The Matt Signal – Episode 37: The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne

Plot summary: When the nefarious Hugo Strange learns of Batman’s secret identity he puts in a call to Gotham’s most wanted to try and sell the information.

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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 Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne’

Original Air Date: October 29th, 1992

Directed: Frank Paur (8)

Written: David Wise (story) (2), and Judith & Garfield Reeves-Stevens (2) (teleplay)

This is the first episode of the series to feature multiple villains working together, which might sound crazy given two of the most beloved episodes are known for doing exactly that.

Based on ‘The Dead Yet Live’ and ‘I Am the Batman’, stories from the late 70s, as well as the Batman ’66 episode ‘Minerva, Mayhem and Millionaires.’

The names on the tapes in Hugo Strange’s drawer make reference to sci-fi/fantasy writers including Beth Meacham, K.W. Jetter, John Campbell Jr., Peter Morwood as well as a tonne of the production staff.

Recap

Judge Maria Vargas meets with some goons on a bridge, handing over a briefcase full of cash, intending to trade it for a tape with her name on it. Unfortunately she’s $20,000 short, so not only doesn’t she get the tape, but the price is raised by another hundred thousand.

Thankfully Batman was watching the entire time and swoops in to take out the crooks, causing the tape to fly off the edge of the bridge and onto a narrow metal beam. Vargas demonstrates her desperation to secure it, crawling out onto the beam, with Batman barely able to stop her from falling.

Jim Gordon oversees Vargas being taken to hospital, having passed out after hitting her head on the beam. Having known Maria for twenty years, he refuses to believe she would give in to extortion, having seen her recently following a vacation to the Yucca Springs resort.

You’ll never guess where the crooks’ car is registered to… Yes, Yucca Springs, which turns out to be owned by Roland Daggett! Batman has heard enough, seemingly leaping off the bridge to his doom, but then climbing a rope into the Bat-Wing, telling Robin he thinks he needs a break.

Checking in at Yucca Springs, Bruce tells Alfred – who he brought with him to the spa!!!! – that he plans to look into Hugo Strange, the doctor Judge Vargas namedropped during the attempted handover. Alfred lays out his evening attire, which is of course the Cape and Cowl.

Bruce begins a session with Strange, who straps him to a comically mad-science machine that he claims will lower his mental defences to allow greater relaxation. Only this damn machine projects his thoughts onto a huge screen!

We see Alfred comforting a young Bruce following the death of his parents, and then the closest thing to their murder in Crime Alley that the show can get away with. Strange asserts Bruce felt responsible for their death, becoming consumed by a need to channel his anger.

Bruce can’t resist the machine any longer, with bats flying across the screen and then a familiar gloved fist covering the Batman logo. He rapidly excuses himself, unaware Strange saw everything.

A phone rings in the Joker’s hideout (his answer machine features a person screaming for their life rather than a beep), with Strange informing him of an auction. He then leaves the spa with the same goons from the start of the episode.

Speaking of which, Bruce sneaks into Strange’s lab and finds Vargas’ tape, which depicts her burning down a factory as a child. This is apparently an infamous event in Gotham history, explaining her desire to hide it.

Strange and his goons collect Joker, Two-Face and Penguin from an airfield, having just touched down in a private jet. Realising what Strange is planning, Bruce asks Alfred to track the villains while he straps himself back into the machine…

After finishing his unknown recording, Wayne smashes the machine, destroying it. Strange’s thugs take him hostage, having immediately captured Alfred and used drugs to get him to talk.

Two-Face begins the bidding at half a million, which Penguin immediately doubles. Harvey raises to two million. Joker tells them to cool it, and then for some reason they combine their funds, buying the tape for $51m and change. Literally.

Strange rolls the tape, unaware Bruce has escaped bondage and hooked up his new recording to the projector, a false memory of Strange plotting to trick the villains.

The trio are naturally furious, easily ploughing through his henchmen and beating Strange to the airfield, forcing him onto a plane with Joker at the helm. Batman gives chase, clambering up the landing gear.

Strange screams that Bruce Wayne is Batman, but Harvey calls the idea absurd, going as far as to say if that’s true then he’s the King of England. But before they can throw him out, Bats sabotages the plane, sending it into a downward spiral…

The plane lands comically safely, so Batman’s rule about no killing remains intact for another day. He disarms the villains as a GCPD blimp puts a spotlight on the scene. Bats puts Joker in cuffs.

Batman and Jim Gordon agree Judge Vargas had nothing to fear in the first place as it was all an accident. Strange tries again to reveal Batman’s secret, but Bruce freakin’ Wayne rocks up to permanently discredit the idea! After Gordon takes Strange away we of course learn that “Bruce” is Robin in disguise, complete with… leg extenders…

Best Performance

In many ways this is a greatest hits episode, with more excellent voice work from the show’s three best performers to date: Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill and Richard Moll. Heck, in a weaker episode I might have finally given it to Bob Hastings as Commissioner Gordon.

