It’s Never Too Late
Arnold? That’s one soul I wish I could give up on.
Air Date: 10/9/92
Director: Boyd Kirkland
Writer: Tom Ruegger, Garin Wolf (teleplay)
Themes: Mafia, Family, Addiction, Second Chances, Redemption
Villain: Rupert Thorne
Synopsis: A vicious crime war reaches its climax, as Batman tries to convince Mob boss Arnold Stromwell to retire.
So, a proper Mafia story.
Check out any list of “Greatest Movies Ever Made” and you might understand why the world has an obsession with “the Mob”. It’s a genre of film that has a great amount of leeway for themes and inspirations, and has created a wide variety of very interesting and compelling characters. The idea of what one could almost describe as a state, only in the form of family, waging wars and maintaining its own economy, wrapped up in the enticing allure of crime, is one that captivates us.
“It’s Never Too Late” is no exception to this, an intelligent, moving story, which continues the streak of episodes where such praise can be applied. This is an episode about a criminal kingpin and the war he wages, but it’s also about forgiveness, family and what anyone can do to get a second chance at life.
Our main player is Arnold Stromwell, the aging head of what used to be Gotham’s premier family of organised crime. What we see early from this man is something of pride, stubbornness, but also slow degradation. Stromwell is a man who used to be on top, but is now in a rather precarious position – overseeing the losing side of a war, watching his empire crumble, but more importantly, missing his son. Stromwell is a clever, determined individual, but we are left in no doubt, from his flashes of anger and nervous disposition, that he is a man on the edge.
This episode bears some similarities with “Be A Clown” I suppose, in that it is crucially built around a father/son relationship. “It’s Never Too Late” is a bit different though, because it isn’t a case of a father having to learn that he should be more attentive to his child, but that he has to give the right kind of attention. When Stromell gazes up at his son in the family portrait, it isn’t exactly love and desperation we feel, but more a regret over a potential lost legacy – and his own reputation.
This is Stromwell’s story. Just like the two-parter “Two-Face”, Batman’s role in this episode is simply to be part of some action sequences and to just move the plot along when it needs to be moved. Wayne takes a back seat to the criminal drama going on in front of us, and that’s just fine. “It’s Never Too Late” works just fine without much of an impact from the caped crusader.
Our villain is Rupert Thorne, just as arrogant and unappealing a figure as he was in our last encounter. Our opening shot of him is supposed to directly juxtapose with that of Stromwell: the old man sits at home, flanked by only a few loyal confidants, brooding in the dark. Thorne holds court in public, surrounded by gleeful cronies, confident and assertive in his plans to undo his rival. A key theme of the standard Mafia story is the circular nature of “the business”, where criminal empires rise at the expense of another only to fall themselves, the sons fighting the same wars their fathers did.
There is a sequence in the underrated video game Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven where the main character expounds to a cop on his decision to “rat” out the organisation. He says that he simply found a picture of two feuding mob bosses, whose war has claimed many lives, palling around with each other when they were his age. The photo convinces the main character that the Mafia life is poisonous and he has to get out. You see it in nearly every such story. This is no different. Thorne might rise, but he will fall too, just as Stromwell has.
Stromwell does seem a lot more sympathetic than Thorne though. Thorne is a slightly newer breed of mob boss, one who is decidedly more vicious and underhanded. His plans to assassinate Stromwell come as no surprise, though his bald-faced pretenses at Mafioso honour later might. Thorne is a despicable human being, far worse than a super villain, because we know his kind really does exist. That makes him easy to hate, and that makes him a good villain.
While Stromwell heads for the showdown with Thorne, we get the first glimpse at a critical past moment in Stromwell’s life. At this stage in the episode we might well be asking just what the point is of what we are shown – Stromwell getting some other child killed in a railway accident – but, as we might expect, it will become crucial. So far, it serves to illustrate that Stromwell is a man hardened by tragedy, but whose has also fought his way up to his position from the gutter, determined even then to make the most of his life, no matter the cost.
Batman gets ready to intervene in the mob war. Rather than simply swooping in and KO-ing both combatants, he has a much more subtle and effective approach: get Stromwell to turn. Wayne is actually showing off his smarts in a huge way here, though his intricately orchestrated plan is yet to be fully revealed. We know that Wayne has some expertise at psychology from the last episode, and his skills are being put to full use. The introduction of a priest who must “be ready” for something that is to come adds a taste of intrigue and mystery to the plot.
The boss confrontation shows us Stromwell unhinged, getting violent with Thorne before realising how he is acting. The difference between the two men is clear and unclear throughout this scene. Stromwell is almost embarrassed at his own behaviour once he calms down, and Thorne seems genuinely affronted at the suggestion that he has something to do with Stromwell’s son’s disappearance. We actually believe Thorne when he says this: it’s a line he won’t cross (yet). But Thorne’s sliver of honour is dwarfed by his monstrosity, as he abandons the pretext of negotiations fast and leaves Stromwell to a grisly fate.
Batman interjects directly, saving Stromwell from a fiery death. From this point, what we have is a touch of A Christmas Carol and It’s A Wonderful Life. Batman, a guardian angel, is here to guide Stromwell onto the right path. This isn’t a role Batman enjoys though. His sneering “Saving your hide” in answer to Stromwell’s confusion about his help tells us that much.
