DCAU #52: The Demon's Quest

IN THIS ONE... Batman meets Ra' al Ghul, and not wanting to become his groom, instead becomes his enemy. (Two-parter)

CREDITS: Written by Dennis O'Neil (not only Ra's al Ghul's creator, but one of Batman's most seminal and celebrated comics writers) and Len Wein; directed by Kevin Altieri.

In the 70s, Denny O'Neil had Batman leave Gotham and become an International Man of Adventure, and the Bat's reason for doing so was Ra's al Ghul, the "Demon's Head". That's the story that's been adapted here, and the production goes all out, taking its cues not from the superhero noir the show has promoted 'til now (though Robin sneaking into his room and getting captured has some FANTASTIC lighting cues in that style), but from James Bond films - the mad villain who wants to bring about a New World Order using a lethal satellite, the deadly female spy, the hella strong henchman, aerial stunts, the countdown clock - and Indiana Jones - cultists, booby traps inside temples, that gorgeous caravan shot, that sweeping music - and of course, from both, the idea that our hero should hop around the globe to exotic locations. The Demon's Quest is a feast for the eyes and the imagination.

The Bondian feeling is right out of the original comics story, with definite inspiration taken from On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Draco wanted Bond to marry his daughter Tracy much in the way Ra's does with Talia. And so yes, much of the first episode is a runaround in which Ra's tests the "Detective" to see if he is worthy of his daughter's love and of taking over his empire. The script captures well Ra's megalomania, not only because his genocidal plan is mad - and dramatically illustrated in black and white stills too - but because he thinks nothing is important but his world (the one he has, i.e. Talia, and the one he wants to make). And seeing as being reborn from the Lazarus Pit seems to make one go temporarily insane, we can infer that repeated use is definitely dangerous to one's sanity. He may not rant and rave, but Batman is still right in his evaluation. Of all the eco-warriors Batman has had to face, Ra's is the most drastic by far.

It's an extended duel of minds, with Batman definitely earning the "Detective" moniker, but with a lot of action beats too. The martial arts sequences are well animated, but almost feel too brief because so much is packed into the episodes. We still have the clever way Batman beats the panther, the dangerous escape from the Himalayas (Wayne Tech Nepal?! Haha!), and a truly epic scope. The romance between Batman and Talia gets short shrift when all's said and done, at its most romantic when she kisses a key into his mouth so he can escape, but he rejects her at every turn, then leaves her with a kiss... Mixed signals, there, Bruce. They're making sure they get all the comic's famous beats in, but can't follow through in this format. And that's me struggling to find something to complain about.

IN THE COMICS: Closely based on Dennis O'Neil's "Daughter of the Demon" (Batman #232, June 1971) and "The Demon Lives Again" (Batman #244, September 1972), the episode nevertheless adds the Lazarus Pit apocalypse via Ra's satellite. And of course, Batman only kisses Talia, he doesn't father Damian in the process. Batman fights a leopard, not a panther, in the comics, as well (and doesn't resort to snapping its neck!).

SOUNDS LIKE: Helen Slater and David Wagner reprise their roles as the al Ghul family.

REWATCHABILITY: High - A gorgeous sweeping adventure filled with thrills. Top notch.


Andrew Gilbertson said...

I felt that he wasn't really rejecting her- he was rejecting being forced into marriage with her. Not that he might not consider, if given a chance to get to know her and court her on his own terms. But blanket 'and now you shall marry' is out of the question, which both she and Ras take as outright rejection, rather than rejection of an ultimatum.

In other words, I took it not as mixed signals but as 'I do care about you, I am interested, and I wanted you to know that even though I wouldn't be shotgun-weddinged, I'm not averse to the possibility of a future between us.'

Siskoid said...

You're a romantic, Andrew! ;)

snell said...

Shirtless Batman!! SHIRTLESS BATMAN!!!

Andrew Gilbertson said...

