Monday, November 30, 2009

Bat-Month: "The Contaminated Cowl"/"The Mad Hatter Runs Afoul"

Consider this part of a trilogy of Bat-Month reviews. I'm breaking from the pattern of looking at early episodes of "Batman"--and specifically villains' first appearances--to take a look at one of the very few episodes of the series that I remember in detail from my childhood. "The Contaminated Cowl"/"The Mad Hatter Runs Afoul" is the Mad Hatter's second outing, from the show's second year. I remember even as a kid thinking it odd that Batman's cowl would turn bright pink when irradiated (after all, aren't radioactive things green and glowing?), and I no longer remember what led up to that particular plot point, except that the Mad Hatter wanted Batman's mask for his hat collection.

As it happens, the only other big plot points I recall from watching the series over a decade ago are Batman playing matador against a bull1, Batman and Robin being strapped to a giant grill by Catwoman2, and the wall-scaling scene where they meet Green Hornet and Kato.

So it'll be interesting to actually see how this story plays out. It opens, strangely enough, with David Wayne's mustachioed Mad Hatter entering Bon-Bon's Box Boutique to buy 700 empty hatboxes. I expect to see all this referenced in an upcoming Grant Morrison story.

Go-Go Gadget Hat-Eyes!Naturally, the Hatter's hat opens to reveal mechanical mesmerizing eyes, which he uses to knock out the shop owner so that he can freely abscond with the...empty boxes.

Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne presents a Professor with a check for his research with the Gotham City Atomic Energy Laboratories. The meeting is interrupted by a call on the Batphone. Bruce is a little incredulous at the report of 700 hatboxes being stolen from Bon-Bon's Box Boutique. Surprisingly enough, Gotham's finest actually know who the culprit is this time, and note that the Hatter escaped from the prison during a softball game. Will Warden Crichton never learn?

Batman and Robin have a largely uneventful and unhelpful meeting with Gordon and O'Hara, then leave for the Batcave to do some pondering. After their departure, Commissioner Gordon becomes surprisingly self-aware:
Gordon: Looking back, Chief O'Hara, it's hard to remember how we operated at all before those two masked samaritans appeared on the scene.
O'Hara: It's not hard for me to remember, Commissioner: things were a mess!
I'll bet they were, Chief O'Hara. How many crimes went unsolved while Gotham cops fruitlessly contemplated the difference between their posteriors and holes in the ground?

The Mad Hatter is packing up his hat collection, musing over the crazy adventures that led to these trophies. He talks a bit about the cap stolen from a British Royal Guard, mentioning that the King ordered his execution. Sometimes, since Elizabeth II has been queen longer than I (or my parents, for that matter) have been alive, I forget that there was a King in the relatively recent past.

The Hatter has decided to box his hats because stealing them has lost its luster. Of course, this doesn't mean he's going straight--after all, he still hasn't stolen Batman's cowl--but he's also going to change his modus operandi, using hats to steal instead. His assistant, Polly, doesn't understand what that means, but the Hatter isn't going to explain it very well. Somehow it involves a headdress ball, a ruby, a spray-gun full of radioactive material, and a water tower are involved. This is going to be the most complicated game of Clue ever.

Batman discusses the Headdress Ball with Robin, noting that it's being held by Hattie Hatfield, owner of the Hatfield Ruby, which will be held in her headdress. Presumably, this is all happening at the Hatfield Hilton in the Hat district, and it's being held as a charity benefit fer Dora.

Oh, it's in the Top Hat Room? I never would have guessed. The Hatter is planning on infiltrating the Headdress Ball as some sort of fez-wearing foreign military leader. In the meantime, Batman and Robin climb up the sheer glass wall, and Batman dryly remarks that "people in glass hotels shouldn't throw parties." Oh Batman, you card.

At the party, Hatter's assistant is working the hat check table, which firstly seems unnecessary at a party devoted to the wearing of hats, and secondly makes one wonder, if Hatter could get one mole into the party, why he needed the Pasha disguise at all. I guess it allows him to get closer to the ruby he's trying to steal.

