Tue
Mar 26 2013 2:00pm

Batman: The Animated Series Rewatch: “I Am The Night” & “Off Balance”

I Am the Night”
Written by Michael Reaves
Directed by Boyd Kirkland
Episode #049
Music Composed by Michael McCuistion
Animation Services by Sunrise
Original Airdate – November 9th, 1992

Plot: After Commissioner Gordon is shot on the anniversary of the Waynes’ death, a weary Batman considers hanging it all up.

The writing credit is for series story editor Michael Reaves, but “I Am the Night” reads like it was written by a college freshman who has just taken an intro to philosophy class. There’s the quotes from Robert Frost, George Santayana, and Friedrich Nietzsche. There’s the existential whinging about whether anything we do in this life actually matters. There’s the clutching at the sky and milking the giant cow and even Kevin Conroy can’t sell lines like “‘Promises to keep’, Leslie. ‘I have promises to keep.’”

Look, I like melodramatic angst as much as the next guy, but if there’s any character I never want to hear whining about their life it’s Batman. Bruce, you’re a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist, when you’re not a ninja scientist detective. If I wanted this level of self-pity in a superhero, I’d read Spider-Man.

Batman quitting because he’s not doing enough just doesn’t make sense. We’ve seen Batman doesn’t like being Batman before (in another episode by Reaves), but “Perchance to Dream” showed Bruce would only quit if a) his parents were still alive and b) there were another Batman there to take over. And even then he could not stop being Batman.

Batman quitting doesn’t even make sense within the context of “I Am the Night.” If he believes Gordon was shot because he didn’t get to the stake-out early enough, or fight hard enough to capture the Jazzman, then Batman should be doubling and tripling his efforts, not giving up altogether.

It doesn’t help that Jimmy “the Jazzman” Peake is an ordinary gangster like Rupert Thorne, Arnold Stromwell, and Tony Zucco. If he were one of the costumed criminals then one could argue that Batman inspired or attracted supervillains to come to Gotham. But instead the Jazzman is exactly the type of crook that dominated Gotham before Batman started, the kind that Batman absolutely destroys with his vigilante tactics. (Though, hey, nice work kids show explicitly saying a cop was shot by a drug dealer).

As with “Vendetta,” there’s a great episode hidden here had Reaves focused on a different aspect. For example, despite being a constant presence in the series, there aren’t that many episodes about Jim Gordon. “I Am the Night” gives some insight into how Batman sees him, and unsurprisingly it’s as another replacement father figure. Gordon is the same age as Thomas Wayne, and when he’s shot he falls exactly as Thomas fell. Therefore, when Gordon wakes up and says he wishes he was a hero like Batman, once again a surrogate father is telling Bruce how proud he is of him. It doesn’t hurt that Bob Hastings does the most with the few lines he has.

The guest performers this episode are strong all around (possibly to make up for how bad Conroy is this time). If “Almost Got ‘Im” was a showcase for the rogues gallery, “I Am the Night” shows off Batman’s supporting cast. Alfred, Dick, Barbara, Bullock, and Leslie Thompkins all get moments to shine in this episode. Even when Bullock blames Batman for Gordon getting shot, he’s only voicing Batman’s inner doubts. And later Bullock runs up four flights of stairs to save Gordon’s life.

Dick Grayson, in his civilian persona, particularly comes off well, because if there’s anyone’s life that Bruce Wayne has improved, it’s the boy he saved, raised, inspired, and trained to be a superhero. Loren Lester does a stand-out job being Bruce Wayne’s son this episode, the only person that can reach his old man in his lowest moment. Dick spends most of the episode in civilian clothes, getting into his Robin costume only long enough for Bruce to tell him to take the night off, he’s got this. Because, as episode after episode has shown, Bruce Wayne cannot risk anyone’s life but his own, which is what makes this whole crisis of faith so off-note.

There’s also a cameo voice from young Seth Green as a grifter Batman accidentally inspires to go straight. Like Batman himself in this episode, he’s great when he’s being blustery on the street, and then weak when he’s being sincere.

