When watching episodes like “The Forgotten,” it’s important to keep in mind that Batman: The Animated Series is written for a child audience. The tots waking up early on Saturday morning won’t cry bully when a thug sneaks up on Bruce and blackjacks him from behind. They won’t question the logic of a blow to the head giving Bruce amnesia, and they won’t scoff at the writers for turning to such an exhausted plot device so early in the series. Absurd plot developments are the norm for most kids’ action-adventure fare, and it’s a testament to the producers that B:TAS didn’t rely on them more often. And while “The Forgotten” is guilty of quite a few of these developments, writers Jules Dennis, Richard Mueller, and Sean Catherine Derek still manage to provide some legitimate character development in the midst of the stupidity. It’s easy to criticize this episode for its insipid villain or its nonsensical story, but we should be grateful that a cartoon targeted to 7-year-olds about a man in a bat costume has any deeper artistic merit at all.
“The Forgotten” begins with Bruce Wayne volunteering at the Dock Street Rescue Mission, where he learns of a string of homeless person disappearances that have been ignored by the police. Rather than investigating as Batman, Bruce opens his closet of disguises and pulls out “Gaff Morgan,” his gruff hobo persona. He wanders the streets of Gotham until he is approached by two thugs with an offer for some “long-term employment,” and he easily fends off their attack when his answer is less than satisfactory. After the fight, Bruce becomes inexplicably fascinated with a cat in the alley, focusing all his attention on it instead of on the man with the blackjack sneaking up behind him. As much as I’d like to think the cat is a shoutout to the upcoming Selina Kyle, it just reeks of lazy storytelling, an out-of-character moment intended only to push the plot forward.
Bruce wakes up in the desert outside Gotham City, chained to a bed with no memory of who he is or how he got there. He is greeted by Dan Riley and Salvo Smith, fellow prisoners who inform Bruce that he’s the newest member of Boss Biggis’s gold-ore-mining chain gang. The location of the episode doesn’t make any sense considering what we already know about Gotham—we know it gets cold enough to snow, for instance—so how Death Valley is located just outside the city limits is a mystery. It’s just another in a long line of convenient plot developments that the writers turn to, and things only get worse once Bruce gets out of bed.
The next scene introduces the episode’s villain, the utterly unremarkable Boss Biggis, joining Sewer King in the B:TAS fail pile of original villains. His appearance is hilariously reminiscent of South Park’s Big Gay Al, lacking only a neckerchief to complete the illusion, and like Sewer King, Biggis is constantly eating (and only appears in one episode of the entire series). Biggis keeps his slaves in line by threatening to throw them in a box that roasts them in the desert sun, which brings up the disturbing yet fascinating idea that Biggis could potentially be a cannibal, and all the food he eats in front of his workers is actually the cooked remains of their boxed comrades. It’d be more interesting than what we get: a villain with no motivation, competence, or intrigue.
The action shifts to Alfred, who finds Bruce’s bed empty when he goes to wake him in the morning. Thus begins the episode’s subplot, with Alfred using his own detective skills to locate his missing master. Another example of lazy storytelling, the entire subplot hinges on Bruce having not told Alfred anything about his plans for the night before, which just doesn’t make sense, considering what has been established regarding Alfred and Bruce’s relationship. Despite showing us a different side of Bruce’s multi-talented butler, Alfred’s adventure outside the mansion is just silly, especially since he never takes off his tuxedo. Was it too hard for the animators to throw a trench coat on the poor guy? After finding Bruce’s abandoned Studebaker at the Dock Street junkyard, Alfred conveniently runs into the thugs Bruce encountered in the alley and places a tracker on the underside of their truck. How Alfred knows these men have something to do with Bruce’s disappearance is a mystery, considering they say nothing in the scene, but hey, if you haven’t gotten used to the leaps in logic at this point of the episode, “The Forgotten” just isn’t for you.
