Batman: The Animated Series, “Robin’s Reckoning”

01May11

In some ways, these are two episodes that I wish had come earlier in the series. In the first 28 episodes, we saw Robin a total of two times-once as an awkward counterpart to Batman at Christmas, and once as a way to bring Batman into a villain’s plot. Neither appearance was a bad thing, and the show trusted its audience to just pick up on things. There was no awkward exposition on why he was around then, or wasn’t around in other episodes. He was at college, and occasionally fought crime with Batman like he used to. You’re caught up now.

On the other hand, some of the smoothing out that’s happened in the series so far works well for this episode, and for such an important story for both Robin and Batman, that’s something that we can be grateful for. I’m not sure how well Robin’s Reckoning would have worked if it had been switched with “Two-Face” or “The Cat in the Claw” in the production schedule. And in a sense, for Robin’s occasional appearance to feel natural instead of bizarre, they needed to put his origin later on, rather than opening with it. If they’d used this as one of his first appearances, then it could have made him seem too important to be left out so often.

The first episode opens with a nice demonstration of how well Batman and Robin can get along when they’re in a good mood. Batman is quiet and dedicated where Robin is bored…but Batman is amused by Robin’s high spirits, not annoyed, and trusts Robin to handle himself when they actually start to fight the criminals they’ve been staking out. But things turn sour when the one crook they capture gives up a name. Suddenly Batman is ordering Robin around like he’s a kid, refusing to explain himself, and ditching Robin back in the Batcave to work alone, overriding Robin’s protests about how he can’t do this very often. So in a brisk few minutes, we get to see both sides of their relationship-how the two can be an effective team, but also how easily they can clash, usually because of Batman overriding a Robin who’s independent enough to resent being treated as the kid partner now. Alfred does an admirable job trying to temper Robin’s anger about it without trying to order him around as well, but Robin manages to figure out who the “Billy Marin” that set Batman off is-Tony Zucco, the man who killed Robin’s parents.

We then go to a flashback (complete with swimmy video effect) of Robin at the circus, with his parents. And we get to experience the horror, as both a young Dick Grayson and Bruce Wayne watch Dick’s parents die in front of a full audience. It’s a bit morbid under the circumstances, but in the aftermath, we get to see a younger James Gordon with red hair, and patrolman Harvey Bullock. When Bruce asks about Dick, Gordon reveals that he’s worried about his safety, and Bruce decides to take him. Then we see another flashback from Batman’s point of view, both his search for the man who killed Dick’s parents, and his attempt to help Dick with the pain of his loss. It ends with a heartbreaking line from Batman, about how guilty they both feel about the loss of their parents, and how the pain never truly goes away. And then the first episode ends with Robin and Batman fighting, until Robin decides to go out on his own to find his parent’s killer.

When the second episode starts, we find out that Robin has actually done this before, through another flashback-though without any costumes or equipment involved, just a young kid with a picture. With a little luck he manages to find Zucco, though that almost kills him before Batman intervenes-and then it lets Zucco escape, as Batman has to choose between him and saving Dick. Though fortunately, at least Dick is put in danger by an unexpected failure of a guard-rail, rather than Zucco pushing him into the river or just blundering into a dangerous machine. This also gives Batman a compelling reason to induct Robin into crimefighting-rather than just wanting a sidekick, he’s responding to his ward’s unexpected dedication to the same cause.

Robin is able to find Zucco thanks to that same training and equipment Batman has given him, and that’s fortunate for Batman-thanks to Zucco’s justifiable paranoia, he’s actually able to surprise Batman and injure him. Batman doesn’t let a little thing like a serious injury stop him from fighting, of course, but it does mean he’s on the run as Robin closes in. Robin’s appearance and intervention actually saves both Batman and Zucco’s henchman, as he prepares to gun them down to hit Batman as well. Afterwards, there’s a reconciliation of sorts, as Robin says that Batman was right not to take him…only for Batman to reveal he wasn’t worried about Robin going too far, but about Robin being killed as they tried to bring Zucco in.

Much like the other two-part stories so far, the animation quality changes between the two episodes, and the second one is the weaker of the two. But unlike the other two-parters, the second episode is less a big step down, and more a strongly animated episode that just suffers by comparison to the first, which is lush like nothing else so far. There are cels that wouldn’t look out of place in a full fledged Japanese anime-hardly surprising, considering the animation houses that produced the series were based in Japan, but they rarely rise to such a level of quality. And the second episode does have one noticeable animation hallmark, as the Zucco of the present day has a gaunt, hunted quality to his expression at all times, a man fully aware that Batman is coming at him with full force.

Before rewatching these episodes, I would have said that Robin’s Reckoning was an episode and a half instead of two, a story too large for 22 minutes but too small for 44. I’m happy to say that I’m wrong. Sure, one or two scenes could have been trimmed or cut for time, but nothing is truly inessential. Rather, this is a story that builds patiently, giving us a long but natural setup to the climax, laying out why this could be the obstacle that permanently severs Batman and Robin’s relationship as partners. But it also lets us see why they eventually come back together in the end, showing us that Bruce has actually tried to be a father figure to Dick, rather than just his trainer in fighting crime. What seemed long and boring as a kid works much better as an adult. Robin’s Reckoning is a bit goofy to me as a title, but it’s definitely a strong story, even if I still hold “Two-Face” as the better two-parter so far.

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