Batman: The Animated Series – Nothing To Fear

Nothing To Fear

 

You are not my father. I am not a disgrace. I am vengeance! I am the night! I am Batman!

 Air Date: 15/9/92

Director: Boyd Kirkland

Writer: Henry Gilroy, Sean Catherine Derek

Themes: Fear, Revenge, Family Legacy, Masks

Villain: Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow

Synopsis: A sociopathic psychology Professor seeks revenge against the university that fired him, using a special toxin to make people hallucinate their greatest fears. When Batman tries to stop him, he begins seeing visions of his deceased father calling him a disgrace, leading Wayne to doubt himself and his mission.

Review:

A really solid, compelling episode here, both in terms of its actual story but also in its general structure and tone. We get the first proper characterisation of the title character, a decent fleshed out villain and some genuine tension to wrap all around it.

After the initial set-up of a university in crisis, we cut to a brilliant scene inside an elevator, as Bruce Wayne comes face-to-face with the scornful wrath of one of the campus’ teachers, who uses the meeting to insult Wayne and his playboy lifestyle. Namedropping Wayne’s father and claiming that he would be ashamed of his sons present lifestyle is a coldly brutal opening for the episode to take, and begins a general theme of legacy and legitimate persona. The focus is primarily on Thomas Wayne and just what he would think of Bruce Wayne’s crusade and methods. This is a great angle to cover so early in the shows run, as we explore the deeper motivations (and justifications) of the Batman character.

The opposition who will bring that issue front and centre is Jonathan Crane, aka the Scarecrow, one Batman’s lesser known but rather excellent villains. Voiced ably by Henry Polic II, he cuts an intimidating figure here. Terror is the image Crane wants to give out, and the skeletal appearance with such a horrific face fulfils that aim really well, along with the sneering accent that gives out the right mix of high brow-ness and arrogance.

It’s also good that he has a decent motivation to propel his actions. While the method of telling the audience what they are is a bit straightforward, at least Crane gets a better backstory than Kirk Langstrom did in ”On Leather Wings”. He’s a total sociopath driven by imagined slights against his genius, with a specific target to attack. He’s a smart guy, clearly, but driven by irrational vengeance, in many ways a mirror of Batman.

Better still, he actually causes Batman significant problems from the off. He gets the better of Wayne, and incapacitates the guy who has previously dealt with Man-Bat and the Joker with something approaching ease. This episode sets up the danger that the Scarecrow represents pretty perfectly, as he goes into the opening conflict scene with the aim of burning down the university’s money supply, and not only succeeds, but doses Batman with his fear toxin in the process. He’s intelligent, he’s capable, he’s determined. He’s a genuine threat to Batman and to Gotham, and B:TAS sets it up really well.

The other great part of the episode is the psychological aspect, as Wayne faces up to repeated hallucinations of his father calling him a “disgrace” to the family. Later stuff like Mask of the Phantasm would cover the Bruce/parents relationship in more detail, but when Scarecrow’s fear gas makes Batman see something like this, his beloved father taunting him, it’s clear that Wayne has had some doubts about the lifestyle he’s chosen to lead – and that the words of Dr Long do resonate with him, even if he hides it very well. That’s character building work right there, that shows us that he is more than just a man with a cowl. His parents are supposed to be a reason for what he does, not an opponent.

Thus, Batman has to overcome Scarecrow just as Bruce Wayne has to overcome his own doubts and fears, personified by the wrathful image of his father, surrounded by flames. Alfred the butler, in his first proper bit of plot importance, is there to step into the role of a surrogate father when Bruce, almost tearfully, admits to the hallucinations he has been having. Alfred’s voice actor would actually switch after this, but Clive Revill does just fine in the somewhat moving scene where Pennyworth tells his ward that he’s proud of the life he has chosen to lead.

