The last episode of Batman: The Animated Series I wrote about was Baby Doll. It was fairly decent and entertaining until we get to that outstanding climax. Suddenly this fun little distraction turned into a powerful TV drama and the whole episode was elevated to classic status. Today I’m following a similar pattern with Mudslide, the second to feature the shapeshifting villain Clayface (Ron Perlman). This is another interesting and creative if unremarkable story with a shock ending. Only this time the conclusion makes this one of my very least favourite episodes in the entire series.
We first encountered Clayface aka Matt Hagen in Feat of Clay, the sublime two part origin story. A former Hollywood star who’s face was disfigured in an accident, Hagen got on the bad side of a corrupt businessman supplying him with an addictive chemical which restored his handsome good looks. After a failed attempted murder, Hagen gained the ability to completely change his shape and appearance. He’s also permanently disfigured and can barely survive in a normal environment. This is how we find him at the beginning of Mudslide.
Batman catches Clayface breaking into a laboratory and stealing a valuable isotope. During his pursuit, Batman notices that Clayface’s structural integrity is deteriorating and knows he is living on borrowed time. After refusing his help, Hagen escapes from the Dark Knight and seeks help from a scientist named Stella Bates. The two begin to grow closer and Stella ends up helping Hagen in his crimes as she knows that the ultimate goal is to just help him have a normal life. It’s a tad melodramatic but nonetheless powerful stuff. There are also plenty of delightful moments which pay homage to classic American movies such as Frankenstein, Psycho, A Streetcar Named Desire and Dark Victory. The animation itself is also very impressive. Notoriously expensive to produce, Clayface only showed up twice in the entire series so they really made the most of it. Taking less inspiration from monster movies, this time there is a considerably more gruesome aspect to Hagen’s metamorphosis. Body horror isn’t normally something one would expect in a Saturday morning cartoon but that’s what made Batman so great.
So up until now this episode is engaging and creative and, while not as memorable as Feat of Clay, can still be considered one of the good ones. Then we get to the ending. I cannot fathom how anyone could that this was a good idea. With the final robbery complete, Stella now has everything necessary to initiate Hagen’s life saving procedure. After this operation he will be more or less human again and can live a life without having to worry about his body disintegrating. Matt and Stella will also finally have a chance to be happy. Then, during the procedure, Batman comes along and shuts down the whole system, ruining the operation. Why? Why did you do that Batman? They hurting literally nobody. There were no human lives at stake (other than Clayface’s) and nobody was being forced to do anything against their will. Yes, the materials were stolen. So what? This was to save someone’s life. For Batman to pull the plug on a critical operation because it didn’t follow his own code of ethics is totally unforgivable. This interpretation of Batman was always my favourite as it showed a level of compassion. To have him do such a selfish act completely erases all of that and predicates everything on his own ego. “I can help you, and I will. But seek help elsewhere and you’re dead”. I hated this moment as a child and I still do.
Of course, the real reason Batman shut the system down is so that he and Clayface could have a fight. There was no need for them to have a fight but the story needed to end with a fight so we got one cheap. Clayface and Batman do battle in the lab and end up outside at the edge of a cliff in a rainstorm. Hagen, now completely melting because of Batman, falls into the sea. His structural integrity can’t contain the moisture and he dissolves. Batman makes an attempt to save him even though it’s all really his fault. It’s one thing feeling sorry for the villain but to achieve this by making the audience actively root against the hero is just bad storytelling.
I really can’t recommend this episode. For the first and second act it’s a standard Batman adventure. Nothing special but still fairly fun with some lovely animation and great voice acting. The third act ruins the atmosphere, characters and message completely. It will make you want Batman to lose, and there really is no bigger crime for a cartoon show all about The Dark Knight than that.