It’s still October 10, 1998, as The New Batman Adventures contributes its part of the block with “Legends of the Dark Knight,” a series of homages to takes on Batman from outside the DCAU, most notably Dick Sprang and Frank Miller, embedded within a frame story about a group of children arguing over their differing ideas of who Batman is and what he’s like.
The art style shifts–along with the fact that nowadays this episode is generally watched on DVD, Blu-Ray, or streaming–obscure something important in the episode’s structure, however, an unusual choice to not align the embedded stories with the act break. Both commercial breaks occur at cliffhanger moments in their respective embedded stories, which is not unusual–but after the breaks, we return immediately to the embedded story, which is. Most shows either time their act breaks to fall between embedded stories, or start the next act with a brief return to the frame story before continuing the embedded story, both for the same reason: people tend to change channels during commercial breaks, and they might not recognize the embedded story while channel-flipping.
This is one of two choices that jumps out as odd. The other is the incredibly mean-spirited caricature of Joel Schumacher as a child who appears briefly between the first and second story. Admittedly, as we’ve discussed, Schumacher’s Batman films are pretty mean-spirited in themselves, but that’s still no cause to depict him as a skinny, androgynous, mincing gay stereotype. Generalized misanthropy is one thing; homophobia is quite another.
Insofar as there is a reason for the character Joel to exist, it’s to reject the Schumacher take on Batman. The trio of kids we’ve followed reject that take unanimously, while the other three–Nick’s monstrous conception, Matt’s Golden-Age old chum, and Carrie’s dark, hulking bruiser–are each rejected by two of the children. Yet all three are not-uncommon interpretations of Batman. Nick’s is the Bat, the inner demon unleashed onto the outer world, Matt’s typical of Batman comics of the 1950s or the 1960s TV show, and Carrie’s is The Dark Knight Returns.
In other words, while the two embedded stories are homages to or pastiches of interpretations of Batman from outside the DCAU, the framing device is primarily about rejecting them. Like Joel, whose interest in Batman is depicted as superficial and precociously sexual, the three children we follow through the framing device misunderstand Batman because they each see only part of who he is–the frightening lurker in the shadows, the protector, the violent vigilante. Even after seeing Batman, they argue, because each sees only the aspects of him that they described.
It is the frame that makes the art. (More precisely, art is that which is presented as art by an artist to an art-public; the framing is where the “presented as” happens.) Each of the two segments is a homage or a pastiche if taken as an isolated unit–especially the Miller-influenced one, much of which is a near-verbatim recreation of part of The Dark Knight Returns–but neither actually is an isolated unit. Both are emboited within, and therefore transformed by, the frame story; the rejection is part of the homage. Much like Animaniacs before it–and remember, many of the same people worked on both–the show is acknowledging its forebears while declaring itself to have moved beyond them. The DCAU Batman is the complete one, the true Batman of whom all these others are only partial reflections, imperfect copies. Batman-as-monster ignores his humanity; the friendly neighborhood Batman ignores his darkness; the murderhobo Batman ignores his light.
By contrast, this episode argues, the DCAU Batman is the Batman, the complete Batman. He wears and wields the Bat, but there is a man within, not a monster. He is a highly capable hand-to-hand combatant, but he also makes quips and uses gadgets. He will act to protect children, but he’ll also leave an arsonist hanging off the side of a burning building, at serious risk of death if fire-and-rescue and the police don’t arrive quickly. He is a figure in the shadows, ambiguous, amorphous, difficult to entirely pin down, flitting about the edges of the narrative until it is time to insert himself surgically into it. (The one gem of truth in the Miller pastiche–this is an operating table, and Batman’s the surgeon. It’s the nature of the patient that Carrie/Miller gets wrong.)
It is a bold move. This episode declares the DCAU interpretation of Batman to be the definitive take, the best of all worlds. All the evolution of the character over the decades, all the shifts in perspective as times and tastes and writers changed, distilled down to a Bruce Timm design and Kevin Conroy’s voice. It isn’t the first time they’ve implied this–Gotham’s anachronisms have always implied a distillation of the eras–but it is the loudest and clearest. And they’re not wrong.
Which is yet another reason to replace him.