Batman: The Animated Series, “Birds of A Feather”

29Jun11

This episode is a weird one for me, and for a lot of different reasons. First, there’s the fact that it’s the first episode focused on the Penguin. Technically, “Batman in my Basement” was the first Penguin episode, and he was the only villain…but that one was mostly focused on Batman and the stupidest kids in the world. Plus, it was terrible. This one actually focuses on the Penguin, and is not terrible, so it’s a much stronger intro for the character. It’s not a great one, but we’ll get to that soon.

Another reason it’s weird for me is that I never saw it as a kid. Not even once. Most of these episodes were rerun fairly frequently after their premier, so I got to see them more than once. Some were rarer that others, but I’d seen everything…except this one. I wasn’t sure what it was about when I first saw it on the DVD, and it was an odd feeling to be discovering a ‘new’ episode of a series I loved. Watching it for this review wasn’t the first time I’ve seen it, but it’s still the newest of the series for me.

Finally, this episode hits me in a tender spot. I don’t mean that I got tears in my eyes when I saw it, though. Rather, it’s rooted in an entertainment I find deeply uncomfortable at the best of times, the humiliation comedy. Of course, someone might argue that all comedy is about humiliation in some way, and there is some truth to that. But much of the plot of the episode revolves around making the Penguin look like a fool, and the audience is supposed to laugh about that…and it was just unpleasant for me. I just want to make it clear that’s my personal reaction, not some indictment of the very idea. So depending on your feelings, your mileage here will vary.

Into the episode itself, the basic plot is very simple. The Penguin decides to reform, because he’s sick of being tossed into jail. I don’t know why he’s even allowed out of jail, considering how many offenses he’s racked up, but at least they make a distinction between Arkham and jail. Two society people decide to bring him to a party as a way to liven things up, but the Penguin falls for the woman…and when he overhears how they’re using him and don’t want to actually be around him, he stops playing nice, and Batman has to get involved.

While I’ve said this is a stronger episode for the Penguin, that’s almost damning with faint praise here. His character is just muddled. The visuals are a deliberate aping of Danny Devito’s version from Batman Returns, and while it works better in a cartoon format, the characterization is just nonsensical. Is he a deformed freak? A society man driven into exile by his appearance and/or criminal behavior? A crook aspiring to a higher station? There’s no clear evidence in any direction, and it makes him just seem confused. The reason why this doesn’t come completely unmoored is thanks to Paul Williams’ strong performance, even though he adds to some of the confusion by making the Penguin sound far more sophisticated than the script wants him to be. The other characters aren’t as badly off, but only because they’re broad stereotypes, in this case the bored high society people looking for any kind of decadent thrill.

Their arrogance is how the whole “Penguin as party trick” plan goes off the rails, as he ends up overhearing they don’t like him at all, and he kidnaps Veronica Vreeland, the female partner in humiliation here. This is where the episode picks up, as we get to see the Penguin really acting like a criminal mastermind for the first time, adding up to a set piece where Batman fights him while the Penguin flies around on a stage dragon, wearing a viking helmet. Which is just good clean fun all around, in my opinion. Even the denouement works better than expected, as Vreeland tries to apologize to the Penguin as he’s being led away, and he spurns her in return.

So, is this a good episode? As much as I’d like to say yes, I have to say it’s just decent. There’s nothing terribly wrong with it, even if it highlights the unintended (or poorly executed) contradictions of the Penguin’s character. But until the climactic fight, it takes a long time to accomplish anything. Even if you aren’t as bothered by the determination to make the main antagonist look silly as I am, I doubt it would be that entertaining. Still, it’s worlds better than “Basement,” and certainly works as an introduction to the character. And to Veronica Vreeland, one of the minor characters that will appear again.

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