Batman: The Animated Series: “The Demon's Quest”
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Batman: The Animated Series: “The Demon's Quest”

“The Demon’s Quest” (episode 60; originally aired May 3, 1993-May 4, 1993)

From the very opening moments, it is clear that the “The Demon’s Quest” is unlike any of the episodes that preceded it. After the opening sequence fades out, Eric Radomski’s title card is mysteriously absent, and the change in routine creates an immediately unsettling tone for Robin’s teaser scene. Later shows in the DCAU would utilize teasers to hook viewers before the title sequence, and “The Demon’s Quest” opener is a solid first effort.

On a predictably stormy night, Robin sneaks into his dorm room, unaware of the group of men waiting on the other side of his windowsill. A flashlight shines on Robin as a gun is lifted in the shadows, and director Kevin Altieri’s use of light and dark heightens the tension of the scene until Robin is knocked out by a tranquilizer dart. The flashlight turns off and the shadows assume their dominance, but a flash of lightning reveals a glimpse of Robin’s abductor: a cloaked figure wearing a mask of the Egyptian god Anubis, avatar of the afterlife.   

The music swells as the scene changes to an image of two cavernous stone walls, a location that could be the Batcave or the Himalayan mountain housing Ra’s Al Ghul’s Lazarus Pit. Radomski’s title card finally appears, with elegant white lettering recalling the pulp stories that inspired the plot. The camera pans down to show Batman pulling into the Batcave, where Alfred hands him an envelope containing a picture of a bound Robin with a note attached reading, “Save him if you can!” As Batman tries to register the impact of someone discovering his secret identity, a stranger’s voice calls out from the shadows. The speaker reveals himself to be international eco-terrorist Ra’s Al Ghul, who has received a similar note from the organization that abducted his daughter, Talia.

“The Demon’s Quest” is an adaptation of two specific Batman comic book stories. Part one covers Ra’s Al Ghul’s first appearance, “Daughter Of The Demon,” in Batman #232, and the shirtless swordfight epic “The Demon Lives Again!” from Batman #244 is the focus of the second. The writer of the original comic stories, Dennis O’Neill, handles writing duties, and fellow comic book writer Len Wein jumps on to contribute the teleplay for the second part.

O’Neill’s closeness to the source material and Altieri’s appreciation for the writer’s stories make “The Demon’s Quest” one of the best adaptations attempted by the series thus far (“The Laughing Fish” is still my favorite). The plot is a huge departure from what’s come before, and it begins Batman’s transformation into something bigger than just Gotham’s protector. The globe-trotting mystery forces Batman to team up with his enemy on a search that takes them to Calcutta, Malaysia, and the Himalayan Mountains. Along the way they encounter homicidal street rats, a vicious guard-panther, and skiing assassins, their quest ending when the mastermind of the plot is shown to be none other than Ra’s Al Ghul.

From the opening teaser it is obvious that Ra’s Al Ghul is Robin’s abductor. They’re wearing the same clothes, for God’s sake. The mask of Anubis is another giveaway for anyone familiar with Ra’s and his relationship with the afterlife, but the mystery isn’t the fun of this episode. Even Batman comments on how horribly obvious it all is, but who cares? This episode has Batman in India! Sword-fighting in the desert! Talia in a flesh-colored two-piece! This is Batman: International Action Hero, and he’s pretty awesome.

I have a distinct childhood memory of “The Demon’s Quest,” specifically the end of part one. I couldn’t watch after-school TV in my own house, so I had to go to my best friend’s across the street, which proved inconvenient for a two-part episode. I can remember that final shot of an enraged Ra’s Al Ghul holding his daughter above the Lazarus Pit, and the sinking despair when the words “To Be Continued… ” flashed across the screen. Who knew when I would be at Frankie’s house next? Aladdin was released the year before, and “The Demon’s Quest” tapped into the exotic, mystical atmosphere that made that film so enchanting. This episode has so many things for a kid to love—exotic locales, ample swash-buckling, just the right amount of romance—and their entertainment value still translates for adults, a problem for a lot of the more kid-friendly episodes.

The full extent of Ra’s Al Ghul’s plot never really sank in with me as a kid, and the global scope of his terrorism makes him a much more terrifying character than some of Batman’s more colorful rogues. This is a man who is smart enough to deduce Batman’s identity by looking at receipts, he wants to wipe out a third of the world’s population, and he has a satellite to make that happen. This is villainy on an epic scale, and Batman has to rise to a new level of heroism to counter it.

