Ka-Pow! When we last checked in with Bats, his back was being broken by Bane (say that five times…). Now we come to the softer, but no less dangerous end of the spectrum with the fifth post in Jeremiah Lawson’s six-part Wounds of Discovery series, which explores the parables of idolatry that inform the various members of Batman’s rogues gallery, particularly as they are depicted in the brilliant and groundbreaking Batman: The Animated Series. To begin at the beginning, go here. The very beginning, go here:
PART FOUR: THE WOUNDS OF DISCOVERY
5. Feet of Clay, Heart of Stone
Bad! Bad! says the buyer but afterwards he boasts about his bargain – Proverbs 20:14
…but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. – James 1:14-15
Mr. Freeze and the Mad Hatter began their criminal lives to satisfy their hearts. The Riddler and Bane seek to become the legends they are in their own minds. Other villains cross the Dark Knight’s path because they’ve lost battles with their own bodies. Grasping for something beyond one’s corporeal limits leads Anthony Romulus to become a wolf-creature, for example. Matt Hagan’s desperate effort to regain the body he wishes he still had, on the other hand, eventually transforms him into Clayface and all but obliterates his humanity.
Hagan’s path to becoming Clayface begins simply enough, as we learn in the stunning two-part episode of Batman: The Animated Series, “Feat of Clay”. He is a successful actor who ends up in an automobile accident that destroys most of his face. He is told by his doctors that the plastic surgery needed to restore his face would take years. A mysterious man named Roland Daggett comes by to visit him and tells Hagan that his acting career could potentially be revived in months if he’d be willing to experiment with Daggett’s “Renuyu formula” (Renew You – get it?!). The scene is hamfisted and literal, but it is also brilliant. We watch as Matt Hagan reaches out and grasps what turns out to be nothing more than the illusion of control. Renuyu does allow Hagan to rebuild his face for increasingly brief periods, but it wears off quickly, and not surprisingly, Hagan becomes psychologically and physically addicted.
Yet after he begins using the formula, Hagan goes on to his most successful film roles. This being Gotham City, one thing leads to another, and soon the price of the formula goes up, forcing Hagan to do “favors” for Daggett in exchange for continued access. Various crimes of theft and impersonation culminate in Hagan impersonating Bruce Wayne to secretly meet with Wayne Enterprises CEO Lucius Fox. Hagan plans to kill Fox after he gets his hands on documents that would indict Roland Daggett for insider trading. Were the real Bruce Wayne not shadowing Fox as Batman, Matt Hagan would have been able to go through with it. By this time Hagan needs to use the formula every day to keep up appearances, and when his attempts to kill Lucius Fox repeatedly fail, Daggett orders his henchmen to rub Hagan out. To do the deed, they force-feed him gallons of the Renuyu formula. Instead of killing Hagan, of course, it turns him into a shapeshifter of nearly unlimited potential: Clayface.
Hagan by this time has not only spiraled down into addiction, but also he has made his good-natured friend Matt into an unresisting enabler. Matt tries to convince Hagan that his newfound ability could let him regain his normal appearance. But Hagan discovers that the shapeshifting is like a muscle that must be trained to work, and he is unable to maintain any shape for very long. So he continues to plot the death of Daggett and proves an exceptionally difficult adversary for Batman to track and contain.
When Batman finally intercepts Clayface, he lures him into a set studio and shows him all the roles he used to play as Matt Hagan. “Look at what you used to be” – Batman appeals to Hagan to see how far he has fallen. He even offers to help restore him, to find a cure for what has happened to him. But Clayface no longer wants to regain who he was; his newfound power proves too irresistible. The addiction has consumed him. Heavy stuff for an after-school cartoon!
Sometime later Clayface reappears (in the season two episode “Mudslide“), and this time he’s stealing isotopes from Wayne Enterprises as part of a scheme to keep his body stable. As an accomplice, he enlists a doctor he worked with in his earlier films who naively believes that Clayface loves her. When Batman again offers to help Clayface find a cure in exchange for turning himself in, Clayface hardens his heart even more (pun intended). If Matt Hagan is going to be saved it will be on his terms and through his means. In their climatic fight, Batman is able to waterlog and destabilize Clayface’s body, turning him into a living mudslide that falls into the bay.
A villain defined by the power to mimic, deceive, and control his appearance/identity is undone by those very powers–his obsession with control ends up controlling him. Clayface literally falls apart in the stormy waters by Gotham. His story is not over, of course, but as subsequent episodes reveal, even Batman does not have the power to reverse the ‘mudslide’ of addiction and self-destructive idolatry.