As far as compelling openings go, "His Silicon Soul" is hard to beat. In a secluded warehouse late at night, Batman bursts out of a crate to apprehend two would-be thieves. After a scuffle, one of the goons actually manages to shoot Batman in the abdomen. That's already pretty messed up for an afternoon cartoon, but then Bats looks down to see machinery in place of his stomach -- he's a robot! Shocked and confused by these events, Batbot manages to stagger into Wayne Manor and scare the Earl Grey tea out of Alfred before collapsing on the floor.
We see that the real, fleshy Batman is now investigating the crime scene at the same warehouse, while the baffled doppelganger searches for answers in the Batcave. This is where we figure out that His Silicon Soul is actually a follow-up to a previous episode, Heart of Steel, in which the villainous SkyNet stand-in HARDAC created a duplicate of Batman.
Still unwilling to believe that he's a fabricated lifeform, Batbot seeks out HARDAC's human creator, Karl Rossum, who has since retired. Despite Rossum confirming his creation's artificial status, Batbot won't have it. You kind of can't blame him; imagine if you thought you were human, only to be told you're merely a creation. Now imagine that you thought you were Batman, only to be told you are not Batman. You'd be pissed too.
Rossum explains that Batbot can't remember specific feelings because he is in fact a robot, one that was implanted with Bruce Wayne's memories. And these memories have a limitation, in that they're just informational -- facts, really -- with no emotional content. That's the opposite of a human, who is more likely to remember how they felt watching the finale of the Gilmore Girls than the license plate of their car.
The real Batman arrives shortly, but is no match for his mechanical mirror. Though he lacks humanity, that turns out to be a strength for Batbot. He's basically a Batman Terminator, which is the most dangerous and possibly the most awesome thing in existence.
Batbot easily defeats Batman, but can't bring himself to dispatch the original. As a true clone of Batman, Batbot has a built-in code that prevents him from killing. Even when HARDAC takes over the robot's consciousness and starts the Judgment Day countdown clock, there's still a lingering thread of justice in there. Batman figures this out for himself during his last battle with his brainwashed foe, which is why he lets himself be punched into one of the Batcave's many mysterious and impractical bottomless pits.
Batman isn't dead, of course, but Batbot doesn't know that. Deep down, Batbot is still Batman, and is suitably horrified at the thought of taking someone's life. As HARDAC's programming is re-overwritten, Batbot makes the ultimate sacrifice to end the doomsday plot.
The human Batman re-emerges alive and well, lamenting his fallen self. He wonders aloud whether Batbot really did have a soul, given his willingness to put the people of Gotham before his own needs. And that's just the first one, folks.
In a rogues gallery full of tragic figures, Harley Quinn's story is among the saddest. Try as she might to win the love of the Joker, she'll never be more to him than a stooge he can manipulate. Her "Puddin" is infatuated with his superhero archnemesis, and nothing is going to come between them. It's a punishment akin to eternal friendzoning, only in this case the object of affection is an abusive, psychopathic shitstain.
"Don'tcha wanna rev up your Harley?" is a quote that's been plastered everywhere on the internet for years. On the face of it, the line is a silly yet extremely suggestive pun that subverts what we think is possible in afternoon children's programming. But people leave out that last part, where Joker grabs her by the face and pushes her off the desk. It's a comedic pratfall, but at heart, still an act of physical (and emotional) violence.
The scene comes early on in "Mad Love," and the episode only gets darker in its depiction of Joker and Harley's frightening relationship. We flash back to their initial therapy session, when Harleen Quinzel was still a psychologist working at Arkham Asylum. Joker quickly wins Harl over his with a bullshit sob story about an abusive father, one that was happy only once: During their trip to the circus.
Flash back to the present day, and Harley is still desperate to please her Puddin. She hatches a scheme to ensnare Batman, making it seem as though she's ready to finally turn on her former beau. The plot goes off without a hitch, and she soon has B-Man suspended over an aquarium full of bloodthirsty piranhas.
Harley waves goodbye to Batman, thanking him for the laughs while assuring herself that this will finally earn the favor of the Joker. That's when Batman starts laughing. Not just laughing, but a full on guffaw, a dark and throaty cackle that vibrates the room. It's not clear whether he genuinely thinks it's funny or it's just part of his escape plan, but either way it rattles Harley.
Batman sneers at her. "You little fool. The Joker doesn't love anything except himself." It doesn't take the World's Greatest Detective to know that, but Harley -- arguably the closest person to the Joker -- is blind to it.
Everyone knew that Joker's story was a crock of crap. Everyone but Harley. She's so dependent on affection and attention from her abuser that she'll believe just about anything he says. Even the fact that Batman knew Joker's fake childhood anecdote couldn't dissuade her. When Joker barges into the room, she gleefully announces her success.
