Batman: The Animated Series, “Avatar

12Oct11

Remember when I said that this series generally doesn’t do supernatural things? Here’s the big exception so far. While it’s not as bad as I remembered, it’s fatally flawed, and for more reasons than throwing in magic.

In his first full appearance, I talked about Ra’s Al Ghul as Batman’s greatest enemy, and that holds true. The downside to this is that unlike the Penguin or the Joker, you absolutely need to space out his appearances. It doesn’t matter how powerful Ra’s is if you feel like he shows up every week. You generally don’t want 3 Joker stories back to back, but you could do it. 3 globetrotting adventures, on the other hand…well, how many ancient secrets can one man be searching for at the same time?

The episode actually has two openings. The first is a flashback, where an archeological expedition goes horribly wrong because of a strange green light underground. The second opening is with Bruce Wayne and Lucius Fox, talking about the new Egyptian wing of a museum that Bruce paid for. It’s not too bad as exposition, though it’s perilously close. I’d wonder why Bruce Wayne paid for a new Egyptian wing for this museum, but considering that the place is robbed that night, it wouldn’t surprise me if he’d set it up as bait for whoever noticed the announcement in the papers. Instead of getting the Riddler, though, it’s Ubu and Ra’s, and the two of them manage to awkwardly take Batman out and escape. A 600 year old man and a giant who regularly yells “INFIDEL!” is not the ideal pairing for sneaky robbery, but I suppose surprise was firmly on their side here. Of course, this is more about cluing Batman into the fact that Ra’s didn’t die in their last encounter, so he can go flying around the world dressed like a Southern gentlemen. Dig that all white ensemble!

He makes the logical move of looking up Talia to talk about this, and it turns out that she didn’t know her dad was alive either. After confusing Bruce with her human displays of affection, the two of them team up to find out what her dad is up to, and the chase is on. Kind of. There’s a case to be made that after losing his desert stronghold, Ra’s is basically working out of his basement to take over the world because he lost most of his resources, but it makes the whole plot underwhelming. Even Batman comments on it, since Ra’s goal is to find an ancient queen’s tomb and somehow use her knowledge to kill people. Sure, it turns out to be true, but even for someone like Batman, this is pretty far from reality. There’s also the fact that for someone who’s been around for 600 years, the idea that he’s been obsessed with finding this for most of his life, and Bruce Wayne just happened to buy the one thing he needs to find the place, is ludicrously convenient. It takes away from his grandeur as an antagonist.

Then again, so does the whole third act. Ra’s manages to get to the tomb before Talia and Batman, but Batman is able to remember the coordinates he read well enough to get there soon after. The two of them are taken prisoner long enough to watch Ra’s uncover the scrolls that will supposedly give him power over life and death, only to have them crumble into dust as he tries to pull the papyrus out. That alone isn’t a problem; if anything, it’s an interesting way to point out how Ra’s has lost perspective in his quest to take over, since he took no real precautions for preserving ancient artifacts made of perishable materials. But while Talia and Batman deal with Ra’s henchmen, the man himself discovers a secret passage leading down. This brings him to an ominously glowing pit of green slime, out of which an ancient Egyptian woman appears and speaks to him in English. Oh, and the pit is surrounded on all sides by bones.

I’m sure Ra’s is a man who has seen a lot of very strange things in his time, and he has no issue with ominously glowing pits of green liquid. After all, he uses them all the time to stay alive longer than he should have. But when someone obviously supernatural comes out of a different one, surrounded by death, it’s not a smart idea to ask if it will share its secrets. His actions here cross the line from just being obsessed to actively stupid, and it’s a disservice to the character. Naturally, Batman and Talia have to save him, which pisses off the corpse lady. But Batman is able to kill her with a giant statue to the head, so all’s well that ends well. Except when Talia frees her father and his henchmen, then gallops off to leave Batman in the desert, after he’s saved everyone’s lives. Only Ubu has enough gratitude to give him a canteen of water first.

Visually, this episode is very nice. It’s well animated all around, even if the color palette is a bit limited by the primary settings of Egyptian deserts. There are times when you can see the strain, such as the green glow around Thoth-Capera (the undead Egyptian queen), or Ra’s returning to normal by just cutting back to his normal character model. But those are issues of budget rather than animation quality, so I can’t really knock the episode for that. What I can knock it for is that it’s just sub-par. The acting is as good as always, the animation is high quality…but the story doesn’t really fit the antagonist. There isn’t a better character for this than Ra’s, but it feels too low budget for his ambitions. It turns him from a somewhat mythic character, someone who could theoretically be the protagonist of an episode, into a caricature. This is hardly a terrible episode, but it’s easily skippable, and I recommend doing just that.

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