“Christmas with the Joker”
Written by Kent Butterworth
Directed by Eddie Gorodetsky
The second episode of Batman: The Animated Series “Christmas with the Joker” is highly notable for a few reasons. Not only are we provided a fun tidbit about Bruce Wayne, but we’re also introduced to the animated series version of The Joker, and he’s voiced by Mark Hamill. It’s amazing to think that among pop-culture enthusiasts, Mark Hamill in certain circles is more closely associated with his voice work as The Joker rather than Luke Skywalker of Star Wars. It’s also worth noting that Kevin Conroy’s portrayal of Bruce Wayne/Batman and Hamill’s Joker has been the voice most have heard when reading the comics and thinking of the characters since 1992. That’s nearly 25 years!
“Christmas with the Joker” begins at Arkham Asylum and this is our first glimpse of the infamous institution. We meet The Joker and he’s singing the “Jingle Bells, Batman smells…” version of the song. He hops on the Christmas tree, which turns out to be a rocket, and escapes through the roof. It’s highly comedic and while the tone doesn’t fit with the already established moodiness, or the previous “On Leather Wings” episode, it works as a fine setup for the Clown Prince of Crime. He’s wily, a jester, and a complete psychopath.
Meanwhile, at Wayne Manor, and this is our first time seeing Bruce Wayne’s home, he’s finishing dinner with Dick Grayson. And, yes, you guessed it, this is our first time meeting Dick Grayson. There’s no explanation for his presence, he’s already Robin, and just like Batman’s lack of introduction in “On Leather Wings”, we just presume that Bruce has had a sidekick for a while. Dick Grayson brings up watching the classic “It’s A Wonderful Life” and Bruce remarks that he’s never seen it. “Could never get past the title.” So, for future reference, this is always something worth remembering as it’s a great trivia question. The two men prepare to watch the film in their home theater, but the broadcast is soon interrupted by a special called… “Christmas with the Joker.” The game is afoot.
The second episode of Batman: The Animated Series works as a fun Batman and Robin adventure, albeit a disjointed one as the stories already don’t seem to be serving an overall arc or continuity. Think of it more like a serial or episode of the 60’s television series with a more adult take. At the time of original broadcast, Batman was shown weekdays, after school, so there wasn’t necessarily a drive for connecting stories. However, Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski’s Batman is high entertainment with a push for storytelling that could be enjoyable for everyone. Upon later viewing, their work holds up and is an outstanding achievement in it’s definitive portrayal of a modern myth.
“Christmas with the Joker”follows Batman and Robin as they attempt to ultimately stop the Joker from killing Commissioner Gordon, Detective Bullock, reporter Summer Gleeson, and many unsuspecting Gothamites. “It’s never easy with the Joker” Batman tells Robin, and we soon learn that he’s set up explosives at the President’s Bridge, along with canons firing at the city on Mount Gotham. There’s a certain peril that’s inferred based on the reactions Batman, Robin, and the Joker’s hostages have in reaction to what he’s putting them through. When the Joker suggests that he’ll kill Summer Gleeson’s mother, who happens to be on the train rigged to blow, we see the intrepid reporter cry. It’s shocking to see her cry, even while she’s just a supporting member of the cast as it’s something that we’d never see depicted today. While we might have a character shed a tear or cry over a breakup, or some sort of familial disturbance, to see a character cry over the threat of having someone killed without remorse is highly off-putting. It’s a moment that should be highly applauded as I’m positive those working on this episode had to fight just as hard for this moment as they did with the inclusion of guns and blood. It’s a perfect example of showing the cruelty of the Joker and just how much pleasure he takes in the sadistic bullying of others, despite his overall cartoonish nature.
“Christmas with the Joker” is just a first tease of how great Mark Hamill is as the Joker. It’d be interesting to go back to the time of original viewing and re-watch Hamill make the iconic villain his own over the course of time he’s worked with Warner Bros. and DC. We get several moments of laughter, angered threats, and playful banter that further suggest the ongoing history he has with the Batman. His work is also so strong that his portrayal doesn’t conjure up thoughts of Jack Nicholson’s performance in the 1989 Batman. Simply put, Mark Hamill is the Joker.
The animation is on point for the second episode produced in the series, with only a few flaws in conveying dimension in the opening sequence featuring the Joker’s escape from Arkham. It’s a matter of his body and height being drawn in relation to the tree and everyone else. The shots just look off for some reason. Yet, in the sequence where Batman and Robin save the train from plummeting into a canyon after the bridge explodes, we get our most Max Fleischer like scene with staging that seems right out of The Lone Ranger. This, mind you, is not even the strongest part of the episode. Batman deduces that the Joker is at the Laffco Toy Factory and after they speed there in the Batmobile, they engage in a fight set to “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.” The staging of the Batman and Robin vs. The Joker Thugs is nearly perfect in every way and feels like a classy and timeless episode in the history of animation. It works in every way and is a lot of fun to watch.
Batman and Robin save the day and rescue Gordon, Bullock, and Gleeson. It’s almost a rescue of comic book proportions as Batman jumps, grabs all of them mid-air, and leaps to the other side. Oh, and they were all dangling over some sort of acid pit. It surely was a feat cut out for Superman (or a future stunt for Tom Cruise), but works as it plays up the heroism of Batman. “They don’t call you Batman for nothing.”
“Christmas with the Joker”, while not as dark as “On Leather Wings”, still works as a great Batman/Joker/Robin episode. The teamwork between The Dark Knight and The Boy Wonder is fun to watch and feels true to the more adult spirit of the comic books, while Mark Hamill’s Joker is immediately iconic well before the episode concludes. I’ve seen certain viewers critique certain aspects of the Joker’s plan to destroy Gotham, terrorize the city, and most especially his escape out of Arkham via Christmas tree. Come on, folks! It’s a cartoon. It’s meant to be fun. While certain episodes of the series, most notably the Paul Dini ones, are a little more high brow, this episode was pure fun to watch and maintained a level of respect to both Batman and The Joker. The spirit of both characters were not betrayed.
Oh, and Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson return to the manor and watch “It’s A Wonderful Life.” And Bruce enjoys it.
Stay tuned for more reviews of Batman: The Animated Series.