As Batman: The Animated Series continued, the Bat Family continued to grow. From the early episodes when it was merely Batman and Alfred, to the perpetual increase of Robin’s appearances, the show became much more about the sidekick or supporting characters than merely the Dark Knight himself. A little over halfway though the first season, a two-parter “Heart of Steel” introduced Commissioner Gordon’s high school/college-age daughter Barbara. She proved immediately to be a strong and capable female character, much the way all of the women had been written on the show so far, and she alone helped Batman foil that story’s robotic villain. It wasn’t until the beginning of Season Two, with the two-parter “Shadow of the Bat” that Barbara Gordon finally put on a petite and form-fitting version of the Batsuit to take to the streets and kick bad guys in the face. Talk about a great origin story.
Much the same way the early episodes (the very earliest, in fact) had introduced Harvey Dent in advance of his becoming Two-Face, the later series introduced Barbara Gordon before she became Batgirl, to show that she existed in the Gotham universe. Batgirl would become, later in the revamped Gotham Knights version of TAS, the main sidekick to Batman and a mighty hero in her own right. She doesn’t start out too shabbily here, donning the cape and cowl for the first time in order to help her father who’s been framed for a crime. She’s smart, capable, agile, and what she lacks in size and physical strength, she makes up for in determination and ferocity. You never get the sense that she CAN’T do what she’s going to do, or that she has anything close to a doubt about whether she should. She’s single-minded in her approach, and that already puts her on a part with Batman and Robin, even if she lacks the tragedy of their childhoods.
Written by Brynne Stephens, who also wrote the “Heart of Steel” episodes that introduced Barbara and who would go on to write and story-edit Disney’s Gargoyles, and directed by Frank Paur (also later of Gargoyles), “Shadow of the Bat” is another epic in the series. This one, however, has to handle many, many characters all at once, giving everybody something to do, and especially be about Barbara Gordon’s transformation. It’s a hard thing to do, but Stephens writes it wonderfully and makes everything balance and make sense.
The story begins with a police raid on a back alley deal by mob boss Rupert Thorne. Commissioner Gordon and new Deputy Commissioner Gil Mason arrest everybody and, with the help of Batman, get Thorne as well. Mason has aided in shutting down four different organized crime rings since he joined up only a few months ago. He’s supposedly has a confidential informant and even Batman can’t figure out who it is. Everything seems to be going fine until Mason unexpectedly shows up at the Gordon home and arrests the Commissioner for evidence of accepting bribes from Thorne. Obviously this is erroneous, but the evidence seems pretty solid.
Det. Bullock and Mason hold a fundraiser for the Commissioner and Barbara thinks an appearance from Batman would lend her father some validity. Batman, of course, says no and that he has too much to do. Barbara decides to take matters into her own hands and dresses up like the Dark Knight to do some rooftop “Hey, look it’s Batman!” gallivanting. Unfortunately, some thugs drive by and begin shooting up the place. Barbara and a very confused Robin get people to safety and manage to knock out the thugs. Robin tells this mysterious “Batgirl” to go home and leave things to the professionals.
Batman meanwhile has gone undercover as his Matches Malone criminal alter ego to find out who’s running the show that’s framing Gordon. He finds out it’s none other than Two-Face who has been slowly gathering up the illegal enterprises left behind by the syndicates after Mason’s busts. Robin and Alfred, while watching the video of the rally shooting, notice that Mason ducks a few seconds before the guns come out, implying he knew something was going to happen. Barbara caught a glimpse of one of the thugs during her fight and finds his identity, rushing over to her friend Gil Mason’s house to tell him, only to find that the very same criminal is in Mason’s living room. The evidence, of course, points to Mason being involved.
While Robin and Batgirl, now in a newly-sewn specially-made costume, each decide to investigate Mason and again Robin tells her to go home. She doesn’t, of course. They follow Mason to an old subway station where Two-Face has called the deputy commissioner to identify Matches Malone before killing him. The anonymity is disrupted when Batgirl is tripped and they all have to run away before Two-Face and his goons fill them full of lead. Two-Face floods the tunnel and decides to up his plan to put Mason in as Commissioner so he can continue running Gotham’s underworld.
The Dynamic Duo have to put their lives in the hands of Batgirl in order to escape, which eventually happens. However, Two-Face has his goons break Gordon out of jail and yell loudly about “Rupert Thorne remembers his friends” to make sure people hear that Gordon’s corrupt. Luckily, all three Caped Crusaders arrive and manage to thwart Two-Face and Mason and save Gordon from a certain death.
Much like the Robin-centric two-parter “Robin’s Reckoning,” this story also feels like it could have been a primetime live action episode. The characters all pop and nobody seems one-dimensional. Barbara has to come out of the gate pretty strong to catch up to the other main characters and does so with a lot of gusto and humor. She doesn’t quite have a grasp on what she’s doing but she’s definitely capable and willing to do what needs to be done. She’s a fantastic character and Melissa Gilbert’s vocal performance is the perfect mixture of strength and vulnerability.
The Animated Series just knew how to write good female roles and characters. During this rewatch, I’ve really become aware of just how ahead of its time it was in terms of “feminism.” Yes, it’s a male-centric universe, as sadly all comic book worlds are, but with characters as richly written and complex as Batgirl, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, and even Officer Renee Montoya, the series proved that watching women could be just as (and usually more) entertaining to young lads as watching fellas. It’s a shame that such writing hasn’t really translated to any other media, with really only Anne Hathaway’s depiction of Catwoman having anything approaching the level of depth and pathos as the animated women. Maybe we can hope for more in the future.
Next week, we’re actually going to talk about a film. DC and Warner Animation decided to make a feature-length Batman animated movie based on the success of the show. It was originally intended to be direct-to-video, but the suits were so happy with it, they decided to push it out in theaters in time for Christmas 1993, only a year after Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. The result was a triumph critically, but a bit of a flop financially. Lucky for us, we can watch it any time we want to. It’s Batman: Mask of the Phantasm next time!