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Justice League Unlimited – Epilogue (Review)

At the time Epilogue was written, the creators didn’t know that Justice League Unlimited would get another season. The show ultimately got another year on television, but Dwayne McDuffie and Bruce Timm constructed Epilogue so that it would serve as something of a coda to the entire animated DC universe, stemming as far back as On Leather Wings. It actually works almost perfectly, bringing everything a full circle. Justice League and Justice League Unlimited consciously pushed Batman to the periphery, which made a bit of sense. After all, the character had anchored two shows already. However, Epilogue moves Batman back to the centre, re-establishing Bruce as the core of the animated DC universe and giving him a (mostly) happy ending a few years before The Dark Knight Rises would do the same thing.

One final spotlight on Batman…

Epilogue actually does work well as a book-end for the DCAU, to the point where the entire season that followed feels like a bit of after-word on a fictional universe that ran for a decade-and-a-half. Don’t get me wrong, of course, that final year had some nice episodes. I think Flash and Substance was pretty much the perfect Flash story, and I’m partial to Alive as a Lex Luthor showcase, but the show never quite matched the emotional work on show both here and in the four-episode “Cadmus” arc proceeding it.

This is essentially a “talking heads”episode, which is a nice touch. There are two rather nice action sequences thrown in – a greyed out Justice-League-of-the-distant-future fight scene and a full-colour Justice-League-of-the-not-so-distant-future confrontation – but they serve to break up a show that consists mainly of conversations between characters. Then again, McDuffie is writing two characters he handles very well. I’d watch a whole season of McDuffie-scripted Bruce Wayne and Amanda Waller interactions. (Bonus points if they interact with each other.)

The old man’s health is on the Wayne…

It’s a thoughtful, reflective little episode, and it’s very clearly a Batman story. After spending the last few years as a supporting player, it’s nice to get a bit of a spotlight on Kevin Conroy’s Batman. While Bruce Timm’s animated universe offered thoughtful and insightful takes on most of the major characters, I think it’s safe to say the show left their biggest mark on Batman. The animated Batman was distilled from a variety of influences, taking the best of Denny O’Neil, Frank Miller, Bob Haney and countless other interpretations of the character and his world.

So it’s fitting that McDuffie’s script reads like a love letter to this animated iteration of the character specifically. Drawing on the classic animated show in the same way that the animated show drew on a wealth of interpretations, it’s a celebration of one of the defining takes on this iconic pop character. We find out what happened to Andrea from Mask of the Phantasm, and it’s actually quite sad. We discover that Terry McGinnis grew up with his own version of the Grey Ghost, much as each generation grows up with their own Batman.

He was due a darker and edgier reboot…

The most touching reference comes at the end of the episode, as McDuffie plays out a scene that mirrors the introduction to On Leather Wings all those years ago. Batman flies past a sky patrol, as a cop voiced by Kevin Conroy swears he saw something. It’s not a perfect mirror (Conroy had the second line of the first episode, not the first), but it’s a sweet moment that underscores the strange optimism of this version of the Batman story. The more things change, the more they stay the same. There will always be a Batman, no matter what happens. And that’s comforting.

Epilogue seems to prefigure Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, exploring the notion of a generational Batman, and the idea that there must always be a Batman. Of course, this had been tackled with Batman Beyond which was – I believe – the first story to have a completely new character take over the mantle of Batman from Bruce Wayne. Various Silver Age (or later) stories has positioned Robin as an inevitable successor to his partner, or even Bob Haney’s Bruce Wayne Jr., “super son.” Like The Dark Knight Rises, Batman Beyond suggested that a random Gothamite could, under the right circumstances with Bruce Wayne’s resources, take up the mantle.

Don’t fear the Reaper…

To be fair, Epilogue does hinge on the revelation that Terry McGinnis is Bruce Wayne’s biological son, but it serves mostly as a jump-off point to open up all manner of discussions about the nature of Batman, the essential attributes, and a debate on predeterminism. Breaking the news to Bruce, Terry reaffirms that Warren McGinnis was – for all intents and purposes – his father, even if not biologically. He raised him, and instilled a value system in the boy. He gave him the love Bruce never could.

The revelation concerning Terry’s parentage serves a springboard to discuss the nature of Batman. What does Batman have to be? What is set in stone? What can change from iteration to iteration? What’s essential? What’s optional? What stems from Bruce Wayne himself rather than Batman as a concept? It’s all very thoughtful, very well-considered stuff from McDuffie, who demonstrates an understanding of Batman on par with Bruce Timm or Paul Dini.

