Plot summary: The Riddler returns to lure Batman into a virtual world of his own making, with Jim Gordon’s life at stake.
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!
Episode Title: ‘What Is Reality?’
Original Air Date: November 24th, 1992
Directed: Dick Sebast (8)
Written: Marty Isenberg (1) & Robert N. Skir (1)
Riddler’s fate in the episode is remarkably similar to that of Jim Carrey’s live-action portrayal of the character in Batman Forever, which also featured a meta-riddle solved using numbers from other riddles.
Bruce Timm dislikes this episode, feeling it was too farfetched for their tone. No idea how he feels about the various mutant animals. He did like the animation though.
First time series writers Marty Isenberg & Robert N. Skir wrote a LOT of cartoons together, including X-Men, Spider-Man, Superman, Transforms, Gargoyles, The Mummy and of course Extreme Ghostbusters.
An intensely normal man is out for a night jog and stops to use an ATM, only for it to present him with a riddle. He naturally attempts to cancel the transaction and get his card back but this counts as an incorrect guess and his balance drops to $0.00. Yikes.
Later Gotham’s stockbrokers and the folks at the DMV (including Alfred and Dick who were there to dispute a parking ticket!) are hit with their own riddle.
The press hound Jim Gordon about this string of cyber-crimes but he has nothing to report. Batman does his best to give him a heart attack by emerging from the shadows in his office to announce Edward Nygma is back. Gordon confirms Riddler has erased all of his digital records.
Following the news that a suspicious crate has been delivered downstairs, the station is evacuated, providing a distraction for two of Riddler’s hired goons to steal the GCPD’s physical records too.
It turns out the crate is more of an enormous question-mark-covered obelisk, which Batman and Robin examine while the cops cower in fear. Robin remarks it’s a giant Chinese puzzle box and is able to make it collapse, revealing a computer terminal with two chairs…
For some reason Batman and Gordon leave Robin alone with the computer, which despite clearly being too large to fit through the door, has been moved to the GCPD crime lab. Bruce heads back to the Batcave to puzzle out the riddles, which Alfred solves instantly:
“Where does a 500lb gorilla sleep? – Anywhere it wants.
What’s worse than a millipede with flat feet? – A giraffe with a sore throat.
How do you five elephants into a compact car? – Two in the front seat, two in the back and one in the trunk.”
Batman rightfully points out these aren’t riddles but corny old jokes. Is that a critique of the previous Riddler episode? If so, it’s warranted. Bruce points out that if one takes the numbers from each ‘riddle’ and convert them to roman numerals you get D.M.V., and thus deduces Nygma is going back for the hard copy of their records.
Sure enough, Bats arrives a little too late to prevent a robbery, getting first beaten down by a post, and then almost run over by a remote-controlled van full of explosives. This might be his biggest L ever.
Back at the crime lab, Dick explains that the Riddler’s computer is an advanced VR machine, blowing Jim’s tiny mind as they digitally roam around an M.C. Escher staircase.
Dick assures him that Nygma can’t access the machine as it lacks a phone line, but the moment he leaves the room the door locks behind him and a digital Riddler seizes Gordon! Dick is able to get back inside and tries to yank Jim’s headset off but is electrocuted. Video games = bad!
Batman abandons his examination of the van wreckage when Riddler calls a nearby payphone that ejects four quarters and a penny. The penny is copper, which is slang for police, the four quarters show heads, and their total value is 101… therefore the answer is Room 101, Police Headquarters. That’s right, he could have literally stayed still and made the exact same amount of progress!!!
Bruce revives Robin, learning that Gordon has about fifteen minutes until his virtual experience give him a literal heart attack, and that disconnecting him suddenly would have the same effect so he has no choice but to join him in VR, with Robin providing tech support from the outside via a headset.
Presented with an infinite row of doors, Batman picks one and is attacked by giant (incredibly dodgy looking) question marks. Facing certain death, he opens the opposite door marked ‘crazy intent’, which of course unleashes a train, running over his would be killers. Get it? Loco. Motive.
Returning to the central riddle about kings and queens, he opens a door marked 4096 (64 squared) and thus finds himself on an enormous chessboard.
Nygma states he must move according to the rules, which Dick deduces means like a (dark) knight. He does so precisely once and is transformed into a more literal knight mounted on a winged horse that begins flying through space. This is extremely hard to recap.
Dick directs him through the constellations (which naturally take on their namesake appearances and try to attack him) until he reaches Pegasus, granting him access to the next stage.
Riddler places an enormous
Rubik’s Cube Baxter’s Box containing Jim Gordon on the ground, giving Bats one minute to solve it and blocking Dick from helping for good measure. If you could do that all along, why wait until now?!?
Batman has no time for any of this, and in true Batman fashion wills himself to manipulate the virtual reality, giving himself hammer-hands and creating many clones of himself!
