Walking into a trap (The Cape and Cowl Conspiracy)

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It’s October 14, 1992, two days after “Mad as a Hatter,” so see that entry for charts and news. On Batman we have “The Cape and Cowl Conspiracy,” adapted by Elliot S! Maggin from his own 1975 comic, “The Cape and Cowl Death Trap.” Maggin is an important figure in comics, having been quite prominent among D.C.’s writers in the late 1970s through the 1980s, and as such has a fairly significant influence on the DCAU; most significantly, he created LexCorp, and through it the “evil business tycoon” version of Lex Luthor who is used throughout the DCAU to great effect.

However, he only wrote one actual episode in the entire franchise, this one, and it’s a curious beast. We open with the gloriously named Josiah Wormwood using a riddle to lead a diplomatic courier into an elaborate death trap. This scene is very effective at establishing Wormwood as a villain, between his sadistic torment of the courier and Bud Cort’s excellent voice-acting, which gives Wormwood a childlike cadence and high-pitched, detached dark playfulness that Cort would memorably reuse as the Toyman in Superman the Animated Series. Wormwood tortures the courier into giving up the information, the location of some bearer bonds.

In the next scene we see the first use of the Bat Signal in the series, as Commissioner Gordon deploys it to get Batman’s attention; their conversation makes clear that this is the first use diagetically as well. This is an important moment, as it signifies that Gordon and Batman are firmly allies, and that Batman is now at the beck and call of the state–or, at least, of the portions thereof the series treats as uncorrupted and therefore legitimate. For the Adam West Batman, his association with the hapless state is clearly parodic, the joke being that the state must be utterly helpless if relying on a man who dresses up as a bat is the best move available to it. For the Kevin Conroy Batman, however, his association with the state is depicted entirely seriously; Gordon outright says that the normal authorities have been unable to catch Wormwood, but he believes Batman can. In other words, where in the West Batman the state is weak and ridiculous, here it is beset by enemies so powerful that unusual measures must be taken.

What exactly those measures are is revealed in the next scene, as Batman captures a known associate of Wormwood, Baron Josek (inexplicably played by the usually excellent John Rhys-Davies with a hilariously terrible Russian accent), and places him into a life-threatening situation, using it to torture him into revealing the information Batman wants. This, of course, is precisely what Wormwood did to his victim in the first scene, and Gordon reiterated it again as Wormwood’s modus operandi in the second scene. This is what Batman can do that the state cannot: he can go outside the law and morality, and be a villain.

Because let’s be clear here: Batman tortures people. There is no other word for dangling a person off a rooftop and threatening to kill them if they don’t tell you what you want to know. And it’s not something he did in the past and seeks redemption for now; it’s a habitual part of his standard approach to crime, as much a part of his modus operandi as Wormwood’s.

Batman spends the rest of the episode being targeted by Wormwood for his cape and cowl, as part of an elaborate scheme to get Wormwood to reveal where he hid the bearer bonds and who hired him to acquire them, which is very clever and entertaining. The reveal that the Josek Wormwood has been dealing with was actually Batman all along is masterfully executed, and the ensuing fight sequence is likewise very well done, as both Wormwood and Batman make use of anything they can find in their environment in competing efforts to get and keep the upper hand (and the key to Wormwood’s storage locker).

But it cannot escape the implications of those opening scenes. There have been several episodes already where Batman tortures people for information, but this episode takes it further, emphatically insisting that “bad guys” torturing people is wrong, while taking pains to show that Batman is one of the “good guys” (by use of the Bat Signal) and that him torturing people is fine.

In other words, it doesn’t matter what you do, just who you do it to. “Good” and “evil” aren’t attitudes or approaches to life, but just names for opposing sides. Any action, even torture, is acceptable as long as you’re doing it to a “bad guy” to advance the cause of the “good guys,” but the bad guys doing the same thing is proof of how evil they are.

It is an appallingly cynical, amoral attitude for a show ostensibly not just about a hero, but a superhero, to take–and thus very 90s (perhaps surprisingly, given that this episode is based on a 1975 comic). After all, from one perspective, the Cold War was over, “good” triumphed over “evil,” so the struggle was over and it was no longer necessary to worry about such things. From another, the apocalypse, the revolution, the wiping away of corruption and building of utopia from the ashes, didn’t happen when expected. Clearly, it was never going to happen, so might as well embrace cynicism and corruption. The 90s are awash in “heroes” who are just as violent, destructive, uncaring, and dark as the villains they fight, and Batman is in many ways the archetype of this kind of superhero.

But there is nothing inevitable about this depiction of him. The Adam West version proves that. Somewhere in Batman there is a lighter, less villainous incarnation, one who isn’t just the rage and terror of the Bat, one who understands that to be on the side of good requires one to be good, to voluntarily subject oneself to the restraints of morality. But as we have observed before, Batman needs someone to remind him of this responsibility, of his humanity, lest the Bat overtake him entirely.

Fortunately, Robin’s coming back.


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