Batman and Robin enter through the window, spot the Mad Hatter, and decide to sneak around for a closer look. Despite not being concealed by anything at all, and despite wearing their gaudy costumes, Batman is certain that they'll be unnoticed.

I am the klutz who knocks things over in the night...He then promptly bumps into a serving cart. Ladies and gentlemen, the Dark Knight.

All the servers acknowledge Batman and Robin's presence, but remain quiet about it. I can't help but wonder if Batman has formed a branch of Project Mayhem in Gotham, full of civilians who are secretly loyal to the Bat. Or perhaps it's more like the Shadow's organization. Or maybe Batman just tips really well.

Oh, nevermind, they're also working for Mad Hatter. Again, with this kind of penetration into the party, why bother with the masquerade? Hatter has more than enough henchmen here to cow the high society types into compliance, and he has a hat that can hypnotize people! This isn't even a "why doesn't the Joker just shoot Batman" kind of question, really, it's a "why isn't the supervillain making use of his considerable supervillain resources in a typically supervillainous way" question.

Oh well, it leads to a fight where henchmen get pied.
What kind of high society function serves cream pies?

I mean, I appreciate good slapstick as much as anyone, but this stretches disbelief.

So, that's cool. Anyway, the Mad Hatter tosses his fez, which releases some kind of gas. He also reveals the dire consequences of a life of hat-related villainy: terrible hat hair.
How do you get hat hair from a fez anyway?

The smoking fez gives him the perfect opportunity to whip out his perfume atomizer full of radioactive spray, which he uses to mace Batman's cowl. Hatter beats a hasty retreat, and Batman's mask becomes almost neon pink, something which wouldn't happen again until the "Batman Forever" toyline.
Still less ridiculous than rubber nipples.

Batman explains that the color change is due to a form of virulent radiation; I'm just curious why it didn't affect any of the rest of his costume. That's some well-targeted spray. He suggests heading back to the Batcave "before it is too late," which I imagine means "before I get face cancer."

Back at the Batcave, Alfred informs him that all the other cowls are in the "Home Dry Bat Cleaning Plant," if I heard that right, and won't be ready for at least a couple of hours. Naturally, then, Batman continues to wear his radioactive cowl. Oh no, the face cancer has metastasized to his brain, it's too late.

Actually, he's just confident that the anti-radiation bat-pill he took will last him at least a little longer. While you add that to the list of technology that Bruce Wayne is maliciously withholding from the world at large, you may also consider that it'd still be a good idea to take the mask off. This is the equivalent of repeatedly shooting yourself in the chest because you're confident that your bulletproof vest can take a little more punishment.

Batman needs a cowl so he can catch the Mad Hatter, so he instructs Alfred to turn the cleaner from "full maximum" to "super instant," which I assume is the dryer equivalent of "it goes to eleven." Were this a sitcom, I'd expect the cowls to come out tiny-sized, while suds slowly fill the Batcave.

Batman decides that he should put in a call--as Bruce Wayne--to the scientist he funded earlier in the story. Incidentally, for all the incredible technology in the Batcave, from anti-radiation pills to a dry cleaner, one thing he doesn't have is a touch-tone phone. Batman rotary dials the Atomic Energy Laboratory, and one spinning logo later, Batman is at the building for decontamination. Professor Overbeck is pessimistic about the possibility of cleaning the cowl. He offers this stunning explanation about the state of nuclear physics in 1967, in a thick nonspecific European accent of course:
Professor Overbeck: So little is known about this radioactivity of radioactive agents. So little is known that we only know one thing: that eventually, they are deadly.
I could spend days talking about what's wrong with that statement. Suffice it to say that I think the Wayne Foundation is seriously wasting its money.

Batman fears that the effects of the anti-radiation pill are wearing off, but thankfully the Professor's assistant--actually, the Mad Hatter in a radiation suit, who has knocked out the real assistant--has brought a spare suit and apparently a lead hatbox for the Dark Knight. Knowing that he wouldn't want to reveal his secret identity, the professor has helpfully set up a changing screen. As Batman goes to change, Robin asks if he needs any help.

