“Trial” (season 2, episode 3; originally aired May 16, 1994)
Is Batman responsible for the creation of his rogues gallery? Is he just as psychologically damaged as his enemies? Would Gotham City be a better place without him? These are questions that often come up when discussing the Dark Knight, and writers Paul Dini and Bruce Timm tackle them directly with the phenomenal “Trial,” putting Batman on trial in Arkham Asylum with his fate in the hands of a district attorney that hates him. Originally planned as the plot for the full-length movie that would become The Mask Of The Phantasm, the creators decided that they could condense all the good bits into 22 minutes, giving the episode a breakneck pace that covers an expansive amount of story.
The huge cast, callbacks to previous episodes, and focus on the psychological and philosophical make this episode a highlight of the series. It’s a shame that “Trial” is D.A. Janet Van Dorn’s final appearance on B:TAS (she was introduced back in “Shadow Of The Bat”), because she’s a great foil to Batman, holding him to the same legal standard as everyone else. Voiced by Stephanie Zimbalist (the daughter of Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., a.k.a. the DCAU’s Alfred), Janet is an aggressive woman who is strengthened by her dedication to legal justice, and she has no problem telling Batman that if he wants to support law and order, he should take off his mask and put on a uniform.
To Janet, Batman is “a drug the city keeps taking to avoid facing reality,” preventing the police from doing their job and putting criminals inside padded walls instead of behind bars. The reason the rogues always escape from Arkham Asylum is because it’s an asylum, not a prison, and not equipped for the brand of psychopath that enters its doors. Because Batman isn’t an officer of the law, the convicted are rehabilitated instead of properly jailed, and once they escape, the police have to divert their attention away from everyday crime to focus on the supervillains. Janet is frustrated, but she also has no idea how insane the rogues really are. She’s only seen them behaving their best in court, but inside Arkham she’ll see just what Batman has to deal with on a regular basis.
Bruce Wayne makes his first season-two appearance out-of-costume this week, joining Janet for a date when she’s suddenly called to her office and disappears. Dini is very good at incorporating Bruce into his stories, and the short scene of him discussing his alter ego with Janet adds another layer to their constantly changing dynamic. It would have been nice to see Janet stick around as a romantic interest for Bruce, because in just one episode they develop one of the series’ strongest relationships.
When Batman tracks down the missing Janet, he’s ambushed by Harley and Ivy and taken to Arkham, where he finds himself sharing a cell with his date. He’s to be put on trial with Two-Face as the prosecution, Janet as the defense, and Joker as the judge, with a jury of unbiased peers including Mad Hatter and Killer Croc. It’s been established that Batman has no trouble slipping out of a straitjacket, so why doesn’t he escape earlier in the episode? Because he wants to watch this trial unfold. There must be some satisfaction in watching his primary detractor defend him, and why not take the opportunity to peek into the minds of his enemies in a nonviolent setting?
As Janet cross-examines the witnesses, she comes to realize that they were all bug-shit insane long before Batman came along. When Janet suggests to Mad Hatter that instead of blaming Batman for getting in the way of his romance with Alice, he could have respected her wishes and stayed away, Hatter exclaims: “I’d have killed her first!” Ivy blames Batman for preventing her from killing Harvey Dent, but she attacks Janet when she picks the petals off a flower, proving that her mental health was damaged long before Harvey Dent and Batman came into the picture.
If this episode were a movie or even a two-parter, I would want to see more of the rogues on the stand, because it’s fascinating to hear their side of the story. After hearing the testimonials, Janet understands that Batman isn’t responsible for creating Gotham’s criminal element—they’re responsible for creating him. The police aren’t prepared for this, and Batman is the weapon they need to keep their city safe. When the jury returns with the verdict, it’s a shocking “not guilty,” which says a lot for Janet’s skill as a lawyer and therapist; maybe she should pick up a couple shifts at Arkham on the side.
Dini and Timm are marvelous when they team up, and they take advantage of the great cast of villains this show has developed to write one damn funny episode. One of my favorite gags is Ventriloquist as the bailiff, with poor, timid Arnold Wesker trying to bring order to the court before being cut-off by Scarface yelling, “He says oyez, dirtbags!” When Scarecrow accidentally takes off Scarface’s head later in the episode, the shot of Arnold chasing the bouncing dummy head down the stairs is a refreshing bit of humor in the middle of an intense fight scene.
The banter between Arleen Sorkin and Mark Hamill is as electric as always, and this episode marks an important moment for Harley Quinn as her origin from the Mad Love comic is incorporated into B:TAS for the first time. Scenery is basically being shoved down Hamill’s throat—at one point Joker is an Irish priest performing last rites—but my favorite line is his Porky Pig impression as he sentence Batman and Janet to death: “A-bi, a-bi, a-bi, that’s all, folks! (Bangs rubber chicken gavel.) Let’s mambo!”
“Trial” came early in Dan Riba’s DCAU career, and he’s more experimental with his direction, taking advantage of B:TAS’ stylized visuals. The opening scene of Poison Ivy being sentenced to Arkham features a courthouse with large windows flooding the room with bright orange sunlight, strengthening Ivy as she prepares to reenter the madhouse. When the doors to the asylum are opened, Ivy is taken into darkness, a world inhabited by shadows of men. This isn’t Dong Yang’s best animation—the movement could be more fluid and the characters models sharper—but it’s good work considering this is one of the show’s busiest episodes.
The episode ends with a warm exchange between Janet and Batman, now on equal ground after saving each other’s lives. Janet tells him that while she understands why there’s a need for him in Gotham, she won’t stop working toward a city that doesn’t need Batman. His response: “Me too.” It’s nice to hear Bruce express the hope that one day he could give up his mission, and maybe having someone like Janet on his side can help him achieve that.
- Batman Beatdown:After Van Dorn knocks out the lights and Batman escapes from his straitjacket, he disappears into the darkness, slowly picking off his rogues from the shadows. Stealth beatdown!
- Someone went suit shopping between seasons, because Bruce’s drab brown-and-yellow number is gone this week, replaced by a much more stylish black suit with periwinkle shirt.
- Hey Riddler, where did you disappear to during the second half of this episode? Did you fall in the toilet or something?
- Scarecrow might be at his creepiest when he’s not speaking at all.
- Mad Hatter: “Hang him!” Harley Quinn: “Shoot him!” Killer Croc: “Hit him with a rock!” That Croc rock joke never get old.
- “Record? Is someone supposed to be writing this down?”
- “I object to this witness! She’s obviously trying to influence the judge.”
- “Personally, I suggested a quick slug between the eyes but I lost the coin toss.”