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Batman: The Animated Series – The Demon’s Quest (Parts I & II)

This post is part of the DCAU fortnight, a series of articles looking at the Warner Brothers animations featuring DC’s iconic selection of characters. I’ll be looking at movies and episodes and even some of the related comic books. To tie into tomorrow’s review of Under the Red Hood, I thought I’d take a look at the episode which introduced Ra’s Al Ghul to the animated DC universe (and represented the character’s first appearance outside comic books).

If Heart of Ice – perhaps one of the best pieces of Western Animation produced during the nineties – illustrated just how good the creative minds behind Batman: The Animated Series where at innovation (updating and adding depth to previously shallow characters), then The Demon’s Quest perhaps reflects their skill at adaptation. Adapted from Denny O’Neill’s seventies story arc introducing Ra’s Al Ghul as an adversary of the Dark Knight, by the author himself, it’s also a testament to the show’s diversity. This isn’t exactly a conventional Batman story, and certainly not one conforming to the gothic or noir conventions which seemed to grip the character during the nineties. 

"We'll always have your father's desert stronghold..."

This episode has something of a special place in my heart. When I was young, I spent some time overseas. This is quite disconcerting – the culture was so strange and different for a boy of my age. My grandfather used to record shows at home and post them over to me to watch, so I could pretend I was still living at home, watching the same stuff I would have been otherwise. The tapes were mostly of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but my granddad also knew I had an affinity for the caped crusader, so he’d occasionally send over a recorded episode of that show. I remember receiving The Demon’s Quest, Part I and not getting The Demon’s Quest, Part II for nearly a year afterwards. It was quite the cliffhanger, but it’s one that has stayed with me. 

For the most part, Batman: The Animated Series was what introduced me to Batman (and, indeed, the wider DC universe). Of course, I’d seen Tim Burton’s Batman (the BBC had a horrible family-friendly version they used to show at Christmas) and I adored Batman Returns, but it was really this animated show which gave me an idea of the sheer scale of Batman’s world. One week he’d be foiling an armed robbery, the next he’d be taking a trip to England. He’d take down a common jewelry store robber as often as a sick freak with a theme or a robot gone berserk.  Mostly, the show demonstrated to me how deep his world was – both in terms of adversaries (as banal as Rupert Thorne, as sci-fi as Mr. Freeze, as horrific as Clayface, as camp as the Riddler) and also with regards to the types of stories that could be told. 

The Demon’s Quest is not a conventional Batman story. It’s Batman by way of James Bond. Indeed, Ra’s Al Ghul has a selection of “wonderful toys” that would make even the most sophisticated Bond villain blush (a “desert stronghold” and a “privately owned satillite” among them), complete with a plot that threatens not one life or even one city, but the entire planet. This isn’t a Batman story that Tim Burton or Christopher Nolan would tell – it just isn’t their colours – but it’s no less a Batman story than any of their narratives, and indeed stands as an example of the sheer flexibility of the character. 

It also stands as a mark of the creative team’s integrity. The whole exercise is unashamedly old-fashioned and proud of its comic book roots – rather than attempting to hide its pulp nature behind the appearance of sophistication. It is undoubtedly more than a bit hokey (indeed, Ra’s kinda gives the game away with a few villainous monologues throughout the episode – in one sequence, as he’s ranting about class warfare in the Amazon, you get the sense that any long-journey car trip with the man must be insufferable), but it never veers into camp – that would be an easy option. Instead, it treats its source material with respect, which allows the viewer to accept the wild and wonderful journey that the story takes them on (and this is very seventies globe-trotting Batman, visiting India, Nepal and the Sahara). 

For a 300-year-old meglomaniac, Ra's has the physique of someone at least 120 years younger...

I think this episode demonstrates the show’s technical accomplishments as well. The animation is beautiful – I am much fonder of the style on display here rather than in Superman: The Animated Series or even Justice League. The dark shadows and shaded colours give the impression of a dated filmstrip, which helps lend the material an almost timeless appeal – it feels like those classic Looney Tunes that you see with the darkness bleeding in. Besides, Batman’s world is meant to be a little messy, unlike the streamlined existences of his colleagues. The artwork is stunning – particularly the short prologue which has Dick Grayson sneaking back to his college apartment after a night adventuring. 

