Saturday, October 31, 2009

Bat-Month: "Hi Diddle Riddle"/"Smack in the Middle"

I've always loved the Riddler, and I've very rarely seen a version that I didn't like1. I don't care for the design of the Riddler on "The Batman," but I've never watched enough of that series to know if I like the portrayal. But outside of that, I like the "private investigator" version of the character in the current comics, I generally liked the character even in "Hush," I loved solving his puzzles in "Batman: Arkham Asylum," and I'm not sure there's ever been a better Riddler story than "If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Rich?"

So it's interesting to take a look back at Frank Gorshin's version of the character, who made "The Riddler" a household name, and "riddle me this" a common phrase. "Hi Diddle Riddle" and "Smack in the Middle" are the first two episodes of "Batman" '66, and there's really something to love in a Batman series that begins with a Riddler story.

The episode begins with a scene at the Gotham City World's Fair, where the Moldavian Prime Minister is about to unveil his country's greatest national treasure. Before he does that, though, he has to cut the traditional Moldavian friendship cake, which explodes. As the crowd panics, a police officer points to something that shot out of the cake and is now floating to the ground on a parachute.

We cut to Commissioner Gordon reading the para-riddle:
Why is an orange like a bell?

Which leads to what is, by now, a familiar scene: the Gotham City Police Department shamefacedly admitting total inability to solve children's puzzles and stop a criminal whose greatest weapon is a bowler hat, and turning toward the bright red phone under a serving dome that really only slows down the process.
Yes, you should be ashamed.

Alfred answers the phone and goes to retrieve Bruce. Commissioner Gordon looks up from the phone and says, "We're in luck: he's at home." How many unfettered sprees have occurred while Batman was out getting groceries?

Anyway, this actually leads to a very unfamiliar scene in this series: Bruce Wayne speaking before a group of people, pledging his financial support for their enterprise. His reason:
Perhaps if there'd been anti-crime centers of the type you now propose when my own parents were murdered by dastardly criminals...

It's one of very few callbacks to Batman's origin in this series, which is somewhat unsurprising given how dissonant that is with the lighthearted nature of the show. I admit, it's difficult to reconcile the modern Batman, whose persona clearly comes out of the Crime Alley tragedy, with this version, who takes time out of crimefighting to properly parallel park, but it's interesting to see that the origin wasn't excised (or ignored) entirely. Robin, on the other hand...

Bruce gives the excuse of taking Dick fishing, and I know it's not the only time he's used that same excuse in the half dozen or so stories I've recently watched. What does he say in the Winter? Ice fishing?

"Atomic batteries to power, turbines to speed..." yeah, it does give me a little geek thrill to hear that.

Perhaps the other half of the homophone was more well-known in 1966, but I still think the answer to the Joker's riddle could have used more explanation; it makes more sense in writing than it does out loud:
Batman: Why is an orange like a bell?

Robin: Answer: because they both must be peeled!

Batman: Right, you peel an orange and you peal a bell! Get it?

Sure, Batman, I get it, but I have a relatively large vocabulary.
Chief O'Hara: What idiots we are! Now, why couldn't we have worked that out?

Gee, Chief, it might be because you immediately gave up and called Batman, rather than even considering answers to the riddle.

Batman and Robin discuss the Riddler's modus operandi, explaining that he leaves confounding clues that may or may not direct them to the real crime, leading to this gem of a simile:
Batman: The Riddler contrives his plots like artichokes:

The Riddler contrives his plots like asparagus: once you solve them, it makes your pee smell funny.

This screenshot is from the moment after he says "artichokes": it looks to me like Commissioner Gordon (in the back) is as shocked and confused at the comment as I am. Do tell, Batman:
You have to strip off spiny leaves to reach the heart.

Oh...okay. Batman's rambling eventually leads him to realize that the Riddler's target is the Peale Art Gallery--next to, I assume, the Steede Museum--but suspecting some trickery, he tells the cops to stay put while he and Robin mount their investigation. Upon arriving at the Gallery, Batman lets loose with this line that sounds like it's half-Middleman and half-fodder for Ambiguously Gay Duo jokes:
Batman: Let's mosey up the back way.

