Don’t you have anything better to do? (The Worry Men)

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Shit, I am so sorry I got this up late! Basically on Monday I thought it was Sunday (because long weekend), and today I knew it was Tuesday, and so in my brain Monday never happened? Not an excuse, I know. Anyway, here it is, the end of BTAS S1 and the rough midpoint of NA09 vol. 2!

What a lackluster ending to a stellar first season.

It’s September 16, 1993, just a few days after “Shadow of the Bat,” so see that post for charts and headlines. Tomorrow is the last day of the first season of Batman: The Animated Series, which will go out with “Paging the Crime Doctor,” a melancholic reflection on things past that closes with Batman trying to connect with memories of his father. In production order, on the other hand, we end with this episode, “The Worry Men.”

This episode is a dual let-down. First, it comes at the end of a particularly strong run of episodes, with maybe two or three of the last ten being notably weak (“The Mechanic,” “Blind as a Bat,” and “Fire from Olympus”). Second, the Mad Hatter’s first two outings, “Mad as a Hatter” and “Perchance to Dream,” were both truly excellent episodes.

This isn’t.

It’s not, to be clear, a terrible episode. It’s just not very good, and relies entirely on the notion of Central America (not any particular country, mind you, just the entire region) as this exotic place whose iconography can be rifled for absurd jaguar henchmen for the Hatter, because nothing says Alice in Wonderland like casually racist depictions of Native Americans. (I mean, if he’d been a Peter Pan-themed villain, that would be a different story.) There’s a strange almost-commentary where the characters are ensnared in the Mad Hatter’s schemes by their willingness to believe in–or at least play along with–the notion that the titular little dolls have magical powers, a belief rooted in the same colonialist exoticism as the Hatter’s choice of outfit for his henchmen. Unfortunately nothing ever comes of this; other than both ostensibly originating in Central America, there is nothing to parallel the henchmen and the worry men.

It’s particularly sad because the core idea–Veronica Vreeland meets the Mad Hatter–is brilliant, even better than pairing her up with the Penguin in an earlier episode. Here as in his first appearance, the Mad Hatter is the picture of selfish entitlement: the scene in which he bemoans that, alas, private islands cost money is easily the best in the episode, as Roddy McDowell hams it up exactly the right amount to highlight what an utterly absurd complaint it is, while at the same time selling completely the notion that the Mad Hatter thinks it’s a grave injustice for which he should be pitied. And Vreeland, of course, has served as an excellent example of the out-of-touch rich person, who inherited a fortune and seems to do nothing except host high-society events and travel.

The problem, then, is that the only meeting between them occurs in flashback, and even then the Mad Hatter works mostly through a proxy, the unnamed “native craftsman” who designed the worry men. It’s understandable, as there’s a risk of repeating “Birds of a Feather,” an episode already notably similar to Dangerous Liasons; the probability of appearing unoriginal is high.

But it’s nonetheless a loss, as an examination of the potential outcomes makes clear. After all, in any head-on collision between two such powerful forces of self-centered entitlement, one must emerge as the “victor,” which is to say so entitled that they pull the other into their orbit. Either possibility is fascinating; either Vreeland’s familiarity with the cutthroat maneuvers of high society allows her to manipulate the hapless, foolish nerd, or Tetch’s advanced technology gives him control of the socialite heiress. Pick your villain: the selfish, old-money rich or the entitled, new-money tech geek?

But that’s not the episode we actually have. The question is precluded by the involvement of Batman, and so instead we get the Mad Hatter fuffing about with giant toys in a costume shop. Admittedly, the inclusion of mannequin versions of major villains–and the inclusion of Harley Quinn as one of them in her own right, independent of the Joker–is a nice touch for a season finale, but it’s still more cute gag than substantive element worth talking about.

In the end, the season just sort of fizzles out. Fortunately, next season starts with a bang. But that’s eight months and several chapters away…


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He’ll come back (Read My Lips)

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It’s May 10, 1993, two weeks before “His Silicon Soul” and a week after “The Demon’s Quest.” The top song is, as it will be two weeks from now, Janet Jackson’s “That’s the Way Love Goes.” The top movie is Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story; other movies of note in the top ten include Dave and Indecent Proposal (numbers two and three respectively), and, further down at seventh, The Sandlot. In the news, Paraguay has possibly its first democratically elected president, Juan Carlos Wasmosy; there are allegations of election fraud, but his victory is certified by an international panel. William Randolph Hearst, Jr, son and successor of the infamous publisher, dies on the 14th, which is also the day Disney Channel actress/singer Miranda Cosgrove is born. There’s no evidence that reincarnation was involved, but you never know.

