Editor’s Note: This year, the iconic Batman: The Animated Series turns 30 years old. “Return to Gotham” is a new monthly column looking back at the cartoon that remains a touchstone of the superhero genre and one of the most iconic portrayals of The Dark Knight.
As I wrote last month, Batman’s villains are one of the most fascinating aspects of the character himself. If you’re going to adapt the Caped Crusader in any medium, one of the burning questions on everybody’s mind is always what the villains are going to be like: How will a Jack Nicholson Joker be played? How do you tonally accommodate Two-Face into the terminally buttoned-up milieu of a Christopher Nolan film?
In the best cases, the creative teams who bring these Batman stories to life have an understanding of what makes each particular member of his rogues’ gallery an effective foil for Batman. Because every one of his best villains is a twisted reflection of some aspect of the Dark Knight: Two-Face reflects his duality, the Riddler his keen intellect, Mr. Freeze his suppression of his emotion, the Scarecrow his weaponization of fear, Penguin his ill-fitting position within wealth and high society, Catwoman his vigilantism (plus his vow to keep believing girls are gross so he can go punch burglars), and the Joker tests his resolve to live by his nonlethal code. These aspects of his villains hammer at Batman’s vulnerabilities, providing internal conflict that underlies all the bomb threats, heists, and AI-bodysnatching that plots that make up, for instance, your standard-issue Batman: The Animated Series episode.
The show had a dark dedication to framing the stories of many of these villains as tragedies—the episodes abound with stories where the Mad Hatter or Poison Ivy are really the protagonists, and Batman the antagonistic force that succeeds in preventing them from reaching their goals. So while it was definitely a production feat getting nearly every single one of Batman’s villains all into the same episode for “The Trial,” it couldn’t have been much of a stretch for the writers to imagine how they would play out the scenario once it was achieved. (You’ll notice that neither of the “antisocial” foes I wrote about before bother to show up, though, since not even Arkham can hold them. Even in an episode primed to play like a gimmick, the show’s creative leads were unwilling to break continuity).
As the episode opens, Batman finds himself in the crosshairs of Gotham’s newest district attorney, Janet Van Dorn (Stephanie Zimbalist, actually the real-life daughter of Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., Alfred’s voice). The new DA believes Batman is as dangerous as the criminals he rounds up, and tells him so as he gift-wraps a criminal who is pretty clearly a stand-in for The Punisher. When Bruce Wayne goes out to dinner with her to make small talk about how crazy the Dark Knight is, she vanishes, and Batman is captured in his attempt to track her down. The two find themselves in Arkham, where the inmates are running the asylum. Van Dorn is presented with an ultimatum: Take on Batman as a pro bono client as he’s put on trial by his own nemeses and secure an acquittal, or die.
The premise is hilarious, and the voice actors are all having the time of their lives—as will you, if you have a mind to show this episode to a close friend or family member who happens to be a lawyer, and watch as they take issue with absolutely everything: Joker is the openly biased judge; Two-Face is the prosecutor (because he used to be the DA!); members of the jury also provide testimony and boo the defendant. (“Hit him with a rock!!” roars Killer Croc, which is something Batman said while impersonating Killer Croc, revealing true depths to which the Dark Knight has plumbed his opponents’ psyches.)
It’s funny stuff, but like everything in the show, the core is pitch black. “Look at us!” Two-Face says in his opening arguments, “We’re all freaks and monsters!” It’s a line with so many layers. Harvey Dent (Richard Moll) got a two-part villainous origin story in B:TAS’ first season, two episodes that are heart-wrenching not only for Gotham’s former DA, but for Batman and Bruce Wayne. Dent was a supporting character before the show even hinted at his future transformation into Two-Face, and across the two-parter, we watch him destroy his relationship with his fiance in a doomed bid for revenge. “Us” might mean both halves of Dent’s shattered personality, or it might mean all the villains assembled.
Of course, the darkness Dent hides underneath his bright exterior was there all along, and Batman isn’t the one who put it there. The villains all blame Batman for their problems, but as Van Dorn cycles them through questioning, she reveals what was obvious to us when we watched episodes like “Two-Face.” In a long-overdue reckoning with the Mad Hatter, Van Dorn points out that rather than abducting and brainwashing the young woman with whom he was obsessed when Batman interceded, the Mad Hatter could have simply “respected her wishes and left her alone.” Poison Ivy reacts violently to even a single flower being killed.
In short: Their hangups don’t stem from Batman. The world is nuts enough that a cathartic figure like Batman kind of makes sense.
Surprisingly, Van Dorn gets Batman acquitted. Unsurprisingly, they sentence him to death anyway (right before he escapes and wallops all of them, as usual).
“The Trial” was the 68th episode of the show, airing long after it had established every member of its Rogues Gallery, and even after more multi-villain bonanzas like the aforementioned “Almost Got ‘Im” and “The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne.” While it may feel like the show is just flaunting an embarrassment of riches in the talent department, it also manages to find something worthwhile to say about why Batman is, viewed through the lens of his antagonists.
Like the best Animated Series episodes—and like so many of the episodes that spotlighted Batman’s iconic foes—you feel as if you understand the hero better for having watched it.
Tune in next month, as Return to Gotham spotlights the unique ways Batman: The Animated Series characterized the Caped Crusader’s sidekicks and supporting characters!
Kenneth Lowe is so rotten, vile, and depraved, that he’s going to waste you anyway. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.
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