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Batman: The Animated Series, Episode 78 – “Batgirl Returns”

October 26, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Batgirl Returns

Written by Michael Reaves, Brynne Stephens
Directed by Dan Riba
Original Airdate: November 12, 1994
DVD: Batman: TAS, Volume 3 (it’s positioned as the last episode of the set, but Batman: Animated lists it as episode 78 and I assume that book’s right)

Summary: A restless Barbara Gordon plays hooky from a late-night study session to take a swing as Batgirl, only to be drawn into a caper involving Catwoman.

Background:

Although the idea of lesser female versions of male superheroes is looked down upon by some of the more academic commentators on comics, to me it’s always simply been the inevitable result of comics having developed as a medium during an era when everything was male-dominated.

Even taking that into account, Batgirl’s one of DC’s better characters period. Actually, what’s more surprising is that she’s done a remarkable job of overcoming her origins in an even more sexist field than comics, namely television. When the 1960’s Batman television series was revived for a third season, along with a drastic change in format (gone were the two-part episodes that made the show such a pop culture icon) came a desire to add a regular female hero to the cast to bump up viewership. The producers went to DC, and Julius Schwartz and Carmine Infantino – who else? – came up with Barbara Gordon, daughter of longtime supporting character, Gotham’s police commissioner. The familial relationship with a regular cast member allowed the Batgirl character to quickly be introduced on the TV series, played by Yvonne Craig.

Although Craig’s Batgirl made quite an impact on viewers (especially males), it wasn’t enough to save the show, as it was famously cancelled in spite of interest from the other two networks to buy it away from ABC. The comic character was as popular as her TV counterpart, and quickly carved out a regular supporting role in Detective Comics. Although certainly written as an intelligent (Barbara sported a PhD in library science) and a capable fighter (not too capable – in the pre feminist era, Babs only got to be a brown belt in judo), Barbara was never popular enough to graduate into her own series or even a regular team book spot, and was fading into limbo when Watchmen writer Alan Moore had her controversially shot, paralyzed, and retired from her Batgirl role in his famous The Killing Joke graphic novel.

Astoundingly, that act would be the start of Barbara Gordon’s transformation into one of the most popular characters in the DC Universe, but, well, that’s a story for another time.

Thoughts on the Episode:

This story actually reminds me quite a bit of a great Batman short story from the Further Adventures of Batman collection that was released to capitalize on the insane amount of publicity in the aftermath of Tim Burton’s 1989 movie. In that story, entitled Batman in Nighttown, Bruce Wayne pursues a man who has just robbed a Halloween ball at his mansion while dressed as Batman (the robber is in the Batsuit, not Bruce – he’s dressed as the devil). Bruce winds up tailing the man through some of the seedier bars and dives in Gotham before finally catching up to him. The structure of this episode – once the opening scene at the museum and the establishment of Batman being out of town in Europe are done with – is pretty similar, with the naive Batgirl being shown the darker side of Gotham by Catwoman.

Catwoman’s experience playing off against Batgirl’s innocence probably would have sexual psychologists typing entire books, but on a purely chaste level (this is a kids show, wink wink nod nod), a naive character is always fun to contrast against others. Batgirl’s slow descent to seeming acceptace of Catwoman’s methods is interesting, if necessarily short-lived. In the midst of a more supervillain-focused section of the series, this is a nice return to the classic gangster adversaries…

(… pause to pay tribute to Phil “Green Lantern” Lamarr, who just showed up in the epsiode of Castle I’m watching while cleaning this up…)

… of the early episodes, with nothing more on the line than a stolen statue. While I’m sure someone will whine that the only time Batgirl’s shown as being capable of taking down a real bad guy is in her own dreams, she’s not exactly an experienced hero at this point, even though some stuff did happen offscreen. By keeping Batgirl away from the more fantastical bad guys, the creators ensure that there’s never a moment where the viewer questions whether a rookie hero like her could be doing what she’s doing, but at the same time, it’s not like Batman against the mob, which is almost totally unfair as a matchup.

The interesting subplot in this episode is that it’s the first DCAU episode to suggest a possible pairing between Dick Grayson and Barbara Gordon – or, at the very least, that there’s some chemistry between their costumed alter-egos. A Batman Adventures story had earlier shown that they were both attending the same college, and this episode picks up that thread. I think their coupling in the DCAU actually pre-dates the same thing happening in the comics, where they turned into possibly the most popular couple amongst fandom of the last twenty years. Here, the dynamic is more that Batgirl is torn between Catwoman’s adventure and being a straight arrow like Robin, which is a good way of setting her apart from the Batman & Robin pairing and giving Batgirl an edge that she’d otherwise been sorely lacking, but it’s obvious that they were setting something up between the two.

Although the actual action of the episode isn’t anything special, this is another one of those solid if not spectacular episodes that usually represented the quality “floor” of the DCAU. It’s perhaps more of a testament to the quality of the material presented through the years that something like this episode isn’t considered amongst the best of the series, but is a perfectly fine way to kill 22 minutes.

Grade: B. Not much to it, but enjoyable enough and it sets up some good plots in the subsequent season.

Random Thoughts:

  • You could tell that the movie influence was starting to wear off, as Penguin looks less and less like Danny DeVito the longer the series goes on, before being totally redesigned for the new season.
  • In this episode, Catwoman mentions being pumped full of a virus by Daggett – that occurred earlier in the series, in “Cat Scratch Fever”. It’s actually pretty rare that Batman: TAS takes pains to point out its own continuity, so I figured I’d mention it in case you’re following along with these episodes in the order I’m writing these reviews.
  • Dick and Barbara go from their interactions in this episode to being deeply involved with each other by the time Sub-Zero, the movie that fits between Volumes 3 and 4 of BTAS, occurs, just in case you want to follow that plotline before everything falls apart in the New Batman Adventures.
  • Hey, cool, I finally got to use that B:TAS tag!

Next Justice League: Yes, it’s a Justice League episode that totally steals a storyline from GI Joe, “Fury”

Next Time: Another spotlight episode for the female members of the DCAU, as Babs teams up with Supergirl to take on Harley, Ivy and Live Wire in “Girl’s Night Out.”

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