“See No Evil” (season 1, episode 17)
The things people do for the ones they love. Bruce Wayne dresses up like a giant bat to avenge his murdered parents. Lloyd Ventrix puts on a body suit made of light-bending plastic to become his daughter’s invisible best friend Mojo. Neither of these things is very healthy, and the main difference is that Ventrix’s costume proves chemically toxic as well as mentally. “See No Evil” succeeds because writer Martin Pasko creates a villain that has a genuine emotional motivation for his actions, unlike the series’ previous original baddies. The mature subject matter is refreshing after last week’s goofiness, and Pasko’s script maintains a high level of emotional intensity throughout that is amplified by the quality of the visuals. Dan Riba’s direction and the stellar animation from Dong Yang animation (with some help from the Spectrum folks) make this episode a standout, particularly because Ventrix’s invisibility allows for some striking visual effects.
Radomski’s title card sets the tone for the episode immediately, with an open window illuminating a lifeless teddy bear under the blue glow of the night. The piccolo/bell combo on the score creates a similar music box sound to that used in “Heart of Ice,” and when the brass comes in from below, the tension created is fantastic. The opening shot lingers over a barren Gotham landscape, with a shut down drive-in theater and stray dogs roaming the streets. A front gate swings forebodingly in the wind as a bedroom window opens and a voice wakes a sleeping Kimberly Ventrix (Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss), a voice belonging to her ex-con father, Lloyd (Michael Gross of Family Ties). When he learns that his ex-wife, Helen (Designing Women's Jean Smart), is moving away with Kimmy, Ventrix robs a jewelry show, under the impression that a pearl necklace is just the thing to get him to keep his daughter. Ventrix isn’t very stealthy when he’s wearing the suit, and despite being invisible, he is damn obvious when robbing the show, catching the attention of jewelry connoisseur Bruce Wayne. An awesome fight scene follows, but Batman ends up getting his ass beaten by his invisible assailant, prompting some good old detective work to find the thief. Following up on an invisibility cloak project rejected by Wayne Enterprises, Batman learns that the suit is made of a plastic that bends light rather than absorbing it (pretty sure the science here is all fictional), rendering the wearer invisible but killing him in the process. Meanwhile, when attempts to reconcile with his ex-wife fail, Ventrix abducts his daughter, who recoils in terror when she finds out her friend Mojo is actually her evil daddy.
Pasko’s script is considerably more adult than most kid’s action-adventure fare, and that’s after they took out all the child endangerment Broadcast Standards & Practices deemed unacceptable. The plot’s original climax, with Batman racing against time to save Kimmy from inside a lighthouse while Ventrix’s costume threatens to explode, was scrapped, with Kimmy escaping danger so quickly that it borders on comedic. Shirley Walker’s Kimmy theme is so light and flowery that when it appears in the middle of the big final action sequence, the transition is jarring, but it’s a small complaint. It may actually be intentional, because while the episode’s subject matter is mature, Pasko inserts moment of humor to relieve the tension before cranking it back up again. There are some great gags during the scene when Ventrix robs the show, including a cop that can’t catch a bathroom break and a construction worker in the wrong place at the wrong time, and they give the episode a well-rounded quality, covering a wide spectrum of emotions by the end of its 20 minutes.
As Lloyd Ventrix, Gross does great work, compensating for the character’s lack of visual excitement with his expressive vocals. Casting director Andrea Romano said that they tried to cast actors that already had character to their voices, and the guest stars on “See No Evil” are prime examples. The fatherly warmth associated with Gross’ Family Ties character gets to come through in the scenes with his daughter, but when the suit starts to effect his mental stability, Gross is able to play around with portraying a full-on psychopath. Casting Jean Smart as Lloyd’s ex-wife Helen is a great choice, and her passion turns the character into something needed after last week: a realistic, strong female character. The scene where she unloads on Lloyd in a cafeteria escalates beautifully, and the two actors create a moment of recognizable human drama that brings reality to the fantastic circumstances.
