“The Demon’s Quest, Part 1”
Written by Dennis O’Neil
Directed by Kevin Altieri
Music Composed by Michael McCuistion
Animation by Tokyo Movie Shinsha Co.
Original Airdate—May 3rd, 1993
Plot: Robin disappears, and mystery man Ra’s al Ghul walks into the Batcave, telling Batman he can lead him to the man who took the Boy Wonder and Ra’s’s daughter, Talia.
Let’s talk about Dennis O’Neil for a minute.
If you’ve enjoyed basically any Batman story in the last 40 years, you can thank Denny O’Neil. It was O’Neil who, in the wake of the 1960s TV series, redefined Batman as a vengeance-fueled obsessive crime fighting machine. He’s the one who reintroduced the Joker as a homicidal maniac in “The Joker’s Five Way Revenge” (which was partial inspiration for “The Laughing Fish” episode). His version inspired Frank Miller and it was O’Neil who hired Miller to create The Dark Knight Returns. And in the ‘90s, O’Neil was the Group Editor of the Batman family of titles, overseeing storylines from A Death in the Family to Knightfall and No Man’s Land.
(Additionally, O’Neil changed Green Arrow into a left-wing activist, put Jim Rhodes in the Iron Man armor, and named Optimus Prime. He also depowered Wonder Woman and put her in a white jump suit, so they can’t all be winners.)
And he created Ra’s al Ghul.
Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams introduced Ra’s al Ghul (Arabic for “the head of the demon”) in Batman #232, “The Daughter of the Demon,” which “The Demon’s Quest, Part 1” adapts almost word for word. Ra’s was a new kind of Batman villain. Even at their most powerful (looking at you, Clayface), most Batman villains have very basic motivations and goals: revenge, survival, greed. Ra’s al Ghul is the head of a large secret society who uses Lazarus Pits, special pools of chemicals that have kept him alive for 600 years. His goals are just much bigger, on a scale of remaking the world in his own image.
The usual comparison is to a Bond villain, and certainly that influence can be seen here. Part 1 follows the basic plot of a Bond film: our hero travels the globe from exotic location to exotic location before tackling the villain’s mountain lair, and the gun toting minions on skis are right out of The Spy Who Loved Me. But Ra’s also draws on a much older, and unfortunately much more racist, villain trope of the mysterious, semi-mystical, Oriental puppetmaster, such as Fu Manchu and, well, the Mandarin. Ra’s unfortunate facial hair doesn’t help matters.
What does help is David Warner, who provides Ra’s voice. Warner is a veteran of countless genre movies and shows (including a recent episode of Doctor Who) playing a range of characters, but as anyone who has seen “Chain of Command, Part 2” can tell you, when he’s evil he’s very, very evil indeed. He imbues each word with such cruel intelligence that you sense Ra’s pitiless disdain. Really, why hasn’t Warner shown up on Game of Thrones yet? He also seems to having a lot of fun, like he finds his grandiose dialogue delicious, and O’Neil keeps feeding him great lines like “I am he who is called Ra’s al Ghul.” Seriously, that’s how the suave motherfucker introduces himself after strolling into the Batcave like it ain’t no thing. I’m going to try that at my next party.
And as much as Ra’s is a departure for Batman villains in general, he fits right into the ethos of Batman: the Animated Series. Dark reflection of Batman? Check, especially when he wears his pointy eared Anubis mask and a cape. Surrogate father figure? Check. For a villain, Ra’s is incredibly supportive of Batman, constantly telling him how smart he is, how brave, how good. And finally, Ra’s gets dumped into a pool of green goo, only to emerge stronger, violent, and cackling his fool head off, which ties him directly to Batman’s other arch foe.
(Quickly, has anyone done a story revealing the toxic chemicals the Joker fell into was an attempt to create a Lazarus Pit? Because that would explain his madness, strength, and inability to die.)
Not that some changes haven’t been made to fit Ra’s into the show. The “League of Assassins” is changed into the “Society of Shadows.” And the magical nature of the Lazarus Pit is toned down. No more talk of leylines and earth goddesses. It’s just a naturally occurring spring of “unknown chemicals” that happens to revive the dying. We also have only Ra’s word to go on that he’s actually 600 years old, and Ra’s is not exactly reliable.
To get to the episode at hand, we immediately know that something’s off because we get a prologue before the title card. Then Ra’s simply walks into the Batcave and kicks off the plot. Ra’s deduced Batman identity in almost exactly the same way the Penguin found Batman’s mechanic, which implies basically anyone who’s interested could have found out who Batman really is.
It’s a good thing David Warner has such a great voice, because boy does Ra’s al Ghul talk. And talk. And talk. We only see the highlights, the moments of their trip interrupted by assassins and wildcats, but Batman must have spent hours with Ra’s flying from continent to continent. Did Ra’s spend the whole time personally blaming Batman for the destruction of the rainforest when he wasn’t remembering how his friend Napoleon told him this or how the Czar gave him that?
Batman show remarkable, possibly uncharacteristic, patience throughout the episode. Because he’s a detective, as Ra’s constantly points out, Batman knows from the beginning that the man in the green suit is the one responsible for the disappearance of the closest thing Batman has to a son. But instead of beating the truth out of Ra’s or dangling him off Gotham Tower, Batman resignedly plays along with Ra’s’s dumbshow until it’s revealed it is all one, long, extremely dangerous job interview.
