It’s November 10, 1992. The Heights top the charts with “How Do You Talk to an Angel”; elsewhere in the top ten are Boyz II Men, TLC, and Madonna. The top movie this weekend is Bram Stoker’s Dracula (by which is really meant Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula), followed by Passenger 57 and A River Runs Through It. In the news, Bill Clinton became the President Elect a week ago; yesterday in Berlin, a massive rally against anti-immigrant violence is disrupted by people throwing stones at the President and Chancellor of Germany; two days from now the WMO will report record ozone depletion near the poles.
On Batman the Animated Series, we have “Almost Got ‘Im,” a fantastically good episode in which five of the series’ villains tell each other stories about times they almost defeated Batman over drinks and poker.
“Time to Unmask”
The story is framed in (twisted) romance. Near the beginning, before any stories are told, Poison Ivy and Two-Face greet each other with rather nasty insults, and then explain in unison to the shocked Penguin and Joker that they used to date, which is both true (as depicted in “Pretty Poison”) and very funny.
At the end of the episode, after Batman uses the information from the poker game to capture Harley Quinn and rescue Catwoman, she comes on to him pretty strongly, but then he vanishes and she bemoans that she “Almost got ‘im.” She is framing her own quest to “snare” Batman romantically as being equivalent to the efforts of Poison Ivy, Two-Face, the Penguin, and Joker to capture and kill him. In this, she is following on from the Joker, who noted in his story that there’s more than one way to “get” someone. To Joker, that meant causing Batman suffering by killing Catwoman, so add suffering to the list of things Catwoman is framing as equivalent to a romantic relationship, along with being imprisoned, tied up, injured, and threatened with (the little?) death.
Back in my reviews of Batman Returns and “The Cat and the Claw” I argued that that movie’s BDSM themes could not be reflected in a cartoon for children, and that the relationship between Batman and Catwoman would thus have to bury those themes. Well, let it never be said that I’m afraid to admit when I’m wrong.
“The Giant Penny”
One fascinating element of this episode is that the criminals seem almost to learn from one another. Leaving out Killer Croc, Poison Ivy’s mistake was to leave Batman his utility belt, and Two-Face removed that. However, Batman was able to grab the tool he needed to escape from Two-Face, so Penguin made sure he was nowhere nearby when his trap was sprung. In addition, neither of the previous two had a back-up plan, while Penguin did; however, he failed to realize that his first trap could be used to negate his second, and with them gone, he was defenseless. Finally, Joker chains Batman up, denying him access to his utility belt; places Batman in a tall chair, keeping him at a distance; and brings along an ally to help on the off chance Batman does escape.
At first glance this seems to make no sense; it is heavily implied that the villains have never told each other these stories before, so how could they have learned from each other’s mistakes? But extradiegetically it makes total sense, because, as we have seen before, Batman opposes himself not to any particular villain, but to Crime, a nebulous, abstract entity of which all these villains are avatars. Even diegetically, it can be explained: prior to any stories being told, before even seeing our storytellers’ faces, we see the Joker cheating. They are criminals and liars, to quote a much later, live-action superhero show; even the one who’s secretly a hero is lying about who he is and thus probably made up his story. They are textbook unreliable narrators, and explicitly trying to one-up one another, so it makes sense that they would modify their stories to address the flaws in the previous storytellers’ plans.
“A Big Rock”
The reveal that Killer Croc is actually Batman is accomplished via a swinging lamp. As the shadow passes over him, Croc’s silhouette changes to that of Batman; as it swings back, he is Croc once more.
It’s a cool shot.
“Aviary of Doom”
One of the common elements between the stories told by actual villains (as opposed to Batman-as-Killer-Croc) is that they all employ grotesques against Batman. Poison Ivy attacks on Halloween, a holiday associated with the grotesque and monstrous, using pumpkins that release a gas based on poison ivy, mashing together two unrelated species to create a potentially deadly horror. Two-Face employs the Two-Ton Gang, a quartet of absurdly overmuscled goons nearly as wide as they are tall, whose upper arms rival Batman’s torso in width. The Penguin turns hummingbirds into deadly weapons and employs a cassowary as his backup plan, a bird that cannot fly, with massively oversized, viciously taloned legs, tiny, useless wings, and a massive beak at the end of a long, muscular neck. The Joker, finally, weaponizes laughter to power an electric chair.
All of these accomplish the basic transgression of boundaries–between species, between human and non, between the safe and the deadly–that is at the root of the grotesque. That these villains would employ these tactics is unsurprising, as they are all grotesques themselves. That is most obvious with the three men: they are physically repulsive, unrepentant thieves and murders. But it is no less true of Poison Ivy; while she appears “normal” on the outside, she is immune to “poisons, toxins, and the suffering of others.” She is physically monstrous in her resistance to poison, and psychologically monstrous in her utter lack of empathy or regard for other people.
And of course she has been framed from her first appearance as a femme fatale, itself a kind of grotesque. She transgresses the boundaries between attractive (in body) and repulsive (in soul), between love and treachery, death and sex. The femme fatale is aggressively feminine, when aggression itself is a stereotypically masculine trait. In the sense of crossing boundaries to unite things normally depicted as unrelated, she is as grotesque as a man who is healthy on one side and horrifically burned on the other.
As grotesques, our four villains sitting at the table deny the reality of the boundaries they transgress, including the laws and mores they defy. At the same time, by drawing attention to those boundaries and presenting transgression as monstrous, they reinforce those same boundaries. It is the role of monsters, after all, to be defeated, just as these villains are both in their stories and at the end of the episode.
“Laugh-Powered Electric Chair”
And if there’s anyone who enjoys transgressing boundaries, it’s the Joker. Leave it to him to break the rules at every turn. He redefines “got ‘im” to include anything Batman would take as a defeat. He shows his story on a television set within the episode, rather than telling it verbally. His story even spills out of its frame to merge into the episode’s framing device, as the entire conversation turns out to be a manipulation by a disguised Batman to get Catwoman’s location out of the Joker.
And of course his scheme is once again an attack on and commandeering of the logic of television. In “Christmas with the Joker” he corrupted the celebrity Christmas special; in “The Laughing Fish” commercials; and now he is targeting the late night talk/variety show.
But like all the others he fails, though he comes closer through his greater grotesquerie. But he simply cannot compete with the most grotesque of them all, Batman. Not because he is both Man and Bat; in that sense he is no more grotesque than Catwoman or the Penguin.
No, what is grotesque about Batman is that he fights Crime by becoming a criminal. He stalks, assaults, and tortures his victims, and yet he is an ally of the police, the supposed enforcers of the law, able to summon an army of them to his aid at episode’s end. He alone of the grotesques here on display actually recognizes that the grotesque reinforces the boundaries it transgresses, and that he can therefore protect the social order by violating it with his vigilantism. They will never come closer than “almost got ‘im,” mostly because their name isn’t the title of the show, but also because, as the hero-criminal, Batman has already gotten himself.
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