This episode seems like it shouldn’t work. The Ventriloquist and Scarface are really just a lesser reiteration of Two-Face—two personalities, one more criminally inclined and dominant, and with a clear visual distinction of which is which—but without any of the menace implied by both his grotesque appearance and his terrifying obsession with the caprices of random chance. But nonetheless it does work, thanks largely to an excellent script by Joe R. Lansdale.

With this second episode, Lansdale reveals the hints of a pattern, which will be borne out in at least some of his later episodes. Previously, in “Perchance to Dream,” he separated Batman’s two aspects and placed them in conflict against each other, in so doing finding a way to explore how the identities we perform can become our prisons. Here in “Read My Lips” that exploration is even more pronounced, as Wesker’s ventriloquist personality is held prisoner by, essentially enslaved to, his Scarface personality.

Of course the notion that the puppet is the real master is hardly unique to this episode. Puppets and dolls are a staple of horror, thanks to the Uncanny Valley—the effect whereby the almost-human can be more unsettling than the entirely unhuman. Indeed, the Batman comics imply that Scarface is in some sense alive or haunted, as he has retained the same personality across multiple ventriloquists. But in the DCAU, that possibility is toyed with and ultimately rejected. (The best use of this concept is in the far-off Justice League episode “A Better World,” where all the villains in alternate Arkham have been rendered docile via lobotomy, and it is Scarface, rather than the Ventriloquist, who bears the scars.) Scarface is an expression of some aspect of Wesker that the Ventriloquist cannot express himself, so he channels it through the puppet. Despite shock-scares like the doll’s eyes snapping open when Batman touches it, Scarface remains fully inert without the Ventriloquist’s animating presence.

But then, the Bat is inert without Bruce Wayne to put on the cape and cowl, isn’t it? And as we saw in “Perchance to Dream,” Wayne is held in thrall by the Bat, as much a prisoner as the Ventriloquist—and like the Ventriloquist at the episode’s ending, he has carved his own prison, and will rebuild it if it is removed. But this is not the only reflection of the Ventriloquist-Scarface relationship elsewhere in the episode. During the initial heist sequence, Rhino carries one of the other henchmen on his shoulder, not unlike a ventriloquist carrying a dummy. Later, we briefly see Batman and Alfred together; Alfred’s role as manservant is not to dissimilar to the function the Ventriloquist performs for Scarface, right down to both wearing tuxedos.

But it is still the Batman-Bruce Wayne relationship that Wesker most resembles. Both are engaged in elaborate performances that allow them to channel aspects of themselves into fictional constructs that they have reified through performative crafts. Bruce Wayne’s fear and rage are channeled through his costume to become the Bat, just as Wesker’s feelings are channeled through puppetry to become Scarface. Notably, Wesker has chosen a symbol of excess, rebellion, and defiance: long before the now better-known remake starring Al Pacino, 1932’s Scarface told the story of a young man, loosely based on Al Capone, who rises ever higher in the Prohibition-era Mafia before going down in a blaze of glory. It is an attractive story, and in his use of it we can see that what the meek and mild Wesker craves is a way to express not fear and the rage induced by loss, but the defiant anger of someone who feels he deserves better.

Despite that he is clearly ill, there is no tragedy to the figure of Wesker in this story. As always, the episode frames its final reveal of the new Scarface taking form under Wesker’s hands as a moment of horror, but as with the puppet’s eyes earlier, there is no monster here. Instead, the recreation of Scarface is an act of defiance by Wesker; like the prize fight at the episode’s beginning, we have not actually seen the end of his battle.


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A big success, just like (Fire from Olympus)

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It’s May 24, 1993, three weeks after “The Demon’s Quest” aired. In the news, Eritrea formally becomes independent from Ethiopia today; on the 28th it and Monaco join the U.N., and the movie Super Mario Bros., the first major American movie based on a video game, is released. It is terrible, as is every major American video game movie since. I will eventually rent it on VHS and enjoy it anyway. Speaking of me, today is my twelfth birthday, an event of which I have no memory whatsoever, though I’m fairly sure I was busy discovering girls at this point. I think this is the birthday where my brother gave me a box containing all of his old comics from the 70s and 80s, which was pretty amazing, but destroyed in a flood a couple of years later.

The top song this week is Janet Jackson’s “That’s the Way Love Goes,” with Silk, H-Town, Weak, and Vanessa Williams also charting. The top movie is something called Sliver, which I have never heard of; apparently it is an erotic thriller. It’ll have dropped below Super Mario Bros. by next weekend, which probably says something about its quality.

In Batman, we have “Fire from Olympus,” a strange little episode that appears to be grappling with the notion of superheroes as modern mythology. This is a commonly touted idea, with perhaps its most prominent current proponent Grant Morrison, but suffers from some serious flaws, the most obvious being that superhero stories are not sacred and no one actually believes in them.

