Christmas With The Joker
Live from Gotham City, the show that nobody wants to see, but everyone will watch!
Air Date: 13/11/92
Director: Kent Butterworth
Writer: Eddie Gorodetsky
Themes: Christmas Spirit, Insane Spectacle, Humour
Villain: The Joker
Synopsis: It’s Christmas in Gotham, but Batman and Robin have to delay a viewing of It’s A Wonderful Life after Joker escapes from Arkham Asylum and broadcasts an insane holiday special – which includes many high-profile hostages.
So, it’s a very special episode of B:TAS, one that introduces us, production wise, to two mainstay characters .
Dick Grayson/Robin is going to be popping in and out of B:TAS for most of its run without much explanation for absences (I believe a later Batman story in another show explains this away by saying Robin is “with the Titans”). Robin’s role is to be the support character for Batman, but also to be the lighter side of things, in a variety of ways. Where Batman is sombre, Robin can crack jokes. Where Batman looks at things with only the most serious mindset, Robin acts a lot like what he is: a kid. Where Batman is dark in terms of outfit, Robin is noticeably bright, typically the most colourful thing on screen (especially in an episode like this).
More importantly, Robin exemplifies the compassionate side of Bruce Wayne, and allows for some decent bits of humanity to be seen in the otherwise stoic crime fighter. It actually goes a bit too far in this episode, but it’s a very important aspect of the character.
The other introduction is Batman’s greatest villain. Mark Hamill’s performance as the Joker has gone down in animation legend, easily his most well known role after the Tatooine moisture farmer. The Joker, a psychotic clown, is the perfect nemesis for the serious, law-abiding Batman, and he’ll be popping up again and again in B:TAS. He never, as long as the DCAU went, got an origin story, such is the lack of necessity for it. He’s the clown prince of crime. What more do you need to know? Hamill basically makes the character great in the way he does it, that right mix of bad jokes and genuine insanity, that sneering mocking tone that so easily segues into viciousness.
It’s a bit of a pity then that the episode these two characters are introduced in is so poor.
We start off with a Christmas party in Arkham Asylum, which the Joker promptly busts out of using a rocket disguised as a Christmas tree. What? That sets the tone for continuing levels of crazy gadgets and weapons and the Joker pulls out of everywhere, creating a comedic (and not in a good way) theme to the whole enterprise.
This is a holiday special, so it’s about Bruce Wayne finding the Christmas “spirit”, through the insistence of DIck Grayson and a planned viewing of the classic It’s A Wonderful Life. The Joker interrupts, so the dynamic duo have to find the Christmas spirit another way I guess. This kind of storytelling, bookending the main plot with the stereotypical Christmas lesson, is clichéd to the hilt. It’s all been done before, and “Christmas With The Joker” makes no real attempt to add anything Batman-like to the formula. Bruce Wayne being given the Scrooge role as a miserable holiday hater, only to get turned around through interactions with his opposite in the Joker and his family connections in Robin, might have been interesting, but that isn’t what happens, save for some brief glimpse of charity in Gotham. What happens is the two sitting down to watch the movie, going off to fight the Joker for 15 minutes, learning nothing much about Christmas in the process, and just coming home and watching the movie. There’s no connection between the events, not really.
It doesn’t help that this is a Joker episode. From the first time he was introduced in the comics (1940) all the way up to The Dark Knight, whenever the Joker has been used he tends to dominate proceedings. It’s only natural, given the outlandish, brash, loud and colourful nature of the character, mixed in with psychopathic tendencies depending on the era. When the Joker is involved everything tends to revolve around him. In Joker episodes of B:TAS the focus is on the Joker’s awful jokes and one-liners, the spectacle he provides and the set-pieces that he creates for Batman (with Robin sometimes) to fight his way through.
This means that, in Joker episodes, there is little time for character development for others. In truth, Batman and Robin are kind of a sideshow here, with the Joker getting all the best lines, the best scenes, the most interesting stuff to do. The episode, from its beginning and ending seems to want to be about Wayne and Grayson, but it’s called “Christmas With The Joker” for a reason.
And the Joker gets the limelight fast with a mocked up stage just for him, as he kidnaps Gordon, Bullock and some girl and subjects them (and the two heroes) to a televised freakshow, complete with a cardboard cut out audience and plenty of wacky antics. This kind of set-piece will be pretty typical of the Joker in B:TAS, though the show does go gradually into darker territory – even the next Joker episode will involve him threatening the entire city.
But so much of what we’re seeing falls flat. We don’t even know who the girl Joker has kidnapped is, so lack any kind of emotional connection, and the lack of information on how Joker even got his hands on all three doesn’t make for much interest.
The episode then takes the course of a fairly lame race against time, as Batman and Robin try and track down the hostages through a number of challenges the Joker and his (surprisingly numerous) henchmen throw at them. I can’t fault the episode for variety in that respect anyway, as the duo have to rescue a train heading towards a large fall, an observatory that has been remanufactured into an artillery piece, some giant Nutcracker robots, before finally catching up with the bad guy himself. The train bit is actually great, sort of your classic pulp adventure stuff. But it all gets progressively more ridiculous and out there, culminating in the hostages being dangled over some acid.
