It’s October 10, 1998. Monica still tops the charts, while Antz still reigns at the box office. In the news, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet is indicted for human rights violations; he will be arrested within a week. No U.S. official ever faces the slightest repercussions for backing the coup that put him in power or for providing financial and technical support for “Operation Condor,” in which a Chile- and US-led multinational covert action to assassinate prominent Latin American leftists resulted in the deaths of sixty thousand people.
Speaking of covert action and distasteful segues, Superman: The Animated Series returns after a mini-hiatus… with essentially an episode of Batman: The Animated Series, given that it takes place at night and is set almost entirely in Gotham. It is essentially a “what if?” episode, the question in this case being “What if Superman filled in for Batman for a case?” This question has, of course, been asked and answered in comics numerous times, but this is its sole DCAU outing.
Coming as close on the heels of “Old Wounds” as it does, it highlights why the production staff may have felt a need to differentiate Superman and Batman, as they really do resemble one another almost exactly. This is a biproduct of Timm’s approach to character design, of course, which is even more visible with female characters–Roxy Rocket at the episode’s beginning is, other than costume, essentially indistinguishable from Batgirl or Harley Quinn or any of a number of others–but the issue still stands: the two most prominent characters in the budding DCAU look basically identical.
At the same time, this episode demonstrates why that differentiation isn’t that important, because in behavior Superman and Batman–and, for that matter, Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne–are quite distinct. Robin says that he knows something is wrong with the message from Wayne because he smiles in it–but in BTAS, Wayne smiled frequently, sometimes as part of his unassuming gadabout persona, and sometimes genuinely, particularly in scenes alone with Alfred or Robin. It is only in The New Batman Adventures that his capacity for mirth and joy seem to have entirely evaporated–and thanks to “Old Wounds,” we know that it isn’t as a consequence of Dick Grayson leaving on bad terms to become Nightwing.
This episode highlights the difference between Superman and Batman: the audience has no trouble telling the difference, in part because we were told the premise from the start, but also because of how different they are. Even with Kevin Conroy, Batman’s usual voice actor, playing Supes-as-Bats, the character is notably distinct. In dialogue he struggles to maintain his demeanor, occasionally even breaking into a smile–which Bruce Wayne might have done in BTAS, but Batman did only privately and rarely. In combat, he is much less prone to dodging, lurking in the shadows, and surprise attacks, relying instead on his nigh-invulnerability and immense strength to carry the battle.
Both differences derive from the core distinction in demeanor between Batman and Superman. Batman is a conscious construct designed to project fear and give the impression of invincibility while helping the vulnerable human inside the suit stay alive; he is not just the audience’s protector fantasy, but eight-year-old Bruce Wayne’s as well. Superman, by contrast, is a protector fantasy for others only, as Clark Kent really doesn’t need protection; instead of fear, he projects an air of unassailable confidence–not smugness, but the justified belief that nothing his opponent can do will actually hurt him. These are very different positionalities, and we see in this episode that even given identical character designs and the same voice actor, we can still differentiate them.
Wayne and Kent, too, have contrasting personalities. Wayne, the playboy billionaire, is confident, friendly, and possibly a little dim; Kent the farm boy is earnest and smart, but shy and unassuming. They are, in short, the rich, popular kid and the fish out of water, easily distinguishable as discrete archetypes despite their similarity in character design.
So why the change to Wayne and Batman? Why make him so dour, serious, and solitary, if not to contrast him to Kent and Superman? The answer, simply put, is that the goal is not to differentiate Batman from Superman; it’s to differentiate Batman from Batman.
Terry McGinnis isn’t rich, but he is a middle-class Gothamite, closer in background to Wayne than farm-boy Kent. He’s not dumb by any means, but he’s not the academic or athletic star we’re given to believe Clark was. He is friendly and reasonably popular, but also driven and serious, traits we know Wayne possesses as well.
His similarity to a younger Wayne, diegetically speaking, is why he is chosen as Batman’s successor; the direction of causation is the other way around extradiegetically, but the two facts are still connected. The old Batman needs to be distinguished from the new, not just in experience and appearance, both of which go almost without saying, but in personality. And, too, “crotchety old man whose secret heart of gold is slowly revealed by his relationship with a caring younger person” is a common story arc for a reason: it works, it’s emotionally affecting, and it’s based on a different kind of relationship than media usually depict.
Meanwhile, it’s the 90s. The comics industry is imploding, and one of its desperate attempts to retain relevance is to cater to the angry white boy market by “darkening” characters and lines, which is to say by focusing on characters who are at best assholes, and often nigh-indistinguishable from the villains they fight in terms of destructive impact on the people around them. Batman is relatively tame by comparison, but nonetheless comics of the time played up his “outsider” status and angst.
For Wayne’s arc in Batman Beyond to work, he must become a bitter, lonely old man by its dark future. How better to get him there than by having him transform into the then-current comic book version of the character, and thereby drive away everyone he cares about one by one? The path will be complicated by the interpolation of Justice League, but nonetheless, we are on the road to his status at the beginning of Beyond: an isolated recluse in a city evolved from anachronistic noir pastiche to cyberpunk–if those can even be said to be different things.
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