...No comment.

Batman hands over the radioactive mask, which the Hatter gladly steals.
This kind of makes me want to see a Batman-themed Priscilla: Queen of the Desert.

Robin tries to stop him, but is foiled by a single kick to the shin. I'd criticize the Boy Wonder's apparent wussiness, but I guess he hasn't yet thought to armor-plate his pantyhose.

Batman comes skipping out from behind the changing screen, wearing another cowl.
I assume this is Bat-skipping.

He and Robin chase after the Hatter, and find him, with his henchmen, having declared a rather premature victory. Seriously, one of the henchmen says that this is the end of crimefighting in Gotham City, which means that apparently none of them think it's possible that Batman would have more than one costume--or the ability to make another mask.

Hatter thinks that it must be a trick, that this can't be Batman. Perhaps his hat's on a little too tight; a man who owns hundreds of kinds of hats is surprised that another man would own two?

And yet, for some reason, Robin still tries to retrieve the cowl. Dude, let it go. Not only is it the only superhero mask in history that is likely to make you sterile and give you cancer, but it can't be all that expensive. If owning Batman's pink carcinogenic cowl is enough to cause the Mad Hatter to give up his criminal ways, then let the dude have it.

But instead, Batman warns Robin that the cowl is contaminated, and the thugs attack. Quickly overpowering the Duo, Hatter's henchmen trap them in a high-voltage X-Ray chamber, with doors that only push in from the outside. This seems like a rather serious design flaw; I hope Bruce Wayne puts a stop on that check to the Atomic Energy Laboratory. I also hope he thought to bring extra anti-radiation capsules.

I never thought I'd be so happy to see someone knocked unconscious.Professor Overbeck, whose fake accent makes him very hard to understand, says something about how Batman and Robin will be "X-Rayed forever" and irradiated in a matter of seconds. Again, the Professor's understanding of radiation is sorely lacking. Thankfully, the Hatter zaps him with his knockout hat and leaves Batman and Robin to their radioactive fate. All because they couldn't just let him keep the cancer-mask.
They really should have listened to Willy Wonka's warning, now they're going to have to go to the taffy room.

Interestingly, the second episode's introductory recap is a lot more cursory than those in the first few episodes. We get a shot of Batman and Robin in the fluoroscope cabinet and an explanation of what this trap signifies, but nothing about what led up to that point, while the recaps for the previously-reviewed episodes gave us a series of shots from throughout the show and dramatic descriptions of what went on. This is less time-consuming, sure, but I wonder what prompted it.

After the theme song, we're treated to this interesting sight:
Batman: The Donner Cut.

I find it strangely significant that Batman and Robin's underwear is more resistant to radioactive bombardment than either their tights or their flesh. Also, I'm reminded of the cover to Superman #66.

The Hatter returns to the scene of the crime, where Polly, his top-hatted henchgirl, is shocked by the sight of the Bat-skeletons. She thinks Hatter has gone too far this time, which I'm sure won't come back to bite him in the butt later on. The Hatter is convinced of the Dynamic Duo's demise, so he thinks the rest of his caper will be a picnic.
Polly: A picnic? At a time like this?
A henchman points out that Hatter could have picked up another cowl from the Bat-corpse, but he feels that the one he tricked Batman out of earlier would suffice.

Commissioner Gordon gets the fateful phone call, and claims that he refuses to believe it, but has an emotional breakdown as he relays the news to Chief O'Hara.
Who will do our jobs now?

At the White House, an old timey phone operator is shocked to hear the news, and implies that the President will fly to Gotham City as soon as he hears. The same scene plays out in London and Moscow before we return to the Atomic Energy Laboratory, where a very much alive Batman and Robin thank Professor Overbeck for his assistance. See, Batman had a Bat-X-Ray Deflector in his utility belt.
Hey Batman, I think NASA might be interested in that.

