Batman: The Animated Series, “The Worry Men”

31Aug11

So, I’ll give this episode credit for one thing I hadn’t considered much when I was a kid-it pulls an effective twist on you for the first third. It starts off with a South/Central American themed villain, who uses tiny little dolls to somehow control people’s mind for something that’s half robbery, half extortion. The only problem with this is that as a series, B:TAS generally does not truck with the supernatural. It’ll use super science all the time: Lazarus Pits, fully sentient AI run off 1930s-esque technology, fully functional military laser capabilities, all of that and more. But no magic has yet appeared on the show. Some things may flirt with it so far (Lazarus Pits being the prime example), but suddenly going down the route of “tribal magic” as a way to commit crimes is way, way off base here.

Thankfully, that’s intended, because the big reveal for the episode is that the “evil shaman” character is actually being controlled, along with his henchmen, by the Mad Hatter. Super science takes over for magic, and suddenly we’re on much firmer footing. Why would some rural villager come to Gotham to steal a lot of American money? It’s too convoluted to make sense. But it makes some sense for Jervis Tetch, especially since his scheme started in Gotham, not in the unnamed rainforest. But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here.

The show starts off with a fairly scathing critique of the idle rich in Gotham, with Veronica Vreeland, a minor recurring character last seen trying to fool the Penguin, coming back from a rainforest expedition to talk about how we need to save it. She doesn’t actually hold a party with rainforest wood in all the furniture, but clearly this was a lark for her instead of a serious expedition to help protect the area, and almost all of her party guests respond in kind, with the exception of minor guest LeVar Burton. Bruce Wayne, at least, puts it as her “finally” doing something useful with her money, before running off to face the shaman watching from Gotham’s ubiquitous skylights. The ensuing chaos is mostly notable for something Batman caused, since there’s no indication the shaman would have done anything other than watch if he hadn’t been confronted, but let’s be fair, Batman had no way of knowing that at the time. What’s more notable is that the shaman apparently has a Mesoamerican technique to DEFY GRAVITY, since that’s how he escapes.

The best touch in the plot, to me, is that Alfred accidentally sets up Batman to fall victim to the scheme with the worry men, by putting the one Veronica gave him under his pillow. This leads to a scene that was funnier when I was a kid than it is now, where Bruce Wayne’s secretary tells him about a request he doesn’t remember making, and it leads to a random guy in jaguar gear stealing 20 million in a briefcase. That idea is still amusing, but the thick Jamaican/Creole accent of the secretary is more painful that funny now.

Fortunately, Batman remembers past episodes well enough to know this fits with the Mad Hatter’s two appearances so far, so after saving Miss Vreeland’s jewel collection and getting a clue, it’s off to the Mad Hatter’s hideout. It’s interesting that Batman himself points out the fact that such an amazing technology is being used to steal money, but let’s take a moment to look at the Hatter himself here. In his one substantial appearance so far, he was hopelessly besotted with an employee he could not have, and it drove him to madness in the end. Then the next time he appears, it’s only for a bookend (even if it was a powerful one); we get no idea of what he was doing at the time Batman appeared. Here, he’s a far more rational man…at first. He’s trying to steal enough money to disappear completely, there’s no indication he plans to kidnap Alice again, and he uses a splashy visual to help deflect attention from himself. He’s not such a tragic character any more, and I think that’s a good thing. His first episode is still amazing, but doing the same story over and over again would not have been a good idea. Even if they were told well, the obsession that was already disturbing one time would only become more unsettling with repetition.

Of course, I say he’s more rational at first. His plan is actually fairly clever, if convoluted: after hearing about Vreeland’s well publicized trip, he gets ahead of her, and gets her to buy some cute trinkets to give to her high society friends. The madness remains because rather than just getting the doll maker to help him for a while in his own village and then let him go, the Hatter took the poor man with him into Gotham for the rest of the scheme. Whether that’s just because he could, or to use him as a sacrificial pawn to Batman, it’s a rather terrible thing to do. So is mind controlling people in general, of course, but making some Gotham gang members go half naked in furs isn’t the same level of disruption (though you could argue some things about Jervis’ interests based on that). Plus there’s the fact he tries to cut off Batman’s head with a guillotine, but that’s only notable for being such a blatant attempt to kill someone.

This episode is more notable for fully reintroducing the Mad Hatter than anything else. It’s a good episode beyond that; the animation is decent instead of good, but still perfectly serviceable, and it’s nice to see such a memorable villain cast off some of his origin history so he can do other things that obsess over specific people, like he has with Alice in his introduction, and Batman in “Perchance to Dream.” The rainforest backdrop for the plot is mostly stereotypes, though inoffensive; it’s more an issue of not learning much about the shaman and his village than getting any talk about “noble savages” or the like. I would say it’s worth watching once, but more for the twist and the second half than the first, which is primarily setup and not much else.

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