This September marks the twentieth anniversary of Batman: The Animated Series, and the birth of the shared DC animated universe that would eventually expand to present one of the most comprehensive and thorough explorations of a comic book mythology in any medium. To celebrate, we’re going back into the past and looking at some classic episodes.
Given how much care Batman: The Animated Series put into crafting and caring for the Caped Crusader’s iconic selection of bad guys, it’s often easy to overlook just how skilfully the series handled its central character. Batman has frequently been accused of being far less interesting than his costumed adversaries – particularly in Batman and Batman Returns – so it’s reassuring to note that Bruce Tim and his stable of writers had a very firm grasp on the character of Gotham’s Dark Knight. Perchance to Dream is one of the stories that offers perhaps the greatest insight into who Bruce Wayne is and what he wants. And, perhaps, why he could never have it.
Note: This review contains spoilers. Given the episode aired twenty years ago, I consider it fair game. If you haven’t seen it already, please feel free to come back when you have. It is very good.
In many ways, this feels like an attempt to craft a version of For the Man Who Has Everything, but for Batman instead of Superman. Indeed, many of the plot points can be transposed on a one-for-one basis. Batman is Superman, the Mad Hatter is Mongol, Jor-El is Thomas Wayne, the Black Mercy is a mind-control colander. Just as Alan Moore’s iconic Superman story defined the central character by exploring his own subconscious, Perchance to Dream does the same thing, delving into the mind of the Dark Knight to explore what a world might look like where Bruce Wayne had never been Batman.
After what seems like a regular night on patrol, something drops on Batman and Bruce Wayne wakes up. Wayne is confused by his surroundings, but Alfred seems even moreso. Bruce is presented with a world where his parents were never gunned down and he never saw the need to don the iconic cape-and-cowl. Interestingly, it seems like there is another version of Batman running around – so even in Bruce’s wildest dreams he doesn’t imagine “a world without Batman.”
I think that’s a nice touch. The best possible world for Bruce is a world where the two identities can be separated, and live their lives. Bruce doesn’t dream of an idle Gotham. He can’t completely erase Batman from his psyche. The best he can do is to split Batman out and let him do his own thing – while Bruce is free to do live his own life with the love of his parents. (You could infer that Gotham needsa Batman and just created another one, but it’s very clear that the Batman in Bruce’s dream is still him – even though he can’t be. He still speaks with Bruce’s voice and adheres to the hero’s patrol routes.)
With Batman completely separate, it leaves Bruce free to enjoy the life that he would otherwise have had. With the exception of the fact that Thomas and Martha Wayne are still around, and he’s getting married to Selina Kyle, it doesn’t seem too different from the playboy facade that Bruce has been living for years – late night parties, beautiful women, no real responsibility. “It’s like I’m living someone else’s life,” he confesses at one point, perhaps reflecting on how deeply buried Bruce Wayne is within Batman.
The Animated Series was always quite consistent in suggesting that Bruce was really just a part of Batman, not vice versa. Perchance to Dream offers such an alien experience for this version of Bruce, because it brings to the surface things buried so far inside him. The animated Batman has always been more like Michael Keaton’s Batman than Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne. For example, I quite liked the revelation in Batman Beyond that the voice in his own head doesn’t call him “Bruce.”
As such, the episode’s penultimate confrontation between Bruce and Batman seems the inevitably tragic conclusion to the conflict that exists within Bruce Wayne. More than Superman or any other hero, Bruce and Batman exist at odds – both characters want very different things, and Bruce must decide whether to satisfy one set of needs or the other. Were he being honest to himself, Bruce would accept that it’s impossible to satisfy both without separating the pair as seen here.
When Bruce figures out that something is wrong with his idealised world, he doesn’t vent his frustration on the Joker or the Scarecrow. He knows who is responsible – despite the fact he doesn’t have any evidence. “Batman! Always Batman!” Bruce shouts. “He’s behind all this! I know it.” He accuses Batman, “You did this to me!” It’s a rather wonderful – and quite consistent – portrayal of the dynamic. Indeed, one might go so far as to say that Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Risesis the story of how Batman and Bruce Wayne trying to kill one another.
(Incidentally, I do like the fact that Perchance to Dream allows Bruce to externalise Batman’s bad-ass theatrics, allowing Bruce to witness first-hand how awesome his shadow persona actually is. “Isn’t he fantastic?” Selina Kyle asks her fiancé. Bruce can’t help but concede, “Actually, yeah.” That’s just about the only good thing that Bruce can take from this whole dream experience. Sure, learning that you are awesome is probably nothing compared to losing your parents all over again, but it’s a nice touch.)
That said, there is a suggestion that the Bruce Wayne seen here is less of a hero than we might expect. When he wakes up in Wayne Manor, he wonders how he got there. “How’d I get back here?” he asks Alfred. “Robin?” Alfred’s response is quite telling. “Robin, sir? A young lady? I thought you and Miss Selina were… pardon me sir… none of my business…”The fact that Alfred, his surrogate father, could think that Bruce would have an affair like that behind his lover’s back says a lot about the kind of person this Bruce Wayne is.