He also happened to be wearing another cowl under his contaminated one, and had an entire spare costume in the Batmobile, which they draped across a couple of Professor Overbeck's display skeletons.

At the Mad Hatter's hideout, he comments that Batman and Robin were clever to put a tracking device in the contaminated cowl, but he found it and placed it in a water tower. Apparently he's not quite as confident in their deaths as he seemed. Polly is surprised by his inconsistent tactics--why hide the tracker if Batman and Robin are dead?
Polly: Jervis, you sound like the Joker or the Puzzler, or even the Riddler!
Jervis figures that the discovery of Batman and Robin's bodies will involve the police, and he doesn't want there to be anything which leads to him until after he finishes his plan, which has something to do with replacing the ruby in a Buddha's forehead with the cheap replica he stole from Hattie Hatfield's headdress.

Hatter's henchmen rush in to tell the boss that the whole town is shutting down, due to the discovery of Batman and Robin's deaths. "The whole town's at half-mast." Once again, this provokes some trepidation from Polly, and I think the Hatter's response is quite entertaining:
Mad Hatter: Now don't go soft on me, Polly! Who made Batman and Robin famous crimefighters? Criminals, that's who! If you want to show a little respect to the departed, stay crooked! It's the least you could do!
Now that's persuasive.

Back at Wayne Manor, Aunt Harriet muses about how communities come together during times of tragedy. Alfred is wearing a black armband of mourning, and Bruce and Dick are...standing around looking awkward. A large crowd has gathered outside the mansion, knowing that Batman was friends with Bruce Wayne. Bruce tries obliquely to convince Harriet that Batman and Robin are still alive, but she won't have any of it. She talked to Professor Overbeck himself, and he wouldn't lie, right? Eventually, we're led to this:
Bruce: Dick, um, perhaps you and I should have a moment alone in my study.
Dick: I think so, Bruce.
Aunt Harriet: Oh, that's a beautiful way for you to express your respects.
Holy gaydar, Batman!

In the study, Bruce dramatically picks up the Bat-Phone. On the other end, Commissioner Gordon and Chief O'Hara are staring out at a crowd of thousands of mourners, when the phone rings. O'Hara suspects a Twilight Zone-esque call from beyond the grave, but Gordon knows they aren't buried yet. A call from the fluoroscopic cabinet then, I guess. They answer the phone, and receive the obvious Mark Twain quote from the Caped Crusader. He explains that he and Robin are "about to nail the Mad Hatter,"3 which prompts this response:
Commissioner Gordon: The Mad Hatter? At a time like this, who cares about that pipsqueak's inconsequential crimes?
Yes, that's right, the GCPD officially stops caring about crime just as soon as they learn of a vigilante's resurrection. Ladies and gentlemen, your Gotham City Police Commissioner.

After Bruce gives Commissioner Gordon a brief lecture on law enforcement and the social contract, he and Dick head to the Bat-Poles.

While Commissioner Gordon and Chief O'Hara rush to call the President, the Mad Hatter is out to steal the ruby, which he does with little fanfare. Unfortunately, Polly rushes up to spoil the mood.
Polly: I was down at the hat-check stand, checking no hats, and guess what I heard: Batman and Robin are alive!
The Hatter is understandably annoyed, but he needn't worry: Batman and Robin are just chilling in the Batcave, apparently trying to puzzle out what to do next.

Excedrin Headache #193: Preposterous Supervillainy.
Batman: Mad Hatter has to be someplace with that contaminated cowl. Ergo...

Robin: Ergo.

Batman: Ergo, the small bug I tucked in the cowl has to be someplace too.
That's some nice deductive logic, there, Batman, but I'm not sure it's helping. Especially since Robin's expression (and tone of voice) and Batman's weary rubbing at his eyes suggests that they've been over this same line of reasoning multiple times. This little bit is one of those great, subtle character moments that I think get overlooked in general assessments of the show.

