To celebrate the release of The Dark Knight Rises, July is “Batman month” here at the m0vie blog. Check back daily for comics, movies and television reviews and discussion of the Caped Crusader.
One thing that always impressed me about Batman: The Animated Series was the way that it didn’t just restrict itself to the truly iconic members of Batman’s impressive pool of villains. Batman’s first-stringers are all iconic and brilliant characters in their own right. It would be easy enough to build a television how around characters like the Joker, Two-Face, the Penguin, Catwoman, Ra’s Al Ghul, the Scarecrow, Poison and the Riddler. However, the show didn’t do that. It didn’t restrict its airtime to those major-league bad guys. In fact, many second-tier villains actually received more compelling origins and development. Heart of Ice is regarded as one the show’s best episodes, despite featuring an almost forgotten nobody villain by the name of Mr. Freeze. So it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise that the creative crew were able to build a tragic and moving back story for Clayface.
For those who don’t read comics, Clayface is one of Batman’s earliest foes. The horror movie star Basil Karlo (who was clearly not modelled on any celebrity… clearly…) appeared as a master of disguise in an early Detective Comics adventure. However, the character has gone through several iterations since then. Sometimes it’s even quite difficult to get a hold of who the character is or what his motivation is supposed to be.
What makes Feat of Clay so fascinating, and what makes it work, is the same thing at the core of virtually everything that The Animated Series did effectively. The creative team take the long and convoluted history of the character and his world and streamline it down to its most essential elements. Once they’ve done that, they begin rebuilding the character, with an eye on what worked the first time. I think it’s fair to say that The Animated Series was at its very best when it reimagined these core concepts – with one eye on the past, but another eye to the future.
So, like the first Clayface, this version is an actor. However, he goes by the name of the second, who was an archaeologist. Unlike the first, he has powers – rather than merely using really good make-up. We’re introduced to Matt Hagen as a character under the thumb of a white-collar criminal named Roland Daggett. (Incidentally, Daggett shows up in a similar role in The Dark Knight Rises, only with a new first name “John” and not played by Ed Asner. It’s fun to imagine how much more badass Asner would have made the role, even in old age.) He’s a guy who had an unfortunate car accident, and Daggett controls his access to a magical medicine that allows him to continue to look as handsome and young as ever.
While the episode overdoes it just a little bit, it’s a smart move to portray Hagen’s dependency on the medication as a drug addiction. As he prepares to shoot a scene he literally tears his trailer apart, shouting, “I gotta have more!” When his stand-in reveals that he has a spare dosage hidden away, Hagan’s response isn’t gratitude, but paranoid suspicion. “You were holding out on me!”he observes, contemptuously.
As an aside, I do find the dynamic between Hagan and his stand-in interesting. I wonder if we’re supposed to read subtext into their relationship – are the two of them lovers? Matt’s stand-in seems incredibly devoted to his high-maintenance friend, even after Matt is abusive and aggressive. “You’re just my stand-in,” Matt warns him, a rebuke that sounds like it’s calculated to hurt. “Nobody appointed you nursemaid.” And yet his colleague remains with Matt until the end – supportive and encouraging, despite all the stuff Matt goes through. I think the subtext is definitely there – and I think it’s great that the producers were able to intimate such a relationship on a family show.
Matt is transformed by two hired goons in a sequence that’s actually uncomfortable to watch, as they hold him down and pour the compound all over his face. Feel free to read any Freudian subtext into that sequence you want. The important thing, however, is that this makes Matt sympathetic. Of course, he inevitably goes on a rampage of revenge but – like Victor Fries in Heart of Ice – it’s hard to argue that at least some of Matt’s actions might be justified.
Even Batman seems vaguely sympathetic to the transformed man, asking, a recovering Hagan, “All that shape changing, it takes a lot out of you, doesn’t it?” It’s a nice line and Conroy knocks it out of the park, as he normally does. You know, thanks to his reading, that part of Bruce is concerned about Hagan, and that part does offer Matt a chance of redemption at the end of the episode. However, you also know that this version of Bruce is mentally filing this piece of information away in order to take Hagan down if he needs to. (And he does.)
Like a lot of these episodes, it treats the villain like a classic movie monster. Indeed, the scene of Hagan’s transformation is directed in a manner that seems like an affectionate homage to classic monster movies. We don’t see the attack, but we see it in silhouette. When his body is dragged to the car, we focus on his limp hand. The animation here is superb. Aside from Clayface’s transformations, I love the way that Bruce’s arrest is handled, with the photos taken, and I love the lighting in that simple scene where Daggett orders his henchman to murder Lucius Fox.
It’s worth noting that the voice cast here is amazing. Kevin Conroy’s Batman is, as ever, nearly perfect. However, Ron Pearlman is ideally cast as the villain of the piece. Pearlman injects just the right amount of pathos into the character – making him sympathetic while still illustrating that he’s a deeply flawed and troubled man. Edward Asner is also wonderfully cast as the corrupt Roland Daggett. I continue to be impressed at how Andrea Romano managed to recruit such talent to the show.
While the storyline featuring Clayface is, as the title implies, the primary narrative thread, I do like the subplot involving Bruce Wayne. Sure, we’ve seen Bruce Wayne framed for a crime before, and that’s kinda Clayface’s schtick – identity confusion and all that. However, it is nice to see the show make use of Wayne Enterprises as something more than the source of Bruce’s millions. It’s interesting to think that interesting stuff actually happens there, and the notion of Daggett being involved in “insider trading”at the company gives the whole thing a nice hint of sophistication.
Framing Bruce for murder also gives Kevin Conroy an excuse to push his Batman just slightly further than usual. While it’s a scene that probably wouldn’t work in live action, I do love the scene of Bruce interrogating the mook in the Batplane. You can tell from Conroy’s voice that he’s really not messing around. I like that Conroy’s Batman can so perfectly capture all these bases – he’s the most well-rounded Batman. He can crack a joke, but he can also be terrifying, as he is here dealing with the “sleaze” and the “scum.” I also love how Bruce is almost disappointed when the guy collapses. (“Fainted? He fainted.” It’s almost as if the guy ruined his evening, and Bruce was only getting started.)
Incidentally, the script is wonderfully structured. There’s a lot of set-up and pay-off, especially involving Daggett’s two henchmen. Both have quirks and gimmicks that are set up and then exploited to take them apart, which is a very nice touch for two characters that really could just have been anonymous goons Bruce dangled off a roof until they told him what he needed to hear. I think it’s an illustration of just how much the writers get Batman.
Feat of Clay is another of the show’s truly wonderful stories, and an encapsulation of a lot of what made the show so great. It’s definitely well worth a look.