Batman as an entity has always been a necessary evil. He appears to strike fear in the hearts of criminals in the most corrupt and dangerous city in the whole of comics, but his very existence, it’s said, caused those criminals to become more theatrical, more brash, and more unhinged, if that’s possible. The question remains, then; does Batman do more harm than good? Would Arkham Asylum be more or less full of the criminally insane if he didn’t lurk on parapets and emerge from the shadows? It’s an interesting query and one that’s very much at the center of Season 2 of Batman: The Animated Series‘ penultimate episode, “Trial,” in which the inmates themselves decide it’s time Batman was taken to task for his role in their lunacy.
By this point in the series, most of Batman’s greatest foes have appeared multiple times, and some of them had become exceedingly popular on their own. However, whenever there was a scene in Arkham Asylum, it always afforded the animators and writers the opportunity to add extra villains as cameos for the audience to get a glimpse of the weird dysfunctional domestic setting. Bruce Timm and Paul Dini were big fans of this type of thing and for this episode, they packed in as many villains as they could. The most notable omission in this instance is the Penguin, but Clayface, Mr. Freeze (who’d still only been in the one episode), Clock King, and Catwoman (who isn’t really a villain) also didn’t appear. Everybody else, though – in.
We begin with a judge’s verdict in a new trial for Pamela “Poison Ivy” Isley in which Gotham’s new district attorney Janet Van Dorn and Commissioner Gordon listen intently. The judge says that because Poison Ivy was apprehended by Batman and not a proper official, he’s not going to put her in prison, but instead re-admit her to Arkham Asylum. This kind of thing happens all too frequently for Van Dorn, who publicly says Batman’s as big a threat to the city as the criminals, since he’s the one who made them. Later in Gordon’s office he tries to tell her what a big help Batman is and the Caped Crusader appears, bringing the leader of a vicious street gang with him, gift wrapped. Van Dorn swears this is the last time she’ll let Batman “help” the police department.
Meanwhile, at Arkham, Ivy is led back to her cell, looking very disappointed. Not even Harley Quinn’s endless chipperness can pull her out of it. However, she soon turns it around when Harley tells her Mad Hatter’s got a card (or 20) up his sleeve. The mind-control master has managed to break out and put the hospital staff in a walking catatonia, allowing the inmates to run the asylum and do what they should have done ages ago. Across town, Bruce Wayne meets Janet Van Dorn for dinner and does his usual casual interrogation of her about Batman, but she’s called away for a phone call. After a half hour, she’s still not back to the table and someone’s flipped on the Batsignal.
Commissioner Gordon has found Van Dorn’s glasses case along with a note telling Batman to come to “where lives hang in the balance or the law in Gotham dies.” He knows, of course, that this is the courthouse. The drop is gotten on him by Ivy and Harley who drug him and bring him to Arkham. There is to be a trial for Batman’s life, and Van Dorn is to be the defense attorney. But she hates Batman! So why would she help? Because, according to Two-Face, who naturally is the prosecuting attorney, if Batman loses, they both get whacked. It’s not going to be easy, either; not with nearly all of Gotham’s worst criminals acting as court officials.
On top of Two-Face, the bailiff in the case are Ventriloquist and Scarface, the jury consists of Harley, Ivy, the Mad Hatter, Killer Croc, Scarecrow, and the Riddler, and the judge presiding is non other than the Joker. So, the odds are certainly not in our hero’s favor. Batman tells Van Dorn he’s not worried about whether they win or not, she just has to keep the charade going. Why? Because, in his struggle with the femmes fatale, he dropped his Bat-tracker and Commissioner Gordon has found it… he just needs to figure out how to fix it. The trial proceeds and each member of the jury gets to be a witness, starting with the Mad Hatter who all but admits that he’d have killed his beloved if she’d rejected him, whether Batman were there or not. Next, Van Dorn drives Ivy mad by crushing a flower in her presence, which Batman had nothing to do with; and finally she sets Harley at Joker’s throat for him dropping the dime on her the last time she got arrested. All of this had nothing at all to do with Batman.
Van Dorn gives her closing statement, saying these criminal would have been criminals anyway because they’re insane. Batman merely gave them focus and the idea to have gimmicks, but the psychoses were always there. When the jury has reached their verdict, Van Dorn expects the inevitable, but to her amazement, the jury finds Batman not guilty. Well that’s a relief, right? Judge Joker then says she’s right, Batman ISN’T to blame for them all being criminally insane, but since they are, they’re just going to kill the pair of them anyway! Batman and Van Dorn are taken to an electro-shock room and Joker, having changed into a priest’s get-up, arrives to give the Dark Knight his last rites. Luckily, Van Dorn still happens to have a batarang in her jacket from much earlier and manages to break the light in the room.
While in darkness, Batman grabs Harley and ties her up, hanging her from the ceiling, then Croc tries to attack him. The Joker grabs Scarface’s machine gun and opens fire, destroying the electrical generator and electrocuting Croc, and nearly shooting Harley. This gives Batman and Van Dorn the opportunity to escape, though they are soon caught by the others in a narrow hallway. Batman and Van Dorn manage to get outside on the roof while Gordon and the cops arrive to reestablish control of Arkham. They aren’t out of the woods yet, as the Joker has gotten to the roof also and lassos Batman and swings down to try to stab him. He too is thwarted, and Batman and Van Dorn, now safe, have reached common ground, both wishing for a Gotham that doesn’t need Batman.
Episodes like this are real treats for fans of both The Animated Series and of Batman in general. It manages to put in as many of your favorite baddies as possible while still delivering an interesting moral dilemma about the need for, and responsibility of, Batman. It is totally arguable that Batman is the cause for the escalation of “super villainy” in Gotham, but he’s also one of the only things keeping it from engulfing the entire city. This is such an ingenious idea for an episode and each little moving part works. And for the 69th episode of the series, it has earned a bit of a villain-packed romp.
Next week, we’re going to be looking at the finale of Season 2, “Harlinquinade” in which, as the play on words goes, Batman and Robin are forced to look to Harley Quinn to aid them in tracking down the Joker. Oh, I’m sure that’ll be so much fun for them.
As we’re nearing the end of our look at Batman: The Animated Series, why not tell me which of the episodes I’ve covered is your favorite? If you need a refresher, all of Batman Reanimated can be found here.