“Nothing to Fear” marks the debut of the Scarecrow (Henry Polic II). Although the Scarecrow dates back to 1941 and later appeared frequently during the Silver Age of Comics, his appearance here is arguably this villain’s debut for a mass audience. He would become better known as the sole recurring baddie in Christopher Nolan’s movie trilogy.
The source of the Scarecrow’s enduring appeal is his weaponization of fear. Bruce Wayne conceived of Batman in much the same way, seeking to strike fear into the hearts of criminals, whom he famously deemed “a cowardly lot.”
The villain who in some way mirrors the hero is a familiar trope because it works (as can be seen in virtually every movie in the first phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe). Arguably, the use of Man-Bat in this series’ pilot also falls into this category, while the Joker is more often portrayed as fearsome in the comics than here.
While this animated series wisely avoided retelling Batman’s origin story, it is the subtext of “Nothing to Fear,” which delves into Bruce Wayne’s psychology. Writers Henry T. Gilroy and Sean Catherine Derek find more than revenge beneath the iconic mask: this version of Bruce Wayne has Daddy issues. Batman surmounts those issues in one of the series’ best-known and dramatic lines of dialogue.
The episode opens at a charity book signing for Gotham University, where the gossip is dominated by a string of robberies committed against the institution. Summer Gleeson of “Gotham Insider” questions a professor, Dr. Long (Kevin McCarthy of 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers), about the crimes. She follows Long into an elevator, where they are joined by Bruce Wayne. (Gleeson’s character gets the sort of introduction here that was missing in “Christmas With the Joker.”)
Long mentions he went to college with Thomas Wayne, who had plans for his son. Bruce offers that he hoped his father would be proud of the profitability of Wayne Industries. Long scoffs that Thomas would disapprove of Bruce’s jaded, playboy lifestyle.
Gleeson, exiting the elevator behind Long, reassures Bruce that Long probably was agitated over the attacks on the university. Yet the criticism clearly lands with Bruce. He is shaken from his thoughts only upon spotting a suspicious helicopter headed for the University Bank.
The chopper carries the Scarecrow and the obligatory pair of support henchmen, who blast through the ceiling of the bank. The Scarecrow gasses the security guard, who flails at himself in panic. The henchmen are confused until the Scarecrow explains he has caused the guard to suffer arachnophobia – and further explains this means a fear of spiders. (The uninformed goons carry the burden of exposition in this episode.)
In the vault, the Scarecrow instructs his men to bag whatever cash they can, but produces a gasoline can and announces he is burning the rest. His true motive is revenge, not greed.
Batman enters the vault, with the foresight to don a gas mask. But while fighting the goons, the Scarecrow is able to shoot Batman with a drugged dart. Although Batman grabs part of the Scarecrow’s mask, the villains escape. As the drug takes effect, Batman sees the visage of Thomas Wayne in the flames, accusing Bruce of disgracing the family.
Batman escapes the fire as the sprinkler systems are activated. He runs into a squad of Gotham policemen. Det. Bullock presses the Caped Crusader about his presence at the scene, but the bank’s security guard vouches for Batman. Commissioner Gordon arrives and upbraids Bullock, affording Batman the chance to disappear as Batman does.
The Scarecrow and his crew watch a news report on Batman thwarting the arson. A henchman asks why the Scarecrow seeks revenge against Gotham University. The Scarecrow explains he had always been fascinated with fear and developed his gas while working as a professor at Gotham University. The university’s board, led by Dr. Long, discharged him when his human experimentation went too far.
In the Batcave, Bruce attempts to analyze the fabric from the Scarecrow’s mask. However, he is still feeling the effects of the fear drug. Watching television, Bruce sees Gleeson repeating that he failed, failed, failed to apprehend the Scarecrow.
Alfred jokes in typically sardonic fashion: “Someone dressed up in a frightening costume running around scaring people? What will they think up next?” But as Bruce continues to fight the drug, Alfred steps back into the role he played when Bruce was a child. He sincerely tries to reassure Bruce: “I know your father would be proud of you because I am so proud of you.” This seems to help … temporarily.
The Scarecrow next strikes a Gotham University Museum benefit, stealing the donations, gassing the assembled guests and taking Dr. Long as a hostage. When Batman arrives, the guests attack because they see him as a giant bat, allowing the Scarecrow to escape in a blimp. However, Batman grabs hold of the hose used to pump fear gas from the blimp.
The dirigible ascends from the roof of the building with Batman climbing the hose. The Scarecrow dispatches a goon to rid them of Batman. During the ensuing fight, the henchman fires his gun; the bullets pierce the blimp’s skin, igniting a fire and affecting the steering mechanism. The dirigible crashes against a skyscraper, causing the henchman to plummet into one of its awnings. Batman uses his grappling gun to cling to the blimp.
Whether due to the prior time-release drugging or exposure to gas from the blimp’s hose, Batman again hallucinates a vision of Thomas declaring his failings. From his precarious position, Bruce rallies his willpower, declaring: “I am vengeance … I am the night … I am BATMAN!”
The ghost of Thomas dissipates. Batman acrobatically builds momentum with his grappling rope to crash inside the blimp’s gondola. The Scarecrow tries to shoot Batman with another dart, which strikes his remaining henchman instead. The henchman goes mad with fear and jumps through the gondola’s broken widow, his fall broken by a tree. As Batman rescues Dr. Long, the Scarecrow uses the distraction to flee the blimp in an attached glider.
Back on the ground, Batman summons the Batmobile to view the results of his computer analysis of the fabric taken from the Scarecrow. The Masked Detective, learning the fabric has five possible manufacturers, cross-checks the results against former Gotham University employees. He deduces the Scarecrow must be Dr. Jonathan Crane, who now owns Crane Chemicals.
The Scarecrow returns to the Crane Chemicals factory and removes his mask. But in the darkness, someone releases canisters of his fear gas into the laboratory. Crane sees a demonic, bat-like figure looming over him (a seeming homage to Chernobog from Fantasia’s “Night on Bald Mountain” segment).
At Gotham police headquarters, Det. Bullock tries to convince Commissioner Gordon of Batman’s complicity in the Scarecrow’s crimes. Gordon directs Bullock’s view to a nearby ceiling fan, where Batman has hung the Scarecrow.
‘Nothing to Fear’ depicts the Scarecrow in ways departing from comics canon in interesting ways. In the books, Crane has been both an academic and a criminal psychologist affiliated with Arkham Asylum. Nolan’s films would emphasize the latter role, while the animated series focuses on Crane as teacher and scientist – jobs perhaps more quickly understood by a younger audience.
More significant, Crane is shown as having a lifelong interest in causing fear – a kid who scared young girls at his school with snakes. In the comics, Crane originally donned the Scarecrow garb to seek revenge on schoolmates who bullied him. One wonders whether this reversal was induced by the prospect of network censorship – and whether it might be different now that bullying has become a higher-profile social issue.