The Batmobile is a surprisingly prescient car.

There are a couple of things I like about the Batmobile Phone. First, it reminds me of the old car phone my family used to have, which was bulky and unwieldy and corded. Second, I like that it's shaped like a bat, but the Bat-Phone isn't. Given that the Bat-Phone sits out in Bruce Wayne's sitting room, this demonstrates an uncharacteristic amount of subtlety and attempt to conceal his secret identity. I mean, sure he's got a translucent red telephone in his sitting room that looks identical to the one the police use to call Batman, but at least it isn't bat-shaped.

The sign on the wall behind the Bat-Poles more than makes up for that subtlety, though:
Maybe this is just an example of Bruce prteparing for the possibility of ending up like the guy from Memento.

I mean, I understand labeling the poles themselves (making that mistake would be disastrous for all involved), but who is that sign for? Are Bruce and Dick afraid that they're going to forget what's at the bottom of the poles?

The phone call is from the Riddler--or rather, a recording of the Riddler2--giving them another riddle to solve:
Before you trip over your cape, Batman, riddle me this: There are three men in a boat with four cigarettes but no matches. How do they manage to smoke?

Rather than solving the riddle, they decide to scale the building so as to ambush him. Robin is struggling to figure out the Riddle, and Batman suggests that it's because his mind's preoccupied with "that cute little teenager who waved to you on the way across town." I like that kind of good-natured ribbing between the Dynamic Duo; it's another instance of this series sneaking in a bit of character depth even when you wouldn't expect it.

Climbing up to a barred window, they find this scene--and doesn't the Riddler look dashing?
I'll bet he shops at the Fashionable Villain.

Seriously, that's a nice outfit, especially for a 1960s supervillain.

Batman cuts through the bars with some kind of laser torch, and then the duo crashes through the window to ambush the Riddler. They place him under arrest for armed robbery (as duly deputized officers of the law), at which point two goons come out and take a picture of the scene. The Riddler starts giggling and says he even tipped them off. Then, the curator chimes in:
Mr. Peale: Batman, you've made a mistake: He didn't steal that cross.

Robin: What?!

Curator:I tell you, it belongs to him! He lent it to me for a show!

Batman isn't quite convinced, noting that he saw Peale being held at gunpoint. The Riddler then demonstrates that the gun isn't a gun at all:
That bright spot is a flame. Not every screenshot can be perfect, you know.

Robin: Holy ashtray, he did tip us off! There were three men in a boat with four cigarettes and no matches. How did they manage to smoke? They threw one cigarette overboard and made the boat a cigarette lighter!

I like that one, but then I'm a fan of puns.

Mr. Peale explains that Batman and Robin saw Riddler lighting his cigarette while Peale gave him back the cross. It's a contrived set of circumstances, but then again, this is the Riddler we're talking about. He foresaw Batman's blunder, which is why he brought witnesses with cameras. He then poses this brilliant riddle:
Riddler: Ho ho! What is it that no man wants to have, yet no man wants to lose?

Robin: A lawsuit!

Riddler: Correct, Boy Wonder!

Dare I say it? Yes, I dare:
Oh, it's ON!
Batman got served!

After the break, we find Bruce, Dick, and Alfred watching the news report, which addresses in somber tones the prospect that Batman and Robin will almost certainly have to unmask in court, thereby ending their crimefighting careers.

Bruce says here that he's been through all his father's old law books, which suggests that Thomas was a lawyer in this continuity, or perhaps some sort of polymath. He doesn't think they have a leg to stand on. Alfred, always one to find the dark cloud behind every silver lining, brings up the point that things will not be pleasant once Aunt Harriet finds out what Bruce and Dick have really been doing on their "fishing trips." This is a good point, though a sad one: given her comments and behavior, I wouldn't be surprised to see Aunt Harriet press charges for endangering a minor. Bruce could end up sued and imprisoned all in one fell swoop.
Batman, brooding? Say it ain't so!

There is an awkward and somber silence for a moment, until Dick takes a look at the lawsuit itself. He remembers what the Riddler said when he handed it to them:
When you've chewed over this one, look for two others.

