“I Am The Night” (season one, episode 49, originally aired 11/10/1992)
I love a good Batman psych evaluation, and “I Am The Night” explores the burdensome pressure that Bruce’s mission puts on him, taking him to a breaking point with his alter ego. On the anniversary of his parents’ murder, Bruce experiences a crisis of faith when Commissioner Gordon is shot, and the episode evokes memories of Mask Of The Phantasm as Bruce considers abandoning the promise he made to defend Gotham City. Some might consider this episode overdramatic, but I’d rather call it operatic, with writer Michael Reaves and director Boyd Kirkland emphasizing the epic scale of Batman’s mission and Bruce’s limits as a human being.
From the opening title card, it’s clear this is going to be one of the serious episodes, with Michael McCuistion’s lamenting score backing an image of a gunned-down figure lit by a single red spotlight. The episode begins with an expansive, lingering shot of the bat-cave, Batman’s massive underground kingdom where he sits forlorn on his rocky throne. This is a hard day for Bruce, and because Roland Daggett got in the way of his mourning last year, Bruce is double the melancholy this time around. As he reads about Penguin’s overturned conviction in the newspaper, Bruce wonders if his actions have any effect at all, and after almost 50 episodes, it’s easy to see why the poor guy would get frustrated. It’s a lot easier to keep the streets clean when the city’s prison and legal systems aren’t complete pieces of shit.
While Batman is leaving roses at the spot where his parents were killed, Gordon and Bullock are preparing to raid Jimmy “The Jazzman” Peake, a criminal with a grudge against Gordon for ruining the biggest score of his life six years ago. In Crime Alley, Batman discusses his malaise with Dr. Leslie Thompkins, who tries to motivate her friend using the philosophy of George Santayana. As Thompkins tells Batman that “those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it,” Bruce responds with another Santayana aphorism, “A fanatic is someone who redoubles his efforts while losing sight of his goal.” The philosophical shout-outs add a layer of sophistication to the script, continuing later in the episode as Bruce stares into the depths of the bat-cave and quotes Nietzche: “When you look too long into the abyss, the abyss looks back through you.” Bruce forgets to mention the first part of that quote, but it applies just as thoroughly: “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster.” How long can Batman keep fighting before he becomes that which he despises?
After leaving the roses, Batman delays meeting Gordon and Bullock to save street urchin Wizard (Seth Green), who is being harassed by two goons demanding payment for letting him work their street corner. When one of the thugs makes a run for it, Batman snags him with a batarang, sending the man crashing down on the roses Batman had set for his parents. Yay, symbolism! No matter how hard Batman tries to make his city a place his parents would be proud of, there are always criminals ready to crush his efforts at every turn. He was cracking before, but now Batman is starting to break, and the only way he knows to fix himself is by fighting harder. He finds Gordon in Bullock in the midst of an ambush, and while Batman helps capture the Jazzman, it’s not before Gordon takes a bullet.
Jim Gordon’s shooting is an event that brings together the entire B:TAS supporting cast, with Barbara making her return and meeting Dick for the first time (at least the first time for us). The foreshadowing of Barbara’s Batgirl alter ego continues as we begin to see a more aggressive side of her, wanting to go out and right the wrong committed against her. For the most part, the supporting characters come out to do exactly that, supporting Bruce through his existential crisis and motivating him to continue doing his good work. The only naysayer is Bullock, who fully blames Batman’s tardiness for Gordon’s shooting, and Robert Costanzo does great work capturing Bullock’s pain and anger.
Batman is DC’s greatest hero because he’s a human being. Superman may their most recognizable character, but the company didn’t name themselves after Action Comics. This episode shows us Bruce’s flaws and fears, but it also reveals the strength and endurance that keep us endeared to him. Bruce’s sense of honor and duty is so extreme that he pushes himself to his limits and then a little further beyond, and this episode shows what happens when his mind just can’t handle the stress any longer. The trauma of Gordon’s shooting on top of the anniversary of his parents’ death pushes Batman into a frenzy, and he throws a tantrum that leaves the cave in shambles and his spirit even less at ease. Conroy gives an outstanding performance this episode, going through a huge spectrum of emotions, and that wail after his bat-cave breakdown is heartbreaking. If there was any confusion over Bruce’s relationship with Commissioner Gordon, this episode makes it clear that Bruce looks up to him as a father. At the same age Thomas Wayne would have been if he were still alive, James Gordon fills the father figure role for Batman that Alfred serves for Bruce.
Faced with the possibility of losing another parent, Bruce tries to get rid of his mask, deluding himself into believing that killing the costume will kill his relationship with Gordon and save him from more grief. Bruce tries to make his decision about keeping the people he loves safe, but it’s more about keeping himself away from a life that can only end in pain. He says, “I chose this life. I use the night. I became the night. Sooner or later, I'll go down. It might be the Joker, or Two-Face, or just some punk who gets lucky. My decision, no regrets.” He has no regrets, but maybe there’s still time for Bruce to save himself from Batman’s fate. He quits for a whole two minutes before Dick is able to get him back in costume, but it’s not like that was going to last anyway. Batman doesn’t give up, it’s just nice to see him consider it once in a while.
