All right now, enough of all these second-tier villains in episodes that are admittedly awesome. When is Batman: The Animated Series going to bring out the big guns? Turns out, right now. The sixth episode to air gave us not only our first animated glimpse of the Dark Knight’s oldest and most fearsome foe, but also the very first appearance in any medium of his now-famous girlfriend/sidekick/psychopath. That in and of itself is enough to make “Joker’s Favor” significant, but it also happens to be a really chilling story that immediately proves just how insane and sadistic this version of the Clown Prince of Crime would be.
Written by Paul Dini and directed by Boyd Kirkland, the episode is exactly what you want from a Joker story, a perfect blend of hilarity and fright. Dini gives the Joker very strange lines and an impossibly dark sensibility, much more in keeping with the comics of the time than with previous television incarnations. When writing the Joker, it must be at once freeing and limiting, because of how utterly insane he is. His motives don’t need to make sense because he actively goes against what a rational person, even a rational criminal, would do. The trick is, then, to find a way to make the narrative follow logic while its driving force, the villain, absolutely does not. It’s a very particular line to walk.
“Joker’s Favor” begins with a poor schlub named Charlie Collins (voiced by Ed Begley Jr.) driving home after an awful day at work, muttering to himself about how crappy his life is. The traffic is terrible owing to some criminal having escaped, according to the radio. Several police cars whiz passed Collins’ car followed closely by the Batmobile, which irritates the poor man, but the last straw is when another car, just your average station wagon, cuts him off. Filled with road rage, Collins speeds up to the car, bumps it a few times, and then rolls down his window to give that driver a piece of his mind. Unfortunately for him, that car is being driven by the Joker (Mark Hamill). The Joker chases Collins all over the road until he finally forces Collins off the highway and into a nearby wooded area. There, he nearly murders Collins before agreeing to the man’s plea that he’d do anything if the Joker just spared his life. This catches the Joker’s fancy and he agrees to let Collins live if he can be called upon to do a favor, whatever that might be, whenever he requests.
Two years later, Collins has moved his family to a new city and changed their names in an attempt to ditch the Joker, who has been keeping close watch on the sad sack ever since their encounter. In Gotham, Commissioner Gordon (Bob Hastings) is going to be honored for his dogged work for the Gotham PD at a black tie ceremony. This irritates the Joker to no end because, after all, who has given the police more entertainment over the years than he? He, his two goons, and Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin) decide it’s time to take out the police force and make Charlie fulfill his promise in one fell swoop. It would all go swimmingly, if not for that Batman fella.
I love the idea of a guy just happening to piss of the Joker and then having his entire life ruined in the process. It’s such a terrifying prospect. In any other scenario, if you were to yell at a motorist, you’ll either get ignored, get shown the bird, or, if the person is particularly crazy, you’ll get in a fight or possibly killed. But because it’s the Joker, and he could kill the guy any time he wants, he decides to have fun with him, terrorize him for two years, use him for some ridiculous scheme, and THEN kill him. I think we can all agree that’s the worst way for that to work out.
If Charlie Collins hadn’t been written the way he was, the episode would be far less effective. He begs for his life because of his family during his first encounter with the Joker, which is always a way to make the audience care about a character. He’s in a bad place at the very beginning, but it’s this moment when we realize he’s just a regular guy. When the Joker contacts him two years hence, we see Charlie (living as Don Wallace in Springdale, OH) playing catch with his son while his wife sunbathes. Again, reinforces the family. When he arrives in Gotham and sees the Joker, he says “Please, don’t make me hurt anyone,” which shows not only that he’s a decent man, but that he’s also a good man. Not to mention that he, while glued to a door in the room set to explode, a room which is also full of incapacitated police officers, manages to get Batman’s attention and avert the death of dozens of people, including himself.
It’s because of all this that by the end of the episode, when Charlie seems to have completely lost his mind and threatens to blow up himself and the Joker with one of the villain’s own explosives, that we’re a little taken aback. He’s been so terrorized by the scariest person imaginable that he’s finally had his own psychotic break and just wants it all to end. The Joker even calls for Batman’s help! When the Caped Crusader arrives, it does appear that Charlie’s the one who’s really about to commit murder. But, it’s all a joke; the explosive is just a gag filled with fire crackers and streamers. Did Charlie know this or did he actually plan to kill himself, the Joker, and Batman? I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt, but it’s hard to say. He certainly gives Batman a chuckle when it’s over, though.
I ought to talk about Harley Quinn here, because this is her first appearance and she is perhaps, if one can quantify these things, the most important thing to come out of The Animated Series. The whole show is a triumph in terms of writing, design, performance, music, etc, and no version of Batman before or since has been this good. That being said, no character in the Batman universe has been more accepted and more acclaimed in the last 20 years than Harley Quinn. Initially just Joker’s plucky, costumed assistant, her backstory has grown to be incredibly intriguing: Joker’s former psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum who tried so hard to reach the evil murderer that she lost her own mind and became his acolyte. She’s also just a lot of fun! Here, she dresses up as a policewoman and recites a poem to Commissioner Gordon before gassing everybody, then she tries to appeal to Batman in a fake “he made me do it” plea. She’s devious, homicidal, but undeniably endearing. Her relationship with the Joker deepens as the series goes on and she gets a lot more adventures of her own, which I’ll be talking about as they come up.
And there we are; the Joker’s first-aired animated adventure is a doozy full of sadistic psychological torture and the constant threat of murder. This won’t be the last time we’ll see Batman and the Rogue’s Gallery through the eyes of a civilian, but this might be the most sinister depiction thereof. And, if we can take anything away from the message of this story, it’s not to curse at a driver on the highway, no matter how angry you are. You never know what psycho killer might be behind the wheel.
Next week, another of Batman’s most enduring characters has her debut: Catwoman, a/k/a Selina Kyle, in the two-part episode “The Cat and the Claw.”