Batman: The Animated Series: "Vendetta"/"Fear Of Victory"
B+

Batman: The Animated Series: "Vendetta"/"Fear Of Victory"

“Vendetta” (Season 1, Episode 23)

Killer Croc (Aron Kincaid) makes his first appearance in “Vendetta,” but this is really Harvey Bullock’s (Robert Costanzo) episode, putting the focus on the curmudgeonly GCPD detective as he’s framed for the disappearances of two convicted criminals. Episodes that heavily feature the GCPD are always welcome, and writer Michael Reaves continues to develop the different dynamics between Batman/Jim Gordon and Batman/Harvey Bullock, making big steps in the latter relationship. “P.O.V.” introduced the morally ambiguous side of Bullock as he lied to Lieutenant Hackle about his involvement in a botched sting, but “Vendetta” reveals that Bullock has a history of shady dealings, despite being cleared of any formal charges. As Batman looks into Bullock’s past, he comes face to face with something considerably more dangerous: carnival freak/wrestler/criminal Killer Croc, who is out to settle an old score with Detective Bullock.

When Spider Conway, an ex-henchman of Rupert Thorne (John Vernon), is released from prison early in exchange for testimony against his former boss, the boat carrying him from Stonegate Penitentiary is blown up before it can reach Gotham Harbor. While investigating the explosion, Batman discovers one of Harvey’s trademark toothpicks at the prison docks, putting the detective at the top of the suspect list. In a beautifully animated sequence, Batman eavesdrops on Commissioner Gordon taking Bullock off the case because of Bullock’s past history with Thorne and Conway. It’s storming for most of the episode, and director Frank Paur makes great use of rain and lightning effects to create the ominous noir atmosphere that a story about a potentially corrupt cop should have.

The use of lightning, in particular, during the Bullock./Gordon scene helps reinforce the gravity of Bullock being taken off the case, and it builds the tension until Bullock looks for his personal file, which Batman has already grabbed. In one of the series’ coolest shots, Batman, standing on the ledge outside Gordon’s office, shoots his grappling hook and travels up to the evidence room. The only lighting occurs with the lightning, and the camera switches into a first-person shot as lightning reveals his reflection before he sneaks through the window. It’s a small moment, but it's beautifully executed by Paur and Spectrum, who do great work animating the storm effects. Paur’s had some really bad luck with animation studios in the past, and it’s amazing how much his direction improves with clean animation.

Batman brings Bullock’s file home, where he explains the detective’s history with Thorne to Alfred, whom Bruce allows to look through classified police reports and even takes advice from. Alfred gets a good amount of screen time this week, and while his presence is always appreciated, I never quite realized how odd it is that Bruce gives him such complete access to the crime-fighting aspects of his life. In Robin’s absence, Alfred becomes someone for Batman to bounce ideas off of, and later in the episode, Alfred’s preparation of dinner in a microwavable crock is what helps Batman make the connection to Killer Croc. While Batman focuses on Bullock, Spider Conway is revealed to be alive in an underground cave, and although Killer Croc’s reveal is saved for later, Michael McCuistion’s Jaws­-influenced score combined with Conway’s terrified scream build the villain’s threat level before his hulking body is ever shown. By connecting Kiler Croc to Bullock, Reaves is able to gloss over the rogue’s origin, because the pathos comes from his relationship with Bullock. The carnival freak angle will be explored further in “Sideshow,” but in the meantime, we get to enjoy an episode packed to the brim with Batman badassery.

The next stop in Batman’s investigation is a visit to Rupert Thorne’s estate, where the mob boss is enjoying some late night gardening. Busting through the window and emerging from the shadows, Batman is at maximum awesome during this scene, using Thorne as a human shield when his security guards appear, then jumping off the roof until Thorne is terrified enough to give up answers. Thorne confesses that he had nothing to do with Conway’s disappearance, and Batman goes to Gordon with the information. Gordon refuses to believe that Bullock is behind the explosion, despite Batman’s intuition. In a telling moment, Gordon refers to Batman as his friend, which brings up some interesting ethical questions on Gordon’s part, as he develops a personal relationship with an illegal vigilante. Having recently reread the first 10 issues of Gotham Central (recently re-released in a snazzy softcover collection), it’s fascinating to see how different cops react to Batman’s presence. In his role as Commissioner, Gordon’s primary concern is keeping the city safe by any means necessary, whereas there’s a sense of pride in policing among his underlings that is lost when Batman gets involved. For Bullock, asking Batman for help is a sign of weakness, whereas Gordon is willing to take whatever help he can get.

