“The Man Who Killed Batman” (season one, episode 51; originally aired 2/1/93)
When Paul Dini throws the average Joe into Batman’s demented world, cartoon magic happens. When Paul Dini and Bruce Timm team up, Emmy happens. “The Man Who Killed Batman” didn’t win any awards, but it’s one of the best episodes of the series, and Batman barely appears. This episode is about what Batman means to Gotham’s citizens, and his apparent death reveals insights into his relationships with friends, enemies, and semi-innocent bystanders.
The episode begins with a standard B:TAS image, a dark alley on a stormy night, as a rain-soaked figure runs in panic. The small, wet man finds sanctuary in Rupert Thorne’s home, where he recounts the events of his evening, the night Sidney Debris (Matt Frewer) became “Sid the Squid,” the man who killed Batman. A small-time crook brought on a drug run as bait for Batman, Sidney fills his role swimmingly, landing himself in a one-sided rooftop fight against the Dark Knight that ends with Sidney accidentally pulling Batman off the building and into an exploding gas tank. Part of what makes this episode so memorable is the humor, and the rooftop fight uses Sidney’s clumsiness for some solid slapstick, but when Batman goes up in flames, the mood appropriately shifts to heighten the moment.
After offing the Bat, Sidney is reborn as “Sid the Squid,” a lowlife big-shot that can barely talk the talk, let alone walk the walk. Now considered the most dangerous man in Gotham, Sid’s status is almost immediately challenged, starting a bar brawl between Sid’s supporters and detractors that ends with the lot of them behind bars at Gotham Central. At the police station, Harvey Bullock tells Renee Montoya that Batman has been killed, and despite the tough front Bullock puts up, he’s visibly pained by the news. I wish we could have gotten to see Commissioner Gordon’s reaction, though, especially after seeing Batman lose it after Gordon was shot last week. As much trouble as Batman can be for the GCPD, the idea of their city without him is a terrifying one, especially considering the kinds of supercriminals that Batman’s presence awakened in the city. One of those villains isn’t much too happy about not delivering the final blow to the caped crusader, and he sends his plucky blonde sidekick to bust Sid out so he can pay his last respects to the Bat.
Shirley Walker’s funereal score uses organs to a create a classic horror vibe, and nowhere is it more effective than the Joker’s powerful introduction this episode (see screencap). Joker’s bothered by the fact that there’s no body, so he sets up a robbery to see if Batman really is dead. When Batman never shows, Joker deflates in sadness, uttering the words that perfectly encapsulate the two characters’ dynamic: “Without Batman, crime has no punchline.” Paul Dini really understands the Joker/Batman dynamic in the B:TAS universe, and as hilarious as Joker’s impromptu funeral for his archenemy is, it’s an emotional scene that reveals the complicated relationship the clown had with the bat. Mark Hamill does incredible work with Joker’s eulogy, and Bruce Timm’s tight storyboards hit all the emotional beats of the monologue to amplify Hamill’s work.
Joker punishes Sid by throwing him in a casket and dumping him in a vat of acid, taking on Batman’s role in his own twisted way. It’s possible the acid will have the same effect it has on Sid as it did on Jack Napier, and in disposing of Sid, Joker potentially recreates his own birth, whether he wants to or not. Sid escapes before the acid burns through the casket, presumably through a drain in the vat, and makes his way to Thorne’s to bring us back to the beginning of the episode. Sid finishes recounting his story, but Thorne refuses to believe a third-rate crook could take out the Batman and fool the Joker with dumb luck. And he can’t. Just as Thorne pulls a gun on Sidney, Batman busts in and batarangs the chamber, revealing that he faked his death so he could trail Sidney back to the leader of the operation.
While “Joker’s Favor” showed us what happens when you insult the Joker, “The Man Who Killed Batman” shows us what happens when you take away what he wants the most. It’s cartoon psychological horror, and the animation team of Bruce Timm and Sunrise studios keeps the tone somber while still allowing the humor of Dini’s script to come through. Frewer captures the timid anxiety that characterizes Sidney, and his diminutive voice strips him of any aggression, making him even less of a threat. But with his new reputation as the man who almost killed Batman, prison might be just the place for Sidney to rise to power. Or he’ll become someone’s bitch.
“Mudslide” (season one, episode 52; originally aired 2/15/93)
Batman has the best rogues gallery of any superhero because each villain has a specific symbolic significance, embodying the less favorable traits of the human psyche to make war a fight between ideas emotions rather than a never-ending series of costumed brawls. After being scarred in a car accident, movie star Matt Hagen turns to drugs to regain his former face and fame, but an overdose destroys his body and mind, leaving behind only Clayface, a walking bowel movement. Drugs quite literally turn Matt Hagen’s life to shit, and in “Mudslide” he gets flushed down the toilet for his last appearance on Batman: The Animated Series (although he returns on The New Batman Adventures).
