“Fire From Olympus” (season one, episode 63; originally aired May 24, 1993)
Superhero stories are modern mythology. Characters like Batman and Superman have replaced Hercules and Achilles as paragons of physical and moral excellence, surrounded by pantheons of supporting heroes and villains, each representing specific virtues and vices. When megalomaniacal shipping tycoon Maxie Zeus is led down the halls of Arkham Asylum at the end of “Fire From Olympus,” he recognizes his fellow rogues as his mythical brethren: Poison Ivy is Demeter, goddess of the harvest; Two-Face is Janus, lord of beginnings and endings; Joker is Hermes, merry trickster of the gods. Arkham is Mount Olympus and Gotham City is the underworld, a dark realm ruled by the Batman, a vengeful god shaped by death.
I loved Greek and Roman mythology as a kid, and it was always exciting when B:TAS would turn to ancient legend for inspiration. Writers Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens put plenty of winks and references in the dialogue (Zeus quotes Shelley’s “Ozymandias” at one point), the architecture has a heavy Greek influence, and the music is the kind of epic drum-and-horn score that would fit right in with a 1960s historical epic like Ben-Hur. The episode has the potential to veer into camp, but Zeus’ relationship with his assistant Clio provides the emotional weight to keep the story on track.
A trumpet fanfare blasts over Eric Radomski’s title card of Mount Olympus, and the card and music fade away into an extreme close-up of a match. A flurry of woodwinds ascends as the match is lit, revealing Commissioner Gordon waiting for one of his informants, Yanni Stavros, in an alley. Cinematic is a word that’s thrown around a lot, but it fits director Dan Riba’s deliberate pacing, the camera following a newspaper in the wind to where Stavros is being hassled by a group of thugs. As Stavros flees down a dead end, a car pulls up, and the headlights cast a golden glow around a huge man that hurls a bolt of lightning at Stavros. It’s a strong start to the episode, and the bright lighting as Zeus strikes down Stavros emphasizes the character’s heroic delusions.
Gordon tells Batman that Stavros was supposed to give him information about an energy weapon that was stolen from Maximillian Shipping, leading Batman to the skyscraper temple of Maxie Zeus, the shipping mogul that power-tripped so hard he broke his brain into thinking it was a god. Zeus’ delusions have had a negative effect on his relationship with Clio, who longs for the days when Zeus wore polos instead of togas. When Batman flies the Batwing up to Zeus’ penthouse, Zeus cheers the arrival of his brother Hades, and invites him to share in the nectar of the gods. Batman declines.
Like the best Batman villains, Maxie Zeus is completely insane, escaping into his godly persona so he can avoid the criminal case being built against him. It’s a nice metaphor for corporate success, with Zeus alienating himself from the person that cares about him as he strives for more power. Unfortunately the next level of power is using an electron cannon to blow up a police blimp and wreak general havoc on Gotham City, so Clio goes to Batman to help him take her boss down.
A lot of the episode is Batman in deathtrap mode, escaping a snake, a boar, and gargoyles with machine guns mounted in their eyes. The sequence with the boar stands out for its lack of music, with the boar’s introduction teased by the echo of its clomping hooves as it charges down a hallway. Batman lassos it and rides it around the room until he’s thrown out the window, and the animation from Dong Yang and Spectrum captures the action with precision and clarity. The direction and story are very Fleischer-inspired, and the animation reaches that same level of quality.
In typical Greek fashion, Maxie Zeus’ hubris is what leads to his demise. He believed himself a god and invincible, and when Batman uses Zeus’ lightning rod to disarm the electron cannon, Zeus jumps to retrieve it and is fried in the process. He is foiled by his own lightning, but he ends up in his rightful home, as lord of his own criminally insane dominion.
“Read My Lips” (season one, episode 64; originally aired May 10, 1993)
A psychological mob thriller with a 2-foot-tall protagonist, “Read My Lips” is the brilliant debut of The Ventriloquist and his gangster dummy Scarface. The second episode with a teleplay by novelist Joe R. Lansdale (the first being the excellent “Perchance To Dream”), this episode’s dialogue perfectly captures the hard-boiled tone of the story, which focuses on one of the most twisted relationships of the series. It’s difficult to find even one flaw with the episode, which features gorgeous animation from TMS, sharp direction from Boyd Kirkland, and a jazzy score from Shirley Walker.
