There is a fairly common interpretation of superheroes which holds that they are power fantasies–that is, that the reader of the comic or viewer of the show imagines themselves (consciously or otherwise) as the superhero, able to bring justice to an oppressive world, solve all their problems, and look good in spandex. The superhero thus gives an avenue of escape from a troublesome, humdrum, or traumatic existence by imagining ourselves able to transform it into someone else.
But if that’s the point of the superhero–that we briefly, in our own thoughts, become the superhero and thereby escape from pain and boredom–then why does being a superhero hurt so much?
It’s October 21, 1992. We’re still in the ridiculous 32-week reign of Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road” on the music charts, and the top movie is Steven Segall and Tommy Lee Jones in Under Siege. In the news, tens of thousands of coal miners march in London to protest government plans to effectively lay large numbers of them off.
Batman must deal with “The Underdwellers,” story by Tom Ruegger, who wrote last week’s “Pretty Poison,” and more importantly will go on to provide both the story and teleplay for the excellent “Beware the Gray Ghost” and “Shadow of the Bat,” teleplay by the duo of Jules Dennis and Richard Mueller, who will write two more early episodes together. But first, he must deal with a couple of kids playing chicken on the roof of a commuter train. This is a rare instance of a cold open appearing in an episode of BTAS–as I said in the Introduction, this is a common feature of comics, Batman in particular, in which a story opens with the tail end (or entirety) of a short adventure which usually has no plot relevant to the main story, but allows for an exciting start and may set up themes or motifs that will pay off later on. Here, the three elements which will repeat are Batman making a particular effort to save children, speeding monorail/subway trains, and Batman saving someone from the consequences of their own bad choices.
Of these, it is his effort to save children that is the most interesting. Later in the episode, after he has foiled the Sewer King’s Dickensian plan to use homeless children as an army of pickpockets and purse-snatchers, Batman rescues Sewer King from being hit by a train. When asked why, he says that he doesn’t “pass sentence,” but that with Sewer King he is sorely tempted to make an exception.
What is particularly noticeable is that Batman makes fairly clear that Sewer King is unique in being an exception. Batman seems to be implying that his standard methodology is to capture the episode’s villain, leave them for the police to find (presumably along with evidence, such as the photographs of the Sewer King’s army of abused children which he explicitly refers to as such), and trust the courts and prison system to deal with them appropriately. But the Sewer King is different, provoking a stronger emotional response–meaning that out of Batman’s eternal nemesis who deliberately targets him, a man who poisoned Batman and forced him to go through a hallucinatory hell, or the woman who nearly killed Bruce Wayne’s best friend, none affect him as much as a man who abuses and exploits unrelated children.
There are two ways to explain why Batman takes this so personally, the diegetic and the extradiegetic, and both have interesting implications. From the extradiegetic perspective (that is, one from outside the story, which treats it as a work of fiction created by real people and subject to their interests, motivations, background, skills, and resources), the notion that child abuse is particularly heinous even when compared to acts of terrorism is in part an expression of cultural difference, as terrorism was considered very differently in the early 1990s compared to today (as we will see when we get to January-February of 1993), while panics about cults and Satanists ritually abusing children were still fresh and thus kept the notion of child abuse as a particularly heinous form of evil in the public imagination. More importantly, it is a reflection of expected audience reactions–kids are unlikely to have the experience necessary to empathize strongly with ideas of professional rejection or betrayal by a lover, but the idea of being taken from one’s parents, cruelly subject to adult rules arbitrarily enforced for the benefit of adults, without consideration for one’s own well-being? That’s something kids can understand, and that the victims are actual children makes it even more pointed: this is a story that expects the audience to want to be protected by Batman, as much or more than wanting to be Batman.
The diegetic (that is, “in-story”) explanation is implied by the sequences in which Batman takes one of the children back to Wayne Manor in an attempt to understand what’s happening and recruit him as an ally within Sewer King’s twisted family. Like Bruce Wayne, the (presumably orphan or runaway) young boy ends up being cared for by a patient and long-suffering Alfred, is more comfortable at night and in the shadows than in the light, and and has a tendency to vanish the moment no one is looking. Batman even explicitly compares himself to the boy when he wonders whether he was so difficult at that age. Then when the boy plays with a weapon until Batman stops him, Conroy delivers the line “Children and guns do not mix–ever!” with the same barely restrained rage as he does the “sorely tempted” line, underlining the connection: Batman sees himself in these children. Lost, without parents, frightened, hurting and alone–just as he is.
Is, not was. As “Nothing to Fear” showed, Batman is The Night of his parents’ death, frozen in that moment of pain and unable to move on. A man who takes children away, makes them hurt and fear, is as close as Batman has yet (or ever will, in the DCAU at least) come to facing his parents’ killer. It is his one chance to live out the power fantasy, to destroy that which hurt him–but he chooses not to. He frees the children, passing them into the waiting arms of police and a professionally dressed, matronly woman who is presumably a social worker, but he leaves it up to the authorities to decide what to do with the Sewer King.
The children move on and out of the story, hopefully to heal. But Batman cannot heal, because without the trauma of his parents’ death there is no Batman. A Bruce Wayne who has accepted that moment of pain and powerlessness is not a Bruce Wayne that dresses as a bat to punch crime in the face. It is the Bruce Wayne who spends his nights in terrified dreams of a gunman who must summon a persona (in both the modern English meaning and its original Latin sense of “a mask”) to fight that criminal (who is all criminals, just as The Night is all nights), to protect him. He must convince himself that this persona represents his true self, because the alternative is a frozen, traumatized, paralyzed self. (And note that, years hence, “For the Man Who Has Everything” will depict Batman’s greatest fantasy as Thomas Wayne fighting off the gunman, being the strong masculine protector-figure so that Bruce doesn’t have to create/become Batman in his place.)
Taken together, the two reads make fairly clear that this episode is anything but a power fantasy. Quite the opposite; it is a submissive fantasy, not in the sexual sense so much as the political. This is the fantasy that when we are in danger, someone will swoop in to save us, then hand both us (for care) and our enemies (for punishment) over to the authorities. And further, it is a fantasy that our protector will understand us, because his power comes from pain like ours. In other words, it is the fantasy not of someone who wants the ability to protect themselves, but of someone who is sick of protecting themselves, who wants to pass both the ability and the responsibility on to someone else.
And there is nothing inherently wrong with that. Such a fantasy is, ultimately, at the heart of heroic fiction in general, and superheroes in specific (most explicitly in Wonder Woman, where from the start it is at least partially submissive fantasy in the sexual sense). It does create a challenge, however, and one that we will be exploring throughout the DCAU: Batman’s power is the power of the protector, a power born of pain. And the thing about power is that every kind of power, every method through which it can be expressed, has its own shape. It can be pushed in other directions, but will always return to patterns particular to the type of power in question, because that shape both constrains and guides the wielding of the power. It will not be fully apparent for quite some time, but the nature of the superhero’s power pushes in some uncomfortable directions, and ultimately the entire DCAU will have to grapple with it.
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