What is it? – A live-action stage performance following the Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder vs. Gotham City’s gallery of rogues
When we left off, the Joker had taken young Dick Grayson hostage to serve as bait to lure Batman to him. One could safely assume that Batman would be coming after the Joker sooner or later anyway, having pieced together his whereabouts from Zucco’s grim rictus and the fact that the circus is a clown’s natural habitat. However, this show doesn’t give us much of Batman being a detective, which is definitely a weakness, as oh, what was that comic that Batman first appeared in? I think it was “Lucky Coincidence Comics #27”, right? No. No, it was “Detective Comics #27”, and don’t you forget it (well, I suppose I can forgive it if you forget the exact issue number).
See, one of the main hooks of Batman as a hero is not just that he is a physical powerhouse or has tons of cool gadgets (which are both true), it’s also that he’s intelligent and resourceful. Batman Live gives us plenty of brawn but is slight on the brains. Brains play into the Batman mythology in myriad ways, especially when it comes to the villains. Considering their motives, the best of them have a psychological angle… it’s not just that they want to kill/defeat/destroy Batman. The Riddler challenges the world’s greatest detective with fiendish puzzles. Dichotomy-obsessed Two-Face would try to weaken Batman’s beliefs by highlighting the inherent hypocrisies of a violent vigilante thinking himself a champion of peace. Poison Ivy does what she can to remind Batman that he is not truly super-human, that he is manipulable on a base and primal level. Bane muses out loud in The Dark Knight Rises, “I was wondering what would break first… your spirit or your body?”
The villains of Gotham are all fighting to prove Batman’s ideals wrong; they fight to demonstrate that people prefer chaos, depravity, violence, selfishness, deceit, subjugation, etc. They might as well all have bumper stickers reading, “My Philosophy Can Beat Up Your Philosophy”. So building from that, as much as we enjoy watching Batman kick some henchman ass, we also enjoy watching him figure shit out.
So… we left Dick suspended in the air by the Joker, for ‘target practice’. He even had his minions roll out oversized novelty revolvers, fancy props which I do not recall their actually being used. Whoops! Anyway, now that we have intermissed, Dick is nowhere to be seen, and the Joker and Harley have a pretty enjoyable scene wherein Harley serves as a hesitant-but-never-defiant guinea pig for several stage magic set-pieces the Joker has modified as death traps. After some fun there, Batman arrives, a ruckus is rucked during which Dick fights alongside Batman, and Harley is detained while the Joker escapes. This sequence also features a big weird Joker head setpiece featuring acrobats as individual teeth… they writhe and sway around and it’s really creepy, sure, and I suppose I shouldn’t devote too much care over where/why the Joker would have commissioned the creation of such a thing, but I just thought it was worth mentioning. If the Scarecrow were around during the sequence, it could have made sense as a hallucination induced by his fear gas, but up ’til now Scarecrow hasn’t even been mentioned (and when he is mentioned later it seems like he’s been in Arkham Asylum this entire time).
The dust settles, Harley’s off to Arkham, Joker’s off to who-knows-where (probably to commission the construction of more weird giant things with his face on them… foreshadowing?), and Dick and Bruce are back at Wayne Manor. It’s been an itching suspicion thus far but around here is when it’s confirmed that the meat of this story is much more about Robin than anybody else, with Batman essentially a sidelines saves-the-day-when-necessary character. It’d be more appropriate to call the show “Robin Live! Featuring Batman”. Dick decides that he wants to fight crime like Batman, but Bruce is hesitant to let this happen. There is discussion about motivation, safety, impetus… do you want justice, or do you just want revenge? Bruce and Dick reminisce about things before crime changed their lives, and engage in a ‘dad-off’. Dick’s dad took him to see Robin Hood twice, but Bruce’s dad took him to see Zorro three times. Wayne 1, Grayson 0! But now they’re both dead. Okay, Bruce Wayne says, I will endanger a child’s safety because he liked a movie. It’s never really clear how old Dick is supposed to be, though the giant chair gag earlier seems to suggest he’s still quite young and physically slight.
So it is off to the Batcave to begin the training in earnest! The giant screen backdrop gets some exercise here and we are presented with an elevator-style descent into the depths of the Batcave. And holy crap. It is so large as to approach parody. I wasn’t aware that Wayne Manor was built atop the Mines of Moria. The space depicted has gotta be millions of cubic feet of open space. There’s a tyrannosaurus rex statue for some reason. I think it was three or four levels down that there was a parking garage for helicopters. I am not exaggerating, there are like six stories of storage for helicopters, and a landing pad at the end of a walkway extending out over the abyss. How does a helicopter even behave aerodynamically in this kind of space? This much Batcave strains credulity, but we descend yet another level or two before rejoining Bruce and Dick. I think we’re past the Earth’s crust now.
Bruce’s ultimate justification for training Dick as his ward is that, well, Dick knows Batman’s secret identity, and this puts him at risk. Never mind that Bruce voluntarily told Dick he was Batman… seems Bruce needs to justify it to himself more than anyone else. Alfred will assist in the training as, in an economical “ah, of course” kind of moment, he casually drops that he was actually a British special forces agent. There are assorted histories for Alfred Pennyworth, but it is pretty common for his background to include military/secret agent training.