The episode also brings us back to the conflict in the GCPD, between the Batman hating Detective Bullock and the caped crusader’s cheerleader Commissioner Gordon. This conflict seems to be getting more bitter as Batman becomes more accepted by Gotham and the establishment, with Batman actually shoving Bullock back when he makes a grab for evidence – a bit of an out of character turn for Wayne, illustrating just how much the fear toxin is effecting him. Bullock’s role is relegated largely to this scene, save for a comedy turn late on, which will be typical for him.

Later Scarecrow gets to elaborate at length about his motivations and aims, giving us a character that is far more rounded and believable as a villain than Kirk Langstrom was, despite the similar elements between the two. Showing scenes of Crane as far back as his childhood help immeasurably to portray him as the budding sociopath, and we get to the point of totally buying his strength of belief in the revenge he is trying to orchestrate. He doesn’t just use fear as a means to an end. He takes pleasure in causing it. And that is scary enough.

The remainder of the episode is left to Scarecrow’s big scheme , attacking one last university event in a potent terror plot. Batman’s lost a lot of confidence and effectiveness, struggling through the daze that the toxin has left him under. The sight of Gotham’s citizens going crazy and attacking Batman is somewhat horrific, and adds to the overall impression of a hero in dire trouble, as he moves forward to the final confrontation.

This is really well structured story, as we’ve gone from an early action scene to a villain fleshing out scene, to the batcave scene, to the last confrontation, and managed to see a fully weaved out tale take shape ahead of the final, dual resolution.

And it is a showdown with decent suspense, as the battle moves to the Gotham skyline, some wonderful views to augment the fighting that takes place. It is an odd kind of chase scene, as the blimp manoeuvres to and fro, the image of the Hindenburg not far from our minds presumably. Batman gets to actually do a bit of fighting as well, which really gets the viewer sucked into the drama on display.

First, Bruce Wayne’s internal problems have to be faced down. This is an episode that is carried by the divide between Bruce Wayne and Batman, and how that divide is blurred horribly by the fear intrusion, that leads the normally confident Batman to doubt himself, letting the inadequacies and insecurities of Bruce Wayne become part of his hero persona. This toxin is a mental thing, and Batman is forced to confront very directly, in the leering vision of his father, transformed into a skeletal monster, towering above him in a moment of great peril. Wayne rejects the mirage’s assertions, reclaims his confidence in the mission, the inspiration that his parents gave him, reciting a creed that he has carried since his real father died in front of him: vengeance and the night. Batman and Bruce Wayne are again separated, with the very real question of which is the “real” one unanswered.

From that point on, with the real villain defeated, Batman is free to move on Scarecrow. That final fight is pretty spectacular, as the blimp goes down in flames along with a rather large chunk of a skyscraper. Crane appears to have gotten away, furious at his own unbelievable failure to best the bat. I suppose this is as good a place as ever to end it, with Batman victorious and Scarecrow still at large, perhaps to trouble the dark knight another day.

Not this show though. The detective shines through, and with logical reason, examination of evidence, and elimination of the impossible – all vital parts of creating the mystique of Batman’s magnificent deductive brain – Crane is tracked down to his bolthole. Batman’s final victory over Crane, and over fear, is to turn the concoction that nearly destroyed him on its creator. Batman was a victim of fear in this episode, but rallied back to defeat it. Now he goes a step further and becomes its master, bending it to its will, and gleefully gassing and torturing Crane with visions of his own primal terrors. Batman is vengeance and this is some revenge that he takes on the mad scientist.

Tidbits/Quotes:

-Gotta love the Scarecrow theme, a nice blend of rapidly alternating strings and low unnerving pipes.

-I quite liked the initial set-up of this episode, as the situation is laid out by normal people just discussing what’s been going on at a party in a natural manner within the first minute, without it being too brazenly spelled out for the audience.

-The women Joker kidnapped in the previous episode is back, this time identified as “Summer Gleeson” a reporter. For whatever reason, maybe because they didn’t want to use the character so soon after Tim Burton’s Batman, the creators of B:TAS ignored Vicki Vale, even though the characters aren’t that different.

