“Heart Of Steel” (season 1, episodes 38-39; originally aired November 16-17, 1992)
I’ve always had a soft spot for Barbara Gordon (Melissa Gilbert). With two older sisters, I looked up to strong female figures as a child, and Barbara was my first exposure to plucky, young heroines, a type that I would later admire with Buffy Summers, Kitty Pryde, and Veronica Mars. I never read Nancy Drew, but I imagine Barbara had little mysteries she solved as a child with her stuffed bear, Woobie, while her father conferenced with Batman and Robin on the GCPD rooftop. (That would actually make a pretty cute comic, maybe with Amelia Rules! creator Jimmy Gownley at the helm?) Later in life, I grew to appreciate Barbara for wholly different reasons, as I followed her comic exploits as Oracle, the information hub of the DCU after she was paralyzed by the Joker. Barbara didn’t let her disability stop her mission, and that strength of character is on full display in her Batman: The Animated Series debut, “Heart Of Steel.”
Written by Brynne Stevens and directed by Kevin Altieri, “Heart Of Steel” captures the mini-movie feel of the Fleischer Superman with a retro sci-fi story, an aggressively art-deco design, and impressively smooth animation courtesy of Sunrise. This is some of the strongest direction from Altieri yet on the series, with creative camera angles and a strong use of negative space to break from the more traditional action cartoon look of the last few episodes. Stevens’ plot hits the major points of a solid B:TAS story with a focus on Bruce Wayne and an antagonist with a personal, emotional motivation, but where this episode succeeds most is in its expansion of Batman’s supporting cast. For the first time, we get a glimpse of Commissioner Jim Gordon’s (Bob Hastings) personal life, and his love for his daughter goes a long way toward making him a more relatable character.
In Barbara’s introductory scene, we see a Jim Gordon unlike the forceful, confident commissioner we’ve come to know on the series. His daughter now a college student, Jim struggles to accept that Barbara is no longer the young girl that needed her father’s protection and Woobie’s comfort. Jim’s reaction to Bruce asking about Barbara’s stuffed animal is probably my favorite Jim Gordon moment of the series thus far, as he blushingly admits Woobie “knows the way better than I.” In a scene featuring a beautiful redhead and a teddy bear, Jim Gordon is the most adorable thing in the room. And Jim’s last line, “Barbara forgot her bear,” is delivered by Hastings with an overly deliberate nonchalance that makes it obvious Jim needs Woobie more than his daughter does anymore.
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When Jim is replaced by a robot later in the episode, Barbara’s first big clue that something is wrong is when the impostor knocks Woobie off the couch, showing no emotional connection for the cherished family possession. Just as her father latched onto the stuffed animal while Barbara was away, Woobie becomes Barbara’s only connection to the father she once knew, and she confides in the bear as she heads off to rescue her father in second half of the episode. Did Carl Rossum’s (William Sanderson) daughter have her own Woobie? A toy that she slept with every night, took on every road trip? Was it incinerated in the car accident that took her life?
When robotics genius Carl Rossum lost his daughter, he set out to create an artificial intelligence that could replace humans, whose decisions cause the loss of human lives. He really should have considered just what a free-thinking supercomputer could mean for human lives, because his prototype A.I. HARDAC (Holographic Analytic Reciprocal DigitAl Computer) plots to take over Gotham City with an army of robots running on WayneTech software. “Heart Of Steel” begins with a blonde Marilyn Monroe-type entering a Wayne Enterprises building just before the guards close up for the evening, leaving a briefcase at the front desk, then exiting without a word. Oh, the days before “If you see something, say something.” Randa Duane (Leslie Easterbrook) would not be able to get away with leaving a package unattended like that nowadays. The briefcase transforms into an four-legged robot that breaks into the building’s vault, stealing the “protein-silicon wafer chips” that will allow HARDAC to create more advanced robotic replicates of Gotham’s citizens.
Bruce is still in the building when the suitcase goes after the microchips, and it’s interesting to note that Bruce has equipped his offices with secret passageways and storage areas in case Batman is needed. When the security guards tuck Bruce away for safety, he exits through a revolving wall, reappearing as Batman to fight the briefcase. The music is one of the strongest elements of the episode, with Richard Bonskill and Tamara Kline handling the first part and Carl Johnson scoring the second, and the quick horn melody brings suspense and tension to a scene that is essentially Batman versus a killer carry-on. There are elevators in almost every major action sequence of the episode, which I’ll just assume represent mankind’s never-ending quest for technological advancement and its potential to eventually destroy us. The elevator always falls, crushing everything in its path on the way down.
When the suitcase shoots a rocket off the roof, Batman unfolds the Bat-glider he has stored for moments just like this, taking to the sky as the rocket is retrieved by Randa Duane. The chase ends with Batman getting shot down by the machine guns in the trunk of Randa’s self-driving car, returning to the Batcave with the destroyed Bat-glider. Altieri makes some inspired directorial choices to add some variety to a typical Batcave sequence, focusing the camera on Alfred’s cleaning efforts as the conversation proceeds. Showing the scene through the reflection in a bucket of water as Alfred wrings a mop into it is not only a creative way to tell the story visually but also emphasizes the majority of Alfred’s work: cleaning up after his master. The blood stains in the Batcave don’t just mysteriously disappear overnight, and Bruce can’t really hire a cleaning service.