Ra’s Al Ghul isn’t all that different from someone like Osama Bin Laden, with Ra’s consumed by ecological fanaticism whereas Bin Laden’s was religious. Each new dip into the Lazarus Pit fundamentally changes Ra’s Al Ghul’s brain, consuming him with rage for his enemies and the wrathful desire to make the world right in his maligned eyes. The Lazarus Pit could be seen as a symbol for the indoctrination process that terrorist cells put new recruits through, stripping away the individual to make each person a disposable pawn. The origins of the Lazarus Pit are unknown—maybe it is the Earth’s immune system, transforming humans into terrorist antibodies in exchange for a prolonged life.  

It’s more likely that Ra’s Al Ghul is just insane, though, as he does spend a good portion of this episode forcing his daughter’s uterus on a man in a bat costume. His obsession with finding an heir leads to him treating his daughter like a slave up for auction, handing her off to whichever man can survive the international gauntlet he’s set up. Talia’s totally cool with that because Bruce Wayne’s a babe, but Batman wants nothing to do with the genocidal duo. He’s just there to save Robin, not get anyone pregnant. When Batman refuses Talia, Ra’s challenges him to that most classic of duels: the shirtless sword-fight.

Ra’s is obsessed with proving himself better than Batman, but the truth is he wants to be Batman. Ra’s may have a body that never ages, but he has an old, damaged mind, whereas Batman is the epitome of strength and intelligence. It also introduces a nice Freudian twist to Ra’s and Talia’s relationship. How much of her father does Talia see in her beloved? Does Ra’s try to bring Batman into the family so his daughter doesn’t try to run off to be with him? The sword-fight ends with Ra’s tumbling into the Lazarus Pit, and Batman comforts Talia with a kiss before he heads back to Gotham. Batman really needs to stop enabling these psychos, because the Al Ghuls aren’t going to stop until they have a Wayne of their own.

Director Kevin Altieri establishes each location beautifully with wide panoramic shots, and the diverse environments are brought to life in vivid detail by TMS animation. The color palette is a lot more vibrant than usual, utilizing yellows and oranges to create the acrid desert and an abrasively neon green for the mysterious ether of the Lazarus Pit. Altieri has fun making Batman look as threatening as possible throughout the episode, and after he interrogates a thug on the streets of Calcutta, Batman walks toward the camera, the bat insignia growing larger until it takes over the entire screen. Batman’s coming for you, and there’s nothing that will stop him. When Ra’s Al Ghul has his obligatory supervillain monologue detailing his plot, a series of still images show the catastrophic effects of the Orpheus satellite, and I wonder if those are intended as stills or if they’re storyboards that proved too difficult to animate but too beautiful to trash. Either way, they work effectively, and incorporating comic book-style storytelling into an adapted episode is a nice touch.

“The Demon’s Quest” isn’t the most intellectually or emotionally stimulating episode, but the epic scope makes it a more than satisfying introduction to one of Batman’s greatest villains. The animation from TMS is on par with the original story artwork from the legendary Neal Adams, and Dennis O’Neill maintains the core elements of the comic plots while updating the dialogue for a modern audience. You can see how current Batman, Incorporated writer Grant Morrison was inspired to create an international network of Batmen after seeing how Bruce Wayne adapts to the different locations of the story, and the episode is a welcome journey into the world of pulpy action-adventure. Batman’s mission is beginning to apply to more than just Gotham City, and as the presence of the Bat increases around the world, so does the power of his myth.

Stray observations:

  • Batman Beatdown: The only thing that stands in the way of Batman’s rescue of Robin is six axe-wielding assassins, and the jet lag has clearly triggered Batman’s berserker rage. He breaks a piece of wood off one of the axes, grits his teeth, and mows through the group in a flurry, leaving six bodies on the ground as he unties Robin’s restraints.
  • “I think I’ll call it strike one.”
  • “As Napoleon told me, ‘A strong will can fuel a frail physique.’”
  • Nice pink pants, Ubu.
  • “Next time I'll have to glue my mask on.” More importantly, cover up your paper trail.
  • Never underestimate the power of Talia’s bitch slap.
  • “Yes, I see it clearly now for the first time. You are completely out of your mind!”
  • “Infidel!” “If you only knew how sick I am of you calling me that.”
  • “Perhaps it is time I am finally one with the planet I so love.”
  • Sit, Ubu, sit. Good dog.

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