Retroactive Continuity 5: “Chill of the Night!”

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It’s April 9, 2010. The top song is “Rude Boy” by Rihanna, with B.o.B. (featuring Bruno Mars) filling out the top three. Elsewhere in the top ten, featuring features large with Lady Gaga featuring Beyonce, Taio Cruz and Justin Bieber both featuring Ludacris (on two different songs, just to be clear), and Young Money featuring Lloyd all charting. The top movie is Shutter Island, with Cop Out and The Crazies opening at numbers two and three, respectively.

In the news, there are protests in Iraq marking the seventh anniversary of U.S. occupation of that country, Sudan prepares for its first multi-party general election in a quarter century, to be held Monday, and Pope Benedict is accused of having, in 1985, obstructed the punishment of child molester and priest Stephen Kiesle. It is half a decade since the DC Animated Universe ended with a shot of the Bat. Last year, the Near-Apocalypse of ’09 didn’t occur, not happening being what near-apocalypses are known for.

On TV, we have a much-hyped new episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold, the second non-DCAU Batman series since the DCAU came into being. The second episode penned by frequent BTAS scribe Paul Dini, “Chill of the Night!” is notable for being unusually dark for The Brave and Bold, which mostly trades on a more upbeat, Silver Age aesthetic in which Batman’s humorless demeanor in an absurd comic-book universe is just as funny as when Adam West did it, though it lacks the politically subversive camp of the 1960s series. Where BTAS seems conceived at least in part in reaction to the 1960s Batman, The Brave and the Bold draws inspiration from it–but this in turn is a reaction to BTAS (and to a lesser extent The Batman, another dark Batman cartoon from the 2000s), and as such there is BTAS embedded in The Brave and the Bold‘s DNA.

That much is clear from this episode’s stunt casting. The plot involves a battle over Batman’s soul between the Phantom Stranger (voiced by the DCAU Batman, Kevin Conroy), who wants Batman to remain free and fight for justice, and the Spectre (voiced by the DCAU Joker, Mark Hamill), who wants Batman to become a tool for enacting vengeance. This involves them using a form of time travel that does not permit Batman to prevent the deaths of Thomas (West) and Martha Wayne (Julie Newmar, one of three actresses to portray Catwoman opposite West), but does allow him to learn the identity of their killer. Batman then pursues Joe Chill in the present, with the fate of his soul to be determined by whether he brings Chill to justice or takes vengeance on him.

The choice of voices here is very clever. When West appeared in BTAS’ “Beware the Gray Ghost!” it was as a false Batman, an actor who played a Batman-like character that inspired BTAS’ Batman, but who needed his help to achieve redemption. It is not unfair to say that this is broadly the attitude of BTAS toward the 1960s Batman, and the Silver Age, camp aesthetic in general: it is, if not precisely an error, at least an embarrassment, something to be redeemed and reclaimed. Mister Freeze is a good example of this attitude: a half-forgotten silly gimmick villain, distinguishable from other silly Silver Age villains with freeze rays solely by the fact that he wears a spacesuit, whom BTAS reclaimed and redeemed as a proud and noble figure seeking vengeance against the much more evil figure responsible for his tragic backstory.

But in The Brave and the Bold, the 1960s Batman is a beloved parent, its actors playing Batman’s parents, and in particular West’s Thomas Wayne is depicted more clearly than ever as the origin of the Bat–he even dresses in a bat costume and fights side-by-side with Batman during the latter’s trip into the past! BTAS, meanwhile, is treated much more ambiguously. Conroy as the figure representing justice is clear enough as an acknowledgment of both his compelling performance as Batman and the influence BTAS had on TBTB–especially this episode, which has a far darker palette and red skies reminiscent of the famous BTAS opening sequence. But there are elements of BTAS throughout TBTB, particularly in Batman’s personality; he is a still point of stoicism in an absurd universe, teaming up with any of a number of other superheroes but never letting down his barriers, as opposed to West’s avuncular camaraderie with his inner circle.

More complicated is Hamill as the Spectre. Far starters, he is the least recognizable of the stunt cast, at least if one is thinking in terms of Batman actors–as the Spectre he stays in the deeper reaches of his vocal range, where the Joker rarely strayed, and his tone is one of tightly constrained rage, as opposed to the Joker’s intense and unpredictable swings between emotional registers. It is thus immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with Hamill’s other voice work (in particular, it sounds very much like Ozai’s quieter moments in Avatar: The Last Airbender), but might be a little harder for people only familiar with his work as the Joker to pick up on.

Hamill is, in essence, playing the opposite of the Joker, a character with vast supernatural power who never laughs, never smiles, and singlemindedly pursues brutal vengeance against evildoers. (Not entirely opposed, however; his sense of justice in the comics is not too dissimilar from the Joker’s sense of humor–an incident in which he turned a man into cheese and fed him to mice comes to mind.) Which then rather neatly explains why Phantom Stranger and the Spectre are fighting over Batman: they both, in a sense, are Batman, Phantom Stranger by dint of being voiced by a Batman actor and the Spectre as the opposite of the Joker.

