Sunday, February 6, 2005

Looking To The Stars: Dark Knight DVD - Review of Batman: TAS, Volume 2

It was my first year in junior high when it came out. Literally half a life-time ago for me. I was not quite a kid, just taking the first steps to adulthood. I was supposed to be moving past playing with toys and watching cartoons. Well, I was already past toys but there was one cartoon I just couldn't avoid watching when I heard about it. A new Batman cartoon was starting not too long after school started. And it would be on every afternoon AND Saturday mornings.

As it turned out, this cartoon was the perfect thing for a boy who grew up on Superfriends who was ready for something more mature. Something he could watch without feeling ashamed of doing "kids stuff". I speak, of course, of Batman: The Animated Series. Now, some 13 years after their original release, Warner Brothers is releasing all the original episodes in DVD box sets. The Second Season just came out this past week, and I have some thoughts ready upon the episodes themselves and the special features therein.

Disc One

1. Eternal Youth

A new executive health spa promises a dangerous fate for its guests when Poison Ivy is in charge. Mostly remembered as the first and last episode in which Alfred's girlfriend made an appearance, this is a serviceable Poison Ivy story, but not much else. 3 Stars.

2. Perchance To Dream

Bruce Wayne wakes up to find himself in a world where his parents are alive, he's engaged to Selina Kyle and Batman is someone else. One of my personal favorites, this was one of the few episodes to truly offer a good detective story and a surprise twist. 5 Stars.

3. The Cape And Cowl Conspiracy

The only episode by legendary writer Elliot S. Maggin. A nice Silver Age story, Batman finds himself hounded by a death-trap creating thief named Wormwood who uses riddles to lure his targets into his traps. The only bad thing about this episode, apart from the dues ex machine revelation as to who hired Wormwood to steal Batman's cape and cowl, is that it makes all the future episodes with The Riddler look bad by comparison. 4 Stars.

4 & 5. Robin's Recokning: Parts 1 & 2

I always preferred the episodes that didn't have Robin when I first watched the show. That is, until this episode. Which reminded me of how cool Robin is as a character and why I never really minded dressing up as him at Halloween (my brother and I recycled our Batman and Robin costumes for a few years). One of the darker episodes and yet the most subtle, this one didn't want for anything overall. Pity we lose the drama for action throughout all of the second half. 5 Stars for Part One. 4 Stars for Part Two.

6. The Laughing Fish

Paul Dini adapts yet another classic Detective Comics story, where Joker poisons every fish in the city, giving them his famous smile and then trying to get a cut of every fish-product in the city because his face is copyrighted. This is milking the goofiness of Silver Age Batman for all that it is worth. Joker's at his corniest, replying "Actually, I'm Irish" to a man who yells "Great Scott!" at his dramatic entrance. But it works. Even Joker's exit, jumping off a roof with an inflatable raft instead of a parachute, works well. Four stars.

7. Night of the Ninja

A face from Bruce's days training in Japan returns to get revenge for a perceived slight. Not the greatest episode ever, but enjoyable. 3 Stars.

Disc Two

1. Cat Scratch Fever

Released on probation for her crimes, Catwoman stumbles onto a plot to plague Gotham through contaminated cats. Dull, overploted and way too slow, this is one of the few bad episodes of the series. Catwoman is played as a straight hero and this has never worked well the few times it has been tried. Still, the voice acting is good. 1 star.

2. The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne

Psychiatrist Hugo Strange is using a mind-reading machine to get into the minds and, through blackmail, the wallets of the elite of Gotham City. A Silver Age throw-back that should have been thrown back. This one is not without its charms but some very interesting villains who could have been used much better are turned into easily manipulated goons. Crazed as they are, I'm thinking that among Joker, Two-Face and Penguin surely ONE of them would have asked why on earth the man offering them Batman's identity would tape himself confessing to conning them. 1 Star.

3 & 4. Heart of Steel

Batman investigates a robot-making competitor whose creations seem to have taken on a life of their own. Classic. Notable for William Sanderson's performance as a robot maker; echoing his famous role in the movie Blade Runner. Also notable as the first appearance of Barbara Gordon, who makes an excellent showing in the action scenes, though she isn't quite Batgirl yet. 4 Stars.