He and Bruce reason that he meant two other riddles, which must be on the legal document. They look at it with some blinking lights and what looks like a shiny rotary sander:
Batman, do you even know what these tools do?

And discover riddles written between the lines. Curse those lawyers and their fine print!
Batman: When is the time of a clock like the whistle of a train?

Robin: When it's two to two--toot too tooo!

Sure, they explain that one with Robin making train noises, but they leave the "peal" one up to the viewer to make sense of.
Batman: What has neither flesh, bone, nor nail, but has four fingers and a thumb?

Robin: A glove, of course!

This leads them to an address: 222 Glover Avenue.

We cut to the underground subway lair of the Mole Hill Mob, where Jill St. John is eating caviar out of a jar3. One of the wiseguy gangsters tells her not to, because the caviar's full of calories and she'll blow up like a balloon. Good to see such equality among the criminal set. Quickly, the Riddler comes bounding down the stairs in a much less dashing outfit, proclaiming that Batman's had time to solve the riddle.
The Riddler is kind of the Tigger of Batman's rogues gallery. I think that makes the Penguin Rabbit, and Mr. Freeze is clearly Eeyore.

Now seems like as good a time as any to digress a moment. This story, like the Penguin one that follows it, shows the villains to be particularly brilliant by having them use Batman's own traits against him. The Penguin played on Batman's detective skills, knowing that he'd see connections and patterns where none existed. Here, the Riddler plays on Batman's overwhelming respect for the law, knowing that it trumps his need for secrecy. Riddler here even has the Duo down to a set pattern, knowing how long they typically need to find and solve his clues. What this does, compared to Batman's own methods of detection and deduction, is set the rogues up as his intellectual equals, just as able to deduce things about his life and find patterns in his methods as he does with theirs. This is, rather sadly, often missing in the modern Batman stories.

The Riddler and his Mob head through the tunnels, presumably to Glover Avenue. Meanwhile, the Batmobile speeds down the street to the address--the new discotheque, What A Way to Go-Go. Suspecting a plot to rob the wealthy patrons, they start to head inside, but the doorman says that Robin is underage. Batman's response? You guessed it: "It's the law." While he suspects that this may be a plot to separate them, the law trumps safety. Besides, Robin says he can take care of himself. Batman here takes Lawful Good to new extremes.

Incidentally, while Robin's too young to go into the club, he's old enough to drive the Batmobile:
And yet he doesn't get his own car until the '90s.

He parks so he can watch the Bat-scope. What's he watching, you ask?
Batman still hasn't figured out how to set the parental controls.

Typical teenager.

Batman looks really out of place inside the club, while Jill St. John (her character still hasn't gotten a name) watches him from the bar.
This doesn't look like an abandoned warehouse...

He orders a large fresh orange juice at the bar4, and Jill asks him a riddle:
Jill: Why is a quarrel like a bargain?

Batman: Well well, what master taught you to riddle?

Jill: The answer is it takes two to make it. Like beautiful music, like the dance...shall we?

Batman's OJ arrives, and we get this stunning exchange:
Batman: What's your name?

Jill: Molly [finally, a name!]

Batman: You interest me...strangely.

Bats, you're making it very difficult for me to avoid the gay jokes.

Batman and Molly dance, and you know what's coming next:
I didn't realize it was called 'the Batusi' in the show.

Things start to go blurry for the Bat, and he realizes his drink was drugged. Robin sees him collapse on the Bat-Scope, but before he can get out of the car, he's shot with a hypodermic dart by the Riddler. Molly and the bartender head down the manhole back to their lair, while the Riddler accidentally triggers the Batmobile's anti-theft device--which is a bit of ingenuity cribbed straight from the Evil Overlord List:
Such handy labeling.
And Rule #9 for the win!

Since he can't steal the car, he kidnaps Robin and throws a small bomb into the car to burn it up. This triggers naturally, the Batostat anti-fire device, which puts out the flame5. Cursing the car, Riddler escapes with his gang, Robin in tow. Batman rushes out of the club to the car, to go after Robin. The police officers won't let him out of the parking spot, though:
Officer: Hand me the key, Batman. I'm afraid you're in no condition to drive.

