Toward the end of the initial order of 65 episodes, the makers of Batman: The Animated Series began exploring a bit beyond the gloomy Art Deco of Gotham City and bringing in characters and villains from elsewhere in the DC Universe; not like Superman or anybody yet, but the scope definitely got larger. They even went to the trouble of teeing up later episodes, which is something they wouldn’t really have done before. With the 50th produced episode, “Off Balance,” the makers opened up new parts of the Batman mythos by introducing The Society of Shadows (avoiding the word “league” for the time being), and who better to do that than writer Len Wein, one of the few writers on the series who’d gotten their start in comics. (He’s a legend, don’t ya know?)
Batman is investigating the mysterious Society of Shadows and speaks to a snitch named Twitch on top of Gotham’s equivalent of the Statue of Liberty. Before he can say too much, two masked assassins arrive and toss Twitch to his death below, saying snitches get what they deserve. Batman fights them off and wants to question them, knowing them to be part of the Society, but they gas themselves with a toxin that causes them to forget everything. The only thing Batman knows for sure is that the Society plans to rob a train carrying WayneTech’s new seismic drill, a powerful sound-emitting device for making excavation easier.
Despite Batman’s warning to Commissioner Gordon to put more men on guard, the train is robbed by an emissary for the Society who calls himself Vertigo. He uses a special device of his own, which comes from his eye patch, that makes people feel like the room is spinning, the walls are caving in, or just that they’re generally going to die from nausea. Even Batman is not above this feeling, but still nearly averts the robbery when a mysterious leather-clad woman intervenes and allows Vertigo to escape.
Batman tracks the seismic drill (it’s a WayneTech thing, after all) to cliffs and a castle outside of Gotham somewhere. As he confronts members of the Society, the woman appears again, this time to help Batman. He’s very confused, but helps her in return. He’s incapacitated and brought to a secret hideout where she removes his mask, though she doesn’t seem to know or care who he really is. She tells him that her name is Talia and they go off together to retrieve the drill.
Inside the castle, Talia seems to know her way around pretty well, as they traverse the many hallways and paths. They eventually reach a laboratory where the drill is being kept and enter, only to be hit with a big ol’ pile of Vertigo (gross). They can barely walk the 30 feet forward to the other door but Batman says he has a plan. Taking Talia’s hand, they somehow get through the booby traps, which would be tough enough without the disorientation, and eventually make it to the door. When Talia asks how he did it, he tells her he closed his eyes to counteract the effect. Ballsy move, Bats.
After a battle with Vertigo in the castle’s clock tower, the drill is recovered and the villain defeated. As Batman says his goodbyes, Talia pulls a gun on him and takes the drill for herself, but not before Batman puts something in the barrel. While flying back to where she comes from, she contacts her father, Ra’s al Ghul, to revel in victory, only to be dashed when she fires the drill and it explodes, meaning no one can have it. al Ghul muses to himself that the Detective even managed to best them in defeat, and that they would meet again.
Some really cool things are at play here. Firstly, there’s the use of Vertigo, or Count Vertigo, who, like Clock King earlier, was usually a villain of the Green Arrow and Black Canary, but who fits right in with the Gotham created for Batman: The Animated Series. His weapon is unique in the annals of the show, but its affects are not that far removed from Mad Hatter or Scarecrow. Making him part of the Society of Shadows was a very smart move. It could explain why Batman’s never heard of him, and introduce the organization all at once.
Obviously, the other important addition here is that of Talia al Ghul and the brief introduction of her father, Ra’s al Ghul, who, thanks to the date and time things were aired, would not be seen again for almost 6 full months (there was a break in new episodes between November 1992 and January 1993). Surely, most kids familiar only with the normal Rogues Gallery would be very confused by this man and would be intrigued to see him return in what would be his own two-parter, in which fans would learn everything.
And finally, Kevin Altieri’s direction on this episode is absolutely stunning. The animation is as rich and textured as they ever got on the show and the detail in Talia’s eyes and Vertigo’s creepy grin are exquisite. The moments when characters are under Vertigo’s power are some of the best use of warped images they ever did, if ever they needed to. Truly breathtaking, and clear the show was well into its stride at this point in production.
Next week, we go back to the Riddler for his second of three appearances (yes, I’m going to talk about all of them), “What Is Reality?,” which puts Commissioner Gordon in the middle of a deadly video game.