Batman: The Animated Series, “Two-Face, Parts I+II”

25Jan11

The Joker is clearly Batman’s greatest enemy overall, and that’s true in the Animated Series too. And they made the right decision with him-he’s just dropped into the action fully formed, homicidal and far too amused with himself. There’s no attempt at an origin to him. (The first Animated Series movie, Mask of the Phantasm, would admit that the Joker existed before he turned into the Joker…but it steadfastly refused to show how he changed into the Clown Prince of Crime. Good for them.) But why am I opening a review of two episodes about Two-Face by talking about the Joker? Because they took the exact opposite route with Two-Face, and it works beautifully.

The original origin of Two Face in the comics was that he was prosecuting a gangster in court, and the gangster threw a bottle of acid at his face. This alone drove him insane, and turned him into a super villain. It’s an origin that’s still echoed in the comics today-it was used in The Long Halloween, for example. But while Two Face is one of the richest psychological enemies Batman has, he still came pre-damaged, in a sense. He was disfigured, and thus went crazy. Reading other themes into the character came later.

The Animated Series, on the other hand, took time to build up Harvey Dent before it tore him down. Looking at it soberly, of course, there’s not much building up. Harvey Dent only appears in two episodes before this. But we still get to see him as an entirely stable member of the criminal justice system, as normal as Commissioner Gordon or Mayor Hill. And it’s established that he’s Bruce Wayne’s friend…and it should be noted that when Poison Ivy tried to kill him, it wasn’t because she wanted to hurt Wayne or Batman. She was intended to kill Dent for his own “crimes.” Now, Dent hasn’t been held up as a symbol of Gotham here, like he was in Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Certainly he’s important, considering just how unusual Gotham law must be-on top of one of the most frustrating organized crime prosecutions in the country, he has to deal with things like the Man Bat, or the Joker blowing into town and gassing the whole city. But for all his importance, he is not an amazing person-just a dedicated, ethical one, in a town where those are in short supply.

Part I

The episode starts with Harvey Dent in an obvious dreamscape, trying to run from a guttural voice, telling him he can’t escape. And then it just starts to flip a coin, something that Dent begs him to stop, until his assistant wakes Harvey up. After informing him that Commissioner Gordon has started a raid, Harvey grabs his coat and heads out. The raid goes well, thanks to Batman’s intervention. Dent takes the time to make a speech about the police’s good work and how he hopes to drive Rupert Thorne out of Gotham. One of the arrested criminals insults Harvey and kicks mud on his suit….and Harvey tries to kill him. In front of the press, Harvey almost starts to beat the handcuffed man, until the police and Gordon restrain him and Harvey calms down.

This is also the episode when we first meet Rupert Thorne. As a kid, I thought Thorne was another character created for the Animated series. I was wrong, though-he was a comics character first. But Thorne is still a vital figure in the Animated series, an engaging representation of the more traditional forms of crime in Gotham, even if he’s not the only one. He’ll also be the main trigger of both episodes, giving us the unusual setting of three factions working against each other in the second half.

After Thorne makes his intentions to find some dirt on Harvey clear, we cut to a fundraiser, where we meet Grace, Harvey’s fiance. For a character who hasn’t shown up before (and won’t appear again), Grace is a good female character, far more engaging than just the damsel in distress. We get a hint of that here, as she answers Wayne’s well-meaning questions about Harvey’s behavior at the fundraiser. And we get to see Harvey behaving normally again, cracking a joke or two and engaging in playful banter…until his assistant delivers the news that a judge had to throw out his case for the raid. And then Harvey’s rage boils over, showing that even those close to him aren’t immune, as he tosses his assistant and almost punches Wayne. It’s here where Wayne suggests that Harvey needs help, and Grace reveals that he already has-and Harvey notes that he hasn’t admitted it before because he’s worried about how the voters will respond.

The episode then goes to one of Harvey’s therapy sessions, where we see his rage personified, in the form of “Big Bad Harv.” We also get the explanation for why this other personality has formed. This is less important than establishing that the psychological problems don’t start with his physical disfigurement; they’re already present, and deep seated, including “Big Bad Harv’s” disgust with Harvey. I can’t speak to how accurate any part of the situation is, but even if it’s not real psychology, it gives a scientific aura to the problem. There’s the idea that this is something that could be handled safely, if only Harvey wasn’t in such a high-risk occupation.

As Harvey waits for the election results to come in, he gets a phone call…and it’s from Rupert Thorne, implying that he’ll reveal Harvey’s psychiatric history. Harvey agrees to meet him, though he can’t get away from the party without Wayne noticing…and having Batman put a tracking device on the car Thorne uses to transport Harvey to the meeting site. Once Batman arrives, we get to see Thorne pushing Harvey further and further, until he goes too far. And finally, Harvey’s rage is unleashed. Batman tries to intervene before Harvey can start to beat Thorne to a pulp, but this just leads to a fight between Harvey and Thorne’s thugs.