Batman: Yes, of course officer, you're entirely correct.

Again, the Riddler plays on Batman's adherence to the law to ensure that he won't be followed, even though he could neither steal nor destroy the car. Also, this scene is pure awesome.

Back at the Riddler's lair, Robin is trapped, unconscious, with his head in a vise. Naturally, it's on this cliffhanger that the episode ends, with a teaser for part two:
This is before the advent of 'Bat-Time, Bat-Channel.'

I'm a little curious here why the Riddler would even bother with the kidnapping scheme, as it would seem to undermine his ability to file the lawsuit. I would think that the best course of action would be to let the legal process do its work, rather than engaging in typical supervillainy. Then again, I don't have a compulsion to commit criminal acts and leave cryptic clues behind for the heroes to solve, so what do I know?

Either way, it's an excellent example of the core problem of Bat-villains: they may be Batman's intellectual equals, but their criminal compulsions consistently cause their capture.

Episode two begins with dawn at stately Wayne Manor, where Batman is in the Batcave (presumably having been up all night) telling Robin through some communicator to turn on his homing device. I have to imagine it's been awhile since we last saw the Boy Wonder, and Riddler was tightening that vise pretty quickly. On the other hand, it has to be pretty tough to crush someone's skull with a vise, maybe he gave up and decided to do something more practical.

Alfred calls from upstairs, saying that Miss Cooper noticed their beds hadn't been slept in, and was quite upset. Batman says to tell her that he and Dick are spending the night at his uncle's house. One problem, Bruce: if you had an uncle, why were you raised by your butler?

At the Riddler's hideout, Riddler and Molly pull a plaster cast off of Robin's face. Oh, I see, the vise was just to hold him still. While she goes off to get into costume, Riddler wakes Robin up (with an aerosol spray, thereby contributing to the hole in the ozone layer, that dastardly ghoul!):
Robin: Where am I? Where's...Riddler! You fiend! What's the meaning of this? Where's Batman?

Riddler: Hanging.

Robin: What?!

Riddler: Hanging by his phone, I hope. Call him. Get him through police headquarters on that famous hot-line: I wish to pose him another amusing problem.

Robin: You've flipped your lid. You think I'm going to help you in some rotten criminal scheme?

Riddler (laughing): You're scared! You're really scared that I'll outwit your Batman yet again, all right!

Robin: It'll be a cold day in August before we're scared of you, Riddler! Gimme that telephone!

And thus the Boy Wonder falls prey to the Riddler's tricky reverse psychology, calling Commissioner Gordon just as he was told to do. Gordon gets the call plugged into the Bat-line, and tells the operator to trace and record it. Batman answers the phone, which Riddler grabs rather quickly:
Riddler: Riddle me twice, Batman: What kind of pins are used in soup?

Robin: Terrapins, Batman!

Batman: Right!

Riddler: Very good. What was Joan of Arc made of6?

Robin: Joan of Arc was...

Batman: Maid of Orleans!

Riddler: That's where you'll find him. Happy hunting.

Robin tries to warn Batman that it sounds too easy, but Riddler gasses him unconscious again. Batman deduces the location--the old turtle mill at Orleans Cove--and speeds off in the Batmobile.

Meanwhile, Molly walks in, with the image that spawned a thousand fetishes and "sexy" DC Halloween costumes:
It's like realizing that ThunderCats and Rescue Rangers spawned a generation of furries.

Somehow, by application of a rubber mask, that turns into this:
Is there a mask in her pants, too?

Batman drives recklessly to Orleans Cove (seriously, he's all over the road--I guess those laws don't matter), while Molly activates the homing beacon in Robin's belt. Batman chases after the Riddler's car, knocking out the ignition with headlight-mounted Bat-Rays. Riddler, of course, is prepared:
Where does he get those wonderful safety devices?

The car crashes, and Riddler runs for the hills, while Batman pulls up to find Robin, thrown from the wreckage and clutching at his throat. Batman understands that there's something wrong with his vocal cords, then takes Robin back to the Batcave, where he hopes to retrieve the universal drug antidote7.

