The Matt Signal – Episode 104: Legends of the Dark Knight

Plot summary: In a loving homage to iconic Batman artists, a group of children take turns telling wildly different stories about their perception of Batman.

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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: ‘Legends of the Dark Knight’

Original Air Date: October 10th, 1998

Directed: Dan Riba (16)

Written: Bruce Timm (4) (story) & Robert Goodman (3)

Per the opening title cards, the two stories told are drawn in the style of Dick Sprang and Frank Miller respectively. Both were sent the episode ahead of airing and gave their approval of the adaptations of their work.

They wanted to go full Treehouse of Horror and have a third segment honouring Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams but found Adams’ art style too difficult. Plus an enormous amount of this show draws inspiration from that era anyway.

When he submitted this story idea, Bruce Timm claimed to have no pre-existing knowledge of a comic book issue from 1973 by Frank Robbins which featured three kids on a camping trip swapping stories about Batman.

Gotham Knights basically uses this premise as well, with each segment done by a different animation studio, leading to a variety of art styles.

Recap

A group of kids fawn over a grainy picture of Batman in a newspaper and excitedly trade ideas about him, with one kid believing he is a supernatural being with wings and fangs. One of them claims their uncle met him once…

We see said uncle working as a security guard at Walker Music Center (named for series composer Shirley Walker), which Joker and his boys raid, seeking to steal the original score of Pagliacci!

Batman and Robin arrive, having solved a clue left by Joker. After many somersaults and creative uses of oversized musical instruments, the Dynamic Duo seem to have the upper hand… until Joker drops a sousaphone onto Robin and a distracted Batman is knocked out.

Joker and his crew toss the heroes onto a giant piano, which he gleefully begins playing by running all over. Batman and Robin roll away from the hammers to avoid being crushed to death and manage to cut their way free.

Joker and his cronies are once again taken down by use of oversized instruments, this time for good. Batman instructs the security guard to call the police and then shakes hands with Robin in true Batman 66 fashion.

Returning to the present, the other kids don’t buy the story. They pass by a friend called Joel outside ‘Shoemaker’s’, who has heard Batman wears tight rubber armour and has a car that drives up walls… Subtle, guys.

Joel points them to a nearby coffee shop, the scene of a recent arson attack similar to the one reported in the newspaper at the start of the episode. They wonder if they can find any clues like Batman.

‘Carrie’ goes next, claiming Batman is old and Robin is a girl, taking us to a Dark Knight Returns scene with the hulking vigilante beating up some members of the Mutants gang.

The Mutant Leader is rallying his crew at a junkyard, when Batman attacks in his enormous Bat-Tank, easily taking out his attackers with rubber bullets.

Batman exits the tank to accept The Mutant Leader’s challenge to a one on one battle and the two giants beat the piss out of each other in the mud in as brutal a manner as the censors would allow until Batman is victorious.

The kids leave, agreeing Batman rules, but spot their hero flying overhead so follow to an abandoned movie theatre, where it turns out it was Firefly and not Batman!

Naturally the real deal arrives just in time to take the winged arsonist down and rescue the kids, who call the police. Harvey Bullock wonders who called it in for them as the children continue to debate Batman’s true nature.

Best Performance

Given this episode has two fantastical tales from two vastly different eras, I feel it’s only right to call this a tie between a Batman and a Joker.

Michael Ironside absolutely rules as Frank Miller’s Batman, sounding a surprising amount like Peter Weller in The Dark Knight Returns, with the same world weary mumble, only he delivers his (at times identical) lines with infinitely more aplomb. Honestly, I’m furious that they didn’t hit him up to reprise the role for the two movies.

Meanwhile Michael McKean understood his assignment as the 50’s/60’s Joker: ham it so far beyond what feels like the tasteful limit… and then some. He’s honestly great delivering awful puns, while maintaining enough of the Mark Hamill-esque charismatic showmanship.

Gary Owens and Anndi McAfee are a great campy Batman & Robin, too, but they get far fewer lines.

Ranking

This episode should probably have served as the series finale as it serves as a delightful love letter to multiple eras of the franchise. I have always had a soft spot for anthologies, and only wish this one could have squeezed in a third tale in the middle to complete the holy trinity with Denny O’Neil’s iconic 70s run.

