Tue
Jul 30 2013 2:00pm
Batman: The Animated Series Rewatch: “Lock-Up” & “Make ‘Em Laugh”

“Lock-Up”
Story by Paul Dini
Teleplay by Marty Isenberg, Robert N. Skir
Directed by Dan Riba
Episode #082
Music Composed by Kristopher Carter, Brian Langsbard
Animation by Dong Yang Animation, Inc.
Original Airdate—November 19th, 1994

Plot: Lock-Up, a new, more vicious, vigilante appears in Gotham, determined to imprison the “real criminals”—cops, politicians, and psychiatrists who have gone too easy on the inmates of Arkham.

“Lock-Up” is in many ways the climax to Batman: the Animated Series’ ongoing debate between vigilante justice and legal authority. Ever since Jonathan Crane sought “justice” by terrorizing his old university back in “Nothing to Fear,” BTAS has been trying to demonstrate the difference between Batman’s “good” extra-legal crime fighting and the “bad” tactics of the sometimes completely justified criminals he fights. And the answer, it turns out, is compassion.

The problem I have with “Trial” is that it addresses the issue of whether Batman creates his own villains (he does not) but ignores the larger, real question about the ethics of vigilantism. There are serious problems with anyone, even genius billionaire ninjas, fighting crime without being accountable to society at large. In the real world, vigilantism leads to harassment, intimidation, abuse, and eventually murder. But as Batman is our hero, BTAS can only address the problems of vigilantism by creating a worse vigilante for Batman to fight.

Visually and thematically, Lock-Up is a mash up of the Punisher and Judge Dredd, popular comic book anti-heroes who have no mercy for criminals. Of course, like Jonah Hex, Lock-Up is hobbled by Broadcast Standards and Practices, so he can’t just shoot Harley Quinn, Scarecrow, and Scarface in the head (well, maybe Scarface). That said, Lock-Up still works, because a villain obsessed with locks and traps makes a great foil for Batman the escape artist. Dini, Isenberg, and Skir find great, inventive ways for Lock-Up to use traps against Batman, including putting a boot on the Batmobile.

But, beyond the gimmick, what makes Lock-Up such a great antagonist is that, like the best Batman villains, he has a point. Security at Arkham is a joke. And Dr. Bartholomew and the rest of the Arkham staff are terrible at their jobs. They don’t heal any of their charges (and in the case of Two-Face, only make him worse), and they have a tendency to lock Batman up or become super-criminals themselves. Mayor Hill still has complete faith in his personal security even though he was just kidnapped by the Joker. And “Trial” and the Recidivism episodes show that these villains were and always will be villains. Shouldn’t everything be done to keep them from committing more crimes? Isn’t any action that pacifies them justified?

And the answer is no, not everything is justified, because in the end each of these villains is still a human being, deserving of empathy. The writers choose an interesting trio of crooks to represent Lock-Up’s victims. Harley Quinn, of course, is eminently sympathetic, an abuse victim who sincerely wants to get better, but can’t overcome her own paranoia. And Scarface may be a monster, but the Ventriloquist is another victim of his own madness, for whom there is hope of recovery. But the Scarecrow has never been portrayed as sympathetic or interested in reform. He’s just a sadistic bully who enjoys scaring people senseless. The last time we saw him brought into Arkham, he was ranting (beautifully) about being the “all terrifying god of fear!” But “Lock-Up” makes it clear that even he doesn’t deserve to be beaten. Even he should be treated with a minimum of human decency.

The central difference between Batman and Lock-Up, then, is compassion. We don’t usually think of Batman as an avatar of love, but it’s really his caring aspect that makes Batman heroic, and not just vengeful. He will always try to save as many people as he can, especially his villains (as he saves Lock-Up’s life in this episode). And Batman’s commitment to saving everyone does not stop at saving their lives. As we just saw in “Second Chance” and “Harley’s Holiday,” Batman wants to help people—even people who have committed horrible crimes—become better people. Batman always wants his villains to be good people, even when he doesn’t believe they’re really trying. Batman always treats his opponents as human beings, even when they are not human at all.

