Batman: The Animated Series, “Zatanna”

27Jul11

Part of me wants to see this episode purely as a puff piece. Batman meets a sexy lady, they briefly fight a criminal who only appears for the one episode, everyone’s happy. And that’s a pretty accurate description, at least on the surface. Of course, there’s a bit more here, and while it doesn’t make the episode a classic, it elevates the story enough to keep it from feeling average, or completely disposable.

The show opens on Zatanna’s magic act, being held for charity in Gotham. Bruce Wayne is in the audience…and so is Alfred, strangely enough. He has his “official chauffeur” uniform on, which makes it even stranger, since you’d think he’d be expected to wait at the car. But hey, Bruce Wayne’s a nice guy. We also get a sepia toned flashback to his past, establishing his relationship with Zatanna and her father, Zatara. Things are a bit on the nose already, as Zatara talks about how “John Smith” had a pain in him that could not be denied, which feels like he was resisting saying “I could tell you were going to avenge your parent’s death by dressing up in a costume and fighting crime, and since you’re the 10nth person to come to me about that this year, I figured I’d let you in too.” Still, it’s a neat nod to DC continuity that isn’t too obvious.

In the middle of the show, Zatanna pulls an illusion where she makes a bank disappear, along with all the money in it. Then she brings the bank back…only the money is gone. The bank manager responds by yelling his head off for the police, who immediately arrive (including driving a car onto the stage), and arrest Zatanna. Never mind that stealing a huge, conspicuous pile of money while everyone is watching would be a terrible robbery plan. Then again, this might be the police getting revenge for having to reroute traffic all night for the show anyway.

In his most blatant disregard for the police yet, Batman breaks Zatanna out of the police van without any of the drivers noticing, then brings her along to investigate the scene of the crime, where they discover the trick behind the robbery. Batman tries to drop Zatanna off at that point, but she says she needs to pay back the person who set her up (a skeptic named Montague Kane who she invited to observe the trick, making this a tremendous dick move on his part). This also reveals that her father has died, leading to more great dialogue, where Zatanna notices he’s kind of familiar, and Batman has to make something up to cover for it. After escaping a spiked wall trap at Kane’s home, the pair follow him to his Spruce Goose knockoff. Zatanna almost destroys her “strong female character” credentials when Kane is able to talk her hostage and tries to toss them both from the cargo bay of the plane, but Batman saves them (basically by threatening to crash the plane from the outside, and “accidentally” causing Kane’s henchmen to fall thousands of feet to their deaths), and she manages to reclaim it by knocking Kane out with one punch to help save the day.

For the most part, this is just a solid episode of the series, as I alluded to in the beginning. What helps to lift it a little higher is the well done connection between Zatanna and Batman. There’s her sharp dialogue, such as questioning if Batman is just helping her because she’s a leggy dame, and the fact that while she can’t see through his costume, she can tell he’s familiar for some reason. And there’s the subdued but somber ending, where she asks why he would become Batman, now that she knows he’s “John Smith.” Plus, while Montague Kane isn’t a great villain, he’s at least not a ridiculous or disturbing one, so he’s on the upper end of the original villain scale for the animated series.

Part of me wishes that more episode of the series could have the deep impact of “I Am The Night” or “Paging the Crime Doctor,” but to be honest, it would get too heavy if that was the case….and no matter how much I enjoy this show as an adult, it was intended for kids. So in that vein, “Zatanna” is a nice palate cleanser, a competently done action piece that anyone can enjoy without embarrassment. I would say it’s definitely worth watching once.

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