“Showdown” (season 2, episode 14; originally aired 9/12/1995)
Few characters in the DC Universe can match Jonah Hex when it comes to sheer badassery, and the scarred bounty hunter created by John Albano and Tony DeZuniga in 1972 continues to be one of the company’s most intriguing characters long after the cowboy craze petered out. A former slave turned Confederate soldier turned bounty hunter, Hex is the Punisher of the Wild West, although he’s much more liable to be swayed by the prospect of a cash reward than Frank Castle. Hex’s Batman: The Animated Series debut is a highlight of the entire series, a labor of love courtesy of four of the show’s most venerable creators.
From a story by Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, and Kevin Altieri with dialogue by novelist Joe R. Lansdale (who previously scripted the fantastic “Perchance To Dream” and “Read My Lips”), “Showdown” is an action-packed episode that exquisitely balances comedy and tragedy, with Hex embodying the spirit of both. From the opening title card, with its evocative imagery of orange light seeping through saloon doors while a harmonica plays in the background, the episode is Western-pulp perfection. The episode begins with a brief action sequence of Batman and Robin fighting Ra’s Al Ghul’s assassins as Ra’s breaks into a retirement home, leaving a cassette tape as his only clue. As the Dynamic Duo listens to the tape, the episode switches into Wild West mode, flashing back to 1883 Utah to tell the tale of Jonah Hex’s first encounter with the Demon’s Head.
Director Kevin Altieri clearly has a deep affinity for the Western genre, and he works to make every detail—the settings, the weaponry, the costumes—feel authentic. The desert setting is a stark change from this show’s usual urban environment, and Altieri captures the dry desolation of Hex’s world. Hex first makes his appearance with a slow, intimidating walk through town, and the camera never reveals his face to the viewer. When Hex finally sits down at the bar, we get our first glimpse of his scarred visage and our first taste of his bitter wit. William McKinney, most famous for playing a sadistic hillbilly in Deliverance, is the ideal voice for Hex. He doesn’t have any of a cowboy’s bravado, but rather the gritty, weathered voice of an old man who has been living this life for far too long.
The saloon scene has so many great quotes, and really shows how humor can be used to build and diffuse tension. Hex jokes with the barmaid to gain her trust and assistance, but his casual attitude toward murder when he talks to the sheriff makes him seem even more unstable and dangerous. Hex asks the barmaid if she has any information on the whereabouts of Arkady Duvall, a fugitive wanted for crimes committed against a girl out East, and she directs Hex toward a mysterious light in the desert. She warns him of the sky monster that appears in the night to terrorize local railroad construction crews, which is actually a giant airship being built by Arkady under the instruction of Ra’s Al Ghul (in his finest Restoration outfit), who plans to use the ship to halt the American government’s western expansion.
It makes sense that environmentalist Ra’s would view the construction of The First Transcontinental Railroad as a major threat to nature, even though he thinks that gives him reason to burn down the capital and declare himself “Master of America.” As insane as Ra’s is, he has nothing on Arkady, a bastard who delights in being able to whip people whenever he likes. Ra’s will not let Arkady expedite the building of the ship at the expense of his work force, and understands that better working conditions will lead to more productivity. I wonder if Ra’s made his way to Russia after the failure of his American operations.
Hex discovers the airship but is quickly captured and held prisoner, although his captors are unaware that they’re the ones locked in with him, not the other way around. He hides under a pile of hay and ambushes his prison guard when the man inspects the empty cell, then makes his way to the airship to put an end to Ra’s and Arkady’s madness. The final action sequence is breathtaking, with Hex charging into battle against a battalion of angry, overworked soldiers that have trouble understanding that they’re sitting on a giant floating bomb full of hydrogen.
In the past I’ve said that the quality of B:TAS’ animation can be gauged by the explosions, and there are some beautifully detailed blasts this episode. Kevin Altieri loves his swordfights, and he stages a dynamic Hex/Arkady showdown atop the burning airship. I love the contrast between the two, and Hex still beats him despite his handicaps. Hex has a smaller sword in his hand and a bigger scar on his face, but that doesn’t make him any less of a threat. Like Batman, Jonah Hex is an ordinary man who has forced himself to perform extraordinary feats in the name of justice. With just a six-shooter and a hunting knife, Hex saves the railroad and the entire country, and it’s all just part of the job.
The coda returns to the present day, where Batman and Robin track down Ra’s and learn that what he took from the retirement home is Arkady Duvall, who is revealed to be his son. It’s a last minute twist that goes a long way toward humanizing one of Batman’s greatest foes, showing that Ra’s is capable of compassion and loyalty to humans as well as the environment. In a surprising move, Batman lets Ra’s go, but it’s probably because Bruce doesn’t have the heart to separate a father and son. That’s a touchy subject for him.
- Batman Jonah Hex Beatdown: Armed with a hunting knife against Duvall’s sword, Hex fights him into submission, proving that it’s not the size of the weapon, but how you use it.
- Robin plays dirty and punches a henchman in the crotch, although BS&P prevents Altieri from actually showing fist-to-crotch impact.
- I talked about it more heavily in the Justice League TV Club’s “DC Relaunch Rundown,” but the Jonah Hex-starring All-Star Western continues to be one of the best books of the New 52. Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti have been writing an outstanding Jonah Hex for over five years now, which is a damn impressive feat.
- “Horse done give out on me 10 miles back, and I’m hotter than a shaved coyote with a heat rash.”
- Barmaid: “You a bounty hunter?” Jonah Hex: “Just to pay for my piano lessons.”
- “Been here five minutes and you ain’t killed nobody nor set nothing on fire. Slipping, ain’t ya?”
- Sheriff: “Just remember them wanted posters say ‘Dead or alive.’ You might want to try ‘alive’ this time.” Jonah Hex: “First time for everything.”
- “My heart’s all aflutter.”
- “It ain’t about money, boy. It’s about justice, son. And I aim to serve you some.”
- “I’m getting too old for this.”