Trigger warnings: Spousal and child abuse, implications of incest and child sexual abuse
It’s February 24, 1993, a huge jump forward from any of the prior episodes we’ve discussed, all of which fell in the fall of 1992. The Billboard chart is dominated by the movies this week, with Whitney Houston at number one with “I Will Always Love You” and number four with “I’m Every Woman,” both from The Bodyguard, and Peabo Bryson with “A Whole New World” from Aladdin at number two. Duran Duran and Dr. Dre round out the top five.
At the movies themselves, Falling Down opens at number one, bumping Groundhog Day down to number two. Elsewhere in the top ten are The Crying Game, Aladdin, Army of Darkness, and A Few Good Men. In the news, the 1992 Winter Olympics ended yesterday; in two days the Supreme Court of Ireland will rule that an underage rape victim can travel to England to have an abortion; on the 27th 79-year-old Stella Liebeck’s cup of McDonald’s coffee will break, resulting in third-degree burns, disfigurement, and partial disability, and eventually leading to the infamous “Hot Coffee” case, a misrepresentation of which becomes one of the go-to examples of “frivolous” lawsuits in the U.S.
On BTAS, well, stop me if you’ve heard this one: this guy has a golden ring that magically makes its wearer invisible. Over time, its power inevitably corrupts him, and he turns to evil and crime. Yes, of course I’m referring to the story of the Ring of Gyges as recounted in Plato’s Republic. In that book, the character Glaucon tells the story of King Gyges of Lydia, who began as a commoner but, through the power of the ring, seduced the queen, killed the king, and took over the kingdom. Glaucon then goes on to say that anyone, however just initially, would eventually become corrupted by the lack of social consequences for their actions.
Plato has Socrates argue that no, a truly just person will overcome their “appetites” and have the self-control to do what’s right in the absence of any kind of negative consequences for doing wrong. Thanks to both the findings of modern psychology and the Ring of Gyges that is the Internet, we know he was wrong and Glaucon was right.
The direct antecedent for “See No Evil,” however, is H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man–the dead giveaway is that the magic ring has been replaced by something more scientifically plausible for its day (though both suffer from the critical flaw in any form of invisibility, that your eyes stop working if they can’t reflect light), and that something more plausible is also toxic in a way that causes slow physical and psychological decay in the user. This gives BTAS an “out” for the notion that invisibility is inherently corrupting, which as we’ll see it rather needs. An additional escape from the implications of that corruption is that Ventrix (everything I have been able to find spells his name that way, but in the episode everyone who names him clearly says something closer to “Ventris”) is a criminal well before he finds the invisibility suit, and while it’s not certain that he was abusive prior to going to jail, Helen’s visceral and immediate reaction to him touching her and the existence of a restraining order certainly make it likely.
Either way, he is definitely abusive now, and exhibits the classic pattern toward Kimmy and Helen. He is invasive of both of their space, watchful, controlling, and demanding; he puts up a veneer of being solicitous and kindly, but even his acts of seeming kindness are a form of control–for example, note that prior to offering to pay for Helen’s lunch he puts his drink onto her tray, making clear that the offer is an attempt to plant a flag and claim her meal as his own, so that she cannot eat it without becoming indebted to him and thereby giving him an avenue of potential control. His behavior toward Kimmy follows a similar pattern, showering her with gifts and kind words while trying to “woo” her, then once she defies him turning to physically grabbing her and trying to force her into his car. (That the scenes in her bedroom serve as a parallel to Gyges’ “seduction” of the Queen of Lydia make it all the creepier.)
Regardless of whether he was abusive before acquiring the suit or if its toxicity has caused his behavior to change, it is clear that the invisibility suit enables him to escape the consequences of his actions for a time. Without it, he’d just be another street criminal for Batman to take down, certainly not worth spending an entire episode on. But with it he’s able to escape on their first encounter, and had he just driven away in his invisible car he most likely could have gotten away with the thefts–it is only his determination to punish Batman for keeping him away from Kimmy that enables Batman to first disable the car and then find away to even the playing field and catch Ventrix.
Masks, disguises, invisibility cloaks, all share the same power: when no one knows who we are, we are free to be our true selves, not held back by the fear of social consequences for revealing too much or doing the wrong thing. This can be tremendously empowering, but it can also be very dangerous; as in Glaucon’s story, anonymous people can find themselves engaging with increasing enthusiasm in increasingly destructive behavior, as witness the progression of the Internet troll from nasty name-calling, to doxxing, to campaigns to deliberately trigger suicide risks, and ultimately SWATting, where the perpetrator makes false emergency calls to the victim’s local police department in the hopes of tricking them into killing the victim. This is not to say, as Glaucon seemed to suggest, that any person given anonymity will inevitably do all of those things, or that someone who trolls with name-calling is going to someday participate in a SWATting campaign, but nor can we with any confidence agree with Socrates that humanity is easily divisible into the just who can resist all temptation and the unjust who cannot.
As I’ve been hinting, there are implications here for Batman, because Batman has no consequences. With the exception of his adopted child and his manservant–both people over whom he has great power–there is no one who knows Bruce Wayne and Batman both, who can judge Wayne for the actions of the Bat, and as such there is no one who can push back if he goes too far. There is a palpable rage to Conroy’s performance in this episode, comparable to the way he played the final scene with the Rat King in “The Underdwellers” ; it is quite clear that he does not take kindly to child abusers. Right now the only thing preventing him from acting on that rage is his own sense of justice and morality, but, well, no one would ever know. Batman is already a figure of terror shrouded in rumors–note the gag in this episode where two men see him clinging to the top of the invisible car, and one remarks with only a little surprise that he didn’t know Batman could fly. He could kill a child abuser now and again, and it would just be one more rumor of victims of the Bat–surely not the first such rumor. Most likely, every cat burglar who slips off a fire escape and breaks their neck was, in the imaginations of the Gotham rumor mill, pushed by Batman.
The only thing that could hold him back is to be part of a community. To surround himself either with people who know and can judge Batman, and have some capacity to apply consequences to him–even just disapproving comments–or perhaps one or two people who know both the Bat and the man, and can call either to task; what Batman needs is an equal.
Jim Gordon is a possibility, but the two haven’t interacted enough so far. The ideal, perhaps, would be a community of peers. Vigilantes all, watching each other and holding each other in check. To keep from becoming Ventrix, he needs Robin, and Batgirl, and eventually Superman and all the rest. One lone superhero cannot keep from becoming a villain for long; perhaps a community of them can.
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