The episode’s redeeming moments happen inside Bruce’s head, the first in a dream and the second when he finally remembers his past. In his dream, Bruce/Gaff is walking through a hall of mirrors, staring at contorted versions of himself when he suddenly hears Bruce laughing from inside the mirror behind him. As he comes closer to the reflection, the chuckle crescendos into the Joker’s maddening cackle, as the image of Bruce transforms into the visage of Batman’s archnemesis. Breaking through the mirror, the Joker grabs Bruce and pulls him through, the both of them falling from high above the Gotham streets. A blaze of fire engulfs the image, and Bruce is suddenly in front of the Dock Street Rescue Mission, surrounded by homeless people eagerly throwing their empty hands at him. Suddenly aware of his life of luxury in a world of crippling poverty, a single tear forms in Bruce’s eye. I want to condemn the writers for having hobos make Batman cry, but the sleeping Bruce is in the middle of the Grand Canyon, so this cry is 100 percent Ron Swanson approved, making it 100 percent Oliver Sava approved.
Director Boyd Kirkland is best when he’s given the chance to explore the emotional life of these characters, and the mental sequences give him the opportunity to do that. The hall of mirrors sequence is truly creepy, especially with the pulsing strings of Shirley Walker’s evocative score, and it introduces questions about Bruce’s identity that haven’t been broached yet. The transformation of Bruce into the Joker is especially telling, considering the man looking into the mirror is completely unaware of his true identity. Bruce Wayne has already created one personality for himself in Batman, and he could create another in the Joker, especially considering his proximity to murderous lunatics on a daily basis. Perhaps the Batman mask’s purpose is to weaken the Joker aspects of Bruce’s psyche, as much as it is to strengthen Bruce’s heroic qualities?
Kirkland is really given a chance to shine in the sequence where Bruce regains his memory, a heartbreaking reminder of what the Batman mythos is all about. When Riley and Bruce are locked in Biggis’ roasting box after starting a fight, Riley breaks down and begins crying out for his absent family. The repetition of the word “family” awakens Bruce’s sleeping memories, the first a happy scene of a child Bruce being thrown in the air by his father, as his mother watches with delight. Those same pulsing strings return to underscore Bruce flying through the air in slow motion, a huge smile on his face as he glides down to his father’s arms. When Bruce remembers his parents’ grave the score transitions into a variation of Danny Elfman’s Batman theme, building to the reveal of Batman standing defiantly atop a Gotham City rooftop. When the action returns to the box, it is Batman’s eyes we see, Batman’s voice we hear. The ever-brilliant Kevin Conroy’s choice to use Bruce’s voice when he has amnesia and Batman’s once he recovers captures the theme of this episode perfectly. When he forgets, he’s Bruce. When he remembers, he’s Batman.
Once Bruce’s memory returns, “The Forgotten” continues predictably toward its conclusion. He escapes through the canyon, where he conveniently (way too much convenience in this plot) runs into Alfred, who had somehow flown the Batplane to wherever the hell they are. Bruce returns to the camp as Batman and takes out Biggis, rescues his friends, and offers them jobs at Wayne Tech the next time he sees them. They will never be seen again. A forgettable end to a forgettable episode. Ironic, isn’t it?
1940’s Superman: Part Two (“Bulleteers”-“Terror on the Midway”)
These five shorts—“Bulleteers,” “The Magnetic Telescope,” “Electric Earthquake,” “Volcano,” and “Terror on the Midway”—constitute the remainder of the Superman cartoons produced by the Fleischer brothers before production was taken over by Famous Studios. These five continue with the classic sci-fi tone of the first four shorts, with Superman facing bullet-headed burglars, a giant ape, a volcano, and two more mad scientists that aren’t Lex Luthor. They also follow the same pattern, with Lois throwing herself into danger so often I’m beginning to think she gets off on it, Clark changing into Superman in front of a conveniently placed light source, and Superman stopping the antagonist by punching. Superman has yet to become an outlet for propaganda and overt racism (that’s next week) so these cartoons become a little repetitive, but their influence on B:TAS is undeniable.