5. If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Rich?

Computer game designer Edward Nygma, turns to crime to get revenge on the boss who cheated him out of a fortune in royalties. A serviceable introduction to The Riddler, reimagined as a brilliant games designer rather than a crazed kook obsessed with puzzles. I've heard the show's writers say that had a hard time getting Riddler stories written, due to the difficulties in coming up with good puzzles and pitfalls for him to use. Where was Elliot S. Maggin when he was needed, eh? 3 Stars.

6. Joker's Wild

Joker escapes from Arkham, intent on revenge against the millionaire who built a casino based upon him. Flawless. This is Paul Dini writing Joker at his chaotic best. The first of many stories centering upon Joker as he works against another bad guy and leaves Batman to clean up the mess. 5 Stars.

7. Tyger, Tyger

Catwoman is kidnapped by a doctor who turns her into the perfect mate for his Cat-man. One of the creepiest, certainly the most poetic Batman episode ever. No pun intended, though the title comes from a William Blake poem and Batman quotes the first verse at the end. With a story drawn from The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Most Dangerous Game, this episode is less than the sum of its parts. 2 Stars.

Disc Three

1. Moon of the Wolf

An athletic millionaire is turned into a werewolf by a mad scientist. Everyone who wanted the return of the weedy scientist from "Cat Scratch Fever" rejoice. Milo returns and then thankfully, for the rest of us, disappears forever. Quite possibly the worst episode ever done for the series, Len Wein has written a LOT better. 0 Stars.

2. Day of the Samurai

Following up Night of the Ninja, Bruce's old rival from his samurai training returns for revenge armed with a new death-touch technique. Better than Night, this episode was very well written and neatly brought Batman into a martial-arts themed show. The fight scene at the end is one of the best in the series. 4 Stars.

3. Terror In The Sky

It appears that Man-Bat has returned, leaving both Batman and Dr. Kirk Langstrom swimming for answers. Another sequel, this one isn't quite as good as On Leather Wings, which was the pilot for the series. It's not bad. But neither is it that good. 3 Stars.

4. Almost Got 'Im

Batman's Rogues Gallery get together for a night of poker and tale-swapping of how they each "almost got 'im". A favorite for all fans of the show, this episode is not without its flaws but the humorous script and brisk tone masks them. 5 Stars.

5. Birds of A Feather

Newly release for good behavior, the Penguin is out to reform himself and reenter high society. A confusing episode, as we balance between Penguin presenting himself as a dapper king among rogues and then turning into crass buffoon when he's in the high society he wishes to be a part of. Much better to have had him played totally straight and instead having the comedy come totally from the reactions of high society to him. 2 Stars.

6. What Is Reality?

The Riddler Returns, this time trapping Commissioner Gordon inside a deadly virtual reality game. Not too bad, so long as you don't think about why Riddler goes through so much trouble AFTER accomplishing his main goal; destroying all the records of his identity. The animation, sadly, is sub-par. 2 Stars.

7. I Am The Night

In the wake of Commissioner Gordon's shooting at a steak-out he skipped to visit the site of his parents deaths, Batman questions how much good he is truly doing. The most psychological of the episodes, Batman is uncharacteristically angsty as he considers hanging up the mask for good. More than any other episode, this one explains exactly who Batman is and what he does. 5 Stars.

Disc Four

1. Off-Balance

Batman and a mysterious woman unite to recover a stolen weapon from terrorist leader Count Vertigo. Here is where Len Wein wrote better. An average episode, it is improved by some wonderful voice acting. That, and the cameo at the end that would hint at even better things to come. 4 Stars.

2. The Man Who Killed Batman

Low-level flunky Sid The Squid lucks (or unlucks as the case may be) into being thought responsible for killing Batman. Another one of several episodes that observe the effects Batman has on the city rather than showing Batman himself. Similar to Joker's Favor but with a heavier Noir influence. The scene with Joker giving Batman a funeral is one of the best ever. 5 Stars.

