Enemies from way back (Avatar)

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It’s May 9, 1994, a week before “Trial.” The top song is Ace of Base’s “I Saw the Sign”; R. Kelly, Prince, Madonna, and Enigma also chart. The top movie is With Honors, followed closely by Four Weddings and a Funeral and 3 Ninjas Kick Back. Lower down in the top ten are You So Crazy and Schindler’s List. In the news, the massive 7-year project to build the Chunnel was finally finished three days ago, allowing trains to cross under the English Channel in a mere 35 minutes; tomorrow, Nelson Mandela will be sworn in as South Africa’s first black president, and coincidentally an annular (i.e., ring-shaped) eclipse will be visible across North America, fascinating young me. Also it’s funny because “Mandela” sounds like “mandala,” and an annular eclipse is a pretty good symbol for the cosmos.

Batman is a haunted character. Fittingly for someone associated with vengeance, terror, and the night, he is, metaphorically speaking, pursued constantly by ghosts, most obviously the ghosts of his parents. Because what is a ghost but a piece of the past that lurks in the present, dwelling long past the point at which it should exist? Put that way, Batman has many more ghosts than just his parents. Harvey Dent haunts him as well, and so does Andrea Beaumont.

So it’s not that surprising that the figure robbing the Ancient Egypt museum exhibit–another variant on the past haunting the present–looks remarkably like the Phantasm at first. It is only when Batman tears off the mask that he sees a different echo of the past entirely: Ubu, Ra’s al-Ghul’s manservant and bodyguard. Of course moments later he encounters Ra’s al-Ghul, who had been haunting the Earth for half a millennium even before Batman watched him die. If any character qualifies as a ghost, he most certainly does.

Perhaps that’s why he is able to use outright magic, causing Batman’s rope to become a snake, real enough that when it bites Batman it gives him a dose of cobra venom. It’s the first time we’ve seen real magic–not Zatanna’s stagecraft, nor handwaved as technology or technique like Mad Hatter’s worry men, Poison Ivy’s powers, or the death touch from “Day of the Samurai”–in the series, and it won’t be the last time this episode. But if this episode is a ghost story, then magic fits right in.

As does Talia. Like Andrea Beaumont, she is a lost love from Batman’s past, though rather more recently; Ubu’s initial resemblance to the Phantasm is thus as much or more foreshadowing for her return as it is for Ra’s al-Ghul’s. And she plays the part well, as Batman’s feelings for her color his actions throughout the episode.

Notably, it is specifically Batman who has feelings for her. Even out of the costume, Conroy’s voice is lower and rougher when he talks to her than he usually is when playing Bruce Wayne, much closer to his Batman voice. She is a more appropriate partner for Batman than Wayne, after all. Wayne cannot date a criminal and a terrorist; he hates criminals, and further he exists to maintain a public persona that would be shattered by association with crime. Batman, on the other hand, is a criminal created to do the things that a public figure like Bruce Wayne can’t; Talia is an ideal match for him, especially as here and in her introductory episode she is presented as Batman’s equal in skill, intelligence, and courage.

And, of course, Talia is as much haunted by her father as Batman is. Her life is deeply shaped by her father: we see that she lives in his house, watched over by a massive painting of him, and at the slightest hint that he lives, she is ready to drop everything and cross the world. And, too, he has greatly shaped who she is and how she behaves, most notably in her very strange notions of how romance and relationships work, a direct copy of her father’s sexist meddling in finding her a “worthy” husband to be his heir when Talia already represents his perfect heir. Even when she believes he’s dead, her father still controls her life from beyond the grave.

Indeed, all three major players in this episode are haunted. Ra’s is himself a ghost, true, but he is no less haunted by the past, and specifically by his obsession with the ancient Pharaoh Thoth-Khapera and her secrets of life and death. Both his past failure to acquire her knowledge in 1898–he seems to have discovered a false entrance to her tomb and triggered a booby trap, or at least, that’s the likeliest explanation for why he needs a map to find her tomb in 1994–and the existence of a powerful immortal before him drive him, as he delves deep into the past and tries to pull it into the future.

All of which gives another reason why Ra’s al-Ghul’s episodes tend to be structured like old-fashioned adventure serials, with the globe-trotting, the stereotypical-bordering-on-racist musical and visual depictions of “exotic” locales, the swordfights and descents into volcanoes and ancient tombs. It’s deliberate, an echo of the past haunting the present, an old-fashioned “Saturday afternoon serial,” as Batman calls it. It’s one of two times Batman’s comments can be read as criticisms of the episode, the other being when he calls Ra’s out on not being able to see Talia as his heir–and both times he explicitly refers to the thing he’s commenting on as old or out of date.

The episode is quite aware of the danger in allowing itself to be haunted. That’s apparent not only in Batman’s two comments, but in the climax itself: Ra’s finds Thoth-Khapera, and she tries to suck out his soul, causing him to temporarily wither into the frailty of extreme old age. That’s the danger of ghosts, of course; spend too much time with them and they’ll try to possess you, hollow you out, steal your soul, make you dance like a puppet or wear you like a costume. It doesn’t matter much what they were like in life; if you let too much of the past into the present, you can find yourself trapped by it.

That’s a lesson for the series. As we will see in the letters columns of 1993’s Batman Adventures comics, Batman fans struggled with continuity “issues,” trying to make the comic fit in with DC’s other comics and failing. Thankfully, the people making the DCAU know better than to care; they can mine the past for inspiration and influence, but they know (and, given how much crossover there is between the makers of Animaniacs and Batman: The Animated Series, know demonstrably) that they don’t have to be beholden to it. They can give Robin Dick Grayson’s name and backstory but Tim Drake’s costume if they want! Less pedantically, they can give Mister Freeze a fantastic new backstory, motivation, and personality. They can use the past, learn from it, and then let it go, rather than be haunted by it.

Talia and Bruce could stand to learn that too. If they’re not careful, they could end up consumed by their ghosts, withered to a shriveled old shadow of who they once were, or hollowed out and possessed by some terrible thing.

Spoilers: They won’t be careful.


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