“Blind As A Bat” (season one, episode 59; originally aired Feb. 2, 1993)
Arkham Asylum sure does have problems keeping the Penguin behind bars. It seems like every couple weeks Oswald Cobblepot has been showing up to fuel another average episode, but “Blind As A Bat” is the last time we’ll have to watch the rotund reject serve as Batman’s primary antagonist until the revamp. While inflicting a suitably vicious amount of property damage, Penguin still suffers from a lack of personal motivation for his crimes. Apparently naming something after a bird guarantees the Penguin will try to steal it, and during the unveiling of the experimental WayneTech Raven X1-11 military helicopter, he hijacks the aircraft and demands a $100 million ransom for the flying death-mobile.
Bruce Wayne isn’t Tony Stark. He shouldn’t be funding the development of military weapons, and at least they throw a line in there about Bruce’s reservations with the project. In Animato magazine, director Dan Riba said, “We implied that not only had he been blind physically, but he had been blind to what his company was doing.” If the writers had spent more time on the story of Bruce’s ignorance about his company’s activities, the episode would at least have an emotional/personal hook to give the action significance.
“Blind As A Bat” has the same kind of melodrama as past Len Wein-penned episodes, and he relies on exaggeration to create emotion rather than making it come from a real, character-driven place. After the explosion, a panicked Bruce tells Alfred to call Leslie Thompkins, and Kevin Conroy delivers Bruce’s explanation with the appropriate amount of ham, but it doesn’t make it any better. “Because—I don’t want anyone to find out—that I can’t see!” Pulling his hands away to reveal crystal blue pupils, the ridiculous overemphasis makes the dramatic moment an unintentionally hilarious one.
Penguin is so vastly outmatched by Batman that the only way the writers can make him a threat is by blinding our hero. With the Raven’s ZVF (Zero Visibility Flight) sensor that uses sonar and radar to create visual images, Leslie Thompkins builds a helmet for Bruce that connects to his brain’s optic center. The image is like a low-resolution Virtual Boy, but it’s the ’90s and Leslie had about four hours to put the helmet together so give the old lady a break.
Most of the episode’s content is action sequences, and they look so good that they’re almost able to distract from the fact that they’re being used to pad out a flimsy plot. Mike Underwood and Len Wein’s forgettable story is greatly improved by the quality of Studio Junio’s animation and Dan Riba’s direction, and Riba’s inventive storyboards and keen eye for action choreography elevate the weak script.
Penguin’s bridge assault is a stunning sequence, following a group of teens stuck on the overpass when the Raven guns down its support cables. A wide shot of the Raven cutting through cables as the car drives into disaster shows just how powerful a weapon the Penguin has obtained, and following it with a close-up of the vehicle being trailed by frantic metal whips makes the cables as much of a threat as the helicopter. And while the explosive action looks excellent, shots like the close-up on Penguin’s umbrella-blade as it cuts the buttons off a henchman’s shirt help create interest visually where the dialogue may falter.
This episode is almost entirely redeemed by its animation, which makes me wish the assignment of animation studios for each episode was more organized. Why couldn’t the strong scripts go to Studios Junio and TMS and the bad ones get sent to Akom? When uninspired episodes like “Blind As A Bat” are gifted with gorgeous animation, it feels like a waste.
“His Silicon Soul” (season one, episode 61; originally aired Nov. 20, 93)
HARDAC’s plot to replace humans with robotic duplicants was the weakest element of “Heart Of Steel” because robots just don’t make very interesting antagonists. Cold and detached without any sort of emotional catalyst, there’s no good motivation for HARDAC’s actions other than being a robot with shoddy programming. Imagine my delight when “His Silicon Soul” turns out to be a rather insightful mindfuck, using HARDAC’s Batman duplicant to comment on the powerful and dangerous effect that Bruce’s mission has put on his soul.
“His Silicon Soul” is a dark episode, both in subject and visuals. For the opening sequence where the Batman duplicant (BD) wakes up and stops three criminals in the Cybertron warehouse, director Boyd Kirkland uses heavy shadows to create a suspenseful, tense atmosphere that quickly erupts into ferocious chaos. The dynamic duo of B:TAS animation, Dong Yang and Spectrum, turn in characteristically polished animation, and this episode doesn’t pose much of a challenge for the team. The fight sequences don’t get too fancy with the camera angles, and having two Batmen means that they’re working with their most familiar character model for most of the episode.
Marty Isenberg and Robert N. Skir’s story puts a twist on the killer robot angle by having BD unaware of his robotic nature, believing himself to be the real Bruce Wayne transplanted into a mechanical body. After leaving Cybertron, BD goes to Wayne Manor, where he painfully reminisces over a photo of his parents. By convincing the robot that it’s human, the writers are able to overcome the problem with mechanical villains, giving the character the impossible motivation of obtaining his humanity.
When BD goes to retired Cybertron CEO Carl Rossum for answers about his condition, he has to come to terms with his true robotic nature. It’s a brutal scene with BD desperately clinging to Bruce Wayne’s memories as Rossum destroys the illusion. “You have information—data—nothing more,” Rossum tells him. The harsh truth combined with the appearance of the real Batman shows BD what he really is, leaving him vulnerable to his original program objectives set by HARDAC.
With his new evil self conveniently reflected through glowing red eyes, BD breaks into the GCPD impound yard to retrieve and upload HARDAC’s remains, reviving the human-hating computer in Batman’s body. The first act with BD struggling with his identity is much stronger than the continuation of HARDAC’s “Heart Of Steel” plot, and it’s not until BD and Batman’s Batcave brawl that the episode regains the intensity of the earlier scenes. If Batman is Joker’s polar opposite, then BD is Batman’s mission pushed to the extreme, as this exchange shows:
BD: Why do you resist? HARDAC’s goals are identical to your own.
Batman: How do you figure that?
BD: Picture a world completely free of crime, free of suffering, free of frailty.
Batman: You mean free of choice, compassion, free of humanity?
The thing that prevents Batman from becoming BD is Bruce Wayne, who understands the concepts of choice, compassion, and humanity that HARDAC cannot grasp. We’ve seen future versions of Batman that have embraced a fascistic worldview in the comics, and while the character’s growing cynicism over the course of the DCAU timeline puts stress on those three values, Bruce’s love for his parents keeps him on the path of justice. Love, honor, duty—these are concepts that HARDAC can’t understand, and they constantly prove to be Batman’s greatest weapons.
- Blind Batman Beatdown: Hanging from a conveyor belt with his de-blinding helmet out of power, Batman swings his legs up to grab Penguin’s thug by the neck and throws him off the platform. Way to get beaten up by the blind guy, worst henchman ever.
- Cobblepot’s ornithological obsession manifests in the most bizarre ways. Pigeons are not funny and you would do well to remember that.
- “The most dangerous bird in the sky is the Penguin.” It’s funny because penguins can’t fly.
- “It’s full of something, alright.” “And so are you.”
- “Never too busy to spend some time cutting down your piñatas. Next time try hanging them a little lower if it isn’t too much trouble.”
- “I don’t try to build life anymore Batman. I just grow it.”
- “A soul of silicon, but a soul nonetheless.”
- Both episodes this week feature a red-eyed Batman, a design element recently used for Flashpoint’s Thomas Wayne Batman. Check out Azzarello and Risso’s Flashpoint: Batman—Knight Of Vengeance miniseries if you haven’t already. A completely twisted and fascinating take on the Bat-mythos in three issues.