3. Mudslide

Matt Hagen, the actor mutated into the monstrous shape-shifter Clayface, comes out of hiding and returns to crime as he begins to lose his ability to hold himself together. A pitiful sequel to the original Feet of Clay which introduced the character, this one suffers from having too much to live up to. Still, it would have been a fitting swan-song for Matt Hagen, had he not been brought back for episodes which were even worse than this mediocre offering. 3 Stars.

4. Paging The Crime Doctor

The tale of the gangster, his brother the doctor, his friend the other doctor and The Batman. One of the few "common man" stories that never took off, this one is strictly average though it does have one of the best endings in the series run. 3 Stars.

5. Zatanna

Batman steps in to clear a teenage friend, the stage magician Zatanna, on charges of robbery. Not the best thing Paul Dini ever wrote, but far from unenjoyable. A shame it took them 12 years to do anything else with the character of "Zee" in Justice League. 3 Stars.

6. The Mechanic

Batman's personal mechanic's life comes into danger when The Penguin learns who he is. A rather flat and uninteresting story except for the purists who like to know "where does he get all those wonderful toys?" 3 Stars.

7. Harley and Ivy

After robbing the same museum the same night, villainesses Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn team-up for some prolonged larceny together. Saving the best for last, this is another episode listed by most fans as one of their favorites. The first to put Harley and Ivy, the screwball and the femme fetale, together, this one suffers from some odd animation at points but is enjoyable on all other fronts. 5 stars.

Special Features

For a show that redefined the genre of superhero animated cartoons, there is surprisingly little else in the way of extras than the episodes themselves. The special features are limited to four commentaries (one per disc) and three documentaries on the development of the show. None of the documentaries are more than ten minutes at the most, with most leaning closer to the five-minute mark.

The commentaries all suffer from a degree of sameness. With the exception of the last two commentary tracks, the commentary is limited almost exclusively to Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski- executive producers on the show. Sadly, they aren't the most interesting of hosts- spending most of their time trying to recall who storyboarded what scenes, complaining about how the animation didn't come off in some places and generally pointing out various flaws in the technical elements that I never noticed before and really didn't care about until I noticed them. While some of their talk about how the censors actually improved Robin's Reckoning by not allowing them to show the Graysons hitting the ground as their trapeze broke is interesting, elements like this are few and far-between on the commentaries on Robin's Reckoning and Heart of Steel.

Thankfully, Paul Dini shows up for the commentaries of Almost Got 'Im and Harley and Ivy, and things immediately lighten up. The talk shifts to ideas for the show, jokes they couldn't get away with and the things there were amazed they DID get away with. All of which is infinitely more interesting than hearing the two head guys talking about how rubbery the Batmobile looks hugging a curve. Overall, a solid 3 stars for the whole thing.

One comment though: next set, let's get some of the actors in the booth to talk about the episodes. I'd love to hear Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill talk about their work!

Robin Rising: How the Boy Wonder's Character Evolved

Brief but harmless, this series of interviews mingled with clips of the show, talks about how Robin's character was expanded, developed from the comics and how they eventually came to create the Jason Todd/Tim Drake hybrid for the final season. 3 stars.

Gotham's Guardians: The Stalwart Supporting Characters

The most interesting part is Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. talking about the character of Alfred and the relationship he shares with Bruce. Aside from that, we get very little new insight from the producers and nothing at all from the actors involved. 2 stars.

Voices of the Knight: Voiceover Stars Talk Some More About Their Work

Finally! Some commentary from the actors themselves. Though we only get brief tidbits from Batman, Catwoman and The Joker about their work, there is plenty to amuse here. Perhaps the best bit is Mark Hamill talking about practicing The Joker's different laughs while stuck in traffic on the freeways of Los Angeles. 4 stars.

Overall, I'd give the Second Season DVD set a solid 4 stars out of 5. It's not perfect and could really benefit from having commentaries for ALL the episodes. But considering I now have a little bit more of my misspent teen years ready to recall in one box, I can live with this.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt website.

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