That I am, siskoid- and being a romantic and a comic book fan is a tricky business; when love interests aren't being fridged, then marriages are being retconned out of existence... and the Bat-family is worse, where every hero has at LEAST 2 'one true loves.' (Batman has Catwoman, Talia, Silver St. Cloud... probably more I'm forgetting; while Dick Grayson is DESTINED for Barbara Gordon or Starfire, depending on which series you watched.)

Actually, in a complete sap, total fanservice kinda way, that's why I loved Pendant Audio's 'Earth-P' DCU fan audios. It was a shipper's paradise, really. ;-) I've yet to forgive DC for cease-and-decisting that away...

speedball said...

"Batman meets Ra' al Ghul, and not wanting to become his groom..."

I don't remember that part of the story, but I would watch the hell out of it.

LiamKav said...

I think this is the first episode that's had a teaser before the title card? They knew it was a big one going in.

The lighting is very dark here. Batman's costume frequently loses it's blue highlights and is drawn as blacks and dark greys. This slightly anticipates the TNBA redesign.

I feel Talia has lost some of her character h. In "Off Balance" she had a lot more agency, whereas here she seems to be a bit more the "love-struck daughter", under her fathers thumb. Her outfit is ridiculously sexy, though. Plus, bonus marks for going barefoot in both the feezing cold and boiling heat. Girl is hardcore.

Small trivia note: Either TMS or Kevin Altieri repeat a visual trick they did back in Two-Face Part 1, where a fight goes on whilst we focus on a person sat down turning their head left and right to look at it (Candice in that episode, Robin in this one).

Siskoid said...

Yes, Talia's role changes, but that's because the dynamic changes. How she is with Ra's and without him tells us a lot about their relationship.

LiamKav said...

I guess it's because my main interaction with Talia in the comics is the Batman Inc run, where she's specifically says to her father that he always had an heir, but his sexism couldn't bring him to see it. In this version she seems a lot meaker, but I guess that's a result of having to cram so much in.

Small points on part 2:

- Apparently Ra's has rigged his bases to explode at the press of a single button. A button just randomly placed in a hallway. Health & Safety would have a field day with that.

- Dick has his "Robin" hair out of costume for the first (and possibly only?) time. I guess there's no-one around in Nepal to make the connection.

- Bruce manages to guess where Ra's's base (how on earth do you do possesive "s" with that name) is located because the satellite flies over the Sahara Desert. The desert that's 3.6 million square miles/9.4 million square kilometers in size, comparable to the USA. "The Riddler's base is located somewhere in the US, Batman". "Thanks, Robin. Just drop me off in Florida and I'll walk around the country until I find something suspicious."

- The imagary of middle-eastern men sitting on camels carriny rifles can be a bit...dodgy nowadays. Ra's is both good in that he broadens the racial scope of Batman's villains (although I'm still not 100% what race he is. Talia always looks pretty white to me), but it does require the writers and artists to tread somewhat carefully. There were a couple of moments in Batman, Inc where it could be read as "rich white folk beating up poor dark-skinned folk". I wonder if they'd animate it slightly today.

- It's a crying shame we didn't get to hear David Warner shout "Are you man, or fiend from hell?A"

Andrew Gilbertson said...

I'm pretty sure there are a number of cultures in which only a male is considered an heir. I know that doesn't gibe with a lot of modern sensibilities... but nonetheless, considering the heavy middle eastern influence in at least BTAS' version of Ras' followers, I don't think it was supposed to be Ras' 'sexism,' but rather that Talia didn't meet the cultural standards of an heir- or at the very least, not one the majority of Ras' followers would follow. (I get that the writers are clumsily trying to be feminist, but that strikes me as a particularly clumsy ret-con.)

LiamKav said...

I don't think it matters a jot as to a culture's "standards". Sexism is sexism, and Ra's is absolutely 100% sexist in insisting on only a male heir. Now, you could say that his age is a reason for his sexism (although you'd think that after 600 years he'd have learnt to adapt to the times), and that's a perfectly valid argument. It's a reason, but it's not an excuse.

