Batman: The Animated Series, Episode 69: “Avatar”
Written by Michael Reaves
Directed by Kevin Altieri (who got a shout-out in Holiday Knights that I forgot to mention)
Originally Aired: May 9th, 1994
DVD: Batman TAS Volume 3
Summary: Batman gets wrapped up in “a bad Saturday morning serial”, as he re-unites with Talia al Ghul to prevent her father from obtaining an ancient Egyptian God’s secrets of immortality. Nary a blue furry to be found here.
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I was legitimately stumped on what to use here, but this is as good a time to talk about the weird nature of what’s once again one of the most important Batman stories ever published, Mike W. Barr and Jerry Bingham’s Son of the Demon.
The story, presented in graphic novel format, finds Batman investigating a hostage taking by a group of terrorists at a Gotham chemical storage facility, and after defusing the situation Batman finds himself wounded and dropped into the festering sewer that is the Gotham river. He is rescued by none other than Talia, who has come to Gotham on a similar mission; to kill the terrorist leader Qayin, who, it is revealed later in the story, killed Talia’s birth mother (Talia’s parentage has been something of a wandering point over the years, as it seems to depend on whether the writer wants Talia to be functionally immortal like Ra’s or merely a one-time user of the Lazarus Pit).
The trail leads Batman and Talia back to Ra’s, who fills in the details and informs Batman that they should be allies in the endeavour… on the condition that Batman accepts Talia’s betrothal. Batman agrees, and when Talia brings him to her bedchamber Talia informs a hesitant Batman that technically they’ve been married for some time. Batman finally lets himself go and commits to Talia…
They wind up together for about a month as Batman works with Ra’s to stop Qayin’s plans, and the actions have a consequence… Talia is pregnant with Batman’s child.
Batman immediately and somewhat improbably turns into a doting father, giving Talia a jewelled necklace and contemplating baby names (Thomas or Martha, obviously). However, due to Batman and Ra’s interfering with his plans, Qayin strikes back, attacking Ra’s headquarters and forcing Batman to protect not only the woman he loves, but his unborn child as well.
However, Batman can’t balance the two priorities, and the stress of the attack causes Talia to miscarry, which of course sends Batman off to beat the everloving stuffing out of Qayin, only to see him die more or less accidentally. But you knew that was going to happen… it is Batman, after all.
To really twist the knife, Talia makes it clear that she doesn’t want Batman in her life after the pain of losing the baby, leaving Batman to, well, do what he always does and brood on a Gotham rooftop after wrapping up some of the last middling details of the case. However, it turns out that Talia wasn’t being entirely honest; what really happened was after seeing how Batman’s edge was lost by having to protect her at all times, she faked the miscarrage. The baby turns up with the telltale necklace on a couple’s doorstep months later.
While, aside from the baby-making plotline, this is an unfortunately rote Batman story, what’s interesting is that DC almost immediately declared the entire thing to be non-canon and essentially locked it away in a closet, even after Ra’s returned to prominence as a Bat-villain in the 1990s. Mark Waid pushed the door open a bit by creating the character Ibn al Xu’ffasch in Kingdom Come, the grown-up son of Batman and Talia (the name roughly translates to Son of the Bat, one of the numerous touches that made that such a great series – the revelation that Ibn was hooking up with Dick Grayson’s daughter was another). The idea then kicked around for another ten years until Grant Morrison began his Batman writing tenure with “Batman and Son“, which saw Talia introducing Bruce to young Damian Wayne, definitively back as part of the mainstream universe.
Thoughts on the Episode:
If the last episode to feature Ra’s Al Ghul as the villain was a Bond tribute, this one’s even more obvious about its inspirations: a tribute to another legendary movie adventurer, and the Saturday Morning adventure serials that originally inspired Spielberg and Lucas to create Indy. As Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of my favourite movies ever, anything that pays tribute to it has a high bar to top, and combined with the high standards of the first two episodes featuring Talia in a significant role, there was plenty of opportunity for this to disappoint. Luckilly, it avoids disappointing and turns into a very good episode on its own merits besides.