The most impressive aspect of this episode is the animation, and Dong Yang turns in a great looking episode that moves fluidly while keeping a sharp focus on details. Small things like paint moving in a can or light reflecting off Kimmy’s locket create a sense of depth that last episode lacked, but the action sequences are where the animation team can really show their talent. Batman’s initial fight with Ventrix in a construction site uses wet cement and paint to give Ventrix weight and shape without any sort of definition, and when he hits Batman, the punches look even harder coming from an unseen source. The car sequence at the end of the episode is another animation highlight, and Dan Riba gets to show off his action skills, as Batman grabs on to the top of an invisible vehicle and is thrown into traffic. When an oncoming train shows up, the direct shot from the front of the car helps capture the velocity of both objects, and awesome explosions make a comeback this week, as Ventrix drives his car through the fuel pumps of a gas station.
“See No Evil” has most of the elements that make a great B:TAS episode, but a lack of personal investment for Bruce prevents this from being a perfect one. The balance of realistic drama with superhero action lives up to the series’ potential for telling adult stories in a children’s television context. Frankly, after so many original villain debuts that turned out to be duds, it’s just nice to have an episode that treats a new character with the same respect given to veteran rogues.
“Beware The Gray Ghost” (season 1, episode 18)
Batman: The Animated Series took elements from a variety of sources and turned them into something definitive for the title character, and “Beware The Gray Ghost” pays homage to those influences, from the Fleischer Superman shorts to pulp heroes like The Spirit and The Shadow. Throw in Adam West voicing Simon Trent, The Gray Ghost, and this episode goes to an entirely different level of awesome. After the evocative title card, backed by Carl Johnson’s rollicking brass score, the episode begins with a black and white sequence reminiscent of the opening we just watched. Except instead of Batman, there’s a man in a cape, fedora, and goggles, with a voiceover warning, “Those with evil hearts beware, for out of the darkness comes…The Graaaaaaaay Ghost!”
The animation by Spectrum is beautiful in this episode, and this opening sequence sets the bar high, from the soft focus of a chain whizzing past the camera to the contrast of billowing white fog with the darkness-clad Gray Ghost. The entire “Gray Ghost” intro is a shoutout to the 1940’s Superman shorts, with the over-the-top narration explaining the character’s mission, followed by credits and a pan to a graphic title card. A young Bruce Wayne is watching “The Gray Ghost” as his father reads a newspaper, telling his son to go to bed after the episode is done. The Gray Ghost represents Bruce’s childhood and the glorified memories of his parents, so when his hero becomes an integral element in a Gotham crime spree, Bruce has an invested interest.
A bomber holds the city ransom as he replicates the crimes from the episode Bruce was watching in the flashback, “The Mad Bomber." Unfortunately, Bruce fell asleep before he found out how the bomber committed the crimes. The animation studio that produced the series went up in flames along with all their “Gray Ghost” footage, and Bruce turns to Simon Trent, the aging actor that wore the Gray Ghost costume, to solve the mystery, helping Trent regain his pride and dignity along the way. Adam West makes this episode. Romano wanted voices with character, and West has such a characteristic voice that he’s basically made a voiceover career of playing himself. While West isn’t living in the slums like Simon Trent, shilling Batman merch for rent money, he has always been defined by his Batman role, and continues to be over forty years later. Has Adam West had the same conversation that Simon Trent has with his agent, bemoaning the loss of a role because he can’t be viewed as anything but a superhero from a past generation? West hams it up the way only he can, and Trent’s shelf-destroying breakdown at the end of act one is heartwrenching, the shot pulling back to reveal a broken man surrounded by the relics of a better life. Johnson's music is brilliant this episode, using variations on the central "Gray Ghost Theme" to give the episode an auditory cohesion, the score reflecting whatever emotion is playing on the screen.
