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Batman: The Animated Series: "The Cape & Cowl Conspiracy"/"The Laughing Fish"

Illustration for article titled Batman: The Animated Series: "The Cape & Cowl Conspiracy"/"The Laughing Fish"
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“The Cape & Cowl Conspiracy” (Season 1, Episode 31)

Poor Frank Paur, he’s always getting the lousiest scripts to direct, and he usually gets saddled with an equally bad animation studio to turn written shit into cartoon shit. From the moment Radomski’s title card appears, it’s obvious “The Cape & Cowl Conspiracy” is going to be another uninspired effort from Paur and company. I get that this episode is about Batman’s uniform, but a blue outline of his cape and cowl does not a dynamic image make. Was Radomski on some absurd deadline that required him to send in a blue shadow treatment study on accident? It’s a bland image to start a clichéd episode, which is essentially a series of derivative/idiotic traps set by a stale villain; low on pathos, but high on artificial melodrama. Without an emotional hook, the episode loses a sense of urgency and relevance, and the action isn’t captivating enough visually to compensate for the script’s misgivings.


“The Cape & Cowl Conspiracy” and “The Laughing Fish” are both adaptations of Detective Comics issues, but “Conspiracy” suffers from a script by original story writer Elliot S. Maggin (“The Cape & Cowl Deathtrap”), who isn’t able to adjust the story to match the standards set by previous episodes. The main villain Josiah “The Interrogator” Wormwood (Bud Cort) is described in the comic as a “financier, socialite, and freelance assassin,” but none of those qualities apply to his animated character. A financier/socialite/assassin sounds like a great foil to financier/socialite/superhero Bruce Wayne, but instead we get a cheap Riddler knock-off who uses barely-cryptic clues to lure Batman into his traps. (How do you feel about someone stealing your gimmick, Nigma?) Woodward is the kind of villain who loves to monologue while Batman tries to escape, and at the end of the episode he actually gets a “villain explains his plot in vivid detail” monologue when he’s talking to his associate “Baron” Wacklaw Josek (John Rhys-Davies), who is actually Batman in disguise.

This episode shares a lot of the same problems as “I’ve Got Batman In My Basement,” in that there’s a complete lack of Bruce Wayne (not even Alfred!) and a story that revolves around a single far-fetched plot point. In “Basement,” it was Batman having to put his life in the hands of children, while “Conspiracy” has Batman devising a convoluted scheme to get Wormwood to confess to stealing a collection of bearer bonds. As Josek, Batman hires Wormwood to steal his cape and cowl, withholding his reason for wanting the costume in hopes that Wormwood will confess in exchange for more information. Why Wormwood is so concerned with Josek’s plans and not, say, Batman’s secret identity is just plain stupid, and Wormwood’s inconsistent character isn’t helped by his lame design and exaggerated voice acting. The only thing missing from Wormwood’s design is a mustache for him to twirl, and Bud Cort gives an over the top vocal performance that makes the character sound like a bad Dr. Evil impression at times.

While Paur is saved his usual Akom assignment, Dong Yang’s animation this episode is one of their weaker efforts, especially compared to “The Laughing Fish,” which also uses their services, but with layouts provided by Spectrum. When Batman is locked in DeLarue’s Wax Museum under a 20,000 watt lightbulb, the wax melting effects don’t have the kind of detail and fluidity that a studio like TMS would have brought, and the script is so contrived that it limits the visual potential of the episode. The episode begins with Wormwood trapping a courier in a quicksand pit on a mini-golf course, which seems incredibly unsafe for the Gotham Putt-Putt, and there’s even a “busty woman tied to the train tracks” action sequence. Making her a hologram doesn’t forgive the fact that it’s pretty much the villain cliché. The wax sequence is notable for the hilariously phallic nature of Batman’s escape attempt, though, as he hurls a metal rod into the lamp while covered in white goo. The lamp shattering triggers the release of a gas that forces Batman to give up his cape and cowl, and he goes feral in the process. It’s obviously symbolic, with Batman using his hyper-masculinity to penetrate the first stage of Wormwood’s plot, which ultimately leads to Wormwood’s satisfaction and a primal transformation for our hero. Or not.