Ra’s wants Batman to take over the Society of Shadows, and despite Batman’s immediate refusal, the show does a good job of showing why such an offer would be tempting. First of all, the Society is a giant resource which, added to Wayne Enterprises, could be used to reshape the world. Secondly, the Lazarus Pits mean Batman could continue his mission indefinitely, something that’s maybe more of a concern after last week’s brush with mortality. Third, Ra’s could step in as the father Batman lost, constantly reassuring him that he’s doing the right thing, that he’s making the world a better place, that Batman should be proud. And finally, there’s Talia.
Where I have a problem with this episode is the treatment of Talia. In “Off Balance,” Talia was Batman’s equal, a badass spy who could make her own way out of a castle full of deathtraps. Here she’s a hiring bonus, bait Ra’s can dangle in front of Batman. The difference in characterization is obvious in her clothes. When she’s a super spy, she wears a black jumpsuit with a utility belt and a gun. Now she’s wearing silk pajamas with a cleavage window, bare midriff, waist high slits, and a crotch diamond. It’s possible her reduced power reflects her father’s stated sexism, as Ra’s believes only a man can take over for him (Poison Ivy would be pissed).
Visually, the episode is a treat. The action scenes are good, and better for building on what came before, so that each fight seems more difficult. But it’s really the little moments that sell the show. The way Ra’s has crazy eyes while watching Batman fight. Bruce’s genuine concern every time Ra’s has a coughing fit. How Talia sidles up to Bruce to get his attention, and ends up getting Robin’s instead. And finally, how Ra’s eyes glow red as he emerges from the Lazarus Pit, letting us know that Batman has stepped out of the frying pan, and into the fire.
“The Demon’s Quest, Part 2”
Story by Dennis O’Neil, Len Wein
Teleplay by Len Wein
Directed by Kevin Altieri
Music composed by Harvey R. Cohen
Animation by Tokyo Movie Shinsha Co.
Original Airdate—May 4th, 1993
Plot: Batman must infiltrate Ra’s al Ghul’s desert stronghold before al Ghul uses the Lazarus Pits to kill half the Earth
Boy, things really get crazy in the second half.
Whether that’s because Len Wein (who wrote “Off Balance”) takes over for script duties, or because this is a much looser adaptation of Batman #244, “The Demon Lives Again!”, than Part 1 was of Batman #232, or it’s simply natural for a slow burn to lead to a huge explosion, but the change in tone is obvious. Part 1 was a drawing room mystery (who kidnapped Robin?) disguised as a travelogue. Part 2 is a straight up pulp war story involving immortality pits, self-destructing bases, and a swordfight for the lives of billions. Part 2 just feels more epic than any episode we’ve seen so far.
Part of that is the raised stakes. Like I said earlier, Ra’s is playing at a different level than Batman’s other villains. Batman is usually trying to save one person at a time. And while we’ve seen mass attacks before, Ra’s tries to kill 1000 times more people than the population of Gotham. “Two-billion, fifty-six-million, nine-hundred and eighty-six thousand,” as he tells Batman. That he knows how many people he will kill sets Ra’s apart from the other villains. He knows the horrible consequences of his actions. He just doesn’t care.
Also adding to the epic feel is the rising action. My favorite director Kevin Altieri and Tokyo Movie Shinsha, who handle both halves of the story, really build to an explosive finale, with Batman facing Ra’s goons until there are just too many of them for him to handle. There are some great action moments here too, Batman stalking the caravan exactly as the panther had stalked Batman, Ubu seeing through Batman’s disguise almost instantly, a rematch with Ubu as precurser to the main event, the fight with a rejuvenated Ra’s, who after his trip through the Lazarus Pit is now bouncing around like a Gummi Bear and quick to tear of his shirt. Altieri also includes visual nods to other pulp classics Lawrence of Arabia, Raiders of the Lost Ark (especially in Harvey Cohen’s score) and Errol Flynn’s Adventures of Robin Hood for the swordfight at the end.
Okay, the swordfight. The shirtless swordfight is iconic, and most of what Wein and O’Neil took from Batman #244, the biggest difference being that in the ‘90s version, Ra’s and Bruce wax their chests. It’s also extremely Oedipal. Here’s Batman fighting an older version of himself for control of the world. That they are half naked and hitting each other with phallic symbols adds a sexual component to the fight, only reinforced by the role of Talia. There is an incestuous element to Talia’s worship of her father, and her attraction to Batman is explicitly related to how much Batman is like her father. Ra’s, on the other hand, seems to have eyes only for Batman, whispering how brave Batman is to come face him. And once Ra’s is defeated, Talia asks Batman if she is to become his prisoner, with the subtext that she’s practically begging to become his prisoner. Yikes! No wonder Bruce is quick to hop in the plane with Dick and fly away.
Oh yeah, Robin is also in this episode. I understand why he has a small role in Part 1, but he’s barely in Part 2 either. You’d think Batman would have liked some help saving billions of lives, but no, except for a good line about missing his thermal tights, Robin spends most of the episode hanging out in the plane.
Also, Batman is pretty quick to dismiss Robin’s concerns that Ra’s al Ghul could come back. Nevermind that Ra’s’s chosen method of suicide was to fall into the life-giving pit, Bruce, you’ve fought the Joker before! They always come back! It’s not much of surprise that the last shot we see is Ra’s hand dragging him out of the pit, and the last thing we hear is laughter. Laughter. Laughter.