Batman: The Animated Series: "Night Of The Ninja"/"Cat Scratch Fever"
-

Batman: The Animated Series: "Night Of The Ninja"/"Cat Scratch Fever"

“Night Of The Ninja” (season 1, episode 35)

I’ve always enjoyed seeing Bruce Wayne;s training years, that period of his life before Batman, when he cultivated his globetrotting playboy reputation while developing the skills that would make his alter ego extraordinary. Batman doesn’t have super powers in the same sense as Superman or Wonder Woman, and he elevates himself above the common man through sheer determination in his constant quest for self-improvement. “Night of the Ninja” is one of only two Batman: The Animated Series episodes that flashes back to those years, revealing Bruce’s time spent in Japan honing his fighting skills, as his past rival Kyodai Ken (Robert Ito) terrorizes Wayne Enterprises in the present. Written by Steve Perry and directed by Kevin Altieri, “Night of the Ninja” is a serviceable episode with strong ideas that just need better execution. Perry’s dense script juggles multiple plotlines, but the stereotypical villain prevents the episode from reaching greatness, and the average animation from Dong Yang does little to enhance the derivative story.

Kyodai Ken is a villain with a bland design and a weak motive, but he gives B:TAS the opportunity to do a ninja story with all of the familiar elements: lost honor, unjustified pride, and lots of hand-to-hand combat. Kevin Altieri is one of the series’ best action directors, and the dojo sequences have a dynamic pace, despite the stereotypical nature of the flashbacks. If anyone doubted the genius of Kevin Conroy, this episode has the actor whipping out another distinct voice for young Bruce Wayne, one that's higher in pitch and more erratic than his normal tone. Through Conroy’s voice acting, we get the sense that this is a much less disciplined Bruce, making his determination to learn from Master Yoru all the more admirable. As generic as Yoru is as a sensei, he does get the opportunity to kick some ass, and watching him take down the cocky Kyodai is one of the best parts of the episode.

Pride and humility are the major themes of “Night Of The Ninja,” as Bruce learns to accept defeat in the past, while Batman struggles with the idea in the present. Bruce’s history with Kyodai affects his work as Batman, as Kyodai was the only pupil that was able to consistently defeat Bruce in the two's training days, and his intense personal connection puts him in the same dangerous position that he tried to save Robin from in “Robin’s Reckoning.” Kyodai Ken is a rarity when it comes to Batman villains, with a connection to Bruce Wayne that dates to his days before Batman, and Kyodai resents Bruce for his pampered upbringing, constantly diminishing his rival’s efforts because of the wealth he inherited. Because Bruce hasn’t had to struggle financially, Kyodai sees his training as a wealthy socialite’s flight of fancy, and he feels entitled to the riches Bruce was born into because he’s had to live without. That’s the kind of flawed logic that turns people into supervillains. Kyodai Ken’s feelings of superiority over Bruce mirror Batman’s attitude toward Robin, and when Batman learns the identity of his ninja foe, he pushes Robin away so that he can pursue his personal vendetta, showing no gratitude when Robin saves his life by defying his orders.

“Robin’s Reckoning” introduced new tension into Batman and Robin’s relationship, and “Night Of The Ninja” furthers explores the two characters’ differing perspectives, foreshadowing Dick’s renouncement of the Robin name in favor of the independent Nightwing persona. Dick doesn’t have the same grim seriousness as his mentor, and it’s his juvenile behavior that keeps Bruce from sharing information with him. The facts Batman keeps from his partner are what ultimately tear them apart, and Bruce’s reluctance to share his experiences in Japan is just another in a line of secrets that dates back to Dick’s early years. Despite some corny dialogue from Robin, the interplay between the dynamic duo is the highlight of the episode, whether it’s Dick mocking Bruce’s perfectionism after training or pressing him to recall his time in Japan. The best moment is Dick and Alfred’s conversation about Bruce’s inability to admit fear, a talk cut short by the looming Bruce, who has potentially heard the entire thing. It’s a casual moment with the three of them acting like a real family, Dick sitting on the counter while Alfred washes dishes, discussing a relative behind his back.

As he deals with Kyodai Ken’s crime spree, Bruce is faced with the added threat of reporter Summer Gleason, who has decided to uncover the truth behind Gotham’s premier socialite. Like Lois Lane in a Fleischer Superman short, Summer’s efforts end with her tied up in a Wayne Storage facility, watching helplessly as Bruce Wayne gets pummeled by Kyodai Ken. Protecting a secret identity is one of the standard superhero plots, and this is the first time we’ve seen Bruce Wayne purposefully weaken himself to keep his identity hidden. In an episode all about pride, it’s a humbling moment for Bruce, and he’s forced to abandon his Batman training and fight Kyodai as a diminished man until Robin shows up. Once Summer Gleason is taken care of, Bruce is able to unleash his full potential, with Conroy slipping into Batman voice to show who's really in charge. By having Bruce defeat Kyodai instead of Batman, Perry wraps up the plot nicely, with Bruce finally achieving victory over his previously unbeatable foe but also recognizing Robin’s role in the events. Just as young Bruce learned that everyone loses, Batman learns that sometimes you need to ask for help if things are going to get done.

