This post is part of the DCAU fortnight, a series of articles looking at the Warner Brothers animations featuring DC’s iconic selection of characters. I’ll be looking at movies and episodes and even some of the related comic books. To tie into this morning’s review of Under the Red Hood, I thought I’d take a look at what might happen to Batman if he lost a partner.
Following the success of Superman: The Animated Series, a new bunch of Batman episodes were commissioned by Warner Brothers to compliment Batman: The Animated Series. However, this new series would be animated in the style of the Superman series – typically meaning a lighter animation and fewer lines. The transition was jarring, to say the least. Indeed, many commentators make the observation (whether fair or not) that The New Batman Adventures offered a “lighter and softer” approach to the Caped Crusader and his universe. Though I think that’s not an unfair description, it is also worth conceding that the season also gave us quite possibly the single darkest half-hour in the entire history of the DC animated universe. I refer to Over the Edge.
I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by discussing the nature of the episode. (If I am, please look away now.) In fact, the show does – as the commentary notes – tip its hand quite early to its nature by virtue of the presence of the Scarecrow. Despite the jumping around that the narrative does, it’s nearly impossible to convince a viewer that what they are seeing is real – there’s no way the show could do this, unless it were the final episode (and even then, it would take some guts).
If Brave New Metropolis hints at the possible result of Superman’s ultimate failure (where a car bomb killing Lois leads the Man of Steel to form a fascist government), Over the Edge offers something similar for Batman. Here someone under Bruce’s care is killed, and it destroys him. It serves to demonstrate how luck the vigilante has been that Tim and Dick have survived so long, but also to illustrate just how precarious and fragile the whole status quois.
It would be so easy for everything to fall apart – to lose everything. “Playtime’s over,” Bullock informs Batman, suggesting that it’s time to deal with the consequences of his recklessness. “No vanishing act this time,” Gordon observes as he has Bruce in his sights. Nightwing laments, “Everything gone – just like that.”
The episode makes it clear that losing a sidekick is something Bruce has nightmares about. Of Barbara’s death he remarks, “I can see it as clearly as my parents’ murder”, calling to mind those comparisons which suggest that the loss of Jason Todd as Robin in A Death in the Familyis at least as defining an event in Batman’s life as the death of Bruce’s parents.
However, the real star of the show here is Barbara’s father – Commissioner James Gordon. I’ve remarked before that Gordon really is the human heart of the Batman universe, and a far more important character than most would realise (often relegated to providing chunks of exposition or maybe offering back-up). Here, Gordon gets to direct some righteous anger at Batman, a man in whom he has placed implicit (and possibly unearned) trust over the years. “How could you?” he demands of the Dark Knight while cradling his daughter’s dead body in his arms.
Writer Paul Dini is one of the best Batman writers to ever work on the character (in any medium), and he knows how to cut straight to the heart of the matter. Here, he gives us Gordon accepting responsibility for his own passiveness over the years. When asked what he plans to do following his daughter’s death, he resolves to do “what I should have done years ago” - as he storms Wayne Manor and has the Police Department declare war on Batman.
“I allowed you to run wild on your psychotic crusade,” he confesses in a phone conversation with Wayne, a final courtesy between friends. Gordon has always been the human face of the franchise, the man who makes the truly impossible choice to trust a man who dresses up as a giant bat.
If the episode is about Batman paying the cost of his own choices – and dealing with the consequences of the young disciples he collects – it’s also about the price that Gordon ends up paying. Gordon loses everything as a result of what he (knowingly or unknowingly) allowed to go on under his nose – on top of the loss of his daughter, he also gets to see his whole career go up in smoke. All the good work he has done to clean up the city is for nothing. It’s all null and void. All of it lost in a moment.
The story takes its characters to some dark places. Jim is desperate, with Dini hinting he’s suffering from a nervous breakdown. His actions over the course of the episode - using his daughter’s funeral as a sting operation to catch Batman, turning to Bane for assistance - are not those of a healthy man. Over the Edge requires the audience to buy into the belief that all it takes is one small mistake to destroy all these lives so completely, and it manages to do that swiftly and efficiently.
Even the episode’s comic relief is pointed. During a news segment where several of the city’s villains are promising the sue Batman, the always eloquent Mad Hatter observes that, “None of us would have turned to crime were it not for Batman.” It’s perhaps an exaggeration, but also a further illustration of how much of a mixed blessing Bruce Wayne’s vigilante career has been to the city. Although the sequence is played as (much needed) light relief, Dini seems to suggest that every joke contains a grain of truth. Indeed, Gordon plans for Batman “to rot away in Arkham, surrounded by the monsters he’s created.”
Even amid all this carnage and depression (and there’s a lot of it, in case you haven’t gathered), there is still room for some small sweet moments. There’s the final conversation between Tim and Batman, as Batman breaks up the family of characters surrounding him completely. In that moment, it seems obvious that the reason Batman remains such a loner despite having such a strong supporting cast is because he knows something like this is inevitable. And then there’s that final chat between father and daughter (“all you need to know is I love you”), which almost counters all the darkness we’ve just seen – but not quite.
The show makes interesting use of Bane. Keep in mind that the character was tremendously popular in the nineties, coming out of Knightfall – the story where he crippled Batman. The character – an intelligent master strategist and muscle-bound bruiser in the comics – even made a supporting appearance in Batman & Robin – albeit grossly dumbed down (to the point where he was a mute goon). The animated Bane has never quite matched the sophistication of his four-colour alternate, but here he’s actually presented much better than he was in his debut episode (Bane). He’s somehow strangely creepy, particularly as he remarks to Gordon (who he is about to kill), “Please, give your dear Barbara a kiss for me”.
It’s worth remarking on the character redesigns which came with the aforementioned revamp. Some of them – the Joker, for instance, and particularly the Riddler – were just terrible, particularly after the rich designs of the earlier series. On the other hand, the Scarecrow is quite a gruesome creation in his reimagined form (I can imagine quite a few nightmares resulting from the character’s appearance). I’m not mad about the artistic redesign of the series, but most of it is okay. I’m not quite sure to make of the “new and improved” Bane, complete with leather and spikes. He looks almost like the gimp from Pulp Fiction. I suppose that his outfit was always fetishistic.
I wasn’t mad on the use of CGI during the action sequences either. the animation is great and it’s well choreographed, but scenes like the opening boat chase just stand out like a sore thumb (as does the Commissioner’s “Vertigo“moment). Damn it, why did they have to change the show? Ah well, it’s a great little story, though.
Some people out there might complain at the “twist” ending. I put “twist” in inverted commas because… well, it’s a Scarecrow episode, with bonus points for giving the Mad Hatter dialogue. The subtitle might as well have been: “it’s all a dream…” However, I’m fairly okay with it. Yes, dreams and hallucinations are tired story devices, but even tired storytelling devices can be forgiven when they are used to tell a story worth telling. And Dini’s excellent insight into the characters can’t help but make it a story worth telling. Besides, it was Alan Moore himself who observes that they are all imaginary tales, after all.
Over the Edge is a grim little look at just how much of Batman’s life is sitting on the edge of a razor blade, ready to slip at any moment. It’s also the closest the DC animated universe has to a “Gordon” episode. It’s packed with insight and more than a hint of relevance, provided you can forgive the corny old framing device.
Filed under: Television Tagged: | bane, barbara gordon, batgirl, batman, batman: the animated series, Bruce, bruce wayne, commissioner gordon, commissioner james gordon, commissioner jim gordon, Dark Knight Rise, dc, dc animated universe, dcau, gordon, james gordon, jim gordon, New Batman Adventures, over the edge, Television, the new batman adventures