It’s October 6, 1992, two days before “The Forgotten,” so see that entry for top songs, movies, and headlines. Last episode we had a washed-up actor as a red herring for the villain; this episode extends that distrust of performers and performativity to having an actor be the villain.
Of course the date is fairly important to this one–the idea of a doomsday cult of the financial elite led by a charlatan astrologer seems rather more absurd now than it might have in 1992, sandwiched as that year was between the 1988 revelation that an astrologer had been consulted in planning Reagan’s schedule for most of his Presidency, and the increase in media coverage of “doomsday cults” that began with 1993’s siege of the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas. In the years between, a growing undercurrent of millennial panic began to build in diverse segments of society, from the religious right (who began speaking increasingly of the Rapture or Second Coming as imminent) to technocrats (who warned of the impending doom of Y2K).
Part of this, of course, is simply the attraction of round numbers. There had been riots across Europe in the year 1000, as people believed the Christian Millennium was at its end and the apocalypse due to begin; it’s not too surprising that something similar would happen again as the year 2000 approached. But there was another force at work here, too, one that we have discussed before: the cultural malaise of apocalypse deferred.
After all, U.S. culture had spent much of the latter half of the twentieth century preparing for the apocalypse: amassing a nuclear arsenal, planning for “mutually assured destruction” (surely the most apropos initialism in military history) with the Soviet Union, building bunkers and teaching children to “duck and cover.” And in Reagan it seemed to many that we had the perfect leader for final, apocalyptic war (which, depending on your political and religious views, was the strongest argument either for him or against him): a cowboy with a zealous hatred of communism and communists, a close political alliance with the relatively new (in the 1980s) alliance of Christofascists and doomsday cults collectively referred to as the “Moral Majority” or “religious right,” and a hawkish approach to military matters.
The stage was set for an explosive final war, and instead there was a damp sizzle, as first the Berlin Wall and then the Soviet Union itself fell to internal struggles brought on primarily by economic woes traceable to the oil crises of the 1970s. The results were several major cultural problems that dominated the 1990s and have yet to be entirely resolved: a sort of society-level survivor’s guilt; an inability to let go of the anxiety of nuclear war that led to transferring it onto a series of other targets, most notably terrorism; and the malaise I mentioned above, a desperate searching for an alternate apocalypse.
Because the thing about the apocalypse is that it’s not just that most people spent the 1980s quietly expecting it; it’s that on some level, most people wanted it. That’s usually the case, as becomes clear when one looks at the history of the apocalypse. Its origins in the Near East of roughly 200 BCE to 100 CE reveal a genre of literature that largely predicted massive destruction not as a warning to the reader to shape up or face judgment, but as a form of comfort to the oppressed. Books like Daniel, Revelation, and their non-canonical contemporaries used codes and metaphors to project the destruction they described either into the heroic past (as Daniel does with the destruction of Babylon) or an unspecified future (as Daniel and Revelation both do with the end of the world), but leave plentiful clues that they refer to whatever oppressor is troubling the audience at the time (the Seleucids for Daniel, Rome for Revelation). The result is a genre that frequently speaks to many generations, because a metaphor that works for two different oppressors will likely work for many, and so apocalyptic predictions speak to us all of the hope that we will find freedom from the individuals and institutions we feel oppressed by. Destruction is just a kind of transformation, after all, and so apocalypse just another word for revolution.
The problem, then, is that we both wish for and fear apocalypse, as we wish for and fear change. And in 1992, that was compounded by dashed expectations for apocalypse. Hope, fear, expectation–these are all feelings that make us easier to trick, and on which con men and tricksters of all types frequently depend. No wonder, then, that people would be easily fooled into believing in “the Great Fall” in 1992–especially since there was an ongoing economic depression to lend it credence!
So we are back to the actual episode, after quite a lengthy, but necessary, arc away from it, because here we see Batman positioning himself as a stern skeptic, convinced from the start that Nostromos must be some sort of fraud, which of course we soon learn that he is. Interestingly, he is not alone in this–Lisa Clark is also convinced that Nostromos is a fraud, and sets out on her own investigation, leading to her capture and use as a pawn by Nostromos. (A pity–the episode would be a lot more interesting if she’d taken on a role as mini-Batman, much as Renee Montoya did in “P.O.V.”)
The actual plot of the episode is fairly predictable: Batman investigates, gets a couple of trap-and-escape sequences, rescues both the damsel in distress and Bruce Wayne’s male friend in distress, and exposes and captures the criminal. The most interesting part comes at the end, when Bruce Wayne (maintaining the pretense that he genuinely fell for Nostromos’ tricks) quotes Shakespeare, opining to Ethan and Lisa Clark that “the fault lies not in our stars, but in our selves.” This comes from a line by Cassius in Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene 2, in which he is trying to persuade Brutus to join the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar–an act which will ultimately lead to the replacement of the tottering Roman Republic with the Roman Empire. The line in its original context is thus a call to stop waiting around for fate, but to act to bring immediate revolution. “The apocalypse you hoped and feared for didn’t happen?” Wayne appears to be saying. “Then make it happen.”
But we must remember, Wayne is here one of the rich and powerful talking to the rich and powerful, as were Cassius and Brutus. The revolution to which they refer is simply a change of power from one set of hands to another, not a true reshaping of society. Lisa Clark, for all that she is as skeptical as Batman is, still gets reduced first to a damsel in distress, and then to serving drinks to the menfolk. Batman is still on the side of authority, wealth, and power, at least here and now.
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