Revisiting ‘Batman, The Animated Series’: ‘It’s Never Too Late’

Revisiting ‘Batman, The Animated Series’: ‘It’s Never Too Late’

A dark episode involving addiction pays homage to classic gangster movies.
Warren Henry
By

Spoilers ahead.

It was almost inevitable that “It’s Never Too Late” would not match the two-part tour de force of “Two-Face.” But this episode is not much of a let-down, which is all the more impressive considering that it does not feature a villain from the Rogues Gallery — and that Batman himself is fairly light in the plot.

Instead, “It’s Never Too Late” focuses on a war between rising mob boss Rupert Thorne (the secondary villain in “Two-Face”) and the incumbent kingpin, Arnold Stromwell (Eugene Roche). At the outset, the episode is tonally dark. While not dwelling on the presumed body count of such conflict, the story does not shy away from the evils of mob life. Stromwell is identified as having escalated from theft to drug dealing and manufacturing. Moreover, Stromwell’s life of crime is shown to have harmed his psyche and family life in several ways.

However, as the episode unfolds, it shifts in a slightly more kid-friendly direction. The tone does not lighten entirely, but the dialogue gets a bit didactic in its anti-drug message, not unlike “after-school specials” of the era. Nevertheless, a twist in the final act helps keep the story from losing its melodrama.

Our story begins at a palatial estate. Inside, Stromwell and his henchmen watch a newscast on their raging war with Thorne for control of Gotham’s rackets. On screen, Commissioner Gordon describes a generational conflict the elder boss is losing to the relatively younger Thorne.

Already angry, Stromwell becomes enraged over the news his son Joey has gone missing. He believes Thorne kidnaped Joey, crossing the traditional mob line against targeting family members. Stromwell orders his henchmen to arrange a sitdown with his rival.

Thorne, dining at Pete’s Restaurant, tells his gang they will kill Stromwell at the meeting. The murder plot is overheard by Batman, who planted a listening device in the eatery while disguised as a disheveled drunk.

On the night of the sitdown, Stromwell’s car stops at a railroad crossing. The old kingpin’s mind drifts back to a childhood memory. He and a boy named Michael were playing on railroad tracks. Michael refused candy stolen by Stromwell, who bragged that one day he will own Gotham. When a train stormed out of a tunnel, Stromwell’s foot became caught in a junction of the tracks. The future boss freed himself, only to find himself staring down another impending train on the adjoining track. Stromwell’s reminiscence abruptly ends when the railroad gate lifts.

Batman watches Stromwell from atop a church. Batman then enters and speaks to an elderly priest about Stromwell, whom the priest (Paul Dooley, of “Sixteen Candles” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) describes as “one soul he wishes he could let go.” Batman replies that he knows the priest could not let go of any soul.

At Pete’s, Thorne convinces Stromwell to speak one-on-one, dismissing their respective gangs. Stromwell angrily accuses of kidnaping Joey. Thorne appears surprised and denies the claim.

Although Stromwell calms himself, he suspects a trap when Thorne sends Pete into the kitchen. This fear is realized as Thorne escapes through the rear of the building, locking Stromwell inside. A bomb Thorne planted in the restaurant explodes. However, Stromwell is saved by Batman, who secreted himself in the building.

On a nearby roof, Batman urges the gangster to cooperate with police. A weak, disoriented Stromwell refuses.

Gotham police arrive to investigate the bombing. An eyewitness saw Batman leaving with someone slung over his shoulder. This report is relayed to Thorne by one of his gang. Thorne, concerned Stromwell might turn state’s evidence, orders Stromwell and Batman be caught and killed.

Batman brings Stromwell to the railyard in his childhood neighborhood. The Caped Crusader confronts Stromwell about his drug dealing and manufacture. Stromwell, believing he is being interrogated, avoids answering the charges.

Instead of further questioning, Batman hauls Stromwell to a nearby drug rehabilitation center run by the Sunrise Foundation. Inside, Batman takes the druglord to Joey, who is going through withdrawal under the watch of Stromwell’s estranged wife, Connie (Katherine Helmond, of “Soap” and “Who’s The Boss”). Stromwell is told by Connie that Joey became an addict through Stromwell’s drugs and was rescued by Batman.

A seemingly chastened Stromwell agrees to cooperate with police. In the gangster’s empty office, the Dark Knight quickly surmises the notebooks Stromwell provides him are dummy records. Stromwell uses the distraction to grab a rifle, telling Batman he will relocate Joey to a “real” rehab facility after he wipes out Thorne and his gang.

However, Thorne’s gang has come to them. As Batman battles the goons, Stromwell escapes, pursued by Thorne. As Stromwell runs through the railyard, he has a longer flashback to his childhood. Viewers learn Stromwell only avoided the second train because Michael pushed him clear. Young Stromwell cries out Michael’s name in both the memory and real time, as the elderly crime boss breaks down near the tracks.

A voice answers, “I’m here, Arnie.” From the darkness steps the priest, who is revealed as Arnold’s brother, Father Michael Stromwell.

Father Michael counsels Stromwell that his criminal career has not only destroyed his family, but also brought him to the brink of death at Thorne’s hands. Indeed, unseen by the brothers, Batman subdues two henchmen and Thorne to give Father Michael time for the intervention. Stromwell has another emotional breakdown, sinking into his brother’s arms. As the police arrive on the scene, Batman disappears into the darkness.

In addition to serious cartoon drama, “It’s Never Too Late” pays all sorts of homage to the gangster movie genre. Stromwell’s childhood trauma is rendered in sepia tones, indirectly evoking cinematic mobster epics like Sergio Leone’s “One Upon a Time in America” (1984) and Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather, Part II” (1974).

Pete’s Restaurant, and the attempted assassination during a sitdown there, draw even more directly upon “The Godfather” (1972). During the bombing investigation, Detective Bullock mourns the loss of Pete’s cannoli, which seems like an oblique reference to the famous “Godfather” line, “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.”

Similarly, the dramatic twist in the episode of two brothers taking opposite paths may be inspired by James Cagney’s movie breakthrough in “The Public Enemy” (1931) and Michael Curtiz’s mob classic, “Angels With Dirty Faces” (1938). Given that the script could have been built around Stromwell’s guilt over Joey’s addiction, it seems homage even trumped the plot in this episode.

Warren Henry is the nom de plume of an attorney practicing in the State of Illinois.

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