This is also a gorgeously animated episode. Boyd Kirkland and Sunrise create lush and sweeping images, especially Batman’s one man raid on the Jazzman’s hideout. And Michael McCuistion uses the Jazzman’s jazz and the somber setting to create one of the more evocative, emotional scores of the series.

I just wish such A-list work could have supported a better story.

 

Off Balance”
Written by Len Wein
Directed by Kevin Altieri
Episode #050
Music Composed by Mark Koval, Michael McCuistion
Animation by Sunrise
Original Airdate - November 23rd, 1992

Plot: The perception warping Vertigo and the Society of Shadows steal a sonic drill from Wayne Enterprises, and Batman must team up with the mysterious Talia to recover it.

Oh, hello McCuiston and Sunrise! So this is what you look like when working on a good script.

Of course, that the script for “Off Balance” is good is something of a surprise, since Len Wein is also responsible for “Moon of the Wolf,” the absolute worst episode of Batman: The Animated Series. The major difference is that there, Wein was directly adapting a terrible issue of Batman, whereas here he’s loosely adapting one of the best issues, Detective Comics #411, “Into the Den of the Death-Dealers,” the issue that introduced Talia al Ghul.

Len Wein’s script is a master class in economic storytelling, introducing three new villains, a secret society, and the DC Animated Universe’s first major on-going story arc, a conflict that spills out over a half-dozen more episodes and into two other series. Wein does this by giving just enough information about everyone. Ra’s al Ghul, the arch villain in charge, isn’t ever named and only appears in a cameo at the end, but he’s voiced by David Warner and swears this isn’t over, so we know he’s a big deal. Vertigo, a complicated and conflicted anti-hero in the comics, is reduced to his super power, a cool visual, and an inexplicable German accent, provided by Michael York. And everything  we learn about the Society of Shadows we learn in the first few minutes: they are involved in a lot of crime in Gotham; each member is a ninja with Wolverine claws; and they would rather kill themselves than be captured.

But the focus of “Off Balance” is  Talia, Ra’s daughter, who is as much a Bond girl as her dad is a Bond villain. She’s the classic femme fatale, a seductive beauty that professes to love Batman but betrays him again, and again, and again, her mysterious, duplicitous nature conveyed by hiding half her face at all times. Supergirl Helen Slater gives Talia a vague Mediterranean accent, reflective of her Bond girl influences, Hebrew name, and Arabic father. That she has any accent is a little weird, considering her father, who is also Arabic and has lived for 700 years, has the perfect British tones of David Warner. Of course, if I could sound like David Warner, I would too.

Wein really nails the Talia/Batman relationship. In contrast to Catwoman, who Batman refuses to encourage, Batman immediately hits on Talia. And Talia continues to flirt with Batman even after she betrays him. (“It could have been... sweet.”) Their mutual attraction is based on competence. Batman sees that Talia is a badass martial artist, and Talia warms to him after he navigates a death trap laboratory. The line, “I don’t do ‘helpless’” is admittedly pretty sexy (and where was this Batman last episode?). Clearly, the perfect woman for Batman would be a female superhero. Too bad there aren’t any... yet.

There’s an unusual moment at the end. Talia and Batman recover the sonic drill a little after midnight, and then there’s a tasteful fade to dawn as Batman leaves with an awkward “Well, this was fun....” Please provide your own theories about what they were doing for those few hours before Batman had to take off.

This is also a very violent episode! Besides the two Shadows who kill themselves (or rather, “erase their own minds”), two other characters fall to their deaths. Sure, they fall into water, but unlike the Joker, there’s no hint that we’ll see them again, and in fact we never, ever do. For such a brutal episode, it’s a little surprising that the villainous organization is called the Society of Shadows instead of the League of Assassins. We can watch a snitch, named Twitch, played by veteran snitch Chick Vennera, drown, but we can’t call the agents that killed him assassins? (But then, Christopher Nolan did the same thing, so...)

