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Batman Beyond – Ascension (Review)

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.

Batman Beyond worked quite hard to establish its own identity, as distinct from Batman: The Animated Series. Sure, occasionally familiar villains and characters would make an appearance, and Terry had a fair share of his bed guys who were at least partially inspired by Z-list Batman baddies, but Batman Beyond managed to firmly establish itself as its own thing over its first season. Ascension is a finale that wraps up narrative threads that have been building since Rebirth, giving Terry some measure of emotional closure and also tying up some loose ends that have been dangling since the show began.

Not quite the healthiest form of green energy…

Being entirely honest, you could watch Batman: The Animated Series in almost any order. There are origin episodes scattered throughout the run, but – for the most part – you could jumble the show up and it would make almost as much sense. Batman Beyond doesn’t work like that. While far from the multi-episode-spanning serials of Justice League, the show established an internal mythology early on, an arc that built from the pilot through to the season finalé.

Ascension effectively ties up the subplot involving Derek Powers, the man who murdered Terry’s father. It gives the hero some measure of closure – something that, depending on the version of the story told, Bruce never really had with Joe Chill. Although the episode’s ending suggests that Blight might return in a later episode, he never materialised again. (I think he did appear in the tie-in comics though.) As a result, this serves to draw a line in the sand under Terry’s pursuit of vengeance.

His mask is slipping…

In many respects, Batman Beyond is an exploration of what it takes to become Batman. It’s a point that becomes a lot clearer with the Epilogue coda provided by Justice League Unlimited, but it’s interesting to compare and contrast Terry and Bruce. Terry was a teenager when he lost his father, but still had his mother and brother to anchor him. As a result, Terry seems a lot more comfortable with his loss than Bruce Wayne ever did. While loss is undoubtedly a major motivator in forming a Batman, Batman Beyond suggests that it doesn’t have to be all-consuming. In effect, Terry is a much more balanced version of Batman than Bruce ever was, certainly one better at dealing and coping with loss.

That said, Ascension emphasises that Terry is still a teenager when he assumes the role. He’s prone to rash decisions and judgements. He lacks the emotional detachment that Bruce would foster. When he discovers that he may have played a role in transforming Derek Power into the monster Blight, Terry responds, “Good.” Even Bruce calls him on his attitude later on in the episode, advising the teenager, “Careful Terry, you’re sounding a little vindictive.” Batman has to be bigger than that. While Bruce never truly overcame the tragedy that formed him, Batman: The Animated Series was careful to illustrate he was never entirely consumed by vengeance or vindictive about it.

Keeping it in the family…

Ascension allows Terry to overcome that destructive vindictiveness when it becomes clear that Paxton Power plans to murder his father. Terry hates Derek, but he’d never consider that an option. The episode contrasts Terry and Paxton, two men responding to their fathers. Paxton has grown up in the shadow of his father, emotionally exploited and pushed aside by a man who has no use for an heir because he seems to plan to live forever. We join Paxton in what he deems “exile”, shunted aside and ignored. Without the love of his father, he’s grown vindictive and cruel.

Even in his emotional absence, it turns out Derek Powers was a massive influence on his son. “You taught me by example, dad,” Paxton boasts as he seems to relish torturing his father before murdering him. In contrast, Terry’s father at least instilled in Terry a core sense of values. Epiloguewould reveal that he was Bruce Wayne’s biological son, but he was raised by Warren McGinnis. Warren seems to have raised a remarkably well-adjusted boy, so much so that his influence remains even in his absence.

Talk about a net gain…

Of course, it’s also an effective counterpart to Bruce and Terry. A cynic might argue that Bruce is somewhat similar to Derek Powers. Much as Derek plans to use his son as a proxy to hold on to power, it could be argued that Bruce is doing something quite like that with Terry. Too old to protect Gotham, he’s using Terry as a Batman surrogate. Bruce is very clearly micro-managing and directing Terry, frequently tapped into his eyes and ears. With his cold demeanour, there’s a logical argument that Bruce is simply using Terry to do what he’s physically incapable of doing.

Certainly, the relationship here is still less than warm. When Bruce is wounded during a confrontation with the Wayne-Power board, Terry runs to his aid. “You okay?” Terry asks, clearly concerned about his surrogate father figure. Bruce’s response is cold and practical, “I’m fine, Batman.”Of course he needs to keep Terry in-character, and avoid any implication he knows the man in the suit, but it’s still a very cold moment, and the subtext is quite clear. Bruce is almost disappointed with Terry’s concern, as if the vigilante should be pursuing Powers rather than wasting his time with a feeble old man.

Some things never go out of fashion…

However, the climax of the episode makes it quite clear that – beneath his gruff exterior – Bruce does care. It’s quite fascinating that Bruce never tries to relate to Terry’s difficulties with Power, or tries to talk him through his anger. Given how much anger Bruce carries around, it would seem hypocritical. Instead, it seems like a mark of respect, as if Bruce trusts Terry to deal with his problems in his own way, rather than dictating how the teenager should deal with his grief.

Still, at the climax of the story, there’s a rare hint of emotion in Bruce’s normally cold voice. As Terry finds himself trapped on board a nuclear submarine, Bruce orders him, “Get out! Now!”There’s no command to apprehend either Derek or Paxton Powers, nor to try to stop the submarine sinking. Indeed, it’s Terry who makes the choice to try to save Paxton’s two discarded henchmen, slowing himself down and increasing the chance he might drown. Terry could easily have apprehended Paxton at the submarine, but he chose to save two henchmen, a decision Bruce would be proud. Nevertheless, during the sequence, Bruce is ordering Terry to get out, with clear concern in his voice.

Atomic skull?

I have to admit that I really like the visual design of Blight. He calls to mind Doctor Phosphorus, an old Batman villain introduced by Steve Englehart in the seventies, who was put to good use by James Robinson in Starman. There are faint echoes of that appearance here, as the radioactive character threatens the father-figure of a younger legacy hero. Of course, Blight doesn’t give Bruce Wayne cancer as Doctor Phosphorus would to Ted Knight, but it still feels like an affectionate homage.

The animation of the character is great. I actually quite like the visual design of Batman Beyond, as it stands half-way between the gritty work of Batman: The Animated Series and the more streamlined aesthetic of Justice League. I love that sickly green glow and the fact that Blight is essentially illustrated as a day-glo green skeleton. I choose to interpret that as a throwing down of the gauntlet to Joel Schumacher. Like Grant Morrison’s Batman & Robin, Batman Beyonddemonstrates that it is possible to do Batman with a neon aesthetic without damaging the character.

No bones about it…

Ascension is the first season finalé of Batman Beyond, but it also serves as the point the show truly came into its own. It’s a rather wonderful encapsulation of the show’s themes, and a solid Batman story.

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