The Dick Sprang/Bill Finger section is full of giant goofy props in a fantastical location with bad puns being delivered at 100mph. Beyond the obvious art style homage and pitch perfect voice cast, the animation captured even the most minor of movements and poses that you simply don’t see anymore. This is the Batman that informed what was briefly the world’s most popular television show. This is my dad’s Batman. It’s the Batman that the Snyder cultists despise, and while it’s not my favourite era, this entire segment of the episode is so comforting and nostalgic. Honestly, lovely.

It was utterly wild to see The Dark Knight Returns condensed to five minutes of a children’s cartoon, right down to iconic lines like “this isn’t a mudhole, it’s an operating table. And I’m the surgeon”, and the Mutant Gang’s infamous manner of speech. Darwyn Cooke worked on the animation of this segment and he crushed it (obviously). Despite condensing the story to basically just Batman vs The Mutant Leader, there are a few recreations of iconic shots from what some feel is the greatest Batman comic ever. Again, perfect voice cast, and it’s crazy how edgy they were allowed to be, with multiple death threats and a surprisingly violent fight scene.

The framing device of the kids’ vivid imaginations works well, but the ‘real’ scenes are obviously the weakest part of the episode, and I wish they could have gotten from one story to the other a little quicker. Instead, they committed to the idea of them accidentally following Firefly’s trail, with the newspaper headline relating to unsolved arson, culminating in an okay battle between Batman and Firefly. There was something very charming about the youngest kid believing Batman followed his toy Bat Signal, while we know Bruce simply did his detective thing.

Overall the general concept is a testament to the power of the character and a subtle nod to the idea that for as famous as he seems, it’s still plausible most of Gotham have never seen him, even in a newspaper. His many amazing feats trickle down into tall tales, brought to life with profoundly different aesthetics. And if this had been the series finale, what better final note than a group of kids continuing to wonder about him while he swoops off to do keep doing Batman Things, ostensibly forever?

  1. The Laughing Fish
  2. Mask of the Phantasm
  3. Over the Edge
  4. Almost Got ‘im
  5. Heart of Ice
  6. Harlequinade
  7. The Trial
  8. Riddler’s Reform
  9. Double Talk
  10. Legends of the Dark Knight (NEW ENTRY)
  11. Shadow of the Bat Part I
  12. I Am the Night
  13. Robin’s Reckoning Part I
  14. Baby-Doll
  15. Sins of the Father
  16. Batman & Mr. Freeze: Sub-Zero
  17. The Man Who Killed Batman
  18. Perchance to Dream
  19. Two-Face Part I
  20. Torch Song
  21. You Scratch My Back
  22. Bane
  23. Batgirl Returns
  24. A Bullet For Bullock
  25. Joker’s Favor
  26. Read My Lips
  27. Feat of Clay Part II
  28. The Ultimate Thrill
  29. Catwalk
  30. The Demon’s Quest Part II
  31. Harley and Ivy
  32. Robin’s Reckoning Part II
  33. House & Garden
  34. Beware the Gray Ghost
  35. Mean Seasons
  36. Old Wounds
  37. Growing Pains
  38. Holiday Knights
  39. Second Chance
  40. Mad as a Hatter
  41. Heart of Steel Part II
  42. Appointment In Crime Alley
  43. Two-Face Part II
  44. Pretty Poison
  45. Deep Freeze
  46. Harley’s Holiday
  47. Lock-Up
  48. Shadow of the Bat Part II
  49. Feat of Clay Part I
  50. Cold Comfort
  51. His Silicon Soul
  52. Off Balance
  53. Vendetta
  54. Birds of a Feather
  55. Joker’s Millions
  56. Heart of Steel Part I
  57. Never Fear
  58. On Leather Wings
  59. Love is a Croc
  60. See No Evil
  61. The Clock King
  62. It’s Never Too Late
  63. Make ‘Em Laugh
  64. Joker’s Wild
  65. Eternal Youth
  66. The Cape and Cowl Conspiracy
  67. The Cat and the Claw Part I
  68. Zatanna
  69. Day of the Samurai
  70. Avatar
  71. The Demon’s Quest Part I
  72. The Mechanic
  73. The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne
  74. Terror in the Sky
  75. P.O.V.
  76. Christmas with the Joker
  77. Fear of Victory
  78. Be a Clown
  79. The Worry Men
  80. What is Reality?
  81. The Demon Within
  82. Animal Act
  83. Night of the Ninja
  84. Fire From Olympus
  85. Mudslide
  86. The Cat and the Claw Part II
  87. Nothing to Fear
  88. The Lion and the Unicorn
  89. Prophecy of Doom
  90. Cult of the Cat
  91. Tyger, Tyger
  92. Blind as a Bat
  93. If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?
  94. Dreams In Darkness
  95. The Last Laugh
  96. Cat Scratch Fever
  97. Moon of the Wolf
  98. Paging the Crime Doctor
  99. Time Out of Joint
  100. Sideshow
  101. The Under-Dwellers
  102. The Forgotten
  103. Showdown
  104. Critters
  105. The Terrible Trio
  106. I’ve Got Batman in My Basement

