“Two-Face” set the bar high for complex, adult storytelling on Batman: The Animated Series, and at first, it appears that “It’s Never Too Late” will reach that episode’s same emotional heights. The first half of the episode maintains a similar edge as the hard-boiled “Two-Face,” telling a crime story about non-costumed human beings doing awful things to each other, and story writer Tom Ruegger tries to connect Arnold Stromwell to our hero through the shared experience of childhood trauma. With Harvey Dent out of the picture, Rupert Thorne (Animal House’s John Vernon) makes his power play on the Gotham underworld, challenging reigning kingpin Stromwell (Eugene Roche) for criminal supremacy. The war between the two escalates when Stromwell’s son Joey goes missing, and Stromwell is forced to relive the moment in his past when his folly first harmed someone he cared for.
As a child, Arnold’s altruistic brother saved him from an oncoming train, inadvertently leaping into the path of another. As his criminal empire comes crashing down, the memory haunts Stromwell, but he is stubbornly convinced that Thorne is to blame for Joey’s disappearance, unaware that his son has become addicted to the drugs he manufactures. This pride ultimately leads to Stromwell’s downfall, and the second act turns into a sort of “Gotham Christmas Carol” as Batman takes Arnold through the major mistakes of his life. As the story takes a turn for the didactic and sentimental in the second half, a lot of the grittiness from the beginning is lost, but as a follow-up to “Two-Face,” B:TAS could do much worse.
A large part of this episode’s quality can be attributed to director Boyd Kirkland and composer Lolita Ritmanis, who are responsible for turning Tom Ruegger’s story into something visually and audibly captivating. The image of the train rushing toward helpless child Arnold with the brass growing louder in the background score is so striking that it’s almost forgivable when the sequence is repeated later on in the episode. And the slow close-up as Batman enters Father Michael’s office combined with Ritmanis’s tense strings creates a sense of suspense that lingers well into Thorne and Stromwell’s dialogue in the next scene. Culminating in a Thorne double-cross and the detonation of the restaurant where Stromwell awaits his deadly antipasto, a variation of Danny Elfman’s “Batman Theme” signals Stromwell’s salvation at Batman’s hands. He doesn’t appear for much of the episode, but Batman’s presence is always given the appropriate weight by the horns playing those rousing five notes Elfman has forever associated with the Dark Knight.
Ruegger draws some interesting parallels between the Stromwell and Wayne families, presenting another perspective on the father-son relationship that this series loves to explore. Much like Mayor Hill and his son Jordan, Joey’s fate is a product of his father’s neglect, as Arnold has spent the years more concerned with his illegal operations than his drug-addicted son. The Stromwell family portrait hanging above Arnold’s fireplace evokes a similar painting in Wayne Manor, showing a mother and father with their happy son before tragedy struck. After saving Stromwell from Thorne’s bombing, Batman brings him to the drug rehabilitation center where Joey is being watched by his mother Connie, estranged from Arnold and prepared to lay blame on her husband. An enraged Stromwell continues to deny his involvement in Joey’s situation, Connie finally calls him out, exclaiming, “It was your drugs, and your people that sell them!” Despite the seriousness of the moment, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the famous “I learned it by watching you, dad!” anti-drug PSA.
I appreciate what “It’s Never Too Late” is trying to do in the second half, and I think it’s great that a cartoon is willing to devote an episode to a family devastated by drug addiction, but I wish the episode went beyond the typical clichés. Batman’s demand, “It has to stop, Stromwell. It has to stop… now,” has the same exaggerated delivery as his “children and guns do not mix, ever” line from “The Underdwellers,” almost as if Conroy has developed a public service Batman voice to differentiate it from his more characteristically subdued tone. There is one great moment in the second half where it appears that the anti-drug message may concede to the episode's earlier gangster antics, when Stromwell turns over the dummy records to Batman and pulls a rifle on him. It’s an unexpected moment that helps minimize the effect of Connie and Batman’s preachy dialogue earlier and gives Stromwell the kind of edge you'd expect from a kingpin.
Thorne interrupts Stromwell’s deception with tear gas, and the attack is the last straw for Arnold, finally vulnerable enough to allow himself to succumb to his repressed guilt. Much like how Big Bad Harv manifested under moments of extreme stress, Stromwell’s memory of his brother’s sacrifice becomes more vivid as he’s put through the gauntlet by Thorne and Batman. When he finally comes face to face with his brother—the priest Batman visited earlier in the episode—Stromwell is so overcome with guilt that he collapses into his brother’s arms, ready to give up any information the cops may need. Guilt is a major motivator in this series, and like Bruce, Arnold's redemption comes after he has accepted his.
The main problem with “It’s Never Too Late” is that all the intensity of the first half is done away with as the story becomes more kid-friendly. When the full memory of Arnold and Michael on the train tracks is revealed, we find out that Michael survived but lost a leg, rather than being killed as we’re originally led to believe. It’s a fine bait and switch but imagine how much more powerful it would be if Arnold was haunted by the memory of his dead younger brother. For such a hardened criminal, I’d think it would take more than the memory of his brother losing his leg to push Stromwell to the point where he’d give up his empire, but maybe that’s why Thorne’s power play ends up working. Stromwell is weak. He has an anxiety attack when he hears a train. Rupert Thorne is the man that killed Harvey Dent. In the end, Stromwell just didn’t have what it takes to be in charge.
