Welcome to Adventure(s) Time's eighty-fifth installment, a look at animated heroes of the past. For the past few weeks, we've been examining a more obscure corner of Batman: The Animated Series continuity. That would be the final volume of Batman Adventures, alternately written by Ty Templeton and Dan Slott. This time, we're looking at two cases of Batman discerning a mystery plot from Ra's al Ghul -- with two very different results.
"Showdown" is the eighty-second episode of Batman. Originally airing on September 12, 1995, it might as well be named "The Jonah Hex One." There's a segment of fandom that resents "Showdown" for barely featuring Batman. Others admire its bravery for telling a shockingly different story.
Plotted by Kevin Altieri, Paul Dini, and Bruce Timm, scripted by Joe Lansdale, and directed by Altieri (whew), "Showdown" could've been a mess, with so many cooks in this kitchen. The story centers on a mystery. Why has Ra's al Ghul sent his Society of Shadows to kidnap an elderly retirement home resident? Ra's has already anticipated Batman's curiosity. He's arranged for the detective to discover a tape that offers a story.
A story that flashes the episode back to 1883, to the final days of the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. The true hero of the episode, Jonah Hex, has arrived in the town of Devil's Hole. Hex reveals to a local barmaid (or perhaps madam) that he's hunting the fugitive Arkady Duvall. Hex wants the superficially debonair Duvall brought to justice for his previous attack on a woman. The barmaid confirms he's been too rough on "her girls" in Devil's Hole, as well. With the lady's help, Hex traces Duvall to a nearby mountain.
Soon, Hex discovers Duvall is in cahoots with Ra's, who's constructing a massive airship. His plan is to use "The Phoenix" to destroy the new railroad. From there, he'll head to Washington, overthrow the government, and halt its destruction of the American West. It's a clever use of the character, dramatizing how his environmentalism brushed up against attitudes back in the nineteenth century.
From there, the episode evolves into a strange blend of Louis L'Amour and H. G. Wells. And, some of Spielberg and Lucas' Indiana Jones, too.
Hex is captured by his foes, escapes, sneaks aboard the Phoenix, and causes chaos just as it attacks the ceremonial completion of the railroad. Hex ignites the ship's hydrogen, leading to a fantastic explosion.
Ra's escapes, with no apparent concern for Duvall. Hex and Duvall survive the crash of the Phoenix; Duvall begs for his life, but Hex states he only wants him to face justice.
Batman and Robin finish the tape just in time to circumvent Ra's from leaving the airport. The lingering questions -- why is this old man so important, and why did this episode suddenly shift into a Jonah Hex adventure -- are answered. The elderly man is Duvall, now over 100. Previous exposure to the Lazarus Pit granted him long life, but a lengthy prison stint shattered his mind. Ra's lost track of him for years, but now wishes to be reunited with the man too cruel and hotheaded to be his heir.
Yes, the feeble old man is the son of Ra's al Ghul.
Ra's asks Batman to let them go, for an opportunity to do what he can for his son. Batman, the man we were previously told to be Ra's' ideal son, agrees. Thus concludes the steampunk western episode of Batman the kids were clamoring for.
Some fans complain to this day about the ending. "We find out the old man is al Ghul's son...so what? Why do we care?" We care because the connection between fathers and sons is a basic source of bonding between humans. We care because it's a recurring theme in literature. Because it shows Ra's, for all his faults, isn't without some empathy. Because at the heart of every Batman story is a son who lost his father (yes, and mother) and can't escape his guilt that he could've done something about it.
2003's Batman Adventures #4 presents a far more traditional Ra's al Ghul story. Yet, at its heart is a similar mystery. Ra's is up to something Batman just can't figure out, and the answer absolutely shocks him.
Opening the issue is...the back-up. Kind of. Traditionally, Ty Templeton writes and Rick Burchett pencils the main story, with Dan Slott writing and Templeton penciling the shorter back-ups. This time, the issue opens with the short story. It's the tale of Hassan, the Society of Shadows assassin captured by Batman in the first issue.
It's actually a clever way to advance the story, to get Batman where he needs to be. Traditional interrogation doesn't work, as Hassan views Batman as weak. Why? For the most Snyder-esque of reasons. He refuses to kill.