But Joker doesn't take kindly to someone else other than himself undoing the Batman, so he throws Harley out a window.
For all intents and purposes, this is attempted murder. Sick of Harley annoying him and giving him exactly everything he ever wanted, Joker was absolutely fine with getting rid of his sidekick once and for all. He didn't even do it in a funny way, instead just an unceremonious fall down several stories.
Harley survives by landing on some garbage, but she remains doomed to fawn after her own personal supervillain. Even to the very end, she can only blame herself.
Harley doesn't understand that there is no joke to "get" when it comes to the Joker. He's out to make himself laugh, and no one really knows how he ticks. As for anyone who tries to understand him, well, the joke is on them.
Everyone has bad days. For you or me, that might mean waking up late for work and forgetting to bring your packed lunch because you were still reeling in pain from stubbing your toe. For Batman, pretty much every night he has to deal with the scum and villainy of Gotham City is a bad time. So to get under Batman's skin, it's got to be a terrible, horrible, no-good/very bad day.
This is what we see in "I Am The Night," which begins with Bruce Wayne sighing at the sight of the Penguin weaseling out of criminal charges once again. Ever the sounding board, Alfred reassures Batman that he is in fact causing real change in the city, despite how it might feel.
Batman goes from mopey to guilt-stricken later in the night. On the way to assist Commissioner Gordon with a raid on a mob boss, Batman stops by Crime Alley, the same stretch of street that Thomas and Martha Wayne met their end. After delivering roses and probably humming that Seal song from Batman Forever, the Dark Knight is delayed by a small timer who calls himself the Wizard. Though he straightens the Wizard out and sends him to a mission, it's far too late to help Gordon with the raid.
Without the help of the Dark Knight, the GCPD were no match for the mobster known as the "Jazzman" and his goons. Even though Batman eventually saved the day, Gordon still took a bullet and was taken to the hospital in critical condition as a result of the botched raid. Batman blamed the entire incident on himself.
That's a grown man -- the Batman, no less -- going absolutely nanners and wrecking his home. We rarely see superheroes so psychologically vulnerable, much less having a violent psychotic break. But one bad night in Gotham finally got to Batman.
The rest of the episode only further shakes the foundations of Batman's faith in himself, as the Jazzman predictably escapes and goes after the ailing Gordon. Once the exciting fight and requisite happy ending quotas are fulfilled, Batman runs into the Wizard again at the bus station.
As it turns out, Batman setting him straight was just what the Wizard needed -- in his case, one bad night turned him around and set him on a course for good. The fact that Batman was able to affect positive change in one person's life renews his enthusiasm for crimefighting, and we're left with a fuzzy, hopeful feeling inside. Until the next really bad night.
Okay, this is kind of cheating. "Epilogue" is technically an episode of Justice League: Unlimited, but it's too good a Batman story to pass up. As the title might suggest, it's something of a post-game finale for Batman: The Animated series. Though most of JLU takes place when Batman is still in fighting shape, for this episode we flash forward to an elderly Bruce Wayne and learn some surprising things in regards to his relationship with Terry McGinnis (a.k.a. Batman Beyond). But maybe the highlight of the episode comes during an anecdote told to Terry by Amanda Waller, the no-nonsense government agent that acts like a more corporate version of Nick Fury.
In the tale, we learn of Ace, a young girl gifted with immense psychic powers, capable of unprecedented hallucinatory imagery. Featured in an earlier episode of JLU, Ace's abilities had grown to an uncontrollable rate, a likely result of the constant testing on her as as child. Ace had only hours to live. Waller and others feared a possible psychic explosion upon Ace's death that would level the city.
Waller Batman was sent into Ace's hallucinatory labyrinth with one goal: Use this device and end Ace's suffering, thus saving the city.
There's no bones about it -- if he used the device, Batman would be killing Ace. Even if she was going to die anyway, even if it was to save the lives of countless others, this would still be the murder of a child. Like farting during sex, there are some things you just can't undo.
When Batman found Ace, she was swinging on a playset. Upset, she recounted her troubled childhood.
At this point, Ace is the DC equivalent of an Omega-level mutant. She's a demigod with untold amounts of power. She knows Batman suffered through a traumatic childhood, just like she knows that Batman would never use Waller's murder remote. At the same time, Ace is still a child. She's confused, afraid and feels like she's the only person left in the entire world -- and if there's anyone who knows what that's like, it's Batman.