Here is where the origin’s details are changed from the comic’s version. Dent chases after Thorne across a catwalk as he flees with Harvey’s file, but one of Thorne’s men tries to get him with a tommy gun. Batman tries to stop the bullets, but all he does is knock the shooter’s aim up-and that severs some electrical wires, while Harvey hits the floor on the catwalk. The wires fall into a vat on Harvey’s side, and he’s caught in the resulting explosion. Hardly canonical, but a far more striking image…as is the reveal of Harvey’s disfigurement at the end of the episode, horrifying both the doctor and nurse, and then himself, though we don’t see Harvey looking directly in the mirror….we just hear his tortured scream of realization.

I’ve praised the voice work of other actors in the show before, but Richard Moll as Harvey/Two-Face is exceptional in both episodes. He’s able to sell the idea of such different voices coming from the same person, partly thanks to scenes such as those in the therapist’s office, but also from finding the fine gradations between Harvey’s voice when he’s calm, to anger, and finally into “Big Bad Harv.”

Part II

The episode opens with a car pulling up outside of a building. The scene establishes the most important part of Two-Face’s M.O., as he flips his coin to decide if they’ll rob the gambling operation inside. He and his goons are quickly in and out of the place with their loot, when we cut to Thorne, establishing that it’s been 6 months since Harvey’s disfigurement and transformation into Two-Face.

We then cut to another dream sequence, as Batman tries to save Harvey, instead being forced to watch as he turns into Two-Face and falls into the abyss, asking why he couldn’t save him-and then Bruce’s parents appear, his father sadly asking why he couldn’t save them. It’s only then when Batman awakens at the Batcomputer, where we see it scattered with newspapers and psychological textbooks.

It’s often said that Batman is driven by his parent’s deaths. And that’s something I wholeheartedly agree with-in fact, I think you’d would be hard pressed to find a reasonable argument against that. But while Thomas and Martha Wayne’s murder pushed Bruce Wayne to become Batman, here Two-Face is a much fresher trauma. As a little boy, there’s no reason Bruce could be blamed for his parent’s deaths. He was just as much a victim as they were. But with Two-Face, he was there, fighting to save Harvey, and he failed. The fact that he was there at all probably saved Harvey’s life, but he couldn’t stop the creation of Two-Face.

At the same time, the show gives us some hope that Two-Face isn’t entirely lost. He clearly pines for Grace, even as he lets his coin decide against contacting her to focus on finishing off Thorne. Meanwhile, Batman has discovered the pattern in Two-Face’s attacks, noting that every place he’s robbed has some reference to 2 in its name, and was also a front for Rupert Thorne. This is the only idea in the two-parter that doesn’t work for me. The idea of targeting Thorne’s operations make sense, but how many references to 2 can there be in such a limited range of targets? Though I will give credit for Alfred’s suggestion that he might rob them twice for a “double or nothing” theme. Batman leaves to try and intercept Two-Face. Alfred tries to warn Batman to keep his guard up, and when Batman responds that Harvey is still inside Two-Face, Alfred makes the observation that this might make him even more dangerous.

Alfred is proven right when Batman finds Two-Face and tries to reach out to him-but when they’re found by one of Two-Face’s henchmen, Two-Face uses the opportunity to knock Batman down and escape. After his escape, Two-Face breaks down and flips his coin-then calls Grace and asks if she’ll see him. She immediately agrees, but activates a tracking device Thorne’s henchmen gave her in an earlier scene under the guise of being police officers.

When Grace meets Harvey, we get to see Two-Face try to sell Grace on his new identity and beliefs. But rather than passively accepting who he presents himself as, Grace calls him on how he’s wrong, pointing out the things that he did without needing chance, such as becoming DA and falling in love with her. She pulls off the mask he tries to use to disguise his disfigurement from her, doing a damn fine job of proving she’s not just a passive love interest. Of course, Thorne and his gang interrupt before Grace can truly bring him around-and while Two-Face tries to prevent Thorne from finding the file he’s looking for, he caves when Grace is threatened.

Before Thorne can kill them both, Batman intervenes, despite being injured from his earlier confrontation with Two-Face. The fight scene that follows is brief, but it ends in a striking way, as Two-Face is about to kill a trapped Thorne…and as he tosses his coin to decide, Batman manages to throw a container of silver dollars at Two-Face, throwing him into a state of panic as he tries to find the right one. As the police lead Two-Face away with Grace by his side, Commissioner Gordon wonders if Harvey will ever be healed. Batman notes that there’s hope…but a little luck wouldn’t hurt.

“Two-Face” is probably the most striking origin episode in the Animated Series. Others would approach it in quality, such as “Heart of Ice,” but the slow build of Harvey’s destruction is hard to top, especially when it’s given the space to breathe that others aren’t. The only thing that mars it is the change in animation quality-the first episode is animated better than the second, and it’s a little disconcerting to watch them back to back because of it. But that’s not a big enough problem to really bring the two episodes down, and it’s a fine example of just how good the series could be, presenting a deep and troubling portrait of a man’s dissolution and tragic downfall.

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