Be A Clown
Well, there are three steps. Step one: Run away. Step two: Find a magician with a great act. And step three: Steal it.
Air Date: 16/9/92
Director: Frank Paur
Writer: Ted Pederson and Steve Hayes
Themes: Runaways, Politics, Child Endangerment, Trust, Magicians
Villain: The Joker
Mayor Hill’s son, angered at his father for using his birthday party as a political opportunity, runs away from home, straight into the clutches of the Joker.
It’s our third Joker episode in the production run, and this one is a good bit better than the previous two in my eyes. It’s somewhat grounded unlike “The Last Laugh” and doesn’t have the random nonsense of “Christmas With The Joker”.
What it is, is another trope of a plot: The Runaway. A parent is neglectful or disrespectful to their child. The child decides to run off, under the influence of an outside agent. Both parties come to realise they were in the wrong. Happy reconciliation. Credits.
It’s cliché alright, but B:TAS does it well enough here. Batman is an ancillary character to the Mayor, his son and the Joker, but that’s ok. It actually serves to make the plot a bit stronger, that it doesn’t become overly-focused on the title character: this is a story about a kid and his father, and how the running duel between Batman and Joker gets in the middle of them. After all, Bruce Wayne actually stumbles into the situation entirely by accident, and the final pay-off is one he can only enjoy from the shadows.
We open with Mayor Hill holding court with the press, and using the opportunity to blast the cities crime infestation, lumping Batman in with them. We saw Mayor Hill’s ambivalence towards Batman way back in “On Leather Wings”, but this is a good bit stronger. The outright condemnation is portrayed as the ultimate political hypocrisy, as Hill compares Batman to the very criminals he just took down, even as they endangered the lives of all present. There is plenty more of this kind of theme in the first half of the episode, as Mayor Hill gets a continually negative portrayal, a politician obsessed with his public persona to the detriment of everything around him.
It’s interesting to note that there is no conflict between Hill and Batman in this episode. The caped crusader just ignores Hill’s claims, and Bruce Wayne is all pally with him later. It was a good decision, since such petty political gesturing should be below Batman’s notice.
The relationship between Hill and his son Jordan is the core and it’s a classic: the kid wants to be a magician, and live a life away from his father’s preening political ambitions. Hill seems to see his son and the major events of his life only as a political opportunity. In today’s world, especially in America, this is a scenario that isn’t far-fetched at all, when a politicians family are almost as important to his career as the politician him/herself. Hill is overly-aggressive and domineering with his exasperated son, and fits easily into the role of a minor “B” villain for this episode.
The main villain is Mark Hamill’s ever well-voiced Joker, who reacts to the comparison with Batman in a psychopathic manner. The Joker is an actual clown here at first, with the more comical 1960’s side of his personality played up as he makes jokes about Hill and ingratiates himself with Jordan. One could be forgiven for thinking that this episode is heading squarely into light-hearted territory, until we see the sight of Joker setting up a bomb at a kid’s party.
I mean, that is dark. When you think about it, I’m not sure there are many more darker moments in this show, before or after, where Joker is portrayed as actively trying to blow up a kids birthday party over a half-imagined slight on his character. It’s breezed over pretty quickly with Bruce Wayne’s faux-bungling effort to disarm the bomb, but it really does bear noting how low this makes Joker look. He might be a clown here, but he’s a truly dangerous one.
But Jordan, oblivious to the hidden danger and having reached a breaking point with his uncaring father, decides to run away from home and join the circus, the idealistic folly that only a child could embark upon with seriousness. This opens up some serious potential for this episode to take an even darker tone, of the kind that the DCAU later would with “Return of the Joker” (see below).
The potential, the idea of Jordan actually becoming an apprentice for the Joker and becoming someone that Batman has to deal with as a threat, even if only temporarily, isn’t taken. There is a story worth telling there, that wouldn’t even stray too far from the general thread, of a easily captivated kid coming to his senses after seeing what his idol is actually up to. But “Be A Clown” doesn’t go that far with the plot. Jordan goes along with Joker to a point, but he really is just a passenger, an audience member who is having no direct impact on proceedings. The latter half of the episode is a fight between Batman and Joker over Jordan, in which Jordan has no tangible effect.