Molly quickly shows her true colors.
Bang bang, my youthful ward shot me down.

Batman: Well Molly, I was wondering when you'd get around to that.

Molly: What?! You mean you saw through my disguise?

Batman: A criminal always makes one mistake, Molly. Those straws you gave Robin to breathe through? I spotted the defect in the mask instantly. That was the one hole in your plan.

Molly: There's gonna be some holes in you, Batman.

She pulls the trigger, but nothing happens. Batman informs her that he burned off the revolver's firing pin in the Batmobile with a hidden "Bat-Layzar beam." And yes, he pronounces it "lay-zar."

Molly throws the gun8 and runs away, climbing what appears to be a TARDIS console or warp core in the back of the cave:
Maybe the Batcave really is bigger on the inside...

Batman warns her to stop, that she's climbing into the Batmobile's nuclear power source. She looks down into the reactor and screams for help, while Batman pulls out a Batarang (or as it's spelled on his belt, Bat-A-Rang) to save her. He climbs up, but can't reach her. She slips, falling to her death in the nuclear reactor. Batman is dismayed:
Batman: Poor deluded girl; if only she'd've let me save her.

Then, he's a dick.
Batman: What a terrible way to go-go.

Oh Batman, you and your incredibly inappropriate gallows humor.

At police headquarters, Batman, Gordon, and O'Hara analyze the tape of Robin's phone call. It cut off before they could get a trace, and O'Hara notes what a bad recording it is, due to all the rumbling noises. Batman notes that the noises are actually helpful (which comes as a surprise to the totally useless police officers, who have apparently never thought to listen to the background noise of an emergency call), and explains that they're subway trains. Batman asks for a timing on the tape and a subway schedule, which he plugs into the Batmobile's mobile crime computer. The computer spits out a paritcular platform, which is apparently located next to the entrance to CONTROL:
Alternately, there's a bunch of Clark Kent's clothes in there.

Using what appears to be a set of Bat-plastic explosives, Batman breaks into the Riddler's lair, where he snares the fiend in a Batrope. But the Riddler is still several steps ahead, separating himself from Batman and Robin with a sheet of bulletproof glass. He then proceeds to taunt the Bat:
Yeah, but who's going to break out the Windex when he's done?

Batman releases Robin, who explains that, by playing possum, he was able to listen in on the Riddler's big plan--and his new riddles:
Robin: How many sides has a circle? Answer: two--inside and outside, right?

Batman: Right!

Robin: Here's the second one: what President of the United States wore the biggest hat? It's easy, Batman: the one with the biggest head!

With these clues, they are able to deduce that the Riddler is going to the head office of the Gotham National Bank, where he's going to take the money from the inside to the outside.

Narration informs us, however, that the Riddler and his gang are heading through the tunnels to the Moldavian pavilion at the Gotham City World's Fair, suggesting that Batman has goofed.

At said pavilion, the Prime Minister is showing off the Great Mammoth of Moldavia, which was found in ice and worshipped by his people. It's covered in various jewels, and stuffed entirely with used postage stamps from ancient Moldavia--"very cheap stuffing then, but now worth unspeakable fortune to stamp collectors." Um...yeah. This is strangely omitted from the Wikipedia entry on Moldavia

Underneath the pavilion, the Riddler's men are rigging up tanks of laughing gas--stealing the Joker's schtick!--presumably because Riddler's latest outfit isn't quite ridiculous enough:
Calling Stacey and Clinton...

Turquoise plaid and magenta accessories? Amazing.

Riddler breaks in (wearing an elephant-shaped gas mask), telling lame jokes to start everyone laughing until they're unconscious. He then signals his goons to break in, so they can steal the mammoth.

Suddenly, Batman and Robin burst forth from the creature! They sent the police to the bank as a ruse; Robin says he got the clues wrong, but Batman solved them.
Somehow, the gas masks don't impede their ability to speak.

Batman: The biggest head? The fabulous Mammoth of Moldavia, with jewels on the outside and priceless postage stamps inside.