In comparison, Lock-Up treats his enemies like animals. He tortures, chains, electrocutes and starves criminals because he lacks empathy for them. And we see how quickly that lack of empathy for the worst of society spreads to others. Bolton’s crusade is hollow. He wants to save “innocent people,” but only he gets to decide who’s innocent, and any flaw becomes a fatal flaw. If the cops, politicians, and psychiatrists of Gotham won’t condone his actions—in fact, if they do not actively support his cause—then Bolton feels they’re “the real criminals” who should be locked up and tortured too. (Bolton’s complaint about the “permissive, liberal media” is one of the show’s few forays into political satire, as it makes Lock-Up an explicitly conservative, authoritarian villain.)

Saving Gotham by imposing his own definition of order on the populace makes Bolton no different from Ra’s al Ghul or HARDAC, other villains who would conquer the world and kill billions in order to impose their vision of order. But really, he’s no different from any of the revenge motivated villains (which is most of them), who believe their warped conception of right and wrong justifies taking violent, extra-legal actions. That Bolton is just like his victims is made crystal clear when he’s thrown into Arkham with the rest of them.

“Lock-Up” has such a great script, that so gets to the heart of what Batman is and is not, that it’s easy to ignore how amazingly good the rest of the episode is. As I said, Lock-Up has a great gimmick, so visually this episode is a treat. This is probably director Dan Riba’s best episode, especially the final fight on a sinking battleship, a literal struggle between Lock-Up’s need to trap people and Batman and Robin’s commitment to saving people. But it’s also fun to watch Bruce casually fight crime while in his day clothes, or making the baller decision to change into Batman in the middle of a revolving doorway. Veteran character actor Bruce Weitz delightfully chews the scenery as the ridiculously angry Bolton, as do series regulars Arleen Sorkin, Henry Polic II, and George Dzunzda, who get to beg for sympathy for once. And, once again, let’s remember that Kevin Conray is an amazing voice actor. When he declares “I was born to fight your brand of order,” he’s not kidding.

 

Make ‘Em Laugh”
Written by Paul Dini, Randy Rogel
Directed by Boyd Kirkland
Episode #083
Music Composed by Michael McCuistion
Animation by Dong Yang Animation, Inc.
Original Airdate—November 5th, 1994

Plot: New, comically inept supervillains appear in Gotham. When they turn out to all be stand-ups connected to an upcoming comedy contest, Batman suspects someone sinister is behind the mayhem.

After five or so weighty episodes deeply entrenched in questions of justice and mercy, reform and recidivism, it’s nice to have a straightforward superhero story against an unrepentant supervillain.

If “Beware the Gray Ghost” was a tribute to Adam West’s portrayal Batman, “Make ‘Em Laugh” is a tribute to the show in general, and its habit of getting celebrities to show up as new villains with silly gimmicks and terrible, terrible puns, like Vincent Price playing Egghead or Liberace playing Chandall. Here, that idea is literalized as the Joker brainwashes famous (fictional) comedians into becoming comically awful supervillains. “Condiment King’s” real name (Buddy Stadler) and condiment weapons suggest he’s a parody of Jerry Seinfeld, though he sounds like Larry Miller. “Pack Rat” looks and acts like a mash-up of Woody Allen and Jerry Lewis. And there’s no question “Mighty Mom” is supposed to be Rosanne Barr. And they are all really bad at being bad guys. Just pathetic.

This episode is so goofy and plays it all for camp. There’s never a sense of actual menace. No matter much the new “supervillains” are taken with themselves, immediately talking like they’re Batman’s greatest challenge, Gothamites are completely jaded and brush them off as another nuisance. When Pack Rat is firing a machine gun in a crowded department store, we’re never scared someone might get hurt. Even the Joker is relatively tame this episode. Last time, he was ten minutes from annihilating Gotham from a nuclear bomb. This time he just wants to embarrass some people and steal a tin trophy (“a new low,” according to Batman).

Though in contrast to how light most of the episode is, there is some horrific violence that’s kind of glossed over. Condiment King is shocked Batman would actually hit him, then falls five stories onto a police car, denting its roof, and the Pack Rat electrocutes himself. Condiment King must survive, if only to be fired from his job and sued, but it definitely looks like Pack Rat is dead dead dead. I guess he’s just not?