But this episode never seriously considers the possibility of superheroes as divinities, because so far the only superheroes in the world are Batman, Robin, and Batgirl, none of whom are actually superhuman. It’s not until Superman and especially Wonder Woman show up that the DC Animated Universe will begin seriously grappling with the mythological; in this episode, it is treated solely as a delusion of the hubristic and disconnected Maximillian Zeus, whose name literally means “god”—the Greek Zeus is a cognate of the Latin deus.

In a way, this episode is a B-side to “His Silicon Soul”: it is definitely the less significant of the two, but works well as a companion piece. “His Silicon Soul” questioned the humanity of the people at the bottom of the social pyramid; “Fire from Olympus” questions the divinity of those at the top. Faced with overwhelming pressures and a failing business, “Maxie” convinces himself that he is above ordinary humans, literally the Greek god Zeus reborn, but this very declaration of superiority is revealed as a form of human frailty in the episode’s final scene, when the broken Maxie is wheeled into Arkham, convinced that he has ascended to Olympus and that the other villains held there are his fellow gods. Tellingly, he messes up and identifies Two-Face as Janus, a Roman god with no Greek counterpart, the imperfect scholarship of a man who isn’t as well-versed in the classics as he thinks.

But the first person he recognizes as a fellow god (since he seems to treat Clio’s status as a Muse as something between mortal and god, though historically they were regarded as gods) is Batman, whom he sees as Hades—not just a god, but his brother. In this he judges better than he knows: like Hades, Batman is a dark figure associated with death, dangerous certainly, but not an evil figure at all. And even more so, like Maximillian Zeus, Bruce Wayne is one of Gotham’s wealthy, an elite elevated above the masses.

But if it is delusional of Maxie to assign godhood to himself, it is just as delusional to assign it to Bruce Wayne. A rich man is still a man; like any system that seeks to rank some people as worthier than others, capitalism is a delusion. Neither the wealthy nor the superheroic are gods.

Maxie is guilty of the most classic (and Classical) of sins, hubris, the elevation of oneself to the level of the gods. He seeks to steal the fires of Olympus, the power of the thunderbolt and the status of Zeus, and as the saying goes, those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad. But ultimately, it is his attempt to elevate himself above the rest of humanity that destroys him; his delusions begin with his turn to crime in a desperate attempt to shore up a failing business, which is to say that he saw the possibility that he might cease to be rich and be forced to live like the rest of us. He never really believed that he was a mortal; he simply switched which kind of self-declared superhuman he considered himself to be, the titan of industry giving way to the god of Olympus.

And therein lies a warning to Batman as well. The role he plays, the role of protector, is close enough to divinity that people confuse his stories with mythology. This is no less hubristic than the roles Maxie played, and someday, if he keeps it up, Batman will be struck down for his arrogance.

But that’s a long way off still.


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Computer? (His Silicon Soul)

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A quick note before we start: My Patreon has dropped slightly below $70, and unless it increases, I will not be able to make a re:play episode for June. Currently a single $2/mo backer would be enough to put us over the top. Please, if you enjoy these articles and/or my vlogs, consider backing the Patreon. It gets you access to these articles several months early (for example, the piece below was available to Patreon backers in February), and additional rewards at higher levels, for only a few dollars a month. Thank you!

It’s November 20, 1992, three days after “Heart of Steel,” so see that post for headlines and charts.

This is one of those episodes where the viewing order matters a great deal, and one of the few where a case can be made for the episode actually being better in broadcast order than production order. The reason is simple: in production order, “Heart of Steel” was many episodes ago, raising the question of why HARDAC’s contingency activated now rather than earlier. But in broadcast order, this episode aired less than a week after “Heart of Steel,” implying that HARDAC just lay low for a few days before resuming its plans.

But this episode also fits well in the immediate aftermath of “The Demon’s Quest,” and not just because both feature a swordfight between Batman and someone who wants to kill vast numbers of people to bring about their vision of a better world. Remember, “The Demon’s Quest” was a near-apocalypse engineered by the same man later stated to be responsible for the near-apocalypse. This episode, too, deals with a near-apocalypse, the same one as “Heart of Steel”: the replacement of humanity with robots.

But as we discussed in regards to that episode, the robot uprising is a worker’s revolt; it is the overthrow not of humanity, but of capitalism, and the replacement of the rich with the workers and peasants—the robotnik class–on whom their hierarchy depends. Batman, as both the great defender of the status quo and an arch-capitalist, is a natural first target for this revolution. HARDAC’s robots infiltrate and duplicate, and with this episode we see that their wills are subverted by the central control of authority. This is the classic Western fantasy of communism, as a system of autocratic control which sends infiltrative agents who seem to be neighbors, friends, and family—the same fantasy which gives us Pod People or Heinlein’s Puppet Masters, and which has today been neatly transferred onto terrorists and “radical Islam.”

The episode’s repeatedly signposted question of what it is to be human is thus deeply colored by the question of the humanity of the oppressed, and not just those oppressed by the class structure. All systems of organizing people into the more worthy and less worthy are interrelated; capitalism cannot be truly understood or effectively opposed without also understanding and opposing racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and so on, nor can any of those be adequately addressed without addressing all of the others. (An approach known as intersectionality.)

So what, then, are we to make of the discussion of the authenticity of the duplicate Batman? Initially, it believes itself to be Batman, and when it discovers that its body is robotic, it responds by theorizing that it is Batman’s mind transferred into a robot body. Rossum rejects this proposition on interesting grounds. First, he claims that it can’t be true because he just encountered the “real” Batman. Rossum simply assumes that a mind (or soul, if you prefer) cannot be duplicated, and that therefore even if something were copied from Batman into the duplicate, that something cannot be “truly” Batman. It is “merely data,” and he supports this claim by reference to carnal experiences; the duplicate remembers the events of Batman’s life, but not his first kiss or what steak tastes like.

The episode doesn’t point it out within this scene, but it’s quite clear that Rossum is wrong here. First of all, those memories aren’t anything other than data either; they’re just data to which HARDAC didn’t have access. So the absence of those memories does prove Rossum’s point, but not for the reason he thinks they do. Second, in a previous scene we saw the duplicate in Wayne Manor, and it recognized a photograph of its parents, and clearly expressed grief in its tone of voice and the tender way it touched Martha Wayne’s image. This is not an emotionless machine at all; it is acting like Batman by immersing itself into the emotional reality of being Batman. In many ways it is the epitome of the Method, a school of acting in which (to simplify a great deal) one seeks to emulate the emotional state of a character by deliberately placing oneself into that emotional state.

In the end, the duplicate’s ability to perfectly perform as Batman is its undoing. As soon as it believes it has killed Batman, it cries out in theatrical despair and destroys both itself and the computer that was about to upload HARDAC to the world. Its angst over having killed would be almost comical in its melodrama if that weren’t so fitting: after all, isn’t melodramatic angst and over-the-top theatrical display exactly what being Batman is about? Remember, this is a man whose parents died, so he dresses up as a bat to punch criminals! At last we have a version of Batman who understands his essential performativity as well as the Adam West version did!

This self-destructive performance persuades Batman at least of the possibility that the duplicate may have had a soul. In essence, we are being told that the notion of soul or self is fundamentally performative; that which performs as a being with emotions, morality, agency, and positionality thereby demonstrates that it possesses a soul.

This is where the question of the “silicon soul” entangles with the origin of the robot as a stand-in for the oppressed. After all, HARDAC’s revolutionary plan was to replace humanity. It seems fairly obvious what would happen to the originals. Just as the apocalypse is merely revolution as seen from above, so is every revolution an apocalypse as seen from below. “Near-apocalypse” and “failed revolution” are synonyms. And it is by choosing to avert the apocalypse, to forgo revolution, that the duplicate demonstrates it has truly learned to perform as Batman, and hence raises the possibility that it has acquired a soul.

What we have, therefore, is that Batman only acknowledges that the robotnik might have a soul—that, in other words, the oppressed might be people even as he is a person—when it abandons and betrays the revolution. When, in short, it chooses to become a protector of the dominant power. It recognizes that its revolution entails harm to a rich cishet white male human, and therefore destroys itself and the revolution.

Which is about as good an encapsulation of the essential political tension of the superhero as we’re going to get. The role of the superhero is fundamentally performative. They put on a costume and a new identity, and make a spectacle of protecting everyone. The refusal to kill Batman makes such a big deal of can be read as a decision to protect even his enemies; certainly that’s how it plays out in this episode. But the superhero also presents itself as an avatar of justice, and in an unjust society, justice necessarily entails breaking the power of the beneficiaries of that injustice. This will naturally be perceived by said beneficiaries as harm, and some of those beneficiaries are “innocent”—that is, they did not choose to benefit and may not have consciously exploited their advantages.

In short, as we’ve been saying at least since “Seduction of the Innocent,” the protector fantasy is incompatible with the idea of someone who fights for justice. The superhero ought, morally speaking, to be on the side of revolution, but we want them to be against apocalypse.

Perhaps the best single illustration of this contradiction we’ve yet encountered is the title card to this episode. I haven’t discussed them much, but this series has consistently excellent title cards, and this episode’s is a standout example. It depicts a silhouette of Batman against a dark background, while a shining metallic arm reaches for him. It is ambiguous whether the arm is reaching menacingly for the throat of a Batman facing us, or stretching out beseechingly toward a Batman facing away. In either case, the framing of the image makes clear that that robotic appendage is the viewer’s arm, placing us into the position of the robot.

While it seems likely that many readers of this blog are at least one of rich, cis, heterosexual, white, or male, and I’m sure everyone reading this is human, it’s likely that none of my readers are all of the above. I imagine “rich” is the sticking point for the largest proportion of readers, simply because out of all those descriptors, it applies to the smallest percentage of humanity. That’s fitting, given that R.U.R., while applicable to all forms of oppression, seems to be mostly about class.

We are thus all, at least in part, robotnik, and all, at least in part, under Batman’s protection. The question posed by the title card’s ambiguity is thus a question we must ask ourselves: what do we want? Do we want to strangle Batman as an enemy of revolution, or reach out to him and beg his protection from the terror of apocalypse?

And the title card provides the answer, too: Yes.


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Keep him alive until he does (The Demon’s Quest)

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It’s May 3 and 4, 1993. Topping the charts is “Freak Me” by Silk, followed by Janet Jackson with “That’s the Way Love Goes” and Snow with “Informer.” The top movie last weekend was Aladdin, fittingly enough for this story; next weekend it’s Loaded Weapon 1, which is less so. A Few Good Men is in the top five both weekends, but Ra’s al-Ghul is only looking for one.

In the news, Pierre Beregovoy, former Prime Minister of France, and Ranasinghe Premadasa, sitting president of Sri Lanka, both die May 1, by suicide and suicide bomber, respectively. On May 4, the US-led UNITAF mission in Somalia is succeeded by the UNOSOM II mission, which like UNOSOM and UNITAF is supposed to help stabilize the region, construct infrastructure, and so on. It will be back to full-blown war by mid-June, and declared a failure in less than a year.

Batman, meanwhile, is having fun bouncing around the globe with his new buddy Ra’s al-Ghul, six-hundred-year-old leader of an ecoterrorist cult. Ostensibly, they are searching for their kidnapped “children,” Talia al-Ghul and Robin, but it is fairly obvious (as Batman notes near the episode’s end) that al-Ghul is the kidnapper. After a chase around Asia, Batman rescues Robin and reveals he knows al-Ghul set this up; al Ghul explains this was a test to see if Batman is worthy of marrying Talia and becoming his heir. Batman refuses, and al-Ghul’s raging declaration of war in response is interrupted when he collapses. Talia leads the others in using a Lazarus Pit to heal him, leading to the second part, where al-Ghul plans to detonate all the Lazarus Pits in the world simultaneously, which will kill more than two billion people but rejuvenate the damaged environment. After another chase around parts of Asia not visited in the prior episode, Batman saves the day.

The story originates as an adaptation of two unrelated comics published a year apart, and it shows: there is only the most tenuous connection between the plots of the two episodes, namely that Batman is only aware of what al-Ghul is attempting in the second episode because Robin overheard something while imprisoned in the first, and al-Ghul claims he accelerated his plans after Batman rejected becoming his heir. However, that tenuous connection between the parts only strengthens the story’s connection to the adventure serials it keeps homaging. In a single story, we have the back alleys of Calcutta, a jungle temple in Malaysia, a Himalayan fortress, and a castle perched on a promontory jutting out of the Arabian Desert; we have Batman fighting a panther, parachuting out of a helicopter, getting his shirt torn off, and sword-fighting al-Ghul on the lip of a deadly-poisonous Lazarus Pit. Even the music homages those serials, with its almost stereotypical use of instruments and styles associated with each locale (in film, if not in reality), all held together by the use of the core Batman theme in each.

Which, of course, is where the trouble starts. Like the adventure films it draws on, this episode has a deep xenophobic streak, since its core premise is “white man goes to countries where people of color live, encounters danger and evil in all of them.” The only characters (leaving out Alfred’s very brief appearance at the beginning of the first part) who aren’t cooperating with al-Ghul’s plan to kill billions just so happen to be the only characters with American accents, and all of al-Ghul’s minions are depicted as South Asian or Middle Eastern.

This is oddly prescient. The deferred apocalypse of the 1980s was, as we have discussed before, the climactic nuclear war between the capitalist West and communist East, which never happened due to the fall of the Soviet Union. The Cold War–a state of eternal readiness and perpetual conflict, used as justification for enormous military budgets and violations of civil liberties–ended suddenly, and it took more than a decade to find a new enemy against whom a similarly unending war could be fought. In the interim, conflicts like the Gulf War, Somalia, and Bosnia served as paper-thin excuses to maintain military funding at or near Cold War levels, not that the Cold War itself had ever been much thicker of an excuse.

When that new enemy was finally found in 2001, it proved to be “terrorism,” by which is meant any form of violence perpetrated by Middle Eastern or Central Asian terrorism–domestic terrorists of European descent tend to be curiously overlooked. Ra’s al-Ghul fits the bill perfectly, with his Arabic name, obviously Western education, and plan to destroy civilization. Add in Ubu’s habit of calling Batman “infidel,” and you have the pitch-perfect picture of a stereotypical Islamist terrorist circa 2015.

