Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Bat-Month: "The Joker is Wild"/"Batman is Riled"

I've recently obtained several episodes of the '60s Batman series, which I haven't really been able to watch in years. The show has led to a lot of unfortunate consequences for comic fans, not the least of which the fact that every other mainstream story about comics begins with "Biff! Pow!"1, in the series' distinctive style. Forty years on, somehow this show manages to remain cemented in pop culture as the quintessential comic book adaptation. While Batman has largely escaped from its long shadow, thanks to the recent films and the Animated Series, the rest of graphic literature in general still has to wear the albatross of '60s camp around its neck.

The fact that the series hasn't been released onto DVD is a tragedy, in my opinion. Theories vary on the reasons behind this video limbo, but I'm sure the dissonance in tone with the current Batman tone and portrayals makes the various parties less anxious to pursue resolution than they might be otherwise2.

But I digress. One of the things I've wanted to do for Bat-Month is a series of reviews and retrospective on the '66 "Batman." And where better to start than with episodes 5 and 6, our two-part introduction to the Joker?

The story begins in "Gotham State Penitentiary." Shows set in an ambiguous locale often have to resort to these weird naming conventions, where "State" is appended to things which aren't actually states. I suspect it's because of this that we have Blackgate Prison and Arkham Asylum--and a host of other such institutions--in the comics.

Anyway, I'm a little curious as to just how penitent the prisoners can be, given their activity schedule:
Seriously, a Glee Club? In a prison?

Apparently Warden Crichton has some wacky liberal ideas about how to rehabilitate criminals (and in a demonstration of continuity that I would have imagined beyond this series, it references Crichton's theories from the previous story). In this instance, Crichton's penology3 includes an all-criminal slow-pitch softball team. Chief O'Hara remarks in the audience that he's surprised at how well the Warden's techniques work--rehabilitating the Joker to the point where he'd be content to play softball rather than organize a prison break. And doesn't he look content?
I think this is the 'Goofé Dean' Abbot was talking about.

Not so much for the guy behind him, I guess. Of course, this is all a clever escape plot by the Joker, who launches himself over the prison wall with a giant spring under the pitcher's mound.
He must have noticed that butt was stuffed.

And you better believe that they milked the "sprung" pun for all it was worth. Commissioner Gordon makes the inevitable bright red phone call.

I know this is a common question, but it bears repeating: why does Bruce Wayne keep the Bat-Phone out on a desk in plain sight in his study? He takes such great pains to hide the Batcave entrance switch under the head of Shakespeare, but leaves the red translucent phone where anyone can see it? And Alfred answers it? Look, Lois Lane might very well be the dumbest person in comics, but Commissioner Gordon and Aunt Harriet have to tie for a close second.

There's a nice bit of subtle character work here; Bruce is reading the newspaper while Aunt Harriet gives Dick a piano lesson, and Bruce wordlessly expresses his opinion of the music:
Jesus, Dick, how do you screw up 'Chopsticks'?

I like this a lot, because they don't remark on it, and it shows an attention to detail that I think a lot of people assume the show couldn't accomplish. Naturally, it isn't long before they're sliding down the Batpoles into the theme song.

Now, something I like about this series is the way it jumped right into things. This is the Joker's first appearance, but the episode assumes that the viewers will already be familiar with the character--or that such familiarity is unimportant.

I made light of this Batman's detective skills in the first Bat-Month post, but he does a good job of it in this episode, I think. Gordon and O'Hara show him a bust--it's not clear who it's supposed to be (though Batman calls it a "good likeness"), except that it clearly has the Joker's coloration (I suspect it's supposed to look like Joker, but it could just as easily be Gordon with Joker's makeup and hair coloring)--that they discovered under the spring at the crime scene. Batman suspects that it may be a clue that the Joker left behind, and Gordon asks a pertinent question:
Gordon: Why would he leave you a clue, Batman?

