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The Adventures of Batman & Robin – Riddler’s Reform (Review)

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.

Batman: The Animated Series always did a great job with villain origins. Heart of Ice gave us the best Mister Freeze story ever told, The Clock King made the eponymous third-stringer a credible threat and Mad as a Hatter reimagined the Mad Hatter as a deeply tragic figure. That said, I don’t think that the show got a proper handle on the Riddler until his third appearance in Riddler’s Reform. The green-suited trickster has long been one of my favourite Batman bad guys, and while I mostly blame Frank Gorshin’s manic portrayal from the sixties Batman! television show, Riddler’s Reform played a pretty significant part in that as well.

Knight caller…

Don’t get me wrong. The Riddler’s two earlier appearances – If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich? and What is Reality? – did well to facilitate the character as something of a hokey prop villain. Set in an amusement part and virtual reality respectively, the stories allowed the Riddler to indulge his decidedly Silver Age modus operandi, with gigantic and ridiculous set pieces that called to mind some of the goofier moments in Batman’s history. The Animated Series didn’t offer us a “grim and gritty” or thoroughly reimagined take on the trickster villain, instead constructing narratives that played to his theatrical nature, justifying the sort of improbable booby traps and stylish dilemmas that might otherwise seem ridiculous even for a cartoon.

That carries through to Riddler’s Reform in a way. I love the way that the show animated the Riddler as a character. Arguably more than even the Joker, the Riddler is a decidedly old-fashioned cartoon character. With his domino-mask on, his eyes disappear, becoming expressive white pools, and his face contorts like Will Eisner’s The Spirit. In a world that is otherwise quite grim and dark, the Riddler’s movements and expressions are all decidedly flamboyant and cartoonish.

This is going to end well…

You can see that in any of his over-the-top reactions to the Caped Crusader, and there’s a nice scene at a social function where Eddie receives the attention of two beautiful women. The character’s choreography could have come from a Looney Tunes cartoon. His eyes tend widen, his brow expands, and his body seems capable of dramatic contortion. I think that’s a nice touch, in a series that is otherwise quite serious about how it portrays its villains. That seems to acknowledge that the Riddler is a slightly lighter shade of bad guy, at least on the surface.

There is, after all, something quite innocent about the Riddler as a character. With a notable exception or two, the character has never gone as dark as the Joker or the Penguin. There’s a sense that the Riddler is the type of bad guy who doesn’t generally leave too many bodies in his wake – after all, his ambition is not to cause destruction or chaos for the sake of it.He’s not excessively violent or brutal. While he doesn’t seem too bothered about possibly killing Batman, he doesn’t seem measure his success in human suffering.

Arkham should screen their releases better…

The writer Neil Gaiman, for example, has returned to the image of the Riddler as embodying the innocence of the Silver Age. In Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?, you know things have gone too far when the Riddler produces a handgun and takes kids hostage. In his brief Secret Origins story, Gaiman has the Riddler living in a dump filled with countless exotic props and oversized gimmicks, lamenting, “What happened to us? The Joker is killing people for God’s sake!”

Most of Batman’s foes have a back story with a strong element of tragedy, one that explains their current criminal behaviour. The Riddler feels like an exception because his tragedy isn’t rooted in the cause of his criminal behaviour, it is rooted in the behaviour itself. Edward Nigma lacks the same sort of tragic background that makes Victor Fries or Jervis Tetch something of an anti-hero. While his introductory episode had him create the Riddler persona as a response to a personal slight, the Riddler is written with an arrogance that prevents his crimes from ever seeming like nothing more than a disproportionate response to a world that wronged him.

A dark and stormy knight…

Nigma does what he does to prove that he is smarter than everybody else. That’s his motivation. It isn’t about a lost love, or one bad day – it’s an extended and prolonged ego trip that leads him to don his green outfit. Naturally, this makes it all the better to see him humbled by Batman. I think that’s why the character never seems especially deep during his first two appearances on the show, as he’s very clearly a villain who is doing this for his own kicks.

