Author’s note: A version of this post originally appeared on my old site, The Ink and Pixel Club.
Comparing two works based on the same source material can lead to interesting discoveries. Seeing how the same story is handled can reveal the differences in the filmmakers and their approaches to their craft. If can highlight the strengths and weaknesses of different media. Or, as with the two works we’re going to look at today, it can reveal a much broader concept, like the positive side of limitations.
Batman is an ideal subject for this kind of comparison. DC’s dark knight has been repeatedly reinterpreted for different media, different audiences, and different times. Yet in nearly every new version, a few key elements remain the same, keeping the result recognizably Batman. The part of the Batman mythos that we’ll be examining today is the death of the Graysons, a key moment in the origin of Batman’s sidekick, Robin.
Okay friends, it looks like I am the “closer,” so to speak, for our month of posts about Batman: The Animated Series. It will be sad to see Batman go away for a little while, but don’t forget about our Bat-month Viewing Event on May 10th. More details at the end of this post.
And now we move on to my episode of choice: Mudslide
Warning: Not only am I assuming that you have watched Mudslide, I am also assuming that you have watched the rest of the series.
I chose this episode for several reasons. I not only wanted to choose an episode that I really liked, but also one that would give me a lot to talk about. Mudslide is one of my favorites because it is so well animated, features yet another compelling story about a rather tragic villain, and is lovingly peppered with references to classic Hollywood. How’s that for classy?
First things first: Clayface is a feat of animation. He allows the writers and animators a great deal of creativity in the way he fights, moves, and even dies. This also makes him extremely expensive/time consuming to animate. To be honest, when you think about it, it was amazing that they were able to budget for the first 2-part Clayface episode, let alone bring him back again for such a powerful conclusion to his story. Still, I bet he is a dream to write in that he can do almost anything. Need a blade in a fight? He can turn his arm into one. Need a clever way to escape? Take out the guard, morph into his double, and walk right out. He can be frozen, broken into pieces and put back together again. Oh yeah, and all that happens in this episode.
As many of us may or may not know, Batman:TAS reimagined the origin of Clayface for the series. Or to be more precise, he is a combination of the first two Clayface villains: Basil Karlo, a character actor, and Matt Hagen, a treasure hunter. The animated Clayface has Hagen’s name but Karlo’s profession. He was a successful actor until an accident robbed him of his handsome face. In a desperate attempt to save his career, Hagen began using Renuyu – an experimental and highly addictive face-lift in a can given to him by Roland Daggett. Without spending too much time on backstory, the cream turned Hagen into Clayface – a creature that, while unstable, has the ability to morph into anyone.
By the time we get to the events in Mudslide, Clayface is quite literally falling apart. He is desperate to save himself and get his life back, even if that means resorting to drastic measures to do so. Clayface is a bad guy by necessity and his crimes become worse the more desperate he gets. In fact, he is willing to kill to save his own hide. He has managed to find himself a crazy fangirl doctor to take care of him. She has created a suit to keep his form together when he gets tired and is working on new ways to restore him to the man he once was. The trouble starts when the best cure she has found involves stealing a rare isotope from Wayne BioMedicals. Batman’s got your number now, son!
Batman catches Clayface and his lady in the middle of what could very well be his cure. Batman chooses to stop the treatment just as it is beginning to work. The sad thing here is just how close Clayface was to just being Matt Hagen again. In fact, some could argue that Batman pulls a bit of a dick move. Twice already Batman has offered to help cure Hagen, but if he tries to do it with stolen materials and not HIS WAY, Batman is not going to let anything slide. He instead rips all hope away and fights with Hagen, who is pretty much out for his blood at this point. That being said, it is hard to argue with the B-man’s sense of justice here. Hagen certainly did go about things the wrong way and if things went wrong in the lab, who knows what could have happened.
And yet the writing and characterization are just so stellar that you can’t help but want Hagen to at least have had some chance of being whole again. Even if Hagen is also kinda the self-serving sort who uses horrible lines from his movies to convince his girlfriend that he loves her… Then again, he is voiced by Ron Perlman, so there might be some of us out there who are preconditioned to automatically love someone who has his voice… And who maybe can speak French… And was once a carnival strongman who likes to save orphaned children from mad scientists… *snaps back* But I digress, back to Batman!
I guess my whole point here is that you can still feel sympathy for Clayface. And to be perfectly honest, I was sad to see that even Batman couldn’t save him in the end.
Phew! I hope that I have convinced of the pure awesome-itude of the episode by now, but if not, I have one last argument and that is – Hollywood baby! This episode is dripping in references to the grand world of classic film. When Clayface is wearing his suit, he looks suspiciously like a walking Oscar statue. Alfred does “research” by reading a pile of Hollywood gossip rags. And the animators were even able to sneak in an extra old-school Warner Brothers logo at the end of one of Hagen’s films.
The best of these references comes in the form of Hagen’s devoted if not a little creepy doctor/girlfriend, Stella Bates. With a name like that we not only get the infamous calling out of “STELLA!”, but we also get a totally straight-faced Batman informing us of how Doctor Bates used to own a motel, but was forced to sell it to fund her work with Clayface.
So there you have it – another example of why this show was (and remains) so special. Not only was the animation impressive on its own, but the stories were written with a real love of the material while still keeping the Batman universe accessible for those who were being introduced to it for the first time. Hollywood references could bridge the age-gap, but reaching across all of that was the attention to character development and story. The characters remained with so many of us to this day, and that is truly something to celebrate.
Had enough of our favorite episodes and want to choose your own? Vote in our poll and then join us at Bat-night, May 10th at 7pm at Comicazi in Somerville, MA. We will be watching all the episodes we featured this month, including the winner of our poll. Come, watch, hang out, and eat free Batman-themed snacks. Hope to see you there!