The next day, Bruce conferences with Lucius Fox about the robbery, and he decides to visit Carl Rossum, the only man who would have any interest in AI of that level. Before Bruce begins his investigation the next day, he is reacquainted with Barbara Gordon, whom he hasn’t seen in four years. Barbara probably had the biggest crush on Bruce when she was in high school, and she’s confident and maybe a little flirty when she sees Bruce again. It’s a perfect introduction to the character, showcasing her relationship with her father and the spunky personality that will push her to become Batgirl. Gotham City is a boy’s club, but if any woman is going to break through the superhero glass ceiling, it’s Barbara Gordon.
When Bruce visits Cybertron (nice nod to Transformers), he is greeted by the eccentric Rossum, who has largely kept himself in seclusion since the death of his daughter. More great music as Bruce walks through Cybertron’s facilities, with a piano creating a smooth-jazz elevator music melody that is broken by horns to create a more ominous tone. The art-deco design is highlighted in the Cybertron scenes, particularly in the sleek design of the robots, with rounded edges and long limbs reminiscent of the Iron Giant. Sunrise has a lot of experience animating mechanical figures, having done multiple Gundam series over the years, and their animation is consistently smooth and detailed.
Whenever I hear Sanderson’s voice, all I can think of is Deadwood’s E.B. Farnum, even though Rossum is modeled after Sanderson’s character in Blade Runner, and his distinct voice works perfectly for animation. His portrayal of Rossum isn’t malevolent in any way, and he makes it hard to blame the character for HARDAC’s actions, despite his role in its creation. When Bruce is shown HARDAC, he meets Randa, Rossum’s assistant whom Bruce woos in hopes of getting information. Too bad she’s a robot. His plot backfires when the compact Randa left in Bruce’s office steals design specs from Bruce’s computer, forcing Bruce to leave Randa at Wayne Manor while he goes to Wayne Enterprises. Randa incapacitates Alfred and searches the house, discovering the Batcave and tampering with its computers to attack Batman when he returns. Despite learning Batman's identity, HARDAC is a machine focused on a singular objective, and revealing Bruce Wayne's secret identity isn't necessary if everyone is going to replaced by robots anyway.
Euipped with all the materials needed for an army of replicates, HARDAC replaces major figures in Gotham with robots he controls, including Jim Gordon, Harvey Bullock, and Mayor Hill. Barbara Gordon is the first person to catch on that people are being replaced, and she uses the Bat-signal to call Batman for help. Barbara handles her first meeting with Batman better than most do, showing little fear toward a figure that she’s probably gotten to know fairly well through her father. As she tells Batman that her father has been replaced, Bullock-bot shows up to shut her up, leading to the first scene of Barbara in action.
With Batman about to get his head stomped in, Barbara shoots Batman’s grappling hook at Bullock’s leg, wrapping the cord around his leg as Batman pushes him into the Bat-signal. The image of Bullock being electrocuted on the Bat-signal is incredible and really captures the intensity of the moment. Barbara believes that she has just killed a man that was like an uncle to her, and as she approaches the body with tears in her eyes, the flesh ashes away, and the robotic skeleton attacks. The scene is an emotional ride and ends on a comedic highpoint with a fantastic one-liner from Batman as Barbara insists she join him in his investigation: “Please let go of my cape.” That’s the thing with Barbara Gordon, though: Once she grabs hold of something, she never lets go.
As Bruce is ambushed by robots at his induction to a new Gotham social club, Barbara sets off to Cybertron, giving her best Solid Snake impression as she stealthily maneuvers the building. Unfortunately, the transforming garbage cans get her, and she joins the rest of HARDAC’s prisoners until Batman charges in to save the day. The final fight sequence is fluidly choreographed, and the way that the humanoids move emphasizes their robotic nature as they move on all fours, skittering and leaping as they attack. With her father and the rest of the copied people free, Barbara helps them escape before Cybertron goes up in flames, returning into the fray to help Batman once the men are safe. The episode’s title isn’t referring to HARDAC and his robotic operatives, but Barbara, whose strength and devotion never wavers. The end of the episode foreshadows her continued involvement with the Bat-family, but as much fun as she had working with Batman, there’s no better reward for Barbara than heading home with her dad.
- Bat Beatdown: Whenever Batman uses an elevator to crush a robot. Which happens often.
- Love that Batman sticks his hand out to stop the elevator from closing on him.
- Nails on a chalkboard as Batman drags the suitcase across the hall is a cruel sound to endure.
- Great direction for unfolding Bat-glider. Batman theme as a bird’s-eye view reveals the bat shape.
- “I do wish you wouldn’t be so rough with your toys, master Bruce.”
- “Sounds more like swimsuits.”
- “I’m fine.”
- “Squeeze may not be the best word.”
- Dishwasher that turns into Jacuzzi? Nice.
- So much tazing/electrocuting this episode.
- Gotta love Bruce’s one brown and yellow suit.
- “I’m gettin’ a sore throat.”
- Batman getting hit in the face with a pipe. Oof.
- “It’s suddenly less pleasant up here.”
- Things in Barbara’s detective bag: hacksaw, crowbar, tape, mirror, screwdriver, flashlight, camera, and film. Girl is prepared.
- That powder on a keypad trick does not work.
- “I’m sure the investigation will prove exactly that.” Mayor Hill, just being an asshole as usual.