Though he’d only debuted less than a week earlier in “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?”, the green-clad brainteaser The Riddler came back with an even bigger scheme and an even more surreal circumstance with “What Is Reality?” The puzzles are a bit different this time, since the former Edward Nygma wasn’t after his old boss, he was after Batman, Robin, and the whole of Gotham’s police department. And how does he do it? With VIRTUAL REALITY. Because early-’90s.
Written by Marty Isenberg and Robert N. Skir and directed by Dick Sebast, “What Is Reality?” is perhaps the episode most of the time, as far as technology goes. The Animated Series always straddled the stylistic line between 1940’s Art Deco and ’50s sci-fi futures with gadgetry that we never had. Here, though, they include as the main set piece a massive virtual reality computer which the Riddler controls complete with red-tinted surroundings and characters. Around this time, the term “virtual reality” was abuzz and people were anxious to see just HOW real this pretend world might be. Movies like Lawnmower Man and Johnny Mnemonic, which talked about going inside a computer world, were on the horizon, as was Nintendo’s much anticipated “Virtual Boy,” which fans hoped would be like entering a holodeck or something. Unfortunately, that technology was nothing more than red vector lines in a glorified View-Master and the fad was all but over in 1996 for any use aside from military simulations. Until recently, of course, with Oculus Rift and the like.
Still, in 1992 when this episode aired, the idea was still in the “dream big” stage. Much like the Riddler’s first episode, this one uses small puzzles Batman has to put together before he ends up in a massive playground of Nygma’s own creation. The first ep’s massive theme park maze was replaced with the aforementioned red virtual space, but the mechanics are still the same: Batman has to answer pun-based brainteasers or risk meeting a gruesome end. And, once again, Robin and Alfred play key roles in allowing Batman to talk out these riddles so as to make the audience understand what’s going on. Important for young kids: the riddles are simple but not easy. A child could figure them out if they were savvy enough, but the answers aren’t at all obvious. I always like to note that this show, even though it was made for a young demographic, never talked down to them.
The plot is thus: the Riddler begins leaving joke-riddles at various places throughout Gotham City which cause shut-downs. In the ATMs, the stock exchange, and the DMV, people are left wondering what in the world could be going on, aside from them not being able to get money or file documents. The Riddler is using this as a distraction in order for his thugs, dressed like GCPD, to retrieve his confidential records from the DMV, to destroy them. He wants to make sure Edward Nygma’s completely vanished and the Riddler is all that’s left.
Once he’s done that, he wants to make sure Batman, Robin, and Commissioner Gordon are out of the picture. He has a giant computer delivered to the police department which consists of a huge virtual reality program complete with headsets. Robin seems convinced it’s safe given that it’s not connected to a phone line and enters the M.C. Escher-esque world of the Riddler’s design. He convinces Gordon to give it a try as well, but this is entirely the Riddler’s plan: trap Gordon inside virtual space to force Batman to have to come in and get him.
All of the Riddler episodes, the few that there are, were fun and particular favorites of mine. I love the conceit that stupid jokes are the clues to the real riddle which is itself a clue to an even bigger riddle. It’s very smart writing and, as I said, it’s nice to see the writers challenge the minds of their viewers and not hold their hand all the way. The best of these wordplay quizzes comes at the end of the episode, which ultimately leads the heroes to the Riddler’s hideout. He says “If the planet were equitable, I’d still have my old job.” At first blush, it’s a throwaway line of mistanthropy on the part of the Riddler, but Batman cleverly determines it’s all a huge pun: if the “World’s Fair,” he’d still have his “Ex Position.” Robin rightfully groans at that revelation.
That also illustrates one of my favorite aspects of the Riddler. He is smart enough to get away with everything he’s trying to do and keep it on the down low, but he can’t. He’s such an egomaniac and a glory-hound, he wants to rub his superior intelligence in the face of “The World’s Greatest Detective.” Even though after he says the “World’s Fair” line, the VR world collapses and traps his mind within it, when he said it, he fully expected to be able to escape. Batman, Robin, and Gordon would never even have known where to look for him and he could have gotten away completely unscathed. But he can’t do it! The Riddler needs to be able to gloat at how badly he thought rings around the Dark Knight so he gives away where he is. He just wants the adulation he thinks he so rightly deserves. It’s a fascinating personality trait and one very befitting a Batman villain.
There would be one more Riddler episode in the original run of Batman: The Animated Series but not for quite awhile. We’ll get to it down the road a bit, but for next week we’ll be discussing what happens when bad girls just want to have fun. “Harley & Ivy” is next time!