“Prophecy Of Doom” (Season 1, Episode 19)
Batman: The Animated Series being targeted to children is often used as an excuse for its occasional descent into stupidity, but I doubt that even a child could find much to enjoy about “Prophecy Of Doom.” Unlike some of the past B:TAS failures, this episode doesn’t heavily feature children, and the plot by Dennis Marks barely features our main character in costume, instead focusing on Bruce Wayne’s infiltration of a secret brotherhood devoted to the psychic Nostromos (Michael Des Barnes, MacGyver’s Murdoc). Nostromos sound unfamiliar? That’s because he only shows up in this one episode, which is the true mark of a bad villain on this show (although the also bad Red Claw does get a second appearance). His evil scheme depends on his victims acting incomprehensibly dumb, and they do because it’s the only way to move the story forward. With animation from one of the show’s worst villains, AKOM, “Prophecy of Doom” has visuals to match the script and ultimately proves to be an insignificant episode with nearly no redeeming qualities.
The episode begins on board a casino boat where Gotham’s wealthy shoot craps, pull the slots, and take to the dance floor, with some great big band music courtesy of Shirley Walker. Below deck, a bomb explodes, forcing the passengers’ evacuation and a really shitty shipwreck sequence from AKOM and director Frank Paur. The animation varies so greatly on this series, and I’ve realized that the quality of the explosions is a good judge for the animation of an entire episode. Last week’s “Beware The Grey Ghost” had explosions with real force behind them and intricately colored fire that popped against the darkness of the backgrounds. This week, there’s just smoke and a bunch of orange blobs flashing in quick succession. Walker tries her best to bring drama to the events with her score, but it’s going to take a lot more than music to save this episode.
While dining with friend Ethan Clark (Murder She Wrote’s William Windom) and his daughter Lisa (Melrose Place’s Heather Locklear), Bruce Wayne learns that a fortune teller called Nostromos had warned Ethan about boarding the sunken ship and is invited to a party being held in Nostromos' honor. After her father leaves, Lisa suggests that Nostromos' predictions come true because he makes them happen, and she tells Bruce about the secret brotherhood her father has joined, because apparently Ethan Clark doesn’t understand what secret means. While at the party, Nostromos pulls his psychic routine on Bruce Wayne, warning him that he’s the next person in danger, then shattering Bruce’s glass and probably getting him very wet. No one spills water on the goddamn Batman, and Bruce gives Nostromos a death glare that is answered by the psychic’s empty stare. Does anyone know what they’re trying to go for with Nostromos' eyes? Because it looks really stupid. In fact, the word that showed up most in my notes for this episode was “stupid.”
Bruce lifts Nostromos' fingerprints at the party and discovers that he is truly an ex-con/actor by the name of Carl Fowler, who has teamed up with special effects man Lucas to create his psychic persona. The next day, Lucas tries to kill Bruce Wayne in an elevator accident but is stopped by Batman as he tries to escape. Despite being batarang-ed in the leg, Lucas is able to get away from Batman by creating a smoky diversion, but he never even considers the possibility that the costumed superhero jumping out of the elevator shaft could be the man that was just sentenced to die in it. Unfortunately, the writers can’t do an episode where two lame villains figure out that Bruce Wayne was Batman, because Batman’s more careful than that. Bruce's remarkably quick elevator change is just another example of Marks taking convenient, yet illogical, shortcuts to keep his plot moving. After hamming it up for Nostromos to gain entrance to the brotherhood, Bruce learns they have set up a superfund to protect themselves from the forthcoming economic collapse: “The Great Fall.” The account contains hundreds of millions of dollars, which makes you wonder just how these men were able to make so much money if they’re too dumb to see through Nostromos' scheme.
As stupid as the premise of the episode is, it does tap into the surge of self-help semi-cults in the early ‘90s, which I remember my own parents falling prey too. There was lots of inspirational talk about the power of the individual, a public ceremony involving creepy white robes, and an after-party with a DJ spinning Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love Of All” and Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings.” Which goes to prove that even in real life, adults do really stupid shit in the hopes of bettering themselves, but investing $300 million based on the predictions of a phony psychic without doing some sort of background check is completely unrealistic. This is when that kid’s show excuse comes up; saying that plot points like this can be glossed over because children aren’t going to care. As an adult viewer, though, I do care. Not every episode of B:TAS puts me in a Bruce Wayne watching Grey Ghost nostalgia trip, and episodes like “Prophecy of Doom” are a waste of time. Sean Catherine Derek somehow finds a way to get her hand into episodes with awful villain schemes, and she contributes the teleplay here, helping with the melodramatic dialogue and pun-centric humor.
