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Batman Beyond: Out of the Past (Review)

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. This is the last post of the week, and so I thought I should focus on where it all started, with the animated Bruce Wayne.

I don’t think Batman Beyond gets the credit that it so sorely deserves. It was really the first time that it was explicitly acknowledged that Bruce Wayne couldn’t be Batman forever – that, unlike so many other members of the DC pantheon, the character was a mere mortal who would pass away and that he couldn’t wear the cowl forever. The animated television show was the first to wonder what would happen to the concept of Batman, if Bruce couldn’t do it anymore. Would the hero die out and fade from memory? Or would he live on, somehow, enduring forever?

Batman always was a showman…

Scottish writer Grant Morrison dared to ask that question over the course of his run on Batman and explored it further during his Batman & Robin run. He dared to suggest that, in the event of Bruce’s death (or something resembling it), the title would become a legacy hero. Batman would live on, with Dick Grayson under the mask. However, I think it’s only reasonable that Morrison’s idea owes a debt to this television show, which offered a world where a young man named Terry McGinnis had taken up the mantle of the Dark Knight. Indeed, there seemed to be something of an acknowledgement when Morrison made sure to include Terry in his long line of potential generational Batmen during Time and the Batman, the 700th issue of Batman’s comic.

If, as many have theorised, the core of Batman’s appeal rests in his humanity – if the reason we love him so much is because he’s not a god or a mutant or an alien, but a normal enough guy – then surely we recognise his mortality? Surely the audience implicitly accepts that, one day, there will come a time when Bruce will no longer be able to be Batman? Of course, the way that comic books operate, with Batman being ten years into his career for the past seventy years, we’ll never have to face that moment, but it’s still the ultimate conclusion of the thought experiment that is Batman.

Daddy’s little Demon…

Much of the animated series focused on young Terry as the hip protagonist. He was pretty much Spider-Man reimagined as Batman. He was a teenager who had lived a normal life, but found himself involved in something extraordinary. He was lighter than Bruce – funnier and wittier, too. He loved his life, and never seemed as embittered and regretful as the old man who had given him the chance to be a hero. Terry was the Batman of the future, and the bulk of the series revolved around him.

However, Out of the Past, written by Paul Dini (probably my favourite Batman writer), is one of the few episodes to focus on Bruce – and, in particular, on that mortality that we all know is there, but are too afraid to face. The movie sees Bruce confronted by his old lover, Talia Al Ghul. Talia was the daughter of his old nemesis, Ra’s Al Ghul, and she’s about the same age as she was all those years ago. She never had to grow old due to the Lazarus Pits, steaming chemical baths which offer eternal youth. She offers Bruce the chance at eternal life, youth once again.

Well, at least he can count on a bat’s best friend…

That said, it isn’t just youth and vitality she offers – it’s a second chance, a do-over. If Bruce could have those lost years back, knowing that his crusade will leave him alone in a cave with just a dog for company, wouldn’t he do things differently? Would he renounce the cape and embrace the opportunity for true love with “a very special woman” when it came along? Or is Bruce so damaged that he simply wishes “it was still him in the suit”? Would he make the same choices again?

This is a Bruce who now has to turn down his favourite food because “I can’t eat this anymore.” He’s made to feel – like so many elderly people – powerless and “completely helpless.” Out of the Past acknowledges a lot that has been heavily implied. Bruce Wayne won’t ever get to live happily ever after. Assuming he isn’t killed by some random criminal, he’s going to be left alone and isolated with nobody who really loves or cares for him. It’s a powerful image, and one which fits the character and his world perfectly.

Bruce has plenty of time for reflection…

Out of the Past is a great little episode. It opens with “Batman: The Musical!” a stage show which reduces Bruce’s career down to a selection of camp musical numbers, featuring songs such as “A Superstitious and Cowardly Lot”. Kevin Conroy provides both the voice of the singing Batman and the less-than-impressed Bruce Wayne. “Excuse me,” he begins politely as moves out his seat towards the exit. Though, as the number goes on, he gets more direct to the other patrons, “Move!”

The episode also provides an excuse to have Bruce and Terry team up as Batmen. The pair work well, and have great banter. “Lady, you’re creeping me out,” Terry warns Talia, when it is revealed that her father Ra’s has taken control of her mind. “You?” Bruce responds, “She kissed me.” In fairness, pretty much every one-liner Batman utters when played by Conroy is pure gold. When Ra’s hits him across the face while using his daughter’s body, Batman glibly remarks, “You hit like a girl.”

No need to make a song and dance about it…

Dini’s a great writer. He writes Talia as if he father is speaking – so even though she initially uses her own voice, there’s something subtly wrong with the delivery. Although, when the smooth tones of David Warner start coming from her lips, it’s even more unnerving. Although, in fairness, it is great to hear Warner again – I think the greatest casualty of the “Bat embargo” on the Justice League was the fact that Ra’s couldn’t make an appearance or several.

There are several references which perhaps indicate that this plot is a favourite among the writing staff at DC comics. For example, the way that Ra’s wrote his personality over that of a younger relative recalls the villain’s sinister plan in The Resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul, where he planned to imprint himself upon his young grandson, Damien. The suggestion that Ra’s will return to Gotham claiming to be “the long-forgotten son of Bruce Wayne and Talia” calls to mind the decision of Grant Morrison to bring Bruce’s illegitimate son with Talia into continuity and make him Robin.

Dearly beloved…

Out of the Past is a great little episode – and a fond epilogue for Bruce Wayne. The DC animated universe began with Batman: The Animated Series, so it seems that this is an appropriate place to end our little retrospective trip into it, with a look at the future of that particular character. I think Kevin Conroy might be the best Batman in any medium – it’s his voice I hear when I am reading good Batman comics – and it’s his version of Bruce Wayne that I think of when I remember the DC animated universe. It’s hard to think it’s been two decades, but it has been a fun two decades.

4 Responses

  1. Interesting! I hadn’t seen these episodes before – hours of time-wasting/comic education ahead going by the youtube clips I just watched! Thanks

  2. Never heard of this episode. Going out to find it now!

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