Sure, there might be some mitigating factors, but it always seemed like Edward Nigma has the talent to succeed through legitimate means (even after his setbacks), he just chooses to resort to crime because he feels entitled. Riddler’s Reform works because it really develops the idea that there’s something fundamentally wrong with Edward Nigma, and that he truly is a very broken individual. It also, like a lot of the best work with the iconic villains, offers a wonderfully distorted mirror through which we might see Batman reflected.

A face you can trust…

It’s hardly a new idea that the Riddler suffers from an obsession – a compulsion to leave riddles that is ultimately self-sabotaging. While giving the authorities clues on how to catch him the first couple of times might speak to a certain arrogance, it seems a bit strange that he continues to do it when he never seems to win. After all, one might imagine that experience would have humbled him in some way. No matter how deluded he might be, he must have some basic pattern-recognition skills.

The notion that the Riddler feels obliged to signpost his crimes to a world too dumb to catch-on is a fairly old one. It even popped up in the classic camp Batman! movie, hardly an adaptation renowned for its psychological complexity. However, Riddler’s Reform takes that idea a little a bit further. It isn’t just the clues themselves that are Eddie’s compulsion, although they’re a major part of it. He’s not addicted to the act itself. He’s addicted to what he refers to here as “the Game.”

Riddle me this, riddle me that, who’s afraid of the big bad bat?

Riddler’s Reform opens with the character making what seems to be a smart decision. He announces that he has entered a business partnership with Baxter, “the man who has licensed [his] Riddler persona and [his] exclusive puzzle technology” and plans to make a fortune. It’s a very shrewd and logical move. After all, the Riddler isn’t interested in violence or destruction for its own sake. He’s interested in being better, in proving himself. He’s a showman, a theatrical individual – and Gotham is his stage.

(By the way, I love that Batman seems so self-aware that he knows to stake out the “International Toy Fair” in Gotham. After all, in a city full of so many psychotic infantalized criminals, it seems like a pretty safe bet that an International Toy Fair is not going to go down without a hitch. It’s a nice moment that suggests how well Batman knows his city and the people who inhabit it. Although, to be frank, I’m surprised that anybody would hold an event like that in Gotham. You’d seem to be painting a gigantic “kick me”sign on the building.)

Blue and Green should never be seen…

Of course, Riddler’s Reform hints that the character’s obsessions are mirrored in Batman. It’s interesting that The Animated Series generally portrayed a fairly understanding and humanist Batman who tried to redeem his criminals, because it seems like the Riddler really ticks him off. “We both know that I’m going to put you away,” Batman warns Nigma early on, “because you can’t help yourself. You can’t stop.” Given how he’d try to help the Ventriloquist to overcome his own crippling psychological issues, it seems like Batman has no patience for the Riddler.

It could, of course, be due to the Riddler wonderfully brash narcissism. Even when trying to convince Batman he’s a reformed individual, he’s still condescending as hell. “I’m a new man,” the Riddler boasts. “But you probably won’t figure that out until it’s too late.”However, the episode hints that there is something in Batman that responds to the Riddler. While Robin seems cautiously optimistic that the Riddler might have turned over a new leaf, Batman is not convinced.

A dark knight…

Batman seems as adept at solving puzzles as the Riddler is at creating them. Overhearing about an antiques robbery on the news, his mind is already sorting through his early conversation with Nigma, honing in on what might be mere coincidence or evidence. (“Those were things of the past Batman,” the Riddler suggests, “ancient history that’s gone now.”) It’s hardly iron-clad, and Robin seems prepared to give Edward the benefit of the doubt. Bruce won’t. “He did it,” Batman growls.

Of course, Riddler’s Reform only heavily hints that Batman gets a weird thrill out of this competition. Bruce wouldn’t dare concede it, but look at the enthusiasm with which he jots down the Riddler’s code, or the speed with which he moves to the maps when he figures that it’s a set of coordinates. (“It’s got eight digits! So does a map coordinate!”) Explaining how he can figure out the Riddler’s scheme, Batman observes, “Because that’s the way his warped mind works. He’s obsessed.” Sound familiar?

