(This review was originally published on May 26, 2016)
Written by Mark Banker
Directed by Sam Liu
When The Key threatens to break out of Blackgate Penitentiary with some very important information with him, Batman becomes reckless and has himself busted by Harvey Dent to infiltrate the prison and get to him. However, he’s not the only one interested in what the Key possesses….
Batman’s deteriorating mental health hits a new low as he’s cornered by multiple forces. What starts out with a fairly mundane episode ends up becoming a turning point in the arc, and perhaps one of the show’s finest episodes overall.
All Hail King Croc!
First things first: Killer Croc makes his big debut!. Accompanying Ra’s al Ghul, Harvey Dent, and possibly The Penguin (more on that below), as one of the only notable members to appear, he makes a very strong impression. Just as Tobias Whale rules Gotham’s underworld, Croc has his own operation inside Blackgate. Considering how many interpretations of the villain are satisfied with making him a dumb brute or a savage monster, it’s refreshing to see something close to what Gerry Conway envisioned with Croc as a dangerous crime lord that is a threat physically and mentally. He proves to be a major menace to Batman, and is a foil to him as they both display their animalistic behavior. Wade Williams brings some Louisiana-flavored swag as Croc, who hides his true nature with affability.
Batman’s extreme behavior goes too far as he has himself thrown in prison to retrieve the Key, who could easily escape from Blackgate with some important codes. When Croc appears in the picture, Batman becomes too obsessed in defeating him, snaps, and nearly kills the villain. The fight with Croc is both thrilling and terrifying, particularly as Batman’s instability reaches its peak. Batman’s portrayal as extremely violent and unhinged has been done before, but what makes it work here is the build-up to it, and how much of a contrast it is to Batman pre-time skip. The ending reveals a brighter future for Bruce as Alfred returns to tend to his broken son.
Katana is left to clean up Batman’s mess as she has to rescue him from the riots at Blackgate. She initially has a more comedic role as she tries to get a good night’s sleep for once, only to be forced to bail him out. For once, she actually succeeds as Batman’s conscience, stopping him from killing Croc. It’s also revealed that Barbara Gordon now helps out Katana from time to time behind her computer. It’s nice seeing her take on the role of Oracle, even though she hasn’t take the codename officially.
The tension between Gordon and Dent is another highlight. The two lawmen make for excellent opponents against each other. Gordon has shown how far he’s come from his first appearance, while Dent’s character takes a darker turn by being willing to let Batman die in the riot. Interestingly, the events of “Games” actually have some ramifications for the rest of the show, as Mayor Grange was affected by the incident. The opportunistic Dent is ecstatic to take advantage of that.
We also have other villains participating in minor roles. Whale is once again on friendly terms with Batman as he provides some exposition about Blackgate and some of the inmates. The Key is a Living McGuffin that drives the plot and, after his scheme at the beginning of the episode, he ends up being victimized by the multiple players of the episode. Another one of Batman’s obscure foes from the comics, Matatoa, also has a memorable, but brief, fight against Batman.
The increasingly escalating plot is effective at taking a basic story and turning it into an important episode for Batman’s arc. The twists and turns help in keeping viewer intrigue up to the conclusion. Even the animation and character designs are improved, from the prisoner designs to the sparks lighting up the room in the opening scene.
“Animal” is a terrific episode that brings Batman’s character arc to its climax. Beyond that, it has an entertaining plot that plays with all of the supporting cast, debuts a mainstream Bat-foe in an impressive manner, and features the return of a main cast member. Every ingredient comes together to make this one of the all-time best episodes in the series.
- Attentive viewers would’ve noticed some foreshadowing leading up to this episode before. In “Nexus”, when Dent is taken by Batman, he tells him he couldn’t wait to escort him to Blackgate, where the “animals” would tear him apart. Dent gets his exact wish here, and I doubt it’s just a coincidence.
- For all the censored guns, this series curiously features a version of Matatoa that has an even more violent history than the one in the comics.
- The joke/reference regarding the Penguin is hilarious and even fitting with the “animal” theme. Though his wanted poster in the GCPD is just a police sketch, it made me wonder if that’s how he would’ve looked like had in person. It’s a pretty traditional design.
- Also in that police room: a Gotham City map that has been previously used in No Man’s Land and a wanted poster for Professor Pyg and Mister Toad.
- Killer Croc’s appearance here was somewhat of a surprise. Though he’s featured in the final issue of the comic tie-in, and thus spoiled like Oracle and Man-Bat, the plot synopsis didn’t even hint at his presence, which was an excellent move.
- It’s a shame that Simon Stagg isn’t seen when the warden and Dent are discussing the Key’s special handcuffs, designed by Stagg Industries. It would’ve been a bit funny.