“Feat Of Clay” marks the first appearance of Clayface, in a quality two-parter. Oddly befitting of a shape-shifter, Clayface has had at least nine iterations in the comics (and another in the 1970s Batman cartoon), both male and female. The first Clayface, an actor named Basil Karlo as an homage to Boris Karloff (the classic Frankenstein monster and the original Mummy), was not even a shape-shifter in his first appearance.
This Clayface is also an actor, but with the name and powers of the second Clayface, Matt Hagen. Yet the origin is new, in a story co-written by Marv Wolfman, a comics veteran perhaps best known for co-creating the vampire hunter Blade for Marvel.
As a reboot of a second-tier villain, this episode is not quite as successful as the reinvention of Mr. Freeze. The problem is motivation. Mr. Freeze was given an origin in which he is trying to avenge his late wife. Hagen’s tragedy is a car crash that leaves him disfigured and desperate to recover his leading man appearance.
The episode’s title is a play on the prophet Daniel’s interpretation of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, referring to a fatal character flaw. Hagen’s flaw is vanity, which may be relatable to many, but less dramatic than love. It is more tragic that the cure leads Hagen into addiction, but this angle is not emphasized as it was in “It’s Never Too Late.” Consequently, Clayface comes across as less sympathetic than Mr. Freeze, Two-Face, or even Lloyd Ventrix. Nevertheless, the plot contains enough turns to hold viewers’ full attention.
In Part 1, Lucius Fox arrives at an abandoned warehouse, bringing Bruce Wayne evidence Roland Daggett is trying to take over Wayne Enterprises by insider trading. But Fox has been ambushed by Daggett’s henchmen, with Hagen masquerading as Bruce. Gunfire attracts Batman and the police; Batman chases the scattering henchmen and fails to notice his doppelganger. A wounded Fox identifies Bruce as his attacker to the police.
The next day, at the Imperial Pictures movie lot, stand-in Teddy Lupus finds action star Hagen trashing his trailer. Hagen, whose face is disfigured, desperately searches for the Daggett-manufactured “Renuyu” skin cream that maintains his looks. Teddy, knowing Hagen is doing Daggett’s bidding after becoming addicted to Renuyu, kept one last bit in reserve. After using the cream, Hagen can push his features back into place, but only for 24 hours.
Meanwhile, Daggett orders his top two henchmen – Raymond Bell and the mysophobic “Germs” – to kill Hagen after the failed murder attempt. The henchmen think a master of disguise will be tough to find; Daggett predicts Hagen will come to them.
Sure enough, Hagen, posing as Bruce, breaks into Daggett’s lab to get his fix of Renuyu and is ambushed by Bell and Germs. They beat Hagen and pour a vat of Renuyu down his throat before dumping him in his car and leaving him for dead.
Bruce learns he is wanted for police questioning in the Fox case. The caped crusader uses his computer to identify Bell from the warehouse. Police files indicate Bell habitually monitors police frequencies with headphones. Batman creates a fake police bulletin about Bell, who tries to flee Gotham by automobile.
In a ridiculous set piece, Batman flies his Batwing into Gotham Tunnel, impaling Bell’s car on the front. Batman then extracts Bell with a mechanical arm and dangles him over the river to discover who is framing Bruce. Bell faints before providing a name; Batman is forced to drop Bell in a rooftop swimming pool when police helicopters intercept the Batwing.
Trying to clear his name, Bruce later sneaks into Fox’s hospital room, but Fox presses the alarm button. Police burst into the room and arrest Bruce. Meanwhile, Teddy discovers Hagen’s car. Teddy puts his hand on Hagen’s shoulder, which has a mushy consistency. Hagen looks into his rear-view mirror, screaming when he discovers he has been transformed into a hulking, golem-esque monster.
Part 2 begins with a montage of Bruce being released on bail. (In reality, a millionaire with global resources would be considered a flight risk.)
Clayface and Teddy hide in Hagen’s trailer. Clayface recalls the automobile crash that left him disfigured, and how he grasped at the cure Daggett offered him in the hospital. As Hagen gazes at his movie posters, he finds himself reflexively transforming into his old roles. The effect is temporary, like tensing a muscle. He cannot save his career.
Batman and Clayface both realize there will be another attempt on Fox’s life at the hospital, which can lead them to their target. Batman catches Germs trying to smother Fox with a pillow and chases him into a room housing bacteria and viruses. Pretending a vial of water contains crimson fever, Batman scares Germs into naming Hagen as Fox’s assailant.
The two are interrupted by Clayface, disguised as a policeman. Clayface strikes at Batman with an elongated arm and seizes Germs. Batman stops Clayface from throwing Germs off the hospital roof during a fight in which Clayface turns his arms into a variety of weapons, including hammers, a fork, and giant lobster claws. Clayface leaps from the roof; he splatters on the ground and slithers through a sewer grate.
During a live talk show, Summer Gleeson interviews Daggett about Renuyu, a so-called “face lift in a jar.” A large woman in the audience begins questioning Daggett about rumors of Renuyu’s side effects, including addiction. Daggett, visibly sweating, denies the accusations; the woman steps onstage and reveals herself as Clayface, panicking the crowd.
Batman has infiltrated the television control room, inserting cassettes into videotape machines. When Hagen reveals himself onstage, Batman stops Daggett’s escape with a Batarang before taking the fight to Clayface.
Batman is overmatched, but lures Clayface into the control room. Batman uses the videotape machines to play movie clips of Hagen, in hope of convincing Hagen he can be rehabilitated. Instead, the videos cause Clayface to spasmodically transform into his past roles (not unlike the death throes of the T-1000 in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991)). The police enter the control room in time to see Clayface transform into Bruce Wayne, effectively clearing Bruce in the Fox case.
Clayface attacks the video equipment, seemingly electrocuting himself. As Hagen, Clayface tells Batman he regrets he will not see the reviews of his dramatic death scene.
Later, Batman realizes Clayface’s death was in fact a scene; an empty clay shell crumbles on examination in the morgue. Teddy is seen mourning while a nearby woman with sickly yellow eyes laughs to herself.
Despite the weakness of Clayface’s motivation, “Feat Of Clay” has more strengths. Ron Perlman (Hellboy) maximizes his character as Clayface even when the script does not. Ed Asner and Brock Peters also make the most of their roles as Roland Daggett and Lucius Fox (characters who would become more familiar in Christopher Nolan’s film trilogy). Surprisingly, the teleplay even gives character to Daggett’s obligatory henchmen, although Ed Begley Jr. overdoes it as Germs.
Although the animation in Part 1 is another clunky effort from Akon, Part 2, animated by Tokyo Movie Shinsha Co., has top-tier animation. The lighting inside Dagget’s factory and in the climactic battle are as dramatic as Clayface’s shape-shifting effects. Both parts are elevated by Shirley Walker’s score, particularly her theme for Clayface.