I haven’t gotten a chance to talk about Eric Radowski’s beautiful title cards for B:TAS, which instill an instant sense of intrigue about the events to follow, even for clunkers like this week’s episode. The idea to use title cards was taken from Superman and intended to give each episode the feel of a mini-movie, rather than just another episode of a superhero cartoon. The Superman title cards don’t use still images like Radowski’s but combine sound cues, sleek typography, and occasional animation to set the tone for the short before the credits roll. The electric crackle around the letters of “The Magnetic Telescope,” the words of “Electric Earthquake” crumbling as the screen shakes in a mock earthquake, dripping lava forming “Volcano”—they may seem like little details, but the title card is one of the first things you see. And was anyone not disappointed by the loss of title cards when B:TAS switched to The WB?
All those Shirley Walker fans have Sammy Timberg to thank for her lavish Batman scores. Timberg's music for the Superman shorts inspired the producers to use original orchestral scores for each B:TAS episode. Timberg’s Superman theme music has become iconic in relation to the Golden Age iteration of the character, its rousing, brass-fueled energy constantly pushing forward. Because the characters and situations are so straight-forward, the music is used to evoke some sort of visceral emotional response. Three grown men wearing giant black bullet hats don’t really evoke any sense of horror, but Timberg’s score would make you believe they do, at least in Superman’s world. Just like Shirley Walker’s score would have you believe that a morbidly obese gangster stuffing his face could be perceived as any sort of threat in Batman’s.
Strong voice work can make or break a cartoon, and Superman solved this problem simply by having the voices of the Superman radio series portray their characters for the cartoons. Joan Alexander’s voice for Lois Lane portrays an innocence that hides her ulterior motives when she speaks with authority, but the sass comes out when it’s just her and Clark. She’s actually just a straight-up bitch to Clark most of the time. Superman fights circus animals and natural disasters; Clark has to put up with Lois. I don’t know who has it easier, especially with Superman’s batshit crazy portrayal of Ms. Lane.
The only actor to play Superman in radio, film, and television, Bud Collyer gives Superman just the right amount of bravado but also instills some slyness into mild-mannered Clark Kent, especially during each episode’s closing scene after he’s saved Lois. When he jokes about Superman, it’s like you can see Collyer winking behind the microphone. Collyer’s vocal transitions also offer some surprising insight into the Clark/Superman dynamic, just like how Conroy’s voice work is able to instill depth in the shallow plot of “The Forgotten.” Collyer’s transformation from the bookish, overprotective Clark to the confident, powerful Superman, and then back to a looser, more flirtatious Clark reveals how the Superman persona is able to empower Clark, even when his shirt is buttoned.
BatBruce Beatdown: With his hands tucked into his jacket, Bruce dodges a thug’s attacks and watches the man beat himself against a wooden crate. Minimal effort, maximum badass.
- I wonder what foundation Bruce uses to get that perfect faux five o’clock shadow for “Gaff Morgan.”
- Bruce throws someone into a Dumpster. That’s almost a trash can, right?
- “If it’s moving, it’s a rat. If not, it’s a cooked rat.”
- I like the parallel between Bruce working in the soup kitchen at the start of the episode, then having to wait in line to eat rat soup in Biggis’ camp.
- The harmonica-laced score by Shirley Walker sounds great until that goddamned drum comes in and funks up everything. Nothing kills the mood like percussion that sounds preset on a Casio keyboard.
- Alfred flying the Batplane is ludicrous, but we learn that the Batplane has an unexpected feature: banter.
- Superman lives in Manhattan, not Metropolis. Huh.
- The amount of destruction inflicted on
MetropolisManhattan in these episodes is staggering. Every short is like an attack on Pearl Harbor.
- The mad scientist in “Electric Earthquake” is apparently a Native American trying to get Manhattan back for “his people.” At least it's an attempt at a villain with pathos.
- Lois Lane is borderline insane in her attempts to get a front page byline. At one point, she even steals Clark’s press pass to make sure he doesn’t get the scoop on a story before her.
- Superman saves Lois, the lights go out, and Clark is standing in the exact same spot as Superman. Lois doesn’t bat an eye. I understand we’re supposed to suspend our disbelief, but come on!