If you’re going to tell a story based on archaeology, seeing someone killed off by a cursed tomb is always a good way to start, and that’s exactly what happens here, with a good sequence opening the episode that’s told entirely without dialogue, allowing the excellent musical score of this episode to tell the story (much as Spielberg would often just let John Williams be the only sound for an Indy movie for minutes on end). Batman fills the role of the square-jawed lead character here, albeit with some of his own twists (such as the cute scene at the Wayne Foundation exhibit), while Talia is the best possible Marion Ravenwood.
In her first appearance, Talia accompanied Batman for most of the final act, but they were apart for much of “The Demon’s Quest.” This story allows them to spend a lot of time with each other again, and emphasizes that she’s pretty much the perfect match for Batman, aside from the obvious physical attraction. However, one of the defining characteristics of an Indiana Jones movie is that he doesn’t ever really win, even if he prevents the bad guys from getting their hands on the artifacts they’re after. Here, that ambiguous ending becomes symmetry between this episode and the prior story with the same antagonist; in the first episode, Batman left Talia alone in the desert questioning her loyalties. This time, after she’s been close to him the entire time, she asserts her loyalty to her father and frees him from Batman’s custody before leaving him to a long walk home through the desert. The complicated nature of their relationship, and Talia’s torn loyalties, has always been the most appealing thing about any Ra’s story, and this episode handles it better than any other save Talia’s appearance in Batman Beyond.
Because virtually everyone in this episode knows that Bruce Wayne is Batman, it allows the rare chance for Bruce to do a lot of the gruntwork without the costume, first easily dispatching two of Talia’s guards and then investigating Cairo in a scene that seems directly stolen from Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, right down to the fake artifacts and the effendi-spouting shopkeeper. It’s a nice change of pace, even though Batman using the ultrasound scanner is obviously only there for Batman and Talia to escape from the airtight chamber later.
Ra’s is a more enigmatic presence here than in the prior storyline, darting in and out of scenes until the climax. Although the scenes with the fake scrolls is pretty cliche, seeing Thoth Kephera rise from her pit looking almost exactly like the Cryptkeeper’s cartoon incarnation and suck the life out of Ra’s raises the stakes of the episode considerably. Although there isn’t really any suggestion that she’s out to destroy the rest of the world, it’s obvious that Batman takes the situation seriously enough to haul out an explosive grenade in an attempt to prevent her from escaping. Of course, anyone who’s seen more than one monster movie knows that wouldn’t work, leaving Batman to ape Indy again while sealing the tomb prior to the climax.
This episode is one of the better looking BTAS episodes, with Batman moving much more fluidly than is often seen and the other characters not only all sporting multiple looks, but appearing drawn in a style that resembles the new format more than the original (Batman being lit in high contrast for much of the story helps, as the blue in the costume looks black). Sure, the Thoth Kephera design is an obvious rip-off, but the work on things like the tomb and the slime creatures is very high quality stuff.
Although a lot of the episode works more because of the excellent prior episodes, it feels like a pulpy adventure in the classic style, and although that’s not a style I’d like to see Batman using all the time, it’s certainly not something that I object to.
Grade: B+. A good story that does a fine job invoking an athmospheric 1930s feel, coupled with some excellent development of the ongoing Batman Talia plotline and high production values.
- The two most obvious Indy tributes are the map tracing Bruce’s flight to Gibraltar and Batman’s method of sealing the goddess in her tomb, which echoes Indy’s method of escaping the Well of Souls. Well, that and an attacker in the store’s basement using a whip.
- There really isn’t much reason for this episode to be called Avatar, as it’s not so much about the descent of a god to earth in mortal form or a representation of a person in another form. If Thoth Kephera had implanted her essence into Ra’s, and not the other way around, it would make more sense.
- Batman: Animated has a gorgeous four-page spread of the storyboards for the confrontation with Thoth Kephera.
Line of the Episode: “You surprise me, Ra’s… the world’s oldest chauvinist chasing after a woman.” OH SNAP.
Next Side Story: Back to Static Shock for “Fallen Hero”, unless I re-watch the episode and decide I should do “The Big Leagues” first.
Next Time: A totally light, and totally fun, Justice League romp in Europe, via “Maid of Honor.”