“Make ‘Em Laugh” makes a distinction between the comedian the Joker wants to be (i.e. the one who tells the jokes) and the clown he actually is (i.e. the one who gets made fun of). The Joker wants to make a commentary about the rest of society, how flawed and ridiculous it all is, but in the end the only one who looks ridiculous is himself. This is the most absolute defeat of the Joker in the whole series (with the possible exception of “Joker’s Favor.”). Not only is he arrested, he’s literally caught with his pants down in front of all of Gotham, who laugh at him until he has to hide his head in shame. He’s not laughing, or escaping, or proving himself right, or convincing Harley he still loves her. He just loses, badly. In its own way, “Make ‘Em Laugh” shows that while the Joker is a threat, but he’s no more of a threat than any of the stupid fake criminals he threw at Batman. He’s just another clown.

“Make ‘Em Laugh” has some problems. For one, it’s half-hearted in its attempt to create a mystery. Like plant-related crimes and Poison Ivy, comedians going crazy practically screams “the Joker did it,” and early on we see him (in shadow) kidnap one of the comedians. There’s a half-minute of pretending maybe the Mad Hatter did it (since he’s usually behind people acting out of character), but no, of course it’s the Joker. The episode would probably have been better either hiding the Joker’s involvement better, or doing away with any pretense of mystery. The middle ground feels lazy.

There are other oddities that just feel… off? Robin reads a newspaper about a rally for Gordon (is that an old paper, or did Gordon get arrested again?). Alfred and Robin just happened to tape last years comedy competition? They’re still going through with the competition, with no extra police presence even though all of the judges have been attacked? The Joker puts on his Shecky Rimshot costume only to immediately take it off again? I mean, the whole episode is a joke, so maybe I shouldn’t nitpick.

The only requirement of this episode is that it’s funny, and it certainly is. Condiment King is clearly wearing tighty whiteys on the on the outside of his costume. The Joker turns out to be a really good (if very old school) stand up comedian, and he gets to make this episode’s Superman reference (“Up, up and away”), as well deliver the popular version of Edmund Gwenn’s famous last words, “dying is easy, comedy is hard.” The three new crooks are perfect throwaway villains who play out every joke they have, and then are dismissed, including “Mighty Mom” being a surprisingly formidable fighter who literally spanks Robin.

As a story of Batman’s fight for justice in a crazy world, “Make ‘Em Laugh” is okay. But as a silly romp about people in silly costumes beating each other up, it’s great, and that’s all it needs to be.


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

3 comments
Tesh
1. Tesh
So wait, Lock-Up has valid points until he mentions the "liberal media", then he's a satire?
Christopher Bennett
2. ChristopherLBennett
The difference between Lock-Up and Batman isn't just about compassion, it's about the difference between ideology and pragmatism. The fact is, abuse victims become abusers. Being cruel to people just makes them crueler and more dangerous themselves. So the only realistic way to make criminals less dangerous is to rehabilitate them, to heal them, to treat them like human beings in order to teach them how to treat others thus. "Tough on crime" policies may feed people's anger and frustration about crime, and may make politicians look effective and help them get votes, but they don't actually help reduce crime. Bigger and tougher prisons just turn more people into hardened criminals, and make them worse when they get out rather than better.

So the difference between Lock-Up and Batman is the difference between someone who just wants to act all self-righteous and judgmental and someone who wants an actual solution. Batman probably feels as much rage toward these criminals as Lock-Up does, but as a victim himself, he understands that victimizing people just screws them up more. He'll fight them in order to bring them to justice, but he understands that in the long term, justice requires more than brute force. He understands that what he does is a short-term remedy, not a long-term solution. Bolton can't think in the long term like Batman can; all he sees is the simplistic, immediate "lock 'em up" solution. It's a good metaphor for the problems with tough-on-crime rhetoric. (If you ask me, fighting crime by building bigger prisons is like fighting cancer by building bigger cemeteries. It's addressing the wrong end of the problem.)

"Make 'Em Laugh" is pretty lightweight, but it's another iteration of Dini's take on the Joker as a hypocritical bully who can dish out mockery but can't take it.

By the way, both these episodes feature characters who were later added to DC Comics. Lock-Up was added to the DCU even before Harley Quinn was, and Condiment King showed up a couple of times starting in 2002 (although the DCU version is named Mitchell Mayo).
Mahesh Banavar
3. maheshkb
Steven: Are you stopping at this particular series, or will you continue with The New Batman Adventures, and perhaps even Batman Beyond?

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