At the brotherhood meeting, Nostromos announces that “The Great Fall” has begun and then warns Ethan Clark that the superfund is in jeopardy and must be converted to gold bullion at once. When Clark refuses, in one of the only smart decisions made by a character in this episode, Nostromos reveals a captured Lisa, tied to a giant revolving replica of Mars in a solar system diorama overhead. Batman appears to save the day, and what follows is one of the most embarrassing action sequences of the series. Here’s what director Frank Paur had to say about it in an article from Animato! Magazine:
“I designed those planets using a circle template. How hard is it to animate circles? It was done by hand, and if we had done it now, it would have been done on computer and would have looked spectacular. When I knew the show was going to AKOM, a studio I'd had a long history with, I knew they weren't going to be able to pull it off.”
I don’t know what exactly can be gained and lost in the transition from storyboard to studio, but the finished product of this sequence has no concept of perspective, and the planets constantly change size depending on the angle of the shot. As easy as circles may be to animate, they don’t necessarily make for the most striking visual image, and after a while, watching Christmas ornaments spin around in space and occasionally collide gets tedious. There’s no sense of real danger, but that is consistent with the rest of the episode’s struggle to create any sort of real drama. The episode ends with a Shakespeare quote from Bruce, “The fault lies not in the stars, but in ourselves,” and it feels like a desperate attempt to achieve some level of sophistication. The B:TAS producers eventually realized that the fault lies in this episode’s writers, and both of them don’t last on the series.
“Joker’s Favor” (Season 1, Episode 22)
I’ll get to “Feat Of Clay, Part One” next week, because I just couldn’t handle two AKOM-animated episodes in a row. Luckily, the series’ first great Joker episode happens after the Clayface two-parter, and despite some average animation, it stands out for capturing the effect of Batman’s villains on the ordinary Gotham citizen. Paul Dini’s script depicts the psychological terror that makes Joker such a formidable opponent, but more importantly, it introduces the show’s greatest contribution to the Batman mythos: Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin). With her red-and-black body suit, Bruce Timm gives her a sleek, sexy design that combines with her lovably psychotic attitude for one great character. Created to expand the Joker’s character without actually humanizing him, Harley makes Mr. J relatable by seeing him loved by another person. Their character dynamic, enhanced by the chemistry between Sorkin and Hamill, makes the Joker’s appearances all the more memorable, because from now on, Harley will almost always be at his side. And it's nice to get an additional female presence in the male-heavy cast.
A haunting piece of graphic art begins the episode, with Radomski’s title card showing Joker’s silhouetted profile with a picture of Charlie Collins and family tacked on. Shirley Walker’s delightful Joker theme plays, with its bouncing tubas and carefree whistled melody, before fading out as the action shifts to a busy Gotham City expressway where the melancholy Charlie Collins (Ed Begley, Jr.) waits in traffic. Passed over for a raise by his boss, his kid in need of braces, and the wife cooking meatloaf for dinner, Charlie asks, “At what point exactly did I become life’s punching bag?” Well, he’s about to get wailed on. After getting cut off (“No signal, no nothing!”), Charlie chases down a yellow car and curses out the driver, unaware that Joker is behind the wheel. Charlie really should have paid more attention to that radio bulletin announcing Joker had escaped, instead of bitching so much. Walker’s score returns, and Joker responds with a smile, much to Charlie’s horror.
As Charlie tries to escape, lamenting his decision to cuss out Joker, the Crown Prince chases him until Charlie’s car breaks down in the woods. As Charlie collapses in the mud, Joker appears, dynamically lit by the headlights of his car, and scolds Charlie for his roadside behavior. Hamill gives a great performance in this episode, and his interactions with supporting characters give him the opportunity to show off his ability to convey the intense personality shifts from comedian Joker to homicidal maniac Joker. The fluidity of Joker's psyche is part of what makes the character so terrifying. The punchline of a joke has to be unexpected in order to work, and Joker is a living x-factor. Life’s a joke, and he’s the punchline, usually bringing death in his wake. To teach Charlie a lesson, Joker takes down his information, so that he can be contacted for an unknown favor at some point in the future, setting him free, but haunted by his obligation to a psychopath.