Nygma responds in kind, repairing the box as quickly as the Batmen can damage it. Bruce calmly reverts to a single version, points out Riddler can’t split his consciousness 32-ways AND keep the virtual world together, causing it to immediately start melting. Like Wile E. Coyote only falling after he realises he’s standing on thin air, I guess?
Batman saves Gordon and the pair escape, but Riddler has no such luck, seemingly left trapped inside the machine as it fails. And that’s not even the end of the episode!
Focusing on Riddler’s comment “If the planet were equitable, I’d still have my old job”, the Dynamic Duo head to… The World’s Fair Exposition. A thing all children of the 90s have deep reverence for, of course.
Sure enough, they head inside where Riddler is at a matching computer terminal, catatonic due to his mind getting trapped. The heroes basically shrug it off and leave. Whoa.
Much like in his debut episode, John Glover’s work as The Riddler is the absolute strongest part of a bad episode. He imbues Nygma with casual, snobbish confidence that perfectly complements the series’ redesign of the character, while also being able to slide the sinister/creepy levels up when required. Most of the show’s non-physical villains tend to think they’re smarter than Batman only to be revealed as bumbling fools, but Glover manages to give Riddler a more dangerous edge through his performance.
Everybody else was perfectly fine, except Hal Rayle, who gave the absolute worst line-reading on the show as one of the stockbrokers. To be fair the line was “Good lord, we’ve got a computer vandal on our hands!”
This amounts to little more than a remix of ‘If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?’, swapping out the death-trap maze for a virtual reality puzzle gauntlet. I marginally prefer this, in large part because the riddles are less frustrating. They’re still not very good (a shame given they’re the villain’s entire deal), but they at least make logical sense, and the hidden riddle tying some of them together was smart.
But several of these riddles are delivered for the sole purpose of leading Batman away from the police station, only to send him back there. I get what they were going for, that Bruce would have spotted the hidden modem connection that Dick didn’t, but it felt like a waste of the viewer’s time, not a clever trick to distract our hero.
The major thing the episode has going for it are the visuals, with the virtual world presented as a black and red world of surrealist paintings brought to life. It was an interesting twist on the neon greens and blues that usually come with the trope, and looking at the episode is far more enjoyable than listening to it.
You can kind of encapsulate the entire thing in the chess scene; A cool idea (Batman having to behave like a (dark) knight on a giant chessboard), is ruined by sloppy execution (all the other pieces move completely at random to attack), but it sure does look pretty!
- The Laughing Fish
- Almost Got ‘Im
- Heart of Ice
- Robin’s Reckoning Part I
- Perchance to Dream
- Two-Face Part I
- Joker’s Favor
- Feat of Clay Part II
- Robin’s Reckoning Part II
- Beware the Gray Ghost
- Mad as a Hatter
- Heart of Steel Part II
- Appointment In Crime Alley
- Two-Face Part II
- Birds of a Feather
- Heart of Steel Part I
- On Leather Wings
- Pretty Poison
- Feat of Clay Part I
- It’s Never Too Late
- See No Evil
- The Clock King
- Joker’s Wild
- The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne
- Eternal Youth
- The Cape and Cowl Conspiracy
- The Cat and the Claw Part I
- Day of the Samurai
- Terror in the Sky
- Christmas with the Joker
- Fear of Victory
- Be a Clown
- What is Reality?
- Night of the Ninja
- The Cat and the Claw Part II
- Nothing to Fear
- Prophecy of Doom
- Tyger, Tyger
- If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?
- Dreams In Darkness
- The Last Laugh
- Cat Scratch Fever
- Moon of the Wolf
- The Under-Dwellers
- The Forgotten
- I’ve Got Batman in My Basement
The Riddler (John Glover) (second appearance)
I can see why one might object to how highly I ranked Riddler given how bad his debut episode was, but I maintain the character was well designed, voiced and executed, evading capture and essentially achieving his goals.
Glover’s voice work was even better this time around, and Nygma’s whole ‘Master of a Virtual World’ thing was fun while it lasted. His fate is reversed from before, as rather than getting away unharmed, he potentially suffers about as bad a fate as a villain in a children’s cartoon possibly can.
His appearances have undoubtedly been memorable, even if the episodes are poor.
- The Joker
- Mr. Freeze
- Mad Hatter
- Poison Ivy
- The Riddler
- Clock King
- Killer Croc
- HARDAC (and Ronda Duane)
- Rupert Thorne
- Lloyd Ventrix
- Harley Quinn
- Josiah Wormwood
- Roland Daggett (and Germs & Bell!)
- Tony Zucco
- Hugo Strange
- Red Claw
- Arnold Stromwell
- Mad Bomber
- Tygrus (and Dr. Dorian)
- Kyodai Ken
- Nostromos (and Lucas!)
- Cameron Kaiser
- Dr. Dorian (and Garth)
- Professor Milo
- Sewer King
- Boss Biggis
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 tomorrow with Little Women.
Kevin & Jerome’s Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul podcast, Reel Bad, will be dropping its final episode (for now) before the end of the month.