It’s October 3, 1998. Monica tops the charts with “The First Night”; Aerosmith, Bare Naked Ladies, Jennifer Paige, and Edwin McCain round out this spectacularly 90s top 5. At the box office, Antz debuts at number one and What Dreams May Come at number two. Rush Hour and A Night at the Roxbury are at third and fourth, marking the first chart we’ve come across where I’ve actually seen all of the top four movies.
In the news, Europol is established and “pro-market social conservative” John Howard becomes Prime Minister of Australia, so the catastrophic rightward shift in the political winds that started in the late 70s/early 80s is still ongoing.
Speaking of catastrophic shifts, we have the episode The New Batman Adventures has been building to all season, the reveal of how Dick Grayson parted ways from Batman and became Nightwing. That, however, is not the catastrophic shift most highlighted by this episode, as the reason is more or less what one would expect: Batman being controlling, Dick rebelling, Batgirl caught in the middle between her lover at the time and lover to be.
The far more interesting catastrophic shift is that in Batman’s behavior. Since that change was introduced alongside with the changes in his relationship to Nightwing, occurring somewhere in the gap between the end of Batman: The Animated Series and the beginning of TNBA, it was natural to assume that it coincided with the breakdown of their relationship. But it didn’t; if anything, it precipitated that breakdown. The Batman we see in “Old Wounds” (colored, admittedly, by the narration of the very much not impartial Nightwing) is the same as throughout TNBA: cold, distant, manipulative, and calculating. Batman was, of course, capable of being all these things as part of his “I am the night” persona, but privately he displayed warmth, playfulness, and humor. And he still does in TNBA, in his relationships with his family–but “professionally,” so to speak, he is now all Dark Knight, never Caped Crusader.
So, we have to ask, what happened? And a clear answer shows itself almost immediately: Superman happened.
This is true on multiple levels. Extradiegetically, Superman is warm, playful, and funny in Superman: The Animated Series, so to differentiate the characters, Batman is made colder, more stern and serious. Diegetically, the emergence of Superman is part of a general shift into a world where both the characters and the threats they face are more fantastic, more powerful, and more alien. Batman’s world has changed from one where, once he kicks the gun out of an enemy’s hands, all he has to deal with are punches, to one where his enemies’ punches can potentially flatten skyscrapers–and with no guarantee that he’ll be able to tell who can do it, given that Clark Kent of all people is the physically strongest person in the world by several orders of magnitude. He is, in short, scared, and he deals with that fear by distancing others and becoming more hostile and work-focused.
But we are most interested in neither of those levels, but rather in readings that pass between and beyond them. Superman’s arrival wasn’t just Superman; it was apocalypse, revolution, and reinvention. Harley blew up Krypton, and Krypton was the world. The New Batman Adventures isn’t set in Bruce Wayne’s world, but in Harleen Quinzel’s, a place at once lighter and more dangerous, stranger and more open.
And that has Batman scared, because a world that is open is a world less controlled. Though in the past he was warmer and kinder, he was always in control of himself and often of his environment. He was, in most of the senses that matter, Alfred’s son, but he was also always Alfred’s boss. He was Dick’s father, but he chose that role because he saw something of himself in the angry, grieving little boy. He craves control because of that terrible moment when his life was entirely outside his control, and he exerts control by maintaining law and order (read: authoritarian control) in “his” city. He and he alone sorts the city into its four-caste hierarchy: the general populace, weak and helpless; the criminals who prey on them; the police who enact violence against the criminals; and the Bat who hangs over them all.
That his coldness and distance is a response to feeling out of control is demonstrated by his relationship with Batgirl. Theirs is a relationship of power exchange, of control, and with her he is still warm, even teasing. Likewise with Tim, still young enough to be unable to do much without Batman’s approval, and Alfred, to whom he can directly give orders. The only one he can’t control anymore is Dick, and Bruce doesn’t know how to love someone he can’t control.
Which is not to say he doesn’t still love Dick. Of course he does! But love isn’t just a feeling, it’s a process and a relationship, and Bruce is very bad at it with people he can’t control. His only familial relationships are with children he “rescued” and adopted and an employee; his romantic relationships are all with “bad” women that he tries to make “good,” most obviously Catgirl and Talia al-Ghul, but that’s also the role Batgirl takes when she plays the BDSM “brat” in their relationship. The last time he loved someone he couldn’t control, she abandoned him to become the Phantasm; the last time before that, they were gunned down in an alley. Batman is his own protector fantasy, and so his great nightmare is of caring for someone that won’t let Batman protect them.
He simply does not know how to handle Dick slipping out of his control, and reacts poorly, which drives Dick further away. The choice not to tell Dick about Batgirl’s secret identity is a bad one, but it’s understandable in this context: it’s a point of leverage, a way of trying to bring Dick back under control by telling him that he’s replaceable, and to undermine his independence by knowing something crucial about his life that he doesn’t.
The hardest thing to do, when you’ve been hurt, is to allow yourself to be hurt again. To drop the barriers and let go control, to trust another person, depend on them, permit them the power to hurt you as you were hurt before. This is the pain that causes Batman to go down this darker path, one that will keep him isolated and dark, driving away everyone he cares about, right through to his bitter old age in Batman Beyond. He is wrong, and getting wronger, but through this episode we understand why, and can feel for him.
“Old Wounds,” from a synopsis alone, sounds like an origin story for Nightwing. Which of course it is–but he’s the hero of the story, and as is often the case in BTAS and TNBA, the hero is not the emotional center. As a result, this isn’t just an origin story, or even primarily an origin story. It’s something else, something that BTAS in particular always excelled at.
“Old Wounds” is a sympathetic villain story.
Current status of the Patreon: