Two plus two equals (Second Chance)

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Oh, right! I have a blog, don’t I… Whoops! (Forgot to queue this, basically.)

It’s September 17, 1994. The top song and movie are the same as next week, when “Riddler’s Reform” airs–Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love to You” and Time Cop, respectively. In the news, tonight Heather Whitestone becomes the first hearing-impaired winner of the Miss America pageant; yesterday the British ban on broadcast by Irish paramilitary groups was listed; in two days the U.S. will invade Haiti to restore its first democratically elected leader, Jean-Bertrande Aristide, to power after he was ousted in a 1991 military coup, a pleasantly bloodless diversion from the usual U.S. foreign policy of arming military coups and insurgencies against democratically elected leaders (see Latin America, history of).

On Batman: The Animated Series, we have a second-season episode which, in production order, is the second in a row to involve a villain apparently reforming, and in broadcast order is the second overall (after the first season’s “Birds of a Feather”). It involves the Dynamic Duo pursuing two deliberately planted false leads on said villain’s kidnapping, and parallels the villain’s dual identity with Batman’s own.

So yes, if you were wondering, the writers are still having fun with Two-Face’s theme of duality.

In an interesting follow up to “Riddler’s Reform,” in which Batman correctly suspected from the start that the Riddler’s apparent and titular reform was a ruse, this time Bruce Wayne is correctly convinced that Harvey Dent is serious about reforming, undergoing therapy and reconstructive surgery in an attempt to eliminate his murderous Two-Face persona. Unfortunately, Two-Face has other plans, staging a kidnapping so that he can continue to exist and dominate over the Harvey persona.

In other words, just like the Riddler, Two-Face is compelled to criminality, unable to reform because he is at the mercy of forces inside him. The difference is that in the Riddler these forces are depicted as innate, while Harvey Dent was Bruce Wayne’s friend, and therefore those forces are depicted as a foreign presence which dominates the “real” Harvey, albeit one which grew from inside him.

As we observed with “Riddler’s Reform,” the problem is that, within the confines of typical superhero narrative, Two-Face is a more interesting character than a healthy or at least under-control Harvey Dent. There are more superhero stories that can be told with a villainous Two-Face than with a neutral or heroic Harvey, and hence barring some novel new take on the character, he will never reform for long. Even such a take is likely unstable, as Harvey has been Two-Face for a long time, and hence sooner or later someone will come along who both sees Two-Face as the best or “correct” version of the character and has the power to make it happen.

There is a seemingly inescapable circularity to superhero narratives. They return again and again to the same stories, the same characters. Major upheavals pull away for a time, but then gradually return to the long-term status quo. Kim Yale is disgusted by how The Killing Joke ended Barbara Gordon’s career as Batgirl, so she and Jon Ostrander bring her back as Oracle. Twenty years later, the New 52 reset everything and she’s Batgirl again. This is why hardly anyone in comics stays dead; sooner or later, someone comes along with a story they want to tell about a dead character, and back they come.

Which gives us another duality, another mirror. Remember that Harvey is a reflection of Bruce Wayne, “Big Bad Harv” a protector fantasy he created as a child which took on a life of its own as the traumatized Harvey disassociated from reality. Harvey cannot heal because Batman cannot heal. The villains cannot be reformed because Batman needs someone to fight.

The episode ends with a reiteration that Bruce Wayne will never give up on Harvey Dent. But the opposite is true, too: Two-Face will never give up on Batman, never deny him the foe he needs. At the reveal of the kidnapper’s identity, Batman tells Dent that he’s his own worst enemy, which Two-Face denies, declaring himself Batman’s worst enemy. And he is, although so are the Joker and Ra’s al-Ghul, each in different ways. Two-Face is Batman’s worst enemy and best friend, his mirror, a villainous counterpart in ways that Man-Bat could never be.

The key linkage between them is trauma, and trauma has a way of coming back. We become trapped in it, embedded, reliving it over and over again, because it is so much more intense, more real-feeling, than the gray existence of the everyday. And even more so, because it won’t let us leave; it kidnaps us, pulling us out of the present and into its own realm of memory at the slightest provocation. The only way to overcome it is the long, slow, difficult, setback- and reversal-laden route of taking control, bit by bit pushing back against its capacity to snatch us away.

But characters in an ongoing superhero narrative don’t have that option. Sooner or later, someone will decide they’re more interesting with the trauma than without, and they’ll once again be kidnapped by their past selves, their alternates within.

As for true healing, long-term recovery that lasts? A major character in a superhero narrative who can move past the trauma, to be a fully integrated self? About as likely as flipping a coin and having it land on its edge every time.

Bruce Wayne, as we observed with Two-Face’s introduction, has to believe in Harvey because to do so is to believe in himself. But as hard as it is to reform Two-Face and have it stick, how much harder is it to evolve Batman beyond the familiar, fractured identity we know?


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