So al-Ghul is a terrorist, the episode manages to be forward-looking in the most regressive way possible, and the whole thing is, while great fun, intensely xenophobic. Is that it?

Not quite. Because the episode is a lot of fun, superbly well-directed, and an excellent pastiche of a classic genre of films, so we should at least take a stab at a redemptive reading, while remembering that, despite the name, a redemptive reading redeems nothing–it simply exists side-by-side with the more negative readings, a reminder that things are never simply black-or-white.

But consider: Ra’s al-Ghul’s minions are a racialized Other, but what of he himself, the true villain? Is that all he is? And the answer is of course no; he is also a shadow of the past, constantly returning even though it has a corrupting effect, bathing in the wounds of the Earth to cling to life long past his own time. He is, in short, out of date, and thus Batman becomes the exemplar of modernism by comparison.

Consider al-Ghul’s repeated references in the first episode to finding “the children,” and indeed his entire obsession with finding an heir. This is precisely the reproductive futurism I discussed in regards to Seduction of the Innocent, this notion that our primary duty as a society is to create a safe environment for “the children,” a nebulous concept characterized by total innocence and immense fragility that bears no resemblance to (and indeed, supersedes the needs of) any actual child. In this context, al-Ghul’s particular brand of villainy–a willingness to cause suffering and death on an unprecedented and unimaginable scale for the benefit of an abstract notion of “nature”–becomes that of the puritan, seeking a better world “for the children” he imagines need protecting, while creating a materially worse world for people (children included) who actually exist.

In every way, al-Ghul is a regressive figure. His goal is to restore an imagined past in which “the planet” was healthy, as if “the planet” in this sense is any less of an abstraction than “the children.” His attitude toward his daughter is tremendously sexist: he treats Talia as nothing more than a bargaining chip by which to acquire an heir, whereas in “Off Balance” we saw a woman with skills to rival Batman’s own, as worthy an heir to al-Ghul as could be imagined. Indeed, she is the ideal heir when it comes to carrying on his work: someone who shares his goals but has new ideas about how to achieve them.

But al-Ghul’s role changes when Batman rejects him, as he moves from regressive to reactionary. He no longer wishes to prevent change away from his imagined past, a slow evolution of the status quo back to the state he dreams of; now he wants change on a massive scale, wiping away the civilization he despises. Now he desires the apocalypse, because “the children” have rejected him and he no longer cares what happens to them.

It’s telling, here, that this plan must have been in place well before al-Ghul approached Batman. He knew the Lazarus Pits’ effectiveness was declining, and that he was going to either need to finish his project immediately or hand the reins to someone else. His own personal world now coming to an end, he decides he might as well end everyone else’s as well, and hope the shattered pieces assemble themselves into a better world.

So Batman is called to avert a true apocalypse at last, and how appropriate an apocalypse it is! As al-Ghul points out in the first episode, it is the great engine of capitalism that has been devouring the rain forests and poisoning the seas, and it is the society built upon that engine (or, perhaps, upon which that engine is built) that he seeks to destroy. And no matter how much money Bruce Wayne may donate personally, he has neither the power nor the will to stop the machine from which his own power derives.

Ra’s al-Ghul does, albeit at terrible cost. But in the end Batman performs the highest function of the superhero: he averts the apocalypse. He keeps the engine running. Avatar of the capitalocene extinction, Batman sends al-Ghul plunging into the abyss.

And, laughing maniacally, al-Ghul emerges stronger and more destructive than ever. The apocalypse is once again deferred, not prevented. This battle will be fought again.


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See you in the morning (Blind as a Bat)

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It’s February 22, 1993, two days before “See No Evil,” so see that post for charts and news.

We have here a challenging episode to write about. “Blind as a Bat” is visually impressive, as the team of director Dan Riba and Studio Junio almost has to be. There’s a particular chase sequence, in which a car full of teenagers flee a suspension bridge under attack by the Penguin in a stolen stealth helicopter, that’s absolutely thrilling, from the menace of the silently hovering helicopter to the writhing of the support cables it severs, right up into the final shot of the sequence as we watch the bridge collapse.

At the same time, well, we pan right from the collapsing bridge to the car full of teens watching the collapse from an impossible distance, followed by a cut to a news announcer, whose line includes the statement “Amazingly, all those on the collapsing bridge escaped with only minor injuries.” It’s not that people survived; it’s that there’s no indication of how they survived, just a flat declaration that the bridge collapse was an empty spectacle devoid of real cost.