Probably unsurprising, considering the name of the villain, but the influence of Alfred Hitchcock is all over Kevin Altieri’s direction, especially the bell tower chase at the end. Vertigo’s defeat and fall mirrors perfectly the last scene of Vertigo, naturally, while Batman and Talia fighting bad guys and figuring out if they can trust each other recalls Hitchcock’s spy films like North by Northwest and The Man Who Knew Too Much. And the opening on the Statue of Liberty (Or, rather, Gotham’s Statue of Justice) homages the end of Saboteur.

Not that aping Hitchcock is Altieri’s only card. The sequences involving Vertigo’s nauseating powers are impressively disorienting, using a garish yellow, rack focus techniques, and McCuistion’s unsettling score to place the viewer in Batman’s nightmarish world. Or, rather, Talia’s world, since Batman can do what the viewer can’t, close his eyes and use his other senses to understand what’s going on. By saying he closed his eyes, Altieri and Wein reveal that we the audience never really see things the way Batman does, and from the outside Batman is scary impressive.


Steven Padnick is a freelance writer and editor. By day. You can find more of his writing and funny pictures at padnick.tumblr.com.

10 comments
Donald Simmons
1. Donald Simmons
When those two guys fall a couple of hundred feet from the statue into the water in Off Balance, even as a kid I knew that they were definitely dead.
Donald Simmons
2. Hedgehog Dan
"If I wanted this level of self-pity in a superhero, I’d read Spider-Man."

Well, yeah, I agree that Spider-Man is prone to wallow in self-pity, yet I'd like to read when despite all of his neurosis, he is friendly, neighbourhood and funny.

But it is pretty off-topic, I know.
Andrew Timm
3. csurge
Ugh. Two of my least favourite episodes. Parker's endless Emo fits are probably why I outgrew him at the age of ten. Yes, it happened that early. My problem with him is that he doesn't know what he wants. Being a superhero comes at a cost, my friend. Make up your mind. Normal life or extraordinary but ultimately lonely life. It's one or the other. You can't have both. The Emo Batman in Nolan's films was this as well. That is, Spider-man by another name...

At least "I am the Night" it was a one off for Bats. This sort of introspection and conflict about his purpose doesn't happen often, so I can forgive him for letting depression overcome him every once and a while. It's only human. And of course Alfred is always there to pick him up again.

I hate it when Batman goes into Bondish territory. For one, I hate James Bond. And for two, Ras and his b**** of a daughter have over stayed their welcome in my book. What should have been a one off villain is now for some reason A-tier and grossly overused. A Bond villain is defined as cool but ultimately shallow-- good for one movie and then thrown in the trash. That's what should have happened to Ras Al Ghul, but for some reason this asshole keeps coming back for more. Burton's Batman would just shoot him, burn the corpse to ash and be done with it.... and so would that twit Bond come to think of it. Job done, lets go home! That's how you're supposed to deal with Bond villains. -_- So as to spare the audience from their endless drivel...

Bruce's attraction to bad girls is no longer something I find particularly fascinating in and of itself. It is merely a symptom of his own dysfunctional and fractured psyche. The women themselves are rather dull and predictable in that they always fall into certain bad girl/action girl tropes. Again, the question is what do you want? Batman or Bruce Wayne? The endless pining for normal relationships when you know you are NOT normal is the very definition of insanity. Burton's Batman is still my favourite for this reason alone. He's crazy, but at least he knows he's crazy and simply accepts the situation for what it is

You forgot Wonder Woman.... or doesn't she qualify as a female superhero? I mean if nerds like us can't see her that way, then how will she ever gain wider acceptance by the general public? Her relative failure as a superhero is an interesting topic in itself. DC don't know what to do with her, and thus she has never been fully realized as a character. Like most of the other League members, nobody gets her because she was never allowed to grow up. A Batman/Wonder Woman relationship was hinted at in the JL cartoons, by the way. This was an interesting development because Diana wasn't a bad girl, and was very much a match for Bruce on every level. Not only that, but she can kick the asses of any of his previous flames without breaking a sweat. It's never been a relationship pursued outside the cartoons through because DC won't let WW grow up. There's only one guy for her apparently, and that's Superman... or some dull military dude nobody cares about.
Andrew Timm
4. csurge
Hmmmm. Maybe I was babbling a bit up there. Chalk it up to Ras hate... it's been building for quite a while. The point I'd like you address most, though, is exclusion of Diana from "female superheroes". I'd like you elaborate on that a bit more, Steven. Do you mean more precisely a non-powered female superhero? Because I am definitely calling you out on this.
Andrew Timm
5. csurge
I'm waiting. And why so quiet, Mr. Bennett? I'm not letting this slide. And I'm not here to spam or troll, but I will keep asking in any subsequent episode analysis if you insist on ignoring me here.