When Wormwood brings the cape and cowl to Josek, he outlines his plot in detail, then gets his ass handed to him when Batman reveals himself. The body switch reveal happens twice this week, and in both instances it’s hard to believe that Batman would be able to disguise himself as someone shorter and fatter so convincingly. It’s less a plot point in “The Laughing Fish,” though, and the reveal that Batman is Josek is not only predictable, but diminishes the events that happened before. Why did Batman put himself at risk when he could have just gotten Wormwood to confess the old fashioned way? How many crimes were committed while Batman was getting waxed? The entire plot just seems pointless, and the ending scene is like a rotten cherry on a turd sundae. Behind bars, Wormwood receives a present from Batman to keep him warm: the cape and cowl. Why in the world would Batman give a criminal anything other than a well-deserved beatdown? It’s Maggin’s attempt at a clever button that, like the rest of the episode, misses the mark completely.


Grade: D

“The Laughing Fish” (Season 1, Episode 34)

Now this is how you do an adaptation. Combining two classic Batman tales, Denny O’Neill and Neal Adams’ “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge!” from Batman #251 and Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers’ “The Laughing Fish!” (more story titles need exclamation points) from Detective Comics #475, “The Laughing Fish” features the trifecta of a Paul Dini script, Bruce Timm direction, and a spotlight on Mark Hamill’s brilliantly insane Joker. Paul Dini knows how to make the Joker scary, following up on “Joker’s Favor” with a script that showcases Joker’s penchant for comic terrorism, ideally involving innocent bystanders. The legitimate danger Joker represents prevents the absurd plot from becoming complete camp, and the visual spectacle Timm brings to the episode make this one of the strongest adaptations of the series.


Radomski redeems himself for “The Cape & Cowl Conspiracy” title card with “Robin’s Reckoning” (next week!), and “The Laughing Fish” continues the rebound with the only animated title card of the series, an ominous image of a smiling Joker fish print on a sign in Gotham Harbor, swinging in the middle of a raging thunderstorm. Timm gives the episode a very cinematic feel, and the pan from the title card to the start of the action sets a distinctive tone, especially with Shirley Walker’s string-heavy, discordant score. Joker’s theme is only played twice, once when Batman arrives at the aquarium to save Bullock (amazing whoopee cushion gag), and again when Joker jumps to escape at the end of the episode, and it serves to immediately bring some humor to both high-tension moments. The rest of the score goes for that Bernard Herrmann vibe, and the emphasis on the suspense thriller elements in the music makes the comedy in the script even more appreciable.

While inspecting a day’s catch, a group of fishermen are horrified to see their fish plastered with Joker’s trademark grin, a smile he wants to copyright to collect a margin of profit. Joker’s logic is that if Colonel Sanders can make money off his mustache-less chicken, then there there shouldn’t be anything stopping the sale of his Joker fish. It also gives him the opportunity to engage in his favorite pastime: terrorizing the harmless. It’s clear that Dini loves writing the Joker, and he makes the character as hilarious as he is terrifying. Whenever the Joker gets his hands on a toolbox things tend to get horrific, which means this one in funny episode. It’s that balance of comedy and terror that makes B:TAS’ Joker such a memorable character, and Hamill’s voice work is perfect this episode. Each joke feels fresh and spontaneous, as if Joker is always performing in some sort of stand-up comic serial killer Olympics, and his opening scene with copyright clerk G. Carl Francis (George Dzundza) is just one glorious gag after another.


The first half of the episode adapts “Laughing Fish” while the second half adapts “Five-Way Revenge,” with the two stories both featuring a series of Joker attacks on people in their homes. As Batman helps the GCPD secure Francis’ home, tensions rise between the vigilante and Lt. Bullock, who still refuses to accept Batman’s help, even after that whole Killer Croc fiasco. Joker launches a swordfish at Francis’ home, releasing a gas that reacts with a chemical Harley Quinn sprayed Francis with in his office, triggering a surprisingly graphic reaction in the clerk. The animation for Francis’ transformation into Joker-face is fantastic, and Timm uses creative angles like showing the swordfish flying into the apartment from the fish’s point of view. As mentioned earlier, Dong Yang is assisted by Spectrum on layouts this episode, and their influence is clear in the smoothness of the animation, the consistency of the character models, and the high level of detail. The perspective on that swordfish shot must have been a bitch to get right, but the effect looks great in action.

