“The Strange Secret Of Bruce Wayne” (season 1, episode 37)
After discovering Bruce Wayne’s secret identity, Dr. Hugo Strange (Ray Buktenica) auctions the information off to Joker, Penguin, and Two-Face in “The Strange Secret Of Bruce Wayne,” a frustrating episode that requires all disbelief to be set to the side for the illogical plot to work. The story by David Wise, with teleplay by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, requires Bruce Wayne to act idiotically in order to be marginally sensible, and the animation duo of director Frank Paur and Akom studio provide sloppy visuals to match the disappointing plot. This is an episode of a Batman: The Animated Series that feels like an average children’s show, with mediocre quality that can be overlooked by a kid but is hard to excuse as an adult.
A loose adaptation of Steve Englehart’s Detective Comics #471/#472, “The Strange Secret Of Bruce Wayne” has Bruce entering an “executive relaxation program” to investigate a blackmail attempt that almost costs Judge Vargas her life. The opening sequence on the Gotham bridge has some surprisingly good work by Akom, with a tense string-heavy score by Lolita Ritmanis, but from the very outset, it’s obvious this is going to be a rough episode. Once the dialogue starts and Strange’s henchman Numbers (who has a bizarre Italian accent) counts a stack of money by shuffling it near his ear, the suspense deteriorates into stupidity, climaxing with Vargas passing out by banging her head against the metal girder she’s climbing across. Apparently, the judge can’t support the weight of her own head. The thugs’ plates are traced to the Yucca Springs resort, a subsidiary of Roland Daggett’s corporation, prompting Batman to investigate as Bruce Wayne, having learned his lesson in “Eternal Youth” that the therapeutic clinics surrounding Gotham are breeding grounds for evil.
At Yucca Springs, Bruce Wayne meets Dr. Hugo Strange, who treats his patients by hooking them up to a machine that projects their thoughts on a screen, recording the images so he can blackmail his subjects later. Bruce has no problem undergoing the process, even though he is explicitly told that it lowers defenses and exposes deep secrets, which drives me crazy. It’s not like Bruce Wayne has anything to hide, right? Like “The Cape And Cowl Conspiracy,” this episode has Bruce putting himself at needless risk, which goes against the calculating, cautious mentality that’s made him the world’s greatest detective. While Bruce is hooked up to Strange’s machine, the animators have the opportunity to do whatever they’d like to interpret Bruce’s mental pictures, and I was hoping for a surreal sequence like Batman’s fear gas trip in “Dreams In Darkness.” Instead, we get a series of images that we’ve seen plenty of times already: young Bruce standing in darkness with Alfred by his side, his parents’ faces, a floating gun, etc. Strange presses Bruce until the Bat-symbol appears on the screen, and by the time Bruce regains his composure, it’s too late. Strange has the information he needs.
The trio of rogues that appear this episode are totally arbitrary, but Mark Hamill saves this episode from being a total failure with his typically fantastic delivery. Joker’s voicemail is brilliantly disturbing, and his one-liners help pick up the plodding second half of the episode. There’s some adequate banter between the group of villains, but for the most part, they appear only to make the lousy plot more exciting by bringing in three recognizable faces. They offer little to the overall story, and their presence feels like a desperate attempt to fill in Wise’s flimsy script.
Bruce discovers Strange’s thought machine and learns that Judge Vargas was being blackmailed for her involvement in the Gotham Dock fire. In one of those random PSA Batman moments, we learn that matches are bad, and we should listen to our parents when they tell us not to play with them, even though they make us smile so much. The image of little Maria’s insane face as she lights the match is hilariously over the top, but it’s just another unintentionally funny moment in the messy episode. Just take a look at the animation when the three rogues get off the airplane. Even a simple sequence of characters stepping forward is stiff and ugly, with some particularly awful shading on Two-Face.
The worst part of “The Strange Secret Of Bruce Wayne” is the horrible cop-out ending, when Dr. Strange reveals Batman’s identity as Bruce Wayne, only to have no one believe him. So the entire point of the episode is moot, because the rogues find out it’s Bruce and just don’t give a shit. What was the point of it all? Dick’s Forrest Gump impression at the end? It’s a waste of time, and that’s the worst crime of all.
