Batman: The Animated Series, “Shadow of the Bat I+II”

04Aug11

This is probably the most awkward two part story in the series so far. It’s not the worst, of course. “The Cat and the Claw” still has that comfortably locked up. But this is a story that suffers a lot from happening on a kid’s cartoon in the early 90s. Most of the time the Animated Series avoided that kind of trap, but it doesn’t here, even though the overall story is still pretty good.

The episodes open on an action scene, as the police close in on a Rupert Thorne operation, with Commissioner Gordon and new Assistant Commissioner Gil Mason on the scene to help with the arrest. Of course, Batman is able to do the actual job of capturing Thorne himself, putting him at the scene of the crime for once. It’s a nice way to start, but at the same time, why would Thorne be at the smuggling warehouse? It’s never clearly stated, and they don’t do anything else with him for the rest of the story. Afterwards, Batman comments that he’d like to know who is informing Mason about these criminal operations.

The episode then cuts to Commissioner Gordon’s home, where he’s watching his daughter do gymnastics, until Mason shows up to arrest him for accepting bribes from Rupert Thorne. Which, to be honest, is a little easier to believe once you’ve seen that Barbara Gordon has her own gymnastics studio at home. The only person who seems to believe Gordon is actually guilty is the DA, as everyone else immediately rallies behind him. This includes Batman, who manages to put a communication device in Gordon’s cell to talk with him about the framing job, and to make sure Gordon is doing okay.

This is also where the second story element comes in. Gordon asks Batman to make sure his daughter is okay, and she takes this meeting as an opportunity to ask Batman to appear at a rally in support of her father. He makes it clear he’s not going to come, so she decides to dress up as Batman and make a brief appearance. Which is kind of crazy, but not out of character for her. After all, she’s already gone off on her own to save her father in “Heart of Steel.” Her plans to just impersonate Batman for a bit go awry when a car comes in to do a drive by shooting at the rally. Barbara Gordon, being kind of nuts, manages to get them to crash their car, then chases after one of them, as does Robin-he’d been planning to show up in Batman’s place, so he’s bent out of shape that a woman has shown him up. Afterwards, he reviews the press coverage of the rally attack, and notices that Gil Mason was ducking to avoid the shots before they started firing. Could the new and important character that’s never been seen before be suspect?

Meanwhile, Batman has gone undercover, looking for more evidence about who is framing James Gordon. This leads to him being captured, as he’s electrocuted while trying to sneak into a 5th story window…and rather than falling back to his death, he falls inside to be captured. It turns out that he’s been captured by Two-Face, whose presence was already teased earlier. This is a good example of that 90s kid cartoon problem coming up, as Two-Face flips his coin to see if he’ll take in this new guy for his gang…and the bad head comes up. But instead of just blowing him away, the henchmen with the gun knocks Batman out, so they can see if someone else knows who it is. I’m not saying Batman should have died there-he’s still Batman, after all. But it’s still jarring that we’re led to believe he’s about to die, and instead he’s just dragged somewhere else.

Back to Barbara, she visits Gil and tries to tell him what she’s discovered about the thug she chased at the rally-only to find Gil is talking to the same guy. She’s smart enough not to keep going, and instead excuses herself. This encounter leads to her going out as Batgirl again, so she can spy on Gil, almost interrupting Robin again. And when she follows him to the location Gil is going to, she almost gets everyone killed, so Batman and Robin have to save her, which also means the three of them get trapped in a flooding subway terminal. After getting Barbara out, Batman and Robin have to figure out their own exit, which involves ramming a subway car into a wall. And that’s pretty neat.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Gordon has been broken out of jail against his will. The two that abduct him announce that Rupert Thorne doesn’t forget his friends, and if that was any less subtle, the two of them would have included a note that they were planting this evidence for the police. Once Barbara finds out, she goes to save him from Two-Face and Gil, where she manages to keep Gordon alive, but then has to be saved by Batman and Robin. While they face Two-Face, Barbara chases after Gil, putting him into a coma in the process. The epilogue mostly features everyone going “Batgirl was great! We hope she comes back soon!”

It took me a while to think of what I wanted to say about this story, and I’ll admit that part of the problem was the overdone epilogue. Throughout both episodes, Robin is telling Barbara to stop playing around and go home, and then Batman joins in, after she’s put everyone’s lives at risk by screwing up. And yet Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson, and Commissioner Gordon all either say she’s welcome, or hint heavily at it. Commissioner Gordon makes some sense, since the one unalloyed good thing she did was to save him in time, but you’d think Bruce and Dick would at least be ambivalent about it. It all but has an announcer playing over it, promising that Batgirl will return again. The weird thing about this is the fact that Batgirl screws things up is not really a mark against her, for me. It makes sense that someone who gets sucked into crimefighting wouldn’t be that good at it to start, and she’s not stupid. Reckless, maybe, but so is Robin. So the problem isn’t that she’s not amazing, it’s that everyone reacts realistically to her when they meet her, and then act completely different once things turn out okay.

The bigger problem, though, is the lack of serialization biting this story in the butt. Previous episodes have shown that this isn’t some unexpected twist for Barbara Gordon-in fact, every time she’s appeared, she’s either taken matters into her own hands, or clearly wanted to do so. But this had to be made on the assumption that the viewer might not have seen or remembered those episodes, and it means we get a clumsier origin than we needed for the character. She can’t just appear in her own episode, she needs to have a crisis to respond to that makes her put on the costume, and the plotting suffers because of it. Thanks to setting up Gil Mason, Rupert Thorne gets thrown under a bus in the opening. Then the rally gets attacked, because…well, there’s no reason other than needing something that forces Barbara to do more than masquerade as Batman at the rally. Then she needs to find a way to meet Batman, who had to be forced off screen until she could meet him. Combined with the forced attempt to make a “love/hate” relationship between Batgirl and Robin, and it’s a pretty harsh railroading of the character into prominence, made especially grievous by the fact that she gets one more episode in the whole season.

So is this a bad two parter? No. The idea of Two-Face trying to take control of both the city’s mobs and its government is good, and there’s even the thematic connection-playing both sides against each other, and getting revenge on both the government and Rupert Thorne. How it actually resolves is weak, but the strength of that idea is still there. Likewise, bringing in Batgirl is a strong idea, it’s just handled clumsily. And the animation is serviceable-it’s not the best, but it’s fairly good stuff. Plus, it’s the only two parter so far where each half looks the same, so it at least has a visual consistency others didn’t get. I would say to watch it once, but I wouldn’t blame you if you got a Poochy vibe off of Batgirl because of this. I know I did.

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