It’s January 24, 1993. The top song is Whitney Houston with, you guessed it, “I Will Always Love You” from The Bodyguard, which is at number eight in the box office charts; Aladdin is number one. The number two song is Shai’s “If I Ever Fall in Love,” and the number two movie is A Few Good Men.
In the news, Bill Clinton was inaugurated as President of the U.S. four days ago. Tomorrow, Space Station Mir will host the first ever art exhibit in space. And on the 25th, playwright-turned-politician Vaclav Havel, who as President of Czechoslovakia oversaw its dissolution in the Velvet Divorce, will be elected President of the new Czech Republic.
In Batman: The Animated Series we have “The Mechanic,” the sole appearance of Earl Cooper, designer and maintainer of the Batmobile. It’s an odd story; most of it involves a reiteration of a scheme the Penguin carried out in Batman Returns, namely planting a device in the Batmobile that allows him to control it, and then attempting to drive Batman to his doom. (The giant yellow ducky boat from that film also makes an appearance.)
Much of the rest of the episode is occupied by a flashback, narrated by Cooper, in which he recounts the origin of the Batmobile. It’s a puzzling thing to spend time on; was this something people were curious about, or a story the writers felt strongly had to be told? It’s not as if there’s an origin story for Batman’s grappling gun or batarangs; why for the Batmobile? It’s possible that it’s intended to make the show more toyetic—an industry term for television that showcases toys for the young viewers to badger their parents into buying—but unlikely, as there is little evidence elsewhere in BTAS of writing decisions influenced by the desire to sell toys.
It’s not a bad little story by any means, illustrating a side of Batman that we haven’t seen in some time, namely the way he remembers the innocent people he encounters in the course of his adventures, and provides them jobs if needed. Plus we get to see the car he drove before the current Batmobile: the Batmobile from the comics of the 1940s, because of course it is.
In a way, Cooper serves the same role as Zatanna, Leslie Thompkins, or Matt Thorne, someone who can serve as a gateway to Batman’s past. In that sense, this episode is the conclusion of a trilogy that began with “Paging the Crime Doctor” and continued with “Zatanna,” in which the introduction of new characters opens a way for the audience to learn more about Batman and his family through flashbacks, with those flashbacks taking up a more prominent place in each consecutive episode: off-screen and after the ending of “Paging the Crime Doctor,” brief but illustrative in “Zatanna,” and a major focus of the episode here in “The Mechanic.”
But at the same time, the flashback in this episode tells us almost nothing about Batman, except something we already knew, that he is prone to making job offers to innocent people hurt by the schemes of his villains. But it tells us more about Cooper: that he’s a whistleblower, someone who won’t stand idly by while the organization he works for endangers lives. For which, of course, he ends up destitute, punished for challenging the structures of power around him.
Batman rescues him, of course, but in a curious way, which as mentioned he’s done before: he gives Cooper a job. That is, he rescues Cooper, but only if Cooper does something for him in return. Then, in this episode, he rescues Cooper again, from the danger working for Batman put him in.
On the other hand (or perhaps flipper) we have the Penguin, who as we have seen before is a brutish thug that puts on aristocratic airs. His minions (who have the delightful names, never stated in the episode but given in the credits, of Eagleton, Sheldrake, and Falcone; one wonders how Sheldrake feels about being a duck caught between two birds of prey) bow and scrape in terror of his ever-present threat of violence, but play along as best they can with his pretense of gentility, because that is the world within which they live: they can be subject to the Penguin, and hence live under threat of his violence and Batman’s, or they can be like Cooper, and still under threat of violence from Penguin and those like him. Cooper’s only protection is to be rescued by Batman, and in exchange for that protection and a small fraction of Batman’s vast wealth, he serves loyally. Just as Penguin’s minions serve him.
What this episode shows, in short, is a skirmish between two neighboring feudal realms. Batman is Cooper’s liege-lord, who in exchange for his loyalty and service provides protection from bandits and rival lords, and the Penguin has the same relationship with his trio of minions. Admittedly, Batman is a rather better lord to serve than Penguin, if only because he doesn’t pose a constant threat of physical harm to his minions, but it’s still service.
Such is the nature of Gotham (which, as we have observed elsewhere, is the world). There are structures of power, and those structures are made of people. To stand at the top is to stand on the people below. Some, like the Waynes, try to be polite about it, to offer kind words to the people holding them up, while others, like Thorne or Penguin, like to kick, but in the end they’re all still people who step on other people. No matter how nice Batman is to Cooper or how appreciative Cooper is, the arrangement is still the same: serve or starve. Be a good employee or the wolves will get you—or eagles, falcons, a penguin, and a duck in this case.
Small wonder Batman turns so readily to violence as a remedy for Gotham’s many ills: his very existence, his role in society, is itself steeped in violence.
But what alternative is there? Even the powerful cannot accomplish much alone; isn’t it therefore necessary for them to dominate the less powerful, so that the combined power of all can be channeled toward the powerful’s goals? Even the Joker relies on minions as often as not! Even Robin is just a sidekick, not a partner.
But that word answers our question. The alternative to dominance is cooperation. The alternative to leadership is collaboration. The alternative to hierarchy?
Is a team.
And because that’s a massive change that fundamentally challenges the structures of power, it’ll be the villains that do it first.
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