Batman: The Animated Series, “Read My Lips”

28Aug11

Scarface is a strange Batman villain. Of course, that doesn’t say much. All Batman villains are strange to some degree. But he’s strange in that he’s probably the only villain that’s literally no physical threat to Batman. He’s more an odd visual than anything else, only dangerous because of his henchmen. There’s never been a version of the Penguin that’s an amazing fighter, but even he’s a threat when cornered.

Of course, you could say he fits because of the dual nature of the character-one personality is dominant but only expressed through a puppet, while the other is totally submissive, to the point of moving the puppet to threaten himself and being in real fear of dying at his own hands. However, that’s a better argument for Two-Face, at least in a thematic sense…and no matter how good “Read My Lips” is, you’re never going to think of Scarface before Two-Face as a prominent Batman villain.

There are a couple of notable things about the episode, and one of them is an aspect I’ve mostly been neglecting in these reviews: the music. That’s not because it’s not notable: it’s almost always a strong part of an episode, even one that’s otherwise lackluster (“Moon of the Wolf” being the one notable exception so far). But it’s hard to talk about the music without feeling like I’m repeating myself in most cases, since “this is great” would come up over and over again. Not the most insightful thing that could be said here.

Anyway, the main theme is a jazzy 1930s track, which sets the tone of a tense but controlled situation, something that fits the vast majority of the scenes. And really, everything here is about control. Scarface doesn’t make a splash by pulling any kind of thematic crimes or trying to get noticed by the press, it’s by doing highly skilled robberies with a small group of people. They’re notable for their efficiency and quick nature, but nothing else stands out. Sure, Batman manages to get a break that leads him to the group, but even that comes from a stroke of good luck, and it’s handed to him by Commissioner Gordon, instead of the other way around. Then there’s Scarface’s behavior. Sure, he acts like an outlandish stereotype of a gangster, but he’s focused on both the bottom line of making money, and making sure none of his gang slips up and makes a crucial mistake. As much as I enjoy characters like the Joker or Ra’s Al Ghul, it’s nice to be reminded that most criminals would rather not deal with Batman at all.

Part of the reason the episode is so good (aside from the gorgeous animation that compliments the wonderful music) is that there are no wasted parts. We only learn the name of one of Scarface’s henchmen, “Rhino” Collins, but all of them get some lines to help establish their dynamic…and so does the ventriloquist. Batman’s explanation to Alfred of the psychological situation is a fairly well done exposition scene, since it both gives information that’s not immediately obvious from the previous scenes, and has a nice little callback to Batman’s training with Zatara. Incidentally, the diagnosis in the episode is no longer recognized by psychiatrists, but considering they probably wouldn’t recognize most of the psychological disorders in the series, that’s just a minor point of interest rather than a real issue.

If the episode has a problem, it’s the climax of the second act. To build tension, of course, Batman has to run into some difficulty. We may know he’s going to win, but we want to see why. Unfortunately, the difficulty here is that Batman uses a listening device to get details on what the gang will do next, and then ambushes them. “Rhino” manages to get the drop on Batman after he’s arrived to knock him out…but he does so by knocking tons of platinum bricks onto our poor hero. Which should be instantly lethal, considering their weight and the amount. To the creator’s credit, their audio commentary fully acknowledges this, but it’s hard not to see Batman’s twitching hand sticking out of the rubble as his death throes.

Of course, he’s not dead, and he wakes up tied up above some improvised spikes. Here’s the other issue with the second act climax: Scarface says it was a trap. Only there’s no indication that any of the gang members expected Batman, or took precautions to trap him. The platinum squashing looked fully improvised, so was this Scarface testing his gang? Or just him lying to feel good about capturing Batman? The latter seems too subtle for a kid’s cartoon. Though again, I’ll give credit in that Scarface wants information from Batman, which is why he’s alive to wake up, escape, and take down the gang. There’s also a fairly horrifying puppet murder of Scarface (at least it’s horrifying when you see it), which leads to a fairly predictable but effective coda, where the ventriloquist is cured…but not really!

“Read My Lips” isn’t an amazing episode, but it’s another good piece of fluff for the series. Scarface won’t be getting any more episodes in the original run, but he does show up as a minor character a few more times, doing what he does best: providing some cheesy but effective atmosphere. He’s not the deepest character, but sometimes it’s nice to have someone that’s not a major psychological war for Batman or an example of how he could have gone wrong. Sometimes (hopefully not too often), you want to see an evil puppet get shot to death.

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