DCAU #30: Robin's Reckoning

IN THIS ONE... Robin's origin is told as he races Batman to take revenge on his parents' killer. (Two-parter)

CREDITS: Written by Randy Rogel; directed by Dick Sebast.

REVIEW: Robin's secret origin is well-known to comics aficionados, so it's all in the (re)telling. No problems here. Incapable of showing the Graysons' death "on camera" makes the production go for an evocative broken rope followed by universal shock at what just happened. Dick's parents become the first characters to die in an episode, if I'm not mistaken, even if we don't see the bodies. It's more horrific, but more subtle and sensitive as well (the episode also features what is obviously a prostitute being beaten up by her pimp, so we're definitely heading in a more adult direction). And so Dick has everything ripped away from him, losing parents AND extended family (Haley's Circus doesn't always get the credit it deserves as Dick's support system) when he's taken in by Bruce Wayne. The episode smartly draws parallels between the two heroes, not just that they were both orphaned by a criminal, but that they both have survivors' guilt, and that it's what fuels their crusade. There is also contrast, notably that there's never been a mention of Joe Chill, so the Waynes' killer is faceless, and Batman is denied that specific act of revenge. Robin's waited years for his, but it IS possible, and Tony Zucco is in reach. (My one small complaint is that Zucco is a bit low-level, crass and kind of dumb to play this role, but by Part 2's climax, I hardly had time to think about that.)

Because while the past time frame has a lot to enjoy, including its fun clues that we've gone back in time (red-headed Gordon, patrolman Bullock, no-oval Batman, and Stromwell in charge of Gotham's underworld), it's how the story culminates in the present that leaves the best mark. Roommate walked into the room near the end of Part 2, and her immediate reaction was that "Robin is a badass!". Dick on a motorcycle is, simply put, the coolest. He totally deserves the Akira tribute. We get some nice action beats - Part 2 makes use of a far better animation studio - like Batman falling through the ceiling and not forgetting to limp from then on, and a merry-go-round shoot-out, but when Robin grabs Zucco by the scruf of the neck, drags him with his bike to the end of the pier, and threatens to throw him off... well... That's where he's really tested.

Of course, cooler heads prevail, and the ending is properly touching. Batman admitting that he kept Robin out of the manhunt to protect him, because he couldn't bare to lose him, is spoken with the Bat's back turned to his adopted son, incapable of, or perhaps, embarrassed by, his show of emotion. It's the moment where Dick must accept, as Bruce did before him, that revenge won't bring the dead back to life, and that no catharsis that way lies. You can't blame yourself, but you can't let yourself do something you could regret, something you COULD blame yourself for. Great stuff, emotional but also action-packed, as well animated as it is written.

IN THE COMICS: The origin story is right out of Detective Comics #48 (1940), Robin's first appearance, and Zucco's! (And Haley's, and the Graysons.) Dick more readily becomes Robin in that story and gets to catch Zucco as a 12-year-old, but instead of a pier, the climax takes place on a construction site, high up on steel beams... which is where the animated story begins, I'm sure not coincidentally! The older Robin's rebellious portrayal echoes his leaving Wayne Manor in the comics, and forging on as the "Teen Wonder" and leader of the Teen Titans in the 70s. Apparently, Jeph Loeb and Tim Batman: Dark Victory was hugely inspired by this two-parter.

SOUNDS LIKE: Thomas Francis Wilson, Jr. plays Zucco; you know him best as Biff Tannen in the Back to the Future movies! He also plays John Grayson, which seems just wrong. The guy the Dynamic Duo fight in the story opener, Ferris Dolan, is played by Paul Eiding (Transformers, Ben 10, Metal Gear Solid). Another goon, Lennie, is played by Charles Howerton (My Name Is Earl, the opening narration on Alien Nation).

REWATCHABILITY: High (especially Part 2) - You'd be hard-pressed to find a better Robin episode.


LiamKav said...

There's so much to love about these two episodes. I love how BTAS treated Robin, especially coming out at the same time as the movies with their shame of the character, a shame that continues to this day with negative comments about the character from the makers of the Arkham Asylum video game, his weird treatment in the movies, and so on. Robin is a very important part of the Batman mythos because, as Chris Sims points out, he's an instance where Batman won. Without Batman, Dick Greyson would have been killed, or become a ruthless grim vigilante. But because Batman is there, and because he can channel his rage and anger, Dick Greyson actually ends up as a fairly well adjusted young man. He keeps Batman "light". I love their little back and forth at the beginning, with "lucky for me you're such a good conversationalist" and Batman's wry smile.

Smaller points:

- The death of Dick's parents is a great example of how restrictions can force amazing results. Latter day DC animations have gotten more bloody and gory, even ones from Timm and co. They weren't allowed to do that here, but the rope, the gasp, Bruce's horrified reaction... they all work better than showing mangled bodies ever could.

- Bruce gets out of his disguise and into his Batman costume in about 4 seconds when confronting the gambling hoods. I guess at some point he spent several months training with someone who was really, really quick as changing their clothes.

- "It will get better in time. For you." Ouch. And again the differences. Bruce can't move on, but Dick can. And does. (Incidentally, that's why I prefer it when there's no Joe Chill. Robin can face the person who killed his parents, and move on. Batman can't, and therefore it's better when it's Crime-in-general that killed his parents, rather than one person.)

- I'd prefer it if Batman didn't have the Batwing 9 years ago. Otherwise what's he been doing for the past decade apart from designing a new costume? (It's not just the yellow oval. The old costume has different gloves, belt, and is more plain black. It's actually closer to what Batman wears in TNBA.)

- I would slightly argue that the second episode has the better animation studio. Dong Yang are good, and there's some great stuff as Robin slides under the lorry and jumps the bridge. But Spectrum do the first episode, and the use of light and dark is amazing. The way the carlights reflect off Batman as Zucco tries to run him down is stunning. Spectrum actually provided Layouts for part 2, which is something they did for several Dong Yang episodes (including The Laughing Fish, up next). At least Akom didn't ruin either of these parts, as they almost did with Feat of Clay.

(Basically, almost all the animation studios apart from Akom are great. Some are better at giving things weight, some are better at light and dark, some are better at small details, but compare the show to any other 90s cartoon and you can see the quality. The actual directors deserve a lot of this credit for pushing the animation studios in this way.)

LiamKav said...

One fact I forgot to mention... apparently BS&P wouldn't let them show young Dick crying over the death of his parents. It does give the episode a slightly odd air, forcing them to find other ways to show his grief and isolation, like the shot of him looking tiny in that massive bedroom (although notice the painting of what could possibly be Robin Hood on the wall). Young Dick gets angry later on, but it's about Batman letting Zucco rather than directly about his parents.


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