Open your eyes (Dreams in Darkness)

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It’s still November 3, 1992, so see last week and the “Beware the Gray Ghost!” post for news and charts. Today Batman the Animated Series brings us “Dreams in Darkness,” which just isn’t very good, honestly. It’s not bad, a competent enough Scarecrow episode, but in this third outing it’s really time for something new, and that’s just not forthcoming. Compounding that, the animation on this episode (by Studio Junio, who also did “The Underdwellers”) is well below the show’s usual standards–the first shot in particular, when Dr. Bartholomew and his assistants approach Batman’s cell door, is noticeably off-model, with the characters walking and gesturing jerkily as their faces distort just out of sync with their mouth movements. It’s particularly a shame for this episode, which has some especially good direction and storyboarding, with a number of static shots that, in isolation, look stunning. Particular standouts are Batman alone in his cell, shadows crisscrossing the room; the Dutch-angle shot of the Scarecrow, almost completely hidden by shadows, standing high atop an art deco-inspired piece of industrial machinery gazing down on his henchmen; and the episode’s second-to-last shot of a bat clinging to the ceiling of the Batcave, its outspread wings seeming to glow due to the light behind them.

Perhaps it is less that the animation is poor than it is very uneven. The hallucination sequences by and large look pretty good. My personal favorite moment is when Two-Face melts into Poison Ivy, both reminding us of their relationship–which Batman knows about–and evoking the way Clayface changed shape, connecting all three of them as our primary examples of sympathetic villains. (Two other examples are missing, but more on them later.) The bridge under which Batman’s parents walk turning into a bleeding gun is melodramatic to the point of absurdity, but then, melodrama is the name of the game, isn’t it? Or, more accurately, melodrama was the name of the game–while the films on which this episode draws would likely be referred to as melodramas in their own time, today we know them as film noir.

Batman is a not very distant cousin of film noir. The costumed crime fighters from whom Batman descends–Zorro, the Scarlet Pimpernel, the Shadow–share a common origin with the hardboiled detective stories from which noir derives, namely the pulp press. From this origin they diverged quite a bit, of course, with Batman partaking heavily of the superhero, while noir absorbed a not-insignificant amount of German Expressionism into its filmic DNA. But Batman has still never strayed too far, continuing to identify strongly as a detective, having torrid affairs with femmes fatale like Catwoman and Talia al Ghul, and getting his own dose of German Expressionism in the Tim Burton movies. The strong contrasts and intense shadows caused by the BTAS animators’ practice of drawing the show in light inks on dark paper also contribute to a noir-ish feel, as that genre tends to employ a film version of the Renaissance painting style known as tenebrism–that is, a style dominated by chiaroscuro, high-contrast images drenched in shadow.

This episode in particular seeks to evoke noir, adopting the common noir techniques of the first-person perspective and the in medias res opening. Like the majority of noir films, the first-person perspective is mostly accomplished by having Batman give a running monologue over the events of the episode, narrating for the viewer as we watch the flashbacks unfold and explain how we got to the opening scene of Batman being treated in Arkham. However, some films went farther–most notably 1947’s The Lady in the Lake, which was shot almost entirely from the first-person perspective of the main character–and so this episode also frequently places the viewer directly in Batman’s hallucinations.

The result is that, more than perhaps any episode to date, we are inside Batman, privy to his thoughts–and, it seems, they are exactly what we might expect. His nightmares are of the death of his parents and the villains he fights; his monologue concerns only the task at hand, and his worries that he will not be in time to save the city. There are, however, some hints, most importantly in the hallucination already referred to in which his villains morph and blend into one another.

The first point here is that Batman hallucinates a single uber-villain, amorphously taking on the face and properties of the Joker, the Penguin, Two-Face, and so on. They loom over him just as the gun in the previous hallucination about his parents did; it’s again not particularly surprising, but a nice confirmation of what we’ve concluded about him so far: to Batman, deep down, all criminals are manifestations of a singular entity, Crime, which is also the entity that killed his parents. Interestingly, the two most sympathetic of his nemeses so far–Catwoman and Mister Freeze–are among those who do not appear, suggesting perhaps that he has mentally classified them as something other than criminals; they are not entirely his enemies, and therefore not entirely manifestations of Crime. Of course, one-shot villains like the Sewer King, non-costumed crime lords like Roland Daggett, and even some recurring villains like the Mad Hatter and Scarecrow himself also don’t appear, so it may just be coincidence.

What definitely isn’t a coincidence is the end of the sequence, in which a colossal bat flies down and destroys Crime, ending the hallucination as Batman realizes the only real element was the bat itself–or, more accurately, the Bat, as the camera immediately focuses on the bat logo on his chest, reminding us (rather unnecessarily) that the Bat is his totem. Its rescue of Batman is, in a very real sense, Batman rescuing himself from his terror and madness by invoking the protective spirit of the Bat, which is only what he does every time he puts on the costume. This is reiterated at the end of the episode, when Batman goes to sleep after taking the antidote for the Scarecrow’s gas, the Bat watching over him protectively, first spreading its shadowy wings and then wrapping them around him.

This is the strongest statement yet of the protector fantasy at the core of Batman, that he is a ritualistic method by which a frightened child protects himself from a terrifying world of lurid, monstrous Crime. But we see, too, another element: like the noir genre in general tends to be, this episode is deeply cynical. The very people responsible for containing the avatars of Crime, identifying them as sick and restoring them to health and humanity, are shown here to be utterly incompetent. They lose their prisoner; they think Batman is describing a delusional fantasy when he tells them Scarecrow’s plan, even though they have the Joker prisoner and this is virtually identical to one of his prior schemes to poison the city; even after they learn that Scarecrow has indeed escaped, they continue to try to restrain Batman instead of relying on him to fight. And the indictment is not just of Arkham itself or these particular doctors–the namesake of Dr. Bartholomew is Bartholomew the Apostle, patron saint of, among other things, neurological diseases. Dr. Bartholomew is, in other words, a synecdoche for the entire psychiatric profession, and possibly for the entire criminal justice structure as well, seeing as the bulk of Batman’s recurring villains are under his care.

Even while in the throes of intense hallucinations and terror, it seems, Batman is able to see more clearly than the powers that be. The system, this episode argues, is broken; Crime runs free even when supposedly contained, threatening the city even from its cell in Arkham. And the solution implied is to let the Bat handle it–to indulge the protector fantasy, in other words, and let someone more powerful and competent than us take care of it.

While we, I suppose, quietly go to sleep in a corner of the Batcave, rather than face the future that wasn’t supposed to be, the nuclear conflagration and the gunshots in Crime Alley that should have been the end of it all.


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