I love meta-commentary, and this episode has it going on all over the place, especially as I watch it as an adult. When Bruce retrieves “The Mad Bomber” from Trent, watching it takes him back to the days of sitting cross-legged in front of the television with his action figure and Gray Ghost costume. Writers Dennis O'Flaherty and Tom Ruegger and director Boyd Kirkland get this idea across in a simple yet incredibly effective way, showing a young Bruce watching in awe, rather than his adult self. This scene should be familiar to anyone reading this, as it is basically what happens every time we watch these episodes. And when Bruce discovers that the bombs are transported by remote controlled toy cars, he utters a phrase that everyone was thinking when they rewatched “I’ve Got Batman In My Basement,” “You’ve gotta be kidding me.” I’m not sure how many people are first time viewers here, but I’d guess that most of us have a nostalgic attachment to B:TAS and the Batman mythos in general. I'm not going to wake up early to catch Saturday morning cartoons anymore, but when this series is good, I get the same feeling of wonder that I did sitting on the floor with a bowl of Count Chocula. Just as a toy can transform into a tool of destruction, a childhood hero can become a weak reflection of his former self, and saving Simon Trent becomes as much a goal for Batman as saving Gotham City.
Teaming up with a costumed Simon Trent, Batman takes him to the Bat-cave and shows him his fanboy closet, revealing how much of an influence the Gray Ghost has had on his lie. Trent replies, “So it wasn’t all for nothing.” The effect that these stories have long after they’ve been told is what makes them special, and Trent needs to be reminded of the gift he has given others before he can see the worth inside himself. He deduces the bomber’s identity to be toy shop owner Ted Dymer (executive producer Bruce Timm), who bought Gray Ghost memorabilia off Trent earlier in the episode. Timm does a great job during Dymer’s mini-monologue about the power of the toy, and the reveal works perfectly with the theme of the episode. Batman’s childhood obsession is attached to positive memories that have driven him to a life of heroism. Dymer probably played with toys because mommy left after daddy got drunk and hit her. We don’t know, and his speech is crazy enough to suggest some sort of trauma, but he could just be a toy-loving freakshow. Dymer's store goes up in flames at the end of the episode, but Gray Ghost is a hero again, putting Trent back in the public spotlight as his costumed alter ego.
Having Adam West on B:TAS is a glorious meeting of two worlds, and even better, it’s in an episode as smartly written and gorgeously animated as this one. Much like Adam West, by fully accepting the mask that he used to wear, Simon Trent is able to find new success. In honoring the stories that influenced their series, the creators made a timeless tribute to classic crime heroes, crafting one of the show's best episodes in the process.
- Batman Beatdown: Underneath a rooftop water tank, Batman makes Ventrix visible by breaking the tank with ninja stars. “Peek a boo.” Punch.
- Ventrix whispering “Kimmy” is one of the creepiest moments of the series thus far.
- “Footsteps?” Weird delivery from Conroy there.
- The way the wet cement sticks to Batman is a great effect.
- “Want? All I want is for you to disappear!”
- Oncoming trains are one of those tropes that B:TAS returns to again and again.
- “I didn’t know he could fly, too.”
- “Get ready for your biggest disappearing act, Ventrix. The one where no one sees you for 10 to 20.”
- “So many actors.” One of my favorite lines of the series. Hilarious delivery from Conroy.
- “You want to give me a hand with this?”
- “Time to put your toys away, little man.”
- So many pretty explosions in “Beware The Gray Ghost.”
- Love the poster of Gray Ghost in the same pose as the B:TAS artwork in Bruce’s shrine.
- “Then I remembered an episode of 'The Gray Ghost,' and I knew what else a toy can do. It can carry a bomb.”
- There’s some rubber Batmobile going on in “Beware The Gray Ghost,” but it can be forgiven as the rest of the episode is beautiful.
- The Fleischer influence continues with a spinning newspaper headline at the end of the episode.
- First appearance of Matt “Clayface” Hagen on the People Magazine cover at the end of “Gray Ghost.”
Next week: “Prophecy of Doom” and “Joker’s Favor.” Technically it should be “Feat of Clay, Part 1” but I’ll be reviewing those together in two weeks.