“If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?” (season 1, episode 40)
First off, what an awesome title. The question is blunt, malicious in its simplicity, and the driving force of Riddler’s (John Glover) actions in his first appearance on the series. I loved this episode as a kid, especially the final maze sequence, as I have a soft spot for both Greek mythology and the David Bowie masterpiece Labyrinth (yeah, I said masterpiece), and I’m glad to say it holds up pretty well. This is co-creator Eric Radomski’s directorial debut on B:TAS, and he does a great job capturing the epic scope of Max Fleischer’s Superman shorts, especially in the ways he creates a fully realized Gotham environment. Responsible for the show’s dark backgrounds, Radomski developed the noir-influenced visual aesthetic for the locations Bruce Timm’s streamlined character designs would inhabit, and his direction utilizes distant wide shots to show off the detailed settings. For the climactic maze scene, skewed camera angles emphasize Batman and Robin’s disorientation, and the quick cuts keep the action moving at a swift pace as the dynamic duo avoids Riddler’s traps while attempting to solve the puzzles he’s laid out for them.
The answer to the episode’s title question is its speaker, Daniel Mockridge, the owner of video game company Competitron who refuses to pay Edward Nygma royalties for creating their best-selling game Riddle of the Minotaur. I’m beginning to think that corporations are the real big bads of Gotham City, as villains like Mr. Freeze, Clayface, and now Riddler are created because of the unethical practices of corporate CEOs. When Mockridge fires Nygma for wanting to sue Competitron, he adds insult to injury with the scathing question, “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” It’s interesting that Nygma never actually tries to steal any money this episode, instead focusing all his efforts on terrorizing Mockridge. Who needs money when you have brains? For Riddler, the fun is in the puzzles, the clues, the chase. He respects someone that can match his intellect, and his crimes are more like aptitude tests, increasing in difficulty until his victim reaches the final stage.
David Wise penned the excellent “The Clock King,” and Edward Nygma has a lot of the same qualities as Temple Fugate, beyond the suit-and-bowler-hat design. Both are fairly subdued characters that become more aggressive in costume, and they both seek vengeance against someone that cost them a whole lot of money. Both characters are completely dedicated to their gimmicks, with Nygma turning reality into a game, with Gotham City as the maze, himself as the Minotaur, and his clues for Batman as the obstacles in the game. It all becomes literal once they get to the amusement park (because there’s always an amusement park), and by that point, Riddler has evolved into the gamemaster, terrorizing from afar. John Glover gives Nygma a smooth voice that is arrogant yet somehow charming, and the villain has an ambiguous morality that makes him one of the more likable rogues.
The relationship between Batman and Robin is strong this episode, with Robin offering his knowledge of Nygma’s computer game to help Batman. It’s funny that both episodes were written by David Wise this week, because Batman’s intelligence varies so greatly between the two. Showing extensive knowledge of agriculture, the Arab world, and musical theater, Batman is on his game this episode. A bunch of flashing lights? Obviously morse code. By the time you figure that out, Batman’s already decoded the message and left the scene. He’s just that good, and whatever he can't do, his palm-top computer can, including hacking into a giant flying hand that can be used for both transportation and badassery.
One thing I noticed is that Radomski is very good at building the suspense up to the commercial breaks, which has been a constant problem throughout the series. These moments should leave the audience wanting more, and he saves the Riddler’s full reveal for the first commercial break, then has the second act end with an action shot of a griffin preparing to fire on Batman and Robin. It keeps the momentum moving much more quickly and shows Radomski's attention to detail. The episode ends with a chilling coda to the Nygma/Mockridge conflict, as Mockridge tries to sleep, terrified of Riddler's wrath. Radomski loves the heavy shading, and the scene is a strong shift from the more light-hearted events that preceded it. Batman delivers the episode's final line as Mockridge waits in bed, shotgun readily available: "How much is a good night's sleep worth? Now that's a riddle for you." The Hand of Fate has taken him to the Wasteland, and there's no escape for him.
- Bat Beatdown: Facing a hulking mechanical Minotaur, Batman sends the hacked Hand of Fate crashing into the golden goliath. Slapped.
- Strange’s henchmen flee without their money. It really is so hard to find good help.
- Bruce: boxers or briefs? Tightie whities.
- “Boy, did you get a wrong number! Leave your message at the sound of the shriek.”
- “I'm going to use your head for a bowling ball, Strange!”
- “First I would like to thank you for coming all this way—” “Get to the point!” Two-Face has no time for pleasantries.
- The cost of Batman’s identity: $51,240,685.53
- “Get out of my face, clown.” “Which one?”
- “You might lose your tip. Not to mention your head.”
- “It's not the fall. It's the sudden stop.”
- “Oh well, Arkham is nice this time of year.”
- Nice touch with the cubicles in the Competitron offices creating a labyrinth.
- “Bat… something or other, isn’t it?”
- “I love that trick, but I can never make it work.”
- “As high as an elephant’s eye” is a lyric from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma. Here it is, sung by Wolverine:
- “I don’t know what’s worse: the traps or the puns.”
- “I don't believe in fate!”