Kid sidekicks were created to make heroes more relatable to a predominantly child audience, but as comics evolved, the inherent absurdity of putting minors on the front lines became more apparent. Great writers are able to find a way to make the sidekick work, like Ed Brubaker’s take on Captain America’s WWII partner Bucky as a highly trained stealth soldier, and Randy Rogel’s script for “Robin’s Reckoning” takes great strides to legitimizing Dick Grayson’s (Loren Lester) presence in the Batman: The Animated Series universe. Rogel, who worked on the near-flawless “Two-Face,” earns B:TAS it’s second Emmy Award for Robin’s origin story (technically only part one won, but it is the superior half), a heartbreaking episode that reveals how Dick came into Bruce’s life while Robin tracks down his parents’ killer Tony Zucco (Thomas F. Wilson) in the present. I’ve talked about the elements that make a great B:TAS episode, and this episode has them all: beautiful animation, strong direction, a balance of Bruce/Batman action, and a villain that shows elements of humanity while still posing a threat. “Robin’s Reckoning” is one of the most cinematic episodes of the series, with a flashback-centric structure similar to Mask of the Phantasm, and glimpsing into Bruce and Dick’s formative years goes a long way to grounding both characters in reality.
Dick Sebast’s nuanced direction handles energetic action sequences and heavy emotional moments with equal aplomb, and the opening shot of Batman and Robin staking out a construction site is a great image of a sprawling Gotham City. Sebast does an impressive job capturing the scope of the city throughout the episode, as heights play a major role in Dick’s story, and beginning the episode with a fight above the city shows how Dick’s circus background has given him the skills to work alongside Batman. Spectrum’s work on the construction fight sets the standard for episode’s first half – Dong Yang takes over the second, with Spectrum sticking around for layouts – and the smoothness and realism of the animation nearly equals the rotoscoping of the 1940’s Superman shorts. A strong Fleischer can be felt throughout the episode, with circus scenes reminiscent of “Terror on the Midway” (those animals sure do look pretty), and bumbling mobsters similar to the dawdling Superman impostor in “Showdown.” But the main influence of “Robin’s Reckoning” is Detective Comics #38, Robin’s first appearance from 1940.
Randy Rogel thankfully makes plenty of changes to the original story, cutting the more implausible moments of the story to focus on finding the emotional reality of Dick’s situation, particularly in how it relates to Bruce’s. In the comic, Bruce trains a young Dick so that they can hunt Tony Zucco together, whereas Bruce insists Dick not get involved in the episode. The opening construction sequence of the episode is an homage to the finale of the comic, which features a child Dick Grayson in costume, but the episode smartly shows only the adult Dick as Robin. Allusions are made to them fighting crime together since Dick’s youth (“That line worked great in sixth grade…”), but the flashbacks end right when Dick learns that Bruce is Batman. The episode becomes less about the birth of Robin, and more about the healing of Dick Grayson.
Beyond the well-choreographed action, the opening sequence shows how Batman and Robin benefit from operating outside the law when they interrogate the remaining crook after his partners leave him behind. Well, behind and above, because Ferris Dolan (Paul Eiding) is hanging from a steal beam with a long drop between the Gotham pavement and himself. Dolan demands his lawyer and refuses to give up his employer, prompting Batman and Robin to make their exit as he starts to lose his grip. He cries, “You’ve gotta help me! The cops wouldn’t leave me.” To which Batman sharply replies, “We’re not the police!” Batman and Robin have no obligation to keeping this man safe, whereas a police officer would be obligated to save Dolan and get him his lawyer before he talks. Batman isn’t going to let the man fall to his death, but Dolan certainly doesn’t know that. It’s a scare tactic that works, and “Robin’s Reckoning” amps up Batman’s fear quotient as a contrast to the vulnerability Bruce shows when he’s comforting Dick in the past.