Naturally, it's time for the fight scene, where Robin really takes it. First he's ambushed by three goons, then knocked for a loop by the Riddler. With Robin apparently out, the gang closes in on Batman, restraining him the same way. Robin breaks up the fray, allowing the Dynamic Duo to get the upper hand, but the Riddler escapes under the pavilion. Batman chases, Riddler shoots, and a laughing gas canister is punctured. Batman warns that if the gas ignites, it'll blow him to kingdom come. Batman climbs back out, just in time to avoid a huge explosion of colored smoke.

Back at Wayne Manor, Alfred shares the news from the wireless regarding the Riddler's lawsuit: apparently it was dismissed because the plaintiff failed to appear. Dick is oddly happy about the prospect of having killed the Riddler in an explosion, but Bruce reminds him that the police never found a body, so maybe he escaped. The scene at the end here is actually really good, so rather than quote it, I'll let you watch it:

I'm glad that was on YouTube, because I don't have access to any video editing software at the moment.

Overall, I really like this story. There's a lot of heart to it, with the Molly subplot, and the Riddler's plan is a great example of the way brilliance can be led astray by delusion and compulsion.

I compared these episodes to the Penguin story that followed, and I think they both do a great job of subverting common superhero storytelling tropes. The villains undermine Batman by using his own skills and compulsions against him, and that's a depth of storytelling that no one seems to give this series credit for. The real danger comes from doing this as a first episode. Subverting tropes and upending clichés is great, but the effect is lost if the audience isn't familiar with the tropes and clichés in the first place. It's like watching "Shrek" without ever having heard a fairy tale.

"Star Trek: The Next Generation" made that mistake with their second episode, "The Naked Now." A direct homage/ripoff of the Original Series episode "The Naked Time," the episode featured the crew acting uninhibited and out of character. Such episodes are often great ways to explore the characters' personalities and shock the audience with familiar people doing unexpected things. Unfortunately, the episode lost any impact it might have had because we'd only had one story to establish what "in-character" was.

These "Batman" episodes work in a way that "The Naked Now" didn't, but I'm quite familiar with the superhero tropes they're subverting; would the average audience member in 1966 have been as familiar?

It's possible that they would have. After all, "The Adventures of Superman"--which would have had such tropes--ended only eight years before, and the comic book market was much larger then. Still, it seems like it'd be prudent to start the series by establishing the tropes and then working to turn them on their heads.

As a final note, Gorshin's Riddler is fantastic. I was a little worried that his manic portrayal and high-pitched giggling would rub me the wrong way with the character, but the writing made him out to be a mastermind, and his (surprisingly nuanced) acting sold the story. While he's often mocking Batman for falling into his numerous traps, there are some great moments where his voice drops an octave or two and he becomes fairly genuinely menacing. Heck, there's a shot or two where he looks like Hannibal Lecter. For all his bouncing and giggling, there are scenes where he serenely allows the pieces to fall into place, and his calmly triumphant expressions are perfect:

I'd like to say that Gorshin's Riddler influenced other portrayals of the character--it probably did; his suit-and-bowler from early in the episode was definitely the genesis of the B:TAS version's costume--but more than that, I think Gorshin has influenced portrayals of the Joker. I can't help but see parallels to Mark Hamill in Gorshin's acting.

So there you have it, another surprisingly excellent installment of "Batman." I'm enjoying this series so much, I may have to continue it...

1. By "rarely," I mean "Jim Carrey."

2. Holy telemarketing, Batman!

3. The jar, incidentally, formerly contained moonbeams.

4. I like this, just because it has interesting resonance for the World's Finest team. Batman orders orange juice at the bar, but Superman (typically) orders milk. And I don't know about you, but milk and orange juice aren't tastes that go particularly well together, even though they both quench your thirst at breakfast.

5. In the future, Batman would avoid these problems by not driving a convertible.

6. Surprisingly enough, the answer is not "wood." Though I have it on very good authority that she weighed the same as a duck.

7. I leave it to you, readers: is withholding that formula from the public an act of Bat-uselessness, or Bat-evil?

8. Who does she think she's fighting? Superman?


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