A prizefight is a solid crime fiction go-to for a setting rife with testosterone, violence, and money, and it’s the perfect place to start the episode. They deliver to the money to a tiny man in a fedora and this other sad-looking old guy, and then there’s an old-fashioned newspaper spin to make sure you get the point that these people are really bad news. “Front-page headline tornado” bad news. Batman meets up with the Commish and gets surveillance tape that he uses to uncover the identity of one of the thugs. Apparently there are a lot of 10-foot-tall criminals, because Batman has to use his tattoo recognition software to find out the goon’s identity: Charles “Rhino” Daly. After a little alley chat, Batman tracks Rhino to the home base of Scarface’s gang, going all bug-eyed when he sees that Gotham’s new kingpin is a pathetic old man in an abusive relationship with his left hand.
The entire first act goes by without ever showing the main villain, which shows just how different this show is paced from contemporary kid’s entertainment. Establishing an atmosphere is just as important as setting up a plot, and the first act creates such a wonderful sense of time and place that the rest of the story feels more alive and exciting. When Wesker gets up to grab Scarface before the end of act one, the two have a conversation off-stage as the camera stays fixed in a position, a Hitchcockian way to keep the tension high before the big reveal.
When Batman goes back to talk to Wesker, Kirkland uses the same methodical pacing to build suspense as Batman investigates Scarface’s bedroom. There’s the requisite “puppet opens its eyes all on its own” scene, but the truth of Wesker’s condition is much more terrifying than anything like an animated dummy. Suffering from severe dissociative identity disorder, Wesker and Scarface are two separate personalities existing in one head, with Wesker completely devoted to his wooden slave driver. Wesker has a more resentful relationship with Scarface in the comic, but it was a wise choice for story writers Alan Burnett and Michael Reaves to make Wesker love his dummy. Another smart choice was getting rid of the character’s obnoxious inability to pronounce the letter B in the comics, which was supposed to show that Wesker was a bad ventriloquist, but was really just irritating to read.
After discovering the bug Batman planted on Wesker’s bowtie, Scarface lures him into a trap at the mannequin factory. My favorite moment of the episode is when Scarface wants to crush the microphone under his foot, and Wesker has to make the puppet do a little dance so it can build up enough force to destroy it. The camera pans out to show the pathetic scene from a distance, and the further away the camera gets, the less threatening Wesker appears.
In one of his most clever escapes (and still using tricks taught to him by Zatara), Batman convinces Scarface that Wesker is the member of his gang that has been selling them out. It’s one of the most intense scenes of the series as Scarface snaps on his creator, and George Dzundza does amazing voice work in both roles as they argue with each other. In essence, this is a scene that climaxes with a man pointing a gun at his own head, and if Batman hadn’t thrown that batarang in time, would he have pulled the trigger? Is Scarface or Wesker in control?
The warehouse scene ends with Scarface being riddled with bullets, and BS&P can’t do anything about it because it’s a wooden doll. It’s one of the most extreme instances of violence on the show and a brutal way to conclude the Ventriloquist’s first story, but the writers add a haunting epilogue to tease Scarface’s return. As the works away on a nondescript hunk of wood, Wesker turns the piece around to reveal the beginnings of a new Scarface. Picking up a blade, he drives the metal into the wood and drags it down, the screen blacking out once the mark is complete.
- Batman Beatdown: After having a pile of platinum bricks dropped on him, Batman gets his revenge on Rhino by using his weight against him. As Rhino charges at him, Batman sticks his foot out, sending Rhino flying teeth first into a wall. The bigger they are…
- “To the depths of Tartarus with you!”
- “He’s not living in the real world anymore. Maybe you can relate to that.”
- Is that snake-repellant spray?
- “Have pity on an old man’s blood pressure.”
- Is “Mad Dog Ted” actually Wildcat Ted Grant?
- “I want your opinion, Danny, I’ll pull your string.”
- “You seem to have me confused with the police, Rhino. I want information and I’ll get it any way I please.”
- “Don’t put words in my mouth!”
- “So what? You’re a ventriloquist!”
- “You’re too stupid to be a traitor.”