The Matt Signal – Episode 64: Read My Lips

Plot summary: Batman faces one of his greatest challenges to date… a ventriloquist’s dummy!

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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!

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Notes

Episode Title: ‘Read My Lips’

Original Air Date: May 10th, 1993

Directed: Boyd Kirkland (15)

Written: Alan Burnett (3) and Michael Reaves (8) (story) & Joe R. Lansdale

One of Scarface’s trademarks is not being able to pronounce B’s, swapping them for G’s (e.g. Gatman). The network were huge fans of this idea and wanted to see it adapted for the cartoon, but Paul Dini argued it would diminish the voice actor’s performance.

Wesker’s creepy mannequin lair is based on a similar location in Killer’s Kiss by Stanley Kubrick.

Recap

We begin with the aftermath of a boxing match, where the night’s earnings are stolen by a trio of crooks who escape to the roof and at precisely midnight they leap into a truck full of mattresses, evading the police.

The group return to the hideout of their boss, Scarface, a cigar-chewing mobster shot in a very deliberate way. A montage of newspaper headlines tells us they’ve been terrorising the city for some time.

Jim Gordon briefs Batman, handing over footage of the gang fleeing a recent job. Bruce analyses it back at the Batcave, going full CSI ‘enhance’ mode to spot a rhino tattoo on the largest of the trio and comparing it with his database of sick ink.

Confronting the giant in an alleyway, Bats fails to get any concrete information before the police arrive, so instead follows him back to Scarface’s hideout.

Scarface’s right-hand man, Arnold Wesker, pleads with Rhino not to bother the boss, but he’s quite insistent. After a short off-screen argument between Wesker and Scarface, Wesker returns, revealing Scarface as a ventriloquist dummy!

Rhino (who was not remotely afraid of Batman), sweats bullets as Scarface berates him. The boss tells off the newest member of the crew for talking to Wesker instead of him. The trio continue talking after Scarface & Wesker leave, with Rhino affirming that Scarface is the brains of the operation.

Sneaking in later that night, Batman squeezes Ventriloquist for information, but is frustrated by Wesker’s lack of cooperation, so plants a listening device on his bowtie and leaves. Surprisingly, Wesker says nothing about Batman to Scarface.

Returning to the Cave, Batman armchair-diagnoses Wesker with multiple personality syndrome, with Alfred and the Batcomputer both fooled by their distinct voices. Bruce learned a little ventriloquism from Zatara, but states Wesker is on another level.

Scarface relays his latest scheme to his crew, throwing in some bickering with Wesker for good measure, claiming he had a premonition about a double-cross.

The gang get to work, using acid to break into an ocean liner to steal bricks of platinum. Batman, having heard the whole plan, arrives to try and stop them, but Rhino buries him under a mountain of platinum!

Waking up dangling over a pit of freakin’ sharpened mannequin hands, Batman learns Scarface found the listening device. Remaining calm, Bruce claims he has an inside man… Wesker!!!

Scarface is furious, with Wesker pleading for his life and Batman stirring the pot. Scarface orders Wesker shot but his men won’t do it. Before Scarface can do the job himself, Batman escapes his bondage thanks to a lock-pick hidden in his mouth.

Fighting Rhino for the third time, Batman at last gets the better of the brute, and Scarface is knocked free of Wesker’s hand in the chaos. One of the other henchmen opens fire with a tommy gun, but Batman dodges and Scarface is shot to pieces!

Some time later, the Arkham doctors comment on how Wesker is almost completely cured as he engages in therapeutic woodworking. Of course as soon as they look away he reveals he’s carving a new dummy!

Best Performance

Is there any doubt whatsoever that it’s George Dzundza, voicing both the mild-mannered, nervous Arnold Wesker and shouty, generic mobster, Scarface? There wasn’t really a reason that the same actor HAD to voice both roles, given The Ventriloquist is meant to be so unnaturally good at throwing his voice that they could get away with hiring two separate people. But it undeniably adds a certain something knowing it was all Dzundza.

A lot of the time with actors you can tell it’s them even when they’re doing a voice, but this believably sounded like two distinct individuals. I generally reward that in this section generally, so I would be remiss if I didn’t do it when the entire plot hinges around pulling it off.

I think my favourite line read in the episode was the final one by Wesker, where he thanks the doctor in an emotionless tone that belies a sense of deeper danger that Batman and the Arkham staff failed to pick up on.

Earl Boen, Joe Piscopo and Neil Ross make for an outstanding triple-act, and if not for the strength of Scarface himself, his gang would tie for first place.

Ranking

Villain showcase episodes tend to be the most memorable in the show, and this is definitely one of the better ones. It does make it difficult to separate the next section from this one though!

The direction is superb, with the very deliberate choice to save the Scarface reveal until the second act, blocking him in such a way where it looks like a normal person filmed from behind. They keep it going by making sure to have Wesker and Scarface argue off-screen before we learn the disturbing truth, which really helps to make it a bombshell (unless you already know of course.)

Beyond just the twist, there are several cool instances of Batman emerging from the shadows (which long-time readers know I’m a sucker for), and Bruce regaining consciousness hanging over the mannequin pit of horrors is haunting stuff.

