to a garbage dump-unsurprising, considering how the Joker was disguising his gas distribution method. Then he has to deal with Captain Clown again, who turns out to be a robot-not too surprising, considering the metallic clangs and physically impossible way he defeated Batman before. But that means there’s nothing stopping Batman from putting him into a car crusher to beat him, causing the Joker to shout “YOU KILLED CAPTAIN CLOWN!” before running into the processing center itself. The final fight between them is exceptional less for how Batman wins than how the Joker moves around the area with ease, thoroughly enjoying making Batman look like a fool. It’s a lot like Bugs Bunny, with a more overt malevolence to his actions. But we also get to see one of the most striking visual images of the whole series-the Joker riding the conveyor belt into the center on Captain Clown’s crushed cube, motionless and smiling as lights play across his face and disappear again.

Of course, Batman is able to finally catch the Joker, even if he playfully hesitates to save the clown from falling into a pit of fire first. The coda is a nice bit of humor between Alfred and Batman, where he informs a despondent Alfred that he’ll just take the damage out of his salary…before revealing it’s his own April Fools joke.

As I said at the top, the Joker is prone to over exposure, and having 2 of the first 4 episodes be all about him certainly skirted it. But “The Last Laugh” is overall a stronger episode than “Christmas with the Joker,” even if it has a few of its own rough edges-the animation is still not quite settled, for one. And fortunately, the series would dial back on its use of the Joker before he became too much to handle.

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