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Batman: The Animated Series – Nothing to Fear (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.

In many respects, Nothing to Fear feels like more of a proper pilot and introduction to the world of Batman: The Animated Series than the first episode, On Leather Wings, actually did. It feels like something of a mission statement for the series, offering a very rough outline of what the show would learn to do very well, illustrating the approach that the series would take in handling the lead character and his world. While the finer details aren’t necessarily present, and there are more than a few missteps along the way, Nothing to Fear serves as a fitting welcome to this definitive animated Batman.

Bruce’s insecurity is cause for grave concern…

On Leather Wings introduced us to Batman. It showed us his methods, and it took the time to allow us to meet supporting characters like Harvey Bullock and Commissioner Gordon. It paid particular attention to the gadgets and the gizmos that Batman would use, and Kevin Conroy made a fairly efficient debut, although he wasn’t quite the definitive voice of Batman yet. To be fair, Batman is a cultural icon, so he really generally needs very little introduction. However, this take on the character would become one of the most thorough, thoughtful and comprehensive examinations of the hero and his world, so On Leather Wings ends up feeling a lot more superficial in hindsight.

Nothing to Fear, however, feels like a much more comprehensive look at who Batman is, and what motivates and drives him. Part of that is undoubtedly because the Scarecrow works much better as a vehicle to explore Batman than Man-Bat did. There’s a reason that David Goyer and Christopher Nolan used the Scarecrow as one of the villains in Batman Begins. His use of fear makes him the perfect counterpart to Batman, providing the character with a struggle that is as much mental as physical.

Viewer beware, you’re in for a Scare(crow)!

His handy toxins also serve as an effective vehicle for getting under the skin of a character, exploring their fears and nightmares. For most characters, it seems, the fears are mundane. They’re terrified of spiders or snakes or what have you. However, the toxin provides a handy way to delve a bit deeper into Batman’s psyche, much like the Scarecrow’s later appearance in Dreams in Darkness. “What hidden terror keeps the Batman awake at night?” the Scarecrow asks, and Nothing to Fear suggests it’s more complex than bugs or creepy crawlies.

Nothing to Fear really offers the first example of Bruce’s playboy persona outside of comics. In the sixties Batman!, it never seemed like Bruce was too concerned with masking his identity, and Keaton’s Batman never seemed sure what to do when he was outside the mask. Conroy and the writers of Batman: The Animated Series return to the classic idea that Bruce Wayne wears the playboy persona as a mask to the world at large, a sort of slight of hand trick to keep people from noticing his late nights and volumes of free time.

It all goes up in smoke…

Of course, this episode suggests that the ruse comes at a cost. Dr. Long isn’t exactly shy about sharing his opinion of Bruce. “Your father and I attended university together. He had big plans for you.” He attacks Bruce’s shallow playboy persona, “When your father was alive, Wayne was a name that commanded great respect. Now all Wayne stands for is a self-centered jet-setting playboy.” It’s an interesting point.

After all, Bruce seems willing to throw his family’s name under the bus in order to keep up a pretence that allows him to be Batman. Surely a man with that much money could do some greater good through means that didn’t mean demolishing the name his family had painstakingly built? It’s the first real hint that the show is going to devote time to a psychological exploration of Bruce as a character, rather than using Batman as a vehicle to beat up colourful villains.

Hang on in there, Bruce…

I also like the characterisation of Alfred. The Tim Burton and sixties incarnations of the Batman story relegate Alfred to nothing more than Bruce’s faithful servant. I think that such portrayals waste a perfectly interesting character, and The Animated Series very shrewdly used Alfred as something of a surrogate father-figure for Bruce. When Bruce confesses his uncertainties about how his father would judge his actions, Alfred tries to calm him. “That’s rubbish. I know your father would be proud of you because… I’m so proud of you.” Aw.

In fact, I think that Nothing to Fear is a fairly essential step in the evolution of the show. After all, it did give us the show’s most famous line, as batman dangles from Scarecrow’s blimp. “I am vengeance. I am the night. I am Batman.”It’s a line that had such a massive pop culture influence that Conroy was cajoled into delivering it as a moral-booster while working at a kitchen for rescue workers on September 11th.

