Ask Chris #132: ‘Christmas With The Joker’
Over a lifetime of reading comics, Senior Writer Chris Sims has developed an inexhaustible arsenal of facts and opinions. That's why, each and every week, we turn to you to put his comics culture knowledge to the test as he responds to your reader questions!
Q: Why does everyone hate the "Christmas with the Joker" episode of Batman: The Animated Series? -- @tekende
A: You know, I'm not sure everyone does hate "Christmas with the Joker." I certainly don't, but then again, I can't really say that I like it a whole lot either. It's definitely one of those episodes that pops into mind whenever I start thinking of the worst episodes of the series, although it misses out on being the actual worst by a long shot. But that said, I don't quite know the reason why.
Clearly, a rewatch is in order.
It's been a long time since I've actually sat down and watched "Christmas with the Joker," and that in and of itself is already a pretty bad sign. I'm the kind of person who sets aside the entire month of December and just runs through every single Christmas special I can find, starting with How The Grinch Stole Christmas and moving right through the Christmas episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess, The He-Man/She-Ra Christmas Special, all the Rankin/Bass specials and more until I finally hit my annual Christmas Eve viewing of Die Hard. You'd think that a guy who makes a living as a professional Batmanologist would have this thing firmly set in the rotation, but I've never really felt the need to pop it in over the holidays.
And just for reference, I get misty-eyed over the Christmas episode of Dragnet. If "Christmas with the Joker" can't lure in a sucker like me, we're already off to a bad start.
Before I even start up the DVD, I suspect that the problem isn't that it's bad, but that it's just not quite as good as you want it to be. The show set a pretty impossibly high standard with most of its episodes, and as David Uzumeri wrote back when we reviewed "Tyger, Tyger," the main problem with the "bad" ones is that they're just not amazing.
It's worth noting that "Christmas with the Joker" was the second episode of the show that was produced (after the similarly disappointing "On Leather Wings") and the first to air, making it a part of that quick period where the show was settling in. That also makes it the first Joker episode, and as an introduction to Batman's arch-nemesis, it's a pretty weird one. I don't really want an origin story or anything -- one of the things I really love about BTAS is that it picks up with Batman and his rogues gallery almost fully established from the start so that it can get right to those beautifully episodic adventure stories -- but two episodes later, "The Last Laugh" would provide a much better, if fairly standard, setup for how this version of the Joker works. Actually leading off with a Christmas special seems a little too gimmicky.
Also, it's the only episode of the series to be written by Eddie Gorodetsky, who would later go on to script episodes of Two and a Half Men. So, yeah. Kind of a lot stacked against it.
Then again, this is an episode that opens up with the Joker singing "Jingle Bells, Batman Smells" and busting out of Arkham Asylum on a rocket-powered Christmas tree...
...and that's pretty f**king awesome.
Right from the start, though, we're dealing with some pretty dodgy, off-model animation. The look of the show was a huge part of its appeal, and when it's on, it still looks as good as a lot of new cartoons even 20 years later. When it's not, though, it can get pretty rough, and even some of the best episodes ("The Man Who Killed Batman") were marred by rough spots here and there. In this one, there are weird proportions and clunky movements in the very first scene, even if Mark Hamill belting out playground Christmas carol parodies tends to balance things out.
The next scene, though, is pretty great. Giving Batman and Robin a relationship as partners and friends rather than a dynamic that was closer to father and son was another big factor in the show's appeal that was included from the beginning, and it's done really well here. Batman having never seen It's A Wonderful Life is a fantastic detail, and there's a great contrast set up in this one little scene, with Robin's optimistic suggestion that the Joker broke out of Arkham so that he could spend time with his family providing a nice contrast to Batman being such a pessimist that he "can't get past the title."
Lookit how grumpy he is! Adorable.
Still, the voices in this scene are another example of how the show hadn't quite ironed out all the details. Alfred's voice as he announces the Christmas Goose (also awesome) is way off from what it would be, and Kevin Conroy is still playing Batman with a sort of gruff whisper rather than the growl he'd perfect later on.
When we finally get to the meat of the plot, it comes in the form of the Joker hijacking the airwaves to deliver a challenge to Batman, and as far as tropes go, that particular one is older than dirt. That doesn't mean that it doesn't work here -- it's a pretty nice way of tying in the It's A Wonderful Life bit to the rest of the story, and the shot of the Joker leaning against the fireplace is pretty rad -- but even at ten years old, it was something I'd seen before, and it was and would be done way better elsewhere. The tie-in comic even went to that well in the third issue and topped its source material in what remains one of my favorite Joker stories ever. Still, it's a classic formula.
