Batman: The Animated Series, “The Mechanic

29Jul11

This is an awkward one. It’s not a bad episode-the story works, the action is decent…at its worst, it’s still eminently watchable. Some poor animation detracts from the story, but it’s not the source of the awkwardness, even as it adds to the problem. Before we go into the guts of the episode, I’ll say again that it’s watchable. Even though it also has the Penguin, it’s not problematic in the same way “Batman in my Basement” was.

The episode opens on a car chase, between the Batmobile and the Penguin’s car, with his henchmen inside. You can tell it belongs to the Penguin because it gets the Penguin theme music…and we get a lingering shot on a custom penguin hood ornament, to avoid any accusations of subtlety. The chase serves two purposes: it gives a pretext for damaging the Batmobile (which is done by dropping a bridge on the poor car’s hood), and showing that the Penguin will be the villain this time around, though I’ll admit it would have been neat if they’d only shown up for the start. It also tells you not to expect too much realism this week, as the Penguin’s henchmen escape by driving off the bridge, and conveniently landing on a passing cargo ship’s deck. This manages to destroy the entire underside of the car, without killing the passengers or even seriously injuring them. Of course, what makes even less sense is that Batman and Robin (yep, he’s along for the ride this time) don’t seem shocked by their quarry driving off the bridge and break off pursuit then, but only react when they realize they won’t be able to fit underneath to do the same thing. You almost wonder if Batman forgot this version of the Batmobile can’t turn into a boat or a plane until the last second. “I’ll just deploy the Batwings and-wait, this is the dark blue Batmobile, only the black one has the wings! HIT THE BRAKES!”

The two of them manage to get the car into their private shop, where their personal mechanic tells them it’ll probably be a week before it’ll be fixed. That mechanic is named Earl Cooper, which comes up because thanks to some criminal networking, the Penguin is able to match the custom order for the Batmobile’s parts to its recent damage, and to their shipping location-Earl’s shop. Naturally, the Penguin decides to take control of the Batmobile through Earl. After some initial resistance, Earl gives in when the Penguin threatens his daughter (who is present because she’s a mechanic as well) , and creates a system that gives Penguin full control over the Batmobile.

Here’s where things get awkward. Well, more awkward. We get a flashback version of Earl’s backstory, where he explains both how he came to work for Batman, and why he’s so loyal to him. It’s a neat little vignette…to the point where I almost wish it had been a part of the main story instead. Despite being the titular character, Earl isn’t the active participant that Matthew Thorne was in “Paging the Crime Doctor.” He’s mostly a victim, thanks to his daughter being taken hostage by the Penguin. He’s not unrealistic-if anything, he’s played very well, as he does his best to both keep her safe and warn Batman without tipping off the Penguin as well. But it still makes him seem like a spectator in his own story.

Once Batman and Robin arrives, the Penguin lies in wait for him, until the pair have left the shop in their new car. (In a neat touch, we briefly see the Penguin’s henchmen repairing the wall they’d blown open to get inside the shop, so no one has to ignore a literal hole in the plot.) Then the Penguin taunts them in his own car, before turning on his remote and screwing with them. He could kill them at any time, but instead delays things by taking them to the airport, feinting driving them straight into a brick wall, and then magically guiding them through a whole parking garage, just to drive them off the roof for his finale. Naturally, this gives Batman time to realize what Earl meant with his coded warnings, and he manages to hit the disguised eject button in time to save them both, rescue Earl’s daughter, and capture the Penguin. Batman assures Earl, he’s fixed the problem that led to the shop being discovered in the first place, and we get an amusing coda of Batman indirectly taunting the Penguin in prison, also known as his “Fuck Reform, Keep Them Furious” program.

So what is the real problem with this episode, that keeps it from rising above average? It’s the fact that it has to be a Penguin story. I’ve already said that the show never got a good handle on how to use the Penguin, because it was tied too specifically to the Batman Returns version of the character. But it’s more than that here. The giant rubber ducks and underground/sewer lair aren’t the real problem. The problem is that out of all of Batman’s rogue’s gallery for the Animated Series, the Penguin is the awkward bridge point between super villains and organized crime. The Joker cares less about actually succeeding in a given crime than making a spectacle out of breaking the law, and Two Face is a slave to his Janus perspective in his crimes, making what would otherwise be an ordinary mobster into a tragic figure with a clear foible to play on; plus, he’s less obsessed with Batman than Batman is obsessed with him. Then the actual mobsters are more concerned with making money, and while they’d love to kill Batman, they don’t seek him out to challenge him. The Penguin is the only one who bridges this, as he’s obsessed with Batman…but still in a somewhat logical way, because Batman is usually the one who stops him from turning a profit with his crimes. This means “The Mechanic” manages to both feel like a story any villain could have been slotted into, and like only the Penguin could do it, because other rogues would have been far more or far less straightforward in their approach to this opportunity. Even with his unusual appearance and bird preferences, the Penguin comes off as distressingly generic thanks to this. This isn’t helped by the fact that he’s only come off as effective intermittently, such as his vignette in “Almost Got Him,” and his quick improvisational hostage taking in “Birds of a Feather.” To be fair, what to do with the Penguin isn’t a problem just in this series, but since he has a limited number of episode so far, it’s pretty glaring here.

So having said all that, why isn’t this a terrible episode, especially when the animation is not that good? Well, despite my crack about not expecting much realism, the basic story holds up. The Penguin doesn’t just stumble upon the Batmobile unattended one day; he gets privileged information through a credible source (and for a credible reason-it comes up because of the damage to his own car from the opening), and uses it intelligently. Earl’s daughter doesn’t happen to be visiting at the shop, she’s working alongside her dad when the Penguin arrives to blackmail him. And Earl’s backstory is a neat way to bring him into Batman’s life. He’s never sold as “the best mechanic in the business” or anything similar; he’s just a good man who tried to make a stand against corporate corruption, and Batman stepped in to save him from being intimidated or frozen out of his profession. It’s a nice way to show that he’s concerned with more than just punching criminals.

I came into “The Mechanic” with fond memories of it, and I’m a little saddened that I’ve been disabused; I had expected another classic in the series, and instead it’s…okay. But I’ll admit that it still has good parts to it, and it’s mostly fun to watch. I would say it’s worth a shot, but keep your expectations low if you do check it out.

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