With the introduction of Ra’s al Ghul to Batman: The Animated Series toward the end of its 60-episode first season, the show fully embraced a bit more the occult and supernatural aspects of the Batman universe with the Lazarus Pool and its ability to regenerate a dying human (or make insane a healthy one). It also gave excuses for Batman to leave Gotham City from time to time, opening up the world of the World’s Greatest Detective quite substantially. It had been done a couple of times with the ninja episodes featuring the character of Kyodai Ken, but those episodes, critically speaking, suck dong. When the Demon’s Head returned with the Season 2 episode “Avatar,” it even further pushed the boundaries of what kinds of stories the show could tell by doing an honest-to-goodness Saturday afternoon adventure-horror serial with an evil Egyptian sorceress and muck monsters.
Written by Michael Reaves and directed by Kevin Altieri, “Avatar” is one of the rare episodes where Batman is on the back foot the entire time, never really gets the upper hand, and only impacts the plot a small amount. This works especially well because the episode evokes, as I said and is actually mentioned in the episode, a Saturday afternoon serial. It has an Indiana Jones feel to a lot of it, as well as things like The Mummy or any other 1930s adventure whereupon people go to Egypt or the Middle East to do explorery things. Actually, for a high percentage of the running time, Batman doesn’t even wear his Batsuit.
We begin in a dig in Egypt wherein an explorer goes into a newly-excavated pit in a temple and is promptly engulfed in green light and destroyed. In Gotham City some time later, Bruce Wayne and Lucius Fox discuss Wayne Enterprise’s new acquisition of artifacts from Egypt, including a very important and priceless scroll. Wayne pretends to not care much and tells Fox that he has a date, but later that night, a masked man breaks in to steal it only for Batman to arrive and thwart him. Removing the mask, Batman is surprised to see that the thief is none other than Ubu, the personal manservant and muscle of his greatest foe, Ra’s al Ghul, who steps in from the shadows and throws a venomous cobra at the Detective, which bites him, and allows for the bad guys to leave with the scroll.
Batman decides he has find what Ra’s wanted with that scroll and decides to travel to Spain, where he knows Ra’s kept a huge house. There, Bruce Wayne is attacked by guards and he easily thwarts them, but is soon found by Talia al Ghul, who is surprised to see her beloved again, and even more surprised to learn from him that her father is still alive. Talia tells Bruce that her father was obsessed with finding the scroll, which is the second of a pair. With it, he could find clues to reaching the tomb of the deadly and immortal Egyptian priestess Thoth Khepera. He’s been searching for 500 years (because he’s basically immortal also, you know) and now he thinks he has it, so Bruce and Talia travel to Egypt to try to cut him off and stop him from unleashing hell.
They do eventually reach him, but al Ghul cannot be dissuaded from his goal, knocking out Bruce and Talia and putting them in an airtight glass room, so they can suffocate to death. What a dick. Bruce, however, has a sonic device on his person and places it on the glass, shattering it into a million pieces. Bruce means business now and puts on his Batsuit for the rest of the adventure. They catch up to Ra’s but it’s too late; he’s already found the tomb. He opens the sarcophagus and sees a series of scrolls. Elated, he grabs for them and they fall apart. Suddenly in despair, he collapses to the floor, accidentally hitting a switch, which opens a trap door in the floor. He walks down to the chamber and sees a huge green pool surrounded by skeletons with clothes from various time periods.
He walks up to it and a beautiful Egyptian priestess appears in radiant green light. Al Ghul begs her to share her power and secrets of the universe. Thoth Khepera agrees, saying all he has to do is consent to becoming part of her collective of souls. “We are legion,” she says. They kiss. Just then, Batman and Talia break away from their captors and run down to witness the priestess is actually a disgusting zombie thing and she’s sucking the life force out of the 600-year-old man villain. They stop her sucking and retrieve the now very old man. She then summons grotty green slime monsters to attack them. Nothing Batman tosses at them do anything and so they instead escape and Batman knocks a huge statue over to block the entryway, collapsing the temple in the process. Batman attempts to take Ra’s al Ghul to the authorities, but Talia turns her gun on the hero, saying no matter what he does, he’s still her father. They then leave Batman without a horse, but with water, in the desert.
Ra’s al Ghul wasn’t in many episodes, but the ones he was in were really interesting. With the character, the writers were able to open up and try different things, which kept the show, already pushing 70 episodes, fresh and varied. There’s only so many ways you can tell these stories, even with as a great a rogues gallery as Batman has, so when you get the opportunity to do a Universal Monsters meets Crash Corrigan pastiche, it’s probably something they jumped at. The animation in this episode is wonderful also, probably due to the excitement of getting to use different shades and color palates. Batman in the desert has a brownish red hue the entire time and it really makes for a warmer episode to watch.
Next week, one of the best late-stage episodes of all time, in which the inmates at Arkham Asylym decide to stage a court case against Batman, with Gotham’s new Bat-hating D.A. as his only defense. We’re talking just about all of Batman’s baddies (who were in the asylum at the time) present to give testimony or witness Batman’s life being decided by a jury. “Trial” is next week!