Batman: The Animated Series, “The Demon’s Quest I+II”

13Aug11

Ra’s Al Ghul is probably Batman’s greatest enemy.

It feels weird to say that, when my own brain wants to respond with “You mean the Joker!” But that’s not true. It is true that the Joker is the biggest enemy Batman has outside of his continuity; you may hate the Joker and think he overshadows all of the good villains, but he’s still got that status. However, Ra’s Al Ghul is Batman’s greatest enemy, and the distinction is that when the Joker pops his head up, lots of people are at risk of dying to his sick sense of humor. But when Ra’s makes plans, he’s attempting to kill billions. The Joker doesn’t work on that scale, or with the patience Ra’s has. There is also a constructive purpose to such slaughter on Ra’s part, but not enough to excuse it. Then again, it’s hard to think of a purpose that would justify so much murder, in fiction or reality.

Both episodes open without the traditional title card, though we do get the title. The first begins with Robin’s abduction, which is notable less for who’s taken him, than the fact that it’s done in his own dorm room. This isn’t crimefighting gone wrong, it’s a planned attack. And it fits in with Ra’s Al Ghul’s introduction along with his manservant, Ubu; the two of them just appear in the Batcave after Robin has disappeared. Batman is understandably put off by this, but the damage is done, so he agrees to go along with Ra’s claim that the same group has kidnapped both Robin and Talia, Ra’s daughter.

This is where the idea of Ra’s as Batman’s greatest enemy first starts to become clear. Everyone else that Batman faces is a local threat. There are the occasional excursions outside of Gotham city, but never too far from its orbit. Ra’s, on the other hand, takes Batman on a global search, facing various assassination attempts in Egypt, Malaysia, and the Himalayas. This is another example of the scale that someone like Two-Face or the Joker just don’t have. That doesn’t mean they aren’t aware of the world outside Gotham, but they fight in (or for) that city. As far as Ra’s is concerned, it’s just one human gathering among many. Of course, it’s easy for him to take that view when he has operatives all over the globe as well. It turns out that it’s all been a test for Batman, to see if he’s worthy of taking over for Ra’s when he dies. Of course, he passes….but he’s also not interested. As much as he might agree with Ra’s that the planet needs to be protected, Batman is always going to focus on humanity’s crimes against itself first.

That’s where the episode takes a decided left turn in its “Batman, world traveler” plot. Throughout the first episode, Ra’s drops hints about his age and has mysterious coughing fits. It culminates in him collapsing and beginning to die in front of Batman, Robin, and Talia, who was never really kidnapped. At her insistence, he is put in something called a Lazarus pit…which brings him back to life, drives him temporarily insane, and manages to disintegrate his shirt to show off his newly awesome body, but NOT his pants. It’s just that magical. That’s where the second episode picks up, with Ra’s about to kill his own daughter-turns out the Lazarus Pits will revive the dying, and kill anyone else. Batman is able to save her, but she’s the one who actually brings her father back to sanity.

With that it’s off to the races, as Batman and Robin have to escape from Ra’s deciding to kill them both for Batman’s refusal (you have to wonder what Robin had to say about that after all of this), and the pair having to improvise a way to survive. Then they have to find some clue to what Ra’s is planning, and Batman goes in alone to stop him from whatever it is. Again, Ra’s is the only character where you could pull this sort of thing off. How believable would it be for the Penguin to have a desert stronghold filled with well armed men? You’d have to wonder why he was bothering with petty thefts when he could try to take over a whole country. This is also when Batman starts to indirectly murder people, since he keeps leaving them in inhospitable places while unconscious, or blowing up entire areas. I know he’s not trying to do that-he’s just looking for a way to get into Ra’s stronghold and stop his plans-but even by a conservative estimate, a good deal of henchmen get killed in the climax.

It turns out that Ra’s plan is to use the Lazarus Pits to kill off over 2 billion people to save the rest of the planet, by forcing the Lazarus pits to overflow and flood the world. Batman, naturally, not only doesn’t agree with this approach, but any doubts about whether or not he should have joined with Ra’s earlier are probably erased by this. Ra’s tries to blame Batman by saying he was forced to this drastic action by Batman’s refusal, but it’s hard to believe someone called “The Demon’s Head” wouldn’t be willing to do something equally horrifying if Batman had agreed, but tried to change how the organization worked. After Batman blows up the ammo dump to get rid of all the regular henchmen (and knocks Ubu out against a metal wall), he and Ra’s sword fight to determine the winner, with Batman shirtless to keep in the spirit of the comics these were based on. Batman wins, of course, but it’s one of the most striking victories he has-he doesn’t outfight Ra’s, but instead uses his sword to destroy the equipment that will complete the plan. Ra’s is naturally not happy about this, but he overextends and falls into the Lazaraus Pit…and though he’s saved by jamming his sword into the wall, he decides to give up and let himself fall, rather than trying to take Batman’s hand to live. Batman gets picked up by Robin and leaves…but the episode doesn’t end until Ra’s hand emerges from the Lazarus pit, along with a reprise of his insane laughter from the end of the first episode.

This probably the first two parter where I literally cannot think of how it could be done in one episode. There have been others that worked well in two parts, or where too much happened to contain within 22 minutes. But even if you tried to spread out this story in the background somehow, it wouldn’t work. It’s cinematic in the best sense, both demanding that focus and rewarding the audience for it. And without an actor as talented as David Warner voicing Ra’s Al Ghul, it could have fallen apart. This could come across as silly or goofy in the hand of a lesser actor, but he gives Ra’s lines majesty, and the weight of ages of experience.

It’s also a story that lays out everything we need to understand Ra’s Al Ghul. There are the technical details-he’s centuries old, a fanatical ecologist (though far larger in scope that Poison Ivy), and continually dies and is reborn. But we also see that he’s a man well aware of his own mortality, arrogant in the extreme, but possessing a sense of honor that counterbalances the lengths he’ll go to for his ultimate goal. In other words, he’s a fascinating personality, a man who can be sympathetic (even heroic, on occasion), but always willing to go down dark roads to achieve his ends. The very embodiment of the idea of the end justifying the means.

Watch this one as soon as you can. “Off Balance” provides some backstory, but it’s not necessary to get into the action. With the possible exception of the magic Lazarus pits, this one is rock solid through and through.

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