The Matt Signal – Episode 31: The Cape and Cowl Conspiracy

Plot summary: Batman finds himself playing a deadly game against a death trap aficionado, with his own costume serving as the prize.

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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 Title: ‘The Cape and Cowl Conspiracy’

Original Air Date: October 14th, 1992

Directed: Frank Paur (7)

Written: Elliot S. Maggin (1)

Episode writer Elliot S. Maggin wrote for DC in the 70s and 80s, with an editor calling his debut script the greatest first writing effort he had seen since Ray Bradbury. It was a reworking of a paper he wrote at university entitled “What Can One Man Do?” and it received a B-

Furthermore this entire episode is based on one of Maggin’s issues of Detective Comics (#450, 1975)

Earlier drafts of the script called for somebody to steal the cape and cowl and use them to impersonate Batman, and for Wormwood to see Bruce’s face when he surrenders but both were nixed.

Recap

A man named McWhirter follows a cryptic note to a mini-golf course in the dead of night.  An unidentified man tells us via loudspeaker that McWhirter is a diplomatic courier. I have absolutely no idea what that means, but from context they’re going for some shady government spycraft nonsense.

The voice leads McWhirter into some quicksand and extorts the location of some bearer bonds he’s meant to be transporting. All I could think about during this scene was that viral tweet about cartoons giving children the impression quicksand would be a far more common occurrence than it is.

Jim Gordon gives Batman the rundown; McWhirter failed to pick up and deliver $750,000 in government bearer bonds intended for Eastern European refugees, which are now missing. Batman being the World’s Greatest Detective suggests that whoever lured him into the quicksand stole them… Ya think?!?

He goes on to suggest the perpetrator was Josiah Wormwood aka The Interrogator prompting Gordon to deliver one of the wildest lines of dialogue I’ve heard in 31 episodes:

“The guy who specializes in using deathtraps to pry information out of his victims? Terrific.”

Jim Gordon

The plot thickens as they plan to press a third character we’ve never met for information about Wormwood, one ‘Baron’ Waclaw Jozek. Boy, oh boy.

Jozek is a guest speaker at a fundraising banquet and… Batman straight-up snatches the dude in front of hundreds of guests. Don’t worry, they undercut the seriousness of that by making sure Jozek gets pied (or caked) on the way out and everybody laughs at him.

Batman tortures Jozek for information by dangling him from a great height by his suspenders. Suspending him, if you will….

Bats is less than enthused about the intel and suggests he hot foot it out of Gotham. Instead Jozek meets with Wormwood and hires him to obtain Batman’s cape and cowl. Wormwood is titillated by the prospect of the challenge and accepts.

Gordon summons the Caped Crusader via the Bat Signal, which is remarked on as being a new toy. I have zero evidence to the contrary, but instinctually I feel it has appeared before now. Weird. Gordon shares a cryptic note that Batman puzzles out instantly, but declines to share the solution.

Luckily he’s the main character of the show, so we learn it’s a place called “Train Town”, presumably some sort of train museum? Steam is billowing from one of the trains, prompting Bruce to head inside… where he is immediately trapped.

Wormwood tells him he has 60 seconds to save a random woman from being run over by the train, which has started moving, but he can save her instantly by surrendering his cape and cowl.

Batman declines, instead escaping the train after jamming one of the windows open with a Batarang. He dives for the woman with one second left but moves straight through her! She’s a hologram! Certainly a choice.

Wormwood reports his failure back to Jozek, promising his next death trap will definitely work. He leaves another note for Batman, which is again solved in seconds and we’re off to a wax museum! Classic.

Batman is again locked in immediately after entering, and Wormwood does his narration shtick via loudspeaker. This time it’s a 20,000-watt halogen bulb that begins melting all the wax. Much like before he can save himself if he gives up the cape and cowl.

After a little trial and error and his gadgets getting covered in wax, Batman uses the metal framework from within one of the melted statues as a javelin, smashing the bulb… only it’s now emitting toxic gas!

Seeing no other option, Batman agrees to the terms, depositing the garments through a hatch after Wormwood vents the room. Luckily, he’s wearing a second, Zorro-like mask under the main one, protecting his identity. Wormwood escapes before Bats can get to him.

Wormwood hands over the goods and he and Jozek have a drink to celebrate. But that’s not enough, as each has been dying to get the answer to a question from the other throughout the episode, so they agree to trade information.

Wormwood reveals the bonds are in a storage locker, the key to which he is planning to deliver to an agent of a (fictional) middle-eastern country. But when pressed for what he plans to do with the Cape and Cowl, Jozek reveals he plans… to wear them!

Sure enough, Kevin Conroy’s voice takes over and he rises out of his chair as a serpentine shadow with a familiar pair of white eyes and pointy ears. A rubber mask flops onto the desk and Wormwood realises he’s been played.

Turns out Jozek took Batman’s suggestion to leave town seriously after all. Very cute.

Wormwood tries to flee and the two wrestle for the key, eventually spilling into a gym and battering each other with dumbbells. Wormwood ends up in a swimming pool with the key… but Batman just yanks him out and he meekly hands it over. Lame.