Just another Tuesday night in Gotham…

However, there are problems with the episode. The pacing feels a little off – as if Batman is barely affected by the Scarecrow’s toxin before he wrestles it into submission. I suppose that it’s a side-effect of the relatively limited runtime, but Nothing to Fear doesn’t feel anywhere near as efficient as some of the later episodes, spending a bit too long on set-up, meaning that it’s time to start wrapping up almost as soon as the plot itself is in place.

The Scarecrow himself seems a bit ill-defined. It would take the show a while to figure out exactly how to make villains work properly. Compare the Scarecrow’s origin here to that of the Mad Hatter in Mad as a Hatter. There’s no real pathos to Jonathan Crane. There’s no explanation as to why he finds fear to be so fascinating. Was he a kid who got bullied? Did that teach him, as a dweeby nerd, the importance of instilling fear in others? There’s not even anything as simple as Cillian Murphy’s “I respect the mind’s power over the body – it’s why I do what I do.”Instead, Crane just seems like an inherently creepy little man.

… but fear itself, eh?

That said, I do have a fondness for Bruce Timm’s design of the character. Timm’s male characters tend to have hulking shoulders, so it’s very disconcerting to see Crane presented as a bean pole. With his red jumper and silly mask, the Scarecrow looks the exact opposite of scary, with Henry Polic II’s voice making the character feel more melodramatic than threatening. It works quite well at presenting him as a character who needs his fear toxin in order to frighten others – portraying him as a villain who seems more desperate than he should be, an element that I think plays quite well to the Scarecrow. It’s easy to imagine an origin that make him as vaguely sympathetic as some of the other Animated Series villains, but Nothing to Fear can’t quite deliver on that.

When Timm and his creators redesigned the Scarecrow for The New Batman Adventures, it represented a fairly dramatic reversal of that portrayal. His appearance was no longer that of a fragile bean pole, but instead of a grotesque monster, like something that had clawed its way out of Crane’s nightmares into the real world. Henry Polic was replaced as the voice actor for the character, his grandiose voice replaced by Jeffrey Combs’ genuinely unnerving monotone. Paul Dini has been quoted as saying that, with the revamp, “We weren’t sure if there was an actual guy in the suit.”I like the idea that it is somebody who has stolen Crane’s gimmick, or if Crane had simply driven himself so mad with fear toxin that there was nothing of his old self left.

He likes dynamite and gunpowder… and gasoline!

That said, despite some pacing problems and some issues with Crane himself, the actual production of the episode is fantastic. Boyd Kirkland’s direction is fantastic, and Shirley Walker’s score is fantastic, building off Danny Elfman’s themes and reimagining them for a more developed and expansive take on Gotham. I think that Nothing to Fear really established what the production staff could do with the right material. While it’s not the best of the show, it’s certainly the strongest of the initial three episodes, a massive step up from both On Leather Wings and Christmas with the Joker.

Nothing to Fear, ironically, demonstrated that fans of Batman had absolutely nothing to fear. He was in safe hands.

6 Responses

  1. GREAT REVIEW. 20th anniversary of Batman: The Animated Series? I didn’t realise. I’ve been spending the last few months watching episode by episoe every so often of the animated series, I’m on series two now. ‘Nothing To Fear’ is a great episode although there are so many fantastic storylines in both series’. Thanks for the post! I really enjoyed it, I may go ahead and watch another episode right now!

  2. detailed review. nice! missed this awesome series from Paul Dini ans Bruce Timm! speaking of fear check out my review of Green Lantern…

    http://themoviemontage.wordpress.com/2011/07/03/green-lantern-2011/

    Cheers!

  3. I actually noticed Scarecrow was redesigned after this initial episode. I personally think Scarecrow doesn’t need to be sympathetic as a character, that he still thinks of himself as a doctor and the Scarecrow is an extension of him analyzing patients. Of the Batman villains, I think this is why the Scarecrow gets the shaft more than anyone else, that many writers don’t think there’s any potential outside of putting him in between Riddler and Mr. Freeze in the rogues gallery group photo.

    • I think that part of the reason for giving Scarecrow the shaft is because it’s hard to construct stories actually about him, as opposed to stories that simply use him as a storytelling tool. I think the beauty of Heart of Ice is that it gives the writers a way to tell stories about Freeze as a character, rather than just as a dude who freezes things. But Scarecrow works so effectively as a way to gain insight into other characters that there’s no similar need to “fix” him in the same way.

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