“Avatar” (season 2, episode 4; originally aired May 9, 1994)
Ra’s al Ghul returns to Batman: The Animated Series, thrusting Batman into a globe-spanning adventure in the vein of the Indiana Jones films as he stops his most powerful enemy from reviving an ancient Egyptian empress. A generic action-adventure episode elevated by gorgeous animation and music, “Avatar” is light on pathos, but heavy on spectacle. Like last week’s “Trial,” the episode would benefit by expanding into two parts, giving writer Michael Reaves more time to explore the bizarre love triangle of Ra’s-Talia-Batman and delve into the mythology of Thoth Khepera. As is, it’s one of the most beautiful installments of the series—but the story rushes to its conclusion.
Much of the first season of Justice League consists of superhero pastiches of classic movie genres, but none of those episodes are able to capture the old Hollywood feel of the best B:TAS stories. The combination of Studio Junio’s exquisite animation and Carlos Rodriguez’s grandiose score make “Avatar” one of the most cinematic episodes yet, and director Kevin Altieri brings the rich locales and dynamic action sequences to vivid life. Altieri is best when working on blockbuster epics, and Reaves’ story gives him the opportunity to break free of the darker Gotham tone and embrace a pulp adventure aesthetic for the episode.
Beginning with the gold-embossed title card backed by a rousing horn fanfare, “Avatar” introduces the spectacle before the action even begins. The opening sequence flashes back to Egypt, 1898, for a dialogue-less scene that uses music to tell the story of an adventurer venturing into the tomb of Thoth Khepera. Kevin Altieri has an affinity for 19th-century flashbacks (see “Showdown”), and the attention to detail is stunning, from the character designs to the desert landscape. Throughout Rodriguez’s score, strings are used to build tension that is then snapped by the blare of the horns, and it’s incredibly effective during the opening. The lack of dialogue creates a mystery when the explorer’s rope is pulled up without him and singed at the end, and the audience is as in the dark as Batman, even though they have more information.
In Gotham City, Bruce Wayne has donated a large collection of Egyptian artifacts to the city museum, including the Scroll of Osiris, the oldest Egyptian document ever discovered. It’s also the other half of a map leading to the temple of Thoth Khepera, and Ra’s al Ghul wants it. Batman nearly stops Ubu from stealing it, but Ra’s appears with an Egyptian cobra that poisons him and grants their escape with the scroll. Having believed Ra’s dead, Batman heads to Gibraltar to see if Talia has anything to say about her father’s disappearance, and the international adventure begins with a classic image: a map with an airplane flying across it, a dashed line following it from the East Coast to the Mediterranean.
Talia is as surprised by her father’s revival as her beloved, and she has trouble dealing with the fact that her dad came back from the dead and didn’t even bother to call. She tells Batman about her father’s secret base in Cairo and joins him to track down the Scroll of Osiris, but they’re ambushed by Ra’s, who turns out to be even more of an asshole than anyone could have guessed. Batman asks Ra’s, “What can be in that tomb that’s more valuable than the love of your daughter?” Ra’s replies, “Power, detective,” and locks them in a cage. Then he tops it off with a completely unnecessary burn, like he’s just trying to be the biggest jerk possible: “It is said that one finds immortality in one's offspring. Alas, I know that to be a lie.” Seriously, who shit in your corn flakes this morning, Ra’s al Ghul? Be nicer to your kid, she really loves you. She loves you so much she’s going to betray the man she loves even after you try to kill her and everyone else by reviving an evil Egyptian goddess.
When Ra’s traps Bruce and Talia in a glass cage, Bruce uses his ultrasound imager to emit a frequency that will shatter the glass, and it’s the perfect example of the intense work Studio Junio put into the episode’s animation. Capturing a reflective surface in animation is hard enough, and the way the reflections change as the vibrations crack the glass is impressive. When the cage shatters, the camera slows down to show the detail Junio has put into making sure the action is seamless. The character models are spot-on the entire episode, and their movements are smooth and realistic. There’s a surprising amount of nonverbal communication this episode, relying on facial expressions and body language to convey the story, and Junio is more than up to the challenge.
While the buildup is strong, the actual Thoth Khepera encounter falls short. She’s revived as a beautiful goddess, then turns out to be crazy evil and tries to suck the life out of Ra’s. Batman and Talia stop her, revealing the rotting corpse underneath the glamour, and Batman fights her and her green blobs while Talia rescues her father. Because Thoth Khepera is a zombie, Batman has no problem crushing her under a giant stone statue, and that’s the end of that. Props to Studio Junio for their grotesque design of the villain (she reminds me of Yzma from The Emperor’s New Groove), but she’s really more of a footnote in this story when she should be a major player.
Talia’s hair always hides half her face, a clever way for the writers to physicalize her deceptive personality, and surely enough, she chooses her father over Batman at the end of the episode. Yes, that’s what Talias does, but Reaves could have at least had Ra’s show the tiniest bit of tenderness in the episode so it doesn’t seem like a completely idiotic move on her part. As he wanders across the desert on foot, Bruce needs to take a serious look at his relationship with Talia and decides if he really needs all that crazy in his life.
BatmanBruce Wayne Beatdown: After landing in Gibraltar, Bruce is ambushed by two thugs on Talia’s property, whom he quickly disposes of with his briefcase. He doesn’t even get his suit dirty.
- Speaking of that suit, Bruce continues to show off his new wardrobe this episode, with a very European cream-colored number for his trip to Talia’s.
- Lucius Fox: “You can be quite the humanitarian on occasion, Bruce. It’s commendable. It's inspiring.” Bruce Wayne: “It’s deductible.”
- “You sound like a bad afternoon serial, Ra’s.”