Before I get to this week’s episode, I’m going to talk about Planetary. For those unfamiliar, Planetary is a comic book by Warren Ellis and John Cassaday that explores various corners of genre fiction through the adventures of a group of superhuman archaeologists. In Planetary/Batman, the Planetary team follows the trail of reality altering murderer John Black to Gotham City, where they come face to face with various incarnations of the Caped Crusader. As Black rewrites the world around them, the Batmen of Bob Kane, Neal Adams, Frank Miller, and more cycle into existence, changing the tone of the story as the character’s appearance is altered.
Spotlighting the characteristics of specific creators in both dialogue and art, Ellis and Cassaday create a perfect visualization of the ideas brought up in the “Christmas With The Joker” review. Characters are defined in our minds by aspects taken from different creators’ interpretations, but there is a unifying thread between all the variations. For Batman, it is one fateful night in Crime Alley. The Joker? As Harvey Dent says in Brian Azzarello’s Joker, “Death, for him, is the punchline.” Life’s just a joke, and nothing’s funnier than pulling the trigger. Whether he’s the master comedian of Alan Moore, the over-the-top gangster of Steve Englehardt, or Grant Morrison’s cross-dressing demigod of chaos, the Joker kills with a smile.
“The Last Laugh” has the potential to make some intriguing comparisons between the Joker’s twisted sense of humor and Batman’s largely absent one, but Carl Swensen’s script devotes most of the episode to an extended chase sequence that offers little in the way of emotional gravitas. The Joker is back in Gotham to celebrate April Fool’s Day, and while Alfred tries to cheer Bruce up with some holiday humor, the Joker uses his garbage-covered submarine to drive the populace insane with laughter. When the toxic garbage-fumes (yeah, the plot’s pretty thin) eventually find their way to Wayne Manor and claim Alfred as their latest victim, Batman must race to stop the Joker and save his best friend from madness.
Episodes like “The Last Laugh” serve as a reminder that Batman is still a Saturday morning cartoon, and that not every episode is going to be a psychological dissection of a tragic pop culture icon. Sometimes, kids just want to see Batman beat the hell out of a giant clown robot with a metal pole. The stakes never feel very high, with everyone’s insanity manifesting as giddy happiness that isn’t particularly terrifying, and some of the plot points require a child’s suspension of disbelief to make the story work. How does the gas manage to travel all the way to Wayne Manor? If a knife can cut through the container Joker tries to drown Batman in, why can’t a batarang? These are small complaints, but when there’s not much in the way of story, small issues have a much bigger effect.
With Kevin Altieri returning to direct, the episode looks great, with the particular highlights being Batman’s thrashing of Captain Clown, the Batboat’s laser rescue, and a touching Batman/Alfred pieta moment that further builds the bonds between the two. Yet despite its visual flourishes, the episode is still very simple compared to the mature, poignant storytelling of other episodes. “The Last Laugh” is largely inconsequential, and its saving grace is the unbridled theatricality of Mark Hamill’s Joker. What I appreciate about Hamill is that he’s able to make the Joker genuinely funny, and this episode is mostly Hamill spouting one-liners to fill in the insubstantial plot. There’s a showmanship in his delivery that suggests the Joker’s stand-up comic origin from Moore’s The Killing Joke, and Swenson has taken Moore’s cue of making most of the character’s lines a joke. It gives the impression that there’s a little more method behind his madness than he’s leading on, but the insane cackle gives him away: He’s totally crazy.
The most disappointing aspect of “The Last Laugh” is the way it tiptoes around the idea of Bruce’s sense of humor, ignoring an opportunity to create a stronger contrast between Batman and the Joker. The comics have explored this dynamic, most famously in The Killing Joke, and I feel these words on humor from Hollywood casting director Michael Shurtleff enlighten both Moore’s story and “The Last Laugh.”
“Humor is not being funny. It is the coin of exchange between human beings that makes it possible for us to get through the day. …We try in life to put humor everywhere; if we didn’t, we couldn’t bear to live.”
Now, look at this exchange from The Killing Joke:
JOKER: Why aren’t you laughing?
BATMAN: Because I’ve heard it all before…and it wasn’t funny the first time.
If humor is the way that human beings cope with the horror of reality, then wouldn't Bruce's sense of humor be the Batman? In "The Last Laugh," Batman cracks a joke before Bruce does, but after being in the mask, Bruce has loosened up enough to play an April Fool's joke of his own on Alfred. Traditional ideas of humor aren’t enough to comfort Bruce in a world without his parents, and it’s only when the Batman laughs that Bruce can too. In The Killing Joke’s controversial ending, the Batman and Joker share a laugh when the Joker tells a joke about two men in an asylum, whose escape attempt is ultimately foiled by their own madness. That’s a joke that Batman’s apparently never heard before, and it’s the one that he’s living.
- If the police get a blimp, the Joker gets a submarine.
- April Fool’s Day is so popular in Gotham that it’s the front page story of the Gotham Gazette. It’s like they’re asking for an insane clown to terrorize them.
- Batman punches the Joker through a periscope. Badass.
- “You’re going to melt just like a grilled cheese sandwich!”
- “You killed Captain Clown! YOU KILLED CAPTAIN CLOWN!”
- The design for the robot under Captain Clown’s crunchy candy shell looks like a car engine with an eyeball. Perfect.
- As great as Shirley Walker’s music is, that early-‘90s drum machine that comes in for this episode’s main theme completely detracts from the series’ classic feel. But Joker’s circus theme music is perfect.
- Reading Ed Brubaker’s The Man Who Laughs, I noticed something mentioned in last week’s column. All the first-person narration comes from Batman, while Bruce Wayne is referred to in the third person. The story takes place early in his career, leading me to wonder just when the Bat took over for Bruce. How much of him died in Crime Alley with his parents?
- Notice how I haven’t mentioned anything about the crossover “Joker’s Last Laugh”? For good reason …
Next Week: Poison Ivy and the beginning of The Tragedy of Harvey Dent