Something bad’s going to happen the minute he leaves town (The Lion and the Unicorn)

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It’s September 15, 1995, four days after “The Terrible Trio.”

Taken together with “Baby-Doll,” this episode really highlights the tonal range of which Batman: The Animated Series is capable. We go from last episode’s mildly surreal tragedy to 15 minutes of self-parody, followed by a surprisingly solid action sequence with near-apocalyptic stakes. In a lesser show, this would seem badly uneven, but somehow, although “The Lion and the Unicorn” definitely isn’t a classic by any means, it still holds together.

Most of the first part of the episode is, as I said, spent in self-parody. Specifically, it is parodying the “adventure serial” style of the Ra’s al Ghul episodes. It presents a London which is anachronistic in much the same way as Gotham is anachronistic, with Victorian elements like dense fog, iron lampposts, and minor baddies who dress like Dickens characters sharing the screen with red double-decker buses of the sort seen in London today. Coupled with atrocious accents from basically everyone but Alfred, the constant stream of “old boy” and other stereotypical Britishisms from him and his spy counterpart Frederick, and the shift of action from the streets of London to a dark Scottish castle on a cliff, this feels like a tour of Britainland, a theme park based on Britain’s depiction in American movies.

And the episode knows it. While I’m sure the funniest line in the episode (“Five… billion… pounds!”) was not actually written as a joke, seeing as the first Austin Powers movie was still two years in the future when this episode aired, on the other hand this episode is so full of anachronisms already, what’s one more? Add onto that the fact that Frederick looks exactly like David Niven, master of Bond parodies, and his tux is near-identical to both Alfred’s butler uniform (which he never changes out of!) and Bond’s signature tuxedo, and this episode begins to take on a decidedly 60s pastiche feel, along with the Victorian and modern elements.

Of course if we’re dealing with Batman and the 60s, we need a near-limitless supply of henchmen in themed costumes, which rather explains the Dickensian outfits, and absurd death traps, which the castle is happy to provide as Batman tries to sneak in and rescue Alfred.

And then all of a sudden a nuclear missile is headed for London, Red Claw is in the Batwing, and apocalypse is at hand. But then, near-apocalypse is what Ra’s al Ghul is all about, so no surprise that this budget version/parody pulls one off as well. Batman of course destroys the nuclear missile at the last second, right over London, Alfred comes home, and no mention is ever made of the massive quantities of radioactive dust the explosion would have scattered across London.

This is, in a word, a romp, and after the self-seriousness of the last two episodes, a welcome one. But again, Batman only thinks he has stopped the apocalypse. Off camera, it’s ongoing, a radioactive cloud settling on a major city. He cannot stop the changing of the world ushered in by Harley Quinn, only delay and divert it. The 15 minutes of levity we saw in this episode are, while not quite the characteristic tone that will dominate the DCAU in years and shows to come, still closer than the tragedy of “Baby-Doll,” and much closer than the machismo of “Bane.” Out of the three, this  is the episode that points to the future.

But then, we said it was anachronistic, didn’t we?


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