“Beware the Gray Ghost” is regarded as one of the most memorable episodes of this series. Unlike Shakespeare, however, the play is not the thing. Rather, this episode shines as a meta-commentary on comics culture.
The Gray Ghost is a masked detective in a television show within this cartoon universe. Despite wearing a cape, he is less a superhero than a figure inspired by 1930s pulp comics. His suit and wide-brimmed hat recall The Shadow and The Spirit (both influences on the Batman). The unusual element of his look is a pair of large, round goggles, which may have been designed — or inspired — by Mike Mignola (creator of Hellboy), who put roughly similar gear on the reimagined Mr. Freeze (and on his own Lobster Johnson, also a 1930s-era vigilante).
The show stars Simon Trent, who found himself typecast when the series ended. Not coincidentally, Trent is voiced by Adam West, who became forever known as the star of the 1966 live-action Batman series. West does fine work here; no doubt he understood Trent’s motivations, even if the character is part caricature. “Beware the Gray Ghost” is in large part the creative team’s celebration of West and the impact his show had on them.
Casting West was not the only meta-element of the episode. Toy store owner Ted Dymer resembles and is voiced by series co-creator Bruce Timm. A video store clerk resembles Timm’s partner in this project, writer Paul Dini (but is voiced by Jeff Bennett).
Shirley Walker’s stirring score under the title card becomes the theme to “The Gray Ghost.” The show’s opening narration recalls “The Adventures of Superman” (1951-58), which starred another typecast actor, George Reeves (it also echoes Max Fleischer’s Superman cartoons, a major influence on this series).
“The Gray Ghost” is shown in black-and-white; so is young Bruce Wayne, who watches with rapt attention in a makeshift cape. His father reminds him it will be bedtime afterward. The episode is titled “The Mad Bomber,” which opens with a high-pitched whirring sound leading to an explosion at a plastics factory.
In the present day, Batman investigates a similar bombing. A note from “The Mad Bomber” next threatens the Gotham Bank. The explosion and ensuing fire find Batman and Commissioner Gordon awash in reds, oranges and yellows. (The animation delivered by Spectrum is of exceptional quality.)
Bruce later remembers the television show, but he fell asleep before the episode ended. He visits a video store to find a copy of the episode; the clerk explains the show is unavailable due to a studio fire in which the negatives “went up like kindling.” (Today, some fan would have uploaded copies to YouTube.)
Bruce discovers the show’s star, Simon Trent, is living in Gotham. But it is not much of a living. Trent lives in a run-down apartment filled with Gray Ghost memorabilia and is behind on the rent. His agent phones to inform him he lost out on a part for which he auditioned — a familiar pattern since becoming typecast as the Gray Ghost.
In anger and depression, Trent sells his memorabilia to toy store owner Ted Dymer. The store already has plenty of unsold Gray Ghost merchandise. Trent is willing to take whatever Dymer will offer.
However, when Trent awakens the next morning, his collectibles are back on his shelves and walls. There is also a note from “A Friend,” requesting a meeting near the Gotham Art School.
Trent arrives at the appointed time. Batman emerges from a haze, like the opening of Trent’s show.
When Batman requests help with the real mad bomber, Trent claims he did so many episodes he cannot remember the details. Both hear a high-pitched whirr before a bomb explodes at the Gotham Bank. Trent flees as Batman turns his attention to the bombing, which is accompanied by a note threatening the Gotham Library unless the bomber is paid a million dollars.
Nevertheless, when Trent returns home, Batman is waiting for him. Batman shows him the note; Trent relents and reveals he has all the episodes of “The Gray Ghost.” (“The Mad Bomber,” like this cartoon, is episode 18.) Trent hands over the film and begs Batman to leave him alone.
Back at stately Wayne Manor, Bruce screens the film. Alfred provides the popcorn. The show was shot in color, but we see the episode through the eyes of young Bruce, in sepia-tone. The film reveals the whirring sound comes from radio-controlled toy race cars carrying explosives.
Armed with this information, Batman and Commissioner Gordon’s squad wait at the library. When a trio of radio-controlled cars appears, two are quickly detonated. The third car, a decoy with no explosives, leads Batman into an alley, trapping him when a second wave of cars appears.
Batman escapes using a rope thrown from the roof by Trent in full Gray Ghost costume. Trent identifies the decoy car as authentic and agrees to aid Batman. When a third wave of cars appears, they escape in the Batmobile.
Batman brings the blindfolded Trent to the Batcave, which the actor realizes is modeled on the Gray Ghost’s lair. Batman shows Trent a room filled with memorabilia and confesses he watched the show with his father (causing Trent to realize his work was not for naught).
Batman finds Trent’s fingerprints on the decoy car. Under the Caped Crusader’s interrogation, Trent denies the car is his, explaining he sold his toy cars months earlier to Dymer.
The Dark Knight then confronts Dymer in his store. Dymer admits he devised the extortion scheme to fund his expensive toy collecting hobby. He attempts to attack Batman with more toy cars, but is knocked down when the Gray Ghost crashes through a window. The ensuing fight starts a fire; the three escape shortly before the store explodes.
The bomber’s arrest lands Trent on the cover of People magazine. His career is revived, as is interest in the Gray Ghost. Later, Trent signs autographs at a convention and is approached by Bruce, who says he used to watch the show with his father and the Gray Ghost remains his hero. Trent acknowledges the bombshell with a subtle smile.
“Beware the Gray Ghost” departs from canon by making young Bruce Wayne a nerdy fanboy, although the Wayne family is often depicted as having seen a Zorro movie before Bruce’s parents are murdered. The twist adds another layer of meta-commentary to the episode. The creative team is not merely paying tribute to Adam West. By making young Bruce a fan of the Gray Ghost, they also suggest the future Batman was much like them — and all of them much like the kids most likely to be watching a Batman cartoon.