It’s September 18, 1992, halfway between “Pretty Poison” and “The Last Laugh.” The news, top movie, and top song are all as they were in “Nothing to Fear” and “On Leather Wings,” and Batman the Animated Series‘ second week on the air draws to its close with “P.O.V.,” the first episode in which the primary focus is neither Batman nor the villain–the former of whom has no lines until the final act, and the latter of whom is never named and, other than a single scream, not even voiced.
The focus, instead, is on the Gotham police, as most of the episode consists of flashbacks as three officers–Detective Bullock, who has been shown before as a greedy and suspicious man with an intense distrust of Batman; Officer Renee Montoya, who has been briefly shown and mentioned in prior episodes, but here takes on main character duties for the episode; and rookie Officer Wilkes, Montoya’s partner–tell their versions of a bust gone wrong that ended with a warehouse fire, only one member captured out of the gang they were pursuing, and $2 million in cash missing.
The three respond to questioning by Lieutenant Hackle (presumably from Internal Affairs) by telling their stories of the evening, while Hackle attempts to determine whether one or more of them is “on the take.” Viewer suspicion is directed toward Bullock, first because past episodes have already primed us not to like him, then because he keeps insisting Montoya and Wilkes were late to the scene when we saw at the episode’s beginning Montoya’s confidence that they would be on time. This suspicion is compounded when Bullock’s story is belied by the flashback which accompanies it; at several points his narration suggests a level of competence that is denied by the events we see.
The other two tell their versions of the story, and are similarly accompanied by flashbacks. Wilkes’ flashback recounts an encounter with one of the fleeing gangsters in the alley behind the warehouse, where we see Batman’s usual gadgetry, while the confused and frightened Wilkes describes it in fantastical terms, for example misunderstanding Batman’s use of caltrops as him throwing some sort of magical “sparkles.” Montoya’s is the only version of the story consistent with what we see during her flashback, in which Batman rescues her and then the burning roof caves in. Only events later show that there was a falsehood in this narrative, too: Batman was captured rather than killed.
We thus get four narratives of the events of the night, all false–the fourth being Hackle’s speculation that bribery is involved. Bullock deliberately lies to make himself look better and Batman look worse. Wilkes lets his imagination run away with him and imagines fantastical explanations for Batman’s mundane actions. Montoya draws reasonable conclusions from the events she witnesses, but turns out to be mistaken. And Hackle, driven by anger and zeal, makes false accusations without sufficient base.
This method of telling a story through contradictory flashbacks is usually associated with the 1950 Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon, which told the story of a rape and murder through the contradictory testimony of four eyewitnesses. However, there are some key differences, most notably that in the Kurosawa film the camera is complicit in the witnesses’ deceptions, always showing the events they describe rather than, as in the episode, apparently showing the “real” events in contrast to the statements by the police officers. This is a common error in viewing film: viewers have a tendency to assume that film footage is “objective” because the camera films whatever it’s pointed at. The reason this is an error is because the camera also doesn’t film whatever it’s not pointed at; that is, a subjective element is always introduced by the decision of how to frame shots, when to cut, where to position the camera in the scene–subjectivity, in other words, arises from the camera’s “P.O.V.” just as much as from an eyewitness report.
That the camera can outright lie becomes clear once we know the error in Montoya’s account. Had the camera been at a different angle or stayed on the scene a little longer, it could have shown Batman unconscious or being dragged away by the criminals, revealing Montoya as (unintentionally) deceptive. Instead, it is the camera that lies, and Montoya who honestly reports the contents of her scene.
None of the officers’ three stories, taken together, are quite true. They form an incomplete puzzle, as shown in the episode’s title card, a haunting image of a complex, uniformly gray jigsaw puzzle with a single hole where it has yet to be finished. This missing piece turns out to be Montoya herself, as she figures out that tiny details in the other two officers’ stories that seemed to be references to people–the name “Hathcourt” in one and “Doc” in the other–are actually references to a location, a business called Hathcourt located by a dock in Gotham Harbor. By piecing these clues together, she justifies her position as main character in Batman’s stead, a role she then further solidifies by saving him from a gunman when he breaks free from his captors. Together, Montoya and Batman defeat the criminals, and Montoya generously credits the other two officers for the help their stories gave her in solving the case.
This emphasis on the unreliability of narration in general, and the camera in particular, calls attention to something else the camera doesn’t do in this episode. Recall “Pretty Poison,” first aired on Monday of the same week in which this episode aired on Friday, and the ways in which it depicted Poison Ivy as a femme fatale, a dangerous, heavily sexualized, invasive presence in male spaces. Montoya receives none of that; she is instead depicted as the most trustworthy of the three officers telling the story, and the camera does not dwell on her appearance or invoke the Male Gaze, instead treating her in much the same way it does any of the male characters in other episodes, particularly Batman. Which is not to say that she is depicted as unattractive or “manly”; her character design is the same basic model Bruce Timm uses for most women, with really only clothing and coloration distinguishing her from Poison Ivy. (Which is not a knock against Bruce Timm, simply an observation that he tends to design characters by starting from a small pool of standard models and building out from there–Montoya and Poison Ivy are both versions of his “slim young woman,” as will be Lois Lane, while for example both Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent are “muscular young man” and Granny Goodness and Amanda Waller are “heavyset older woman.” The underlying models are different enough from one another to make clear that it is a stylistic choice, rather than a limitation or failing.)
Montoya is not sexualized as either an ingenue or a femme fatale, but neither is she a helpless innocent; she is the most powerful figure in this episode, figuring out where the criminals are hiding, helping Batman free himself–the shot in which she knocks the gun out of the hands of the criminal about to shoot him mirrors the earlier moment where Batman saves Montoya by disarming a drill-wielding criminal–and then displaying the heroic virtues of modesty and generosity by letting the other two cops share in the credit. She even proves herself more powerful than the most threatening figure in the episode, Hackle; he is able to take their badges, but Montoya gives them back.
This would be a tremendously powerful and progressive depiction of a woman of color even for today; its appearance in a 1991 children’s show goes a long way toward explaining why Montoya was the first character from the DCAU to make the jump to comics, actually first appearing in Detective Comics before this episode aired (though well after it was produced). There, she went on to become one of the most prominent lesbian characters in comics, served as one of the lead characters of Batman spinoff Gotham Central, where she had a complex revenge narrative involving a corrupt cop and the death of her (police, not romantic) partner, and finally was one of the starring characters in the sublime year-long event comic 52, in which she became first the protege of and then the successor to the Question.
All of which begins here, with the decision to have an episode focusing on a powerful woman without sexualizing her. This is an object lesson that good representation of women and minorities is not only the right thing to do morally and politically; it can have positive aesthetic effects, too, such as giving rise to a successful new character.
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