The Matt Signal – Episode 2: Christmas with the Joker

Title Card

Plot summary: The Joker escapes Arkham Asylum on Christmas Eve and broadcasts his own twisted television special, threatening to kill hostages if Batman can’t find him by midnight.

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Each Saturday and Sunday Matt Waters recaps an episode of the legendary Batman: The Animated Series, building an overall ranking along the way. Plus best performances, the ever-popular Villain Watch and more!

Notes

Episode: ‘Christmas with the Joker’

Original Air Date: November 13th, 1992

Directed: Kent Butterworth (1)

Written: Eddie Gorodetsky (1)

Tim Curry was originally cast as The Joker. There are varying accounts as to why he was ditched for Mark Hamill (too scary, too similar to his other work, a producer just didn’t like him), but the one I’m inclined to believe is from voice director Andrea Romano, who says the voice was too strenuous for Curry and he developed bronchitis. Hamill had to match his cadence to Curry’s as this episode had already been animated.

Hamill said he nailed his audition because he was convinced going in he wouldn’t get it, giving him a calm confidence. He sealed with the manic laugh he used in Amadeus, now the definitive Joker soundbite.

Director Kent Butterworth quit in the middle of production never to return so series co-creator Eric Radomski finished up.

Riding Tree

Recap

The inmates of Arkham Asylum engage in a rousing rendition of Jingle Bells which The Joker remixes while escaping through the roof on a Chrismas tree he turned into a rocket. The first episode featured a man who transformed himself into a bat and somehow this is still the silliest thing to happen so far.

Robin (making his series debut) manages to convince a reluctant Batman that they can come home from patrolling early as it’s Christmas Eve and thus no crime. They sit down to watch It’s a Wonderful Life, which Batman has never seen (“I could never get past the title”), only for Joker to hijack the airwaves to taunt the Dynamic Duo with a Christmas Special.

Audience

Challenging Batman to find him by midnight, Joker threatens to kill Commissioner Gordon, Detective Harvey Bullock and journalist Summer Gleeson. Summer is a bit of a Vicki Vale stand-in. Not content to just sit and wait, Joker throws a curveball at the Caped Crusader by blowing up a railway bridge minutes before a train is due, forcing the Batmobile to do a rapid U-Turn.

Robin manages to decouple all of the passenger cars and bring them to a halt while Batman grabs the driver and dives to safety just before the train goes over the edge in a fiery explosion. Hopefully billionaire Bruce Wayne will help clean that up.

Having traced Joker’s broadcast signal to an observatory, Batman races there only to find that Mistah Jay has somehow modified the main telescope into a canon that fires indiscriminately at the city.

Joker in a Box

Robin slips inside amidst the chaos, evading a parade of Joker-bots programmed to shoot at anything that moves. The Boy Wonder disables them and destroys the canon from within, but the pair are no closer to finding Joker who is having the time of his life.

Thankfully Batman finally deduces Joker’s real location thanks to his intricate knowledge of how long it’s been since a very specific children’s doll has been sold in Gotham, memorising the factory that made them and when they went out of business. I have some questions…

Doll

Storming the Laffco Factory, our heroes battle giant toy soldiers and drop a giant teddy bear on some armed goons while the Nutcracker Suite plays over the factory speakers. A good creepy touch.

Joker at last reveals himself, dangling his hostages over a vat of acid, but Batman brushes off a pie to the face and saves them. He even saves Joker after he trips on a roller skate and nearly falls in. What a guy.

Finally sitting down to watch the film, Bruce admits it has its moments, while Joker maniacally laughs back in his padded cell in Arkham.

Joker Arkham

Best Performance

I mean, it’s Mark Hamill. Not only is his Joker immediately iconic, he delivers his lines while synchronising to somebody else’s timing. He sings, he laughs, he even does a little hand-puppet show. He’s a perfect blend of menacing and whimsical, the latter of which has been sorely lacking from recent interpretations in my opinion. The voice drifts all over the place, which feels appropriate, sometimes upbeat, sometimes snarling, with Hamill demonstrating a phenomenal amount of range throughout.

I actually think his voiceover of the Joker-in-a-Box is his best work in the episode, and that might be down to not having to sync to lip flaps. And the echoing laughter of the Joker sentry bots is creepy as heck too.

This is Hamill’s favourite performance of his own, and for good reason, he’s by far the best part of it. I’ll reserve judgement until I’ve re-watched his other outings, but given the sheer variety, it’s hard to imagine it getting better.

Hand Puppet

Ranking

I’m not sure how controversial it is to say that I think ‘On Leather Wings’ is a much better episode than this one. What might not go down as well is that I’m not really much of a fan of this one in general. It all tracks in theory, and I’d probably have made a lot of the same decisions if I were in the creators’ shoes, but there’s just something a little off about the final product, aside from Hamill’s tour-de-force performance.

I like it as a Christmas Special of the show, but it feels very early to do one of those (it was written to be episode 2 but aired much later on television in a decision that I agree with for once).

I actually would have liked to have seen this as a slightly longer straight-to-video style special. Despite some reviewers claiming it’s padded out to be longer than necessary, I actually think giving some of Batman & Robin’s detours more time to breathe would have been beneficial. Turning it into a crazy night full of trials. That kind of thing.

  1. On Leather Wings
  2. Christmas with the Joker

Joker

Villain Watch

The Joker (Mark Hamill) (first appearance)

Well, holding off on using the most famous villain in comic book history lasted precisely one episode. But to talk about Batman: The Animated Series is to talk about Mark Hamill’s Joker. Nicholson’s live action version was in the same rough wheelhouse, but the Christmas flare, song-and-dance-man energy, and twisted hostage situation give this an extra special something. I love the little touch of the shoddy cardboard cut-out audience and canned laughter. Please never forget he’s an insane clown man.

Personally I don’t think there’s any debate that this design of The Joker, brought to life by Hamill, is the definitive version of the character, and this first outing might be his best, even if I personally feel the episode is only okay.

  1. The Joker
  2. Man-Bat

Poster

Plugs

Eager for more long-form coverage of Batman? Why not check out my podcast with Mike Thomas, The Tape Crusaders, which reviewed every Batman movie and delved a tiny bit into the animated series.

Speaking of my podcasts, There Will Be Movies returns tomorrow with a special watch-along episode devoted to Scott Pilgrim vs the World.

Kevin Ford’s Flooping the Pig, our Adventure Time podcast, uploads new episodes every Thursday.

Jerome & Brian’s Pantheon Plus is underway looking back at some trilogies and throwback movies.

Speaking of Jerome, he will be bringing you his 100 favourite movies of all time, posting between 3 and 4 per week.

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Matt Waters

Brit dude who likes both things AND stuff and has delusions of being some kind of writer or something. Basketball, video games, comic books, films, music, other random stuff.

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