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When Batman Beyond Became An '80s Sitcom

Welcome to Adventure(s) Time's 92nd installment, a look at animated heroes of the past. And if you have any suggestions for the future, I'd love to hear them. Just contact me on Twitter. This week's installment comes from a suggestion by Gravity Falls Poland, who wants to see the comic book return of...hmm. Let's just say these are some of the more divisive Batman Beyond villains.

"The Eggbaby" appropriately debuted on April 1, 2000. The script comes from veteran Batman Beyond writer Hilary J. Bader, and the episode marks James Tucker's directing debut. (Tucker went on to play a critical role in Justice League Unlimited, run Batman: The Brave and the Bold, and is a major figure at Warner Bros. Animation.)

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There's a telling moment in the DVD audio commentary for this episode in which Tucker attempted to discuss Bader's intended theme for the episode, and she had no idea what he was talking about. "Eggbaby" ain't that deep. And its origins are based in behind-the-scenes TV politics the average viewer won't care about.

Simply put, the Batman Beyond staff wanted Emmy Awards. But the daytime category they were stuck in leaned toward blatantly kid-friendly programming. And, while Batman Beyond featured superior animation and pretty daring stories for Saturday mornings, it was hardly a show for small children. Their solution was to do an outright kid-friendly episode, which required the producers to crib a plot from any '80s sitcom with teen cast members. Sometimes the plot device is a bag of sugar, sometimes a mannequin. In Batman Beyond, it takes the form of a computerized infant shaped like an egg.

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The plot kicks off with Terry's teacher Miss Pinto pairing the class off and assigning them digital Eggbabies. Terry is partnered with Blade, a shallow, popular girl who can't be expected to be much of a mother. Terry, meanwhile, desperately needs a good grade, but is convinced he can't care for the Eggbaby and continue his night job as Batman.

Meanwhile, a new crew of villains known as the Mayhem Family is committing jewelry heists around Gotham. Ma Mayhem and her sons Slim and Carl were likely inspired by Ma Parker and family from the '60s Adam West TV show. And that's all you really need to know. They're silly "rural" villains out in the big city. The overbearing mother lords over her ox-strong and geeky sons during a crime spree.

Now, that part about the episode not having a theme isn't entirely true. Tucker was right in picking up on a recurring family motif. (Maybe Bader's subconscious was just working overtime.) Terry is in training to become a father, paranoid it's a job he can't pull off (after all, his only male role model is a grouchy septuagenarian). Ma Mayhem isn't only leading her boys on a robbery binge, she's specifically re-collecting the first set of rubies she and her "late" husband stole. (Actually, he ran off with someone else, but the Mayhems don't discuss this.) And Terry's family makes a cameo, with his little brother flicking rubber bands at the Eggbaby and his mother -- too young to be a grandmother, she says -- refusing to care for it.

The problem with going too deep with the themes is the inherent goofiness of the episode. It's so off-brand for this series, you've just got to embrace the silliness and have fun. Bruce Timm asserts in the audio commentary that fans hate this episode. And some do. But the episode does have its defenders, actually.

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What saves much of "The Eggbaby" is, for the most part, Tucker's fantastic direction. It's clear he's already one of the series' best directors, even here in his first episode. Every few minutes, something visually cool happens: Batman jetting out of a window to save the plummeting Eggbaby, then getting dragged along by the Mayhem family's truck; Ma Mayhem kicking Batman's butt with her purse; Ma jumping off a building to rescue her gems; and Batman's dramatic last-minute save. Every action scene here looks amazing.

A year after the episode's debut, Bader took another crack at the Mayhem family in the monthly Batman Beyond comic. Joined by artist Craig Rousseau, "Royal Mayhem" is another story with a superficial connection between the Mayhems and some vague "family" theme. It opens with Carl and Slim freeing their mother from prison.

Batman is injured while attempting to stop the breakout. Later, while recuperating in the Batcave, he tells Bruce he's taking a day off from crime-fighting. Bruce warns there's no such thing.