Things only get worse for Bullock when Killer Croc impersonates him and assaults a police officer before breaking Joey the Snail out of prison, triggering Bullock’s arrest, while Batman finds a reptilian scale that busts the case wide open After a visit to the zoo, Bruce realizes that Spider and the Snail are being held captive in an underwater cave, a pretty huge leap of logic that is needed to move the plot forward but doesn’t make much sense. Batman finally encounters Killer Croc, and he manages to escape with the two prisoners in his custody. He discovers that the two men used to work for Killer Croc and were responsible for putting him in prison when they gave up their boss to Bullock.

Waiting in the backseat of Bullock’s car, Batman is able to stop an attack on the detective’s life from Killer Croc, then follows the villain into the sewers for an aquatic action sequence. With the help of a flash bang and his grappling hook, Batman defeats Killer Croc and emerges from the sewers with his unconscious body, much to Bullock’s surprise. This is a major turning point in Batman and Bullock’s relationship, as Bullock finally gains some respect for our hero. He asks, “Why’d you stick your neck out like that to help me?” To which Batman replies, “Because I thought you were guilty, too. And I was wrong.” Once Batman humbles himself, Bullock is able to accept his presence, but it helps that he saved his ass from going to prison, too. The episode ends with Bullock on television, announcing, “I just want all the scum buckets and dirt bags in this town to know they better lay low, ‘cause Bullock’s back and ready to kick butt!” As he watches the broadcast, Batman just smiles, satisfied with a job well done.

Grade: B+

“Fear Of Victory” (Season 1, Episode 24)

While reading Adam Hughes’ Cover Run art book this past week, I stumbled across a quote from the artist about Robin:

“I think Batman is one of the best superheroes ever created, and I love almost everything about him, but there’s a point where one’s suspension of disbelief fails… the minute he drags a 12 year-old boy around with him in his War on Crime, dressed like Peter Pan, on school nights, I just can’t buy it. It’s weird, it’s irresponsible, and I lose my ability to believe what’s going on.”

I’m sure it’s not the first time that someone has pointed out just how ludicrous it is for Batman to employ a green-Speedo-wearing pre-teen in his mission, but the quote brings up some interesting points regarding Robin’s role in B:TAS. Rather than portraying him as a boy wonder, Dick Grayson (Loren Lester) appears on the series already an adult, ditching the bare legs and pixie boots of his original costume in favor of the Tim Drake Robin redesign of the early ‘90s. Enrolled at Gotham State University while he helps Batman fight crime, this more mature Robin helps the writers bypass the character’s inherent absurdity while altering the relationship between the dynamic duo. While Bruce did take on a father figure role in Dick’s developmental years (more on that in “Robin’s Reckoning”), in the present day action, they interact more like brothers.

The recent developments in the Batman comics have emphasized this brotherly dynamic between Bruce and Dick as they share the cowl, with Bruce taking the Batman franchise around the world while Dick serves as Gotham City’s protector. While Bruce never really ages, his wards do, and after a certain point they outgrow the Robin stage and evolve into something more, becoming something different to Bruce in the process. In “Fear Of Victory,” Dick is still very much in training, but he’s left the nest, living on campus with his roommate, football star Brian Rogers. The distance between Bruce and Dick keeps Robin out of the series for most of the first season, as the producers originally planned for Robin to not be Batman’s full-time partner. This changed in season two, when Fox demanded a higher profile for the sidekick and re-titled the show The New Adventures of Batman and Robin. In his second appearance on the series, Dick becomes a victim of Scarecrow’s fear toxin when Brian receives a telegram covered in a fine powder that triggers intense fear when the body’s adrenaline levels rise.

The plot by Samuel Warren Joseph is pretty silly, with Scarecrow drugging athletes, then betting against their games to fund further criminal activity, but the animation from TMS and direction by Dick Sebast make the story more visually compelling than it actually is. When it comes to transformation sequences, it doesn’t get much better than TMS (responsible for Clayface’s epic “death” sequence in “Feat of Clay”), and Brian hallucinating the opposing team’s defense turning into monsters on the field is a visually stunning moment. 

While out on patrol, Batman and Robin encounter a burglary in process when a diamond necklace falls in front of the Batmobile (worst burglars ever), but halfway through scaling a building on his zipline, Robin is struck with the same paralyzing fear he witnessed on the football field. As Batman stops to help his sidekick, the burglars knock stones and statues off the building, sending Batman flying through a woman’s apartment window. In one of the series’ most hilarious moments, the bathrobe-clad woman screams before getting a glimpse of Batman’s studliness, when her terror turns to temptation. With a flirtatious smirk and an awesome bell/flute flourish in Lisa Bloom’s score, Batman returns to the fight, leaving the woman to her masked man fantasies for the remainder of the evening.

