Welcome back Bat-fans as we take a walk down Batman memory lane and rewatch Batman: The Animated Series for its 30th anniversary! Today we're going to take a look at an episode that took a virtually unknown villain to the general non-comic-reading public and through adding a splash of pathos and a dash of tragedy, helped Clayface hit the big time. Today we're taking a look at Feat of Clay.
Feat of Clay (Original Air Date: 9/8/1992)
The official synopsis for the episode: "A popular actor renowned for his ability to play any part has a terrible secret–he's addicted to a strange chemical formula that enables him to alter his facial features without makeup."
This was the fourth episode to air, but the 20th produced (I know, this number jumbling is pretty confusing). The episode's title, Feat of Clay, is actually derived from a bible quote from The Book of Daniel, 2:33-45. "Thou, O king, sawest, and behold a great image… his feet part of iron and part of clay… And as the toes of the feet were part of iron, and part of clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong, and partly broken."
The phrase describes someone who projects strength and perfection but is someone fragile and easily broken. This also describes our supervillain introduced here, Matt Hagen/Clayface.
The villain Clayface was one of Batman's earliest comic book villains, created by Batman creators Bill Finger and Bob Kane and first appearing in 1940's Detective Comics #40 (to give you an idea of how early on he was introduced, Batman himself only debuted in 1939's Detective Comics #27). Now while the name Clayface debuted back then, who his identity was and his origin has changed over time.
The original Clayface was an actor named Basil Karlo who loses it when his famous horror film role (Clayface) is being recast in a remake and as a result, Karlo dresses as the character and begins murdering the actors and filmmakers doing the new film, until he is stopped by a certain Dynamic Duo.
This original version was heavily inspired by The Phantom of the Opera and his name is a combination of classic actors Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff. The original Clayface is a simple psychotic killer and has no superpowers or special abilities. This would change in 1961 with Detective Comics #298, when an entirely new version of Clayface was created, one where he was quite literally a man who was made out of clay. This version is treasure hunter Matt Hagen, who accidentally falls into radioactive material in a cave and becomes a monster who can transform into any shape or object, including impersonating other people.
The Hagen version of Clayface would be used repeatedly throughout the silver age comics and was originally planned to be used on the 1966 Batman TV show (he can be seen among the animated villains in the opening credits of every episode).
Due to production limitations, Clayface was swapped for a new villain named False Face (played by Malachi Throne), who was very similar in that he changed his face through the use of masks to swap identities and become different people to pull off his crimes. And the real name of False Face? Why that would be Basil Karlo, the original comic book Clayface.
In 1992 when Batman: The Animated Series was set to use Clayface, they decided to combine the original two comic book versions (there have been eight different Clayfaces overall) to create Matt Hagen, a former handsome movie star who survived a bad car accident that left him disfigured and is now addicted to a special chemical formula that allows him to manipulate his face and change it to whatever he wants.
The episode is written by legendary comic book writer Marv Wolfman (Daredevil, The New Teen Titans, Crisis On Infinite Earths) who created such characters as Blade, Cyborg, Deathstroke, Bullseye, Black Cat, and the Tim Drake version of Robin.
The episode opens with Lucius Fox (making his first appearance on the show here) meeting Bruce Wayne at 3 am in a shady-looking handoff under an abandoned train station. Bruce is wearing a fedora and trenchcoat, seemingly trying to hide himself. Bruce brings a suspicious Lucius into an empty building, where he explains that corrupt rival industrialist Roland Daggett is trying to do an illegal hostile takeover of Wayne Enterprises, so he needs the briefcase Lucius brought with him, which is full of incriminating evidence against Daggett.
Lucius thinks Bruce is turning the evidence over to the authorities, but Bruce tells him he's destroying it and they won't be needing him anymore, just as a number of armed men surround them. "Let's just say, I'm accepting your resignation, Mr. Fox."
Lucius wrestles the case away from Bruce and runs while the gunmen open fire. The shooting attracts the attention of a nearby Batman, who intervenes and takes out the gunmen, but not before Lucius is badly hurt in the situation. The police arrive and Lucius tells them that Bruce Wayne is responsible for everything and set him up.
We then move on to the Imperial Pictures movie studio lot (which looks suspiciously like the Warner Bros. lot), where a scene is prepped to be shot. The shot is being held for actor Matt Hagen (played by the always great Ron Perlman), who when we go inside his trailer, we see is freaking out looking for something. His stand-in & friend Teddy tells him that the thing he's desperately looking for, his face cream, is gone and used up. Hagen turns to reveal his badly disfigured and scarred face.
Hagen says he needs the cream to fix his face, while Teddy relents and gives him an extra container of it, which we see is labeled "Daggett". Hagen is dismayed to see how little is left as he desperately applies it to his face, which turns his skin to putty and allows him to manipulate and reform his face into a handsome one.