Empty spectacle is the name of the game in this episode, a bizarre decision given the premise, that Batman is temporarily blinded by an explosion just when the Penguin is terrorizing the city in a prototype helicopter stolen from Wayne Industries. There’s a host of fruitful ground contained in questions the episode brushes aside with an offhand comment; for example, since when does Wayne Industries develop weapons? (Wayne comments that he’s “uncomfortable” with it, but then seems satisfied when the helicopter demonstrates its destructive abilities.) Given that the helicopter’s stealth capabilities are shared by the Batwing, was it simply developed as a cover for creating the Batwing? If so, shouldn’t Batman feel some sense of guilt or responsibility? Yet there’s no indication of such, beyond “the city is in danger and I’m unable to help.”

Alternatively, his blindness could be read as a metaphor for his failure to see the dangers of creating weapons, and in particular for creating a weapon called “Raven” and not expecting the Penguin to try to steal it. Wayne’s visible satisfaction with the weapon–that he finds its clearly demonstrated ability to destroy the U.S. military’s enemies something that apparently alleviates, rather than deepens, his discomfort–is evidence of a “blind spot” he has demonstrated before, namely that as a supporter and beneficiary of Gotham’s structures of power, he is unable to deal effectively with abusers of legitimate power. He is a “captain of industry,” and hence complicit with the military-industrial complex.

Remember, this is 1993. Communism, at least as a justification for the existence of a state of perpetual warfare, is over; the Soviet Union collapsed years ago. We’re still more than eight years out from terrorism taking over from communism as the new eternal enemy, the spread of which must be contained by transferring large amounts of tax money to war profiteers and attempting to conquer whatever nation happens to catch the U.S.’s eye. In between, in the absence of justification, the only options are to end U.S. aggression and imperialism, or to carry on as usual while ignoring the question of why.

Historically, of course, we went with the latter, and clearly in the DCAU matters are little different. Even if we assume the Raven is a by-product of developing the technologies involved in the Batwing, that still means Batman is deploying military hardware in his (now revealed as distressingly literal) war on crime. This is a pure expression of the Bat, a raging beast out to kill the enemies of the status quo, rather than a protector so full of hope that he keeps putting his villains in a cardboard prison so that they can have a chance to reform.

Which brings us to a metaphor that is, perhaps, truer to what the episode actually depicts, albeit a disappointingly ableist one: Batman’s blindness is an expression of helplessness and despair. It renders him unable to fight even his least menacing and most ridiculous foes, in a scenario that forces him to deploy military technology on the streets of Gotham. It is a surrender to the Bat, a giving up on the idea that is hope for his criminals or for himself.

So, perhaps, it is telling that the episode contains a handful of references to Star Trek, a series often espoused as epitomizing hope, and in particular as embodying the hope that our present social ills are resolvable, that humanity in general and Western culture in particular are potentially redeemable. They’re mostly subtle: the Raven’s stealth capabilities are not referred to as such, but rather as a “cloaking device,” on a craft named after a bird (just as, in Star Trek, “birds of prey” and “warbirds” are the two types of ships that possess cloaking devices). Later, the Raven’s laser cannon fires with a sound effect used many times on the original Star Trek series for various futuristic weapons. And of course, there is the solution to Batman’s blindness: a sensor package, worn in a mask, that communicates directly with his optic nerve to produce a visual display rather distinct from normal vision. It’s bulkier, more primitive, and needs an external power source, but Batman and Leslie Thompkins appear to have just invented the VISOR device worn by blind character Geordi LaForge on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

There is still hope. Things may seem dark now–so dark as to render vision impossible–but there may yet be a way forward. But that way is not to be found in the normal worlds in which Batman resides, the worlds of noir and street crime, violence and capitalism, but in a more fantastical, science-fictional direction.

But that means change, a massive upheaval to the world and its structures. It’s time, in short, for an apocalypse–and as a superhero, it’s down to Batman to defer it.


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She’s Batgirl! (Shadow of the Bat)

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo

It’s September 13 and 14, 1993, the two days immediately prior to “Mudslide,” so see that post for charts and news.

On Batman the Animated Series, something that’s been a long time coming finally arrives with “Shadow of the Bat,” the debut of Batgirl. (No relation to Batman: Shadow of the Bat, a comic book series which debuted a year prior but had no distinct identity of its own, being just a way for DC to cram more Batman stories into a month.)

This is a deeply atypical origin story, and so helps define, in this fledgling ideaspace, what a typical origin story actually is. If Batman and Robin are both inside the lines, and Batgirl outside, that helps us determine where the lines might be.

The most obvious difference here is that Barbara Gordon still has parents, or a parent at least. (Her mother is never named; she presumably died or left at some point prior to the series, but this is not explored.) She is not motivated to fight crime out of a desire for revenge, as Batman and Robin are, but to protect others and to assert her own power.

