Your other reason (Riddler’s Reform)

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It’s September 24, 1994.  Boyz II Men top the charts, followed by Lisa Loeb, Luther Vandross, Babyface, and Changing Faces.  The top movie is Timecop. Way down at #13, sleeper-hit-to-be The Shawshank Redemption opens in a mere 33 theaters; in a month it’ll be in nearly a thousand.

In the news, Robert Bloch, the author of Psycho, died yesterday. That’s about it, really.

With “Riddler’s Reform,” Batman: The Animated Series begins a triptych of sorts about villains released from prison. This first story is a fairly straightforward one: Riddler being Riddler, and hence pathologically incapable of not doing everything in his power to prove he’s the smartest person in the room, practically flaunts his parole violations in front of Batman, literally daring him to prove that Riddler’s behind a series of crimes.

He actually does unusually well; one of the character’s best moments in the DCAU is in this episode, when he tricks Batman into publicly humiliating himself by broadcasting to the party in the next room Batman’s aggressive accusations. Indeed these are probably the best riddles Riddler’s come up with to date; Batman only solves the first after the crime is committed, and the 10LESLIE/31753701 misdirect is nothing short of brilliant.

But ultimately this is a weak tragedy. We just don’t care about the Riddler enough to feel for him when his innate flaw–his need to flaunt his intelligence by feeding Batman cryptic clues–leads inevitably to his downfall. Instead it plays out as a mild triumph for Batman, successfully outwitting the Riddler by presenting him a puzzle he can’t solve.

But consider it from a different angle. Rather than a story–a tragedy–consider this episode as a depiction of a game. Riddler calls it one, after all, so let’s take him at his word. As for what game they’re playing, that’s fairly obvious: the riddle game.

An old staple of folklore, the riddle game is probably best known to modern audiences through its use in The Hobbit. The rules are simple: two players take turns presenting riddles, which can be in the form of questions, short poems, or gestures that the other player must interpret. The loser is the first player to be unable to give a satisfactory answer to the opponent’s riddle. Variations include the ruler who presents a set of riddles that must be solved to earn a boon (for example, “come neither naked nor clothed, neither during the day nor at night, and neither on horseback nor on foot,” so the clever peasant shows up wearing a fishing net at dusk and riding a donkey) or my personal favorite, “A Dispute in Sign Language,” where the contest is carried out entirely in gestures, and afterwards we find out that the two players interpreted each other’s questions and answers completely differently, yet agreed on who won.

This is the game which Batman wins–not the game between criminal and protector, but between two minds that present one another with puzzles. In the end, Batman’s victory lies not in proving that Riddler committed the crime, but in presenting him with a riddle he can’t solve.

Which is rather a neat way of dodging the uncomfortable question at the heart of this episode: if criminals leave Arkham unchanged, what’s the point of it? If they cannot reform, cannot heal, why does Batman even bother?

He is, after all, up against one of the most potent forces in the universe, narrative necessity. The Riddler is a more interesting character by far than Edward Nygma, toy designer and game developer. Coming up with a story where he can remain a man whose mind works in puzzles, driven to challenge others, and yet remain within the narrow confines of the law, not challenging the power structures of Gotham despite his certainty that his intellect means he belongs atop them? That’s quite a challenge. (Not impossible, however. Edward Nygma, P.I. has its virtues, as does Edward Nygma, cryptic knowledge broker.)

But Batman’s refusal to kill is rooted in his hope that people can change. Certainly he could save a lot of lives and trouble by just killing the Joker or Ra’s al Ghul, but that would be admitting that he is unable to find a way to get them to change, to get them to accept a role as protectors or protected rather than heralds of apocalypse and transformation. He can’t give up that game. He’s obsessed, just as Riddler is obsessed with his own game.

So in a sense, Batman has lost this game. He couldn’t find a solution to the real riddle of the Riddler: how to get him to use his intelligence and skills for the benefit of others. He couldn’t find a way to help him heal. Because that’s what Arkham is supposed to be–a hospital, a treatment center, a place where sick and broken minds can become healthy and whole.

Which is exactly the promise that will be dangled in front of another villain in the next episode.


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4 thoughts on “Your other reason (Riddler’s Reform)

  1. “The Inquisitor and the Rabbi” sounds interesting, but searching for it only leads me to a story quite different from the one you describe. Where can I find it?

    Like

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