There's nothing Batman can do. There's no cure-all Bat-Pill in his utility belt, no Bat-Time Machine waiting in a cobwebbed corner of the Batcave. Ace is going to die, soon, and all Batman can do is be there for her. And he was. Waller remarks that, in retrospect, Batman's greatest strength is not his advanced technology or unparalleled skills, but instead his compassion. Because of the hell he went through as a child, Batman can empathize more than almost any hero can.
In the end, there was no psychic explosion, no decimated city. Just a man cradling a dead girl in his arms.
Now if you'll excuse me, my whole face is leaking.
Robin gets kind of a bad rap sometimes, but in many ways, he's basically a pre-Batman. Dick Grayson's origin story is pretty similar to Bruce Wayne's; both lost their parents in front of their eyes. Of course, the Waynes were wealthy philanthropists gunned down in an alleyway, and the Graysons were a family of acrobats whose act was sabotaged.
We see this tragic flashback in "Robin's Reckoning," an Emmy-winning two-parter that is known for being one of the darkest chapters in the series. The episode kicks off with the Dynamic Duo tracking down some mobsters, and Batman jokingly threatening a goon with death in order to get a name out of him. What he wasn't expecting was to hear "Billy Marin." The mere mention of that name gives Batman a shock; he looks like he's seen a ghost, or just found out his dog ate all of his Halloween candy.
As it turns out, Billy Marin is a known alias for Tony Zucco, the person responsible for killing Robin's parents. That's when we flash back to when Robin was just a little Dick, only recently taken in by Bruce Wayne after being orphaned. Though Dick seeks vengeance on Zucco, he's still only a useless preteen and just gets into trouble. Though he was saved by his future partner, Dick deeply resents Batman for choosing to save him over catching Zucco. Yes, Robin was always kind of annoying.
Flash forward to the present, and Robin argues with Batman over his decision to hunt for "Marin" alone. After doing about two seconds of digging, Robin realizes that Batman is going after the one person that he's wanted to get at his whole life. Batman knows that his sidekick probably wouldn't be able to leave emotions out of the equation, so he made a calculated decision to leave Robin back at the base. It's a perfectly logical and understandable move. Heck, if Batman was going to go after Joe Chill, he'd probably find a way to ditch himself.
Then again, brash young teenagers often let their hearts get the better of their smarts, so Robin rushes out to hunt down Zucco. When he finds the bastard, he drags him to the end of the docks, even doing one of those sweet motorcycle slides from Akira.
Confronted with his parents' killer, holding them at the edge of a pier, Robin seriously considers committing murder. It'd be hard to blame him for pretty much anyone else on earth. But when Batman shows up, he reminds Robin that they have to be better than that. Robin responds in typical snotty teenager fashion.
Much like his chat with Ace, it quickly becomes clear that Batman knows all too well the pain that Robin is feeling. This fleeting flash of anger subsides, and they decide to take Zucco in by the books. Well, as far as "illegal vigilantes in capes beating up criminals on their own terms" can be considered by the books.
I know, I know. "Another Robin story?" But this one's a little different (and a lot more twisted) than the previous entry. For one, this Robin is Tim Drake; the younger, pluckier and okay, a little dimmer than Dick Grayson (minus the smart choice of picking black underwear over green). And of course, Tim is only just recently starting to become interested in girls. If he thought that was confusing before, it's only going to get a lot worse for him from here on out.
After some preamble, the story really begins when Robin runs into and subsequently becomes infatuated with a mysterious girl under the spell of a classic case of cartoon amnesia. All she knows is that her dirtbag father is trying to find her, and she can feel him coming. Said thug does discover his daughter, and turns out to be quite the formidable threat.
Robin's just a kid, but he's also a kid trained by Batman, so it's unusual that he meets a galoot so galootonous that he can't even make a dent in them. As expected, Batman arrives and deals with the threat that a teenager couldn't handle. The mystery girl takes the chance to scamper off, but not before Robin names her "Annie."
By the time the lovestruck Robin tracks Annie down, she's found herself drawn to the sewers, where she finds her father: Clayface.
For those not familiar with the series (I'm gonna say that's a "you" problem), Clayface is among the most powerful of Batman's C-tier rogues. The victim of a drug experiment gone wrong, Matt Hagen found himself with the unstable ability to warp his body at will, with the muddy form you see above as his "resting state." He's sort of like a slightly dryer Venom, or maybe a slightly wetter Sandman.
In any case, it's got big implications for Annie. But before she can contemplate how much it would suck to be the daughter of a supervillain (much less the woman who squirted out Clayface's child through her birth canal), she has yet another major revelation:
Whoa, that's heavy. As Annie explains, Clayface was in a bad place after being nearly disintegrated during his last run-in with Batman. Barely holding it together while hiding in the sewer, Clayface pinched a piece off of himself and sent it out scouting. This piece became Annie, a girl who was seemed to have her own consciousness, yet was still inexorably linked to her "father."
