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Batman: The Animated Series – Robin’s Reckoning (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. We’re winding down now, having worked our way through the nine animated features, so I’m just going to look at a few odds-and-ends, some of the more interesting or important episodes that the DC animated universe has produced. An Emmy-award-winning episode seems a reasonable place to start.

I know the logic. Robin shouldn’t work in the context of Batman, unless you’re veering into camp. Somehow, a teenager in green short-shorts with a yellow cape manages the near-impossible feat of making a grown man who dresses up like a bat look even more ridiculous. To feature Robin in film or animation is to invite insane volumes of camp – think of Adam West’s Batman! or Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin. However, for some reason, Batman: The Animated Series mostly got the balance right somehow. So much so that the belated Robin “origin” story, Robin’s Reckoning, picked up the Emmy in 1993 for outstanding animated programming, somehow beating The Simpsons. These two episodes are on the shortlist of the best episodes of the series, and – thus – amongst the best animated episodes ever made.

Robin steps up to Bat...

The animated Batman never got an origin in the television show (although the superb Batman: The Mask of the Phantasm movie would explore his early years as a crimefighter). Perhaps it was because the origin – like Superman or Spider-Man – was so iconic that it didn’t need to be repeated, or perhaps it was because the writers simply didn’t feel the need for an origin as part of an on-going series. I don’t know the particulars, but the Batman of Gotham was treated as something of an absolute.

However, Robin gets own origin story here. Based loosely upon the character’s original 1940s roots, the story here would inspire the comic book retelling of the Boy Wonder’s origins in the Dark Victory miniseries (a sequel to The Long Halloween, the story which inspired The Dark Knight). It’s straight-forward enough, but it’s effective. The creative staff get points for effectively mirroring Bruce’s loss of his parents with the death of Dick’s family at the circus that night, both claimed by the crime which haunts Gotham even today.

Bruce takes Dick under his wing...

This isn’t Batman Forever. Dick’s parents don’t die in a noble sacrifice to save a circus full of people from an exploding bomb. They die in a random extortion attempt. Incidentally, that beautiful shot of the wire snapping was forced upon the series by the network censors, who refused a more graphic demise – as Bruce Timm notes in the commentary on the episode, perhaps that’s not a bad thing. The shot as composed is wonderfully artistic – with Dick’s parents swing off-screen, a silence falling and a cut cable swinging back into view. More than the shows that followed, Batman: The Animated Series had a strong artistic sense underlying it (calling back to the classic Fleischer Superman cartoons or even early Disney), and that single shot is a perfect example of that – calling to mind the death of Clayton in Disney’s Tarzan, for example. A perfect example of showing without actually showing, if you catch my drift.

Robin works because despite all his similarities to Batman – the loss of his parents, the career fighting crime – he isn’t quite as dour and depressive as his mentor. One gets the sense that while Bruce was denied a childhood by the murder of his parents before his very eyes, dressing up as Robin encouraged Dick to avoid growing up. Sure, the character would eventually take on responsibility (his own secret identity as Nightwing before becoming Batman in Grant Morrison’s superb Batman & Robin), but he always seemed far more playful than Batman. Here he gleefully trades one-liners with henchmen, while Batman simply throws punches.

It's the circus of life...

Part of the reason for this, the episode suggests, is that Bruce tried to spare Dick the pain that he went through. While Joe Chill – the man who killed Thomas and Martha Wayne – would only show up in a fantasy in For The Man Who Has Everything, most continuities grant the murderer of the Waynes a fairly depressing state. While Bruce typically refuses to kill him, Chill typically ends up dead. In the most recent comic book retelling of the story (from Morrison’s run on Batman), Bruce drove Chill to suicide (even going so far as to give him the gun which he use to murder Bruce’s parents).

Undoubtedly the best moment in Batman Forever has Bruce explain to Dick, from experience, that revenge doesn’t get rid of the pain (it compacts it). “Your pain doesn’t die,” Bruce explains to his ward in the film, “it grows. So you run out into the night to find another face, and another, and another, until one terrible morning you wake up and realize that revenge has become your whole life. And you won’t know why.” The animated series suggests that Bruce has tried to shield Dick from this aspect of the vigilante lifestyle – actively hunting for the murderer who kill Dick’s parents on his own rather than with the younger Dick. Perhaps this explains the character’s relatively well-adjusted nature.

Hell of a cliffhanger...

Of course, Batman’s stoic manner doesn’t necessarily help manner. Rather than explaining why he’s “working alone tonight”, he lets Robin work it out himself. When Robin suggests that Bruce is worried about his competence or the fact that he might go too far, Batman never bothers to correct him – even though Bruce’s decisions are grounded in his own fear of loss. Batman thinks in those terms – the constant fear that anyone he cares about my be gone one day to the next – but Robin doesn’t let these worries concern him. The thought that Zucco could potentially kill either one of them never crossed his mind, perhaps indicating how well Bruce has insulated his young colleague.

Batman is so far down his particular rabbit hole that he can’t even comprehend that Dick might want someone to talk to rather than to see the murders avenged. “I’m doing this for him,” Bruce assures Alfred of the massive underground shakedown, prompting the Butler to observe that maybe Dick doesn’t need Batman right now, he needs Bruce. Although Dick does make his own inquiries about the people who murdered his parents, the episode seems to imply that he’s let the matter rest until it came again now. While the audience never doubts that Bruce can’t stop thinking about the death of his own parents, Dick has almost found his own sense of peace.

This Robin's come home to roost...

It’s worth noting that the episode doesn’t feature any supervillains – it’s just about cracking “an extortion ring.” It’s not about Two-Face or the Joker or any one of Batman’s easily identifiable foes, but the low-level corruption which has infected the city and made it such a horrible place to live. This sort of run-of-the-mill gangland crime was a frequent obstacle for Batman in the comics (particularly in the iconic Year One, which reportedly inspired the early costume Bruce wears in flashbacks), but it’s nice to see it in an animated show. Of course, there were any number of other episodes which also just covered regular mobsters rather than the more colourful freaks, but it’s still good to see – and another example of the stunning range of this sort of animated show.

By the way, the voice cast is – as ever – stunning. Kevin Conroy does a great job as Batman and Loren Lester is superb as Robin. Both are the character voices that I typically hear in my head when I am reading a comic book. It’s also nice to hear the recognisable voice of Thomas F. Wilson as Tony Zucco, the mobster who killed Dick’s parents. In case you are wondering, he played Biff in Back to the Future.

Nothing screams "Emmy!" like "Orphans!"

Robin’s Reckoning is powerful stuff. It’s a well-written episode which works well because it handles its material with respect and without the need to hype everything up to eleven. There’s no bomb or attack on the circus in this version of the tale, and it’s certainly the better for it. It’s a fitting origin to a character who probably shouldn’t fit too well within the Batman mythos, but somehow does. It’s a deserving episode which took home a well-earned Emmy award – that alone makes the episode worth note. It’s also a powerful piece of television, filled with raw emotion – it’s populated with complex and well-developed characters, and some wonderful meditations on the nature of loss and how we allow it to define us. You can’t ask for more.

2 Responses

  1. I don’t really see why so many fans don’t like Robin. Yes I vastly prefer darker versions of Batman but I like Robin to stay.

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