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.
Two-Face is probably the most tragic of Batman’s foes. Appropriately enough, there are really two reasons why the character works so well as a Batman villain. The first is that he’s a perfect reflection for Bruce: he is one man with a dual identity; one half upstanding pretty boy citizen, the other a monster. The other is an element touched on here: he’s a friend who Bruce failed in a pretty profound way, a character who underwent a massive tragedy, and whose every subsequent appearance is a grim reminder of that failure. Interestingly enough, I think it’s fair to argue that Two-Face has often had difficulty matching the potential he offers as a Batman villain. While I think that the Two-Face episode of Batman: The Animated Series does an effective job encapsulating a lot what makes the character great, it also misses a vital element as well.
I like that The Animated Series wasn’t afraid to give storylines room to breath. Sure, occasionally there’d be a two-parter which seemed a little… padded, for lack of a better word, but most two-parters justified their length by taking a relatively deep approach to their subject matter. The first season of the show features two two-parters. (Man, Two-Face would love this show.) Both are centred around a character transforming into a villain. Here, of course, it’s Harvey Dent into Two-Face. (Or the title would be the most brilliantly misleading one ever.) In Feat of Clay, it’s Matt Hagen becoming Clayface.
In both stories, the transformation doesn’t take place in the first act, like you might expect. Instead, the transformation is only completed by the end of the first episode – half way through the story. A cynic might observe that such an approach assures an effective cliffhanger. They wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. However, it also means that we get a chance to know the character before the transformation, to understand and develop them. We know a lot about Matt Hagen before he changes – to the point where he’s a tragic figure even before he becomes a sentient puddle of goo.
Harvey Dent has been around even longer than that. He’s been appearing throughout the first season, as a member of Bruce’s social circle. He was even the victim of a murder attempt by Poison Ivy. Much like his appearance in Batman: Year One, it helps establish a friendship between Batman and Dent – a working relationship and a mutual respect. Here, in particular, we get a sense that Bruce and Dent are close friends. Bruce is putting on his playboy routine, joking with Harvey about stealing his girl, but it’s notable this is virtually the only insult in the entire episode that Dent doesn’t get worked up about – he clearly knows and respects Bruce enough not to take it seriously.
That said, some of the dialogue is a little awkward. I have to believe there was a more effective way to communicate the respect Bruce had for Harvey other than making the character state, “Harvey and I go way back. Harvey’s a great DA – and an even better friend.” That’s a little too thick, even for Bruce’s playboy persona. Although I adore the next line, where Bruce confesses, “Although lately he seems awfully intense.”You know you’re in trouble when Bruce Wayne thinks you’re intense.
Affording one half of the two parter to Harvey is more than just thematically appropriate. It allows us to establish that Dent’s problems weren’t suddenly caused by losing half of his face. Nolan hints at this through The Dark Knight, but The Animated Series develops it quite well – Dent isn’t anywhere near as perfect as he has convinced people he is. Like Bruce, he’s crafted an image for public consumption that is distinct from what lies underneath. However, Dent isn’t nearly as good at it as Bruce is.
A psychiatrist explains that Harvey’s problem came from childhood. “When he was young, he felt very guilty about his angry feelings. So guilty that he hid them, deep inside until they became an illness.”Harvey’s split personality is rooted in guilt, arguably like Bruce’s Batman persona, which is a nice touch. I do like that Harvey developed a guilt complex for putting another kid in hospital when he was a child. (Of course, it was really appendicitis – which is a great punchline. Kudos to John Vernon.)
In many respects, the first half of the episode is quite close to perfect – from Harvey’s outbursts to the inevitable transformation into the eponymous villain. I especially like the way the show frames it like a monster movie reveal, while also referencing the Joker’s plastic surgery from Batman. Whatever one might think of the film, that’s an iconic Batman moment. You can tell because it was even parodied in The Simpsons.
