It’s September 11, 1995, three days before “A Bullet for Bullock,” so see that entry for charts and headlines.
This episode, rather notoriously, was named as the worst in the entire DCAU by no less a luminary than Bruce Timm himself. He is one of the key creative figures behind the DCAU, and thus of course I think he’s entirely wrong about this. I think this episode is great.
This isn’t a review, so I will not discuss why I think it’s great, though I imagine that will come through anyway. Instead, I will make some guesses as to why Timm thinks it’s so bad. First and most obvious, the animation is a bit weak in spots. There’s one shot in particular, an over-the-shoulder shot of Batman in a snowmobile speeding toward a cliff, that is very obviously a still image of Batman and the snowmobile overlaid on the left side of a background image that is scrolling to the right. It’s poorly composed, jarringly artificial, and merely the worst of a number of issues with the episode’s visuals throughout.
Then there are the villains. In a show which often dedicates itself to exploring its villains’ motivations and personalities, the titular Terrible Trio’s motives are pretty straightforward: they’re arrogant, entitled, and bored, so they start stealing for the thrill. When one member’s girlfriend figures out their crimes, they intend to kill her to maintain the coverup, Batman stops and catches them, the end. No real depth to their characters, no dark traumas in their pasts that drive their current behavior, no significance to their animal costumes other than mocking references to the sources of their parents’ fortunes.
But the last two scenes of the episode demonstrate why this is nonetheless a story worth telling: once captured, Warren, the leader of the trio, first tries to bribe Batman, then brags that he can buy his way out of prison, but we cut directly from there to him being ushered into a filthy, roach-infested cell after his conviction and sentencing.
It’s a fantasy, in other worlds, of a world in which the criminal justice system isn’t a classist, racist, misogynistic mess, and a rich white man can therefore end up in the same cell, the same squalor, as a mugger or a mob henchman. Unfortunately, we do not live in that world, as witness the infamous case of Ethan Couch, the “affluenza teen.” In 2013, Couch, then 16 and already on a restricted license, got into his truck with seven friends, stole two cases of beer, got drunk, smoked some pot and popped some Valium, then plowed his truck at seventy miles an hour into a woman standing by her stalled car, all three people who had stopped to help her, her car, and the car of one of the helpers, which then spun out of control and hit another oncoming car.
Four people died, nine were injured, and Couch was charged with intoxication manslaughter. His lawyers hired a psychologist to claim that Couch suffered from “affluenza”–that his parents had used their wealth to shield him from the consequences of his actions so consistently that he had no capacity to recognize when he was taking risks or doing something dangerous. That, in other words, the children of the rich are so privileged as to become fundamentally incapable of moral decision-making or responsible behavior.
The claim, if true, would be one of the strongest arguments against capitalism ever made. If wealth were truly so harmful, how could we as a society permit it to continue to exist? Think of the children! But of course the point wasn’t to actually imply that Couch’s family’s wealth made him a threat to society, but rather to remind the judge and jury that his wealth existed and carried with it privileges that they would be expected to respect. And it worked: Couch got probation.
He then promptly fled to Mexico with his mother’s help, as you do. He was eventually hauled back, and for his crimes, his callous disregard for others, his deliberate effort to evade the consequences of his actions (thereby proving that he understood what consequences are)–for all that, he received two years in prison.
Which, as someone who regards the prison system as inherently unjust and rejects the retributive theory of justice wholesale, I acknowledge is an injustice against him. No one, even Ethan Couch, deserves to be in prison. But at the same time, if unfair punishments are being meted to everyone, but one person consistently gets less of the unfair punishment, then there is still systemic bias in that person’s favor. The injustice of Couch’s two years in prison pales against the injustice of the millions of people in prison for far more than two years on drug possession charges, the well-documented racial and class biases in both conviction rates and sentencing, the consistent failure to deal appropriately with rape and sexual assault, the wanton murder of (mostly poor) people of color, especially blacks and Native Americans, by police officers. Couch is still the beneficiary of a system designed to protect people like him from, well, all the rest of us.
Warren’s crimes are relatively minor compared to Couch. Warren was older, true, an adult rather than a late teenager. But Warren didn’t kill anyone, either. He stole trinkets from the people wealthy enough to afford them, which treated properly (as a percentage of the victim’s wealth, as opposed to the flat values our system of “justice” uses to determine the severity of a theft) is barely even a crime at all, committed one act each of battery, assault, and attempted murder. Those last three are definitely serious crimes, true, but again, Couch killed four people while speeding when he knew he’d taken judgment-impairing, reaction-slowing intoxicants.
But because Warren exists in a fantasy realm where the criminal justice system can be relied upon to produce fair results, he ends up in a disgusting, tiny cell. Like Couch, it is not the treatment he deserves, but it is at least as bad as the undeserved treatment we would expect for any of Batman’s captures who were less wealthy, less white, or less male than Warren.
What the episode reveals, in the end, is the extent to which the protector fantasy of the superhero depends on the assumption that the criminal justice system will deal correctly with criminals once they are caught, just as much as it depends on the assumption that the criminal justice system is too incompetent, overwhelmed, or restrained to actually catch them. The power structures of our culture and the state which rests upon them, the fantasy implies, can be trusted to do their job; they just need more power and fewer restraints to accomplish it.
As disastrously wrong and frequently dishonest about the reasons behind them as he was, maybe Wertham’s conclusions are right. Maybe the superhero fantasy is dangerous.
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