Batman is forced to get clever. A skin sample from Hassan contains a microscopic organism, pointing to Ra's al Ghul's base near Easter Island. (Honestly, in all of the Batman films, he's only shown this amount of resourcefulness maybe three times.)
Hence, this pretty awesome Bruce Timm cover.
The main story from Templeton/Burchett, "The Balance" begins here. It opens with Julie Madison having a...less than restrained reaction to Bruce standing her up again. You have to guess the creators were going somewhere with this, right?
Meanwhile, in a cavern beneath Easter Island, Batman locates Talia, Ubu, and Ra's. He's taken captive and given an opportunity to speak to Ra's. Batman demands Ra's explain why he's determined to kill all of Gotham's costumed criminals. He assumes Ra's is wiping out his competition. The answer, however, stuns Batman.
It's a brilliant use of Ra's, really. Within his own warped value system, Ra's is pleasing his daughter, courting favor with his preferred son-in-law, and doing good for Gotham. Reading the scene today, it's hard not to think of Batman Begins, with al Ghul declaring all of Gotham corrupt and worthy of death. This sequence actually makes more sense, and works within al Ghul's established motives.
Now having the answer to his question, Batman reveals he was playing possum, and the mandatory fight scene begins. A few surprises this time, though. For one, Talia breaks the fourth wall a bit, declaring Ra's doesn't truly want to kill Batman. He calls her bluff...
...not expecting Talia to be injured in the crossfire. Luckily for Talia, however, she falls into a nearby Lazarus Pit. Batman ends the blood rage generated by the pit, knocking Talia out with her own tranq gun.
Both Batman and Ra's are injured, but he's determined to take Ra's in this time. I don't know if this was an intentional commentary on episodes like "Showdown," which end with Batman stoically accepting Ra's and not escorting him to the authorities. Within the story, though, it works. Batman will not tolerate murder; especially any murders committed in his name.
The coda of the story has Ubu and Talia escaping the wreckage. And, for the second time this issue, a raven-haired love interest is disillusioned by Bruce.
THE WRAP -UP
Those slender, big-eyed Society of Shadows agents seem like they're a tease for a Bruce Timm style Spider-Man. (Although Timm's Spider-Man commissions and rare cover give Spidey a boxier, Kirby-er look.) Truthfully, it's not hard to mentally paint a white emblem on their chest and picture these guys as the black costume Spidey. The last time we saw these goons in "Off Balance," they looked more like the early Snake Eyes designs.
Jonah Hex will reappear in the Justice League Unlimited episode "The Once and Future Thing Part One: Weird Western Tales." Although that story is set only set four years prior to this one, Hex apparently aged around thirty years.
HEY, I KNOW THAT VOICE
Elizabeth Montgomery, famous as Samantha Stevens in Bewitched, voices "Showdown"'s barmaid. Montgomery actually died four months before the episode aired, making this her final acting job. Malcolm McDowell from A Clockwork Orange voices Arkady Duvall. And Senator Patrick Leahy, who's appeared in numerous Batman projects, not surprisingly plays the town's mayor.
APPROVED BY BROADCAST STANDARDS & PRACTICES
Following "Robin's Reckoning (Part Two)", we have the show's second oblique reference to prostitution. And there's a scene that pretty clearly indicates Robin's punched one of the Shadow goons in the crotch.
"MURDER...IS A GIFT?!"
"Showdown" is a creative risk. And risks do have their consequences. A portion of the audience wants their Batman episodes to star Batman. And even if there's over a hundred episodes of the show overall, having one to deviate so drastically from what they want from Batman still irritates them.
But, really, You have dozens of hours of traditional Batman adventures in Gotham. "Showdown" is remarkable for just how thoroughly it deviates from a standard episode. The music, settings, backgrounds, character models...the crew had to essentially invent an entirely new show here. However you feel about the creative decision, you have to admire the work put into this.
"The Balance," conversely, does give you that traditional Batman. (So, is that title a nod to Talia's first DCAU appearance?) However, it has some twists of its own. It's a testament to the advantages of a much tighter continuity. There's a sense of real consequences here. Ra's can't just talk his way out of apprehension. Talia doesn't end the story still pining away for Batman. The stakes are raised, with a genuine anticipation for the next chapter growing each issue.
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! Check it out, and contact me on Twitter. You can also check out my Kindle Worlds novels for free over at Smashwords.