Most importantly, they stick the landing with the kind of ‘The End… or is it???’ moment that audiences eat up. I have no notes, really. The only thing keeping it from the top ten is the lack of emotional subplot or emphasis on Batman and the supporting cast.

  1. The Laughing Fish
  2. Almost Got ‘Im
  3. Heart of Ice
  4. Shadow of the Bat Part I
  5. I Am the Night
  6. Robin’s Reckoning Part I
  7. The Man Who Killed Batman
  8. Perchance to Dream
  9. Two-Face Part I
  10. Joker’s Favor
  11. Read My Lips
  12. Feat of Clay Part II
  13. The Demon’s Quest Part II
  14. Harley and Ivy
  15. Robin’s Reckoning Part II
  16. Beware the Gray Ghost
  17. Mad as a Hatter
  18. Heart of Steel Part II
  19. Appointment In Crime Alley
  20. Two-Face Part II
  21. Pretty Poison
  22. Shadow of the Bat Part II
  23. Feat of Clay Part I
  24. His Silicon Soul
  25. Off Balance
  26. Vendetta
  27. Birds of a Feather
  28. Heart of Steel Part I
  29. On Leather Wings
  30. See No Evil
  31. The Clock King
  32. It’s Never Too Late
  33. Joker’s Wild
  34. Eternal Youth
  35. The Cape and Cowl Conspiracy
  36. The Cat and the Claw Part I
  37. Zatanna
  38. Day of the Samurai
  39. The Demon’s Quest Part I
  40. The Mechanic
  41. The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne
  42. Terror in the Sky
  43. P.O.V.
  44. Christmas with the Joker
  45. Fear of Victory
  46. Be a Clown
  47. What is Reality?
  48. Fire From Olympus
  49. Night of the Ninja
  50. Mudslide
  51. The Cat and the Claw Part II
  52. Nothing to Fear
  53. Prophecy of Doom
  54. Tyger, Tyger
  55. Blind as a Bat
  56. If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?
  57. Dreams In Darkness
  58. The Last Laugh
  59. Cat Scratch Fever
  60. Moon of the Wolf
  61. Paging the Crime Doctor
  62. The Under-Dwellers
  63. The Forgotten
  64. I’ve Got Batman in My Basement

Villain Watch

The Ventriloquist (George Dzundza) (first appearance)

Many people like to classify Scarface as a separate villain from Wesker. That is dumb. What’s not dumb is this amazing character. I think we can all remember our first encounter with Wesker & Scarface, and I’ve never really fallen out of love with the concept.

‘Read My Lips’ is one of the best executions of the character, with the voice acting and direction enhancing an already fascinating idea. It’s the little things like Ratso getting scolded for talking to Wesker instead of Scarface, and Rhino and Mugsy maintaining they’re separate people even when they’re out of the room. Or Wesker sleeping in a small, squalid bedroom adjoined to Scarface’s larger, lavish one.

Perhaps the most sublime moment comes when Batman bluffs that Wesker is a mole; The Ventriloquist KNOWS he isn’t, but his split personality is so severe that he stands there and intensely interrogates himself. That’s the character in a nutshell.

Rhino, Mugsy & Ratso (Earl Boen, Joe Piscopo & Neil Ross) (first appearance)

I normally include henchmen with the featured villain, but I enjoyed this trio so much I’m willing to let them go it alone. They’re obviously not going to fare as well as their boss, but to me this is the platonic ideal for single-appearance goons.

All three have a solid look and a great voice actor, and their group dynamic is superb. Rhino is the heavy, unafraid of Batman (but terrified of Scarface). Ratso is the new guy and audience surrogate who asks the obvious questions about Wesker. Mugsy is the voice of reason. This is all you need!

  1. The Joker
  2. Mr. Freeze
  3. Poison Ivy
  4. Harley Quinn
  5. Two-Face
  6. The Ventriloquist
  7. Mad Hatter
  8. Penguin
  9. Catwoman
  10. HARDAC (and Randa Duane)
  11. Clayface
  12. Ra’s al Ghul
  13. The Riddler
  14. Clock King
  15. Killer Croc
  16. Lloyd Ventrix
  17. Count Vertigo
  18. Josiah Wormwood
  19. Scarecrow
  20. Roland Daggett (and Germs & Bell!)
  21. Rupert Thorne
  22. Sid the Squid
  23. Maxie Zeus
  24. Jimmy ‘Jazzman’ Peake
  25. Tony Zucco
  26. Man-Bat
  27. Hugo Strange
  28. Red Claw
  29. Arnold Stromwell
  30. Mad Bomber
  31. Tygrus
  32. Rhino, Mugsy and Ratso
  33. Kyodai Ken
  34. Gil Mason
  35. Nostromos (and Lucas!)
  36. Cameron Kaiser
  37. Dr. Dorian (and Garth!)
  38. Talia al Ghul
  39. Mad Dog
  40. Ubu
  41. Professor Milo
  42. Romulus
  43. Sewer King
  44. Boss Biggis
  45. Montague Kane

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.

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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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