As Zucco says in part two, ““You don’t know the Bat. He don't let up. He's a dark angel of death, man, and he wants ME.” A dark angel of death, man. Wilson’s Zucco delivery sounds very similar to John Travolta in Grease, so if you ever wanted to hear what Danny Zuko sounds like when he’s scared shitless, “Robin’s Reckoning” is the place to get it. In fact, everyone this episode is terrified of Batman, and rightly so. When Batman is attacked at Arnold Stromwell’s estate (nice to see him back again, voiced by Eugene Roche), the series has its first action sequence without music, and the lack of a score makes each gunshot more real, and Batman’s skills all the more impressive. He twists his knee in the second half of the episode and still kicks everyone’s ass. In one of my favorite moments of the episode, Batman sneaks up on a thief that steals from the craps game Bruce is playing to gather information. Spectrum does body language so well, and the man jumping in the air and falling on his ass is the kind of reaction seeing Batman should provoke. Batman gets his information simply by showing the thief his fist, and the sound of stretching leather is like nails on a chalk board for the terrified man. All of the villains in “Robin’s Reckoning” are just regular people, no superpowers or gimmicks, and Kevin Conroy voices a Batman that is truly terrifying to the ordinary criminal.
The emphasis on Bruce Wayne shows Conroy’s range, and his voice with young Dick is nurturing and sensitive, but a bit unsure of how to connect with his new ward. In the present day scenes he speaks to Dick exclusively as Batman, but his voice doesn’t have the same dominating effect on Robin, who has seen the weak, damaged side of Bruce. Batman demands that Robin not track down Zucco, but because Robin doesn’t fear Batman the way a street thug does, he refuses to obey. This episode expands on the Batman/Robin relationship considerably as it shows the two of them butting heads for the first time on the series. Batman assumes a justifiable leadership position, but the adult Robin sees the two of them as equals; Bruce tries to be a father, while Dick tries to be a brother, and when he’s put on the sidelines for the most personal case of his career, he lashes out.
Classic Batman themes like vengeance vs. justice and the constant struggle to heal emotional wounds after the loss of a loved one add philosophical and psychological depth to Rogel’s script, highlighted by exceptional voice acting from Conroy, Lester, and Joey Simmrin, who gives a powerful performance as young Dick. The first part benefits from a heavier emphasis on flashbacks focusing on Dick’s grief, which takes the episode to surprisingly dark places. The death of Dick’s parents is one of the best scenes of the entire series, a suspenseful sequence that combines the awe of watching the Graysons in action with the dread of knowing their subsequent fall. Carlos Rodriguez’s score is another element that elevates the first part, specifically during the circus sequences. The mix of gentle strings and twinkling percussion builds as the camera pans up a ladder to where Dick stands proudly with his mother, preparing to leap into his father’s arms on the trapeze. That melody is repeated when Dick’s parents die, but the strings have become discordant, foreshadowing the tragedy to come.
Originally conceived as a much more graphic sequence, Bruce Timm has thanked BS&P for forcing them to approach the Graysons’ death in a more stylized manner. A shot of Dick’s mother holding the trapeze shows how far the drop is, and the twinkling bells return to bring back that sense of wonder from the first trapeze sequence, this time accompanied by a horn section that crescendos as the trapeze rope begins to break. The last we see of the Graysons is their silhouettes in glorious flight, then the music stops for a moment before coming back at a forte to reveal the severed trapeze rope. It’s a sophisticated and effective way of showing their deaths without offending anyone, and leaving it to the audience’s imagination makes the image more horrific in the viewer’s mind. Those depressing strings return when Dick leaves the circus to live with Bruce, this time joined by a single clarinet emphasizing the loneliness Dick is about to experience.
When Dick arrives at Wayne Manor, a bat flies past him, adding to the already creepy aura around the estate. He sleeps in Bruce’s bedroom, a sparsely furnished room with a bed right in the center, facing a portrait of Thomas and Martha Wayne. The huge amount of negative space accentuates Dick’s solitude, but the room will later become the place where Dick and Bruce have their first bonding moment. When Bruce begins to throw himself into finding Zucco as Batman, Alfred reminds him that there is a little boy upstairs that needs the attention more desperately. Simmrin and Conroy do fantastic work in this scene, as Dick unloads his guilt about not stopping Zucco when he had the chance, while Bruce helps him learn to stop blaming himself:
Bruce: You keep thinking, if only I'd done something differently. If only I could've – warned them. But there isn't anything you could have done. There isn't anything either of us could have done.
Dick: Your mom and dad? Does the hurt ever go away?
Bruce: I wish I could say yes. But it'll get better in time. For you, that I promise.
