And like that...they’re gone!
Yep, another week, another season of the Exnihil DCAU custom order - this time out wrapping up all remaining episodes of Batman: The Animated Series. These will comprise all the episodes from the actual airdate season 3 - or, in other words, during the The Adventures of Batman & Robin branding - as well as one episode from each of the other aired seasons, plus the second BTAS feature film. That makes for just 14 episodes (albeit the last one feature-length), or the shortest season you’ll see in this whole order.
Call it the "writer’s strike" season, if you will.
It was a bit of an interesting exercise putting this last batch into a cohesive story. For one... whereas in seasons 1 through 4, I could juggle story beats in the interest of creating an arc, since this time there were so few eps left to choose from, it became a bit trickier. Additionally, I get the strong feeling that the "Adventures of Batman and Robin" episodes might have been a little less focused on emotional deep-dives than we've seen previously. There is still a level of continuity, but it certainly feels like there are more stand-alone episodes this time out.
That said, there were certain elements that jumped out at me that actually made it easier to place them into a sequential order (if not a thematic cohesion) simply because certain eps would have to occur in that sequence to make narrative sense. These include things like the appearances of Rupert Thorne, the various damage done to the Batmobile, the ongoing imprisonment (or lack thereof) of the Penguin, and the ever-more blatant references as the season goes on to a certain upcoming series.
All of these sort of worked together to create a sequence which pretty much had to be. As a result, there is a bit less of a unifying theme this time out, although - if I had to identify what it could be - I might say it is one of transition... the ending of one era making way for the next.
So, enough jibber jabber, let’s get into the rewatch!
As has been our wont, we launch the new season dealing with the fall out from the last. Arkham Asylum had just gone through a takeover by the inmates last season in Trial, so it makes sense that they’d beef up security, as seen in our opener, Lock-Up. New chief of security, Lyle Bolton, shows his true colors as he terrorizes the rogues. This ep acts nicely as a kick-off, as it’s mentioned that the Scarecrow’s escape was the first in months. By the way, the use of Scarecrow as the escapee sets up a call-back a few eps down. Also nicely coincidental is Harley Quinn’s behavior. She seems a bit (only a bit, mind you) less manic here, and that could set up the way her story plays out later in the season.
I did a bit of a shift next, dropping the idea of the ongoing story to do a stand-alone ep in Baby Doll. Honestly, I was dreading rewatching this episode as the premise just seems so silly - but I was pleasantly surprised. It was actually quite good, somewhat tragic really. That - plus Robin’s snarkiness throughout was a delight.
Speaking of tragic, it wouldn’t be BTAS without the pathos of Harvey Dent, so next up is Second Chance. This ep leaves Two-Face’s original-run arc on a note of hope, as well as setting the stage for old just-can’t-keep-him-down Rupert Thorne to build a greater resentment toward Batman. Also of note is the appearance of the Penguin in Stonegate. When last we had heard of him near the end of last season, in Catwalk. he was still on the loose, his conviction overturned. Obviously Batman has nabbed him again... but for how long... for how long???
The quiet ending of "Second Chance" blends nicely into the opening strains of Avatar, a hold over episode from an earlier season. Given how epic the Ra's al Ghul episodes tend to be, I didn’t want to introduce him too early on. By holding The Demon's Quest until season 4, it pretty much ensured he would have to be a late-run presence. "Avatar" is a good continuation of his tale if, perhaps, a bit far afield of what we’ve seen of him thus far. We also have to take a bit of a narrative jump at the end of this episode, as we are left to ponder how Batman gets out of the desert. The best I could do is provide a vague visual transition into the next episode with...
... Bane, which begins with a plane landing. It also acts a slight narrative convenience that Batman does not appear during the early part of this episode. It’s not an entirely satisfying solution but, I think, does help to ease the transition a bit. Here we see the other shoe drop regarding Rupert Thorne who - after being hassled in "Second Chance" - has basically had enough. Definitely more of a treading water ep than a stand-out, but harmless enough (and does establish Bane). That said, if I never see topless Robin again in my life, it’ll be too soon. Creepy.
Since we are wrapping up arcs with Two-Face and Thorne, how about another for good measure? Riddler's Reform is a fun episode that lets John Glover chew some scenery. Nice bit of continuity with the news story about Penguin’s capture last month now being called into the question by the jury. That guy is slippery, I tell ya. There's a slight mention of DA Janet Van Dorn - sadly the last. Also, check out Joker in the last scene - guy has had it, time for another escape.
And now we come to the really odd duck of the season, Showdown. Let me start by saying I love this episode, I really do. I’m a life-long Jonah Hex fan, and his characterization here is spot on for my tastes. That said... why? Admittedly, the episode does provide a degree of season-closure to the relationship between Bruce and Ra’s, it also is of a piece with some of the melancholy that has been running through eps like "Baby-Doll" and "Second Chance," but, over all, it sort of just doesn’t fit - either with the "season" or with BTAS itself. Looking at both the production order and the air date, this was a pretty late episode, so perhaps the crew - already prepping for Superman: The Animated Series - was looking to start looping in other DC characters. On that front, fine - as I say, it is a good episode - it just feels like a much later episode. Honestly, if I had my druthers, I think I'd actually stick the Hex story later in the overall order, but - given both the animation style and the appearance of Dick as Robin - I’m not sure that works either. In any case, for now, it acts as a mid-season detour, and a humanizing note in Ra's al Ghul's story.
