Welcome to the fifty-second edition of Adventure(s) Time, looking back on animated heroes of the past. This week, we’re examining two of the times Batman: The Animated Series introduced new antagonists into the canon. One has become a fixture in modern popular culture. The other…hasn’t.
We’ll open with what’s arguably the most significant episode of Batman, although no one at the time could’ve known this. “Joker’s Favor” (which debuted on September 11, 1992) is written by Paul Dini and directed by Boyd Kirkland. The plot has the villain singling out an average Joe for a years-long prank…or unbearable mental torment, however you’d choose to put it.
Average accountant Charlie Collins, on a particularly bad day, cusses out the Joker while in traffic. (“Cusses out” in a censor-approved fashion, naturally.) After calmly terrifying Charlie, he offers to spare Charlie’s life in exchange for a favor. One he doesn’t call upon until two years later, after Charlie has relocated his family and changed his name. The joke is that Charlie only has to open a door, during a ceremony honoring Commissioner Gordon at the stuffy Peregrinators Club.
Not surprisingly, Charlie doesn’t get off that easy. His hand is glued to the handle, trapping him inside with the bomb Joker’s set to detonate. Luckily, Charlie’s quick thinking enables him to contact Batman. In the final scene, a somewhat unhinged Charlie comes across one of the Joker’s bombs. He terrorizes the villain, and even makes Batman laugh, with the bomb he (somehow) knows is only a confetti prop.
This was the first Joker episode to air, but the fourth produced. “Joker’s Favor” is a noticeable improvement over the preceding episodes, dropping much of the gimmickry and presenting the villain as a true menace. Reportedly, Dini’s original premise had the Joker not speaking at all. That fits the portrayal of Joker as an unknowable force of chaos, or from Charlie’s point of view, a silent specter of death. An episode with a mute villain also conforms to the earliest plans for the series as an experimental take on afternoon action shows.
It’s possible “The Laughing Fish” comics storyline (which Dini later adapts) inspired the thought of Joker singling out average Joes for undeserved torment. Charlie is Joker's "hobby." A schlub with a bad comb over who should exist beneath his notice. Stalking him for years, pretending there’s a grand role for Charlie in his scheme…that’s all a part of the joke. It’s a much nastier take on the Joker than we’ve seen on the series. And while it’s nothing the censors could object to, there’s a darker, more adult subtext here. Everyday lives -- the lives of your parents, kids, the ones you’re destined for -- are laughably pathetic in the Joker’s eyes.
So, “Joker’s Favor” is the first instance of the producers crafting a scarier, more intimidating Joker. It’s also an early episode directed by Boyd Kirkland, one of Batman’s best directors. Its significance, however, rests in the debut of the Joker’s henchgirl.