The whole final sequence with the robots, filled with animation and continuity errors (see below), is a huge let down for what was a pretty weak story anyway. Just about the most positive thing I can say about it is that it has illusions for the Joker’s origin, in how he slips and nearly falls into the chemical substances, but everything else is slapdash and lacks real tension. We haven’t yet gotten to the stage where Batman is even allowed fight the Joker properly, any violence the episode has to offer being in the form of hero on robot. The worst Joker actually does to the caped crusader is pie him in the face, which was pretty stupid, but at least matched the tone of the episode.
Anyway, Batman and Robin save the day and the hostages (who didn’t really add anything to the episode as important characters) and get to finally have that viewing of Its A Wonderful Life. Bruce agrees, at the end, that life “has its moments” with a wry smile, but the episode did nothing in particular to take us to that conclusion, unless Bruce is talking about the stupid crap the Joker made them go through at Christmas. The final shot of the Joker, still laughing maniacally in Arkham, is a much better conclusion, since it matches the character and his lack of care perfectly.
-The opening shot of Arkham Asylum is a great picture, showing off the bleakness, the loneliness, the stark lines, and deep shadows you would associate with the place. This is almost immediately juxtaposed with a similar shot of Wayne Manor in the snowy night, looking far more friendly and homey.
-Our introduction to the Joker and his insanity is in the form of a recitation of “Jingle bells, Batman smells…” which is effective enough at showing off the guys clownish side, and sets the tone for the character for the rest of the episode.
-In Tim Burton’s Batman, the Joker asks about the caped crusader “Where does he get those wonderful toys?”. In B:TAS, the question should be asked of the Joker himself, who has rocket trees, Santa tanks, machine gun toting mannequins, giant nutcracker robots and artillery guns at his command within minutes of breaking out of prison. How does he pull that off?
-The design of the Joker has changed radically in the many animated adaptations (even within B:TAS), but this is the benchmark really. Not too “out there” (like it was in The Batman), not too old school (like it is in The Brave and the Bold), alien enough to exemplify Joker’s difference to the rest of humanity, but recognisable enough to show that is he indeed human, even a broken twisted one.
-Gotta love the general Joker theme music, especially the shrill whistle tunes, straight out of a circus.
-As Bruce Wayne sits down to watch It’s A Wonderful Life, he has the most awesome grumpy, sulky look on his face, that was certainly worth a laugh.
-This episode will start us off, more so, on the angle of using Detective Bullock as a comedy figure, who usually finds himself getting shown up by everyone.
-The hand puppet that Joker creates has a tongue. That was unnerving.
-This episode has a lot of musical cues that come straight from the Tim Burton films, with the use of shrill whistle, sharp violin cords and horned instruments during action scenes, heard here during the train sequence. That’s fine, because it’s a decent soundtrack, but sometimes it seems like too much of a blatant lift.
-This episode shares a lot of similarities with the Justice League two parter “Wild Cards”, in that they both involve the Joker holding a warped TV broadcast, and making heroes complete tasks against a timer. That was actually the last time that Joker appeared in this universe (not counting the internal universe chronology), so I presume it was a bit of a tie-in. “Wild Cards” was a lot more violent and creepy though.
-This episode shows off some of the continuity problems regarding the strength of the heroes, as Batman and Robin effortlessly kick the heads of giant robots, only to struggle in fistfights later in the series.
-Batman looked ridiculous when batting the flying gadgets away, a really poor bow-legged animation. And all for an awful pun too.
-Compared to the last episode, the characterization for the supporting cast is awful. Gordon is angry, Bullock is…comically angry and the girl is just a helpless blonde. Not even a damsel in distress because that would require some interaction with Batman. This kinda ties in to my opinions on Joker episodes.
-Batman and the Joker trade a hideously out of place back and forth at the conclusion. “Merry Christmas Joker” says Batman while he dangles his nemesis over a bubbling vat. “Bah humbug” replies the Joker. Bats, he just tried to murder a bunch of people, leave the quips for the 1960s ok?
-This episode is overflowing with odd moment and plot holes. How did the Joker get his rocket tree into Arkham? How did he land it? Why don’t the hostages just spit the candy canes out? Why didn’t Batman just contact the train driver and tell him to stop the train? Didn’t the early part of the episode show the duo finding the Joker’s hiding place?
-Not to mention several bizarre animation mistakes. The observatory gun changes size depending on whether it was viewed from the inside or outside (and has no recoil for some shots), the Nutcracker robots appear in shot from nowhere, and Batman jumps onto the pot of bubbling liquid, only to not be there in the next shot. It speaks to the mediocrity of this episode that such mistakes were allowed to slide.
Director Kent Butterworth apparently never did another episode of B:TAS after this which, given what is on display in terms of plot and basic animation errors, isn’t that surprising. A lazy Christmas story, that doesn’t really belong in the B:TAS canon.
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