1940’s Superman: Part Four (“The Mummy Strikes,” “The Jungle Drums,” “The Underground World,” and “Secret Agent”)
These last four Famous Studios productions showcase the best and worst elements of the Superman shorts, with “The Mummy Strikes” and “The Underground World” returning to the pulp sci-fi that characterized the Fleischer segments while “The Jungle Drums” and “Secret Agent” give us that good old Famous Studios propaganda and racism. Lois is still throwing herself head-first into dangerous situations, which is now even easier thanks to her status as a war reporter, and Clark is still changing in front of a conveniently located light source, yet despite the similar elements, when Famous attempts to copy Fleischer, the results are considerably less impressive than the brothers’ work.
“The Mummy Strikes” sticks out for its sheer laziness, in terms of both story and animation. When a scientist is found dead at an Egyptian museum, Clark investigates, lying to Lois to avoid her getting involved. Most of the episode consists of shots that establish the eerie atmosphere of the catacombs, simply panning over still images, and when Clark visits King Tush’s tomb, Dr. Wilson gives the history of the mummy and its curse while the camera displays motionless Egyptian artwork. While the artistry of all these elements is strong even without animation, too much time is spent on setting a mood and getting across exposition, pushing the action of the story into the last couple minutes.
Despite being short on story, the Fleischer shorts were rarely guilty of delaying the action. Out of these four, “Secret Agent” is the only one that starts off with a big action piece, while the rest try to go the suspense route. It’s just hard to create suspense with a character as powerful as Superman, and that often means delaying his appearance until the later half of the episode. “The Mummy Strikes” does this by providing lofty amounts of exposition, while “The Jungle Drums” and “The Underground World” throw in ridiculous dance breaks by African natives and subterranean hawkpeople. “Secret Agent” is light on the Superman but heavy on the Clark Kent, and watching him go up against undercover stateside Nazis reminds me of Lois taking up a machine gun against train robbers in “Billion Dollar Limited.” The double life of Clark Kent would have a huge impact on the way B:TAS writers handled the Bruce Wayne/Batman dynamic, and seeing Clark as a hero out of costume helps further define his character.
Despite the offensive aspects, the Famous Studios war installments offer a fascinating look at the political manipulation of a pop-culture icon. In today’s politically correct social climate, we’ll never get a big screen cartoon about Wonder Woman in Afghanistan. Watching Superman knock out Nazis and sink Japanese battleships glorifies the war experience and turns a grey conflict into stark shades of black and white, right and wrong. The two big propaganda episodes have two very different messages, with “The Jungle Drums” informing of the Nazi presence in Africa, while “Secret Agent” warns of the potential Nazi threat at home. Showing the natives as Nazi slaves while their masters wear horned, hooded cloaks is a disturbing image, especially as the natives dance around a soon-to-be-murdered Lois. This episode also has a rare Lois and Clark-free ending, showing Hitler listening to a news broadcast announcing the destruction of a Nazi fleet of submarines. He stands up and changes the channel furiously, switching the radio to a station playing a joyful American war song. Fade to black. Compare that to the ending of “Secret Agent,” where Superman triumphantly flies past an American flag after stopping undercover Nazis. It's intriguing that the last shot of the Superman shorts is not Lois Lane giving Superman all the credit or Clark Kent making a crack about his absence from the action, but rather an American flag, forever waving whether Superman is there or not.
- Batman Beatdown: After knocking out one of Thorne’s henchmen, Batman holds the body up like a dummy before throwing it at the thug’s accomplice. Terrifying.
- Goofy stoner homeless guy: “Heavy barbeque action, man.”
- “I didn’t know until today. I’d never know if it weren’t for Batman.” Parents of Gotham: A man dressed as a giant bat is not a family counselor. Watch your kids by your own goddamn selves.
- New Bruce costume: Drunk Vagrant Batman, complete with floppy hat, cane, and orange drink.
- How old is Stromwell if Thorne is considered the city’s criminal youth?
- Great use of haze when Thorne shoots tear gas into the building where Stromwell shows Batman the dummy records. Batman always looks good in a light cloud of fog.
- Rupert Thorne don’t mess with family.
- “Darn shame. They had the best cannolis.” Followed by a signature Jim Gordon glare.
- “Your hair. It looked better on TV.” Great Bullock lines this episode.
- “And for the record, I make candy.”
- Do Lois and Clark discover a tribe of Thanagarians under the Earth’s surface? I like to believe so.
- Lois is constantly in danger of being boiled.
- “My mummy done told me.”
- I don’t speak German. Does anyone know if the German dialogue is legit or gibberish?
- Boyd Kirkland passed away this past January. His influence was essential in establishing the cinematic visual style of B:TAS , and he will be missed. Thanks, Boyd.
Next week: A Best and Worst of B:TAS Double Feature!