It’s September 23, 1992, the day after “The Last Laugh,” and Alfred’s in trouble. Again.
“Eternal Youth” marks the return of Poison Ivy, and treats her far better than the first outing. In “Pretty Poison” she was depicted as a femme fatale, the camera practically drooling over her; here she is written and shot much like any other villain. Perhaps the series did learn the lesson Harley Quinn was trying to teach it in her debut–far from the last time the two most prominent female villains in the series will influence one another’s depictions.
But here Ivy is shown to be another villain working for a good cause with questionable methods. As before, she is environmentally motivated, targeting the owners of companies that destroy forests–a cause prominent when this episode aired, as one of its most vocal champions, Al Gore, was in the midst of an ultimately successful campaign for Vice President of the United States. Ivy is shown to be intelligent, methodical, and utterly ruthless; with only two henchwomen, she develops her plant serum, sets up the spa, and draws in carefully targeted clients.
Even better, this episode gives us Maggie, a romantic partner for Alfred who, alas, does not appear again. She’s energetic, clearly besotten with Alfred, and clearly both entirely comfortable with that fact and willing to show it. True, she is very much the dominant member of their pairing, but it’s not depicted negatively where she’s concerned. Alfred is clearly just unwilling to assert himself very much; one suspects his complaints are largely for show, as other episodes show clearly that he is perfectly capable of (for example) expressing displeasure to Bruce in a clear and pointed, albeit sardonic, way.
Notably, the episode could quite easily have depicted Maggie as being to blame for getting herself and Alfred turned into trees, but doesn’t. Alfred is initially reluctant to visit the spa, yes, but it’s Bruce who insists on giving the passes to the couple as a gift, and once at the spa Alfred is quite happy to remain there for the entire weekend.
Having this air the day after “The Last Laugh” (with which, interestingly, this episode also shares its director and storyboard artist, Kevin Altieri) must have been a sharp contrast. That episode also attempted to use a threat to Alfred to up the stakes, and largely failed to derive any tension from it. Here, however, we have a slow build as doom seemingly inevitably closes around him. We have already seen someone fleeing the Eternal Youth Spa before Alfred puts in the tape; recognizing both the building from that scene and the name of the spa from the episode’s title, we know it is dangerous. At the same time, the scene in which the two banter lightly while Alfred goes through Bruce’s mail helps establish the relationship between them, and Maggie’s arrival establishes something possibly even more important, that Alfred does have a life beyond being Batman’s batman.
As the episode continues, Alfred and Maggie sink slowly deeper into Ivy’s clutches, with Batman continually one step behind, until ultimately he actually fails to save them and they are transformed. This is a recipe for far greater tension than “The Last Laugh,” both because the early scenes give us a reason to care about Alfred and Maggie, and hence that they’re in danger, and because the threat to them is more immediate and effective, while equally grotesque.
That is not an accidental choice of word; this episode places Poison Ivy firmly with Joker, the Penguin, and Clayface among the Batman villains who employ the grotesque. Like them, she is seeking to overthrow the power structures of society, in her case capitalism’s continual violence against the ecosystem, and her efforts to do so both create and are paralleled by disruptions to the structure of the human body. She is unique, however, in standing apart from those disruptions: where the other three are themselves physically distorted, Ivy causes physical distortion and transformation to others. She is (at least in BTAS) physically an ordinary human woman.
The uncharitable way to read this would be to note that the other three are all men, and thus unmarked–that is, masculinity is usually treated by our language and culture as the default state, while femininity is treated as different, which is to say marked. In other words, Ivy is not being depicted as undistorted; rather, like the others she is a distortion of the “normal” (that is, unmarked, and therefore male) human form, but in her case the distortion is that she’s a woman. Certainly this seems to be true of her toxic first appearance, in which she was openly equated to the vagina dentata, a grotesque image if there ever was one.
However, it is far less true of this episode. If the female body is inherently grotesque, then whence Maggie? For that matter, the opening scene is almost incomprehensible if Mrs. Thomas is supposed to be already grotesque before being caught by Ivy.
A more charitable, and likelier, reading is that Ivy is not in herself grotesque because she is not morally corrupt in the way the other characters are. Consider the motivations for their crimes: the Joker seeks to overthrow the power structures of the world, including the show itself, because that is his nature–he is the Clown Prince of Chaos, after all. His grotesque appearance is a reflection of what he represents, the inversion of normal order. The Penguin, by contrast, is a criminal pure and simple, a mob boss who happens to have an avian theme. His appearance is a reflection of his immorality, his selfish and self-centered rejection of the rules by which society is structured. Clayface, meanwhile, is motivated by revenge against the corrupt corporate elite who poisoned him. His appearance reflects his rejection of society in pursuit of that revenge.
Ivy, however, is motivated purely by love. She cares about plants, deeply, passionately. She grieves for their deaths, and so she seeks to protect them. This is a beautiful and worthy motivation, even if it leads her to horrific acts, and as such her appearance remains beautiful; only her victims are grotesque because they are the ones who subvert the world’s order in their own self-interest, though in their case it is the natural order rather than the order of society.
Of course, her decision to target Alfred and Maggie complicates matters. They are innocents, at least insofar as such a thing exists where environmental destruction is concerned; certainly they bear far less guilt than the owners and executives growing rich from turning forests into strip mines, yet Ivy inflicts the same punishment on them as on the others. As Batman says, she is a fanatic, a terrorist, no longer fighting to transform society (if she ever was), but simply to destroy.
How much more interesting she is than the stock femme fatale of “Pretty Poison!” This, mostly, is the version of Poison Ivy that will persist moving forward: the ecoterrorist, the misguided idealist. She is out to destroy our world, yes, but only because it is unworthy–which means, like so many of the best villains, she pushes Batman into a position of defending a world that does not particularly deserve to be defended, because it is the only way he has to protect the innocent people who comprise that corrupt world.
How many forests will burn because Batman saved Alfred and Maggie? How many people will suffer because of those destroyed forests?
Yet what else can he do?
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