Meanwhile, the royal family of Uganistan has arrived in Gotham. And, wouldn't you know it, there's some family drama going on here. Princess Vinishra feels stifled by the ancient rules of her kingdom and the daily obligations of her title. She's informed that, "for a princess, there is no day off." Why, that's the same thing Terry just heard! I wonder if his path will cross with the princess' later ...

So, yes, of course that happens. But first, we discover Terry having a miserable day off, as every member of his supporting cast is unable to attend a concert with him. And, naturally, he runs into trouble in his civilian identity when coming across an assassination attempt against the princess.

Princess Vinishra is weirdly unfazed by all of this, walking away from the chaos and casually stealing someone's coffee at a nearby cafe. But it's not anyone's coffee. It's Carl Mayhem's. His mother happens to be reading the newspaper at that moment and immediately declares it's time to kidnap the princess.

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The coincidence of Princess Vinishra running into the Mayhem family is totally forgivable; little moments like that are necessary to move the plot along. And it's not so far out of the realm of probability that it takes you out of the story. Having Princess Vinishra bump into Terry on the very next page is pushing it, though.

Terry has no idea who Vinishra is -- even though it's been established Batman has taken an interest in keeping her safe during the family's visit. But, as a teenager with nothing to do, he's taken it upon himself to follow the haughty Vinishra around and teach her some American manners.

Outside of her bubble, Princess Vinishra soon learns of her country's horrific human rights record. And, from some protestors outside of her family's hotel, she discovers her own uncle has been siphoning off the money given to Uganistanian humanitarian aid.

Shortly after Vinishra joins the protestors, Ma Mayhem and her boys attack. They shove Vinishra into a taxi, forcing Terry to finally don his Batman outfit and rescue the princess. In comparison to "Eggbaby"'s action-packed finale, the comic peters out with a feeble two-page fight scene.

And, in the closing page, Vinishra announces her uncle is now in prison, that she'll do better for Uganistan, and Terry admits to Bruce that Batman never gets a day off. Goodness, everyone learned a lesson. While "Eggbaby" is cheesy and a tonal mismatch for the series, this follow-up is worse. It's devoid of any personality, and even a small child could predict every story beat.

DESIGN-Y

I believe this is her final appearance on the show, but I'm reminded of how much I've always disliked Blade's design. The borderline inhuman "pixie" look of the DCAU females in this era always looked off to me. And those square straps are probably the ugliest attempt at "future fashion" on Beyond.

I LOVE THE EARLY AUGHTS

There's no conception of a smartphone here. Terry learns of the princess' disappearance over the phone, then pulls a laptop out of his backpack (one he prays he remembered to bring along) to search online for her photograph.

HEY, I KNOW THAT VOICE

The late Kathleen Freeman, who played Sister Mary Stigmata in The Blues Brothers (and voiced Peggy's unseen mother on Married with Children) voices Ma Mayhem. Andy Dick, already an established sitcom star, voices her nerdy son Slim. Mark Rolston, also the voice of Batman's Firefly, plays the slow-witted Carl.

DON'T EXPECT ANY EISNERS, THOUGH

At least the producers are honest about what "Eggbaby" is. A kid-friendly episode conceived as intentional bait for Emmy voters. And, hey, it worked. Batman Beyond will always be the Emmy Award-winning  Batman Beyond, thanks to this episode.

"Royal Mayhem" is far more frustrating. Is there a parallel between, say, the friction within Vinishra's family and the Mayhem family? Or, does a kidnapped Vinishra discover an unexpected affection between the Mayhems missing in her own family? Does one of the Mayhem boys begin to doubt the actions of his clan just as Vinishra discovers her uncle's evil actions? Does the story even dramatize Vinishra's confrontation with her uncle?  Nope.

And if there's supposed to be some deeper connection between Vinishra and Terry, both realizing the importance of their roles...that doesn't work either. There's no real bonding between the two, and it's not as if Terry's shirking in his Batman duties. He's just doing good, for most of the issue, out of costume. Also, Vinishra is such a stereotype of the bratty princess, it's difficult to care about her. Bader's run on the comic does have its moments, but unfortunately, this isn't one of them.

So that’s all for now. I've begun a new review series on Chris Claremont's 2000 return to the X-Men on my blog!  You can also check out my Kindle Worlds novels for free over at Smashwords.

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