Batman: The Animated Series, “Riddler’s Reform”

01May12

Most of the time, comic book villains don’t really need much of an explanation for how they get out of jail, the insane asylum, the grave, or all three. Some nod to their past state might be appropriate, considering where they last left off, but few fans would throw a tantrum about exactly how the Joker got out of some huge explosion without being killed. Still, when a character is left in a very unusual situation, it’s best to either technobabble them out of it, or just avoid discussing the matter. You don’t want to take the tack of “Riddler’s Reform,” where no one thinks to mention how he got out of being a withered husk at the end of “What Is Reality,” but they DO specifically reference that episode.

Still, this is a better send off for the Riddler than “Reality” was. “Reform,” at least, delves deep into his character and motivations, and makes his episodes so far into a rough origin trilogy. In his introduction in the Animated Series, the Riddler prepared to face Batman, but he had no desire to fight him; all he wanted was revenge against a short-sighted former employer. “Reality” saw him using a gimmick as a distraction, while trying to erase his identity from public record to keep from being caught. Here, he finally moves from simply dealing with Batman to obsessing with Batman as a worthy opponent. If there are gaps in that origin, at least the overall plot is entertaining enough. There is no grand scheme on the Riddler’s part to fool Batman, and his plan to sell puzzle toys seems legitimate on the surface, with robberies on the side to supplement a legitimate income and satisfy his criminal self-regard. It works better than creating some overarching plot to kill Batman at the same time he’s poised to make millions off his criminal persona.

Then, too, there’s the fact that the Riddler may be one of Batman’s most dangerous enemies, but he’s one of his least lethal. Of course, no one on the Animated Series actually succeeds in killing anyone. But where the Joker fails in blowing up a whole building or setting off a nuclear warhead, the Riddler only aims to kill 3 people: his former boss, Commissioner Gordon, and Batman. It makes the idea of the Riddler reforming much easier to swallow than, say, Poison Ivy (though “Home and Garden” did address that issue front and center). Sure, the Riddler turns out to be bad news here, but him selling puzzle games to kids doesn’t seem as terrible as Twoface endorsing something. Hell, if anything it’s the best move someone could make if they were going to introduce a line of puzzles. You might as well hire the guy who prides himself on trying to fool Batman, so he doesn’t take your products as a challenge or insult.

The first significant issue with “Reform” is something of an odd complaint: it’s too short. This isn’t a story that could play out over two episodes as a mystery, and for the running time it has, it’s a smart move that they don’t try to throw the viewer off about who’s behind the crimes. However, that feeling of missing information would fit well with more time. Another 10 minutes (with some cutting of unnecessary bits, like the Riddler getting all flustered when beautiful women talk to him) could have allowed for some idea of whether the Riddler thought of licensing his persona, or was approached with the idea…and if he agreed to it as a way to establish himself as a legitimate pitch man, or sought a cover for new crimes. With more time to tease things out, it could have been a more self-aware look into the Riddler’s mental illness and its ramifications. As it is, it seems like a jarring shift happens in the story, to force it from one story track to the other.

The second is that the latter half of the episode is very by the numbers. This isn’t just an issue of “And then Batman saves the day.” That’s pretty obvious, and railing against that would be pretty silly. But there’s no tension about the Riddler’s merchandising versus his compulsion to pit his intellect against Batman. He just does it, because he’s supposed to, and it’s not until Batman himself points it out to the Riddler that it becomes an issue late in the episode. He might as well have handed Riddler a note saying “Now I beat you” and called it a day.

Is this a bad episode? No. Like I said, it’s an improvement on “Reality,” and there are some good ideas in here. The real problem is that they don’t get fully developed, and it’s pretty disjointed because of that. It does at least end powerfully, with the Riddler screaming about how he has to know how Batman survived his death trap (an explanation that basically relies on Batman going “Look, over there! A previously unacknowledged object!”), something that turns the Riddler’s need to beat Batman into a real motivation. But while I wouldn’t say to stay away, it’s mostly notable for being the last Riddler episode of the Fox run, and in an unpleasant fight for a diminished first place of the three. Here, at least, the Riddler is a well done character that suffered from stories that didn’t love up to his potential.

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