That’s some powerful writing right there. The use of shadows in the scene highlights the grief that overtook both their lives with the loss of their parents, but the moonlight shining through the huge bay window represents the flicker of hope Bruce and Dick bring to each other. Robin doesn’t have the same grave demeanor as his partner because he grew up with someone that understood the pain he was going through. Dick had a friend, while Bruce got a son. His relationships with Dick and Alfred are what prevent Bruce from abandoning his civilian identity for the cape and cowl, and he honors his parents’ memory by creating a new family in their home. The Batman family will continue to expand in the series, just as it does in the comic books, which now include international Bat-relatives.
The second half of the episode shows how Dick is adjusting to a new life with Bruce, practicing fencing and using the lessons he learns to look for Zucco on the streets of Gotham. While the nine-year old Dick roams the streets, he comes across a pimp hassling one of his prostitutes for trying to pull a fast one on him. How exciting is it to see a pimp and his ho on children’s television? That’s a relationship that has been ignored by Saturday morning programming for far too long. In this episode we don’t see young Dick in the Robin costume at all, but this first successful attempt at fighting crime makes his employ as Batman’s kid sidekick more believable. It’s when young Dick finds Zucco that we remember why it might not be such a good idea to hunt down criminals before you’ve hit puberty, and Zucco ends up getting away from Batman because Dick puts himself in jeopardy. Batman rescues Dick and takes him to the Batcave, where he reveals himself as Bruce, extending Dick’s stay indefinitely and signaling the end of the flashbacks. Meanwhile, Robin has neglected Batman’s orders and tracks down Zucco, just in time to save Batman from getting shredded in a hail of tommy gun bullets.
When Dick finally confronts his parents’ killer as Robin, Lester does his best Conroy impression, taking the character’s voice into a lower register that matures him and makes him sound like his grim partner. As Robin is about to throw Zucco off the harbor, Batman stops him by warning Dick not to let his emotions get the best of him. Bruce doesn’t want Dick to cross a line that he can never turn back from, a line that he could have crossed himself if he encountered his parents’ killer as Batman. Robin lets the police take Zucco, but mistakenly assumes that this was Bruce teaching him another lesson:
Robin: You were right, you know, not bringing me along. You knew I'd take it too personally.
Batman: It wasn't that, Robin. It wasn't that at all. Zucco's taken so much, caused you so much pain, I couldn't stand the thought that he might – take you, too.
Batman’s actions have been motivated by his fatherly drive to keep his family together. Bruce regularly sees the horrific consequences that follow vengeance, and his actions this episode are intended to prevent Robin from going down that path. In the end, Dick realizes that justice is more satisfying than revenge, and he’s back to his regular smiling self, helping his injured partner as they head home for the night, one big happy family.
BatRobin Beatdown: As Zucco prepares to open fire on the carousel of death, Robin crashes in on his motorcycle, dragging him across the harbor before getting sweet retribution for his parents’ murders. Therapeutic thrashing!
- “Uh-huh.” “Lucky for me you're such a good conversationalist.”
- “Oh, great.” Once they see Batman, they know they’re screwed.
- “I can’t say nothin’! He’ll tear me apart!” “Oh. Then you’ve got a problem.”
- “He shuts me out, man, treats me like a kid!” Says the boy throwing a temper tantrum.
- Zucco’s list of aliases are in-jokes about people that work on the series. Sid the Squid will later be used for “The Man Who Killed Batman.”
- “That Grayson Kid's a real boy wonder.” The line makes me groan, but also smile. How?!
- Bruce pulls a Clark Kent at the circus, spilling his popcorn and soda in a moment of faux-clumsiness.
- Red-haired Gordon and pouch-pocket belt, no yellow oval Batman come from Batman: Year One.
- “If you protect him Stromwell, I'll be very—grumpy. You don't want to see me grumpy.” Bat-Hulk Smash!
- Don’t get on Arnold Stromwell’s bad side or you’re getting smacked with a newspaper.
- “This kid belong to you?”
- Some shitty railings on the Gotham River. Lean on them and they will break.
- Redial. The bane of criminals everywhere.
- “This is where I work.”
- Awesome shot of Robin jumping a bridge, over a boat, on his motorcycle, but completely impossible.
- We can add officially add “abandoned amusement parks” to the list of B:TAS tropes with garbage cans (which also show up this episode) and oncoming trains.
- “You pays your money and you takes your chances.” That’s cold, Zucco.
- “Stuff your advice, Batman! You and your stone-cold heart! You don’t know how I feel. How could you?” Bad form, Robin.