Welcome to Adventure(s) Time's seventy-second installment, a look at animated heroes of the past. This week, we're revisiting one of the unique tropes of Batman: The Animated Series -- the street-level gangster story. Then, a later issue of the tie-in comic that treads similar ground.
It's still surprising something like "It's Never Too Late" aired as network kids' programming. Not necessarily because the content is graphic, although a key point plot does involve a teenager addicted to drugs and his ruptured family. Or, for its acknowledgement of religion, as a priest also plays a significant role in the plot.
No, "It's Never Too Late" stands out because it's just so street-level. Not gritty, necessarily, but real in its own way. As real as a story involving a vigilante in a bat costume could be. Actually, Batman is often a bystander here. He hardly appears in the first act.
There had to be some trepidation about this episode from the network, I'm guessing. A slow-paced episode that barely features Batman, centering on an aging mobster who's convinced his son has been kidnapped, only to discover he's in detox? Did kids really want to see this?
Well, years later, Kids WB! (the show's future home) will explicitly say "no." The grounded, realistic episodes were retired in favor of more colorful, action-filled plots. FOX deserves credit for allowing the show to present such a variety of material. Ultra kid-friendly episodes like "I've Got Batman in my Basement." Violent action epics like "Joker's Wild." And, here, quiet character pieces starring fringe players in the canon. And this is only the sixth episode of the show!
"It's Never Too Late" comes from writer Tom Ruegger and director Boyd Kirkland. Given the lack of super-villainy and large set pieces, this easily could've been visually disappointing. Instead, Kirkland, along with Japanese animation studio Spectrum, present something compelling and stylish. Spectrum, famously, consisted of ex-TMS employees who'd departed to start their own company. (TMS is a legendary studio in its own right.) Apparently, they spent so much time and money on each job they had to close up shop. Their most famous contribution is "Heart of Ice," the Mr. Freeze episode many consider to be the show's greatest. This episode isn't on that level, but it's one of the best looking in this early batch.
The episode opens during the climax of a gang war between rival Gotham City bosses Arnold Stromwell and Rupert Thorne. Stromwell's convinced Thorne kidnapped his son. Thorne's actually innocent, but views Stromwell's frantic mental state as an easily exploitable weakness. As the episode progresses, Batman intervenes, revealing to Stromwell his son is actually in detox, a victim of the drugs Stromwell's flooded into Gotham.
Stromwell refuses to accept this reality, turning on Batman even as he attempts to protect him from Thorne's attacks. The story has two flashback sequences to Stromwell's youth, revealing a terrifying incident at the train tracks. We're led to believe Stromwell's brother Michael actually died on the tracks, only to later learn he in fact survived--but lost one of his legs when saving Arnold's life. The other stunning revelation is that the priest Batman's been consulting this episode, the one charged with looking after Arnold, is actually the kid brother from the flashbacks.
Well, perhaps the average kid at home didn't find the revelation so stunning. Very likely, he wanted Joker or Clayface to finally show up and bring some real action. But it's an ambitiously adult story, "adult" in a way most stories claiming that title simply aren't. ("Adult" today apparently means uncensored f-bombs and exposing Batman's penis. Or making "Killing Joke" even more graphic.)