After Batman is unable to stop a second Joker attack on a copyright office bigwig, Bullock walks out to pursue the case on his own. His investigation takes him to the aquarium, where he’s captured by Harley Quinn and dangled above a shark tank. When Batman shows up, Bullock takes pride in finding the Joker’s hideout, apparently having forgotten that he’s a prisoner about to be turned into shark food. Paul Dini can get away with using a hackneyed trap like the shark tank because it fits perfectly with the theme of the episode (which isn’t just “lame traps”) and Bullock’s involvement gives it added significance. Even though Bruce Wayne doesn’t appear in this episode, Dini’s plot gives Batman an emotional tie to the case through his relationship with Bullock. By introducing even one extra element to the stereotypical hero vs. villain formula, the episode becomes considerably more complex, and Harley’s presence changes the dynamic even further.


What both original stories lack is Harley Quinn, and this episode continues to establish Joker and Harley as the series’ real dynamic duo. Hamill and Sorkin have a rare chemistry, and their voices work incredibly well together. Harley brings out the romantic/sexual side of Joker that we rarely see, but more importantly she’s a walking punch line for Joker, whether that means vomiting up a fork full of fish or becoming a reverse mermaid for whatever sick fetish he’s into this week. Both actors ham it up without becoming annoying because they’re both charming in their own twisted ways. Joker is a genuinely funny guy, despite his tendency to throw people into shark tanks, and there’s a dim-witted adorability to Harley that’s easy to love. Like Harley, I also despise the taste of seafood with few exceptions (sometimes an inexplicable craving for tuna salad hits), so this episode hits really close to home.

Both episodes this week were adaptations with similar subject matter, and they really show the spectrum of Batman: The Animated Series episodes. “The Laughing Fish” gets all the things right that “The Cape & Cowl Conspiracy” fumbles, with two charismatic villains, a smart, funny script, and a focused visual and audio aesthetic. By altering the source material to fit the framework of the DCAU, Dini and Timm produce a remarkable tribute to two classic Batman teams that inspired the B:TAS creators.


Grade: A

Stray Observations:

  • Batman Beatdown: Handcuffed Batman versus a shark and Harvey Bullock just got thrown into the pool with a pound of bloody ground sirloin. Let the awesome begin.
  • “How dare you manhandle me?!” Heehee.
  • “By the way, I hope you're not afraid of heights.” Batman’s grin sells it. He really looks forward to hanging people from gargoyles by their suspenders after a long day at the office.
  • “Conspiracy” is the first appearance of the Bat-signal, and Batman gets pretty sassy with Commissioner Gordon up on the GCPD rooftop. When Gordon asks him if he knows what one of Wormwood’s clues mean, he responds, “Don’t you?” Now I always hear him answer that whenever someone asks him a question. Bitchy Batman!
  • Now I want to read Gotham Central #11.
  • “However, you will find…a trap!” The dialogue in “Conspiracy” is crap.
  • Anyone else reminded of bone-claws Wolverine when Batman is wearing the blue bandana mask, especially with that bizarre growl?
  • “I am going…to put them on!” Direct quote from Detective Comics #450, and not even Conroy can make that threatening.
  • Detective Comics #450 features art from Walter Simonson, anyone pick up his Thor Omnibus last month? It is a thing of exquisite beauty, check out Comics Panel next week for a review.
  • The slimy fish sound effects in “The Laughing Fish” are fantastic.
  • “Dining in tonight, sir?” “The dissection tray, please, Alfred.”
  • “Look alive, wage slaves!”
  • “Actually I'm Irish.”
  • “I told you not to speak.” Smack. “You may speak now.”
  • “He’s crazy!” So perfect.
  • “Yummy yum yum!”
  • “This could cause a stampede to pork.”
  • "I'm harmless!" "And in his sick mind, that's the joke, Mr. Francis."
  • “Get this man to a hospital! Now!” Awesome delivery.
  • “Looks like he’s having more fun already!”
  • “Again with fish. I hate fish!”
  • “You're really sick, you know that, boss?”
  • “Come on, he was a demented, abusive, psychotic maniac.” “Yeah, I'm really going to miss him!”

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