Bruce also takes this opportunity to show off the Batmobile! That’s always fun. Much is made in the show’s promotional materials that the Batmobile on-stage was designed by Gordon Murray, a legit high-performance race car engineer and the designer of the McLaren F1, a car I was totes obsessed with in my teens. Here’s what he came up with. I have mixed feelings all over the place about it. As Bruce explains, it doesn’t actually have wheels. Instead, it has anti-gravity something-or-others with rings of LEDs on the side to look like wheels. Since just floating in place isn’t particularly useful, it also has an afterburner, and because it has no windows it’s equipped with bat-like sonar. It’s got some weapons too!
Bruce says, check these out… I’m paraphrasing. But then several fireworks are shot off into the arena space. Oh cool, one thinks. Missiles or something. But little Dick Grayson, he knows better than all of us.
“Wow! Laser flares!” I am not paraphrasing.
What? What the hell is a laser flare? I’m going to lean on this a bit, because this is one of the sure-fire ways to kill immersion in any story is to have a character blurt out excitedly the name of something that doesn’t exist, is not explained in any way, and we are expected to be impressed by it. My favorite example of this came from a creationist Christmas extravaganza I saw once about a decade ago (I was morbidly curious). The production attempted to retell the book of Genesis with pseudoscientific religious jargon and… hmm, elaborate costumes, theatrical set pieces and acrobatics. I described it then as “Church du Soleil”. Anyway, it starts with a grandpa and his grandson fishing. The boy asks how we got here and–lo and behold–as grandpa explains, their little rowboat is lifted on cables above the audience. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. But then, a horrible misunderstanding of quantum physics is applied as, in this emptiness, little firefly-like particles start zipping around, crashing into each other and sparkling as the boy looks on. “Wow!” he exclaims. “Quantum irregularities!”
“Wow! Made-up bullshit nobody’s ever heard of before!” Ahem. Pardon my diversion.
Look, Dick Grayson is the son of circus performers. What does he know about bleeding-edge projectile weaponry? We know that “laser flare” is the in-world name of this technology, because Bruce is not immediately like, “no, you dumbass, those are just missiles”. Get right down to it, though, they’re just flares. If putting “laser” in front of things makes them sound cool and high-tech, well, I thank you for reading my laser blog.
So, Dick’s training begins, weeks pass, and we jet off to Arkham to check in on our beloved villains. Catwoman gives Harley a hard time for her psychotic devotion to the Joker, as though it were not actually the deep mental disorder it actually is. After having convinced herself for weeks that the Joker would be along any minute to break her out, he appears! Except, he’s breaking in, and he’s taking control of the Asylum. For the record, taking over Arkham Asylum is easily in the top five things the Joker likes to do.
When news of this reaches the Batcave, Batman suits up and prepares to set out. The Joker demands Batman come alone, so he forces Robin to stay behind, despite his spirited protestations. We get a run-down of the rogues gallery c/o The Big Board, and we learn that in addition to the foes Batman fought earlier, Scarecrow and Poison Ivy are also there. Roster bloat! Batman is off, and the giant backdrop screen gets a chance to flex its muscle, so it’s time to spool up the CG-animated car sequence! Batman races through Gotham, avoiding semi trucks, falling debris, takes the Batmobile off some sweet jumps, and then does it all over again, several times more than is really necessary. The sequence was so lengthy that I was sure it was to distract us from what must have been an impressive stage change. Plenty of time the stagehands needed to get stuff set up… when our attention was to go back, surely there would be an impressive facade as we had not yet witnessed before.
Nah, stage is empty.
I take that back, several chains descend from the ceiling as the backdrop zooms into the halls of Arkham Asylum. Chains upon which hang corpses wrapped in fabric, suspended like victims in a stylized torture dungeon. Again, like the weird Joker face piece earlier, it’s uncharacteristically creepy, but at least this time it is because the Scarecrow is involved. Scarecrow looks very much like he does in the animated series, only for the stage he is portrayed by a stilt walker, so he towers over Batman with freakishly long arms and legs. That works, well enough. He blasts Batman with fear gas (just smoke vents down the center of the stage), menaces over him for a bit, then wanders off as Poison Ivy descends on a vine trapeze from… you know, above. Somewhere. There’s a little bit of aerial ballet, she tries to seduce Batman, fails, and also wanders off, clocking in maybe an entire minute of stage time.
This show just doesn’t seem to care about its other villains, does it? Robin appears just in time to help Batman fight off the advancing horde of inmates, led by the Joker and Harley. Two-Face, the Riddler, and the Penguin are somewhere in the crowd as well but you’d be damned if any effort is made to highlight their presence. Catwoman switches sides again and helps Batman and Robin gain the upper hand and restore order.
But what of the Joker? After ducking out during the fracas, he emerges in… wait for it… a big hot air balloon with his face on it! Sorry if I gave that away earlier. Harley, so upset that the Joker is running off without her, fires a rocket (not a laser flare) from a bazooka and sends him crashing in flaming wreckage into the harbor. Batman begrudgingly thanks Robin for his assistance, they let Catwoman slip away before the police arrive, and the dynamic duo disappear into the night as well, ready to fight on as a team.
Afterthoughts and analysis coming soon!