“Batgirl Returns” (season 2, episode 20; originally aired 11/12/1994)
It’s hard to believe we’re already at the end of Batman: The Animated Series’ second season, which is probably the pinnacle of superhero television. Nearly every episode was a winner, and even the worst of the bunch never reached “I’ve Got Batman In My Basement” levels of bad. Sure, once Robin starts taking up extra screen time the stories take a slight dip in quality, but he’s an integral part of the Batman mythos that needs to be addressed at some point. Over the course of these 20 episodes, the writers have done exceptional work fleshing out Gotham’s villains, and provided a blueprint for future superhero creators: Find the emotional core of the character, build a story around that, and have fun. In the contemporary superhero climate, that last quality is the one that gets lost most often, and “Batgirl Returns” is the kind of delightfully cheeky superheroine team-up that’s rarely seen nowadays.
When an ancient Chinese cat statue is stolen from the Han Dynasty museum exhibit at Gotham State University, Barbara Gordon dons her cape-and-cowl once more while Bruce Wayne spends some time in Paris on a business trip. The episode begins with Barbara daydreaming of saving Batman from a sneak attack by Joker, Penguin, and Two-Face, further developing Barbara’s schoolgirl crush on her sexy, scowling superhero professor. I really like the Bruce-and-Barbara dynamic, and think they would make a really good couple despite the age difference. Bruce needs someone who sees the good in life, who tackles obstacles with a sense of hope rather than furious determination. That’s why it’s great to see Batgirl team up with Catwoman in this episode, who is her main competition for Bruce’s affections in Gotham. (Talia’s out roaming the world, so she doesn’t count.)
Michael Reaves was this season’s star writer, working on a majority of the episodes and turning in consistently strong work. For “Batgirl Returns,” he was paired with Brynne Stephens—who has had a hand in all of Barbara’s episodes—and it’s another winner. It’s one of the season’s more light-hearted stories, and after the intensity of last week’s “Deep Freeze,” it’s nice to get a plot that doesn’t require too much emotional investment. Batgirl and Catwoman team up, they the stature thief—then Catwoman betrays Batgirl. It’s not the most complicated plot, so just sit back, relax, and watch two sexy ladies beat up a bunch of guys.
“Batgirl Returns” may be a simple story, but it’s an exquisitely animated one. Dan Riba’s action sequences have a quick, dynamic energy, and this episode features some of the series’ best facial expressions. Dong Yang turns in some of its sharpest work yet, really taking advantage of Batgirl and Catwoman’s exaggerated features to capture a wide spectrum of emotions in their dialogue. As the last episode before the visual revamp, “Batgirl Returns” is a great way to end this incarnation of B:TAS, capturing that cinematic Fleischer quality that this series has always been trying to replicate.
Batgirl and Catwoman team up under one condition: if Catwoman is lying, Batgirl gets to turn her into the police and have them take her away. There’s apparently only one type of chemical that could have burned through the museum locks, so they begin exploring some local haunts to find out who is responsible. After a bar brawl workout, Catwoman has figured out who is behind the theft, and takes Batgirl to Roland Daggett’s chemical factory, where he created the Renuyu compound that transformed Matt Hagen into Clayface and the disease that almost killed Catwoman in “Cat Scratch Fever.” Daggett stole the statue so he’d have money after the numerous lawsuits filed again him, and he can’t risk having two broads take away his financial salvation. Daggett captures them, and rather than putting them in some sort of complex death trap, he decides to have his men just shoot them and dispose of the bodies in giant vats of acid. It’s his smartest idea on the show yet.
Robin shows up to rescue the ladies and while fighting Catwoman for the statue, Daggett falls off the catwalk and nearly falls into acid. His foot is caught in a chain, and Catwoman decides to dump him in the vat to make him pay. Batgirl stops her just in time, but Selina likes her spunk and offers to be partners in the future. Barbara looks almost convinced until Catwoman calls Commissioner Gordon a “senile old fool,” forcing Barbara to uphold her promise and bring Catwoman to the police for trying to run off with the statue.
After getting thrown in the back of a cop car, Selina escapes in about two seconds. Rather than chase her down, Batgirl decides to let her run off. “It’s okay, there will be another time,” she says, clearly not understanding what it means to be a person that enforces the law. What if real police officers operated that way? A thief is unsuccessful in robbing a place, so they just let her drive away because there will be another crime in the future that they can get her for. Barbara might want to check in with her dad about some of her crime-fighting philosophies, but she probably just wants some one-on-one training with Bruce.
- Batman Batgirl Beatdown: With her hands tied behind her back, Batgirl has to choose between getting shot and thrown into a vat of acid or kicking the crap out of Roland Daggett’s goons. She chooses the latter, and doesn’t even need to free her hands to do it.
- I didn’t love the first arc of the current Batgirl comic book, but I’ve really enjoyed the series since then. Gail Simone is operating in her classic Birds Of Prey mode, and the addition of Barbara’s mother and James Gordon Jr. to the cast have really amplified the character drama. It could use a less conventional art team, but the book has started to tap into the fun-loving spirit that makes Batgirl such a great character.
- The choice of Tiffany blue as the only color on the title card is a great way of accenting Batgirl’s femininity.
- For real, how do Batgirl and Robin not realize each other’s secret identities?
- The pool hall that Batgirl and Catwoman break into is called “Stacked Deck.” Gotta love some good, old-fashioned innuendo.
- “Back off, creeps.” The horn fanfare that accompanies Batgirl’s opening is perfect, and really serves to establish the character as a powerful presence.
- Robin: “Here, kitty kitty!” Catwoman: “Bye bye, birdie.”
- “Bats are just mice with wings, little girl.”
- “Anyone else wanna get fresh?!” It’s so easy to make Catwoman a badass, which is why it’s unfortunate that she was so poorly used on this show.
- Catwoman: “You should’ve said yes.” Batgirl: “If I had, I’d be a rat with wings.”
- See you guys for Justice League season two later in July!