In any case, I don't think that Talia is especially feminist in this. Her motivations are driven by obedience to her father, and her one act of defiance comes because she has fallen in love with a man. Again, the "obedient woman turned by the heroic man" is a valid story (hell, James Bond does it almost every movie), but it's definitely not feminist. However, if you're arguing that the recent Batman, Inc story of Talia standing up to her father is "feminist", then I guess? I mean, Talia is supposed to be the age she appears. She hasn't used a Lazarus Pit. That means she was likely born sometime after 1985. She travelled and received an eduction around the world. The idea that she herself would think that she's incapable of running the League of Shadows/Assassins is slightly ludicrous nowadays.

(I did simplify the story somewhat. She's not just "rargh I can do anything a man can do". She views her father as being in her way of getting revenge on Batman for "stealing" their son, and so she just knocks him down and takes over his organisation. It makes her pretty terrifying.)

Andrew Gilbertson said...

I meant that the Batman, Inc. story sounded like it was trying to put a feminist spin on the Talia/Ras characters. And I would disagree. If Ra's is looking for an heir to his empire, in a culture (most likely one he grew up in) in which an heir is defined as 'a male child to carry on a family line,' and in a culture where only a male is going to be followed, and trying to turn that around on Ra's (he was just being sexist not to realize it) is an unfair claim- filtering all cultures and standards through the standards of the comic's writers. If she doesn't fit the bill of a valid heir in the culture within which he's seeking an heir, then it wasn't sexism on his part to 'not recognize Talia' as one; it's her cultural mis-definition of 'heir' based on her own expectations and more Western education. That's all I was trying to say; that the writers per probably trying to put a feminist spin on the relationship with 'his daughter could always have counted because she's as good as- and probably better than- any man for the job, and the reason she didn't for decades-worth of stories is because Ra's is sexist', which is a noble sentiment- but it's also a clumsy retcon to multiple decades'-worth of stories, to my eyes, because in the culture that Ra's is working within, especially considering the potential cultural beliefs of his followers, Talia just didn't fit the bill. That's not '21st-century-approved,' but in many nations, it's still a reality.

To me, failing to recognize that reality (and accepting that as the reason Ra's sought a male heir) is logical- which doesn't require the writers to approve of or agree with such beliefs- but retroactively suggesting Ra's is sexist is a much clumsier, much sillier way to explain it that doesn't require the authors to recognize any culture or standards but their own (and apply those standards to all times and places)... and thus inherently lazier, clumsier writing.

That said, Talia is CLEARLY fit for the job; just considering the culture it seems (based on the BTAS portrayal, at least) to take place in, I don't think it requires Ra's 'not realizing that because he's sexist' as a solution as to why she hasn't been considered sufficient 'heir.'

(...Ummmmm, 'stealing' her son? Way I remember, she kinda dropped him off with Bruce and peace'd out? :-) I assume the story developed further since I left off.)

LiamKav said...

She did drop him off, but then when she wanted him back he didn't want to go. So Talia basically declared war. I've kinda mislabelled Batman Inc. It's essentially the story of two parents creating massive armies to go to war over typical supervillain/hero things rather than just sitting down and talking things out, with Damien being caught in the middle. Talia standing up to her father is just a small part in the middle.

That said, I'm still going to disagree with your point. :) You seem to be saying that Talia should recognise Ra's "culture" and go along with it, which I think it both an enormous disservice to her character, and also not how things work. Children challenging their parents beliefs is a constant, both in fiction and in reality. The woman has run LexCorp, so the idea that she wouldn't bristle against her father insisting on a male heir makes less sense that her going on with it.

You also seem to be implying that a "western culture" doesn't have right to critise other cultures where women have less rights and power than men. I strongly disagree with that. It doesn't matter if it comes from a cultural basis or being raised by less-enlightened parents... a belief that half the worlds population is inferior based on gender is wrong. Cultural sexism is still sexism.