Because what actually is the difference between justice and vengeance? Let us put aside social justice for a moment. That’s a very different beast, conceived in opposition to social injustice, which is to say the systemic biases in our society and culture that make life unfairly and unnecessarily more difficult for certain groups of people. That’s not what superheroes fight, and clearly not what’s meant here; there’s some other kind of justice, the kind referred to by “the justice system.” It has to do with laws and criminals, police and courts and prisons. It means, more or less, that there are rules, and people empowered to punish you if you break those rules.

Why? What does punishing criminals accomplish? It doesn’t actually undo the injustice–the injustice of a theft is that the victim has lost something of theirs unfairly, and so the correction of that would be to restore whatever was stolen to the victim. Locking the criminal up for a couple of years doesn’t do that. Not to mention that Batman is himself a criminal, guilty of countless acts of trespassing, harassment, stalking, breaking and entering, vandalism, assault, and battery (two different things–assault is when he dangles somebody over a rooftop, battery is when he punches them). Where is recompense for those crimes? What would it look like?

In the climax of the episode, Batman is visibly tempted to murder Chill in much the same way he was tempted to murder the Sewer King in BTAS’ “The Underdwellers,” but releases him at the last moment. Chill runs to the other villains (present for a weapons auction Chill was running when Batman found him) for help, but once they realize that Chill is responsible for Batman’s existence they try to kill him themselves, and in the ensuing struggle the building is damaged and falling debris kills Chill. He has been, as Phantom Stranger observes, killed by karma, and thus justice wins; Batman is free. But the episode very strongly implies that this “karma” was in fact the Spectre’s doing, divine retribution being his role and power, leaving open the question of who in fact won and which of justice and vengeance Batman belongs to.

And the answer is both, because they are the same thing. The Spectre takes the side of vengeance, but he is also aligned with the force of karma. The Phantom Stranger takes the side of justice, but is played by a Batman actor whose most famous and iconic line as the character begins “I am vengeance!” Because what is vengeance except the desire to see someone who caused suffering to suffer in turn? That’s what the criminal justice system exists for; imprisoning murderers and thieves doesn’t bring back the dead or restore what they sole, it just makes them suffer. It is ritualized vengeance, a complex process involving multiple societal institutions–the police, the courts, the prison system–that in the end accomplishes exactly the same thing that Batman does by hunting criminals down and punching them in the face. The only difference is the ritual, the arrest-reading-of-rights-plea bargain/trial-sentencing sequence, which sanitizes the vengeance, places it in the hands of supposedly dispassionate government actors, and thus makes it socially acceptable.

And by showing vengeance and justice to be the same thing, “Chill of the Night!” also reveals BTAS to be just as subtly subversive as the 1960s Batman, perhaps even more subtle. In the 1960s, Batman revealed the incompetence of the powers that imposed and conducted the ritual, the absurdity of the whole system and the ridiculous futility of vengeance/justice as an approach to crime. It said, in essence, that the police are no less ridiculous than a man who dresses in a purple bat costume. But BTAS shows a different kind of Batman, one that exposes the absurdity of the system not by showing its actors to be incompetent, but by cutting through the ritual and demonstrating that the outcomes are the same whether one relies on state power or a vigilante to punish criminals–and the vigilante is a lot faster, more efficient, and less likely to kill people. It says, in essence, that a man who dresses in a black bat costume is no less serious than the police.

Vengeance, justice, whatever you want to call it, is both serious and ridiculous, based on the genuine, passionate need to do something about people robbing, beating, abusing, bullying, and murdering one another, but at the same time an absurd answer that does not actually solve the problems it’s supposed to address, and frequently makes them worse. So it is with TBTB’s Batman, serious and comical, and its repeated insistence that there is more than one valid version of the character. By fusing the two threads represented by West and Conroy, the camp 60s and the grimdark 90s, TBTB may well understand Batman better than either of its progenitors.


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2 thoughts on “Retroactive Continuity 5: “Chill of the Night!”

  1. One of the ostensible pillars of the justice system is accuracy – many steps of the ritual exist to prevent the system from mistaking innocent for guilty, and thus visiting vengeance on those who do not deserve it. Social belief in this element of the system is durable; surviving any demonstration of its failure through the argument that failures are caused by the actors in the ritual neglecting to faithfully follow its steps.

    The common argument against vigilantes rests on this pillar: A vigilante could simply get it wrong and they have rejecting anything which could restrain them from harming the innocent. But Batman stories feature a Vigilante who simply doesn’t get it wrong. Another argument against vigilantes is that, lacking the training required of police, they are more likely to kill someone unnecessarily. Batman, however, has subjected himself to a fictional training regimen more rigorous than any real training. The Batman story thus inverts the ordinary relationship between vigilante and police officer.

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  2. That’s a very good point, and something I just straight-up missed because my view of the criminal justice system is so different from the general public’s. Quite simply, I don’t think there is any such state as “deserving punishment,” because I reject the concept of sin. Punishment has (limited) value as a pedagogical technique to promote better behavior, but that’s not what it’s used for in the criminal justice system; instead it’s used to fulfill a barbaric impulse to match blood for blood and suffering for suffering. Or possibly even worse, some kind of twisted BDSM/Christian notion that you can cleanse someone of “sin” through suffering.

    Basically, I reject retributive justice outright as an oxymoron; the purpose of justice is to create change to promote material progress, and retribution does not accomplish that.

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