Batman TAS #4: “The Last Laugh”

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The Joker managed to do something in the fourth episode of Batman: The Animated Series which he’s not done in years. He made me laugh.

You start to wonder, reading the angry and malevolent Joker we see in so much media now, who his jokes are meant to actually be aimed at, and what their response should be. Grant Morrison’s run starts off Joker thinking he’s shot Batman in the head, after kidnapping a group of children. He stands over Batman and shrieks something to the effect of: “I finally killed Batman! And I did it in front of a bunch of vulnerable disabled kids!”

Aside from the momentary gasp at the audacity of his phrase, you notice there’s no actual joke there. No wordplay or pun, twist or punchline. The only thing that would make someone laugh is the fact that Joker dared say something like that – and that DC Comics would publish it. Joker himself doesn’t seem to have much of a laugh about it, and indeed shortly after he gets shot in the head for a bit.

Who is Joker aimed at? In the video games and cartoons, “Joker” has become an ironic term. He’s actually the least amusing character DC has, archly choosing to resist jokes and entertainment in order to shoot, maim and attack in random order, testing boundaries with everything he does. The currently-airing Suicide Squad proves an example of this, with their version of Joker pushing at the limits of what Warner Bros will happily put into a movie release. Each time you see this version of the Joker, injecting dark jokes into a thinning vein, you find that nothing he says actually raises anything other than an eyebrow.

Certainly, the Joker who was able to make Batman laugh has long-since vanished, having murdered a Robin, shot Batgirl, cut off Alfred’s hand and gone on a number of torments over the years. He’s a writers’ trick now, a way for each new incoming Batman script-writer to show off their talent for the macabre. But back in the days of The Animated Series, what’s becoming clear is that he’s able to be much more impressive. The earlier version of Joker here seems to have actually been to a circus at least once in his life, and picked up tricks about set-ups and punchlines.

The episode sees Joker pour his laughing gas onto a garbage float in Gotham, sailing it down the river and infecting everybody he passes with an uncontrollable laughter – which is harmless for many, but can cause people to lose control of their cars, their prams… everything takes second place to laughing, once you breathe in the toxin. And over time, apparently it’ll drive you made. Why does he do it? Because he wants to stroll down the shopping district and steal some stuff.

Simple as that. The episode also impressed on me the loss of Batman’s villains having petty agendas. Everybody from Maxie Zeus to Killer Quilt has some sort of greater agenda nowadays, having shifted from the goal of “rob a jewellery store” to “reveal Batman’s identity on the grandest scale imaginable”. The low stakes seen in this episode are disposed with now in favour of Gotham’s very future being at risk whenever Batman stumbles in the field. I think there are only a handful of characters who turn to villainy in order to make money and survive, rather than because they have some operatic grudge against the caped crusader himself.

Not here: here, Joker and two mooks, plus a robot he’s dressed as a clown, are going after some jewels. That’s all it takes, primarily because these are all pretty short episodes and anything grander would be hard to pull off – but also because that’s simply who this version of Joker is. He wears his gimmick in order to throw people off, and to indulge himself. He says things that he finds funny, and he laughs at them. Other people, surrounding the scene, also enjoy his humour. It’s a far cry from other versions of Joker who are almost grumpy in their dislike of Batman, and need to one-up him.

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Joker being funny also has a secondary impact: it allows Batman to laugh. At the start of the episode, which is set on April Fools Day, Alfred catches Batman out with a trick. Being Batman, he archly raises an appreciate eyebrow and continues on with his morning routine. But that joke, and Batman’s appreciation of it, plays off in two ways later on. Primarily, in that Alfred is caught up by Joker’s toxin a few minutes later, and Bruce Wayne’s concern immediately shows. Now, Alfred gets into distress fairly often, but this episode very clearly sets up why this is something that matters to Batman.

Alfred’s got banter in the series, and he loosens up Bruce Wayne every time they talk to one another. A little like in Gotham, I suppose, we’re given some semblance of a relationship between the two that isn’t based in chiding and stern huffs. They like being around one another, and it benefits them both to have that friendship in place. When Alfred, who can joke around with Bruce easily, is caught in the line of fire, Bruce’s concern is apparent, real, and something for the audience to latch onto.

At the same time, it also allows Batman to keep up with Joker. In a sense, the Joker’s continuing need to make Batman laugh is what leads him to go darker and darker, seeking the sick joke that’ll finally force Batman to laugh, despite himself. With Batman largely having no sense of humour in the comics, Joker has to force more and more to try and get some kind of rise out of him. But here, Batman’s lighter and friendlier, and you get the feeling he’s far more likely to laugh at Joker’s silliness than in any other depiction of the pair.

At the end of this episode, with Joker caught and the mischief ended, Batman tells two jokes. One to Joker, which Joker acknowledges with a glare and Batman with a smile. The second to Alfred, which actually brings Bruce into a proper laugh. And getting that laugh is so satisfying. It shows there’s actually something on the line when Batman and Joker fight one another: if Batman has a sense of humour, then he has a sense of humour to lose. Joker’s got so much more to work with in this scenario.