Gordon plays back a secret recording of their exchange as his men cart Wormwood off to prison. We also get confirmation they picked up the ‘Quirian’ agent, who agreed to testify. And as one last F-U, Batman posts Wormwood the Cape and Cowl with a riddle attached.

Best Performance

Regulars Kevin Conroy and Bob Hastings put in solid work here, with Batman gleefully solving riddles and hamming it up when he wins the day, and Gordon becoming a 1950s motor mouth. Hastings hasn’t gotten a nod yet, so I am tempted…

But we also got two extremely hammy-in-a-good-way guest spots. Jonathan Rhys-Davies laid on a thick Eastern European accent as Waclaw Jozek, who was a fun faux aristocratic dirtbag.

Meanwhile Bud Cort’s Josiah Wormwood has an incredibly distinct, jowly drawl that makes him pretty hard to deny. He lorded it over his victims when narrating their death traps, and was also a little idiosyncratic in his dealings with Jozek. Cort would go on to voice The Toyman in Superman: The Animated Series and Justice League Unlimited, and I’m shocked they didn’t find a way to bring him back here for his vocal abilities alone.

Ranking

This is a pretty convoluted episode that I’m shocked a network allowed to be made into a children’s cartoon. I am 31 years old and I barely understand what bearer bonds are. We also typically only meet one or two new characters in an episode, while this one introduces three in under 5 minutes, each with an unconventional name and unclear relationship to the others.

Maggin laid on the fast talkin’ 50’s detective dialogue incredibly thick and I’m not sure how I feel about it. Ordinarily that kind of thing is my jam, but it felt a little over-baked here. An example:

“Nothing but a two-bit con-man, but a continental type, a real smoothie. The kind who’ll do anything for a free meal.”

Once things settle down and it becomes a good old fashioned Batman vs death-trap episode things improve, and the big reveal is pretty good… but I kind of wish it ended there. Instead we get a three minute fight scene with an anticlimactic conclusion, though admittedly one that contains some well-done audio trickery that makes it seem like Batman let Wormwood fall out of a window to his death.

I’m sure older fans dig it as a more grown up story full of twists and turns, but I think it needed another pass, personally. There is definitely something here, and I respect Maggin’s comic book work, but yeah. Not a huge fan, personally.

  1. Heart of Ice
  2. Perchance to Dream
  3. Two-Face Part I
  4. Joker’s Favor
  5. Feat of Clay Part II
  6. Beware the Gray Ghost
  7. Mad as a Hatter
  8. Vendetta
  9. Appointment In Crime Alley
  10. Two-Face Part II
  11. On Leather Wings
  12. Pretty Poison
  13. Feat of Clay Part I
  14. It’s Never Too Late
  15. See No Evil
  16. The Clock King
  17. Eternal Youth
  18. The Cape and Cowl Conspiracy
  19. The Cat and the Claw Part I
  20. P.O.V.
  21. Christmas with the Joker
  22. Fear of Victory
  23. Be a Clown
  24. The Cat and the Claw Part II
  25. Nothing to Fear
  26. Prophecy of Doom
  27. Dreams In Darkness
  28. The Last Laugh
  29. The Under-Dwellers
  30. The Forgotten
  31. I’ve Got Batman in My Basement

Villain Watch

Josiah Wormwood (Bud Cort) (first appearance)

‘The Interrogator’ is trading in the same space as Clock King and Mad Hatter (in his first appearance at least), leading Batman into enormous set-pieces and challenging him to escape them quickly. As mentioned previously, the whole series is heavily inspired by the era when Batman comics were doing this a LOT, so he’s in good standing as far as one-shot villains go.

He also uses Riddler-style cryptic notes made of magazine clipped letters, which is just gimmick infringement, but I guess he has to lure people to his traps somehow.

I’m pretty shocked that this is a one-shot appearance, given he seemingly bests Batman in a battle of wits (though the whole thing was an elaborate ruse by Batman so it doesn’t really count) and puts up a better than average fight in their final confrontation. But the biggest reason is him receiving the Cape and Cowl from Batman at the end. Suuuurely there’s a story to be told here where he gets out of prison and uses it for his own nefarious ends.

Missed opportunities notwithstanding, there’s enough going on here for Wormwood to score pretty well, even if he is stepping on the toes of some more famous villains.

  1. Joker
  2. Mr. Freeze
  3. Two-Face
  4. Clayface
  5. Mad Hatter
  6. Poison Ivy
  7. Catwoman
  8. Clock King
  9. Killer Croc
  10. Rupert Thorne
  11. Lloyd Ventrix
  12. Josiah Wormwood
  13. Scarecrow
  14. Roland Daggett (and Germs & Bell!)
  15. Red Claw
  16. Arnold Stromwell
  17. Mad Bomber
  18. Man-Bat
  19. Nostromos (and Lucas!)
  20. Harley Quinn
  21. Penguin
  22. Sewer King
  23. Boss Biggis

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 continues Monday with Call Me By Your Name.

Jerome & Brian’s Pantheon Plus concludes its Autumn Apocalypse with Mad Max: Fury Road this Tuesday.

Speaking of Jerome, he continues to bring 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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