There’s a sense that this version of Alfred doesn’t actually particularly care for Bruce as a person. Of course, he’s a butler, and he does his job – but he seems to treat Bruce with kid-gloves, as if afraid of a tantrum at any moment. Explaining Bruce’s lifestyle, he tells his employer, “Since your father retired, you’ve been heir to Wayne Enterprises. Although Lucius Fox really runs the business.” As if realising what he just none-too-subtly implied, he quickly adds, “Not that you aren’t capable, of course!” Were it actually true, one suspects that he would not rush to say it.
Perchance to Dream seems to imply that this version of Bruce never really grew up into a proper young man. Doctor Thompkins suggests that Bruce hasn’t done anythingwith his life. When he runs off, his parents call the police, who collect him like a runaway teenager, in the most patronising manner possible. It feels like a commentary on how Bruce Wayne must see that part of himself – as inherently weak and childish, propped up and elevated by the Batman, as if to justify the latter’s creation and the role that the character plays in his life.
I love the visual design of Perchance to Dream, which looks absolutely lovely. Fitting for a story about a world where Bruce Wayne isn’t Batman, Wayne Manor here reminds me of Frank Miller’s portrayal of the house. In particular, the windows in the study seem to evoke that sequence from The Dark Knight Returns, as if suggesting the image of the bat crashing through – implying that it must never have happened in this world, with those windows waiting to be smashed.
There’s also a nice moment of Thomas Wayne checking his son’s pupil dilation and pulse. It suggests that Thomas is a doctor first and foremost, and could never really stop, perhaps suggesting that Bruce inherited that trait. It also perhaps suggests that Thomas has an exceptionally formal relationship with his son. (Bruce does still call him “sir.”) It reminds me of the colder father-son dynamic hinted at by writers like Loeb in The Long Halloween and Hush.
(As an aside, it seems like Perchance to Dream was a heavy influence on Grant Morrison’s superb epilogue to the otherwise quite disjointed Batman R.I.P., as Bruce imagines another world where he wasn’t Batman. Morrison’s world plays up the idea of Bruce as a spoilt wimp of a man-child, and actually gets rid of Batman rather than separating him out. Still, it seems like an affectionate homage to this particular story.)
Naturally, it turns out to be a fake world, and Batman finds out the Mad Hatter is the villain of the week. “It’s purpose is to create an ideal world for you!” the Hatter boasts of his mind-control device. “This isn’t some silly story book!” Batman counters, prompting the Hatter to respond, “Ah, but it is! It’s a beautiful story. You have love, wealth, a family – all you ever wanted! Your own private Wonderland!” Of course, Batman rejects it. “I won’t live a lie, no matter how attractive you make it!”
That says quite a lot about Batman as a character. Naturally, the jumbled up words were a massive hint, but Perchance to Dream makes us wonder if Batman could ever truly accept happiness. Even when he makes a conscious effort to embrace the new reality – joking about Alfred – there’s still a sense that he was sceptical. Talking to the Hatter, he suggests that the books were simply the last straw, and he’d suspected the nature of the illusion all along.
The Hatter can’t figure out why Bruce would reject the world he has created. After all, it is paradise for Bruce. However, I think that is preciselythe reason why Bruce rejected it. I think you could construct a credible argument that the story of Batman is inherently tragic. After all, there is no way that being Batman can end well for him. Even within the DC animated universe that is made clear, with Bruce ending up isolated and alone.
I think it’s reasonable to suggest that – to a certain extent – this version of Bruce is incapable of truly being happy. He builds a family up over time, but he very clearly loses everything – and refuses to take any of the relatively simple steps necessary to fix it up. In fact, even Christopher Nolan’s version has to struggle to allow himself a way out. (“You’re afraid I’ll fail out there?” he asks Alfred, who replies, “No sir. I’m afraid that you want to.”)
The Mad Hatter returns here, and remains a disarmingly pathetic villain. Of course, he could easily kill Batman while he is incapacitated, or at least unmask him – but the Hatter lacks the conviction to do either. He wants a world without Batman, but lacks the courage to take the steps necessary, instead trapping the Dark Knight inside a trap he inevitably escapes. When Batman breaks free, his justifications are petty and self-centred, revealing a failure of a man who lacks even the conviction to properly dispose of Batman.
“You ruined my life!” the Hatter exclaims. “I was willing to give you whatever life you wanted to keep you out of mine!” The fact that the Hatter is oblivious to the obvious anguish and mental torture of his ideal solution reveals just how far Jervis Tetch has moved from any sort of sanity. This is an act the character undoubtedly considers merciful, ignorant of the pain that it must cause to its victim. However, Tetch is really just a footnote in an episode that instead serves as a vehicle to explore Batman’s psyche.
Perchance to Dream is a thoughtful episode of the show focusing on Bruce Wayne as a character. I believe that Kevin Conroy has cited it as one of his favourites, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a reminder of who exactly is the star of this show.
Filed under: Television Tagged: | alfred, alfred pennyworth, batman, batman animated series, Bruce, bruce wayne, Christopher Nolan, dark knight returns, Dark Knight Rises, dc animated universe, FrankMiller, Hatter, Lucius Fox, robin, Selina, superman, thomas wayne, Warner Bros, Wayne Enterprise, Wayne Enterprises