The images and even the musical cues here are very similar to a scene from The Outer Limits episode, The Hundred Days of the Dragon, where a character applies a chemical to someone's face that makes it completely pliable like clay so that they can manipulate it to make them look like someone else. It's never been stated by Bruce Timm or anyone that this was a direct homage, but Timm and other B: TAS creators have often cited The Outer Limits as inspiration for other episodes, so I can assume that was the case here too.
Hagen's friend tries to argue with him that the cream he's using is definitely harmful to him, but Hagen says the risk is worth the reward. Hagen laments that it only lasts for 24 hours before his scars return and says he's been pulling jobs for Roland Daggett to get his hands on the stuff. He then says he needs more and will need to figure out a way to get lots of it on his own.
Next, we head to Daggett Industries, where Roland Daggett (also making his first appearance on the series and played by the late, great Ed Asner) grills his henchmen. He's concerned that Hagen knows too much about their operation and has become unreliable. Daggett is equally concerned that Lucius Fox survived and kept hold of the incriminating documents, another failure of Hagen's, whom we can now put together was disguised as Bruce Wayne in the opening scene. Daggett tells his men to kill Hagen off, as he'll definitely come to them when he needs more of the cream.
And Daggett is right, as next, we see Hagen breaking into Daggett Industries and frantically applying the cream to his face at the mere sight of it. He's found by the henchmen but quickly manipulates his face to become Bruce Wayne. The men don't fall for it and a fight ensues, where the men eventually pin Hagen down and pour a large container of the cream down his throat.
They dump Hagen in his car and leave him there to die and we can see the chemicals are already having an effect, as Hagen's hanging hand literally melts and drips off.
Meanwhile, in the bat cave, Batman creates a composite sketch of the man he fought the night before on the bat computer and runs it through criminal records. He comes up with Raymond Bell and we see it's one of the men that just assaulted Hagen. Alfred informs Batman that the police are looking for Bruce Wayne due to the previous night's attack on Lucius Fox and hands him a newspaper explaining the story. Batman is shocked at this and sets out for answers.
As Raymond Bell (wearing a radio tapped into a police scanner) hears the police put out a bulletin for his arrest, he hops in his car and speeds around Gotham, unknowing that Batman is tailing him from above in the Batwing and is actually the one on the radio making the announcement through a voice changer.
This is the first appearance of Batman's plane, the Batwing on the series. Like the Batmobile, the vehicle is a completely unique design, but one that feels entirely related to the design of the Batmobile. This esthetic will continue with Batman's other vehicles on the series, the Batcycle and the Batboat.
The stealth Batwing trails Bell in his getaway until he sees it in his rearview mirror and tries escaping through a tunnel. Shocking to Bell, the Batwing enters the tunnel on the opposite end and is flying directly towards him in a game of chicken. Bell slams on his brakes and opens fire on the Batwing, but the bullets bounce right off of it. The Batwing impales the car with its nose and flies the car, and Bell in it, high above Gotham.
Batman pilots a claw device out of the nose of the Batwing, which grabs Bell and drops the car from under him. He flies around with the dangling Bell, interrogating him as he dips into the river and threatens to drop him to his death. After some "convincing", Bell faints and Batman is unable to get his information. Police helicopters surround the Batwing and order it to land, but instead, Batman drops Bell into a rooftop pool for the police and flies off.
This whole scene was pure Batman fun. An awesome vehicle, seeing Batman interrogate a criminal, and some great animation and really great sound design for the Batwing.
We next see Bruce Wayne sneak into Lucius Fox's hospital room. He tries to calm his friend and find out what happened, but Fox is terrified of him and buzzes for help. The police enter and arrest Bruce, which the media is all over.
We then go to Hagen's friend Teddy looking for him until he comes across Hagen's car. He reaches in to check on his friend, but pulls back a bunch of goop in his hand. We then hear Hagen breathing very… wetly and we see his silhouette sit back and it's an unrecognizable figure. We now get our first look at the monster Matt Hagen has become and so does he in a mirror. He sees himself as Clayface and screams in agony as the screen fades to black and reads "TO BE CONTINUED"
The iconic action and animation from the first Clayface story will come into play in Part II of Feat of Clay. This first part was mainly set up for the character, which was necessary seeing as he wasn't as well-known a villain to the general audience. Like the previous two episodes, the creators took a simple or even silly comic book villain and layered him with tragedy, thus making him an almost empathetic character instead of just some insane supervillain trying to take over the world or rob a bank.
Disfigurement and desperation are two themes anyone can understand and feel instantly. While not as immediately heartbreaking as Mr. Freeze was in Heart of Ice before this, Matt Hagen's situation is still an understandable one, and again, the show's creators have done this to give us a Batman who isn't just obsessed with punishing evil and crime but is also concerned with helping those who can't help themselves and are out of control. All three of the villains in this and the previous two episodes are presented as tragic monsters of circumstance and accidents, rather than some malicious psychopath. That's important for this series and something that really set it apart from not only its contemporaries but other Batman adaptations as well.
This episode along with the entire series is available on HBO Max in full HD.
Next week I will cover Feat of Clay Part II where we will see Clayface in action and see how the Dark Knight fares in combat against this unique opponent. See you next time Bat-fans!