It was very rare for Batman: The Animated Series to venture very far outside the environs of Gotham City. Really, why would they need to? There’s enough villainy and intrigue in that little red-skyed burg to never have to leave it. After all, crime comes to Batman way more often than he goes looking for it. Still, it was always exciting when the show did force the Caped Crusader to leave his home and go to pastures new yet still dangerous. While the couple of episodes dealing with Bruce Wayne’s ninja rival Kyodai Ken are among my least favorites, the ones dealing with today’s baddie du jour are some of the very best. While the Joker or Two-Face are great for citywide panic, to truly get a global threat for Batman to thwart, we need look no further than the leader of the Society of Shadows himself, Ra’s al Ghul, in the two-part epic “The Demon’s Quest.”
Ra’s al Ghul is one of the newer Bat-villains to be featured on The Animated Series, having been created in 1971 by writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams. As the mysterious leader of the League of Assassins (changed to “Society of Shadows” for the series), he is a strange mentor figure to Batman and represents a lot of what the crime fighter might want to be, despite all of the methods he abhors being used to achieve it. He’s also several centuries old thanks to his utilization of the Lazarus Pit, a pool full of chemicals that can restore youth, stamina, and strength to the aged and dying. al Ghul has an extensive family, but for the purposes of the cartoon, only his lovely daughter Talia is shown. She featured heavily in the episode “Off Balance” which featured the briefest of appearances of Ra’s al Ghul.
For his proper debut, “The Demon’s Quest,” the series turned to the character’s creator. Dennis O’Neil himself wrote the first episode and he collaborated on the story of the second with another comics creator Len Wein, who went on to write the teleplay for part two. Directed by Kevin Altieri, these are possibly some of the best-looking episodes the series ever produced and certainly features locations and settings they hadn’t yet tackled. This is Batman going off-book a bit more than normal, using more of his detecting skills than we see when he’s just beating up thugs, and getting to match wits with probably the most dangerous man alive.
The episode begins with Robin sneaking back into his dorm room on a rainy night. He’s met by three men in shadow, one of whom wears a cape and a mask of Anubis, and is shot with a tranquilizer dart. Later in the Batcave, Bruce Wayne is concerned that nobody has heard from Robin OR Dick Grayson in two days. Just then, a man enters the Batcave from the shadows with his bald, burly henchmen. They are Ra’s al Ghul and his manservant Ubu. Batman is understandably put off by the ease at which they just sauntered into his secret hideout, catching the hero with his mask off; however, Ra’s seems not to care about the Detective’s secret identity. Batman says he’s heard of Ra’s al Ghul, and knows the name to mean “The Demon’s Head.”
al Ghul shows Batman a photograph of both Robin and al Ghul’s daughter Talia (whom Batman had met before) tied up and being held for ransom. The old man asks for Batman’s skills to help retrieve his daughter, and hence save Robin as well. It’s not as smooth sailing as it seems, of course; Ubu gets very offended if anyone walks in front of his master, or really does anything he thinks is a sleight against him. Batman growls and begins assigning strikes to Ubu’s shoves. This comes into play later. During the subsequent travel to the Middle East and various pieces of sleuthing Batman is forced to do, we learn a few things about Ra’s al Ghul: 1, he’s sick and dying; 2, he’s very concerned about his legacy; 3, he thinks mankind is ruining the planet and wants to restore it to its former glory. The third one is the most troubling.
Eventually, after questioning people and having to fight a few battles, Batman comes to a cave and finds Robin, only it wasn’t the quest we thought it was from the start. Ra’s al Ghul staged the kidnapping and the subsequent test to see if Batman truly was the World’s Greatest Detective, and worthy of picking up the Demon’s Head’s mantle after his passing. Talia, it seems, has been in love with Batman since their earlier encounter and Ra’s wants him to father the next in the bloodline. Batman, of course, turns this down flat, leading to Ubu earning a Strike Three. However, Batman and Robin are forced to watch as Ra’s al Ghul lowers himself into the Lazarus Pit and emerges a powerful and cackling madman who tries to throw his own daughter in, which would kill a perfectly healthy person.
After Talia is able to stop her father, he again asks the Detective to be his heir, and again Batman refuses, leading to the Dynamic Duo being tossed out of an airplane in the middle of Tibet (luckily, there’s a Wayne Enterprises office in Tibet). Batman then, alone, travels back to the Middle East to stop Ra’s from using the Lazarus Pit’s chemicals as a weapon to destroy the entire world. Pretty standard hero stuff.
I love this story so very much. As I mentioned when talking about “Robin’s Reckoning” a couple of weeks ago, these episodes also easily could have been made as a feature film or as a live-action television show. The vistas are sweeping, the set pieces are majestic, and the story is universal. Seeing Batman against a desert backdrop is refreshing and interesting. The music during the second episode especially, along with the visuals, really evokes Lawrence of Arabia, which is not at all a bad thing to want to emulate, being one of the best movies of all time.
Ra’s al Ghul provides one of the most interesting and complex villain relationships in the entirety of Batman’s sordid history with bad guys. They have the utmost of mutual respect for one another, and Ra’s really does want Batman to be his heir and it hurts him that the man he calls Detective refuses to do so. At the end of the episode, we get th eidea that Batman might also have feelings for Talia, though not as strong, but he just can’t do anything about it because of his oath to protecting Gotham. And there’s the whole he-doesn’t-want-to-blow-up-the-Earth thing, but that’s as maybe. Also, for the record, it’s pronounced RAYSH al Ghul, NOT RAZ al Ghul. Always bugged me. Denny O’Neill calls him Raysh, so that’s what we all should be calling him.
At this point in the series, their two-parters were unmatched in the annals to action cartoons. Each one is more ambitious and cinematic than the last. In two week’s we’ll take a look at another one which introduces (finally) a new hero to the mix, but first next week we’re going to see an episode which introduces one of the weirdest and most troubling bad guys in the Rogues Gallery: The Ventriloquist and Scarface. That episode is “Read My Lips” and its next week!