If I have a bat problem (Rebirth)

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It’s January 10, 1999, about six weeks since “Little Big Head Man.” The bizarre duo of R. Kelly and Celine Dion top the charts, with “I’m Your Angel.” Deborah Cox, Brandy, and Britney Spears also chart, the last with her first big hit, “…Baby One More Time.” The top movie is A Civil Action, which managed the rare feat of jumping up 44 places between weekends. Also in the top ten are Robin Williams vehicle Patch Adams, You’ve Got Mail, animated classic The Prince of Egypt and semi-classic A Bug’s Life, Shakespeare in Love, and cult horror favorite The Faculty.

And on TV, Batman dies the way he always had to: some punk with a gun. 20 years on from The New Batman Adventures, fighting to save what’s implied to be Veronica Vreeland’s teen daughter from a random gang of kidnappers, he suffers a heart attack and is nearly killed by one of the kidnappers. Desperate, he picks up a gun and threatens the man with it. Remember, he lives in a world of archetypes. For Batman, every night is The Night, and every gun is The Gun. Holding it, menacing someone with it, makes him The Punk and allows all the survivor’s guilt he feels about his parents, the guilt he made the Bat to keep at bay, to rush in at once. The Bat is dead, and with it, the Batman.

Bruce Wayne, however, is not free. He will never not be trapped in The Night, never not be that frightened, helpless eight-year-old boy, and now he is the murderer of his parents to boot. He shuts himself away from the world, cuts off his ties with others, retreats into solitude. The Punk, unleashed, flows into Gotham, and goes cyber.

Cue dead-television sky.

Terry McGinnis is an angry young man. We’re not given a clear reason for his anger–there’s some implication it’s his parents’ divorce, but it equally well could be the natural consequent of the dim world in which he lives. Certainly he seems to take his anger out primarily on manifestations of The Punk, starting the episode in a brawl with a member of the Jokerz street gang. This is not Bruce Wayne’s anger, however; that was cold, and he wore it like armor. Terry’s is hot, and it wears him.

At least until he steals the batsuit, anyway. He quickly finds it a way to channel his anger into righteous violence, which as uses for hot anger go is probably the most constructive one. He takes obvious joy in using the suit, a pleasure, almost playfulness, that we never saw in Bruce Wayne, though there were perhaps hints of it in Tim Drake. In all though, Terry is something new, neither the brooding darkness of Bruce Wayne nor the shining paragon that is Superman. He’s yet a third kind of hero: someone who never had power, only anger, and on receiving it, chooses to use it not for his own gain, but to fight against those who abuse power (and killed his dad, admittedly).

He is, in other words, a hero who is very nearly a villain, but not in the trite Dark Age of Comics sense of a “hero” who shoots lots of guns indiscriminately in service of some authority or ideal. Rather, he is a hero who is not entirely on the side of power, because this is cyberpunk and power–in the form of the unsubtly named Derek Powers–is suspect and corrupt.

And beside that, he has one key advantage over Bruce Wayne: he can take the suit off. Unlike Wayne, he has family who don’t know that he’s Batman, and genuine friends in his “civilian” persona. He has a life, and while that will create conflict down the line, it also creates opportunity: he can heal in a way Bruce Wayne never could. Ironically, the boy who now has the Bat doesn’t really need it. He is hurt and angry, but he has the support he’ll need to recover, in time.

I say “has the Bat,” but the Bat isn’t really something you have. It’s something you are, or are not–and Terry is not. The episode title is a misnomer: the Bat is dead and remains such. Instead we have something more interesting: a boy who isn’t substantially different between civilian and heroic personae, who seems to deliberately resist fragmenting his identity as so many superheroes do. This isn’t a rebirth of something we’ve seen before; this is, fittingly for an episode revolving around a destructive mutagen, an evolution. Rebirth implies on some level a return to where we’ve been, but that’s not where we’re going; we’re going Beyond.

And as for McGinnis, a Batperson who can take the suit off and be just a person? We’ve seen that before, in a previous partner of Bruce Wayne: Batgirl. Of course she was his partner in more ways than one, but then so will Terry be, albeit in a very different way.

We’ll be meeting her next episode.

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