And then this thing shows up:
Saying I've seen this episode a dozen times is underestimating things by a fair bit, but I had somehow completely forgotten that the Joker has a crazy one-armed Santa Claus tank that terrorizes the city for one scene and then launches into fireworks. That thing is straight up Cobra Commanderish.
Normally, I'd be pretty okay with that, but considering that it never appears again, it feels more than a little out of place. It doesn't quite fit the tone that the rest of the show is going for, and while you can make the case that the Joker allows for weird, goofy things to happen in his stories, there's no real reason for it. It just shows up, makes some fireworks, and then rolls off into the sunset.
There's a lot in this episode that works like that. It's a fairly simple plot: Batman has to find the Joker's TV studio and beat him up before midnight to free the "Awful Lawfuls" (we'll get back to them in a second), and that's pretty much it. Everything else that happens in the plot, the train escape, the observatory, the inexplicable vat of molten lava, all the big set pieces of the episode are just meant to delay him, but it feels less like stuff the Joker is doing within the story than a writer making sure things are going to last for 22 minutes.
Also, when Robin radios Batman while fighting machine gun-handed Joker robots and Batman calls for "Operation: Cause and Effect," that is the most Batman '66-ish moment in the entire show, and not in a good way. Incidentally, "Operation: Cause and Effect" is literally just "blow a hole in the wall with a grenade. It is the goofiest damn thing.
Of course, there are some pretty great details -- Joker's TV studio being filled with cardboard cutouts of his enemies is a nice touch that does fit in with his craziness, and the set with the dead Christmas tree is awesome -- but most of it feels like they were almost good ideas that could've gotten there with a little more work.
Case in point: The Awful Lawfuls.
No lie, it is pretty great to hear Commissioner Gordon yelling "you diseased maniac!" on a kids' show, but it still feels half-baked. Gordon and Harvey Bullock make sense, but Summer Gleeson, the reporter, doesn't really fit as the third member of the "Lawfuls." Why not use Renee Montoya, who was also in those early episodes? Or even Barbara Gordon? Instead, Summer's just there to be in the role of Generic Damsel, which is a bit of a letdown considering how well the show did in avoiding that particular cliché for most of its run. She doesn't even get a name in this episode.
Speaking of weird characterization, I'm honestly not sure whether I love or hate that Batman, the World's Greatest Detective, takes 17 minutes to realize that the Joker is hiding in this place:
I definitely love that Gotham City has buildings like that and the design is truly amazing, but on the other hand, if I was Batman, THE CREEPY ABANDONED FACTORY WITH A GIANT CLOWN HEAD would be someplace I would either make sure to check out regularly, or that I would use a chunk of the Wayne fortune to purchase and demolish immediately. Seriously, Bruce. Get your s**t together.
The LaffCo factory also gives us the idea of Batman and Robin fighting a weaponized toy factory, and again, that's a great idea that doesn't quite live up to its premise. It's hard to judge it because the show was so full of amazing set pieces -- say what you want about that episode with Nostromo, "Prophecy of Doom," but the big fight in the planetarium is pretty boss -- but this one just doesn't work. It doesn't have the time devoted to it to really make it exciting, and instead of being fun, the overall effect is just silly. Plus, it's the start of this episode completely forgetting that the Joker's been in a TV studio for the last 20 minutes.
This bit, though?
That's the thing that's so frustrating about this episode, and what ultimately destroys it. There are so many great ideas that just don't work together. The idea of the Joker kidnapping three people and threatening to kill them (not to mention those poor saps on the train) in order to lure Batman into getting pied in the face and humiliating him on Christmas Eve? That's brilliant, but the punchline only really works if the rest of the episode is played serious enough to make that funny. When you're stuck with silly set pieces that don't really hang together, one of which involves Batman swinging at remote control airplanes with a baseball bat and Robin idly punning on the sidelines, it just feels weird. At the same time, it's not quite silly enough to be a full-on comedy. It's in this No Man's Land where it's trying to do two different things and failing at both.
So there you go: That's why everybody hates "Christmas with the Joker." Because it's... it's a bad Batman Christmas story. And now that I've had to say those words, I guess...
I guess Christmas just isn't coming this year!