Jump forward two years later, and Jim Gordon is being honored at the Gotham Peregrinators Club for his dedication to the force. Batman’s friendship with Jim Gordon is one of his most endearing relationships, and they share a great scene where Gordon tells Batman that it should be him getting honored. At this point in the series, there isn’t really anyone for Batman to be social with when he’s in costume. Robin only makes sporadic appearances, same with Catwoman, and everyone else he encounters is a villain. Seeing Batman applaud the Commissioner for his work makes him a more personable character, something Paul Dini has a talent for. Dini understands what makes Batman’s characters tick, and in his first episode that isn’t an origin story, he still manages to provide insights into the mental and emotional drives of his characters. Through Joker’s torture of Charlie Collins, we learn what terrifies Batman’s greatest enemy.
In order to crash the testimonial for Jim Gordon, Joker cashes in on his favor from Charlie, tracking him down to his new address in Ohio and new life as Don Wallace. After Joker threatens his family, Charlie returns to Gotham, where he is tasked with opening a door so that Harley can wheel a cake into the main dining room, but not before he fashions a makeshift bat-signal inside the club. His hand glued to the door, Charlie is forced to watch as Joker pops out of the cake and fills the room with gas that paralyzes the crowd, then pins a bomb to Jim Gordon’s chest. Alfred notices Charlie’s bat-signal as they drive away, and Bruce heads back inside as Batman frees Charlie and is put through a gauntlet of standard booby traps in the Peregrinator’s replica of an Aztec temple. Or Mayan or Incan. It’s not specified, but it definitely has a Central/South American vibe. As Batman avoids walls that shoot darts and drop away floors on top of death spikes, Charlie confronts Joker in the alley in one of the most revealing Joker moments of the entire series.
As Joker tries to escape, Charlie meets him with a punch in the gut and a bomb in his hand. Dini gives Charlie an awesome monologue as the character cracks under the pressure, and Begley, Jr., gives a great performance that is a strong contrast from the bumbling loser we saw stuck in traffic earlier: “Tomorrow, all the papers will say that the great Joker was found, blown to bits in an alley, alongside a miserable little nobody… See, I can destroy a man's dreams, too. And that's really the only dream you've got, isn't it?” Joker’s dream is to die at the hands of Batman, a man that never kills. What would be a better joke? Joker cries out for his nemesis, and a look of genuine happiness appears when he stares in the dark and asks, “How long have you been there?” Batman tries to stop Charlie, but despite Joker agreeing to give up all his information on Charlie’s family, the bomb still goes off. A bomb filled with confetti and streamers. The joke elicits a rare laugh from Batman and is a proud moment for the mostly pathetic Charlie Collins. The episode ends with him excited to head home to his wife’s meatloaf, having discovered how happy life can be without the spectre of an evil clown looming over your head. As an episode of a children's series, "Joker's Favor" works much better than "Prophecy Of Doom," telling a morality tale that doesn't dumb down the story. If there's one thing children need to learn, it is the consequences of behaving rashly, and being forced to help a maniac blow up a building full of innocent people is a pretty strong deterrent.
- Batman Beatdown: While inside one of the floating planets, Batman dodges a kick from Frank and then throws him into a planet-crushing freefall. Bad animation, cosmic ass-kicking.
- “I’ve read about him in the Star Enquirer. Alfred likes to pick up a copy now and then.”
- “Psychic vibrations, Alfred.” The best part of “Prophecy Of Doom” is hearing Conroy be a huge dick about Nostromos’ plot.
- Even Radomski’s title card for “Prophecy of Doom” is lame. Some orange squiggles and a big black circle. He was very inspired by the story.
- Why are Saturn’s rings razor sharp?
- “Now, look, my rude friend, we can't have people cursing at each on the freeway. It's simply not polite!”
- “Any way I could sneak out with you?” Jim Gordon is easily one of the best supporting characters ever.
- Joker’s notebook is awesome. “HE OWES ME A FAVOR!”
- “You have the right to remain silent! Jerk.”
- “Beauty school is looking good right about now.”
- “Stop! You're crazy!”
- Now when I hear Ed Begley, Jr. I can only see him getting high in a bathroom with Adam Scott and Jane Lynch on Party Down.