Batman: The Animated Series, “The Lion and the Unicorn”

16Feb12

Hey, it’s the return of Red Claw! That’s….something!

Ostensibly, this is an episode about Alfred and his past. On the one hand, that’s a fairly interesting concept. The average butler (which seems like a very small sample group) may not be all that interesting, but Alfred is hardly average. Most rich eccentrics restrict themselves to unfortunate purchases or harmless obsessions, not fighting crime in the dead of night. And yet Alfred rolls with it for both his former master’s son and Bruce Wayne’s adopted son. This can’t be the sort of man who turned to his current career just out of luck or a desire to make some money.

On the other hand, I have to wonder how much we really need to explain Alfred. It’s often the case that the story a fan clamors for ends up being very disappointing, because it’s not told the way they wanted it to be. That applies whether it’s a fabled character crossover (the recently announced Doctor Who/Star Trek comic feels me with apprehension for this very reason), or pushing an obscure character into the limelight to reveal their mysterious past. Was Alfred some amazing secret agent? Did he meet Thomas and/or Martha Wayne in a clandestine way and then call on them later to look for a job? Maybe he’s a college friend that needed a new position after being turned out of his old one, through some scandal or skullduggery. The point is, for all the variations we could think of for Alfred’s past, someone is going to be disappointed by the “official” one, since there are so many possibilities. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth exploring at all, though. There are some interesting ideas about Alfred’s past in this episode, but unfortunately it gets buried under the action pieces with Red Claw, much like Catwoman’s debut was squelched by pairing it with Red Claw’s own first appearance.

It would be easy to claim that Red Claw is the source of the problem for both episodes due to an inherent problem with the character, but that’s unfair. True, she wasn’t a compelling antagonist in her first appearance, and she isn’t here either. Plus, with the introduction of Ra’s Al Ghul, her role as a global terrorist is redundant; a stronger character with clearer goals has been introduced, and it makes her seem too small for Batman’s time. Having said that, the problem with Red Claw is simply a lack of goals. She wants to hold governments for ransom, but does she have an ideological agenda other than creating chaos, or is she a super villain masquerading as a guerrilla fighter? Either of those interpretations would work, but the most motivation we get from her is “she’s evil!” Something that vague can work for a villain if they tie themselves to a strong aesthetic, such as the Joker or the Penguin. Red Claw’s only visual is that she’s a tall, strong woman who’s willing to kill millions, and there’s far too much telling about how scary she is, instead of showing it. The core of the idea is strong enough for multiple interpretations, and if she’d ever gotten an episode just about her plans, maybe there would have been time for her to stand out. Being paired first with Catwoman and Alfred makes her an antagonist not just in the story, but to our attention. We thought we’d be learning about Selina Kyle and the mysterious past of Batman’s faithful servant, and both times we have to deal with an indeterminate Eastern European threat instead.

For the first third of the episode, at least, it’s a show about Alfred. He’s conveniently one of the two people who has the launch codes for a nuclear weapon facility in England, and Red Claw lures him to England through an old civil service friend. Here we at least get to see him holding his own for a while, handling an unusual situation well. But then Red Claw reveals herself, and it changes from “Alfred’s Adventures” to the standard plot of stopping the villain and saving the day.

For all I’ve complained about Red Claw, at least I can say the change of venue to England makes for an interesting departure. It’s a nice change of pace to have underlings who may be able to recognize Batman and Robin are trouble, but don’t have any knowledge of their reputation. The same holds true throughout the country, as we see when the pair interrupt a high level government meeting. Everyone’s shocked that they got in, but no one recognizes Batman, and they definitely aren’t sure if they should trust these weird Americans in costume.

In addition, the action pieces show more than just the two of them punching their way to the big boss. A quick but excellent scene is when the pair take out a 4 person patrol in complete silence, grabbing them one by one until only the leader is left, having no idea what happened to all the men behind him. And then they handle the last line of defenses by creating a huge amount of smoke, to neutralize the numbers advantage. I wouldn’t say it’s the best action done in the show, but it’s a fine example of the two as real partners, taking out a huge number of enemies with non-lethal force quickly and efficiently. Unfortunately, things fall apart some by the end. as Red Claw somehow manages to get into the Batplane, even though she has no clear way to break in, or even time to do it, so she and Batman can have a very brief fight before he just ejects her ass, so he can take out the nuke and save the day.

So what to say of Red Claw’s second and final appearance? It’s a problematic one. This is definitely a better story than “The Cat and the Claw.” I’m sure part of that is because it’s only one episode instead of two, so we don’t have to deal with too thin a plot for the running time. On the other hand, it has the same bait and switch issue from the first appearance, and nothing works perfectly, as almost all of it gets too little time. We don’t get enough of a sense for how Batman has to operate differently in England, not enough time with Alfred before he’s captured, and I definitely would have liked to see more of the castle assault, even though that was the best element. It’s worth watching once, as an interesting concept with one clearly winning element.

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