Following Robin’s episode, the duo start investigating, discovering a fine powder on the telegram Brian received. After testing it out on one of Batman’s stock kittens, they realize that adrenaline triggers the toxin, leading Batman to Arkham Asylum to check in on Scarecrow. As Batman walks through the halls of Arkham, he encounters the various rogues that he’s put behind the glass. Joker plays solitaire, Poison Ivy tends to her plant, and Two-Face obsessively flips the coin, but when he reaches Jonathan Crane’s room, there’s only a straw man and a mechanized rocking chair. This is the first instance where we’ve had more than one rogue appear in an episode, and considering the episode’s theme , Batman’s walk through Arkham is given added significance. These criminals are Batman’s victories, but the walls of the asylum aren’t strong enough to hold them. In order to truly win, Batman would have to eliminate his rogues indefinitely, but he refuses to cross that line for fear of turning into the kind of monster that was responsible for his parents’ deaths.

After collecting his winnings from a bookie, the disguised Scarecrow returns to the Gotham arena to poison the Gotham Knights’ locker room. The bookie sends one of his thugs to follow Crane and learn how he’s been winning so often, and what could be an ordinary trailing sequence is given great intensity by Sebast. I don’t talk about the backgrounds often enough, but the shot of Crane walking through the empty arena is gorgeous, with Radomski using giant windows to create heavy contrast. When the thug catches up with Scarecrow, Crane ditches his Muppet-face disguise and reveals himself, his costume redesigned to look less like a sock puppet and more like something that's actually scary. The Scarecrow's look is constantly changing on the series, and his appearance in this episode is definitely an improvement over his introduction but not nearly as terrifying as his hanged corpse design for the Kids WB revamp.

After Gordon discovers the bookie's terrified thug, Batman is able to conclude that Scarecrow's next target is the Gotham Knights football team, and he enlists a still-poisoned Robin to help him take down Crane (there's that irresponsibility rearing its ugly head). As Batman dukes it out with Scarecrow on the catwalk above the field, Robin prevents the chemical from affecting the team and ultimately overcomes his fear to save the crowd from a vial of fear toxin. The clever sequence uses the sports commentary of the football game to remark on the events happening above the crowd, with the action on the field being cut between the action on the catwalk. When Batman fails to catch the vial, the action switches to the Gotham Knights dropping the ball, with the commentator crying, “It’s a fumble! This could mean disaster for Gotham!” As the Knights regain control of the ball, Robin swoops in to grab the toxin, with the announcer exclaiming, “What a recovery!" The day is saved, and so is Robin.

Grade: B

Stray Observations:

  • Batman Beatdown: While being crushed underwater, Batman ties his grappling hook to Croc’s arm, then shoots him out of the water, pinning him to a wall.
  • “There’s a bomb on the boat!” The delivery of that line made me laugh.
  • I love the hooded raincoats that the GCPD beat cops wear.
  • “Remind me never to think of you as a good luck charm.”
  • One of the other files in the GCPD: N. Bates. One of the many Hitchcock references in these two episodes, although the others are mostly in terms of direction and visual effects.
  • “Here’s how it works, slimeball.”
  • “I’ve got plenty of answers. .38 caliber answers.”
  • “You better hope your men are very good shots.”
  • “I’ve had cats that made more noise than you.”
  • Batman’s favorite soup: French onion.
  • “Imagine if I’d gotten around to telling him about the salad.”
  • Batman checks Bullock’s pulse before going after Croc in the sewers.
  • “This ain’t no batcave.” This is the second time on the show someone not in the Bat-family has mentioned the Batcave. I’m assuming it’s not public knowledge and just a slip on the writers’ parts.
  • “Time to punch in.”
  • Dick's roommate wants to turn pro to help his folks and send his sister to college. Sounds like another awesome, football-playing Brian, Friday Night Lights' Brian "Smash" Williams.
  • “Oh my! Oh my…
  • Wonder how Catwoman would feel about Batman testing Scarecrow’s chemical on kitties.
  • “Corn on the cob. A scarecrow’s gotta love that.”
  • “The cowl is familiar, but I’m blanking on the face.”
  • Robin probably shouldn’t be trying to walk across a bottomless pit without a spotter.
  • “Scared as a rat in a cat convention.”
  • “Put two and two together, Commissioner.” Batman getting sassy with Jim Gordon.
  • “I’ll drive real slow.” Batman being an asshole.
  • “There’s enough powder in that helmet to panic a pachyderm!”
  • “You could always send a telegram.” Bruce being an asshole.

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