It’s September 14, 1995, the fourth in a five-day run of daily Batman: The Animated Series episodes to close out the second season. That run began with “The Terrible Trio,” so see that episode for charts and headlines.
This episode slots in quite well in production order, however; we move from acknowledging some ugly elements to the worldview underlying superheroes to an episode that equates Batman to one of the most repulsive characters in the series, Detective Bullock, who we see here as a miserable, selfish jerk who provokes hatred in essentially everyone who knows him.
And, as he observes in the episode, he and Batman are essentially alike. Both are prickly, untrusting, prone to the occasional wisecrack at others’ expense. Both habitually commit crimes in the pursuit of criminals. Both have a long list of people who hate them, both are quite happy to employ violence in their work, and both walk right up to the line of being killers before pulling themselves back.
But Bullock is depicted, as always, as being a thoroughly repulsive individual. He lives in utter squalor, enraging his landlord (and rather telegraphing who the “amateur” trying to kill him will turn out to be), whom he verbally abuses. He manages to wheedle Summer Gleeson into giving him information, with her only requirement that he wait an hour for her to finish her work, but then he turns around and ransacks her office looking for the information. When she finds out, she is of course furious, and he loses her as a source. He can’t turn to the police for help because he’s afraid an Internal Affairs investigation will turn up all the times he’s “bent the rules” (this episode having been written well before it was common public knowledge that cops can and habitually do literally get away with murder). And he calls the one person actually trying to help him, Batman, names.
He is, quite simply, awful. But then, Batman drops a man off a building and catches him just before he hits the ground as a way of intimidating him into giving information, which as we’ve noted before is torture. Is he really any less repulsive?
(By absolute coincidence, but precisely the kind of coincidence of which psychochronography is born, I happened to watch the then-latest episode of Supergirl, “Falling,” the same day I started work on this chapter. It has a scene in which Supergirl, having turned temporarily evil, demonstrates it by dropping someone off a building and catching them just before they hit the ground as a way of intimidating them.)
In college, one of my professors–Amelia Rutledge–was an expert on, among other things, the tradition of heroic literature. She liked to describe a hero as someone you wanted to go to war on your behalf, but would never want as a neighbor; a force of destruction you pointed in the general direction of the enemy and hoped that they died of tragic nobility somewhere between saving you and returning home. This is the problem of the protector: they must be dangerous to be effective. The protector fantasy is a fantasy of violence; it is the fantasy that someone will hurt the people who hurt us.
Is that the only form the protector fantasy can take? Well, no. The example of Supergirl demonstrates that there is an alternative. We see a glimmer of it when Bullock tries to thank Batman for helping him catch Vinny the Shark, a tiny moment in which Bullock is less than completely repulsive. It denies the three-tiered model of humanity, that there are good people like Batman, in-between people, and criminals, because even someone as awful as Bullock can have a moment in which they show gratitude toward others. We see it in every sympathetic villain episode, and every time Batman puts his villains back into Arkham, knowing they’ll escape again.
We’ve been focused a lot on Batman as a figure of rage, revenge, destruction. But in that simple “thank you,” we get a reminder of the other thing Batman represents: hope. Hope that there aren’t bad people, just bad choices. Hope that redemption is possible.
The dark side of the protector fantasy is the violence of the protector. But it has a light side, too: it implies that there is something worth protecting. But if Batman is the same as Bullock, is he the one who should be doing the protecting? Is he helping or hurting the people he protects? Is he, in short, doing any good?
It’s time for Batman to stand trial.
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