The Matt Signal Beyond – Episode 15: Earth Mover

Plot summary: Terry battles a series of dirt monsters that are stalking one of his friends, but all is not as it seems…

After completing the original run of Batman The Animated Series, Matt Waters looks to the future each Saturday and Sunday with recaps of every episode of Batman Beyond, building an overall ranking along the way. Plus best performances, the ever-popular Villain Watch and more!

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Notes

Episode Title: ‘Earth Mover’

Original Air Date: September 25th, 1999

Directed: Dan Riba (4)

Written: Stan Berkowitz (6) & Alan Burnett (4) (story)

This episode confirms Terry’s age to be seventeen. There will be a comment way down the line about beginning his training with Bruce when he was sixteen.

Bruce Timm has called this one of his favourite episodes of the show due to its complex morality.

Recap

Terry and Dana are studying at their friend, Jackie’s house. Terry blows Dana’s mind, as he knows his multiplication tables, as apparently everybody uses a calculator for everything these days. Jackie is distracted, stating that she feels like somebody has been following her lately.

Her feeling proves correct as Terry spots a strange figure outside and leaps out the window and into action, following some tracks to confront… a dirt monster! The creature brushes Terry off but gets hit by a car.

Taking a sample of the dirt remains to Bruce, it turns out to be ordinary soil. Bruce expresses his scepticism, but encourages Terry to stay alert.

Doing just that, he and Dana stay glued to Jackie, whose stepfather, Bill, takes them to see a vacant lot where he intends to build a new lot. Unfortunately, the ground erupts, spilling toxic waste and more dirt monsters.

Terry performs a costume change during the chaos and battles the monsters, but can do little to counteract their superhuman physique and ability to meld in and out of the earth. Jackie and her stepfather drive away, with one of the creatures hurling itself at their car and seemingly dissipating once again.

Bruce analyses a sample of the toxic waste, stating it could radically alter a person’s DNA, and that Bill was accused of dumping chemicals a decade earlier.

Bill insists Jackie pack her things, refusing to answer her questions. On their way out a shadowy figure confronts them and Bill breaks down, pleading with ‘Tony’ – Jackie’s father’s name – that he “didn’t know.”

Instead, Batman steps out of the shadows and demands he tell Jackie the truth, that Bill couldn’t afford to legally dispose of the chemicals when starting his company, but talked Jackie’s father into helping him, resulting in Tony’s ostensible death and Bill adopting Jackie.

His ears burning, Tony swallows the house in an earthquake. Jackie explores a series of underground tunnels, leading her to the startling revelation that her father is alive, albeit as a mutant husk telekinetically manipulating Gotham’s soil.

‘Earthmover’ attempts to kill Bill, summoning a half dozen of his dirt golems. Batman slices them to pieces with a buzzsaw Batarang, and then targets the chemical barrels, weakening their captor and allowing them to escape. He uses the last of his strength to clear them a path to safety.

Best Performance

I feel they missed a trick here by not casting Oliva d’Abo (who played Ten in ‘Dead Man’s Hand’ and did a number of other DCAU voice work) as Jackie to reunite her with her on-screen father from The Wonder Years, Dan Lauria, who played Bill. But Lindsay Sloane is pretty solid, and their dynamic of friendly but still a little distant feels believable. Bill is a very nice man and treats her well, but she still won’t call him dad until the conclusion of the narrative. They’re both doing their part here, but Lauria is plainly the better actor.

Earthmover’s voice actor is a sex offender, so I’ll make no apologies for disqualifying him.

Ranking

Bruce Timm’s comments about the shades of grey morality are fair, as Earthmover is the victim of a horrific accident looking to reunite with his daughter and take revenge on the perpetrator. Sure, he’s creepy and intense, but in the end he does sacrifice his life to save everyone. Likewise, you can’t even truly argue Bill is the ‘real’ villain, as he is clearly remorseful for his actions rather than having a sudden mwahaha moment. He’s also willing to die to protect Jackie, and the final moment with her finally calling him “dad” is nice.

While these aspects get all the glory, I actually think it’s one of the better looking episodes to date, from Terry’s dogged pursuit of Earthmover at the beginning (which highlights he IS highly capable without the suit), to the seismic shifts and the way the soil is drawn, adding details like bugs and roots when they go underground. The villain design is delightfully dark, and Terry vs the many golems is great too. The Bat-Sub is superfluous, but at least it looks cool.

But for all these good qualities, it’s also a disappointingly sloppy episode. Firstly, it seems weird Bruce would balk at the idea of a dirt monster given his past foes, including freakin’ Clayface. Worse, Dana seemingly teleports to safety, with Bill claiming she and Terry got away despite zero evidence of that. Finally, separating Terry and Jackie and the involvement of the Bat-Sub at all felt unnecessary time-sinks.

If your memory of the episode if fuzzy, I can understand thinking it’s one of the best, but what am I doing here if not putting them all fully under a microscope? Amazing is knocked down to great, in my opinion.

  1. Meltdown
  2. Disappearing Inque
  3. Spellbound
  4. A Touch of Curaré
  5. Shriek
  6. Rebirth Part I
  7. Earth Mover (NEW ENTRY)
  8. Black Out
  9. Rebirth Part II
  10. Dead Man’s Hand
  11. Heroes
  12. The Winning Edge
  13. Ascension
  14. Joyride
  15. Golem

Villain Watch

Earthmover (Stephen Collins) (first appearance)

Honestly, what a haunting creature design that almost certainly wouldn’t have made it past the original BTAS censors. You think you have him pegged, with a series of Clayface/The Thing hybrids, and then you see the horrifying truth of Tony’s burned, decaying body, pulsing with radioactivity, mentally manipulating the earth.

Toss in the creepy vocal effects and the wide possibilities his powers provide, from the dirt soldiers (including an enormous one) to the full on earthquakes, and this is as good as it gets for one-and-done villains.

  1. Inque
  2. Mr. Freeze
  3. Shriek
  4. Spellbinder
  5. Curaré
  6. Derek Powers/Blight
  7. The Jokerz
  8. Earthmover (NEW ENTRY)
  9. The Terrific Trio
  10. The Royal Flush Gang
  11. Willie Watt
  12. Dr. Stephanie Lake
  13. Howard Hodges & General Norman
  14. Paxton Powers
  15. Jackson Chappell
  16. Mr. Fixx

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 including Return of the Joker.

My other recap column, Marvel Mondays, is on hiatus until Hawkeye, though I may drop a couple of one-off articles.

There Will Be Movies continues Ben & Matt’s look back at the 90s each Wednesday. This week you probably shouldn’t answer your phone, as we cover Wes Craven’s Scream.

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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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