Sunrise does fantastic work this episode, and Boyd Kirkland outdoes himself with the direction. The huge set pieces help contribute to the epic, operatic feel of the script, and Kirkman’s long shots show off the detail of the beautiful painted backgrounds. There’s a lot of acting that is required of these characters this episode, and Sunrise has a firm understanding of body language and facial expressions, landing the drama of the episode with crisp animation. Kirkland has been consistently growing as an action director, and this episode’s climactic sequence in Gordon’s hospital room is a slow motion shoot-out that builds the tension up to the big bang and Gordon’s revival. Having saved his surrogate father, Batman receives the words of encouragement that he desperately needed to hear, and through strained breaths, Gordon tells him, “Got to keep fighting. Never stop. What I try to live by. Maybe if I'd been younger, I could've been like you. Always wanted to be a hero.” The words reassure him that he's made the right choice, a message from his parents from beyond the grave that they are proud of his decisions, and that's what Bruce needs the most.
“Off Balance” (season one, episode 50, originally aired 11/23/1992)
After the miserable “Moon Of The Wolf,” writer Len Wein has nowhere to go but up, and “Off Balance” is a move in the right direction, kicking off the Ra’s Al Ghul saga that will stretch across the series. While investigating the mysterious Society of Shadows, Batman crosses paths with Talia Al Ghul (Supergirl herself, Helen Slater), and the two do that whole “superheroics instead of sex” thing that Batman’s gotten so good at with Catwoman. Wein writes very standard superhero stories, with villains that plot elaborate death traps and love to describe their evil plots just before they exit, and after the emotional and psychological depth of last episode, it’s a come down to return to standard children’s action fare.
It really bugs me that Gotham City has the Statue of Liberty. I’m not sure why, maybe it’s because I like to think that the major American cities still exist in the DCAU, or maybe it’s because I don’t want to see real world landmarks in a fictional city. That being said, it’s not a bad action sequence, and it’s the first of the episode’s Hitchcock references. Recalling the Mt. Rushmore scene from North By Northwest, Batman fights two assassins atop the national monument, with the villains gassing themselves before Batman can get any information. They totally died, but I’m pretty sure they’re not allowed to show two ninjas killing themselves, so a line is thrown in about them wiping their minds with the gas. Yeah, whatever.
Batman learns that the leader of the Society, the nauseating Vertigo (Michael York), is preparing to steal an ultrasonic drill from Wayne Enterprises. This episode is bad accent central, with both Slater and York whipping out thick Eastern European dialects that recall horrible Red Claw flashbacks, but at least "Off Balance" is beautiful to look at. Sunrise does more strong work, with some impressive special effects when Vertigo uses his distortion beam, and Kevin Altieri clearly takes advantage of the studio’s talents. The way that the environments swirl and shift is reminiscent of the stunning work Studio Junio did on the hallucinations in “Dreams In Darkness,” and the fight sequences move smoothly while the character models and faces stay consistent.
After stealing the ultrasonic drill, Batman tracks Vertigo down to a bell tower where he meets Talia, helping her fend off a Society attack only to fall prey to the ultrasonic drill. Held captive by Vertigo, the two flirt for a while before escaping with the lock-pick Talia hides in her hair, running straight into a Vertigo death trap. Having set up a room with his disorienting device and a variety of booby traps, Vertigo leaves the two lovebirds to navigate their way to safety, which is going to be really hard because TALIA LOST HER CONTACT LENSES. You had me, Len, and then you lost me. It's such a stupid way to depower Talia, and damsel in distress Talia is much less interesting to watch than catsuit-badass Talia. Batman gets them through the room by pulling a Daredevil and closing his eyes, letting his other senses do the work, and once they catch up with Vertigo they use the bells in the tower to deafen the villain until he falls to his nondeath.
The end of the episode is where things finally get interesting, as Talia pulls a double cross on Batman, revealing her true allegiance to the Society of Shadows and her father, Ra's Al Ghul. I like that Talia's hair covers half her face for most of the episode, reflecting her hidden intentions in her design. Batman sabotages the ultrasonic device, officially earning him a spot on the Al Ghul shit list, but it will be a few more episodes we see the full potential of the Demon's Head. "Off Balance" is just the shaky first step to getting there.
- Batman Beatdown: As Talia fends for herself against the Society of Shadows, Batman swoops in, slamming into an assassin feet first, then pummeling him with his fist once they hit the ground. You definitely don’t want your face sandwiched between the ground and Batman’s fist.
- “A weary body can be dealt with, but a weary spirit… that's something else.”
- Hey look, a dumpster that no one gets thrown in!
- “I've put out a few fires, yes, won a few battles, but the war goes on, Alfred. On and on…”
- “I’ve been waiting a long time to play ‘Taps’ for Gordon.”
- When does Gordon actually get shot? Jazzman doesn’t have his gun when he’s in the truck, so who pulled the trigger?
- “Let's just say it was time to pay the piper.”
- “They got enough on me to play the funeral march.”
- “You stay down here much longer you'll be growing mushrooms in your armpits.”
- “No, Dick. This is my hunt.”
- “You’re going down for this! I ain’t talkin’ law, I’m talkin’ you and me!”
- “One of these days I'm going to nail his feet to the ground.”
- Gotta love when villains throw up handy clues about where their secret hideout is. It's a secret for a reason.
- The giant penny in the bat-cave is a lot more giant than it was in “Almost Got ‘Im.” It’s like 50 feet tall in “Off Balance.”
- “The first thing I want is for you to stop asking stupid questions.”
- Wednesday we’ll be running our Ed Brubaker interview for this year’s comics issue, and he talks about the B:TAS influence on his Batman comics and dishes on his Captain America and Criminal work. One of his first books in the Bat-office was the “Officer Down” crossover, which shares more than a few similarities with “I Am The Night.”