But Ray Buktenica’s take on Hugo Strange is fantastic; the right blend of squirmy weasel and menacing mad scientist. It’s an incredibly distinct vocal performance that goes in completely the opposite direction to B.D. Wong in Gotham and Corey Burton in Arkham City, who both opt to give him a deeper, more calculating timbre. I don’t know if this version is better, but it does fit with the classic comic iteration who was less of an unhinged physical threat, and more of a generic nefarious scientist.

Ranking

I don’t know what this writing staff had against spas, but this is the second episode in recent memory to feature a Batman villain getting up to no good while using a luxury resort as a front. This one is a bit better than ‘Eternal Youth’, though.

At times it even seems like it’s going to be one of the best episodes in the whole show, with an excellent opening scene, the always fun trope of a villain discovering the hero’s secret, and then bringing together three of the most iconic villains in the Rogues Gallery. Unfortunately it’s missing either an emotional through-line or commanding vocal performance to tie the whole thing together in the same way as the best episodes. Strange learning who Batman really is should be an enormous deal, but Bruce remains almost entirely nonplussed by the whole thing, concocting a quick and easy fix.

We don’t even have the looming threat of Strange lurking in the shadows ready to spill the beans at any time, as the Robin ruse dispels the whole thing. An older Dick has shown the ability to pass for Batman in the comics before, but this is the first time I’ve seen them go the whole hog and put him in a Bruce Wayne mask and… stilts.

I will say though, the scene with Batman chilling on the edge of the bridge, cape blowing in the wind, drawn entirely in shadow except for the bright white eyes is basically all I’m ever looking for from the art in this show.

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

Villain Watch

Hugo Strange (Ray Buktenica) (first appearance)

I go and say something silly like we have a crowded house (for ‘Cat-Scratch Fever’) and then BAM, four major villains. Strap in. Strange makes a strong debut, with his operation appearing very successful until it draws Batman’s attention, but even then he’s able to ascertain the hero’s secret identity.

It’s not just the machine that figures it out for him though, as Strange demonstrates how dangerous his psychiatric training can be if pointed in the wrong direction, correctly deducing Bruce’s state of mind following his parents’ death.

His place in relation to the other villains is one of humour, looking down on but ultimately being terrified of them. Once again, I begrudge none of the antagonists who want to get rich quick, but the fact that he poses zero physical threat once rumbled knocks him down a peg or two, as he’s treated as an ordinary civilian who stands no chance against the Murder Clown.

The Joker (Mark Hamill) (sixth appearance)

We’ve seen Joker deployed in cameos a few times outside of his feature performances, none of which I’ve counted as an appearance. They’re nevertheless interesting and often powerful, serving to keep him firmly established as the top dog in the Rogues Gallery. That position is reflected in the episode, as he’s the only one we see Strange calling, leading to the fun voicemail scene. He’s the first to step off the plane, and he takes charge of the other two in the climax without a hint of challenge. He continues to be well written and better acted, and there’s not much I can say here you haven’t heard already. He remains number one.

Two-Face (Richard Moll) (third appearance)

Following on from his towering two-parter, Harvey slides into the role of common criminal, treated as important enough to be on Strange’s call list (as opposed to Rupert Thorne as it was in the comics), but focused more on money than anything else. It was good to hear Moll’s voice again, and he doesn’t do anything to drop him in the rankings.

Penguin (Paul Williams (second appearance)

After the single worst showing of a major Batman adversary, Penguin finds himself on the back foot trying to climb past pedestrian foes such as Nostromos and Kyodai Ken. So it’s not ideal that he’s a bit of a non-entity in his second outing. Sure, he’s treated as a big deal by being one of three to be invited to the auction, but one could easily look at the material and say it’s more to do with his wealth than villainy. Personally I’m still not convinced by him.

  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. Tony Zucco
  16. Harley Quinn
  17. Hugo Strange
  18. Red Claw
  19. Arnold Stromwell
  20. Mad Bomber
  21. Man-Bat
  22. Nostromos (and Lucas!)
  23. Kyodai Ken
  24. Penguin
  25. Professor Milo
  26. Sewer King
  27. 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 on Monday with Bad Times at the El Royale.

Kevin & Jerome’s Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul podcast, Reel Bad, drops new episodes the first Tuesday of each month.

Jerome & Brian’s Pantheon Plus continues each Tuesday there’s not a Reel Bad.

Speaking of Jerome (twice), 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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