Of course, this would be something B:TAS would come back to for the Joker, but Harley Quinn’s introduction is a while away right now.
We don’t get some really good moments though, especially the sword trick scene, as Joker flips between his clown and psychotic personas with the ease of someone who is truly unhinged. Jordan begins to cop on at this point, and his role in the rest of the confrontation is to slowly come to the conclusion that yes, Joker is the bad guy, and that Batman is his only chance to escape the situation alive.
That final confrontation, which we get to through some limited detective Batman stuff, is really good though. Some theme-appropriate death traps, some creepy moments in this abandoned carnival, and a high speed showdown on a rollercoaster where Batman and the Joker actually come to blows. Joker really is shown as an effective nemesis for Batman, pushing him hard all the way to his unceremonious swan dive into the drink, and you get the very real feeling of the clown being a lethal person, throwing bombs around with gay abandon and loving every second of it.
For Batman, the final fight is a dual battle. The first, the obvious one, is between him and the Joker. But the other one is a battle to convince Jordan that he has to trust Bruce. He manages to just pull it off, and I thought they moved along that train of thought very well, as Jordan comes round to the right way of thinking.
Joker is taken care of in just vague enough a manner that we know he’ll be back before too long, and we get the happy ending that we must surely have been expecting since Jordan first disappeared. Mayor Hill has come to realise his failures as a father, just as Jordan has come to realise his naivety as a son. They get to reunite and move on to a better future, their relationship repaired by the trial.
And Batman is there giving a cheesy thumbs up. Ok, pretty corny, but think about it: this must be an emotional moment for him too. Bruce Wayne will never get to have a relationship with his father, taken away from him at about Jordan’s age. So, in seeing Jordan reunited with his father, Wayne might be, in a way, trying to do for Jordan what he could never do for himself.
Wow, that’s a sad thought.
-This series is having serious problems with making effective fight animations that don’t seem clunky and unrealistic. The opener, with the mob goons, is the worst example in this episode.
-That might have something to do with some storyboard problems the production team apparently had with this episode, with Bruce Timm brought in to storyboard the entire second act when members of that team left.
-I don’t know what’s going on exactly, but Batman comes out with a string of awful one-liners in this episode, like he’s suddenly James Bond.
-The Joker’s outrage at being compared to Batman was great to see, considering the inferiority complex that controls that whole fixation.
-Interesting compare and contrast between Mayor Hill and Bruce Wayne in the way they treat their butler.
-Justin Shenkarow isn’t super great as Jordan, but he is just a kid.
-I really liked the way Joker’s mood swings around like a metronome, angered at Jordan turning up in his lair, then suddenly gleefully happy about the prospect.
-This episode bears some similarities to the later movie Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, which also features the Joker looking for an apprentice of sorts. Way darker bit of media though.
-A little bit of Frank Millers Dark Knight Returns as well. In that, the conclusion of a showdown between Batman and Joker takes place in a carnival, with a high speed fighting on a rollercoaster involving baby doll bombs being prominent.
-Weird bit where Batman first finds Jordan in the carnival, where he flings his cape out very dramatically. Looked stupid.
-Yeah, that whole fortune teller bit was pretty creepy. And effective at creating tension. Usually that stuff wouldn’t be, but it works with the Joker.
-I did, despite my nature, like the Houdini-like death trap Batman finds him in, which sort of fit the episode a bit. The whole magician theme anyway.
-Batman and Joker actually get to fight in this episode, for the first time in the production run.
-A very small, uncredited appearance from Tim Curry as the spring loaded clown figure in the carnival. Curry was the original choice to play the Joker, but his voice was eventually deemed too scary for the role. They used that laugh here.
Overall, a very good Joker episode with a decent plot, where Batman takes a back seat to the narrative on show.
To see the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.