So where to next? Well, obviously to a comedy episode. :-) When I was juggling these episodes around I was having a bit of a hard time following the sobriety of "Showdown"'s ending... until the elevator opened in Make 'Em Laugh and Condiment King stepped out. It was just such a ludicrous juxtaposition to go from Ra's to CK that… you know what? It works! At the end of the day, I feel the DC universe - more so than Marvel - is such a weird balance between somber post-Dark Knight posturing and zany Silver Age bonkersness that absolutely - a world where Batman faces down the head of an international secret society one day, and a guy shooting a ketchup gun the next, is exactly the world I expect in a DC show. Great continuity this time out, with the initial suspicion of the Mad Hatter, Batman seeing through Joker’s guise (Mask of the Phantasm callback), the lack of Harley (important next ep). Also, snarky Robin. He’s quite the quipster now that he’s graduated (or so I assume given how much he’s around. Get a job, brother.) Oh, and I can’t forget Superman Reference #1: "Up, up and away!"
The zaniness continues in Harley's Holiday, but falls much, much flatter for me in this one. I like the continuity of Harley being released (as I say, she did seem much more in control in "Lock-Up"), and the callback to Scarecrow escaping (again!), but the humor in this one is soooooo Looney Tunes that I think it detracts a good deal. General Vreeland is a huge misstep. Even with suspension of disbelief, I’m not buying a general driving a freaking tank down the street. The only way I can make this work in my personal head-canon is to say that perhaps Harley truly is mad, and what we are seeing is just her own cartoony perception of the world. Yeah, let’s go with that.
The lighter tone is still present (but dialed back, thankfully) in Time Out of Joint, the return of Clock King, this time (heh) with a more sci-fi inspired plot. Nice enough episode… nothing too stand out, but does include Superman Reference #2: "Faster than a speeding bullet". Production crew is chomping at the bit, apparently.
We now head into the home stretch with a left-over episode from airdate season 1, The Mechanic. When I was originally putting this order together, I mentioned I was using another fellow’s order as my base. He had reasoned that the placement of this episode should be very late in the original run, as it shows the destruction of the old Batmobile in advance of the new design. Gotta say... I totally agree. Coming as it does in this order - after both Bruce's initial inspiration in "Mask of the Phantasm", and the heavy damage done to the vehicle by Bane a few eps back (if you notice, it doesn’t appear at all in the following ep, "Riddler’s Reform" - must be in the shop) this ep is a perfect way to issue a swan song to this model. Plus... Penguin released again! Continuity!
And now down to the final arc, with two eps and a movie basically serving as a three-part grand finale. We start with Deep Freeze, the revisitation of BTAS’s perhaps most tragic figure, Mr. Freeze. The production team always tried to use him sparingly to preserve the drama of his story, and I think that continues to work here. Weird story with a Walt Disney-type villain, but major points for setting up the second feature film, as well as the next animated series with Superman References #’s 3, 4, and 5 as Krypto the Superdog, Streaky the Supercat, and Mister Mxyzptlk all make appearances in Karl Rossum’s toy collection. Cheeky, cheeky.
Act two of our finale is Batgirl Returns as… umm… Batgirl returns. The return of Babs is an integral part of the next phase of Batman’s story, presaged in both the burgeoning relationship we see between her and Dick, as contrasted with a different relationship that she imagines in her dreams. Hmmm... interesting stuff. Also interesting is how this ep nicely calls out past events (sometimes long past) regarding Roland Daggett as relating to both Clayface and Catwoman. And then, all of this continues to the big screen for a dramatic conclusion in...
Another hit from the House of the Bat. I really dug this film, perhaps even more so than "Mask of the Phantasm". Blasphemy, I know, but I thought the story, the characterizations and, above all, the animation, were all incredibly on-point. That, plus... you know... Mr. Freeze is such a good character. This film came out much later than originally planned. Originally, it was targeted to coincide with the release of the live action, "Batman and Robin" movie in the summer of 1997 but - when that film bombed - they held off releasing the animated companion piece until the following year. That would have originally placed its release after the first season of Superman: The Animated Series, but prior to The New Batman Adventures. With that in mind - since I’m not 100 percent on the production order of STAS season 2, TNBA season 1, and Sub-Zero respective to one another - similar to what I did with "Mask of the Phantasm," I’m going to assign it a product order sequence number of 0 at the start of TNBA. That’s not entirely accurate, as it was in work before that - probably during STAS season 1 - but... eh... it’s close enough, and makes more sense than to pair it with Superman.
Up next: Custom Season 6 - bye, bye Batman... hello, Superman!