Batman: The Animated Series, “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?”

22May11

After watching this episode, a part of me was going “Did it really take this long to bring in the Riddler?” Then another part responds with “If it was being delayed or having him come back in the bodysuit covered in purple question marks, which would you prefer?” And then the discussion was pretty much over.

You see, there are Batman villains that are embarrassing to look at, but they only appear one or twice, or they’re firmly on a lower tier. Then there was the Riddler, who seemed like a very silly idea that just got kept around for not good reason. My impression of him as a kid-very limited as it was-was of a very goofy costume, terrible puns and “riddles,” and not much enjoyment of any Riddler story. To be fair, the Riddler wasn’t the only character doing this, but everyone else had an unrelated schtick they could go with-evil clown, rotund sophisticate, Janus visage. The Riddler was the guy having his thunder stolen day in and day out. To an extent, it’s hard for riddles to work that well in a story that will tell you what the riddle meant on the next page, or at least by the end of the story, but it was still kind of annoying to be presented with these, over and over. And he wasn’t someone that only appeared once a year, he was kind of a big deal. Obviously these were more vague child thoughts on the Riddler than a full blown, justifiable theory, but they still lingered.

That meant that when I first saw this episode, it was something of a revelation. Here we had a Riddler whose manner was sophisticated without being ostentatious, and whose plans ended up being really smart. Let’s emphasize that again-this was not a man who couldn’t understand how Batman figured out his schemes after giving obvious clues. No, he was able to fool people, even Batman in the end, and it stuck. There is no “Batman actually won” scene, no shot of the Riddler cursing Batman for what he’s done. Edward Nygma got away free and clear, and ended up winning a small victory of his own. If it wasn’t for this version of the Riddler, I could never recognize the more intelligent (and rational) version we see in the comics today.

If there’s one thing that hasn’t aged well about the episode, it’s the basis of the plot, the Minotaur video game. The episode opens with our secondary villain/victim of the episode, Mockeridge, firing Nygma because he’s an evil corporate type, so of course he’ll fire someone just because he can. Nygma fires back with the entirely rational argument that he made the game the company is built on, so maybe getting rid of him isn’t the best way to keep making money. And then Mockeridge responds with…well, the title of the episode. Cut to two years later, and the show tries to give the impression that the company is still worthwhile, but there’s probably quite a bit of desperation, combined with the thought that if only he hadn’t canned their best creative person just to increase his own salary, he wouldn’t have to be asking Wayne Enterprises to buy him out. The fact that Mockeridge is an 80s holdover isn’t too surprising, considering when the show was made. And neither, unfortunately, is the very simple version of a video game we see, complete with overexplanation of how it works. It’s a very minor issue in the episode, but it still sticks out to me.

Probably the best thing about the plot for this episode is how it builds. The Riddler lures Mockeridge to a nightclub, and kidnaps him there, despite Batman and Robin’s attempts to stop him…and originally, that was the only part of the plan, kidnap Mockeridge. But when Batman calls the Riddler by his real name, he has to put something else into motion, in an attempt to get out of Gotham before Batman can apprehend him. This leads to the pair facing off against the Riddler’s puzzles in the Minotaur amusement park (which, for once, is not an abandoned amusement park), where Batman cheats to win…only to find out that the Riddler’s teleconference calls have been from an airplane, flying out of the city.

Leaving aside some of the improbable elements of a plan that is supposedly thrown together hastily, such as the Riddler changing all the puzzles to be lethal, having a giant robot, and a metal hand that can fly without any visible means to do so, the important thing is that the Riddler doesn’t take his name too seriously. He doesn’t have to give riddles (though there are three of them in the episode), just outwit his opponents-and he fights Batman not because Batman is considered a worthy opponent, but out of necessity. As I said, he even gets a small victory at the end. Mockeridge survives the Riddler’s assassination attempts, but all of his confidence is gone now, leaving him a broken man.

This is probably the weirdest animation in the series so far. It’s not bad, though; far from it, in fact. But it’s a strange blend, like the Japanese and Korean animators were drinking a strong blend of 30s and 40s American animation while they worked. Characters move slower than they normally do, and for longer. At the same time, it never gets into the unnecessary swaying motions of the badly animated episodes of the past. This makes it into more of a general aesthetic, instead of a sign of cutting corners.

Even with its awkward title, “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?” is a very strong episode. Its good writing is helped by the fine performance of John Glover as the Riddler, bringing a great mix of arrogance, intelligence and condescension to the role. It’s worth watching multiple times, especially if your main image of the character (as mine was) is a goofy guy who uses terrible jokes in place of riddles. This will clean that right out of your mind.

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