This September marks the twentieth anniversary of Batman: The Animated Series, and the birth of the shared DC animated universe that would eventually expand to present one of the most comprehensive and thorough explorations of a comic book mythology in any medium. To celebrate, we’re going back into the past and looking at some classic episodes.
One thing I really liked about Batman: The Animated Series was the way that it was constantly rehabilitating all these classic gimmicky villains, the type of stereotypical one-dimensional comic book baddies that would inevitably serve as event fodder to prove just how serious the current big threat was. Mister Freeze is the most obvious example, with Heart of Ice really setting the standard for a Z-list villain rehabilitation. Surprisingly, I find myself returning to those smaller episodes more than I’d watch the Joker-centric adventures or even some of the more popular instalments. While not quite as definitive as Heart of Ice, The Clock King does an excellent job introducing the eponymous bad guy.
Of course, those without a background in comic books might struggle a bit with that villain. “The Clock King? Really?” The character’s premise is in the name, and it’s fairly hokey one. He is a villain whose crimes are themed around time, naturally. If that seems like the calling-card of an Adam West Batman! bad guy, then you’re entirely correct. The character had been introduced in comics as a villain for Green Arrow (who is, at his least creative, “Batman-as-Robin-Hood”), but had been played in the sixties television show by Walter Slezak. Since then, the character had graduated up to the lower ranks of Batman baddies, but remained a fairly one-note character.
However, The Clock King takes that relatively simplistic Batman bad guy and basically constructs the most effective story possible around him. You could argue that each comic book villain has at least one greatstory in them, and this is the great Clock King story. It’s hard to imagine a take on the character that could use him more efficiently, or make him seem any more formidable than he is here, while still speaking to his hook as a character.
That’s not to pretend that The Clock King imbues its lead with any true hidden depth. It doesn’t elevate the character to the very top of Batman’s enemies, and it doesn’t really “bump” the character in the same way that Heart of Ice bumped Mister Freeze. Instead, it plays to the strengths of Clock King as a pre-existing character, acknowledging his relatively shallow set-up and having a great deal of fun with the concept. In a way, through its superb treatment of this tangential (at best) villain, The Clock King illustrates just how well-constructed Batman’s memorable selection of foes actually is.
Here, the character is built from the ground up as the most typical Batman foe imaginable. He even has a punny “real” name, as he goes by Temple Fugit. (Which is, of course, similar to the Latin for “time flies.”) It’s right up there with Mister E. Nigma as “names to give your child if you want them to become a supervillain.”So we get all the tropes we expect of a stereotypical Batman villain, but delivered in the most skilled manner possible by David Wise.
There is, of course, the foreshadowing of his gimmick. The episode’s first line is “It’s about time.” There’s lots of clever (but unobtrusive) wordplay concerning the character, hinting at what’s to come. “You seem pretty tightly wound, Fugit,” soon-to-be-Mayor Hill comments on our villain. “Loosen up,” Hill advises him. “Forget your schedule for one day. Believe me, it’ll make a new man out of you.” It’s wonderfully efficient dialogue, pretty much setting up everything we need to know and foreshadowing the character’s eventual transformation.
We also see Fugit’s obsession with time, mirroring the Riddler’s obsession with riddles or the Mad Hatter’s fixation on Alice in Wonderland. Like Batman, and a lot of his villains, Fugit has fixated on this one object that he believes he can control in an otherwise chaotic world. In fact, Wise subtly suggests that the Clock King is an effective mirror to Batman, a character who might lack the physical prowess of those around him, but makes up for it with meticulous planning and split-second timing.
There’s no doubt that Batman would flatten Fugit in a fair fight, just as Bane would defeat Batman. However, Fugit puts in just as much planning and preparation as Bruce does. (He knows the items on Bruce’s utility belt quite well, and has watched video footage of Bruce fighting so he could time the hero’s punches down to the millisecond.) Clocks are very much the character’s motif, using pocket watches as weapons, a cane modelled on the hand of a clock and even drawing clock hands on his spectacles. (By the way, I adore the rather toned-down visual design of the villain. Sometimes less is more.)