Batman and son…

After all, the future of Batman Beyond is not a happy one for Bruce. He ends up, completely alone. He seems to have driven off all his friends and colleagues, living alone in a gigantic and abandoned mansion. Terry calls him on this during an especially heated argument, “What about people, Bruce? Dick, Barbara, Tim, Selina. They all loved you, but eventually every single one of them left you. Ever wonder why?”

Naturally, Bruce responds with a deflection that perhaps explains how he alienated those so close to him. “Not for an instant,” he replies. “They quit because when it came down to it, they didn’t have the heart for the mission. Are you about to quit too? It doesn’t really surprise me.” It’s a very bitter and defensive response from Bruce, distracting from his own insecurities by projecting on to other people. In particular, one would sense that he would be surprised if Terry suddenly wasn’t up to the job – he’d just refuse to admit it.

It’s a grey area…

Incidentally, it’s somewhat ambiguous as to whether the greyed out sequences are “imaginary” segues or flashbacks. It’s possible they really happened, or it’s simply Terry running through possible scenarios in his mind. I don’t think it matters either way, as I think Bruce is consistently in-character. Although, if they “really” happened, it does suggest that people have grown to accept Terry as being as moody as Bruce.

Superman calls towards the end of the episode, implying that he didn’t take Terry’s Justice League resignation seriously – much like Batman’s frequent “part-timer”comments in his own day. And Terry’s girlfriend doesn’t seem to have taken his moody break-up all that seriously at all – they’re still on for Saturday. Still, there is a note of trepidation when Terry asks if they’re still on – as if he might have reason to doubt that they would be. Although he could just be anxious, what with the ring and all. Either way, his conversations with Bruce are very telling.

On technologically-advanced wings…

There has always been a very cynical undercurrent to the relationship between Bruce and Terry. While Bruce obviously cares for Terry more than he would like to admit, you could make an argument that he’s exploiting the boy, living vicariously through the teenager now that he’s physically unable to be Batman. “The only thing that matters is the mission,” Bruce tells Terry, and there’s a sense that he genuinely believes that. Of course, he always has to an extent, but decades of isolation mean that “the mission” is really the only thing that Bruce can count on never to abandon him.

Most portrayals of Batman will concede that the character is obsessive and uncompromising in his pursuit of a given end. It’s certainly his least endearing trait, one that formed the cornerstone of McDuffie’s Justice League: Doom. When Bruce points out that the technology to over-write Terry’s DNA would be illegal, Terry lashes out. “Didn’t stop the Joker from using it on Tim Drake!” He concedes it was a “low blow”, but it’s a valid point. Various Batman stories have raised questions around the things Bruce is willing to sacrifice for the greater good, and he can see his uncompromising and obsessive behaviour mirrored in his own iconic foes.

Facing up to their situation…

Bruce Wayne has limitations. The physical ones prevent him from wearing the cowl forever. But there are also emotional ones. He has sacrificed everything for his “mission”, including the possibility of his own family to replace the one he lost in Crime Alley. It’s unclear whether he was irreparably emotionally damaged by his years of obsession, or if it happened in the instant his parents died, but Bruce Wayne is severely repressed and emotionally isolated. When Terry confesses that all he wanted was to hear Bruce’s approval, Bruce coldly and rationally responds, “What you wanted from me, I couldn’t give to anyone.”

That’s the sad thing about Bruce Wayne, and it’s something that Nolan touched on in The Dark Knight Rises. Bruce’s inability to move on means that nobody will ever really be able to get close, trapping him in a vicious cycle. It’s a pretty solemn note for McDuffie to strike, but it makes sense in the context of the character. As Waller notes, there are two outcomes to the Batman story. Either he is forced to retire due to health reasons, or some punk gets lucky. There is no happy ending to Bruce’s story in that sense.

Beware the Batman Beyond…

However, both Nolan and McDuffie manage to wrangled a happy ending from that grim concession. Nolan has the death of Talia (struggling to avenge her father) strike a chord with Bruce before it is too late. McDuffie suggests that Bruce’s personal problems aren’t inherently part of Batman, and that they’re mitigated when Bruce is surrounded by those who genuinely care. For most of his life, it was Alfred. Now it’s Terry.