It's even more ludicrous as an argument in a Batman comic. As I said, Ra's is a 600 year old eco-terrorist. His followers are already going to have strange ideas and beliefs before we get going. There are plently of ways that Talia can win over his followers, either through intelligence, cunning, or power (I don't think we actually see how she takes over. She just turns up at her father's house, reveales his men actually all work for her, and then puts him under house arrest so that he won't interfere with her plans. As I said, it's not an important part of the story.)

Anyway, Batman Inc is great. You should allrread it. Unless you don't like Morrison, I guess, in which case, er, don't.

Andrew Gilbertson said...

No, I'm not saying that Talia should go with it; but I'm also saying that she is trying to impose her definition of an 'heir' onto Ra's- regardless of whether it is realistic to the function or culture for which he seeks an heir- and then claim her father is a sexist based on that. It's like if someone was searching for a botanist and I said 'Hey, I like plants so I'm a botanist,' and they said 'hey, you're a great guy, but we're looking for someone with a school degree in botany, so you don't actually fit the bill of what we're looking for,' and I responded 'Well, since in my eyes, I fulfill all the requirements, you are sexist for not hiring me.' It's great that *I* think I'd work in that role, but if I don't actually satisfy the requirements of the candidate being sought, then any 'discrimination' involved in not selecting me exists solely within my own head, not reality.

Likewise, if Ra's' definition of 'heir' is different, and if only THAT definition of heir is going to be accepted as leader of his empire, then it is not sexism to not consider someone who doesn't fulfill those requirements.

And no, I'm not saying that a western culture doesn't have a right to criticize other cultures. What I'm saying is, western culture is not the only dang culture out there, and that's reality. Let me try a metaphor instead. As far as I know, both orthodox Jewish Rabbis and Muslim Imams are male-only roles within their culture and religions. (I could be wrong; I am neither of the Jewish nor Muslim faith. But let's assume that's the case for the point of the illustration.) Now, if an elderly Rabbi or Imam was looking for a new cleric to take their place, they would be looking for a male to succeed them in their place of worship when they died. Now, if one of them had a daughter with an attitude like Talia's, she might well be saying 'he never considered me, even though I know my Torah/Koran- clearly a sexist!' But, that would not be a true statement of the theoretical Rabbi/Imam in question (or at least, not necessarily; it would still be possible for either to be one, but not directly for that reason). Not considering her would not be a value judgement on her, nor would it be an act of sexism... she would just not be under consideration because she does not fulfill the requirements, religious and cultural, of the post, nor would the congregation accept her as the new cleric.

Now, maybe you'd see the theoretical rabbi/imam not challenging that standard as sexism, too; at which case, we are at an impasse. But my point would be the same in that theoretical preacher's case; neither devaluing nor ignoring his daughter, but merely not considering her because one of the requirements for the post is 'a male successor.' And even if he bucked the trend, as you seem to consider Ra's should, and decided to appoint her anyway, those she would be chosen to lead would just leave or seek out another leader; therefore, practically, with his followers still operating within that culture, it would be contrary to his goals of maintaining legacy leadership to do so. So likewise, for the purposes of achieving his aims, she does not meet the requirement of 'being an heir that my followers would follow.' Likewise, not a judgement on her capability, or a gender-based slight... just an acknowledgement that within the reality of the culture, she would not be able to fulfill the function he wishes to fulfill.

Andrew Gilbertson said...

That is my point. Whether we think Western culture is right about everything, other cultures do exist. And if the culture within which Ra's is operating is one in which only a male heir will lead to the results he seeks, then I don't think it would be sexism compelling him to seek one- merely pragmatism. He is more focused on the long-term 'actually achieving his centuries-long plan' than on 'bucking the trend and trying to bring a one-man sexual revolution to the middle east.' So in that case, he is not being sexist towards his daughter or discounting his ability- he is simply seeking out someone whose role will actually function within the culture that he has chosen to set up his power base within.

