This week, we’re taking a look at the episode of Batman: The Animated Series I’ve perhaps seen more than any other. After the release of Batman Forever in 1995, I was on a Riddler high. I was already a big Jim Carrey fan, and obviously I loved Batman, so this movie became the pinnacle of all things I enjoyed about everything. (Fun fact: the Batman Forever soundtrack was the very first compact disc I ever owned. Truth.) In late ’95, I was gifted a video cassette tape upon which were two B:TAS episodes featuring the green-clad quizzer, and the first episode on that tape was the character’s first appearance on the program, the 40th episode produced and the 41st aired, “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?”
It might be surprising to learn, given how popular the character was and continues to be, that the Riddler, a/k/a Edward Nygma, only appeared in three episodes of the whole 85 episode run of the series from 1992-1995. Just three! The Scarecrow, Mad Hatter, and even Killer Croc had more appearances. A lot of this had to do with the nature of the character. Every villain has some kind of clever evil scheme, but Riddler’s had to be the cleverest and most schemey. He’s a genius, after all, so the writers had to think like geniuses. That’s pretty difficult, all things considered. This is why people who can write good mystery stories, like an Agatha Christie, need special commendation for creating a huge puzzle that can logically be solved. The writers of these episodes only had 21 1/2 minutes. Fittingly, the writer of the Riddler’s first episode is named David Wise.
We begin in an unnamed city that isn’t Gotham at the offices of Competitron, a world-renowned computer game manufacturer that just hit the mother load with the release of the monster hit, Riddle of the Minotaur. Unfortunately, the game’s creator, Edward Nygma has just been fired by his greedy boss, Daniel Mockridge, for suing for part of the game’s profits. With an iron-clad contract signed, Nygma lacks any legal recourse, but that doesn’t stop him from plotting his revenge.
Two years later, Mockridge is in Gotham pitching the sale of his company to Wayne Enterprises for lots of money, when he is suddenly taken aback and scared at the message scrolling on a marquee on the building across the street. On it is a riddle, “Why do multi-million dollar deals break down in the Wasteland?” Bruce Wayne returns to the Batcave to mull it over while Dick Grayson, home from college, plays Riddle of the Minotaur on the Batcomputer. He tells Alfred all about the various pieces of the maze-and-puzzle game, including a griffin that blocks you from going back the way you came, and the Hand of Fate, which flies down and picks up the player if they mess up.
Once Batman figures out that Mockridge owns a nightclub called The Wasteland, he and Robin go to investigate, just as Nygma, now calling himself “The Riddler,” is in the process of kidnapping his former boss. The ensuing skirmish with the Riddler’s goons leaves the club on fire and Robin trapped in a huge finger-puzzle thing. While driving back toward the city, the Dynamic Duo notices the city’s light’s flashing in Morse Code, a message that reads, “When is the Minotaur’s owner as high as an elephant’s eye?” Through a bit of simple deduction (High as an elephant’s eye = corn = maize = maze), they realize Riddler has taken Mockridge to the unopened Riddle of the Minotaur amusement park.
This brings our heroes to the heavily-modified park (which, let’s be honest, would never have been built in the real world), and they have to suffer the Riddler’s tricks, including a griffin that shoots fire, puzzles that could result in death or dismemberment, and a Hand of Fate that really flies around and picks people up. And that is to say nothing of the Minotaur’s riddle itself, which they’ll have to answer if they get to the center of the maze before Mockridge is impaled by the robotic mythical creature for which the game is named.
I just love everything about this episode, and now as an adult I can see how clever writer David Wise was in his handling of the character of the Riddler and the puzzles he creates. He needed to make them complicated enough not to be obvious but simple enough for kids (again, the target audience for this program) to comprehend once explained, or even to figure out before Batman and Robin do. Robin wasn’t a regular fixture of the series until later in its run, but it’s telling that he’s present in all three Riddler appearances. This serves a very practical story purpose: Batman needs someone there with him to talk out the riddles so that we’re not just watching a person think silently for 20 minutes. It’s a similar situation to the companion’s role on Doctor Who.
The casting of John Glover as the Riddler is just another in the series’ long line of amazingly apt choices for their characters, compliments, of course, to voice director Andrea Romano. Glover gives Nygma the requisite confident pretension and overall pompousness that makes him certainly a more thinking villain. The way this version is written, and the way Glover plays him, is much different from the traditional way he’d been portrayed in previous iterations. The most famous to this point was Frank Gorshin’s in the 1960s series, in which he was a cackling and spastic figure, a performance for which Gorshin received an Emmy nomination, in fact. Carrey’s performance in Forever was along these same lines as well, meaning TAS‘s Riddler is truly unique in the character’s history, and perhaps the most interesting as a result.
The Riddler would return only a week after his first appearance with an episode called “What is Reality?” but then not again until nearly two full calendar years later with “Riddler’s Reform,” which we’ll talk about in a few weeks here in this column. As for next week, we return to the Clown Prince of Crime with “Joker’s Wild.”