In the last several weeks, we’ve talked about the episodes of Batman: The Animated Series where the writers tried to let some of the villains go straight, even if it was just for a little bit, and even if they didn’t really have any intention of being good. Some are tragic, some are funny, and some are pretty darn sadistic, but I don’t look at any of these as fondly as the third and final appearance by the green-clad questioner, “Riddler’s Reform.” He was always attempting to outsmart Batman and his whole “going straight” scheme was nothing more than another set of riddles for the Dark Knight to figure out. And the thing of it is, Batman nearly doesn’t, and Riddler very nearly wins.
Paul Dini said in his book about the series that the Riddler, as much as they liked him and they lived John Glover’s vocal performance, was only used three times because it’s actually quite difficult to write all of the genius riddles the character spouts. They often needed multiple writers for this, and while Randy Rogel gets teleplay credit, the story was concocted by Rogel, Dini, and Alan Burnett, and it’s safe to say this is their best and most well-crafted script in that regard. While the Riddler’s first two appearances, “If You’re So Smart Why Aren’t You Rich?“, and “What is Reality?“, gave the Riddler science fiction things to play with, like a giant maze theme park and a huge virtual reality interface, “Riddler’s Reform” was just pure, unadulterated riddling, where each and every one was meant specifically to be hard for Batman to figure out. It’s the episode where Batman and Robin do the most deducing, and that’s always fun.
We begin with Edward Nygma getting out of Arkham Asylum and the Dynamic Duo immediately follow him to the loading dock behind the convention center wherein the annual toy fair is to be held. They pounce on Nygma’s lackeys and assume he’s up to his old tricks again. But the Riddler’s got a new bag: he’s licensed his name and image to a new line of Whacko Toys and the company’s proprietor is eager for Nygma to design more puzzle games for the holiday season. Batman is, of course, suspicious, but Riddler “assures” him in his inimitable arrogance that his riddle crimes are “all in the past, ancient history that’s gone now, I’m a New Man, but you probably won’t figure that out until it’s too late.” Later on the news, Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson see a report that the antiques shop on Newman street was robbed. The Riddler’s words ring in Batman’s ears before the Riddler himself appears on TV with a commercial for Whacko Toys.
In this one, the Riddler writes a string of 8 numbers on a chalkboard, 31753701, then flips it over to talk about something else. They Dynamic Duo think this number might have been map coordinates and they determine it to be the First National Bank. But, after casing out the bank for several hours, they realize Riddler has no intention of robbing it. Batman remembers the commercial and the Riddler flipping over the chalkboard. He flips over the number and sees that it’s an address: 10 Leslie. The Riddler’s puzzle games continue. When the Dynamic Duo arrive at their new location, they find the Riddler ready for them. In the ensuing fight with the Riddler’s goons, Robin is pinned under debris and his leg is broken. Batman gives chase but the villain gets away again.
But the Riddler himself isn’t having the most fun with any of this. His new society friends don’t respect him, and think of him as just a gimmick used by Whacko Toys to sell things. Batman arrives at the party to shake Riddler down, but Edward Nygma, the cool customer that he is, manages to make everyone at the party laugh at Batman. Later, he angrily laments how he’s too smart for everyone except Batman. He’ll never be free as long as Batman’s around. So, naturally, he has to set up one final trap: again using a TV commercial, he very deliberately says “Let’s go back to where it all began – with toys.” Batman knows this is the Gotham Toy Fair, and with Robin out of commission, the Dark Knight has to go alone.
On the massive convention floor, Batman encounters a blow-up Riddler dummy who fires a pistol at him. After Batman deflates it, it points toward a massive riddle box, which when opened reveals a television (naturally). Riddler appears and says how sad his is their little games are coming to an end. He points up to a huge time bomb which now only has 10 seconds to detonation. The doors and windows slam shut and Batman is out of time. The building explodes. Across town, Riddler begins burning his costume, because without Batman he’ll never be the Riddler again. Except, what’s this?! Batman arrives at the window. Riddler is incensed – how did Batman escape? He pleads with Batman to tell him how it was done, even offering up the evidence of his own crimes in return. But, it’s too late. Commissioner Gordon heard everything and Batman tells Riddler nothing. Though we are told later how he escaped, Riddler is left in Arkham shouting to the heavens that he has to know!
What I love most about this episode, aside from the excellent riddles that aren’t TOO hard that kids won’t get them but not too easy that they’d get them immediately, is John Glover’s performance as the Riddler. He’s so smarmy and cocksure in the role, which is exactly what is needed for the character. Unlike Frank Gorshin’s manic, giggling portrayal, and later Jim Carrey’s direct aping of this, Glover is cool and slick, seeming like he really has thought of everything and Batman continues to play things out exactly as he expects. Until he doesn’t. When Riddler can’t figure things out, Glover’s shredded screams of frustration are chilling. He truly is a man who has lost his mind, and his mind is the only thing he really has. Fantastic episode.
While there was never any real chance of Riddler going straight, sometimes there is a real glimmer which makes their eventual and inevitable decline that much more tragic. Next time, go figure, it’s another villain reformation, but this time it’s someone who we almost hope DOES become good, simply because we like her so much. “Harley’s Holiday” is next week.