Earlier I asked who the audience is meant to be for Joker’s one-liners, and this episode has a clear idea: The Joker. He casually makes jokes here for his own benefit, and for the audience. He coins the robot working for him “Captain Clown”, and forms a really funny attachment to it. He tells puns to Batman, and he pauses for comedic effect when leading Batman into a trap. He’s having a great time, just enjoying himself, and it’s the best thing for the character.

It’s another tremendously fun episode of the show, but it also offers us a look into a time when Joker was far more independent than he is today. He wants to do what he wants; rather than to do whatever he thinks will shock Batman. That’s the freedom which makes ‘Joker’ a literal description of the character, rather than the sardonic “Joker” who lives for shock value rather than actual jokes.

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Batman TAS #3: “Nothing to Fear”

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The third episode of The Animated Series introduces Scarecrow to proceedings. Jonathan Crane is a professor of phobias who gets kicked out of his position after it’s revealed that he went ‘too far’ with his students – a sequence of events which leads to a growing obsession he has with getting revenge on the University. He’s a very simple character here, although that’s how it tends to go for the Scarecrow. He’s got a single agenda, and he can’t achieve it because of Batman, so next time he ramps things up even further.

As a result, Scarecrow is someone who becomes more potent after we’ve seen him several times, and he comes off as more than a little amateur in this episode. His agenda here is to steal money from the university that fired him so they’ll struggle to continue operating – but by the end of the episode, his attention skips from the university to Batman. As in all classic Scarecrow appearances, that focus on Batman will be what starts to really create Scarecrow as a villain, and boost him to higher heights.

As the makers of Arkham Knight learned too late, Scarecrow’s hard to make into anything more than a ‘featured player’ amongst Batman’s enemies. He’s barely had any definitive stories within the comics, usually showing up as part of a group, to provide a brief challenge Batman has to overcome before turning attention to the real enemy – Riddler, Joker, etc. His two biggest roles were in the aforementioned Arkham Knight, where he failed to make a lasting impact as a villain due to a very weak narrative; and Batman Begins, where he was played gleefully by Cillian Murphy.

In the two stories, he comes across in somewhat similar ways to the Scarecrow we find here. He’s always camp – always. Along with Riddler, he’s Batman’s most over-zealous foes, incredibly talkative and keen to let people know what he’s doing. In this episode he off-handedly passes across his entire backstory to his two minions without even a real second though – of course this is interesting for them to learn, so of course he’s going to spout it all out in one go. And the final ‘reveal’ of the episode is also one which was mirrored by the game and the movie: when it’s time for Scarecrow to get a dose of his own medicine, it’s Batman he sees manifested into a monster.

In the movie, seeing this monstrous version of Batman drives Scarecrow insane, as Batman is his greatest actual, real fear. In the TV show and arguably the game, Batman represents a little more. He is the expression of Scarecrow’s failures – his inability to get revenge on the university, or the man who fired him. When he accidentally takes in some of his own fear gas at the end of this episode, the monstrous version of Batman he sees drives him away from his original goals and onto what’ll likely be his newest obsession: proving himself greater than the Bat.

Which is to say, this episode races through the ‘origin’ for Crane to create Scarecrow; but in doing so provides us with the time needed to create ‘The Scarecrow’. He starts the episode as a crook with a mask and a gimmick, but leaves it with a motive and intent. The more doses he gets of Batman’s justice, the more he needs, and the further he’ll go to get more. Scarecrow’s arc is a grasping one, which he’ll never reach up to. All the posturing, schemes, and chemical upgrades all cover up for a man who has an obsession with providing himself against an untouchable foe. That’s what makes Scarecrow an interesting part of Batman’s rogues gallery, and something which has been co-opted by Riddler and Joker as time has gone on and Batman has become more and more undefeated.

In the attempt to build up Riddler, he’s become a mass-murderer. In the attempt to get the biggest and worst laugh of all, Joker’s become a mass-murderer. But really, the character it makes most sense to raise the stakes with isn’t either of them – it’s Scarecrow. His first ever loss, and the one which sets him on a downwards path, isn’t the one he suffers to Batman in this episode. It’s losing his job because of his experiments with students. Batman’s powerless to ever stop the cycle of increasing grandeur for Scarecrow, because (unlike with Joker and Riddler) he wasn’t the one to start the cycle. He came in and distracted Scarecrow away towards grander schemes.

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A common thread in Batman stories is that he is somewhat responsible for the rise of supervillains in the world. In “Nothing to Fear”, you get to see the first steps of the Scarecrow into becoming someone truly worthy of fear – and it’s because Batman exacerbates the problem. He has to in order to save lives and keep Gotham safe, but it is demonstrably Batman’s appearance which pushes Scarecrow from being a goon with a gimmick to becoming a real player in Gotham.

