With only a small number of episodes left, Batman: The Animated Series took a major chance with its pen-pen-penultimate episode, perhaps to break up the monotony, perhaps to venture into new territory, or perhaps to see if the format could survive without Batman at the center. Certainly, there had been Batman-lite episodes, which usually had the villain taking center stage and Batman acting like their antagonist rather than the hero. Sometimes a random passerby was the main character and we got to see the Dark Knight from their perspective. This episode, “Showdown,” was something very different. It featured a completely unrelated DC hero in a story taking place a hundred+ years before Batman ever donned the cape and cowl.
Written by Joe R. Lansdale from a story by Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, and Kevin Altieri, who also directed, “Showdown” was the series’ attempt to do a western starring DC’s only western character, the violent but intensely moral bounty hunter Jonah Hex, known for spilling a lot of blood throughout the southwestern United States. Since this was a show for kids, there couldn’t be mass slaughter, but they could definitely allude to it, and they could certainly fire a lot of bullets and blow things up. They could also draw, like, a sky and clouds and daytime and things that Gotham City simply wouldn’t allow.
The episode uses a frame story to keep us somewhat in the world of Batman, and it involves the only character who could logistically bridge “modern” Gotham with the Old West, the ever-rejuvenating, 600-year-old Ra’s al Ghul. At the beginning of the episode, al Ghul and his ninja thugs break into a retirement home and, using gas, knock out the entire staff and patients. Batman and Robin soon show up and begin fighting the ninjas whilst al Ghul makes his way to a room and finds a particular patient sitting by the fire. By time the Dynamic Duo get there, al Ghul and the other man are gone and only an audio cassette remains. In the Batmobile, they make for an airfield where they believe al Ghul will be and listen to the tape on which al Ghul himself relays a story he hopes will clear up his motives.
We then cut to 1873 in a town where the railroad hasn’t yet reached. Soon, from out of the blistering sun, walks a man carrying a saddle. This man is seen only from the back, but from the expressions of the townsfolk, he’s clearly scary looking. He eventually makes it to the saloon where we finally see that he’s badly scarred on the right side of his face. The girl in the saloon offers him a drink and he asks only for water, and information on a man he’s hunting named Arkady Duvall. Just then, the sheriff comes in and we find out the man is named Jonah Hex, who used to be younger and faster, but is still a quick enough draw to shoot the wings off a fly if he so desires, provided it’s a big fat fly. The sheriff tells Hex to watch himself, and makes a point to say the man’s wanted poster is dead OR alive, and he’ll get just as much money bringing Duvall in not dead.
This is one of the best and most to-the-point introductions of any character. Most western films take their time, but since this is a 21 minute cartoon that’s already used up a good 4 minutes on the Batman stuff, so there’s a definite need to be judicious but also say everything that needs to be said. We get right away what kind of man Jonah Hex is, a man who’s got the air of death around him, a man who doesn’t bother with drinking, or women, a man who strikes fear into the hearts of those he comes across. With the exception of the allusion to him murdering guys, he’s very much like Batman.
Lucky for Hex, the saloon girl hates Duvall for how he treated her and takes the gunslinger to the desert where people have seen strange lights and come back saying they’ve seen some kind of “sky monster.” Hex finds the lights and enters a cavern under the desert and sees hundreds of men working on a massive hydrogen-fueled airship. He sees Duvall leading the men and whipping them when they slow down. He’s quickly stopped by none other than Ra’s al Ghul, who castigates Duvall for being violent with the good men he’s hired. It’s here that we and Hex learn al Ghul’s plan: to use his airship to destroy the railroad and western expansion and take over America. Hex is spotted and captured after a bit of a fight and Duvall believes him to be a spy from the railroad, though Hex says all he’s there for is to get Duvall for what he did to that girl back east.
Hex is about to be dipped in boiling lead when al Ghul again intercedes, telling Duvall not to overstep his bounds again. He has Hex locked up, but the ground in the cave jail is soft and Hex is able to dig a whole and make it seem like he’s escaped, which allows him to actually escape and stow aboard the airship just as it’s taking off. It reaches the town where the railroad is being opened and starts firing cannonballs. But, the crew didn’t count on Jonah Hex, who begins sabotaging the ship. Eventually, only Duvall and Hex are left on the slowly crashing ship, and after a duel, Hex and Duvall jump out and Hex drags the alive-Duvall into town, just because he doesn’t want to haul a corpse through the desert.
In the epilogue, we find out that the old man al Ghul sprung is actually Duvall, still alive but ancient, and we learn that Duvall is one of al Ghul’s many offspring and he deserves to be with his father while he dies. This is a pretty lame connection, but it allows for a whole episode about Jonah Hex, and for that, I’ll forgive a lot. The very fact that Timm, Dini, and Altieri thought doing a Jonah Hex episode was a good idea, especially that late in the run, is beyond amazing. And it is a very good episode, and one that made me wish we got a Jonah Hex series after Batman ended.
The dialogue in the episode is whip smart and perfectly of the genre, something for which Lansdale was and is quite well known (he wrote, among many other things, Bubba Ho-Tep). The voice cast is also quite impressive. On top of David Warner who makes his fourth and final appearance as Ra’s al Ghul here, we get western character actor Bill McKinney as Hex, Bewitched‘s Elizabeth Montgomery as the barmaid, and Malcolm McDowell as Duvall. If this had been a backdoor pilot for the show, I’d love to have kept all of these actors; found some way to bring Duvall back as the recurring main villain. And finally, the visuals and direction are as top-notch as the show ever got, but doing something incredibly different to what the show was known. It was clear everyone involved wanted to stretch their muscles, and did in style.
Next week, Catwoman’s life on the straight and narrow becomes more difficult when she gets an enticing offer from a meek, bespectacled man and his wooden hand puppet. “Catwalk” is next week, and we’re down to the final 3.