Batman: The Animated Series, “Showdown”

17Apr12

This one is kind of a weird episode for the series. On the one hand, we get to see all the high points of a typical story: Batman (and to a lesser extent Robin) burst in on a crime in progress and do some fighting, confront the villain, and find out the truth. But these are in the two bookends to the real story, and that story makes it into a very interesting experiment, almost like a long-ago dry run for the Brave and the Bold TV series. After all, who would have expected Jonah Hex to show up in a kid’s cartoon in the early 90s?

As I said, the high points for Batman and Robin are at the beginning and end. It starts with the two interrupting Ra’s Al Ghul raiding a nursing home for one of the residents. Normally I’d wonder why he decided to do this with pseudo-ninjas and anesthetic gas in the middle of the night, but for once that’s not some failure on the villain’s part. Ra’s “hidden” plane reservation is outright named Lazarus, and Batman himself remarks that he wants to be found. Of course, you could ask why he would pump a building full of potentially lethal gas when it contains a lot of frail, elderly people, but Ra’s has never been interested in saving individual lives, so maybe he considers that a bonus rather than a potential hazard.

Completely disregarding the possibility of some kind of boobie trap in the tape Ra’s left them, Robin plugs it into the Batmobile (incidentally, I have no issue with the idea of Ra’s using a tape recorder in the modern day instead of a CD, but it’s funny that there’s no CD player in the Batmobile, yet there is a tape deck), and they get to hear about the time Jonah Hex completely, and almost as a side note, foiled a pretty hare-brained scheme to take over the US.

I actually like the fact that for the most part, Ra’s al Ghul’s plan to take over the US is pretty unlikely. Sure, the idea of using zeppelins to create a flying fortress in 1883 would make for a very potent military weapon. At the same time, it’s one flying fortress, and there is no magic technology that makes the carriage, or the balloons themselves, impervious to artillery. A fleet of these things could make for a terrifying threat to the US government, but just one? The fact that Hex is able to take it out with a few lucky sabotages is a good indication that this plan wasn’t going to get that far, even if Hex hadn’t spoiled it in the first hour. None of these points are dings against the episode. If anything, they underline the idea that for all of his resources, Ra’s has not always planned as well as he does in the present day, and his fanaticism blinds him to flaws in his ideas once he’s decided on a course of action. Whether he puts in those details in the story out of a sense of humility, or just couldn’t think of a good way to remove them without making the story incomprehensible, I don’t know. But even if it makes him seem less effective, I think he has a far better showing here than he did playing Belloq to Batman’s Indiana in “Avatar.”

Jonah Hex also makes for a nice change of pace in a protagonist. I wouldn’t say he could carry his own cartoon series; in fact, I will go out of my way to say he could not. Maybe an adult series, but this one episode has to work awfully hard to keep him in character without letting him clearly kill someone (though it’s hard to argue someone didn’t die when he threw a bomb into the ammo room). However,  he makes for a nice contrast with Batman, especially presented as an older version of himself. Arkady, Ra’s al Ghul’s son, is also a nice change of pace. He’s certainly villainous (it’s a nice if nasty detail that what he did to “that girl back east” is never explained, but there’s no good ending in that phrase), but he’s an opportunistic and entitled form of evil, something that has rarely come up in the show so far. And as Ra’s himself puts it at the end, it made him too unbalanced and cruel to work as an heir to the Demon himself for saving humanity. The clear acknowledgement that Talia is not his own child, and also not his only failure in producing an acceptable heir, underlines why he’s pursued Batman as a potential adoptive son.

“Showdown” is an episode that works best if you’ve already watched both episodes of “The Demon’s Head” (which you really should do anyway), but it’s strong even without that knowledge. The bulk of the episode works well without any prior knowledge of Batman and Ra’s al Ghul’s interactions, or even of Jonah Hex at all; I thought it was a great watch as a kid, and I didn’t know who the white haired guy was at the time. Part of that strength comes from some lovely animation, which makes the zeppelin and all the proto-steampunk technology in it pop out beautifully; a less talented set of animators could have made it into an ugly mess. Still, the story is the best part here, and the coda of Batman letting Ra’s and his son go home in peace is an appropriate and powerful ending. I highly recommend watching this, even if you haven’t seen the Demon’s Head yet, for whatever bizarre reason.

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