Most upliftingly, Terry is free to choose what kind of Batman he wants to be. After all, as Waller discovers, Batman is not merely the result of a mathematically equation. It’s something more than a set of easily-defined influences. “When you’re making a Batman, genetics is only half the story; the rest is tragedy,” Waller explains, discussing her plan to produce a “next gen” Batman. “My plan was simple: the killer would leap out at you and kill your family. The trauma would put you on the path to becoming Batman.” Of course, this proves to be a miscalculation of Waller’s part, and perhaps a misunderstanding of the nature of Batman.

Batman Begins Again…

There have been a lot of stories about trying to duplicate Batman. As a distinctly human character in a universe populated by aliens, gods and space cops, he lends himself to those kinds of tales. Grant Morrison’s Batman run was populated with Batman doppelgängers, none of whom held a candle to the original. The Dark Knight Rises saw Bane as a counterpart to Batman, but without the necessary humanity underneath.

When both Morrison and Nolan let another character put on the cowl properly, they made it clear that it took an extraordinary character to don the cape. For Grant Morrison, it was Dick Grayson in his superb Batman & Robin run. For Christopher Nolan, it was former Gotham police officer John Blake. In the DC animated universe, it’s Terry McGinnis. Each is a good choice, each is capable of living up to Bruce’s legacy. However, none of them are Bruce. And that’s a key difference.

A girl’s best friend…

All three feel more rounded than Bruce ever was, more human and less consumed by grief and anger. Dick Grayson and Terry McGinnis lost their parents as teenagers. (And Terry “only” lost his father.) In a way, Epilogue is about Terry discovering how much he can define Batman, and how far he can stray from the original template. What parts are “essential” and what parts are simply rooted in Bruce himself. “You know why I can’t marry you,” Terry tells his girlfriend of fifteen years. She finishes the thought for him, “‘If the bad guys ever found out I was Batman, they’d try to get to me by hurting you’, blah blah blah.” Terry channels Bruce’s emo angst, “Every moment we’re together you’re risking your life.”

However, Waller advises him that he need not be so rigidly bound to the same template. “You’re not Bruce’s clone,” she assures him, “you’re his son. There are similarities, mind you, but more than a few differences too. You don’t quite have his magnificent brain, for instance. You do have his heart, though, and for all that gruff exterior, I’ve never met anyone who cared as deeply for his fellow man as Bruce Wayne, except maybe you.”

Bat-fu!

Waller, getting sentimental in her old age, even offers a few sincere words of comfort, “You want to have a little better life than the old man’s, take care of the people who love you. Or don’t; it’s your choice.” And Terry makes those choices, keeping Bruce close and deciding that he doesn’t have to sacrifice his love for his “mission.” It’s a thoughtful affirmation that Batman doesn’t need to be a “psychotic loner”, as the Flash describes him.

Indeed, it seems to suggest that there is room for a lighter Batman, perhaps reflecting on the progressively darker portrayal of the characters during the nineties. Batman: The Animated Series made a conscious attempt to rehabilitate the lighter and softer Adam West Batman! and the show refused to accept that there was necessarily one definitive way to do Batman. This version of Bruce as a dark, brooding loner with emotional issues – but that doesn’t mean they are inherently part of who Batman is.

Looks like brooding is genetic…

If Terry can be Batman without indulging those darker personality traits, then surely there must be versions of Bruce out there who can do something similar? One of the animated takes to follow Bruce Timm’s Batman was The Brave & The Bold, a delightfully fun (and decidedly light-hearted) take on the hero that demonstrated Batman can work just as well in campy and zany adventures as solemn and broody psychological dramas. Epilogue is a coda to over a decade of writing Batman, and it seems to affirm the notion that Batman is a flexible construct.

That said, the episode doesn’t give up on Bruce either. It concedes that Bruce is paranoid and unable to completely emotionally open himself up to people, but he’s still a fundamentally decent human being. Waller’s defining memory of Batman sees the hero saving the day not through his wit or through his gadgets, but through his heart, as Bruce forges a sincere emotional connection with the terminally ill Ace. I’ve always liked the idea that Bruce relates better to children than adults, and McDuffie pitches the scene perfectly.

Hair today…

“I got cheated out of my childhood,” Ace tells him. There’s a beautiful moment as Bruce tenderly responds, “I know what that’s like.” Incidentally, that’s one of the reasons I’ve never been fond of especially young versions of Robin, because I find it hard to care about a Batman who is indifferent to reckless child endangerment and the emotional damage of being treated like a soldier in his war on crime. The sight of Batman on the swing is touching and ridiculous in equal measure, and I like the way the show elevates the in-joke naming of Bruce’s loyal pooch to a moment demonstrating the character’s emotional core.