The appearance of Scarecrow invites the series to start offering Batman’s backstory for the first time, as the fear toxins push Batman to hallucinate his father. This is the first time I think it ever happened, but this is an idea which is now all over the comics, films, and games – that Scarecrow can reopen this wound for Bruce Wayne. It’s humanising, but there’s an interesting contrast at play in the way the episode sets things up. Just as Batman stepped in and was the second body blow for Scarecrow; so Scarecrow is only the second body blow to Bruce in the episode.

Right at the start, Bruce speaks to one of the other professors at the university, who says that Bruce is dishonouring the Wayne family name. Scarecrow steps in and his fear toxin exacerbates that fear for Bruce, but it’s something which was always there. Just as Scarecrow can never overcome that original firing from the university; so Batman will never overcome the night in the alley which changed his life forever. They’ll both dance around one another, picking at the wounds, but their scars will never heal because neither want to rest. They have too much they need to do.

Batman TAS #2: “Christmas With The Joker”

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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.

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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.

Steven Moffat to Leave Doctor Who After Series 10, Chris Chibnall Steps In

It took a lot of gin and tonic to talk him into this, but I am beyond delighted that one of the true stars of British television drama will be taking the Time Lord even further into the future. At the start of season 11, Chris Chibnall will become the new showrunner of Doctor Who. And I will be thrown in a skip.

So says Steven Moffat, with the news that the showrunner for Doctor Who since series 5 will be leaving after the next series in 2017, and that Broadchurch creator Chris Chibnall will inherit the role subsequently. Moffat has been in charge of the series since the arrival of Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor, and has seen several companions and two other Doctors introduced in the meantime.

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His final series, the 10th, will not be released until 2017, however, meaning this year all we’ll have of Doctor Who is a Christmas special at the end of the year. This is apparently so as to give Moffat’s big finale a proper send-off, although it seems more likely that the BBC want to keep it off the airwaves for a year in order to rebuild a little interest after declining viewership through 2015.

The current Doctor, Peter Capaldi, has not stated whether he will be staying on to the Chibnall era or leaving with Moffat. There’ll definitely be a new companion by the time we reach 2017, however, following the departure of Jenna Coleman at the end of this year.

The DREDD Fan Petition Turns To Streaming TV

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The 2012 movie adaptation of Judge Dredd, simply called DREDD, proved a critical success, with fans and critics both enjoying the tense lock-in thriller. However… there were not very many of them, which meant that the movie struggled to recover its costs and wasn’t a huge hit at the box office. Regardless, fans quickly took to the internet to register their admiration for the film, and to call en masse for a sequel.

Until recently, that petition called for the sequel to be a movie, Dredd 2, and had seen support from the actors involved in the movie, 130,000+ fans, and 2000AD themselves.

But, perhaps following a shift in perspective following the success of Daredevil and Jessica Jones, the petition has now switched gears: the goal is now for Dredd to come to Netflix. Or HBO. Or Amazon Prime. Any online streaming service which could do the tone of the movie justice, in other words. Quoting 2000AD co-owner Jason Kingsley in the press release sent by 2000AD:

“What Frank and Brian have achieved over the last three years has been incredible – they’ve kept the fires burning and their decision to open out the campaign to include TV AND films is a sensible one. Who amongst us wouldn’t want to see a DREDD series from Netflix or Amazon? I wish them all the best and thank them for keeping the faith. In the meantime, we’ve been doing – and will continue to do – all we can to give the fans what they want, which is more from the incredibly rich world of Judge Dredd.

Star Wars: Rebels Picks up a little Royalty for Season 2

Star Wars Rebels, the CGI continuation of a CGI continuation of the third chronological Star Wars film, will feature a guest appearance later this year from one of the most beloved characters from the movies. The twist, however, is that the guest is NOT a character from the prequel movies.

Spoilers below!

The series is set between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, meaning it focuses on the fallout of The Clone Wars and the attack which wiped out almost all the Jedi – the infamous Order 66. Only a few Jedi are left, and they’re in hiding, whilst the Imperial forces build up and consolidate their power. In the midst of everything, the Rebel Alliance begin to form up.

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And on an episode which’ll air on Disney XD on January 20th, the show will get to bridge the trilogies for the first time, as none other than Princess Leia will make her first appearance in the new, expanded Star Wars continuity. Voiced by Julie Dolan, she’ll mark the first time any of the central three characters have appeared outside of the movies since Disney bought Lucasfilm and cut out the Expanded Universe from canon.

She also joins Darth Vader, who is now a recurring villain for the series, and Ahsoka Tano from Star Wars: The Clone Wars, the animated series which preceded this one. This is only planned as a one-off for the time being, but it’s another sign of Disney really consolidating the various Marvel properties, and tying them together in a pre-planned, careful manner.