To scare the bad guys, really (The Trial)

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It’s May 16, 1994. The top song is “I Swear” by All-4-One, with “The Sign” by Ace of Base coming in at number two. The top movie is The Crow; other well-remembered films in this week’s top ten include Four Weddings and a Funeral and Schindler’s List. In the news, last week Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the first black president of South Africa, which seems long overdue; ice hockey was made the official winter sport of Canada, which seems like something which must have happened long before 1994; and in a few days Pope John Paul II will reiterate that only men can be Catholic priests, which seems badly behind the times.

On Batman: The Animated Series, we have “The Trial,” a fan-favorite episode in which most of the series’ recurring villains team up to put Batman on trial for being responsible for their existence. Which, of course, he is; if Batman were not a popular character, and his comic were not successful, none of these villains would have been created or endured long enough to show up in the cartoon, which likely would not have existed either. But equally, they are responsible for creating him: how much of Batman’s popularity, after all, is due to the character himself, and how much to the entertaining and flamboyant villains he battles? They are inseparable.

Even within a diegetic context, this interdependence holds. From Batman’s perspective, his villains are (as we’ve seen before) merely avatars of the entity Crime, which preexisted both them and him. Crime killed his parents and thereby created him, and insofar as the assembled villains are aspects of Crime, they share in this responsibility. Meanwhile, the villains’ argument is made for them in this episode by none other than DA Janet van Dorn, which makes it all the more ironic that she must defend Batman from their charges.

Quite simply, and again as we’ve discussed before, Batman breaks the law continually, flagrantly, and very publicly. He does nothing to address the underlying causes of crime, while repeatedly demonstrating to those who might be considering turning to crime as a solution for their problems that it can be gotten away with.

But the frequency with which I’ve said “as we’ve discussed before” is telling. There’s nothing revelatory in the declaration that Batman creates his villains as they create him. That’s an idea as old as story. Without Grendel, the story of Beowulf becomes “a tough guy visited, bragged a lot, then left.” Without Beowulf, it’s “a monster killed a bunch of people the reader doesn’t care about.” Put them together, however, and you not only get the story of their particular conflict, but a series of consequences that produce additional conflicts as the story continues.

What’s interesting in this episode is not that idea, then, but rather that it marries it to another concept, the absurd, unfair, unwinnable trial. The go-to example there is of course Kafka, but the prominence of the Mad Hatter as both the person who breaks the other villains out of Arkham and the first witness suggests we should look to Lewis Carroll instead, and the trial of Alice. Ultimately it doesn’t matter as the two aren’t much different; one is played for horror and the other for comedy, but they’re still quite similar scenes regardless.

At the root of both is the idea of the trial as empty ritual, a performance that apes some notion of justice without actually calling it forth. That’s definitely what’s happening in this episode, between the Joker as judge, the parties claiming injury as jury, and someone who agrees with the charges as defense attorney. Tetch’s time on the stand is telling: confronted with the fact–which we saw clearly in his origin episode–that Batman has nothing to do with his abduction and probable rape of Alice, he claims he “had” to do it, that Batman was trying to take her away from him. Then he declares that he’d sooner kill her than respect her rejection of him.

The Hatter, in other words, is driven not by necessity but by rage and a desire for vengeance. So too are his other villains, as we see throughout. They are blaming Batman for their own pain, acting out their desires for violence on him, and the trial is nothing more than a mockery, a ritual that places a thin and ridiculous veneer of civilization over a barbaric bloodlust.

But then, that’s what trials are for, when you get down to it.

The “real” trial at the beginning, after all, is a farce as well: much is elided within the statement that Poison Ivy can be sent to Arkham, but not jail, due to having been captured by Batman, but what seems most probable is that she cannot go before a criminal court because it would necessitate an opportunity for her to confront her accuser, Batman, and hence learn his identity. However, the state is using a workaround to place her in custody anyway, namely a hearing to determine that she is mentally ill in a way that presents “a danger to herself or others,” which in many states is sufficient to sentence her to mandatory confinement in a mental institution.

This exposes the farcical nature of the trial on two fronts. First, it is revealed to be purely a matter of ritual; we know Poison Ivy is guilty, Poison Ivy knows she’s guilty, the judge knows she’s guilty, but she cannot go to trial because proper procedures–the ritual forms–were not followed. At the same time, it’s a farce because the ritual does not accomplish its purpose of protecting people whose guilt cannot be proven within the rules: since “everyone knows” she’s guilty, it’s a simple matter to exploit the complexities of law created to govern other situations in order to find a way to incarcerate her anyway. One wonders how many people in Arkham likewise fell into the category of people whom “everyone knows” are guilty but who couldn’t be proved as such in a court of law. After all, it’s not like something “everyone knows” has ever turned out to be wrong, right?

Then, in the trial arranged by the Arkham inmates, we see exposed the emotion behind the ritual. It’s all just vengeance. Punishing people who have harmed others doesn’t undo that harm, it just compounds it, widening the circles of the harmed. Punishment doesn’t work as rehabilitation–quite the opposite, given the frequency with which people jailed for minor offenses commit more serious offenses after release. And there’s no evidence that it works as a deterrent, given our ridiculously large prison populations. The only thing it accomplishes is to satisfy that desire to meet pain with pain, to hurt when we have been hurt, and to see suffering visited upon those who create suffering.

And yet what option have we besides channeling that into some ritual or another? Certainly this episode has only one alternative to suggest, which is that we sit back and let someone put on a cape and carry out society’s vengeance with their fists. That’s no less barbaric, and not an acceptable solution otherwise.

So we end the episode on Batman and Van Dorn’s shared wish that the “need” for Batman someday end. They mean, most likely, that villains and criminals will stop taking action that invites vengeance upon them–but isn’t that just like Tetch on the witness stand, claiming that Batman made him kidnap Alice? Nobody makes us carry out vengeance; it is always our choice. And perhaps, if we stopped wasting our time on it, we could instead address the underlying causes of that for which we seek vengeance.

Unfortunately, that’s not an area in which superheroes are permitted to tread.


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