It’s October 8, 1994. The top song is Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love to You”; Sheryl Crow and Luther Vandross also chart. The top movie this weekend is The Specialist; Forrest Gump, Timecop (appropriately for this episode), and The Shawshank Redemption are lower in the top ten.
In the news, the head of the UN Security Council says that Iraq must withdraw its troops on the Kuwait border and cooperate with weapons inspectors. It will do so in a few days, but this is nonetheless a step on the road to the Iraq War. On the 12th, NASA will lose contact with the Magellan spacecraft in Venus’ atmosphere; it is believed to have been destroyed by the 14th.
Last time on Batman: The Animated Series, Harley Quinn declared the beginning of a new, lighter world. But that’s still quite a ways off in time, if not episode count–far enough that we won’t be reaching it this volume. But nonetheless it is now near enough that we can see it coming, feel the shape of it.
The problem, as we’ve discussed, is that superheroes are inherently conservative–not necessarily in the modern political sense of authoritarian neoliberalism, but in the sense of being naturally inclined to resist change and endorse the status quo. That is to say, while they may outwardly represent a power fantasy of renegade vigilantism, that power is ultimately turned inward, becoming a defense against any and all forces that might shake us out of our positions of relative comfort. It is perhaps not an accident that both the flagship DC superhero and the flagship Marvel superhero have a shield as their symbol.
So for all his talk about cleaning up Gotham, Batman essentially stands still. We’ve learned a lot about his character in the last couple of years, most notably in Mask of the Phantasm, but he hasn’t actually changed very much. We can see in Phantasm, and in some episodes that contain flashbacks to a younger Bruce Wayne, that he did change over time, but all of that change happened before “On Leather Wings.”
And while he stands still, the world zips past him. There is perhaps no image that so perfectly captures the problem of the superhero as Batman and Robin sitting in the frozen Batmobile while cars whizz past them at ridiculous speeds–and note that the threat here is exactly the same as in “Harlequinade,” that the collision between static Bat and fast-moving world could produce something akin to a nuclear detonation.
Which, in 1994, is still the prevailing image of the apocalypse. That is what Batman risks by continuing to protect the world in which he lives, the world which we have seen again and again through the eyes of villains, which is to say the people whom that world has failed. If he will not allow motion, someone will collide with the world and change it forever.
Interestingly, though, this image comes as the result of the actions of one of the few Batman villains who has never, at least within BTAS, been depicted as remotely sympathetic. The Clock King is a petty man with a petty grudge, and nothing else; his origin episode placed him firmly in the same camp as the Mad Hatter, villains whose claimed justifications for their actions betray their own selfishness and petulance. Clock King’s new scheme, stolen technology that alters the flow of time and allows him to act like a speedster–that is, someone who possesses superhuman speed, which in DC Comics has traditionally been depicted as one of the most versatile and powerful abilities possessed by various superheroes and villains–is similarly just another attempt to carry out his childish grudge.
Because speed powers are so powerful within the DCAU, Batman and Robin are helpless against Clock King until they find a way to temporarily acquire similar powers themselves, using the same time-altering technology as Clock King. It is during this sequence that Robin–who, recall, has been depicted as pushing to be treated less like a sidekick and more like a team member, which is exactly what Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn did to start the slowly mounting apocalypse back in “Harley and Ivy”–makes a reference to the device allowing them to move “faster than a speeding bullet.”
Because enough coyness: seen from above, the approaching apocalypse is the destruction of Krypton at the beginning of Superman: The Animated Series. Seen from below, the revolution is the shift to both a lighter art style and more playful tone that coincides with the beginning of that series and the retooling of the Batman cartoon, renamed The New Batman Adventures, to match. The image of the Batmobile frozen while the world zips past it is thus matched by the image of Robin racing ahead, faster than a speeding bullet, toward a world in which the Bat is no longer the model on which superheroes are built.
But this is Batman’s show, so we might expect him to be the one introducing us to the new model of superhero. As, arguably, he is, when he chooses to deal with the bomb while leaving Robin with the task of chasing down Clock King. Time, remember, is out of joint; is it that surprising to see the future influence the past? So Batman forgoes vengeance and the night, instead racing in broad daylight across water with an already-exploding bomb, employing superspeed to ensure no one gets hurt.
Because there is an alternative model of the superhero that could be pursued. Strong Female Protagonist pointed toward it, and now it reaches back into the past to influence the present. It is a version of the protector fantasy that sheds its authoritarian inclinations to instead become, not a singular power protecting Us from Them, but rather everyone protecting everyone from anyone. Perhaps surprisingly, that model is not Superman, though Superman will eventually, in the final moments of the DCAU, give the model its clearest verbal expression.
No. While Robin is busy predicting the next world, Batman is already looking to the one which could have been after, one predicated on a hero of an entirely different kind. Who is, admittedly, faster than a speeding bullet.
Much, much faster.
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