It’s October 5, 1992. Batman the Animated Series has been on the air for exactly a month; “Prophecy of Doom” airs tomorrow, so check that essay for headlines and chart information.
By this point, I’ve written quite a few of these, and you’ve probably noticed that I tend to talk about the way in which a story is framed or presented more than I do the story itself. This episode is a good example of why.
Consider the evidence as it initially appears to Batman: Bullock was accused of corruption by a criminal-turned-informant, Spider Conway, who is then kidnapped out of police custody during a transfer Bullock knew about and was present for. Later, Joey the Snail is likewise kidnapped out of prison, and this time there is an eyewitness, a guard attacked by Bullock.
But the viewer never really believes Bullock did it, because we see the monstrous Killer Croc in the title card and planting the bomb used to bust out Spider Conway. We may briefly believe Croc’s working with Rupert Thorne, the mob boss Conway was going to testify against, but we don’t see anything to tie him to Bullock.
But imagine if the story had been framed differently, so that we don’t see Croc early on, and the title card is a more abstract image or Croc disguised as Bullock–that is, an image of Bullock with his face shrouded in darkness and eyes gleaming ominously. Then we would have likely presumed that Batman was on the right track investigating Bullock, and the open question would be why Bullock is doing it.
Or consider another possibility: What if instead of starting with Conway’s kidnapping and having Batman expositing Killer Croc’s backstory, we had started with that story? Killer Croc as a child raised in a circus, treated as a freak. Killer Croc finally escaping that life and entering the world of professional wrestling, but something goes wrong and drives him into Gotham’s criminal underworld. This would be another sympathetic villain in the vein of Two-Face, Clayface, or Mister Freeze, a person who is doing wrong but for understandable reasons, instead of a monster who behaves monstrously because that is what monsters do. Someone who has fallen and needs help up, instead of a creature to be beaten and turned in to the authorities.
But instead the episode never situates us in Croc’s perspective–we never even get a real name. He is simply someone seeking revenge on Bullock, who caught him, and Spider and the Snail, who put him in prison with their testimony. Note that all three of them have the names of creatures commonly seen as loathsome; they are subhuman, “dirtbags” in Bullock’s words in this episode, or “a superstitious and cowardly lot” in the traditional epigram pronounced by the Bat.
Batman states that he and Bullock use different methods, but both serve the law. This isn’t true, in either part. Consider the finale, in which Bullock draws his gun on Batman as he emerges from the sewers, and keeps it out until Batman drags out the unconscious Croc as well. What legal justification does Bullock have to fire? And under what law is Bruce Wayne authorized to beat up criminals when and how he pleases? This is not the 1960s Batman, and even then the statement that he and Robin were duly deputized agents of the city’s authorities was an obvious joke.
No, Bullock and Batman are not agents of the law; they are soldiers, and criminals are the enemy. The goal is not to enforce the law, which necessarily requires first obeying the laws that constrain how the law can be enforced; it is to score victories over criminals, including making them think they are about to die (which is a form of torture), beating them, and apparently in Bullock’s case shooting them.
Bullock and Batman are more alike than different; both are detectives willing to engage in brutal force, who hate criminals and regard them as the enemy, who have no qualms about violating the law and fundamental morality to punish them, and to whom it apparently does not occur that even a criminal is still a person as deserving of the law’s protection as anyone else. Their methods are violent, rage-fueled, and ineffective–as witness that crime in Gotham is so bad that a gigantic anthropomorphic crocodile monster can commit a series of even minor robberies without getting noticed by Batman.
Which raises a curious question. Batman is rather notoriously hyper-competent. He is very good at figuring things out, a quick learner, and generally depicted as being in peak physical and mental condition. Why hasn’t he either been more successful, or noticed that his efforts aren’t actually working? Why hasn’t he tried something else?
Doesn’t he want to succeed?
That very question is what we turn to next.
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