(I also like the brief shots of the Royal Flush Gang, including a Jack who is a samurai and a Ten who is a model (“she’s a ten”), along with a drag Queen. Also King looked a bit like Marvel’s MODOK, but I don’t quite see an in-joke there. It’s a bunch of lovely touches, in an episode packed to capacity with affectionate in-jokes and references.)

Samurai Jack!

There are even hints that Bruce is, very slowly, adjusting and accepting Terry. At the end, Clark doesn’t call to talk to Bruce, he talks to consult with Terry. Bruce doesn’t seem to spend his time directing Terry over the headset anymore, a rather tacit acknowledgement of how far Terry has come. In one of the most adorable moments of the episode, Bruce prepares soup for Terry. He presents it in a grizzled fashion (“I made you some soup, but it’s cold”), but it’s still a sweet gesture.

In a way, Bruce has become Alfred to Terry, which is something. Alfred is, after all, the closest thing Bruce had to a father – he didn’t know Thomas long enough to see him as anything but an archetype. He even does that thing Alfred does, as he frets about his charge working so hard he forgets about the most basic of things. When Terry has to dash, Bruce interjects, “You should eat something first, keep up your strength.” Of course, he still, deflects. “I didn’t mean to worry you,” Terry assures him. Unable to show anything like weakness, Bruce answers, “I was worried about Gotham.”

An Ace in his hand…

As an aside, the episode reveals that Warren and Mary McGinnis were selected for Waller’s experiment because they were a perfect match for the Waynes. However, they also ended up divorced. While there’s a possibility the divorce stemmed from some external factor (two children who looked nothing like Warren), I think it’s a clever way of suggesting perhaps Bruce’s parents weren’t as idealised as he imagined. I’ve always liked that sort of deconstructive approach to Thomas and Martha.

Bruce idolises them, despite barely knowing them. I like the idea that they were real people, with real flaws that he was too young to pick up on. I like the idea that Jeph Loeb wrote Thomas Wayne as emotionally cut off from Bruce, a trait the boy subconsciously inherited, without realising it. I can’t help but wonder if Epilogue hints that Thomas and Martha might not have lived happily ever after if it hadn’t been for that one fatal moment in Crime Alley.

Clocking out…

There’s also a nice small cameo from Andrea, the love of Bruce’s life.Her fate was left ambiguous at the end of Mask of Phantasm, but it’s even more heartbreaking to think that she’s still out there doing the same sort of thing – waging her one-woman war on crime. That means not only did Bruce lose his one shot at happiness, but she lost hers as well. The two were more alike than they could have known, and could have possibly saved each other.

And yet, despite all that, there is hope. There’s the notion that Bruce has built something far bigger than himself, something that will last. (Perhaps, in that way, it reflects on Timm’s incredible contributions to the DC canon.) As Amanda Waller states, “The world does need a Batman. And it always will.” Not bad for a guy in tights and cape, eh? Terry bitterly swipes at Bruce, “Guess I didn’t wanna believe you were so incredibly arrogant that you thought the world couldn’t go on without you.” Bruce responds, “Or someone like me. It’s not arrogance, it’s fact.” He is right.

… and Beyond…

Bruce is a man who built something incredible. He forged a legend using his own hands. We don’t see Bruce die here, but his mortality is close – the central revelation comes out because he needs a kidney transplant. While the heart of the episode comes from his connection to Terry, Epilogue also stands as an ode to a man who transcended mortality, who became something more from humble beginnings. I reckon Bruce Wayne must be a little surprised at his legacy, just as Bruce Timm might be. Did he know what he was doing when he made On Leather Wings?

Epilogue is a pretty effective finalé to a rather impressive project Although it didn’t quite end there, it does serve as a fitting conclusion to the DC animated universe, drawing the curtains down and offering come measure of closure. It’s sweet, touching and thoughtful – like a lot of the best of Bruce Timm’s work. That’s really something.

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4 Responses

  1. Stupendous review, thoroughly enjoyed reading this.

  2. It’s obvious from the detail and reflection that you put into your reviews how much the beloved DCAU meant to you. It meant a lot to me, too. Thank you. And thank you Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, Dan Riba, Dwayne McDuffie, etc, etc. You guys are awesome!!

    • They were great shows. It’s a shame that the creators were never tapped to do big screen live-action features, or even to guide the comic book universe.

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