Before I get into the specifics of this episode, I think it’s only right to start with a tribute to the great Adam West who sadly passed away earlier this month.
Most famous for the iconic Batman TV series which ran from 1966-1968, West’s portrayal of the self-described ‘Bright knight’, set the tone of who and what Batman truly was for an entire generation of fans. I distinctly remember my mother, upon watching Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, defiantly arguing that West was the true Batman, a case that I’m sure has been reciprocated by millions of people across the world. What West did for the character cannot be underestimated. He helped consolidate and imprint Batman into the popular zeitgeist – taking the character from the pages of comic books and moving him into the mainstream lexicon. Playing the ‘straight-man’ within a camp, garishly colourful Gotham City, West delivered a deadpan, wiry performance, with a knowing wink to the audience. He played it serious, so that nobody else had to.
While his work on Batman may have somewhat overshadowed the rest of his work, West would become a recognizable guest star on a number of TV shows, from Diagnosis Murder, Murder She Wrote, The Flash, The Adventures of Lois and Clark and Tales from the Crypt; and even achieved something of a career renaissance as a voice actor on The Simpsons, Chicken Little, Johnny Bravo, The Fairly Odd Parents and Family Guy. During this time, he would again return to Gotham City on many occasions, guest starring on Batman: The Animated Series, The Batman and Batman: Brave and the Bold, as well as returning to his most famous role in the recent 2016 animated feature Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders.
While many other actors may have since taken the mantle throughout the years, no other has perhaps had the impact that West had over the iconic cape and cowl. So Mr West, from the bottom of my heart I would like to thank you for all the joy and happiness you brought to our lives and for the incredible legacy that you played a key role in building.
Gotham salutes you… especially my mum.
Beware The Gray Ghost
Directed By: Boyd Kirkland
Written By: Dennis O’Flaherty, Tom Ruegger and Garin Wolf
Original Air Date: November 4th 1993
Synopsis [From IMDB: Here]: A series of bombings reminiscent of a long lost TV series occur and the washed up star of it may be connected.
It appears somewhat fitting that this column moves on towards the next episode in the series, the astounding Beware the Gray Ghost. Unlike previous episodes that have leant upon established characters from Batman’s universe, Beware the Gray Ghost brings forth new characters into the sandbox. The story focuses on a ‘has-been’ actor named Simon Trent who once played an famous superhero (or rather a pulp inspired crime fighter in the vein of The Shadow) named The Gray Ghost. What follows is a series of bombings across Gotham City, each of which appear inspired by the very show in which Trent once starred. This leads Batman to enlist Trent’s help in finding the self-styled Mad Bomber, so that he might stop him before he commits any further attacks across Gotham City.
What is immediately striking from Beware the Gray Ghost is its focus on maturity, evoking terrorist bombings (which are arguably more evocative today) as well as an incredibly human drama at the core of its storyline. While Batman appears as one of the heroes of the story, it is Adam West’s performance as Simon Trent that takes the spotlight from the dark knight detective.
Typecast by his role as the Gray Ghost, Trent is sympathetic character; a man who struggles to pay his rent and is desperate for any role his agent can get him. When he’s brought into the mad world of Batman and Gotham city’s, he’s as terrified as any normal person would be and even unwilling to help – a decidedly human reaction that eventually makes his later bravery all the more important.
The casting of West in the role of Simon Trent is a particularly inspired choice. While West was never prone to the financial difficulties experience by Trent, through his continued royalties and guest star appearances, he surprisingly plays the character with an incredible empathy. This is a performance of great depth and range, venturing from desperate, angry and pained rejection to responsible and reinvigorated hero following his work with Batman as the Gray Ghost.
Most notably, West’s worn vocal mannerisms distinguish a character as broken by the fickleness of the entertainment business. When he travels to eventual villain, (the Bruce Timm inspired) Ted Dymer’s toy store to sell his Gray ghost memorabilia, what happens is an somewhat moving and powerfully tragic scene. This is a man, selling away his legacy, one that is ultimately disregarded by Dymer’s explanation that he’s not interested in Gray Ghost merchandise. That Batman is the only thing that sells. As well as the various metaphorical underpinnings that can be read here (most notably the “old” Batman (West) being replaced by the new Batman (Michael Keaton/Conroy)), when West finally says, “well old friend you’ve paid the rent for the last time,” you really feel the tragedy at play here.
Ultimately, despite such sadness, this is a story about re-invigoration, redemption and hope. In his storyarc, Trent moves from tragic victim of his own success, to a brave hero in his own right. While he initially rejects Batman’s attempts to help him, it is only through working with the dark knight and embracing his role as the Gray Ghost that the two are able to solve the case. In helping defeat the Mad Bomber, Trent’s career becomes re-invigorated by the release of the Gray Ghost on video and Television re-release; a happy ending that is both apt and richly deserved throughout the episodes run time.
We also get some serious insights into the Batman character, insights that are perhaps as invigorating as anything that Batman’s media has put forward in its 75+ year history. Just as Trent moves from despair to vindication, Batman also has an arc, moving from awe to disillusionment with regards to Trent, before eventually returning to admiration and respect.
In a particularly touching scene, Batman brings him to the Batcave, where he reveals a ‘fanboyish’ shrine that he holds for the Gray ghost. In what is illustrated by a series of flashbacks, Batman reveals that the Gray Ghost stands as his inspiration for the role; one made all the more powerful by his memories of watching the series with his father. This link between Batman’s past and his nostalgia for the Gray Ghost, acts as a quietly beautiful moment; an expression of human emotion from a character so closely shrouded in mystery.
Such a view is then followed at Beware the Gray Ghost’s conclusion where an strangely heartfelt exchange occurs between Conroy’s Bruce Wayne and West’s Trent. Upon getting some memorabilia signed by Simon Trent, Bruce Wayne explains “the Gray ghost was his hero… and he still is.” It is an exchange that again acts metaphorically. With such lines, the episode evokes a new generations expression of gratitude for the legacy of the past.
Beyond such a metaphorical and heart felt story line, this episode also features a rousing score from Shirley Walker and her team; one that evokes both the pulp serials of the fifties as well as the sadness and anger of Trent as he struggles with his post-Gray Ghost life. Not only this, the episode also brings forth some of the best animation that the series has held to date.
Whether its the explosions caused by the Mad Bomber remote-control toy cars (which in typical comic-book fashion, pose as bombs) or the beautiful pulpy imagery of the Gray ghost, the episode implements such brilliant animation to tell a story that is ultimately human despite the high-concept super heroics and explosions. There’s one shot in particular, of an orange hued dark knight surveying an explosion, which particularly sticks out, a beautifully animated, atmospheric shot that ends with him leaping from the building in a fluid, beautifully constructed fashion.
While there is undoubtedly more to say than what can be simply put down in this column, its clear to see that Beware the Gray Ghost is an episode that demands conversation, particularly in its position as one of the best episodes of Batman: the Animated Series entire run. Mixing an heartfelt story of failure, desperation and hope, this is an episode that provides a mature, ultimately human storyline; one with depth, heart and exhilarating action/imagery that makes some of the more action-orientated episodes so brilliant. Mixed with this, is some of the best voice acting that the series has seen and beautiful testament to the range of which the late great Adam West could go to, beyond his wiry, excellent performance as the ‘Bright knight.’
A great performance for a great episode.