Either remove the line from your article or tell me why Diana doesn't count. Or give more context to your statement. This is why you have a comments section, yes?
Bridget McGovern
6. BMcGovern
@csurge: Just to be clear, we have a comment section on the site to allow for further discussion of the articles (for anyone who wants to take part; there's nothing mandatory about it). It does not exist so that people can demand answers from the bloggers who contribute to the site (or from other commenters, for that matter)--the bloggers themselves are under no obligation to engage in the comments or respond to anyone; it's completely up to them, and not all of them do. So feel free to comment and pose questions, but please be civil about it, and understand that you might not get an answer--this isn't a cross-examination. Here's a link to our Moderation Policy, for further reference.
Andrew Timm
7. csurge
Alright. I'll back off. Thanks for the link.
Donald Simmons
8. Oriares
I think what Steven is getting at is that there are no female superheroes in the world of Batman: The Animated Series at the time this episode takes place. Wonder Woman is still at home on her island with the rest of the Amazons. At this point, Batman hasn't even met Superman yet.
Andrew Timm
9. csurge
@Oriares

Yeah, I'm guessing that's what meant. My sincere apologies to Steven and all the regulars for going off like that. It's sort of a hot topic for me. Bruce's relationships with women have become more and more aggravating over the years. I'm sick of the whole business really. They think I enjoy Batman being some kind of Bond pimp daddy. All it really shows is that he hasn't grown up... and neither have the writers. I'm dropping this now... because it will become contentious later on in the series. I'll bite my tongue then, too, so don't worry.

Sorry again to Steven, Mr. Bennett and all the regulars. I didn't mean to come off like a dick. And keep up your great articles, Steven. I look forward to them every week. :)
Christopher Bennett
10. ChristopherLBennett
Somehow I missed this one until now.

I couldn't disagree more about "I Am the Night" -- I think it's one of the series' finest, richest episodes, a rare chance to delve more deeply into the characters. Bruce's response to Gordon getting shot is perfectly understandable, because he was suffering from depression and despair. Depression is a clinical condition whose effects on judgment and behavior are well-documented. It makes you want to give up, makes you feel that nothing you do makes a difference and that there's no point in carrying on. Rational arguments don't matter, because the feeling overwhelms you and you concoct rationalizations to justify it. Of course Bruce's decision to quit didn't make rational sense, because his depression was blinding him to reason. That's how it works. Bruce felt that if he couldn't even save Gordon, then it meant he was fooling himself to think his actions made any difference at all. More fundamentally, he was just hurting so deeply that he didn't think he could go on. That scene where he tossed the cape and cowl off a cliff? That's as close as they could get on FOX Kids to hinting that Batman was having suicidal thoughts.

And sure, the dialogue and philosophy weren't especially subtle, but as much adult appeal as this show had, it was made with younger viewers in mind. For a "kids" cartoon shown on a weekday afternoon to feature quotations from philosophers and themes as dark as these was remarkable and commendable. And if it was a little melodramatic at times, what is Batman if not grand opera?

I was never particularly fond of "Off Balance." For one thing, I'm pretty sure there was a line of dialogue about the guy who fell off the statue into the water surviving, or a bit of animation of him moving after he hit the water, so that undermined the credibility for me. And I wasn't too impressed by Count Vertigo or by Helen Shaver's performance as Talia. I think I was also annoyed by the technobabble explanation of the vertigo device -- they said it affected the eyes, but a vertigo-inducing device should use sonics to affect the inner ear. All in all, it was an underwhelming prologue to the more effective "The Demon's Quest."

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