“What kind of a saboteur uses a $6,000 Metronex to trigger a time bomb?” Bruce asks, inspecting the remains of an explosive, making it clear that Fugit is just as trapped by his pathology as any other would-be villain. (“A saboteur with too much money,”Alfred quips.) While he doesn’t appear to be as handicapped by his obsession as the Riddler, there’s still a sense that Fugit is very clearly a very special kind of insane, like so many of Batman’s baddies. After all, how does one justify the expense?
And, like so many of the effective second-tier Batman baddies, David Wise is sure to give the Clock King a sympathetic origin, as events beyond his control lead to a mental breakdown. (I love that shot of the character’s freakout.) Like so many others, he seeks to act out to avenge a perceived wrong, rather than dealing with his loss in a constructive manner. Hm, I suppose all of Batman’s villains reflect him in a strange way.
There’s a wonderfully cruel irony, though, that the events that cost Fugit everything barely even registered to the party he holds responsible. He seems to spend seven years planning a meticulous revenge on Mayor Hill, which seems all the more pathetic because Hill doesn’t even remember Fugit. At least initially. “Three fifteen, Hill!” the villain gloats after tying the Mayor into a very personal death trap. “Does that time hold any meaning to you?” Hill seems genuinely confused, as he responds, “I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
In a way, this makes the Clock King’s violence more pitiable. It should make it seem more unjustified, and more cruel, but Wise’s script carefully makes sure that we end up feeling very sorry for the Clock King. (After all, as is repeatedly pointed out, his acts of terrorism didn’t kill anybody.) When he accuses Hill of deliberately sabotaging his court case, based on the fact Hill’s firm represented the other party, Hill assures him, “But I didn’t even work on that case!”
Confronted with evidence that there was no malice or sinister plotting involved in his bad luck, the Clock King immediately goes into denial. “Liar!” he accuses Hill. Even when confronted with evidence that he was not the victim of some sinister conspiracy, but just bad luck, the Clock King’s refusal to acknowledge reality marks him as somebody who just needs help, rather than a cruel criminal. I like that Batman stilltries to save Fugit, even after everything. This version of Batman always seemed more sympathetic to his villains than most iterations, acknowledging that they were sick people in need of serious help.
The rest of the episode around Fugit is effective enough. We get some nice set pieces, like a death trap in a vault, even if it does seem like a tangent designed to eat into the runtime. That said, Wise’s script makes exceptional use of Alfred as a character, who can often feel like excess scenery in these episodes, a character who ultimately serves little purpose. Here, he gets some great one-liners. When Bruce asks his driver to wait for him, Alfred deadpans, “My pleasure. This is one of the finest back alleys in all of Gotham.”
Kevin Altieri’s direction is effective enough. I love that shot of Temple Fugit snapping under the pressure, and the episode’s set pieces work well enough. I especially like that finalé inside the clock tower, something that feels like a conscious throwback to the German expressionist style that would have inspired Bob Kane while working on the character. It all looks rather rather lovely, but, then, this show always did.
There are some nice in-jokey references. The show frequently namedropped famous writers and artists as locations around Gotham, much like the modern comics do. O’Neil and Adams’ work on Batman is obviously a massive influence on the series, but it’s great to see the episode reference “Breyfogle Street”, named for Alan Grant’s artistic partner. (Their collaborations really need a nice collection.) There’s also a blackout “west of Moldoff”, referencing the artist who toiled often anonymously under the name of “Bob Kane.”
The Clock King is very much the archetypal “rehabilitate a silly villain” episode, but it’s executed with such skill and flare that it’s hard to resist. I suspect that David Wise’s work here is at least part of the reason that the character would return twice – once in the disappointing Time Out of Joint and again in the much superior Task Force X. That’s really the best measure of the episode’s success.
Filed under: Television Tagged: | alfred, alfred pennyworth, batman, batman animated series, Bruce, bruce timm, Christopher Nolan, Clock King, Dark Knight Rises, David Wise, Freeze, Gas mask, gotham, gotham city, Home and Garden, mad hatter, paul dini, riddler, Shopping, Temple, Walter Slezak