Batman: He might not mean to. It's a trait of the criminal mind, the urge to boast. It often leads to the criminal's giving himself away.
Which is a good justification--or as good a justification as we're likely to get for this trope. Batman then ruminates on where one is likely to find a bust on a pedestal, which he connects to the point that the Gotham Museum of Mordern Art is opening a Comedians Hall of Fame--which won't have the Joker in it. Naturally, the Joker would want revenge, and the Museum has a sizeable jewel collection. Strangely enough, this bit of (totally circumstantial) detective work makes plenty of sense, at least to me.

When Batman and Robin arrive at the Museum, two interesting things occur. First, a bunch of teenage girls shriek and giggle at seeing Robin (I think I understand the tight briefs now...), and Batman realizes he's parked next to a sign that says the spot's reserved for the GCPD. He actually gets back into the car to move it, until an officer tells him it's okay and removes the sign. The Joker is about to rob the museum, but Batman needs to make sure he's not illegally parked. I guess when you break one law, it's just a slippery slope until you're just like the Joker.

Batman and Robin tell the guy at the front desk to evacuate the Museum, then go to check out the new exhibit for themselves. To their surprise, they find a big bronze bust of the Joker (Which looks nothing like him) among the displays. Robin suggests that they may have put up the bust after hearing about Joker's escape, so as to placate him and prevent a robbery. Batman kindly refrains from pointing out that they would have had to sculpt and cast a bronze sculpture in a ridiculously short amount of time for that plan to work (or, given the likeness, hastily placed a different sign on someone else's bust). Batman suspects that it may be a diversion.

They leave to find the Museum Director, and Batman suspects that he saw the statue move, but brushes the concern off. Perhaps I was too quick to laud the skills of the World's Greatest Detective. Naturally, as soon as the Museum closes, Joker comes out from behind the statue. Note that I say "behind," and not "inside"...there's nothing to indicate that he could even fit in it, there's just a flash of light and puff of smoke, and he rushes out, calling for his henchmen, who similarly emerge from behind busts of famous comedians. Good thing Batman didn't walk around any of the statues.

Batman and Robin realize their omission, and manage to break into the supposedly burglar-proof Museum with surprising speed and ease. A fight ensues (though without the theme music, which was disappointing), but Batman is knocked out when a displayed sword falls off the ceiling and konks him on the...shoulder. Hal Jordan would be proud, or perplexed.

The Joker's henchmen begin carrying the Dynamic Duo out, but it turns out Batman was playing possum4. He throws down a smoke bomb, which allows the heroes to overtake the villains, but the Joker escapes through a trap door--vowing, as he does, to never be thwarted by Batman's utility belt. I'll ignore the question of why there's a trap door in the burglary-proof Museum, because I know there's no decent answer. He decides that the solution is to craft a utility belt of his own:
Gee, puddin', doesn't that clash with your outfit?

I'm going to assume that the girl on the right is just an early Harley Quinn. She inspires the Joker's next scheme, to hijack the S.S. Gotham, which is launching next week.

The Joker announces his crime by tossing a clown doll into the window of the police station, while Gordon and O'Hara talk with Bruce and Dick about the security arrangements they've made for the S.S. Gotham. Gordon tries calling Batman about the clue, but Alfred informs him that "Batman is out for the day." I wonder what Gordon thought he'd be doing--going grocery shopping? Walking in the park? Seeing a movie? What would Batman do when he's not at home? The Commissioner is visibly upset, but Bruce reassures him by saying that the police can probably handle it. Then, Bruce asks if he could take the Joker's doll, the one thrown through the window of police headquarters, as a souvenir. Gordon asks the logical question:
Gordon: Any use for it, O'Hara?
To which O'Hara replies, "Why, yes Commissioner, it's evidence in a criminal investigation. Even if'n it weren't a clue to the Joker's next nefarious scheme, it's at the very least evidence in a vandalism case!"