Villain Watch

The Joker (Michael McKean) (eighteenth appearance)

This is a very different Joker to the one we’ve been spoiled with over the years, yet maintains much of his appeal. The art design is obviously far superior to the god-awful The New Batman Adventures revamp, but not as good as BTAS.

Going with a Joker who tries to steal priceless clown opera manuscripts rather than the modern one who once cut his own face off, he still utterly steals the show through his wacky antics and excellent voice actor. Watching him run up and down a giant piano is a delight (and the implication of massive violence if he succeeds keeps him edgy just like everyone likes, don’t worry!), but he’s also great doing the little direct-to-camera ad break message. Love it.

Mutant Leader (Kevin Michael Richardson) (first appearance)

Again, it was so weird (in a good way), seeing this character brought to life in a random episode of the show. The look is perfect, right down to the reveal of those black shark-like eyes after Batman smashes his red visor.

It’s such a striking design that even if you watched this without knowing what it was riffing on, you’d probably say ‘that guy was cool!’, which is aided by Kevin Michael Richardson, who was eager to play the character as he was a big fan. I wish he’d gotten a few more lines to play with, but it still works, with this hulking freak show nearly drowning Batman in mud.

Firefly (Mark Rolston) (second appearance)

Look, he’s barely even in the episode, but I appreciated seeing him return after his strong debut. It’s nice that you can figure out he’s the person behind the events of the episode long before the kids realise, and his wings and flight make them think he’s Batman.

  1. The Joker
  2. Harley Quinn
  3. Mr. Freeze
  4. Poison Ivy
  5. The Ventriloquist
  6. Catwoman
  7. Two-Face
  8. Bane
  9. The Riddler
  10. The Phantasm
  11. Baby-Doll
  12. Mad Hatter
  13. Clayface
  14. HARDAC (and Randa Duane)
  15. Ra’s al Ghul
  16. Calendar Girl
  17. Roxy Rocket
  18. Killer Croc
  19. Firefly
  20. Penguin
  21. Scarecrow
  22. Lock-Up
  23. Lloyd Ventrix
  24. Rupert Thorne
  25. Mutant Leader (NEW ENTRY)
  26. Count Vertigo
  27. Clock King
  28. Klarion (and Teekl!)
  29. Nivens
  30. Roland Daggett (and Germs & Bell!)
  31. Enrique el Gancho
  32. Josiah Wormwood
  33. Talia al Ghul
  34. Sid the Squid
  35. Queen Thoth Khepera
  36. Maxie Zeus
  37. Jimmy ‘Jazzman’ Peake
  38. Tony Zucco
  39. Man-Bat
  40. Rhino, Mugsy and Ratso
  41. Hugo Strange
  42. Red Claw
  43. Arnold Stromwell
  44. Mad Bomber
  45. Tygrus
  46. Kyodai Ken
  47. Condiment King/Pack Rat/Mighty Mom
  48. Farmer Brown (and Emmylou!)
  49. Grant Walker
  50. Gil Mason
  51. Nostromos (and Lucas!)
  52. Cameron Kaiser
  53. Dr. Dorian (and Garth)
  54. Mad Dog
  55. Ubu
  56. Thomas Blake
  57. Professor Milo
  58. Romulus
  59. Arkady Duvall
  60. Sewer King
  61. Boss Biggis
  62. Montague Kane
  63. The Terrible Trio

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.

My other recap column, Marvel Mondays, will present some quick thoughts on Black Widow, as Ben & Matt’s Marvellous Journey won’t be covering it for quite some time.

There Will Be Movies continues Ben & Matt’s look back at the 90s each Wednesday. This week catch some surf with Point Break.

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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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