The music and the set pieces call to mind a wide variety of cinematic sources – perhaps the reason I think the episode enjoys a movie-like feel. The soundtrack hints at films like Lawrence of Arabia and Raiders of the Lost Ark, with the final confrontation calling to mind any number of Errol Flynn pictures. This is very clearly “Batman as epic”. It isn’t quite how I’d like my caped crusader served up every time (and – despite a familiar looking “careening down a snowy mountain from Ra’s lair” bit in Batman Begins – it’s obviously not how Nolan likes his Batman either), but here it works. It really works. 

The casting in these shows always amazed me. Again, this is mostly the work of Andrea Romano, who is still responsible for the rather excellent casting in the direct-to-DVD movies as well. For my money, Kevin Conroy is Batman, what with being the first actor to consciously give Bruce and Batman different voices – for my money he’s even better than Christian Bale (who I am far fonder of than most). When I read a Batman comic, nine times out of ten it’s Kevin Conroy’s voice I hear in my head. And he’s not the only one – for me, David Warner (an actor I was familiar with from Star Trek and Tron and countless other projects) is the perfect Ra’s Al Ghul (or, as the story seems to pronounce it to avoid any of the more complex undertones, “Raysh” Al Ghul). His voice is smooth and cultured, tempered with the right amount of superiority and smugness.

"It was the ears that gave me away, wasn't it?"

Indeed, this was my introduction to Ra’s Al Ghul. The character himself was one of the later additions to Batman’s iconic selection of villains – along with (much more debatably) Bane and Mr. Zsasz, Ra’s is one of a handful of more modern foes to have worked his way into Batman’s selection of regular foes. He’s a perfect foil for Batman (a man who will pursue morally ambiguous actions in order to accomplish a greater good), and one far removed from the more generic “street type” adversaries that the Caped Crusader finds himself up against. Including him in the animated show was a great way to introduce him to a whole new generation of fans (and is perhaps the reason that nobody was too confused when he was selected as the villain of Batman Begins). 

The appeal of the animated television show was that, rather than focusing on one particular aspect (Christopher Nolan’s noir The Dark Knight or Tim Burton’s gothic Batman Returns or Adam West’s camp Batman!), the show was able to adapt a whole range of the iterations over the character (even managing an adaptation of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, voiced – perfectly – by Michael Ironside). You can have the camp Joker of The Laughing Fish, the appearance of Maxie Zeus in Fire From Olympus and even more modern comics adaptations such as Mad Love. This is a version of the character who can take on mobsters, serious threats like Bane and the Scarecrow and even some of his more ridiculous badguys like “The Terrible Trio”

The Demon’s Quest is good old fashioned fun, and an example of just how flexible the show could be. It isn’t perfect – it does veer a little close to kitsch at some points (a shirtless Batman sword fight, for example, or Ra’s motive rants), but it’s mostly good clean fun – and perhaps an example of Batman as James Bond. 

The casting in these shows always amazed me. Again, this is mostly the work of Andrea Romano, who is still responsible for the rather excellent casting in the direct-to-DVD movies as well. For my money, Kevin Conroy is Batman, what with being the first actor to consciously give Bruce and Batman different voices – for my money he’s even better than Christian Bale (who I am far fonder of than most). When I read a Batman comic, nine times out of ten it’s Kevin Conroy’s voice I hear in my head. And he’s not the only one – for me, David Warner (an actor I was familiar with from Star Trek and Tron and countless other projects) is the perfect Ra’s Al Ghul (or, as the story seems to pronounce it to avoid any of the more complex undertones, “Raysh” Al Ghul). His voice is smooth and cultured, tempered with the right amount of superiority and smugness.

The appeal of the classic television show was that, rather than focusing on one particular aspect (Christopher Nolan’s noir Batman or Tim Burton’s gothic Batman or Adam West’s camp Batman!), the show was able to adapt a whole range of the iterations over the character (even managing an adaptation of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns voiced – perfectly – by Michael Ironside). You can have the camp Joker of The Laughing Fish, the appearance of Maxie Zeus in Fire From Olympus and even more modern comics adaptations such as Mad Love. This is a version of the character who can take on mobsters, serious threats like Bane and the Scarecrow and even some of his more ridiculous badguys like “The Terrible Trio”

The Demon’s Quest is good old-fashioned fun, and an example of just how flexible the show could be. It isn’t perfect – it does veer a little close to kitsch at some points (a shirtless Batman sword fight, for example, or Ra’s motive rants), but it’s mostly good clean fun – and perhaps an example of Batman as James Bond.

One Response

  1. Your grandfather did the exact same thing my uncle did for me, as we moved to Germany when my father was stationed there in 1992. I think we must have received the same shows, any chance he taped the X-men Animated Series as well? Then we’d be 3 for 3.

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