After an extended sequence of Batman running away with Stromwell on his shoulder – a tad unnecessary – we get into the meat and bones of the episode. Batman needs Stromwell to turn, but Stromwell’s arrogant attitude when told this and confronted with his drug manufacturing – “Prove it” – indicates that threats won’t do the business here. Instead, Stromwell has to be confronted with reality. Batman has a guilt trip prepared.
Stromwell’s son is an addict, wasting away in a decrepit shelter attended only by his mother. Stromwell’s “business” destroyed his marriage and is destroying his family, and the don cannot handle this revelation, reeling away from the site of his cold turkey child with anger, denial, threats against those responsible, without ever considering whether he is the man responsible.
This is Batman’s plan, and it is a doozy. It is the ultimate emotional blackmail, having tracked down the information he needs on Stromwell’s earlier life. The man has ruined lives before due to his own mistakes. Now he must face a bitter former partner and a son who he has caused to become a drug addict, a type of person that Stromwell previously would not have spit on if he was on fire. “Nobody forces them” he said to Batman when he was questioned on his “organisations” drug peddling to the innocent. Now, he sees the results first hand.
And it still isn’t enough. Stromwell has his own brand of arrogance and stupidity, like Thorne, trying to weasel his way out of the situation, going as far as to pull a gun on Batman. His primary concern is still his reputation as “big bad news”, with the welfare of his son a close second. Batman is prepared for this reaction of course, but first he has to fight for the resolution.
Thorne is no idiot, finding out quickly that Batman rescued his rival and realising just why he has done so. As in “Two-Face” we see the other side of Rupert Thorne now: a determined killer, out to secure his own position at whatever cost.
So this gives us the only actual action of the episode, as Batman fights off Thorne’s goons with his fists and his ingenuity. They’re good scenes, classic Batman stuff, but in they are actually just a distraction from the resolution of the main plot, which is coming up fast. Thorne’s hit squad tries to hunt down Stromwell in the train yard, as his life comes full circle.
The flash back sequence is played again as the priest confronts Stromwell. We see the finale of it here, the horrific memory that Batman is trying to utilise for his own ends. What we see is Stromwell being responsible for the death of a child in his youth.
Or, so it appears. B:TAS steps back from that darkness, giving the child in question – the priest, and also Stromwell’s estranged brother – a reprieve. He lost a leg instead of his life. He chose a decent path with his time on the earth, and now comes back to his friend and brother, at the key moment of their lives together, to push him back on course.
Batman exists in this plot now just to let this resolution play out, stopping the goons from interrupting. He’s smart enough to stay back, save for a well-deserved beating handed out to Rupert Thorne. The priest – Michael Stromwell – lays out all of his brothers failings at the site of his first. “Arnie” has a chance to do the right thing and save himself now, to stop letting everyone around him down. Stromwell decides to take that chance, even this late in life. His lack of appearance in the rest of the series (save for a brief flashback) indicates that he sticks to his “retirement”. It’s never too late.
-“Batman is not driving around playing catch-up. He knows what’s going on and is behind the scenes manipulating the situation to serve his ends. To me, this is the epitome of how Batman should be portrayed.” That’s Director Boyd Kirkland on this episode. Kirkland always went for the “noir” type Batman story too and this episode has loads of that.
-It’s kind of an interesting opening shot, an idyllic suburban scene of clean streets and children playing, suddenly juxtaposed with the gloomy, overbearing Stromwell mansion.
-The portrait of the Stromwell family is seriously creepy. Look at these staring eyes.
-There is some excellent storyboarding here. In an interview Bruce Timm called attention to Kirkland’s camera movement from a church to a restaurant, which created the feel of Gotham as a real place. I tend to agree.
-The meeting in the restaurant is straight out of The Godfather of course, when Michael Corleone undertakes his first assassination.
-I liked the flashback production, the echo effect, the grainy, less colourful animation. There was the effect of a hazy memory there, which was good. I also really liked the animations of the older Stromwell as a helpless observer of what was happening.
-“I have connections you don’t”. Fantastically backhanded line from Thorne, meet by an equally fantastic grimace from Stromwell.
-“Wow, he’s really out there” – It’s good to see that some of Gotham’s population aren’t totally buying into the Batman just yet.
–B:TAS’s explosion are always pretty and well animated. You can almost feel the heat coming off the flames.
-Bullock is back briefly, again to provide a brief comedic role opposite commissioner Gordon. This episode doesn’t have many laughs, but Bullock commenting stupidly on how Commissioner Gordon’s hair “looks better on TV” works well enough.
-The rehab centre is suitably depressing and creepy, a location of lost souls that sends shivers down the spine.
-I don’t think it was ever explained how Thorne’s men hunted down Batman. Odd plothole.
-Really liked Batman’s little ruse with the unconscious body of one of Thorne’s goons, a clever moment that showed off how the vigilante’s mind works.
-I liked the VA for the Stromwell brothers, though Eugene Roache is just a typical Italian-American mobster really. Still effective though.
-During the course of the episode, Thorne’s eyebrows change colour. Oops.
-That last line – “Commissioner Gordon, I have statement I’d like to give you” – was a great ending to the episode, searing in its simplicity and a wonderful way to round it all off.
-Also good was the very last shot of the church, illustrating the theme of redemption.
Overall, a wonderfully intelligent, yet simple story of the Mafia genre, adapted well for the Batman universe.
On a related note, I only found out this week that Boyd Kirkland, director of many excellent B:TAS episodes and other animated work for DC and Marvel, passed away last year at the age of 61. A wonderful director of animation, his is a sad loss.
To see the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.