A dose of reality (Terror in the Sky)

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It’s November 12, 1992, the day after “Moon of the Wolf,” so see that entry for charts and news.

On Batman, a curiously final moment. We are at neither the end of the show nor the end of a season: “Christmas with the Joker” airs tomorrow, and there’s a full slate of episodes next week. Indeed, we are less than halfway through the first season, episode 37 of 65 in the broadcast order.

Yet there is a feeling of finality here nonetheless. Snow falls throughout the episode, bringing with it the feel of winter, of sleep, of hiatus. Professor March burns his formula and abandons his research, ensuring there will be no further Man-Bats–as, indeed, there are not, though Langstrom’s notes on the topic will leave ripples in Justice League and Batman Beyond.

Most of all, we are returning to the beginning, as one tends to do as one approaches the end. Man-Bat was the villain of the pilot, and here he returns, as do all the major players from “On Leather Wings”: his alter ego Kirk Langstrom, his wife Francine, and Francine’s father and Langstrom’s coworker Dr. March. There’s been a bit of a shuffle, however: now it is Francine who transforms, ostensibly without her knowledge, due to an accident with March’s formula, which he’s been secretly continuing to develop.

This story is nonsense. How can Francine be unaware that she transforms? She tears out of her clothing when she transforms; does she just not notice periods of unconsciousness followed by waking up in the torn remains of her blouse? And it’s simply not true that only Francine is transforming; there are distinct visual differences between She-Bat and Man-Bat, and the creature attacking the mango crates at the beginning of the episode is clearly Man-Bat, which is to say a transformed Langstrom.

Now it’s possible that’s just an error, or done deliberately to hide that a different character is transforming, but either way, that’s still Man-Bat at the beginning, which means everyone involved in this story misinterprets what’s happening. Batman’s cure doesn’t work after all, and Langstrom is still transforming on occasion, but now Francine has been exposed to the formula and is transforming as well. Which makes sense; of course Batman doesn’t have a drug that can suppress the Bat!

The Bat is, as always, an expression of rage. For Francine, that rage is expressed verbally only once in the episode: she’s still angry at her husband’s use of the Man-Bat formula, and possibly with his behavior since–the episode is not specific, but there’s some implication that Langstrom has become depressed and remorseful, which can be quite frustrating for one’s loved ones. Later, she expresses it in her actions by leaving him. By the end of the episode, she’s forgiven him and they’ve reunited, but that old anger remains unaddressed. The cure doesn’t work; She-Bat still exists within Francine.

Langstrom’s rage is mostly self-directed. He is terrified of what he did as Man-Bat, and of the possibility that he could become such again–Man-Bat’s mango run is framed as if it is Langstrom’s nightmare, because it is Langstrom’s nightmare. He turns that fear outward against Batman, blaming him for the failure of the cure, but his self-loathing becomes clear when Francine leaves him. His responses to Batman are those of a man who holds himself to blame, and that anger likewise remains unaddressed. Once again, the cure doesn’t work; Man-Bat still exists within Langstrom.

And then there is Batman. Over the course of forty-five episodes and a handful of side projects we have looked at him from many perspectives: the trauma victim; the submissive; the protector and beneficiary of established authority; the protector fantasy; the little boy desperately seeking validation from a father who, being dead, can no longer give it; the demon of guilt who blames himself for his parents’ deaths and half his rogue’s gallery, and the angel of hope who never kills because he is convinced everyone is redeemable, even Bruce Wayne. But at the bottom of all of this is the simple fact of what Batman does: he hurts people. He tortures people for information. He beats his victims into submission. That they are “bad guys” is, ultimately, irrelevant to this simple fact: Batman is a tremendously violent person.

Because, of course, he is driven by rage. Rage at the loss of his parents, and by extension at anyone who hurts children. Rage at the people who undermine established authority, who threaten the structures of society. And so, of course, rage at himself: for being helpless to save his parents, and for being the violent criminal he is. The Bat is Bruce Wayne’s totem and protector, his driving impulse and his soul, and it is made of rage. Which, of course, is why he chose to become the Bat in the first place: he wanted to be feared. He wanted to feel power over the objects of his rage.

But he is not the Bat; he is Batman. It is a part of who he is, but not the totality. We see that with She-Bat; she never harms Langstrom, even rescuing him when he falls from a plane. Later, in his human form, Langstrom returns the favor when she falls from a bridge. They end the episode holding one another as Langstrom pronounces their nightmare ended.

And for them, perhaps, it is. Langstrom and Francine have a brief cameo, in human form, in a later episode, and Langstrom/Man-Bat has a couple of appearances in the DCAU’s spinoff comics, but otherwise the two will never appear again.

For Batman, there can be no true end. There are years of episodes still to come. The snow will melt. No matter how many of its avatars he punches in the face, Crime continues, because only a fundamental change to society could end crime for good, and that is part of what he fights against. Nor can he abandon his quest, because that would require a fundamental change in who he is, and part of the point of Batman is to keep Bruce Wayne–the real Bruce Wayne, not the one he puts on as a mask over the Bat, but the one he was born us, that hides under all the masks–safe, protected, unchanged, frozen forever at the age of eight.

Neither Batman nor Gotham can change, because they are both defined by the Bat, by rage against change, against death, against chaos. Every change is an apocalypse, and Batman will always save the day in the nick of time.

And a near apocalypse just isn’t enough.

End of Volume 1.

 


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