Just kidding. What he actually says is:
O'Hara: Not for me. The sooner we get this mockin' thing outta headquarters, the better I like it!
Such stunning police work!

Gordon gives Bruce the doll as a "souvenir of [his] narrow brush with crime." Right, Bruce Wayne's narrow brush with crime came in adulthood, when the Joker tossed a doll through the police station's window. Not, you know, when his parents were gunned down in front of him as a child. I think Gordon's leading Lois at this point.

By the way, is it just me, or did Bruce's wardrobe here inspire his look in the Animated Series?
A black tie with a brown suit? For shame, Bruce!

Speaking of inspirations, Batman realizes that the Gotham Opera Company is performing Pagliacci, and we quickly cut to the melodically morose clown himself, looking an awful lot like the Joker's henchman mask from "The Dark Knight."
The pictures barely do it justice; aside from the red dots and moving mouth, I think it's the same mask.

In a further bit of synchronicity (which now seems eerily coincidental if it wasn't intentional), it turns out that the Joker's beneath that mask this time as well. He throws out some sneezing powder, which incapacitates Batman and Robin long enough for the henchmen to restrain them, so that the Joker can unmask them on live television. Thankfully, this being a live televised performance of "Pagliacci," their identities would be completely safe.

As the second part opens, Batman tosses a gas pellet up into the sprinkler system, activating it. Joker tosses a pellet of his own, throwing up smoke so he can escape onto the catwalk. Batman orders a surrender, as a "duly deputized agent of the law," but the Joker says "as the Clown Prince of Crime, I decline." Is that principality the basis for his eventual diplomatic immunity?

On the catwalks5, Batman pulls out his cuffs, but clearly isn't prepared for the Joker to tie him up in confetti. If Joker had used razor confetti, the whole show would be over by this point (then again, if he'd lobbed a grenade through the ridiculously unguarded police headquarters window instead of a doll, he'd be ruling Gotham by now).

The Joker's utility belt, which was concealed beneath his Pagliacci costume for the entirety of the fight, somehow becomes the subject of the nightly news. The bit is a joke--the anchor is reading "the questions all Gotham City is asking itself tonight," but the questions are exactly what the narrator just said. It's a fairly well-done gag, if only because it allows them to say "have Batman and Boy Wonder finally met their match?" and "will the Joker's utility belt prove their ultimate undoing?" three times in the span of a minute or two. According to the newscaster, criminals across Gotham City have been emboldened by the Dynamic Duo's apparent impotence6 and are embarking on a terrible crime wave.

The Joker's henchmen then hijack the studio, producing a shaky-cam broadcast of the Joker, hinting at his next crime. Again, as much as Goyer and Nolan have worked to craft their own serious version of Batman and the Joker, I can't help but see parallels.

Batman and Robin work out the clue and engage in one of their patented wall-scalings. Sadly, no guest stars in this one (though it wouldn't make sense for them to be hiding in a warehouse. A fight ensues, but the Joker and his henchmen mak their getaway. Batman throws a pellet to...I don't know, they were long gone by that point. Nonetheless, it explodes into a shower of confetti and a sign saying "Phooey on Batman." The Joker had switched utility belts with Batman during the fight, prompting this:
Robin: And when you thought you were stopping him with your utility belt, he was really stopping us with his!

Batman: A tricky double! He's hit us below the belt!
Rimshot! I'll admit, I laughed pretty hard at that one.

