Batman: The Animated Series, “What is Reality?”

03Jul11

It’s the second Riddler episode. Boy, is it ever.

My memories of this episode were pretty clear. I thought it had a great gimmick in its virtual reality threat to Commissioner Gordon’s life, and the color scheme was visually distinctive in a good way. And Riddler episodes are always good, if few and far between. Unfortunately, watching this again has made me realize that while some of my underlying thoughts about the episode still hold up, the execution is quite lacking.

Let’s start from the top. The first problem is the opening. It’s not terrible, but we start with three separate incidents where computer systems are compromised, then an old riddle gets shown on the screen. We can already see the animation problems starting here, as one man declares they’re being targeted by a computer hacker. The man next to his pauses…waits just a little too long…then gets an expression like he’s heard the most shocking thing in his life. Despite the fact that he saw it as it happened as well. I know that children’s animation is the definition of “playing to the cheap seats,” but that’s still going too far. The plot justifies this opening as the Riddler seeking to erase his electronic records, but you’d think he could do that without leaving obvious clues to who’s responsible. Of course, he follows that up by delivering a giant ticking box with question marks to police HQ, so clearly this is not him trying to be sneaky. Then again, his henchmen use the distraction to get his paper police records, so he gets something accomplished with the spectacle.

Fortunately for our protagonists, this does not turn out to be a bomb of some kind, though the Swat team does almost shoot Batman and Robin when the box starts ringing like an alarm clock. Sure, they were pointing their guns “at the box,” but guess who was between them and the box? I guess it’s more of that resentment over being regularly upstaged by a guy in a cape. The box turns out to be holding a computer, for some reason. Robin checks out its function while Batman keeps investigating what the Riddler is doing.

In the Batcave, Batman and Alfred have a neat little exchange, where the show takes a step back from the developing Batman ’66 vibe, as Batman notes the opening corny riddles aren’t the Riddler’s MO…and Alfred observes that they all involve animals, so maybe the riddles are the clue, not the answers. It’s a bit on the nose, but still a nice exchange between them. This leads to the only real fight scene in the episode, as Batman ambushes the Riddler’s henchmen at the DMV, where they’re trying to destroy the paper copy of the Riddler’s records. They manage to escape, and when Batman follows them outside, he’s attacked by a remote controlled car, filled with nitroglycerine.

I’ve noted the animation issues already, and here it really takes center stage. First there’s Batman trying to leap to the side of the car as it bears down on him, and somehow ending up far behind where he was standing. Then the car hits a wall and explodes, but with the least convincing explosion I’ve seen in any animated show. It’s more like a smoke bomb went off. There was also a monochrome Robin for a moment in an earlier scene, but that was more of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it error.

Speaking of that earlier scene, that’s where Robin lays out the exposition for both Gordon and the audience. The box contained a massive computer, and it can generate a virtual world. There are also two headpieces, which can be put on to place your mind inside the virtual world. He convinces Gordon to put on the other headpiece, then leaves him alone, so the Riddler can come in and grab Gordon’s virtual avatar and somehow prevent Gordon from taking it off. Of course, Robin has screwed things up already, so when Batman arrives to check in on them, he goes into the virtual world to save Gordon before his heart can explode from the simulated stress the Riddler’s putting him through. Naturally, Batman manages to succeed, though it’s too obviously a “crap, we need to end the episode” resolution, and it implies that the Riddler isn’t coming back.

I’ve already mentioned the animation issues, and while it’s not to the same level as something like “Cat Scratch Fever,” it’s the same problem-sloppiness runs throughout. That baseline of animation might have been raised, but not by much. But the bigger issue is that the story is just choppy and rushed, and never comes together to make any sense. For some villains, that’s not a problem; their insanity means that their plans don’t have to make sense in their aims, and to an extent not even in their methods. But the Riddler isn’t insane so much as supremely arrogant, so there should be some purpose to what he’s doing. He’s deleting his records because….well, that never gets answered. He just was. And he threatens Gordon’s life because….that never gets answered either! He never mentioned having any issue with the police before, and now he’s trying to kill the police chief for no reason whatsoever.

The one part of the episode that holds up well is the virtual reality conceit. Not because it somehow predicted the future-we all know that wasn’t the case. But it makes sense for the Riddler to use a new technology in his schemes, even an untested one that isn’t practical. Hell, that fits him quite well, because he can feel superior about using it where others don’t even understand it. But the rest isn’t that good by any measure. Nothing happens here that you need to see, so as much as I enjoyed this as a kid, I say skip it. It’s not the worst the show has to offer, but it’s still something of an embarrassment.

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