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The Adventures of Batman & Robin – Showdown (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.

Bruce Timm’s animated DC universe introduced me to a wealth of comic book characters I would never have encountered otherwise. While I was familiar with most of Batman’s iconic selection of bad guys, The Demon’s Quest introduced me to Ra’s Al Ghul. Later on, you could see Superman: The Animated Series making a point to introduce other iconic characters like the Flash or Green Lantern. However, Batman: The Animated Series also did its shared of universe-building. While Zatanna introduced the magician as a co-star with Bruce, Showdown is notable for introducing another DC hero with whom Bruce never directly interacts.

Showdownworks superbly as an introduction to the character of Jonah Hex. It certainly works much better than the recent feature film carrying the character’s name.

He’s a sharp one…

The script by Joe Lonsdale, from a story by Kevin Altieri, Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, actually comes up with quite a clever way of framing its central steam-punk Western narrative. Showdown is, on its most basic level, the story of Batman and Robin listening to an audio book narrated by Ra’s Al Ghul on the way to the airport. Being honest, that concept alone is enough to grab me, as I’d listen to “David Warner Reads the Phone Book” on audio cassette. However, it serves as an efficient way of linking the bookends in the present to a story set in the past, one quite distinct from the usual type of story featured in Batman: The Animated Series.

It’s amazing that a half-hour cartoon show was able to offer a more convincing version of both Wild, Wild West and Jonah Hex, as the cowboy finds himself dealing with technology well out of his league in a surreal blend of western and science-fiction. Using Ra’s Al Ghul as the bridge to link the central story and the bookends is quite a clever move. Not only does it provide a logical excuse to draw Batman into a story featuring a cowboy bounty hunter, it also serves to develop Ra’s as a character.

Night of the Ghul…

Ra’s Al Ghul is distinct from most of Batman’s baddies because he is effectively immortal. Showdown is the first time we really get a sense of this, as we literally see that Ra’s has been around for quite some time. He seems to have been doing the same sort of thing all along as well, creating the impression that he’s a threat that is somehow more significant and “larger” than that posed by the Joker or Two-Face. I like touches like that, the idea that Ra’s is somehow a grander foe than most Batman baddies.

It’s also just great fun to see Jonah Hex, brought to life rather wonderfully by William McKinney. McKinney is perhaps most famous for his work in Deliverence (try living that down on your CV), but he also enjoyed a long career in Westerns, making him perfectly suited to playing the grizzled bounty hunter Jonah Hex. I’ll admit that I still haven’t read a lot of Jonah Hex, if only because there’s very little available. His classic stories have yet to be archived by DC, and the current critically-praised series hasn’t been printed in hardcover. It’s a shame, as it’s apparently a series that does quite well overseas. Still, the portrayal here really defines Jonah Hex for me, with McKinney’s distinctive drawl and wonderful timing being a large part of that.

Easy there, cowboy!

Like so many Western heroes, the character is delightfully droll. “You a bounty hunter?” a barmaid asks him. He confesses, “Just to pay for my piano lessons.” During his climactic swordfight with Arkady, the villain goes into full monologue mode. “I’ll chop you to pieces!” Arkady warns the cowboy. Jonah dismissively counters, “Talk, talk, talk.”Hex makes for a delightfully pulpy hero, and one who makes a rather marked contrast from the usually dour Batman. Bruce might manage the occasional one-liner, but Hex is downright flippant. And it’s great to watch.

Despite his somewhat pleasant demeanour, it’s immediately clear that Jonah Hex is a killer. I’m surprised at how much this show could get past Broadcast Standards, given how much difficulty they had killing people off-screen in Justice League Unlimited. The local sheriff observes that Hex has been in town five minutes and nobody’s dead and nothing’s on fire. “Slippin’ ain’t you?” the sheriff goads him. When Hex announces his plans to take down Arkady, the sheriff suggests, “You might try alive this time.” Hex responds, “First time for everything.”

A cutting retort…

That said, Hex doesn’t kill Arkady at the end of the story – though the script is careful to make sure he has a good reason. After all, he’d have to drag the body through the desert, and it would negate the bookends of the episode. Still, the show makes fairly overt reference to both death and prostitution, with Arkady heavily implied to have a knack for misogynistic violence, as if a reference to Unforgiven. We’re told he’s disfigured local prostitutes, and other girls across the country.

It’s great to see Hex portrayed as a sort of a chewed-out grizzled heroic figure. He’s cynical and flippant, but there’s a sense that he is very much a hero. When asked why he is pursuing Arkady, he replies, “On account a’ what you done to that girl back East.” Arkady is far too jaded to believe that it could be a driving motivation. “You mean to say you’ve tracked me across 12 states because of that?” Jonah cracks a joke about the reward money, but the climax makes it clear Hex isn’t in it for the profit. When Arkady offers him a lot of money to look the other way, Hex firmly declines. “It ain’t about money, boy. It’s about justice.”One senses that Hex might actually like Batman.