The Joker's next plan--finally getting back to the S.S. Gotham--involves a special cork in a bottle of champagne. Batman and Robin are set to christen the ship, when a concerned citizen asks why they're there instead of stopping the Joker from taking over Gotham City. Good question, citizen, but we're going to ignore it. He examines the champagne bottle, then complains of a headache and takes a pill for it. He gives another to Robin, "in case it's contagious." Robin reminds Batman that if that's the case, they should both keep very clear of Rob Base. Naturally, when Batman breaks the bottle on the hull of the ship, it emits a noxious gas, which knocks out everyone in
r'haky-cam message of the Joker's, this time demanding the title to the S.S. Gotham, or else his medieval executioner will cut off the unconscious Batman and Robin's heads. Obviously, it's another ploy--Batman and Robin were prepared with a "universal drug antidote7." As it turns out, the replica utility belt that Joker had made also included a replica of his trick cork, which Batman analyzed, making him prepared for the Joker's plot. There's the usual fight, until the Joker trips over his own utility belt, which explodes. Shortly thereafter, the Joker and his henchmen are restrained and ready to go back to softball prison.

The show ends with a return to Dick's piano lessons, and a nice shot of Bruce looking...well, looking really Batman-y:
I'm pretty sure he had this pose on his ultrasounds, too.

I really didn't mean for this to turn into a liveblogging/synopsis (I keep having trouble with that), but that's what we've got here. Overall, the story was entertaining, though it did feel like it bounced around quite a lot. In the span of under an hour, the Joker had something like four to six plots, and sometimes the connecting threads were dropped for quite long periods of time. Still, the end had some nice closure, with the Joker being undone by his own utility belt instead of Batman's for a change, and there were some good gags and good Bat-moments interspersed throughout. One thing I want to pay a little more attention to in future episodes is the fight sequences; I kind of used those moments for writing, so I missed out on a lot of the action.

I could hardly get through this commentary without saying a bit about Cesar Romero's Joker. He's never really threatening, but that's hardly a complaint; in this show, I have a hard time imagining what a threatening villain would even look like. He makes up for it by being incredibly over-the-top. As supervillains go, Romero's Joker makes you believe that he has a warehouse full of giant pianos and playing cards. One of the best things about Romero's Joker is his laughs: he has so many, and they're all very distinctive.

Adam West's Batman deserves some recognition here, too. As I said once or twice in the synopsis, West generally does very well putting forward that Batman air. He has that commanding, considering voice that Batman ought to have. I think what throws people watching this now--and what certainly threw me--is that the entire core concept of Batman is so different. It isn't just that this Batman is an officer of the law, it isn't just that this Batman is a good role model for his youthful ward, it isn't just that this Batman is so completely wholesome, it's that, in the entire hour, there's not a single scene at night. This is Batman out of the shadows, Batman in bright technicolor, and when you consider that the number of daytime scenes in the four-year Animated Series almost certainly wouldn't exceed the double-digits, and the same can be said with the films, that's jarring. In fact, it'd only take a few minor tweaks to make this series a decent Superman show, and that would fit much better with modern sensibilities.

All in all, I had fun watching this two-parter, and I'm looking forward to the next one8. I think something with the Penguin is in order.

1. And usually ends with "Comics aren't for kids anymore." Sigh.

2. On the other hand, "Batman: Brave and the Bold." Either way, if I were at Warner or DC or wherever, I'd be recording commentaries with the surviving cast and crew.

3. *Snicker*.

4. Or is it "playing opossum"? I think I like the alliterative version better regardless.

5. Yeah, on the catwalks, on the catwalks, yeah. I do my little turn on the catwalks.

6. Yes, that's his word. Admire my self-restraint, that I didn't take the Ambiguously Gay Duo joke-bait handed to me there on a silver platter.

7. Which raises a humongous host of other questions. Why wouldn't they just take that at the start of every day, on the chance that they'd be drugged at some point? Has Wayne Industries done any marketing of this? Do they realize that this wouldn't just be an amazing source of income, but would be one of the greatest technological advances in medical history? Or is this another case of Reed Richards is Useless?

8. I'm also looking forward to making that entry much shorter.

1 comment:

Jeff Balvanz said...

Of course there aren't any scenes at night! This is the Batman that works the day shift. The grumpy, angst-ridden guy is the one that has to work the night shift. Wouldn't you be grumpy if you always had to work graveyard?