I had to save her (Chemistry)

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Mea culpa: I somehow managed to miss two weeks of updates, which means I owe y’all THREE NA09 chapters and AT LEAST three videos. I’m trying to queue them all up now:  NA09 posts Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, and multi-video posts Tuesday and Thursday.

It’s October 24, 1998. Monica tops the charts with “The First Night”; they’re otherwise largely unchanged. Pleasantville opens at number one at the box office, which likewise isn’t otherwise moving very much. In the news, basically nothing is happening, at least according to the exhaustive research I’ve conducted (looking at the Wikipedia page for 1998).

The whole world is basically giving a resounding “meh,” which could well be the response to this episode. It’s not that the idea is a bad one–giving Bruce Wayne a chance at genuine happiness and love, then snatching it away, can be very effective, as demonstrated by Mask of the Phantasm. The problem here is lack of space: there just isn’t room to go through all the beats of this story and show Bruce’s emotional arc in a satisfying way. In the 2010s, TV has hit upon a number of strategies for this, most notably shifting more plot beats from overt text to implied offscreen events, making more room for characterization. This strategy, however, requires trusting the audience to fill in the blanks, and that may not be as possible for children’s entertainment. Modern cartoons have dealt with the issue by employing other strategies–most notably, finding ways to build characterization and execute plot beats simultaneously, and relying more heavily on music and musical numbers to expand the available bandwidth for conveying emotion.

These techniques aren’t really available for a Batman cartoon in 1998, so instead we lose the character beats that made Mask of the Phantasm so powerful. Batman takes longer to show up to the final fight with Poison Ivy than Robin and Batgirl do, so we can guess that he took a moment before putting on the batsuit they brought him. He may have just stood there and mourned Susan, or at least his relationship; he may have needed time to shift back into the Batman headspace; he may have despaired at ever escaping the suit. But that moment, which could have been very effective, is elided in favor of Robin melting a plant man.

There is, in fact, a lot of melting of plant people in this fight sequence. True, they were constructs created by Poison Ivy, but they could obviously pass a Turing Test–they demonstrably trick observers into believing they are human. As Susan notes, the pheromones got things started, but most of the work of getting Bruce Wayne to fall in love with her was “all me.” Michael and Susan both exhibit concern and fear, and Susan shows sadness and pride. They’re plant people, and yet superheroes and supervillain alike treat them with absolute disregard.

The result is that the moment where Susan looks out the window of the sinking yacht, crying as Batman leaves her to her death, falls badly flat. Batman tries and fails to save Poison Ivy from the same fate (in the sense that he is unable to pull her from the sinking wreck; obviously she survives and resurfaces in later shows, most notably Static Shock), because she is a person to him, but the woman he fell in love with no longer is. To him, she’s just a thing, and indeed no one in the episode ever suggests treating the plant monsters as anything but things, with Robin and Batgirl enthusiastically melting them with weed killer.

None of the characters care, and that makes it hard for us to care. The shot through the porthole of Susan crying is the show reflexively reaching for the sympathetic villain buttons, going through the motions, but we only got glimpses of the plant people’s internality, and so we really don’t have anything with which to sympathize. The show leans too heavily on that Us-Other divide to see the plants as anything but Others, and so like robots and aliens, there is no question of whether it is permissible for heroes to kill them.

But we’ve talked about this before. Increasingly, that’s the problem with Batman: these chapters are getting shorter and shorter, because we’ve talked about everything before. Batman says one thing in this episode that’s definitely true: that it’s time for him to stop being Batman and pass everything on. But even that is repetition for us–more and more over this volume, we’ve been talking about the necessity of the DCAU moving beyond Batman, because this is the volume where it happens, and so I’m laying the groundwork to explain the why before we get to the what.

But now the show knows it, too. The production staff already did, of course–by the time this episode was completed, they would have had to be well into the production of Batman Beyond. Animation lead times are enormous, after all. But I’m not talking about what the people making the show know; I’m talking about what the show knows–what truths it contains and can convey. It has finally admitted its own exhaustion, its own need to evolve into something…

…well, into something Other.


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3 thoughts on “I had to save her (Chemistry)

  1. I’m talking about what the show knows–what truths it contains and can convey. It has finally admitted its own exhaustion, its own need to evolve into something…

    …well, into something Other.

    In other words, incipient narrative collapse?

  2. I’m talking about what the show knows–what truths it contains and can convey. It has finally admitted its own exhaustion, its own need to evolve into something…

    …well, into something Other.

    I started to leave a comment about narrative collapse here. Then I reconsidered because I remembered that’s more El’s bag than yours. Now, as you can see, I’ve re-reconsidered because what, after all, is narrative collapse often a prelude to? Regeneration.

    The Passing will soon occur. The time for Renewal is at hand.

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