Grade: B-

“Cat Scratch Fever” (season 1, episode 36)

Selina Kyle (Adrienne Barbeau) is back, and she’s bringing Sean Catherine Derek and Akom with her for “Cat Scratch Fever,” one of the worst episodes of the series. I’ll stick by my praise for Derek’s early episodes, but her later work on the series has been as didactic as it is uninspired, and “Cat Scratch Fever” features an inane plot that primarily serves as a vehicle for an anti-animal-testing message. Released from prison on probation after saving Gotham from Red Claw, Selina returns home to find her cat Isis missing. She takes to the streets and discovers a pair of Roland Daggett’s (Ed Asner) goons rounding up stray animals to serve as carriers for a virus that only Daggett Pharmaceuticals carries the antidote for. Selina breaks her probation and dons the Catwoman costume to put a stop to Daggett's stupid plot.

It’s a shame that Catwoman’s episodes have been such clunkers, because the character brings out the romantic side of Bruce Wayne, a side that goes largely unexplored in the series. Bruce’s dilemma of falling for someone that is only interested in him as a friend is one that should be familiar to most viewers, and the relationship is the episode’s saving grace. Barbeau makes all of Selina’s dialogue with Batman overtly sensual, while her interactions with Bruce are considerably tamer; she's appreciative of his help but ultimately not interested in him “that way.” It’s refreshing to see Bruce Wayne, the perfect man, get shot down by the object of his affections, and as a child, I often fantasized about becoming a superhero to win the hearts of my grade school beloveds. As an adult, I wonder if Bruce doesn’t get off on the thrill of keeping his identity a secret from Selina. There are definitely some questionable morals at play when Batman flirts with Selina, taking advantage of her lust and disregarding her feelings for his alter ego.  

“Cat Scratch Fever” is the episode that ended B:TAS’ relationships with both Derek and Akom, and it’s not difficult to see why. Akom turns in some of the laziest animation of the series, with inconsistent character models and jerky action that make this one of the few truly ugly episodes of B:TAS. The opening courtroom sequence features a judge whose face looks like it was drawn with a crayon, and the painted background figures are featureless masses of brown with just enough definition to suggest a human shape. To get a really solid idea of how Akom animation compares to the better studios on the series, compare Selina’s courtroom exit with Bruce’s from “Feat of Clay, Part 2.” In “Clay,” each figure in the crowd has a distinct body type and face and is animated independently from the group with realistic movement. “Cat Scratch Fever” features a crowd of similarly designed figures that move as an amoeba-like unit across the screen, the jerky animation moving the characters across the screen like paper dolls. And that’s far from the worst animation in this episode.

Akom doesn’t get any help from the script when it comes to the fight sequences, and this episode has the most embarrassing battle since Batman vs. giant bird in “I’ve Got Batman In My Basement,” the anti-climactic Batman vs. rabid dog scene.  After the first fight sequence, the most flagrant display of deadly garbage cans on the series yet, you’d think there was nowhere else to go but up. Wrong. It shouldn’t take Batman more than a couple of seconds to subdue a household animal, even one that’s rabid, and his dog battle goes on for far too long, made even worse by the abysmal animation. It's just Derek trying to kill time because the plot is so flimsy, and the Daggett plot isn't even resolved on-screen, getting a small blurb on the cover of a newspaper in lieu of actual plot development.

Grade: D

Stray Observations:

  • Batman Beatdown: With Summer Gleason’s vision obscured, Bruce slips into Batman-mode to take down Kyodai Ken. “Shut up and fight.”
  • Depressing/disturbing fact: “Night Of The Ninja” writer Steve Perry was murdered by his roommate last summer, possibly in connection with a $10 million winning lottery ticket. A true tragedy.
  • Wayne Cosmetics. They really have their hands in everything.
  • Master Yoru wisdom #1: “There is always someone better.”
  • Master Yoru wisdom #2: “Everyone loses now and again.”
  • Master Yoru wisdom #3: “Defeat can be more instructive than victory.”
  • “Listen, dipstick.”
  • “Thanks for saving my bacon, Robin." "Hey, no problemo, Batman.”
  • “Do you think he heard us?” “Who can tell?”
  • “I don’t get it. You’re nothing but a common thief?”
  • Did Robin really just say “sleepy-bye”?
  • “That’s true enough.”
  • Basically everything in “Cat Scratch Fever” is off, including the sound mixing. The first scene with Alfred and Bruce has muddled audio, and sometimes, the characters' mouths aren’t even moving when they speak.
  • “You gonna lick it and make it all better?” Milo is such a creep.
  • “You’re hot.” “Now you notice.” Even on the brink of death, Catwoman’s a-prowlin’.
  • “Ever the escape artist, I see.” Relationships are the ultimate trap for Batman.
  • “You'd better make sure of that my friend. Because if he does get away, I suggest you keep on driving, as far from Gotham as this truck can take you.” Roland Daggett knows you don’t fuck with the Bat.

More TV Club