The problems develop during the second half. I don’t mind Two-Face falling back on his familiar “2” gimmick, even if I think it’s not an essential aspect of the character. After all, with a literal split personality, he’d have an obsession with duality. (Although it is a bit convenient that Thorne runs so many themed locations – although maybe the sample size is so large that there were bound to be a couple (heh) that shared a theme.) Similarly, I actually really like the character’s meditation on chance, something I find far more essential to the villain:
This is what I listen to now. Chance, Grace. Chance is everything. Whether you’re born or not. Whether you live or die. Whether you’re good or bad. It’s all arbitrary.
That sort of nihilistic “everything is chance” outlook suits the character wonderfully. (It’s why he worked so well as a pawn in the game between Batman and the Joker in The Dark Knight.) Particularly since Batman seems to believe that even chance itself is inherently good (in the form of “luck”) rather than as amoral as Dent wants it to be. (While the Joker believes it is cruel.)
The problem is that we have no idea how he came to that realisation here. It would be fine, if there were even a single line explaining it. Maybe the explosion that scarred his face was chance – maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s a response to his case against Thorne’s goons getting thrown out due to dodgy paper work. We don’t know. In fact, up to that point, the episode seems to set up the coin as a means of mediating control of the body between Harvey and “Big Bad Harvey”, rather than as a profound philosophical statement. Heads, “Mr. Goodie-Goodie” makes the decision. Tails, “Big Bad Harv” calls the shots. So that character progression isn’t clear. Certainly not as clear as it would be in The Dark Knight.
On the other hand, the episode actually does a good job playing up Batman’s sense of responsibility for Harvey, arguably the other great hook for the character. Bruce’s dream at the start of the second episode mirrors Harvey’s at the opening of the first. “Why couldn’t you save me?” Harvey asks him, and Bruce is racked with guilty. His failure reminds him of the loss of his parents, as they appear to demand, “Why couldn’t you save us son?”
I think it’s a crucial character dynamic between the pair. After all, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns begins with the death of Harvey as a major darkening of Bruce’s character – the complete loss of Harvey is treated as a massive psychological loss for Bruce, and I think you can read it as one of the reasons that Miller’s Batman goes a little crazier than usual over the following issues. Batman is a character motivated by guilt – the death of Jason Todd, the loss of his parents. Two-Face is a really major failure, compounded by the fact that it’s one that keeps coming back to haunt him. (Although, I suppose, Jason Todd counts now as well.)
Richard Moll is great as both Harvey and Two-Face, not that it’s really a surprise. The casting on this show was always damn-near perfect. I especially love that moment at the end of the first part, as Harvey explains that there’s just one tiny problem with Thorne’s plan to blackmail Harvey. “You’re talking to the wrong Harvey.”I like that Moll does alternate his voice – another parallel to Batman. Conroy does the came thing, only it’s not quite as marked.
The animation here is superb. Damn, the show did some pretty fine shots of characters sweating. In fact, there’s one really nice shot towards the start of the first episode, as an ice sculpture of justice begins to melt, the water slowly dripping. It’s just superbly animated. I think, at its best, this show was absolutely beautiful. It just looked fabulous, with a wonderful sense of craft going into it. (That said, I prefer this earlier design to the more streamlined design of The New Batman Adventures.)
I also like the show’s sense of humour. I think that, taken as a whole, The Animated Series is the most comprehensive exploration of the Batman mythos, and also one of the most mature. However, that doesn’t mean that it took itself too seriously. There’s a number of nice gags here that manage to work without undermining the show’s dramatic tension. I especially like the sequence where batman takes down a gang engaged in a stand-off with the cops. Conroy’s Batman looked like he really enjoyed being Batman.
Two-Face isn’t quite the perfect episode of The Animated Series. it feels like it’s missing a vital stage in Harvey’s mental development. It explains his physical change, and his split personality, but his rigid belief in chance as a philosophy is never quite explained, unfortunately. It’s just suddenly there. Although it does work. It’s still a damn fine piece of television and a fitting origin for one of Batman’s stronger rogues.