“And I’d rather stay here, with all the mad men…”

Early in the episode, it’s suggested that Batman might suffer from the opposite psychological problem that east away at Nigma. Whereas Nigma has a compulsion to leave riddles and clues, Batman suffers from apophenia, a mental disorder that causes him to structure separate ideas together, solving puzzles that don’t exist outside his head. “Maybe I’m not giving you clues,” the Riddler suggests at one point. “Maybe you’re seeing things that are not there.” It’s an interesting idea.

While Batman’s paranoia wins out, it’s still an interesting argument, and a great way to contrast him with the Riddler. At the most simple of levels, the Riddler is all about asking questions, whereas Batman is all about finding answers – even when the questions aren’t asked of him. Grant Morrison’s Batman runopenly mocked the character’s hyperactive pattern recognition, and the Riddler is a character who really plays to that side of the hero.

Steady, Eddie…

I always liked how The Animated Series divorced Batman from the origins of his bad guys. Due to story-telling convenience and the thematic straight-forwardness of the approach, it’s tempting to root the motivations and origins of the bad guys in our heroes. However, most of The Animated Series villains emerged relatively independent of the Caped Crusader, as if the writing staff seemed intent to avoid the “Batman creates super-crime” trope.

However, it’s fascinating how they deal with on-going crime. If Batman doesn’t create these villains, does he perpetuate them? Does the presence of Batman make it more likely that these villains will return, time and again? The issue was touched on in Sideshow, where Croc tried to paint himself as a victim of Batman’s persecution, and it’s suggested here. After all, it seems like the Riddler can’t give up “the Game”, but Batman is the only one who plays against him. “He’s the only one worthy of the game!”

The prices they are charging are the real crimes here…

It’s not Batman’s fault, obviously, but the Riddler responds to his presence in a way that I doubt he would to conventional law enforcement. In a way, it seems to reflect the idea suggested by Christopher Nolan that Batman serves as something of a lightning rod for crazy, even if he isn’t responsible for it. Only Talia Al Ghul and Two-Face can trace their origins to Nolan’s Batman, and the Joker is explicitly interested in playing his game opposite Batman. It’s a more complex idea than the notion that Batman “creates” the crazy that surrounds him, instead serving as some sort of focal point.

After all, when Nigma thinks that Batman has died, he burns his Riddler outfit, rather consciously discarding his criminal life style. “I always feel sad at funerals,” he states. “Yes, truly, part of me has died tonight, and so it is time to move on.”It seems that the death of Batman also represents the death of the Riddler persona. The Riddler might have been created by an incident that didn’t directly involve Batman, but he is sustained by the Batman.

He’ll soon be Rid(dler) or Batman…

Apropos of nothing, and as a tangent, I love how Baxter threatens Batman to get off the Riddler’s case early on. “Leave him alone, or I’ll swear out a complaint against you for harassment.” It feels like an homage to Bob Haney’s superb The Brave & The Bold run where Batman was a deputised law man, but I love the idea that Baxter things the threat of an official complaint will keep Batman in line. You can tell that he hasn’t had too much direct experience with the Caped Crusader.

John Glover makes for a great animated Riddler, the perfect balance of smarmy and wimpy, creating the sense of a gigantic ego that is incredibly fragile despite all the posturing. I know it’s become old hat to praise the work of Andrea Romano in putting the show’s voice cast together, but Glover really is a sensational pick for the character. I also love his appearance here. By the time he returned, he’d be wearing that ridiculous unitard, which is certainly one of my least favourite Riddler looks.

Reverting to (re)form?

Riddler’s Reform is a great Riddler story, certainly his strongest animated episode. And, coming from a fan of the character, that’s high praise indeed.

2 Responses

  1. I personally love when Riddler is screaming in Arkham and the Joker is cringing and covering his ears. You know nobody likes you when you annoy Joker. As with the Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale work, I’m assuming Riddler is locked outside when the villains have their meetings. XD

    • I like the idea of The Riddler as an insufferable Batman villain, even to other Batman villains. Like “who invited him into the plot?” Particularly given his tendency to lead Batman right to them.

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