One thing which seems to be apparent immediately is that the ordering of the Batman episodes on the DVD collections may not match the order in which they were first released. Hopefully that won’t be an issue! It does mean, though, that the second episode here is also a Christmas episode – featuring everyone’s favourite nowadays mass-murdering psychotic: the Joker!
We’re at a point now where Joker has become a primal force within comics, rather than a person with a defined goal. Comics like “No Man’s Land” point him as a force of nature roaming through Gotham, where he’s the ultimate end point for any story. Let Penguin have a gang war for as long as he wants; give Mr Freeze some adventures; have Poison Ivy walk a line with Batman between villain and ally – none of it ultimately matters, because it’s all going to come down to Batman Vs Joker in the end regardless.
In the Arkham games he starts of as a dominant presence and then becomes a domineering one, whereby his plans start to grow and shift in ways which mean every little glitch or change have already been predicted, and he has a counter for anything Batman will throw at him. Grant Morrison’s Batman run solidified this idea of the Joker as a creation beyond the wit of man, especially when Frazer Irving was drawing. He’s a figure masquerading as a typical villain when he’s actually the definition and epitome of everything Batman opposes. He carries a gun at all times, laughs at the casual nature of his violence, and happily commits murder with no reasoning behind it.
Batman can find honour and logic in most of his other villains – but it’s Joker who reminds him most of the random act of violence which killed his parents. Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s most recent run also follows this idea of a Joker who is brutally evil, dead behind the eyes and merrily butchering an increasingly preposterous number of people until inevitably losing everything when he actually comes face to face with Batman. The character has stopped being anything but Batman running against a hurricane. He’ll never stop Joker, and people will die because of it.
Which is why this was such a refreshing change of pace. The Joker in this episode borrows from Batman ’66 – as in fact, does most of the episode, with a slightly dopey Robin tagging along from out of nowhere and bringing a West/Ward dynamic into proceedings with him. He does have capacity for murder, but he’s more preoccupied with amusing himself. He’s not revelling in repulsion, but presenting himself as a family-friendly presenter. And with it we get a slightly different idea of Batman to the usual, as well. With Joker becoming an unstoppable force in the comics, so Batman has become an unstoppable force against him. They’re so on top of each other than it’s actually now getting pretty boring watching them both waste time on the side-show.
Here, Batman legitimately has no chance at all of keeping up with Joker. And, I mean, you can’t blame him – in the first scene Joker escapes Arkham Asylum on a rocket-powered Christmas tree. How do you predict for that? What I think I most liked about this episode was that Batman spends the whole time barely able to track Joker, let alone stop his tricks and traps. It takes an obvious hint from Joker to help him out – which gets provided because Joker blatantly wants Batman to show up and see what’s going to happen. He wants an audience, but only of very select invitees.
This is Mark Hamill’s first time as Joker, as far as I’m aware, and he has a very enjoyable time of things. He plays himself like a real smarm, chewing on scenery without actually eating it all (as he will go on to do in the video games). He’s actually quite restrained in his own way, which matches the back and forth between Batman and Robin. Considering Dick was absent in the first episode, he makes a real impression here – softening up Batman, who doesn’t go for the typical “I’ll do this alone’ nonsense which is present in all my least-favourite interpretations of the character. They’re a team, and they crack jokes together in a bit of a Sean Connery/007 fashion. It’s sardonic, rather than anything else, and that gives the characters a softer edge whilst also giving them a bit of class.
The best moment in the episode is surely the capper. After an episode of trying to get Bruce to watch It’s A Wonderful Life, Robin finally wins out and the episode closes with the duo watching a copy of the movie passed to them by Gordon. “It’s a wonderful life” says Dick. “It has its moments”, is Bruce’s response. That seems to define this version of Batman. He’s not some nihilistic self-torturer out to stop justice even as it erodes him as a person. He’s willing to let other people shape who he is, and how he reacts to things. He would never have seen the movie without Robin pestering him.
But you can see he’s changed for the better because of it. That’s growth, that is – something that always works with Batman. I hope there’s a continued focus on this part of the character as the series goes forward, because so far it’s been great.