From Clayface's perspective, he's lost part of himself that he wants to get back. From Annie's perspective, she wants to live and not be eaten by a giant mud monster. Unfortunately, dear ol' dad is not so much into compromises.
There's no other term for it: That's fucked up. I mean, Jesus Christ. Clayface wholly reabsorbs Annie, a sentient being that doesn't want to die. This is a child being murdered on kids TV, and there's no happy ending. Sure, Batman shows up (again) and Clayface is foiled (again), but there's no way to save Annie. She's gone for good.
Batman consoles his frustrated, angry ward as the police take Clayface away in a sealed chamber. Robin suggests that murder be added to Hagen's list of charges, knowing that the courts are ill-prepared to deal with the ethics of mudmen reabsorbing their familiars. This helpless feeling is all too familiar for Batman, who reassures Robin that there's nothing he can do, and that life sure does bite the big one.
That's the special message of the episode. Sometimes in life, people you care about will die in horrible ways and there's absolutely nothing you can do to stop it. We'll be back right after these brightly-colored commercials about putting pizza on a bagel!
The further you get into Batman's rogues gallery, the weirder you get. Right below Clayface and maybe above the Ventriloquist is Mr. Freeze, a man with an ice gun and a medical condition that requires his body be cooled at sub-zero temperatures at all times. Despite having a name that belongs on the side of an ice cream truck, Freeze might have the most depressing backstory of them all.
But when "Heart of Ice" begins, it doesn't seem that way. On the surface, Mr. Freeze appears to be yet another steely villain, one with a heart cold enough to match his name. He seems only to be concerned with money, and harbors no ill-will towards Batman -- until he interferes with his plans. After that, all bets are off, up to and including human collateral damage.
This frozen-legged henchman is probably angry that he can't even kick himself for being late to the Henchman Draft contest. Mr. Freeze is probably no goon's first pick, especially since the freeze ray is one of the most volatile and dangerous weapons in Gotham.
Predictably, Freeze is unsympathetic to the plight of the hired help.
Yes, Thug McFlunky is totally at fault here, Freeze. How dare he uh, stand around (?) while his boss is brazenly shooting his ice blaster every which way. Regardless, the rest of Freeze's crew feared a similar fate, so they left their comrade to be saved by Batman.
If we stopped there, it would be easy to assume that Freeze cares for no one and nothing, but once we discover his backstory, it becomes clear that he cares for one person so deeply and passionately that it consumes him.
If you're not familiar and/or have spent your life trying to forget the live-action Batman & Robin movie, Mr. Freeze used to be Victor Fries, a scientist who specialized in cryogenics. His life's work was dedicated to finding a cure for the disease which afflicted his wife Nora, who he was keeping in suspended animation until such a solution could be found.
Eventually, GothCorp CEO Ferris Boyle gets wind of Fries' work and how he's "wasting" millions of dollars of company money. The real villain of the episode, Boyle demands that Fries figuratively pull the plug on the project, which would mean literally pulling the plug on Nora. If there's any situation that could turn someone into a supervilliain, well, it's probably fucking McDonalds not selling hashbrowns even though the god damned sign says "Breakfast All Day," but a heartless corporate stooge killing your wife is a close second. In the resulting scuffle, Fries is knocked into your garden variety batch of body-altering chemicals, and comes out of the ordeal as the robotic Mr. Freeze. Bereft of support from his former company, Fries turns to a life of crime to support his research to cure his beloved.
Though Batman sympathizes with Freeze's plight, that doesn't mean he can go around icing up people's legs and crashing humanitarian dinners. In the end, Freeze is outdone by the common cold. That is to say, Alfred packed some chicken soup for a sniffly Batman, which the Dark Knight ultimately used to bust up Freeze's fragile cryomachinery.
It's a bittersweet moment made slightly more palatable by the fact that Batman hands the police evidence of Boyle's downright murderous business practices. As for Freeze, he gets sent up to Arkham, where they presumably stick him in the meat cooler while they whip up yet another weirdly specific cell for a solitary maniac with idiosyncratic powers.
The plot wraps up in a clean 22 minutes, but one story isn't over.
Alone in his chamber, Freeze pulls out his snowglobe and remarks on his personal failure to save his wife. All he has is that dancer, immortal and beautiful, encased in glass forever. For the Joker, there's always another laugh around the corner. For Penguin, there's always another moneymaking scheme to exploit. But Victor will never have even a fleeting moment of happiness, because Nora will always be entombed in ice. Sometimes, there isn't a happy ending. Sometimes, there isn't an end.