Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The New Batman Adventures - "Holiday Knights"

“Hi-ho, couch potatoes! I’m interrupting the Toilet Bowl to bring you my very special New Year’s resolution: Starting tonight at midnight, I – your loving Uncle Joker – do solemnly vow not to kill anyone for a whole year. Which means I’m going to have to work extra fast to bump off a few more of you today!”

In a trio of holiday-themed tales, Gotham prepares for the Christmas season with its usual lawless abandon. First, Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn step out of their hideaway to do a little Christmas shopping, courtesy of brainwashed bachelor Bruce Wayne. Then, Batgirl stumbles upon Clayface’s latest crimes, a rash of department store robberies. Finally, The Joker swears off homicide for the New Year, daring Batman to stop him before his last big kill at midnight.

There’s a lot of material to cover in this episode, which packs in three stories and the debut of the New Batman Adventures redesign. So let’s begin by acknowledging that this episode is pretty much a masterstroke; Paul Dini adapts three wonderful stories from The Batman Adventures Holiday Special  (1994) into a perennial favorite which deserves a place on every respectable Bat-fan’s list of annual traditions. Never mind that the episode debuted in September; it’s a modern Christmas classic.

The Ivy/Harley opener is pure Dini, an irreverent “girls just wanna have fun” short in the vein of “Harley and Ivy.” Arleen Sorkin and Diane Pershing remain absolute gems in their roles, and the low personal stakes of this story allow us to see how close these two have become. They don’t miss a beat in completing each other’s sentences, teaming up for a madcap shopping spree that almost ends in accidental homicide (about which the pair is gleefully nonplussed – “Ah, well, we were gonna do it anyway.”). It’s a rare moment where Kevin Conroy gets to lead with his Bruce Wayne voice, struggling against Ivy’s mind-control lipstick and playing bachelor to the hilt. 

This vignette ends with a triumphant debut of Batman’s new look; gone are the blues and yellows of his last costume, replaced by (more) blacks and grays. Batman’s is a tough costume to mess up, and this redesign works well toward what we’ll see is TNBA’s attempt to make Batman more of a father figure to his Bat-family. Ivy, too, gets a modest redesign, giving her chalky green skin and a darkened costume that accentuates her pixie features. (Sidebar: the tie-in comics would eventually go on to reveal that “New Ivy” was actually a plant-based creation that Pamela Isley used to escape Gotham and join Alec “Swamp Thing” Holland in his botanical research.)

Next up, the big headline in this episode is the news that Tara Strong has replaced Melissa Gilbert as Batgirl. As much as I praised Gilbert in her outings as Barbara Gordon (recall, I singled out her “playful adultness” as key to Babs), there’s something just right about Strong, such that I didn’t initially notice the change. She maintains Gilbert’s spirited spunkiness but layers in an element of snark that Gilbert’s more genuine Batgirl would have rejected out of hand. The rest of this segment of the episode is fairly straightforward, including a few great jokes about Harvey Bullock taking on an undercover role as Santa Claus; it’s always a treat to hear from Ron Perlman, too, since his Clayface got fairly short shrift after a first-rate debut in “Feat of Clay.” (Lest you think your ears deceive you, Perlman picks up the slack as a caroler and as Joker’s stooges – Mo, Lar, and Cur, who’ll later be played by Billy West.)

Finally, we arrive at The Joker. I have to say, I’ve never been an inordinate fan of the redesign, with pale (almost blue) skin and jet-black eyes; he looks a little too much like Freakazoid, and the absence of lips makes any Joker grin seem a little hollow. The good news, however, is that Mark Hamill remains in the role, continuing to do some of the best Joker laughs of his career, and the show’s network relocation from Fox to The WB equaled a slackening of the censorship reins, as evidenced when Joker actually shoots Batman in the arm. His overtly homicidal plot, too, is something we might not have seen in Batman: The Animated Series (compare to “The Last Laugh,” in which gassing Gotham is but a prelude to robbery; here, the endgame is unapologetically mass murder).

We’re also introduced to the new Robin in this episode, but being that next week’s episode gives him a more proper introduction, I’ll reserve my commentary until then. I’ll conclude by confessing (for those playing the home game, take a drink) that this episode always gets me a little choked up because of its epilogue, in which Commissioner Gordon and Batman reunite for their annual New Years’ coffee. Especially given that we know Gordon is precisely the same age as Thomas Wayne would have been (cf. “I Am the Night”), this tradition built on mutual respect and devotion to saving their city is especially touching. “Close one this time,” Gordon says; Batman replies, “They’re all close ones.” For all the sturm und batarang, this animated series has never forgotten the intensely human core of Batman – that he is a wounded man building a new family of allies to prevent others from suffering as he did. Among Batman’s superheroic feats is his dedication to this yearly ritual, in which he and Gordon remind each other that they’re not alone; Batman covering the check before pulling his standard disappearing trick is itself a wonderful acknowledgement of how much he values Gordon’s friendship and loyalty.

Comics fans are particularly inoculated against change. We’re so used to books being relaunched with yet another #1 issue, so accustomed to new costumes and revamped origin stories. We roll our eyes when we’re told “nothing will ever be the same again.” We’re cynical about all that because we’ve seen it many times over, yes, but we also know that all that stuff is but window dressing. What matters are the stories, and this debut of The New Batman Adventures suggests that what we loved about Batman: The Animated Series – the engaging storytelling, the spot-on voice casting, and the intermarried respect and love for these characters – remain solidly in place.

Original Air Date: September 13, 1997

Writer: Paul Dini

Director: Dan Riba

Villains: Poison Ivy (Diane Pershing), Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin), Clayface (Ron Perlman), and The Joker (Mark Hamill)

Next episode: “Sins of the Father,” in which the new Robin has a reckoning all his own.

🦇For the full list of The New Batman Adventures reviews, click here.🦇

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