This, perhaps, is the most intriguing part of “Shadow of the Bat, Part I”: the degree to which the first half of the episode plays out like a “sympathetic villain” origin story. Barbara’s frustration is depicted clearly, and the continual dismissal she receives from other characters is emphasized repeatedly. In her first scene, she comments that her father has barely stopped treating her like a child, and he’s “already trying to marry me off.” It’s a playful response, her tone gently teasing her father in response to and recognition of his attempt to help his daughter find love and happiness with a man he likes, but at the same time it’s a firm drawing of boundaries, establishing that her life is her own.

But even as she tries to establish her independence, her life is falling apart around her. By the middle of the first episode, Commissioner Gordon is in prison, the evidence against him strong enough to convince the DA Barbara assumed would be an ally, and the one person she was absolutely certain would help, Batman, is chasing “something bigger.” When she vows that Batman will come to the rally “one way or the other,” her fist clenched, the entire DCAU hangs in the balance.

Imagine not knowing that Barbara Gordon is Batgirl in the comics and past Batman television shows. Imagine, too, that you don’t notice that the title card shows the titular silhouette, a slim, feminine figure that, except for the bat cowl, looks exactly like Barbara’s pose in this moment. Surely this is her great moment of decision, before she picks a theme, puts on a costume, and stages a crime that forces Batman to come to the rally and her father’s aid, yes? The beginning of her fall, the tragedy of a woman who wanted to help and was denied the chance, so she turned to crime. We are coming off of an episode about Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn, after all!

But no. She does something else. Batman will not come, will not help, so she becomes Batman.

Or, rather, Batgirl, because she remains an atypical hero. Lacking the defining trauma, the Bat is not something that lives inside her; it is a costume she puts on, a deliberate performance through which she is able to express her power. Barbara Gordon becomes Batgirl, and changes the world into what she wants it to be–one where Commissioner Gordon is free and the people who hurt and betrayed him are in comas or imprisoned. Batgirl is not Barbara Gordon’s compulsion, not her true self; it’s a power fantasy she acts out.

Which is itself curious. Batman, as we have touched on briefly before, is not a power fantasy. He’s a trauma victim, constantly reliving his parents’ deaths, a cowering child hiding behind two false personae, millionaire playboy philanthropist Bruce Wayne and Batman. This is not a figure that we want to be! (Not even those of us who have experienced trauma. The power we fantasize about is not the power to remain traumatized while fighting evil; it’s the power to erase or escape the trauma.) Rather, he represents the fantasy of a protector, that someone might both possess power and understand pain, and so choose to protect us from all the things that frighten and hurt us.

Batgirl, by contrast, is a power fantasy. Which is one reason (the others, of course, being that they’re two separate characters in the comics, and also the sexism underlying calling an adult woman a girl in contexts where a man would never be called a boy) that she’s Batgirl, rather than Batwoman. Adults, you see, rarely have power fantasies about being superheroes, because superheroes defend the status quo, and when adults have power fantasies, it’s generally out of frustration with the status quo. We have already seen the characters that represent these fantasies: Poison Ivy is a fantasy about having the power to punish the people making the world a materially worse place to live, while Clayface is a fantasy about having the power to avenge ourselves on those who’ve wronged us. Other examples abound throughout the DCAU.

Generally speaking, it’s children for whom superheroes represent a power fantasy, though there are of course exceptions (one of which we will be exploring in some depth in a few years’ time). So by creating Batgirl as a power fantasy, Barbara Gordon marks herself as being still somewhat childlike; she is an innocent, jumping into a world she doesn’t understand. As Batman says, “It takes more than a costume and an attitude to do this job.” It takes a fragmented identity, a tortured past, an obsessive need to protect society and pursue crime; it takes, in short, trauma.

Barbara Gordon is, simply put, too psychologically healthy to be a superhero long-term. She can and will continue to grow and mature; her adult self years from now will not be any variant of Bat, but Commissioner Barbara Gordon–and if her adult self is not a Bat, it follows that the Bat version of her is not an adult. She is Batgirl, not Batwoman, even if she and Renee Montoya are pretty blatantly flirting with one another in the police station in Part I.

But all that lies in the future and in her name. Right now, she’s as resourceful as ever, sneaking a peak at a book of mugshots or, when Robin shuts her out of hearing Gil Mason’s phone call, using binoculars to read the pad where he wrote down the meeting address. She’s not up to Batman’s level in martial arts, of course, nor does she possess his array of toys, but she’s got gymnastics skills that make her mobile and unpredictable, and a surprisingly effective arsenal assembled from what she could get her hands on. She’s not Batman’s protege or ward, not a minion or a student or a damsel in distress; she’s able to stand as his equal.

Just for a moment, at the end there, we saw the reification of the alternative to hierarchy “Harley and Ivy” offered us: a team. The Bat Family is born.


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