Ra’s has got to fly…

We also get some nice character work for Ra’s Al Ghul. The revelation at the end of the episode that Arkady is actually the villain’s son makes the whole thing just a bit more tragic. It’s interesting that Ra’s is presented here as notably less villainous than he would become in The Demon’s Quest. He shows remarkable sympathy for his labourers, chastising Arkady for his treatment of them. “I’ve told you repeatedly, this is not how I do things!” he warns Arkady after the latter uses a whip. “Not at the expense of my workforce!”

When his airship rains down destruction on the railroad, Ra’s Al Ghul is careful to warn the civilians of the pending attack. “Run, if you value your lives!” he announces as the ship launches the missile. It seems a far cry from the attempted genocide that Batman would stop, suggesting that Ra’s has grown somewhat harsher in his moral outlook over the years. Whether that’s due to a creeping cynical nihilism, or simply the result of the insanity of the Lazarus Pits, it makes for an interesting character development.

Going “al” in on this on…

Of course, all this (relative) compassion is contrasted against his treatment of Arkady. He rebukes his son quite publicly, informing him, “And you, Arkady, will make no more decisions without my approval, understood?” When the ship is falling apart, he takes the time to order his men to abandon ship, but seems to spare no such pity for his own flesh and blood. “Leave that fool to his fate,” he instructs the crew, a decision he would come to regret in the decades that followed.

I’ve always thought that Ra’s works so well as a Batman villain because he fills a niche in the hero’s rogues’ gallery. Ra’s Al Ghul is essentially a father archetype, to a heroic orphan character. Like Thomas Wayne, he was a doctor. He sees Batman as his heir. Unlike Bruce’s real parents, he will never die. That’s why Christopher Nolan’s use of the character in Batman Begins was so smart. It’s also, I suspect, why Batman seems to take Ra’s Al Ghul so seriously and why – according to quite a few writers – he seems more willing to kill Al Ghul or let him die, as compared to other villains.

Jonah always had a short fuse…

Ra’s upsets Bruce deeply, even unconsciously, because he reminds him of his father. Like The Dark Knight Rises, Showdown works well for Ra’s because it plays on that idea. it presents him as a failed father. In The Dark Knight Rises, he failed Talia – sending her away because he didn’t know how to deal with her. Here, he fails Arkady because of a poorly-considered and rash decision to abandon Arkady to his fate.

Ra’s explains the root of his disappointment, “Even before the Phoenix debacle, I had already come to realise that Arkady was too unbalanced and cruel to ever rule my empire.”For a normally family, that would just mean marginalising him in the family business, but Ra’s leaves him to serve an inhuman prison sentence, driving him insane. This perhaps explains his fixation on recruiting Batman as a male heir – to somehow make up for that earlier ignominious failure, to redeem his snap judgement.

Crossing swords…

There is a note of irony in all this, as we’d see play out in other stories like Avatar and Out of the Past. Ra’s is so fixated on finding another son by whom to do right, that he’d ignore and neglect (and even abuse) his own daughter. If Ra’s were a decent human being, he might find the opportunity for redemption in connecting with his own daughter, but he’s very clearly repeating the same cycle of neglect with her. Much like Arkady, Talia fails to live up to his expectations (this time by virtue of gender rather than nature), and so she’s not worthy of his time.

I do like the portrayal of the relationship between Ra’s and Batman. It’s very clear that Ra’s respects Batman as an adversary, as demonstrated by the fact that he chooses to confess everything up front. “I hope the story I have to tell you might make you reconsider your pursuit,” he suggests, rather than directly confronting or evading Batman. Even his last request is more of a plea than an ultimatum, made as an equal rather than from a position of strength. “For now, let me take my boy home,”he begs.

Fool’s gold?

Naturally, Batman allows him – being a sucker for parent-child reunions, even under these messed-up circumstances. It’s quite impressive that the story manages to get Batman’s character remarkably right, even when he’s barely featured at all. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the network-mandated appearance of Robin, who does nothing more important than punching a random goon in the crotch. (Which, by the way, was another nice moment to make it past Broadcast Standards.)

Showdown is a lovely little story, one that demonstrates and celebrates the sheer diversity of the DC universe. Indeed, it serves almost as the perfect microcosm of what Bruce Timm would go on to do in his later shows, creating this incredibly diverse and engaging canvas that seemed to expand in so many directions all at once, without ever losing sight of the characters at the core of the story.

2 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on drndark.

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