There's a beeping on...something, but it's clearly from the bug, and it appears to be underwater. After a quick jaunt to the Bat-Computer, they locate the bug at a water tower behind an abandoned Green Derby restaurant. About that time, Commissioner Gordon calls with news of the ruby swap. It seems like they noticed the exchanged jewels abnormally quickly; I wonder how they realized it wasn't the real thing--or that they even needed to check. I guess it's to speed the plot along, really.

Batman and Robin arrive at the Green Derby, where they encounter Polly, who plays naïve about the Mad Hatter. Her terrible lying is exposed when Batman sees the radioactive cowl lying on the floor--and when they see Hatter and his crew climbing up to the water tower out back. Batman explains that Hatter's exposure to the lethal radioactive elements in the cowl means he needs immediate medical attention, which is pretty magnanimous on his part. It'd be more magnanimous if he'd mass-produced his anti-radiation pills, but I'll take my victories where I can get them.

For some reason, Batman and Robin allow Polly to lead the way to the water tower, which seems a little stupid on their parts. Speaking of parts, I'm seeing just a little more of Adam West than I'm comfortable with.
There are two towers in this image.

Batman and Robin ascend the ladder, but Hatter is confident that he'll just whammy them with the mesmerizing device in his hat...which promptly blows away. I think I finally understand the fatal flaw underlying the Mad Hatter's weaponry.

Plan B seems to be to assemble the rest of the gang on the walkway, allowing them to attack in a handy, one-at-a-time fashion.
In hindsight, this was a poor arena.

The fight is pretty slick; in fact, you might suspect that it was done with Teflon, or perhaps some kind of spray-on agent...

Yeah, that's the stuff. Thanks, ridiculous sound effect!

The fight's pretty cool, and I suspect that by this point in the second season they were looking for ways to spice up the usual warehouse-battle scenes. Consequently, there are some neat places where Batman's getting strangled while dangling partway off the walkway and such, until the police show up. Hatter climbs further up the water tower ladder, to no apparent benefit. Weren't they adapting this into a deathtrap of some sort in the previous installment? Whatever happened to that plot point?

The Dynamic Duo decide to leave the whole arresting bit to the police, and start to leave, pausing only a moment to wave at the rapidly-assembled multitudes of people cheering their apparent resurrection.

They'll go to great lengths to explain what Batman's laundry situation is, but not one word is said about what the hell is going on here.Back at the Manor, Aunt Harriet opens up her thesaurus to ask a pointed question of Bruce and Dick, who appear to be examining a seahorse on a stick:
Aunt Harriet: How did you know, without a shadow of a doubt, that Batman and Robin were alive, when the whole world thought they were dead?

Bruce: Yes, well I,

Aunt Harriet: Or you, Dick. You were equally emphatic.

Dick: Well, Aunt Harriet, you see, I uh...I...
Alfred suggests that it's time that they tell the truth, then effortlessly spins a tale about an easily-confused friend whose husband works at the Atomic Energy Laboratory.

The episode ends, then, with Aunt Harriet's uncritical acceptance of this story, and a sappy note about how Batman and Robin must now know how much the world loves them. Yay!

Overall, it wasn't as bad as I expected. There are some strange plot holes and dropped threads, and the pacing feels really weird, but those are relatively heady criticisms of a story that I expected to be utter crap. I guess the biggest problem was with the whole "Batman and Robin are dead" subplot, which largely occurred around the periphery of the story and never had much direct effect on the story itself. Such a monumental event deserves a little more attention, both from the story and from the characters involved. So, altogether this wasn't quite the caliber of episode that I've come to expect from those early installments, but it still managed some good character work and jokes, and had the thread of a good idea running through it.

Bonus: Hey, Batman Sound Effects, who's your favorite character from "Death of a Salesman"?
Alternately, who's your favorite member of the Tannen family?

1. He successfully uses his blue cape to lure it, while noting (fairly accurately) that it's the cape's motion, not the color red, which entices them, because bulls are color-blind. They're technically red-green color blind, but I'll give Batman a "close enough."

2.Prompting this excellently punny exchange:
Robin: Holy oleo!
Catwoman:: I didn't know you could yodel.

3. Stop laughing!

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