-The excellent scene in the elevator is ended by an especially good bit of animated characterisation, as Bruce Wayne’s face instantly drops its dumbfounded expression of surprise at Long’s tirade when he leaves, turning into a look of grim seriousness and determination. Masks are a big part of any superhero mythos, and the discussion of whether it is Bruce Wayne or Batman that is the “true” persona of this character is a fascinating one.

-The guard at the vault is reading a Tiny Toons comic book, the kind of little details that you don’t find in a lot of animation.

-You find the traditional villain/henchmen set-up in this episode that will be repeated ad nauseam for much of B:TAS’s running time. You have your intelligent main villain, who is flanked by stupid henchmen who are there for muscle – and to be someone for the villain to demean and insult at every opportunity. It’s a long used trope alright, but this is the genre for it to be used.

-The visions of Thomas Wayne are fairly horrific, especially for something that is aimed, primarily, at kids. He’s wreathed in fire in the first one, and later appears in a demonic skeletal form (see image above).

-Bit of a continuity jump here, as the GCPD appear to have accepted Batman’s presence in the city as an ally (or at least, most of them). Maybe the events of “On Leather Wings” were just a temporary Bullock-inspired blip.

-I actually love Bullock in this episode, because he’s dead right: Batman has been found in a very suspicious looking situation and then refuses to hand over evidence (as well as getting a little pushy). Gordon’s defence of Batman here does come off as a little too much.

-Nice reference to the Batman origin when Bullock patronisingly calls him “Zorro” before he vanishes. In most continuities, a filmed version of the Zorro story is the movie Bruce Wayne’s family went to see the night they were murdered, with the Batman character taking plenty of inspiration from the masked vigilante.

-Watching this episode today, you notice all the similarities to Batman Begins, where the Scarecrow featured as the secondary villain (played ably by Irish actor Cillian Murphy). Begins also has a heavy emphasis on fear and overcoming it, with Batman gassed by Crane and facing illusions of his dead father (but more so his real fear, bats). Eventually he gets over it and winds up gassing Crane with his own weapon, with nearly the exact same line as Batman uttered in this episode: “Taste of your own medicine Doctor?” The gassed Crane also see’s Batman as a demonic being in Begins, and he also has lots of goons to order around. Begins also includes gassed civilians mistakenly attacking Batman and largely revolved around the use of fear toxin as a WMD weapon against Gotham.

-Scarecrow’s monologue, where he outlines his origin story, is pretty stupid insofar as it’s an obvious and overly-simple way to give the audience all the information they need about the bad guy as quickly as possible. “On Leather Wings” had some subtlety in that department at least.

-The famous line, quoted below the picture further up, has become an iconic part of the B:TAS universe, even if the actual delivery in this episode is a bit mediocre. It doesn’t sound like Batman is dangling off a rope over Gotham, and Conroy seems to be restraining the volume unrealistically. Still, it’s a great bit of script, and Conroy is generally great in this episode, the first one where he gets to really emote.

-The Batmobile’s onboard computer lists out some of the chemical factories in Gotham, and includes Axis Chemicals (from Tim Burton’s movie) and Star Labs, which would feature prominently in Superman: The Animated Series. Some nice touches.

-Some inconsistencies and errors in the episode though. How do Crane’s thugs not get gassed in the first Scarecrow scenes, unless the fear toxin dissipates really quickly if not ingested? If Crane was using oil to burn down the money, shouldn’t water based sprinklers have aggravated the fire, not stopped it? Wouldn’t that Blimp smashing head on into that skyscraper have basically been a 9/11 style catastrophe for Gotham? It really took that long for Bullock to notice the guy hanging off the ceiling fan to his left?

-Adore the final images of the episode, as Batman lays flowers at his parents grave and walks off, his shadow in the shape of the Batman costume. A great ending to that theme in the episode, leaving the real persona of Bruce Wayne/Batman in question.

Overall, an excellent episode, a great examination of fear and the Batman character.

To see the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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5 Responses to Batman: The Animated Series – Nothing To Fear

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