In the wake of Amy Winehouse’s death this past weekend and Charlie Sheen’s breakdown earlier in the year, Matt Hagen’s character arc becomes a twisted reflection of reality. Fame is a dangerous thing, and people do dangerous things to keep it. Clayface is faced with the ultimate consequence of his addiction in “Mudslide” as his cellular structure begins to lose its integrity, turning him into a runny mess with limited control of his body. He turns to Dr. Stella Bates (Pat Musick), who had worked as a medical consultant on some of his films, for help reconstituting his form, and she encases him in gold plating that basically turns him into an Academy Award. Stella is an enabler, and her twisted notions of Hollywood romance compel her to help Clayface in hopes that she’ll win the heart of Matt Hagen underneath.
“Mudslide” isn’t quite as strong as Clayface’s origin episode, but Alan Burnett’s story (with a teleplay by Steve Perry) is a strong continuation of Matt Hagen’s tragedy. Burnett cleverly incorporates movie references to keep the character’s connection to fame and celebrity at the forefront, and he maintains the mature tone set for the character in “Feat of Clay.” Stella is seriously deluded, and the scene of her watching Matt’s film Dark Interlude is terrifying because it’s such a creepy, real thing for someone to do. Stella is motivated by love, as misguided as it is, and in trying to heal Clayface herself she prevents him from seeking proper medical attention.
The irony of “Mudslide” is that Batman offers to heal Clayface and he refuses, unaware that Batman is offering him the isotope that Stella has him steal later in the episode. With his deteriorating mental and physical state, Clayface immediately assumes the worst of Batman, instead choosing to return to Stella’s treatment. Stella pumps him full of chemicals and he feeds her the movie line that her mind interprets as love: “You cured more than my body. You cured my heart.” Stella only offers a temporary cure, though, and while the procedure that she does with the Mp40 isotope could have healed Matt, by breaking the law they bring Batman’s wrath down on them. The abuse of these chemicals is what creates abominations like Clayface, and while Batman was willing to heal Matt under the proper circumstances, he won’t allow their operation to go down. Clayface bursts through his chemical shell one last time, and their fight ends with an already-unstable Clayface soaked in the rain, his body no longer able to support itself as it absorbs the water. Dangling off the side of a cliff, his fingers interlaced with Batman’s, Clayface lets the rain wash him away, melting through Batman’s leather gloves to put another death on Bruce’s conscience.
Eric Radomski directs “Mudslide,” and he’s quickly risen to the top of the director ranks on the series along with fellow producer Bruce Timm. Both directors have such a firm understanding of the world they are trying to create, and the visuals of their episode are always sharp and specific, even when they have less than stellar animation collaborators. That isn’t the case with “Mudslide,” and while Junio can’t really compare to TMS’ stunning Clayface animation in “Feat of Clay, Part Two,” they do a really solid job with the series’ most difficult character. They capture the physics of the clay very well, specifically during moments like Clayface’s rooftop drop that ends with him splattered on the sidewalk, quickly reconstituting and sliming away. The most horrific moment of the episode is easily when Clayface absorbs Batman into his body to suffocate him, a fantastically storyboarded sequence that maximizes the tension while showcasing the stunning visuals.
Guilt and revenge and greed are fine villain motivations, but there’s something about love that makes a villain classic. Two-Face, Mr. Freeze, Mad Hatter, Clayface – these are the rogues that have had the best stories, and they all contain an element of romance. Harvey and Grace, Victor and Nora, Jervis and Alice, Matt and Teddy/Stella (he was so gay in “Feat of Clay”), emphasizing the love makes tragedy all the sadder. Tennessee Williams gets a few shout outs this episode, and it is clear Burnett has read his work. The damaged relationship between Matt and Stella has its roots in reality, specifically with chemical dependence, and the tragedy is that they’ve broken things past the point where they can be mended. Clayface’s last words as he falls to his death? “Too late. Curtain's going down.”
Back to black.
- Bat Beatdown: Wham! “That’s for pulling a gun.” Boom! “And that’s for the drugs.” Pow! “And that one’s for any I missed.”
- Beautiful title cards this week. The mini-Sidney for “The Man Who Killed Batman” captures how the episode puts him in a world where he is way in over his head, and “Mudslide” is a variation on the title card of “Feat of Clay,” incorporating Clayface in the drama mask’s shadow.
- “The Man Who Killed Batman” is the first appearance of Bud and Lou, Joker and Harley’s hyenas named after Abbot and Costello.
- Sidney might be a better lookout if he stopped making shadow puppets. Just sayin’.
- “I believe I served you a subpoena once. It was a small subpoena.”
- “I’ll get the mop.”
- “You really put the fun in funeral.” Cheek pinch!
- “Well that was fun! Who's for Chinese?”
- “Nobody's that lucky or stupid!” “Yes, I am! Honest!”
- “Don't take this the wrong way, Sir, but your goose is cooked.”
- What does Clayface smell like?
- “Perhaps she enjoys mud baths.”
- Pat Musick is the mother of Mae Whitman. Huh.