Slag it (Batgirl Returns)

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It’s a fitting ending. Batman Returns provided much of the impetus for the creation of Batman: The Animated Series; now it provides the title–and Catwoman–for its final episode.
It’s November 12, 1994. The top song is, of course, “I’ll Make Love to You” by Boyz II Men. The top movie is Interview with the Vampire. In the news, last week’s midterm  elections demonstrated just how effective Clinton’s plan to secure Democratic control of the U.S. by turning the Democrats into Republicans Lite was, as Republicans seized both houses of Congress for the first time in  40 years;  tomorrow, the Chunnel opens full public service and Sweden votes to join the European Union.
Amusingly, in his only appearance in the episode, Bruce Wayne mentions that he is engaged in a merger that is important to the European Common Market, a frequently used alternative name to the European Economic Community–an entity which had been absorbed by the European Union a year before this episode aired. But that’s fitting for the swansong of Batman: The Animated Series; Batman is  clearly being marked as part of a past that has already ended, while the future belongs to Batgirl, Catwoman, and, to a vastly lesser degree, Dick Grayson.
It’s fitting, too, that Batman is barely in the final episode of his series; with very few exceptions, Batman: The Animated Series has never really been about him.  He has remained in the shadows, observing, occasionally swooping in to save the day, but in most episodes the bulk of characterization has fallen on some other character, most obviously in the “sympathetic villain” episodes. He is fixed permanently as an eight-year-old boy wearing an adult suit called Bruce Wayne, wearing a mask called Batman; he cannot change, cannot grow, cannot experience an arc, and therefore makes for a poor main character,  but he has always been an excellent magnet around whom more interesting characters accumulate.
Instead, we get the far more dynamic figure of Batgirl, reintroduced in this episode through Barbara Gordon’s absolutely delightful power fantasy, in which she swoops in, saves an injured, almost cowering Batman from the trio of Joker, Penguin, and Two-Face,  and then very nearly claims a kiss as her reward before being interrupted by Dick Grayson. It’s a perfect inversion of the power fantasy superheroes supposedly represent, an adolescent boy saving a cowering damsel in distress from grotesque villains and earning her affection as his reward.
We have been quite critical of the notion that superheroes function as power fantasies in general, but it’s difficult to read Batgirl’s role in this episode as anything else. She’s not  tortured by any past trauma, not driven by any neurotic compulsion; she just wants to dress up in a costume and kick some ass. She is, in that sense, more of a kindred spirit to Catwoman than to Batman or Robin: both women use their alternate identities as a release of frustration, a way to express their power and desire to make the world a better place outside of the confines placed on them by their respective social roles.
But we’ve been down that road before. Perhaps, rather than saying Batgirl and Catwoman are  kindred spirits, it would be better to say that both have kindred  spirits in our departed mascots of impending apocalypse, Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, and leave it at that.
Regardless, Batgirl is clearly a power fantasy here, which perhaps explains why Catwoman’s attempt at recruiting her seems to be working right up until the moment that Catwoman insults Commissioner Gordon. Clearly she is to some degree sympathetic to the desire to upend the world, as witness that opening fantasy with its upending of the traditional damsel in distress phenomenon. It’s difficult to blame her–once again, Barbara Gordon is the daughter of a man who thinks it’s appropriate to try to pick his daughter’s romantic partners.
Which gives us yet another (quasi-)villainous parallel to Batgirl: Talia al-Ghul. Indeed, the degree to which Ra’s al-Ghul and Commissioner Gordon form mirror images of one another–older men, one who wishes to make himself  Batman’s father figure and the other adopted by Batman as a father figure, one who seeks to make the world a better place by overthrowing its power structures and the other by using them, one a pure power fantasy and the other a protector–makes it quite regrettable that we’ve never really had an episode in which they both play a prominent role. The next generation seems to have inherited these parallels, but to a degree seem to have swapped their positionalities: two young women, both attracted to Batman, yet it’s Talia who wants to either retire in peace or continue her father’s work, and Batgirl who wants to break out of the role chosen by her father and fight as a vigilante.
Batgirl is not content to simply protect things as they are. She wants to change them. She is someone who can take her costume on and off without changing who she is, a unified identity rather than broken fragments of child and protector, Bat and Man. She fights–and defeats, so thoroughly that he is never seen again–one of the recurring corporate villains against whom Batman so frequently struggled without ever entirely defeating. Batman could never truly overcome Roland Daggett, because both ultimately drew their power from the same source, the vast resources, entitlement, and immunity to consequences that come with great wealth; Batgirl’s power comes from a different source entirely, and hence she can stop him.
Well, except for the part where she and Catwoman comes within moments of being killed before Robin swoops in to save the day. The positive reading of this episode twists and turns back on itself; superheroes as a power fantasy are, we have observed before, primarily the domain of very small children. Batgirl–emphasis on the infantilizing term girl–is in over her head and has to be rescued by a man who condescends to her with almost every line. She’s depicted as a child engaged in childish pursuits, which is why in Batman Beyond she’ll grow up to do a real job–but Batman and Robin (who will become Nightwing in his next appearance) get to be manly adult men to who have to be taken seriously when they do the same things.
For a moment, just a moment, we had a glimpse of a new (or, perhaps, very old) kind of hero. But Batman: The Animated Series has room for only one kind of hero–indeed, only one hero, one who lurks in the shadows and on the sidelines. If we want a hero who can stand in full daylight, at the center of things, BTAS has to be broken open. Destruction, rebirth, a new art style and a new network.
And then it’ll have to be done again, and again, and again. A major shock to the system will be needed before we can truly get beyond Batman and break free of the limits restraining our conception of the superhero and the world–if we can get there at all.

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2 thoughts on “Slag it (Batgirl Returns)

  1. It’s fitting, too, that Batman is barely in the final episode of his series; with very few exceptions, Batman: The Animated Series has never really been about him. He has remained in the shadows, observing, occasionally swooping in to save the day, but in most episodes the bulk of characterization has fallen on some other character, most obviously in the “sympathetic villain” episodes.

    That passage reminds me of the description of Will Eisner’s classic character the Spirit as “smaller than the truth he had to tell” and the line, in The Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics, about how Spirit stories tended to be more interesting the less of the Spirit there was in them (in each of the three eight-to-ten-page Spirit Sections reprinted op.cit., the Spirit’s on-panel time adds up to about a page’s worth).

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