Batman: The Animated Series, “Off Balance”

12Jul11

It may seem a bit silly to say, but this episode’s title is pretty descriptive of its quality. It’s not a bad outing, really. But almost everything here is a bit off. Not so much that you can’t enjoy it, but enough is wrong that it’s hard to just sit back and let the plot carry you along, no matter how much it pushes you to do exactly that.

The opening is a good example. On the one hand, we get a very striking scene, with a not-quite Statue of Liberty location, where Batman has lured a crook to grill him about the “Society of Shadows.” It’s a nice change of pace from the usual environments for the show. And while Twitch might have been very stupid to come out to such a remote area, it does explain why he wouldn’t try to run-how would he get away from Batman in such an isolated spot? But when the Society attacks, Twitch gets thrown off the building for talking, where he “dies” by hitting the water, only to pop up again for a moment, as though to reassure any kids watching that he was fine. And when Batman talks to Gordon later about what happened, he says that Twitch “got away.” Never mind his scream of terror as he plummeted to his death, it was really a cunning escape!

As I’ve said, this goes on through the whole story. The plot revolves around an ultrasonic drill developed by Wayne Enterprises, which is designed for mining and excavation. Rather than being a massive piece of mining machinery, it’s more like a high-tech bazooka, and can apparently create giant holes in the ground in a matter of seconds. It makes sense that there would be lots of people that would want to use this for nefarious purposes, so you’d think Wayne Enterprises might have decided not to ship this highly dangerous technology into Gotham City, Crime Capital of the Solar System. While it’s being unloaded, the Society appears to steal it, with their leader.

The main antagonist is a new character named Vertigo, sporting a technological eyepatch that causes exactly that. More of the names that are also descriptions, I suppose. His costume and demeanor are as close to being a Nazi as the show could get without actually giving him the SS insignia and a portrait of Adolf Hitler in his hideout; for God’s sakes, the man wears a cape. But it does make for a striking visual, and I like the fact that when Batman arrives, his response is not shock at this stranger’s appearance, but resignation to the fact that Batman was going to show up at some point. His visuals are less impressive when he gets an inexplicable case of temporary turkey neck during his escape, head bobbing up and down as he tells his henchmen they need to leave on time.

Then there’s Talia. She first appears when she’s observing Batman’s fight with the Society in the opening, and then she distracts both Vertigo and Batman during their fight, which lets Vertigo get away. Once Batman figures out where the Society is (thanks to help from Alfred, and featuring Batman showing he has to hunt and peck to type on a keyboard), he goes to reconnoiter the area before breaking in, only to spot Talia being ambushed. He jumps in to help, and I’ll give the episode some credit for this scene-while Talia and Batman knock their attackers down, one hit isn’t enough to put them out. Which is why they’re still in one place when the sonic drill is used to throw them underground. Having given the episode some credit, I have to issue demerits for showing the two characters falling at least 30 feet, hitting solid ground beneath, and the only consequence is that Batman’s face gets bruised, “requiring” Talia to take off his mask to treat his wounds.

Talia isn’t a bad character here. She’s intelligent, capable, confident, and holds her own in the story against Batman. And in a neat twist, while she ends up betraying Batman in the end, she doesn’t actually say anything to him that isn’t true in some fashion; she makes no claims to be working for some friendly agency, or even to be on Batman’s side. But at the same time, most of the “mysteriousness” the episode tries to give her is irritating instead. I can think of a reason why she acts the way she does, but only by assuming a great deal about the plot. And on a personal note, the fact that she almost always has her hair draped over her left eye bugged me.

The animation itself gets in on the “not quite right” issue; I mentioned the sudden turkey neck for Vertigo, but there’s also Batman’s brief petit mall seizure while Vertigo is threatening him and Talia, his mouth opening and closing in the exact same way. Talia does the same thing as she listens to her instructions. But for the most part, the animation is quite lovely to look at, even if it becomes less appealing when the characters actually have to move.

So is this an episode worth watching? Part of me wants to say yes just for the ending, where we see Talia talking to Ra’s Al Ghul, voiced by the wonderful David Warner. I’ll admit that as a kid, I have no idea who this person was, and the ending still thrilled me, just because he sounded so cool. And that holds true, even though I’m no longer a kid. But to be honest, the episode is worth watching even without that epilogue; for all the issues I’ve listed, it’s not a bad episode. There are plot holes, animation problems, kid TV tropes that are highly glaring this time around…and yet, the core of it is a fun adventure/spy story, with a nice change of pace from the usual Gotham scenery, even if the idea that there are multiple abandoned clock towers around Gotham makes me wonder why the city doesn’t demolish all abandoned structures immediately. If the episode doesn’t work as well as it could, at least it’s trying something different, and that alone makes it worth watching. Only once or twice, though. The flaws get more glaring the more often you see them.

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