However, the writers *framing* it as a sexist issue acts as if Western culture is the only culture in existence, and its standards are the only standards in existence, and then sets up a situation and judges Ras within it using those standards. To use another metaphor, it's like the abortion debate. Each side acts as if their beliefs are the only conceivable beliefs that any person on Earth can hold, and then judges the other side based on that. ('I believe that life begins at conception, and ANY SANE PERSON clearly believes the same, therefore advocates of abortion are horrible people and clearly just value their own convenience over someone else's life!' 'I believe that it is a woman's right to have an abortion and ANY SANE PERSON clearly believes the same, therefore anyone that doesn't want a woman to have an abortion clearly hates women because there is no other rational belief or logical explanation for holding such a position.') Neither belief that they attribute to their opposition is actually TRUE, but since they filter the other person's position solely through their own beliefs, they attribute a false motivation to someone who is acting based on beliefs and standards outside their own frame of reference.

Andrew Gilbertson said...

In other words, I think that having Ra's seeking a male heir because that is what is needed within the culture he works in makes perfect sense- it doesn't require the writers or the audience to APPROVE of that culture or standards, but it explains Ra's actions without casting needless aspersions on his character. Obviously, the writers chose to go a different direction, writing the culture being one that WOULD follow a woman, and retroactively making 30 years worth of Ra's stories him being a sexist; I just think that's a lazy choice, saying 'To a western culture, talia being ignored is not female-empowering, because in western culture there's no reason she wouldn't be, so instead of recognizing the nuance of the fact that there are other cultures with less-laudable ideals out there- as I'm pretty sure 30 years worth of previous writers were- let's write everything happening the way it would in a western culture and pretend that the rest of the world operates that way like we wish it would, and just make Ra's the scapegoat by adding a previously-nonexistant dimension of sexism to it as a way to justify our ret-con.' That strikes me as lazy. Yes, Ra's followers have non-traditional beliefs for their apparent culture and can be won over by Talia- because the writers chose to write them that way. I don't know that in the real middle east, that would be the case. But since the writers chose to go that direction, making Ra's a sexist was the only logical result. They could just as easily have kept the traditional middle-eastern culture that we see in BTAS (as I assume most comics iterations to that point were also supposed to have), and make the point that, no, these men will not accept a female leader no matter what- as, realistically, some cultures on Earth still won't- and that is why Ra's never considered that option (both hewing close to what I'd figure the original intent of the character is, and not needlessly assassinating his character). At the same time, you could accomplish the same storyline with Talia (maybe even make it more interesting) by setting up a revolution within the league; she's been spending years recruiting more western-value members into the League, trying to tip the cultural balance that it's held for centuries, and now has amassed enough followers to start an uprising within the League. This could set up a civil-war angle, putting her in true conflict with Ra's; half are following her, and she's saying 'we can gain power, force the traditionalists to accept me because the peer-majority does, and then you won't have any need to seek an heir because you already have one,' while the die-hards are fighting back, unwilling to accept her leadership for cultural (as well as loyalty to Ra's) reasons, and he's going 'Foolish child! You're threatening to destroy the entire League; a centuries-long plan is hanging in the balance, and you're rocking the boat! You need to stop this, because the end goal is much more important than risking the integrity of the power base I've built over multiple lifetimes! Of course you're capable, of course you were always good enough; but your trying to take over threatens the long game, and the long game is too vital to threaten!' The two could be in legitimate conflict, PLUS the current storyline of Talia raising an army could be accomplished, PLUS Ra's wouldn't have to get an unfair sexist rap due to cultural-retcon. :-)

Andrew Gilbertson said...

So, sex, politics, religion... any other hot-button topics I can unintentionally cram into this discussion? :-)

Either way, another MEGA multi-poster, so- I will have to bow out at this point. In essence, I am taking many words to say 'while I do not condone these standards, they do exist in the world, and I don't think it was necessary to make Ra's a sexist in order to have him operating within them for pragmatic reasons (i.e. that's where he spent centuries building an empire, long before he had a daughter, and he doesn't have the time to go through building a whole new powerbase in a more Western-idealized region, nor does he want to risk centuries of work to save the whole earth, east and west, in order to try and affect a cultural revolution).'


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