Cleaning up the mess (Off Balance)

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It’s November 23, 1992, the day before “What Is Reality,” so see that post for charts and news.
Things have not been going well for Batman lately. Last episode, he was on the verge of quitting, and this episode he is, as the title says, “Off Balance” throughout. Of course this is a pun on Count Vertigo’s powers of disorientation and the way Batman spends the entire episode off his game courtesy of Talia al Ghul.
We should perhaps begin with Count Vertigo, a rare case of a villain who appears in only one episode of the entire DCAU. It’s not difficult to see why; he has a gimmicky power and bizarre costume more at home among Flash’s Rogue’s Gallery than Batman’s, and thus clashes badly with the aesthetic of Batman the Animated Series. Frankly, his decision to construct a complex death trap for Batman and Talia and then leave is more reminiscent of the 1960s Batman than BTAS; one can imagine the episode ending there on a cliffhanger while the announcer exhorts us to return for the next episode “Same Bat time, same Bat channel.”
Rather more interesting is Talia, whose character design here coincidentally bears a striking resemblance to Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises, albeit with a different eye color. It’s certainly a convenient coincidence, because Talia bears a striking resemblance to Catwoman in her sexually charged interactions with Batman, albeit with their knowledge of secret identities inverted: Talia learns Batman’s secret identity early on, while Batman does not appear to ever learn who her father is: Ra’s al Ghul, head of the Society of Shadows, played to perfection by David Warner in his brief but intriguing appearance at the end of the episode.
That appearance itself is a sign of how unbalanced things have become. Al Ghul is clearly being introduced as a new villain, but he is given almost no backstory and never interacts with Batman at all. Further, he is not defeated at the end of the episode, as virtually every past villain has been; he suffers a setback in that he doesn’t retrieve the Wayne Industries sonic drill that Vertigo was after, but he remains an active, ominous presence, and the final shot of his face is an effective cliffhanger ending, albeit one that won’t be resolved until ten episodes later.
This is continuity of a sort the show has not had in a long time–continuity that relies not on sequels to past self-contained stories, but on including foreshadowing for future stories in current ones. Not since Harvey Dent’s lightning-lit face in the pilot have we seen something like this, at least not without heavily reading into the episodes as we did with Barbara Gordon’s frustration last episode.
In essence, the future is intruding on the present, perhaps as a byproduct of The Brave and the Bold‘s recent visit. So we find Batman tempted by an impossible relationship with a dangerous, powerful, dark-haired blue-eyed princess from a foreign land, and it throws him off his game. He spends quite a lot of this episode injured, stumbling, disoriented, and confused, and it is up to Talia to find the key to defeating Vertigo. (Which, entertainingly, turns out to be by referencing the movie Vertigo.) But this is not the sadomasochistic dance of Batman and Catwoman, at least not yet; there is definite chemistry, but it bubbles under the surface of a relationship that remains professional and goal-driven. They are working together and only working together, even if both are obviously tempted to do more.
Notably, despite having many key traits of a femme fatale–power, danger, treacherousness, allure, a touch of the exotic–Talia is never actually framed as one. There is no drooling camera following her as she walks out of the scene, no smoky saxophone, no scene in which she attempts to seduce or beguile Batman with her charms, and certainly no giant fanged tentacular death vagina. She is deceptive, attractive, and assertive, but these are treated as three distinct traits that operate independently, not part of a complex or archetype.
It is, perhaps, a measure of how far this show has come. Talia is a woman, and that will matter quite a bit in future appearances, but here, at her introduction, it is simply one trait among many, and less important to the plot than the fact that she is a highly skilled covert operative on a mission that parallels Batman’s own. One need only compare “Pretty Poison” to see how much improvement this is on that front. The show is changing, evolving, improving.
Which is bad news for Batman. He is the protector of the social order, and in turn that social order is the source of his power, because it is only within it that concepts like “wealth” and “law” can have any meaning. For all that it is a clear change for the better, its transformation, bending and twisting away out from under him, is necessarily going to throw him off balance. So he spends this episode struggling to keep up, not able to spot the clues that Talia is up to something until the very end, because she doesn’t fit into the femme fatale role that would be expected in something as noir-flavored as BTAS.
Poor guy. First he nearly loses one of his closest allies and contemplates giving up, now he finds himself out of his depth and struggling to keep his feet. What are they going to do to him next, kill him?

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One thought on “Cleaning up the mess (Off Balance)

  1. I’d love to hear your comments on Talia al Ghul in Arrow. Ra’s al Ghul (at least the original one in the show) is deeply boring and overly serious, but Talia is one of the strongest characters in the series. She’s also a lesbian, which is another twist on the not-a-femme-fatale.

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