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When Batman: The Animated Series Went High-Tech (Awkwardly)

Welcome to Adventure(s) Time's 99th installment, a look at animated heroes of the past. This week, two cases of the Riddler desperately drawing Batman into a game, although he's never quite pleased with the outcome. And if you have any suggestions for the future, I'm happy to hear them. Just contact me on Twitter.

Debuting on Nov. 24, 1992, "What is Reality?" is the second of only three Riddler episodes for Batman: The Animated Series. Written by Marty Isenberg and Robert N. Skir, and directed by Dick Sebast, the episode opens with a promising setup for a Riddler story: An average citizen is attempting a withdrawal from his ATM, only to watch his account drop all the way to zero. The electronic readout then switches to a riddle. Similar incidents are also occurring at the DMV and stock exchanges.

The riddles, as Batman notes, are corny old jokes, not true brain-teasers. But each one contains a numerical reference, leading Alfred and Batman to guess Riddler's next location. Joined by Robin, Batman soon discerns that Riddler is attempting to erase all print and digital evidence of his true identity, Edward Nygma.

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At this point in the canon, Riddler has already escaped his first encounter with Batman. He could've reinvented himself, traveled far away, done anything to avoid risking capture. Instead, he's back in Gotham, continually goading Batman into deciphering the next stage of his plot. It's essential to the Riddler's character -- he must prove he possesses the superior intellect.

But here's where the episode loses focus. The Riddler of this continuity is a disgruntled video game designer, so giving his crimes a technological slant seems fair. And the concept of him disrupting everyday Gothamites' lives, robbing them for all they're worth, is fine. Also, there's some significance to him erasing Edward Nygma. Perhaps it indicates an intense loathing of his old self; of the anonymous cubicle dweller who allowed himself to be emasculated by a petty middle manager.

Unfortunately, the episode abandons all of this by the first act. Instead, we get the virtual reality episode...seemingly a mandatory plot for action-adventure shows in the early 1990s. After arranging for the police to apprehend his software, he tricks Robin and Commissioner Gordon into trying out his virtual reality program. Robin steps back into reality for a snack; Gordon, however, becomes trapped.

The rest of the episode consists of Batman entering the VR realm, solving riddles, playing chess, and escaping traps with Robin's piped-in advice. Batman learns he can manipulate the virtual reality landscape, remolding himself as a literal dark knight, flying on a Pegasus, and creating numerous duplicates of himself.

Riddler just isn't able to keep up, spreading his consciousness over too many of his own clones, thus causing the VR world to collapse. Gordon is saved, but when the team locates the real Riddler, he's seemingly trapped in a catatonic state.

On the surface, it's a brave ending. Some villains (usually the Joker) receive nebulous death scenes that leave no body behind. But here, the Riddler's utterly helpless, his mind a blank, and in no position to dismiss his predicament in his next appearance. Which turns out to be "Riddler's Reform," a popular episode that can't be bothered to address any of this.

Over in the comics tie-in, the final volume of Batman Adventures was attempting to shake up the image of the Adventures books. This volume not only draws heavily on existing continuity from the show, but even has a longform story arc running throughout each issue. And, after a few issues, the Riddler is essential to this story.

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Batman Adventures #11, "Poker Face," from writer Ty Templeton and artist Rick Burchett, picks up on an idea from earlier in this run. The Riddler has once again seemingly reformed. And rather than work for someone else, designing toys and cute gadgets, this time he's in business for himself. And in the off-screen gap between the Batman and Justice League cartoons, he's become a wealthy designer of innovative cell phones.

Yet, the Riddler's insistence on proving his genius remains. So, even though Batman's now dealing with life as an outlaw (thanks to the Penguin, Gotham's new mayor), he also must contend with Riddler dropping high profile clues, such as rearranging the letters on a billboard for "Alpha Pieces Cereal."

Riddler's denying he has anything to do with the riddles, a lie Batman sees right through. When he relents and tracks down Riddler, the reformed villain swears he just wants to continue their game. There isn't going to be any crime, just an opportunity for Batman to play chess.

It's a clever take on the character. He's smart enough to evade prison, but still possesses an ego that won't allow him to admit Batman's smarter than he is. Another interesting element of the story is the way Penguin reacts to Riddler's stunts. Determined to maintain his image as a "law and order" politician, he demands Gordon do something about Nygma.

Eventually, Batman tires of the Riddler's game -- which, assuming he really couldn't grab Batman's attention, would've ended with him hacking into NATO's com-sat system and controlling a nuclear arsenal from his phone...which is quite the crime.

He gives Riddler an opportunity to truly challenge himself. To make sense of something Batman still can't crack. Just how did the Penguin become mayor of Gotham?

DESIGN-Y

Incorporating virtual reality into the "non-time" (yet heavily retro) world of Batman is tricky. This is a show that refused to even have color television sets as a part of its world. Virtual reality was legitimately cutting edge tech at this time; the thought of using it in video games still seemed pretty far fetched. (When explaining VR to the audience this episode, we're told it's a military experiment used to train soldiers.) The hi-tech gear actually doesn't look so bad, although the reality within the VR simulation has a blandness to it.

Oddly, the all-red look of the VR world foreshadows the design of Nintendo's failed Virtual Boy console from 1995. There's also a surprisingly elaborate special effect (for the famously cheap AKOM studio) in one sequence where Batman shines a flashlight on a crime scene.

CONTINUITY NOTES

Given that Riddler next appears on the show on parole, and no longer catatonic, you've got to figure there are some compelling "lost tales" to be told. Not only has Riddler never been arrested onscreen (meaning he couldn't be on parole), but no one's ever addressed the mending of his mind. The tie-in comics would've been the ideal place for these stories, but we never got them.

CREATIVE DIFFERENCES

Series co-creator Bruce Timm is not a fan of this episode, as he explained to animation magazine Animato: "Virtual reality is too science fictiony for our show," he said. "While it may be conceivable that it will work in four or five years, Batman transforming himself into a black knight and flying around on a chessboard is unfathomable to me. Strangely enough, it's one of AKOM's better shows. They pulled off all the special effects really well." (And thanks to the folks at DC Animated for archiving these quotes!)

"A RIDDLE NO ONE CAN SOLVE"

"What Is Reality?" is the kind of episode that largely exists because Batman was a daily show. One with a perpetual need for scripts. As Bruce Timm has mentioned, virtual reality has nothing to do with the aesthetic they were creating; it sticks out quite badly, really. There's also the issue of the episode just being so unfocused. Is this about Riddler erasing his past? His obsession with proving his intellect to Batman? A clever scheme to turn technology against Gotham and irritate the kind of average schlub the Riddler despises?

Nah. Turns out, this all hinges on the heroes rescuing Gordon from a virtual reality headset. OK.

In the episode's defense, the transformation scenes within the digital world are kind of fun. And, really, it's nice just to see another Riddler appearance, given how rarely he showed up. Still, Riddler's best appearances in this canon are always in the tie-in comics. Specifically, the Ty Templeton issues. Templeton incorporates Riddler's intelligence and ego into highly memorable stories that always get at the heart of the character. And, for the final Adventures volume, he's found the perfect role for Riddler.

So that’s all for now. Until next time, check out the G. I. Joe novels I wrote for the Kindle Worlds project for free over at Smashwords.

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