Batman: The Animated Series, “Batgirl Returns”

01Jul12

While I had nothing against Batgirl as a concept when I was a kid, in practice she was horning in on Batman. Her debut was a two parter that made her the star at the expense of our title character, and then she stole the last episode away from him as well. Clearly, this was unfair and wrong. Looking back now, some of my issues with Batgirl’s first appearance remain, but as a sendoff for the series, “Batgirl Returns” is actually a pretty worthy way to go.

Having said that, the opening scene is a bit…disconcerting. There’s a brief glimpse of someone stealing a statue, and then Batman starts to get his ass kicked on a rooftop by the Penguin, Two-Face and the Joker, when Batgirl appears and beats them all with ease. She’s thanked by Batman, and starts to go in for the kiss, before Dick Grayson wakes her up. Now I’m not saying Barbara’s dreams are wrong, but it’s unsettling to basically look straight into the libido of a college age woman on a kid’s show, even if it was a very chaste look. After hearing about the theft of the statue, Barbara decides to ditch her studies to investigate the scene of the crime. I do like that she remains an unofficial member of the Bat family here, going off on her own rather than fighting crime every night.

If the episode is about Batgirl, it’s actually controlled by Catwoman, who shows up to investigate the crime as well. Right from the start, though, she’s hostile to anyone else looking as well, so it’s pretty clear she’s up to something, even if she makes a good point about the robbery not being her style of theft. Robin butting in as well turns it from a conversation into an escape, and after Catwoman gets away, Robin uses some of his best sickishness lessons from Bruce Wayne on Batgirl before leaving.

Sometime later, Batgirl gets a note from Catwoman, proposing some kind of alliance. It makes sense she’d approach the young, potentially vulnerable crime fighter for this first, but I still wonder how the note got to Barbara before anyone else, or at least how she was the only one that went to the rooftop for the meeting. She makes Catwoman promise that if she’s up to anything, she’ll turn herself in to the police, which….really? You think that will somehow make anyone behave? She basically hands things over to Catwoman at that point, which only works with Batgirl. Even Robin wouldn’t trust Catwoman as far as he could throw her, and she’s one of the nicest enemies they have. Speaking of Batman, the episode does explain his absence through a phone conversation with him and Robin: he’s overseeing a Wayne merger in Europe. Rather convenient, obviously, but at least it’s not a reason that would promise to be a more exciting episode than the one we got.

Catwoman leads Batgirl to a sleazy dive for more information; though the name “The Stacked Deck” makes it sound like a Joker hideout instead, it’s not that dangerous. After finding a chemist has an uncanny resemblance to Dr. Sivana to identify the acid, they end up starting a huge bar fight, and have to escape both the bikers inside and the police outside to find the real culprit. The fight scenes, both here and in the opening scene, are some of the best animation of the series; not just beautiful in terms of detail, but in pacing and fight plotting. It’s a shame they had to leave the bar, but then the episode did need to have an ending

Turns out the culprit is Roland Daggett, who’s deliberately targeted a cat statue because he knew Catwoman would be blamed. The two have some words due to their history, but the call back to Cat Scratch fever is mercifully short, and Daggett’s motivations are entirely rational-put the blame on Catwoman to divert attention, and sell the statue as an attempt to get his business back on track. It’s also nice that Daggett plans to shoot them instead of putting them into some kind of deathtrap, because he’s actually able to learn from experience, thanks to not being insane like other rogues. Robin’s involvement pays off here, as he saves them instead of Batman suddenly returning from Europe just in time to come out of nowhere. Despite fighting with guns over giant vats of acid, no one dies, even if one henchman only survives thanks to convenient piping over a vat. Catwoman does her best to kill Daggett by giving him a dip, even though Batgirl tries to stop her. But Catwoman does not mess around, and the “you’d be no better than him!” speech isn’t just a failure, but dismissed entirely out of hand. Not that he does die, but Catwoman does not play around. In the end, Catwoman is captured…briefly, and then she steals the cop car right out from under them and drives off. Batgirl stops Robin from chasing after her, because Stockholm Syndrome is a powerful thing, even when you’re not actually kidnapped.

Would it have been nice for the last episode of the Fox run on Batman to involve some grand fight with the Joker, or some other earth shattering event? Well, sure. But that’s asking too much from a regular episode of the series. What we get instead is a well done examination of a minor character through the lens of a more prominent one outside of Batman himself, and with the most sympathetic of his rogues. There are worse ways to go, even if Batgirl sometimes is ridiculously naive. But I’ll take that over her being just a female version of Batman with the same level of skill and excellence; better that she be who she really is, an enthusiastic amateur learning the ropes by doing. And as I said before, Catwoman owns the episode, the grownup toying with the kids-or the cat with the mice. If there’s no grand finale here, there is at least a well done and entertaining episode that stands as a fine example of the series’ general merits. Which sounds like a great send off to me.

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