It’s November 16 and 17, 1992. In the news, on the 15th the Lithuanian elections returned the communist Democratic Labor Party of Lithuania to power; on the 18th the Russian government will release the “black box” from Korean Air Lines Flight 007, which the Soviets shot down nine years prior; and on the 20th a fire will break out in Windsor Palace, causing £50 million in damage.
That last is surprisingly relevant, in a roundabout way, to “Heart of Steel,” the latest two-part episode of Batman the Animated Series. Because a £50 million fire happening to one of the world’s richest families is news, but a £1,000 fire happening to a family that can’t afford a tenth that much isn’t, even though the latter is likely to destroy lives in at least the metaphorical sense, while the former almost certainly won’t.
Or, as a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it newspaper headline in the first part puts it, “Theft of the Rich Is News.” It’s probably a typo for “Theft from the Rich,” given that the other headline on the page misspells “burglarize,” but it’s compelling that “theft of the rich” could equally well mean “theft by the rich,” given the number of references to Karel Capek in this episode.
Capek is generally known, insofar as he is known, as the Czech science fiction author who coined the term “robot” for what was previously known as an “automaton” or “mechanical man.” His work is sadly underrated in English-language circles, despite containing several excellent early examples of science fiction satire, particularly his play R.U.R.: Rossum’s Universal Robots (1920) and novel War with the Newts (1936).
Both deal heavily with themes of class conflict and the alienation of the working class, as both depict the creation, mistreatment, and eventual revolt of non-human workers, though the latter is as much or more about colonialism and racism as it is about class. R.U.R. is solidly about class issues, however; the word “robot,” which it introduced, even comes from the Czech (and Old Slavonic) root robota, “servitude, forced labor”; the roboti of the play are literally “workers.”
References to R.U.R. abound in the episode—it’s Randa Duane’s license plate, the creator of HARDAC is named Rossum, and the general plot of a robot uprising to replace humans vaguely resembles the play—along with references to other classics of science fiction involving robots, such as Duane having half her flesh torn off to reveal the robot beneath, then getting crushed in a hydraulic press (Terminator), or Rossum being played by William Sanderson (who played a similar role in Blade Runner). But the bitter awareness of class issues inherent in “Theft of the Rich Is News” fits more with Capek than James Cameron’s technophobic humanism or even Ridley Scott’s translation into proto-cyberpunk of Philip K. Dick’s fragmented identities and fluid realities.
More in line with Capek’s preferred issues, perhaps, is the source for HARDAC and Randa Duane themselves, the former resembling the German expressionist set design and the latter the robotic female lead of Fritz Lang’s famous silent movie Metropolis, which is both about a robotic replacement of a real person wreaking havoc and a worker uprising. However, Gotham is not Metropolis, despite some visual similarities; that film ends with the emergence of a mediator between rich and poor. In Batman, as in R.U.R., one side must be destroyed to make room for the other.
And we know which side it will be; after all, Batman, for all that he positions himself heroically, is wedded too firmly to the status quo to side with revolution. The robots and HARDAC are never depicted remotely sympathetically, despite an episode title that clearly evokes the most iconic of BTAS’ “sympathetic villains” stories, “Heart of Ice.” Instead, the only robots with any trace of a personality are Duane, who is yet another of this show’s femme fatales, with no existence outside of stealing from Wayne or seducing Wayne to steal from him some more (even her name is not so much an identifier as a statement of purpose: Randa “Do-Wayne”), and HARDAC itself, which is a fairly straightforward evil AI of the HAL-9000 mold.
How fortunate, then, that we have another hero for this episode, Barbara Gordon, who in the tradition of Renee Montoya decides to take it upon herself to be Batman-lite for an episode. Indeed, with her red hair and use of tools like a makeup compact and a hand mirror to first break into, and then out of, Cybertron, she resembles no one so much as Batwoman—not the modern Kathryn Kane, but her Golden Age counterpart, who similarly used “feminine” objects and strategies in her fight against crime. Of course, Batman fans know that Gordon is destined to become Batgirl, and her successes throughout the episode, and comment at the end that she enjoyed the adventure, are foreshadowing for her eventually donning the cowl.
But here in “Heart of Steel,” her position is more ambiguous; much like Harley Quinn in her first appearance, she is not yet a recurring character, but rather a one-shot with promise, and a welcome change from how the show often portrays its women. Indeed, much as Quinn repeatedly out-Jokers the Joker, here Gordon out-Batmans Batman: she defeats the Bullock robot and thus reveals the truth about the duplicates, tracks the robots to Cybertron, and (after, admittedly, being captured and rescued by Batman) she runs into a burning building to rescue him. Long before dressing up in the suit, she’s already demonstrated that she is no sidekick, but a full Batman-style heroine in her own right.
But in her story as well as Batman’s, the robots are entirely villainous. They are not a downtrodden underclass rising against their oblivious oppressors, as in Capek’s play, but rather seeking to destroy humanity as “imperfect.” Unlike Capek’s originals, these robots represent, not the transformation of the working class into a grotesquely inhuman Other so that none will object to their mistreatment, but rather mechanization itself, the fear of becoming “obsolete,” as Alfred puts it. In the Computer Age, as more and more work is done by automata, what role is there for the worker? If the value of a person is equated, as it necessarily is under capitalism, to their labor, what becomes of us when machines can do our jobs better than we can?
It isn’t a question Batman has to worry about. He is not a worker, but an owner; his worth to society measured not in the labor he performs but rather the capital he possesses. Theft from him is news, because he is losing wealth; workers, if they want to get in the news, have to lose labor—by, for example, going on strike, though even that is treated more often than not as theft from the owners. But Batman will never be replaced by a machine; he has the resources to fight back.
Lucky for us that, in this instance, he chooses to do so. But of course he does; it is a disruption to the status quo, and he needs the status quo. Far more telling is that Batgirl-to-be Barbara Gordon chooses to save him. She is not one of the rich, and so for her and her father the threat of mechanization is real; if they can be replaced by robots, the machinery of capitalism insists that they will be, and their livelihoods thus lost. But she is at the same time a beneficiary of the status quo: the comfortable domestic scenes with her father and the references to her achievements at college both make clear that she owes a great deal to her family’s alliance with the powers that be, its position atop that pyramid of defenders of the status quo, the police.
But she herself is neither cop nor superhero, at least not yet. She has the freedom to choose: will she become a protector like her father, Batman, and Renee Montoya? A reformer like Poison Ivy or Catwoman? Or an anarchic disruption like Harley Quinn?
She chooses to save Batman, to defend the status quo. Her path in this moment is set: the second superhero in the universe will work to keep things as they are. She is choosing to be powerless against the rot within the system, the Roland Daggets of the world, and to fight only those dangers which, like the robots or the Joker, come from without.
A recurring character isn’t a recurring character until their second appearance. So it is with the figure of the superhero: Batman’s particular quirks of role and identity are his alone so long as he remains the only superhero. But if he is one of two? Then what they share becomes the universal for all superheroes.
Which, in a nutshell, is why we’ll never see the DCAU Superman fighting the KKK or coming after Lex Luthor for hiring scabs.
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