Just when things were starting to look up for Gotham City, no sooner does Commissioner Gordon lock up Rupert Thorne than his deputy Gil Mason charges him with corruption and accepting bribes. Gordon’s locked up, and Batman takes to the streets as Matches Malone, an enforcer in search of a gang; meanwhile, Gordon’s daughter Barbara (Melissa Gilbert) finds herself in need of a bat and so becomes one herself – Batgirl – in order to clear her father’s name and save Gotham from the new mob filling the Thorne vacuum when Two-Face (Richard Moll) returns to Gotham.
Without question, the undisputed star of the episode is Barbara Gordon, and I’m glad to have met her well in advance of her caped-and-cowled debut. Between “Heart of Steel” (penned also by this episode’s writer, Brynne Stephens) and “I Am the Night,” Batman: The Animated Series played an abbreviated long game in introducing the commissioner’s daughter before she became Batgirl. Those episodes had established Barbara’s fearlessness and her detective skills, so this episode feels very much like a natural extension of the character we already know and recognize. There’s a sense of fate in the moments that Barbara becomes Batgirl, and Stephens crafts those moments with logic. Though Batgirl will appear in only one other episode of BtAS (the very last episode, in fact, appropriately entitled “Batgirl Returns”), she becomes a featured co-lead in The New Batman Adventures, where she really shines.
Here, though, it’s impressive how quickly Batgirl becomes an equal partner in Batman and Robin’s fight against crime. Though each crimefighter tries giving her the “it’s not that easy” talk, Batgirl frequently proves that she’s more than qualified to the task. She matches Robin deduction for deduction, and she stands shoulder to shoulder with Batman as mobsters open fire. Thank heavens we’ve come a long way from the casual misogyny of “The Cat and the Claw” (“Red Claw... a woman?!”) with a Batgirl who can hold her own – and against Two-Face, no less, who reenters the Gotham crime scene in a big way. In this two-parter, Two-Face orchestrates the downfall of Rupert Thorne and stages his coup for the top spot in Gotham’s underworld. For Batgirl, it’s a real baptism of fire, but at no point does the episode give us the notion that she’s unprepared for this. It’s only too bad the show doesn’t continue to pit her as a chief foil for Two-Face, because I imagine he’s stinging that a newcomer showed him up. As it is, though, future appearances of Two-Face focus more on his inner turmoil than any outer conflict.
I can’t oversell just how effective “Shadow of the Bat” is when it comes to establishing Batgirl as a new force for justice in Gotham. This episode contains a number of memorable setpieces and clever bits of detective work where Barbara proves herself formidable. She’s an expert tracker, a fine lip-reader, and a quick hand with a one-liner. In an unforgettable subway encounter, we watch her rebound from a rookie mistake to help save the day. But the episode also establishes a smaller bit of the canon when it presents Batman’s underworld alter ego Matches Malone – comics fans everywhere feel a thrill whenever that name is invoked, and so it’s a real treat to see Batman don a new and recognizable identity even as Barbara Gordon undergoes a similar metamorphosis.
For an episode called “Shadow of the Bat,” there’s a remarkable balance struck between Batgirl and Batman; neither feels upstaged, and yet neither is given short shrift. It’s an episode that feels of a piece with the series and yet feels fresh and original. Indeed, I’ll make the snap statement, absent a thorough pass of research, that Brynne Stephens is the most consistent writer on the show after the great Paul Dini. “Shadow of the Bat” is certainly a standout entry in The Animated Series.
Writer: Brynne Stephens
Director: Frank Paur
Villain: Two-Face (Richard Moll)
Next episode: “Blind as a Bat,” in which Batman sees red.
🦇For the full list of Batman: The Animated Series reviews, click here.🦇