Believe it or not, this week marks 20 years since Batman: The Animated Series made its network debut. And we would be remiss not to mark the occasion by kicking off the final chapter of Jeremiah Lawson aka Wenatchee the Hatchet’s extraordinary look at the moral and philosophical (and aesthetic) mechanics of that landmark show. To go back the beginning, click here. Otherwise, buckle your utility belt:
PART SIX: CROSSING THRESHOLDS, or Stories of Apostasy and Salvation in Gotham City
Physics is aware of phenomena which occur only at threshold magnitudes, which do not exist at all until a certain threshold encoded by and known to nature has been crossed…
Evidently evildoing also has a threshold magnitude. Yes, a human being hesitates and bobs back and forth between good and evil all his life. He slips, falls back, clambers up, repents, things begin to darken again. But just so long as the threshold of evildoing is not crossed, the possibility of returning remains, and he himself is still within reach of our hope. But when, through the density of evil actions, the result either of their own extreme degree or of the absoluteness of his power, he suddenly crosses that threshold, he has left humanity behind, and without, perhaps, the possibility of return.”
- From “The Bluecaps” in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago
In the Reagan years “Cold War moral clarity” ensured that even if a character on a cartoon were three-dimensional he or she would not be a dynamic character. The heroes were heroic, the villains were villainous, and it was inconceivable that moral alignments would change. Optimus Prime and Megatron might negotiate a temporary ceasefire to deal with a common enemy but the war would never stop. The few turncoats that were allowed were, in essence, defectors from the Evil Empire. It was permitted for an initially evil character to see the light, but not vice versa. This famously occurred with Smurfette on the Smurfs (for a vulgar but funny summation of her case consult the 2002 film Donnie Darko). Otherwise it was business as usual.
Of course Batman: The Animated Series changed business as usual. Suddenly, we had villains with sympathetic, tragic motives. We got heroes with unlikable personalities. Crusaders became crime lords and crime lords forsook their scheming. The Dark Knight would gain many allies and lose many friends in his war on crime. Stories of apostasy and salvation were not uncommon in this Gotham City, and it is to some of these stories we now turn.
A. TWO-FACE: GOTHAM’S FALLEN KNIGHT
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” -From “The Bluecaps” in The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
“Our own share of evil is not removed by condemning evil in others…” -pg 48 of Adolf Schlatter’s Romans: The Righteousness of God.
In Gotham’s history the transformation of District Attorney Harvey Dent into Two-Face stands as one of Batman’s most haunting failures. Two-Face was considered too grisly and dark a character to appear in the Adam West Batman show and it was not until Batman: the animated series that the story of Two-Face appeared on any screen, big or small. It wasn’t until Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight in 2008 that we finally got a silver screen version of Two-Face that captured the dark heart of the character.
A successful telling of Harvey’s story has to highlight how Dent is and is not like Batman. Whether as a hero or a villain Harvey Dent’s struggle is a struggle for order. He is an agent of the law, whether or not the law is civic law or the law of his own broken soul. At another level Two-Face a doppelganger to the Dark Knight–personal tragedy formed both Batman and Two-Face. The difference between the two men is how they dealt with the anger and violence they discovered inside themselves. Bruce Wayne confronted his anger and grief head on and learned to look beyond them in a way that let him help others. Harvey Dent hid from (and hid away) the rage inside him until he ran out of luck and discovered that fury was all he had left. He lost control of his life and when he lost even the illusion of control he embraced darkness.
This fall can only be fully appreciated if we first get to see the good Dent was doing. Dini and Timm made a point of showing us a Harvey Dent who was genuinely nice and heroic in a number of episodes before Two-Face emerges. Dent is a good guy in the pilot, and he’s still a good guy when he’s poisoned by Poison Ivy in “Pretty Poison”. He’s a crusader against organized crime, engaged to a supportive fiancée, and a longtime friend of Bruce Wayne. Dent is close enough to Wayne that when Wayne tells him bluntly that his recent girlfriend Pamela Isley is all wrong for him (i.e. she’s Poison Ivy) Dent listens.
By the start of the two-part story “Two-Face” Dent has already heeded his fiancée Grace’s advice to get psychiatric help for a dormant personality that is threatening to erupt to the surface as Dent’s election campaign is under way. Crime boss Rupert Thorne discovers this weakness and exploits it to blackmail Harvey, which pushes Dent’s sociopathic second personality permanently to the forefront of Dent’s mind. Dent sees his dark side as the right tool to fight Rupert Thorne. Batman arrives at the secret meeting where Thorne hoped to blackmail Dent just in time to not save Dent from having his face ravaged by an electro-chemical explosion. The physical scars end up being mere physical manifestations of a man who does not yet realize how broken he already is. Dent put his political career and his battle against organized crime above his own safety and sanity.
After Harvey’s face is burned Wayne finds himself having nightmares in which he watches his fried become scarred and fall to his death. In the nightmare Dent asks Bruce, “Why couldn’t you save me?” As Harvey falls to the earth and dies he transforms into Bruce’s parents and Thomas Wayne looks up and asks, “Why couldn’t you save us, son?” As Batman seeks to bring Two-Face to justice, Bruce tells Alfred, “I still feel that somewhere inside that monster is my old friend.” Alfred replies, “That may make him even more dangerous.” Over time this will prove true. Bruce Wayne promises to himself and Harvey Dent that he will save him. Time after time Bruce Wayne will discover this is a promise that has no chance of being kept.
Two-Face, armed with Harvey Dent’s knowledge of the underworld of Gotham, establishes a hideout with security so tight not even Batman can safely break in; when Bruce Wayne tries to pass himself off as a small-time crook he is stunned to discover that Two-Face’s knowledge of the crime world is too great for even Batman’s talent for disguise. Bruce Wayne’s old friend has risen as a crime lord to the point where he can manipulate the Gotham city police into crushing his rivals and framing Commissioner Gordon for graft; these are plots Batman can’t foil without help from friends.
But Bruce Wayne refuses to give up. Bruce Wayne pays for a surgery to fix the scars on Dent’s face so that the Two-Face personality will be submerged and defeated. By now Bruce should have known that the broken soul of Dent manifested the Two-Face personality before Dent was scarred but Bruce Wayne chooses to believe that the cosmetic fix will lead to a change of heart. When Dent is kidnapped Batman begins to follow the clues and discovers that Two-Face kidnapped Dent and plans to get rid of Dent forever. Batman manages to rescue Two-Face after escaping yet another death trap, but he is chastened by the realization that just fixing Harvey Dent’s face will not make Two-Face go away.
But Harvey Dent has not stopped being a man of the law at heart, however perverse that understanding of the law has become. Over time Harvey Dent realizes the crimes he’s committing are wrong. At length he develops a third personality, the Judge, who goes on a vengeful spree punishing other criminals. Batman discovers that the Judge is so thorough in his plans to kill Gotham’s most terrible criminals that the Judge has arranged to kill Two-Face. The Judge knows everything about Two-Face except that he is Two-Face! The Judge represents the part of Harvey Dent that knows that what Two-Face has done is wrong and worthy of punishment. But this Judge is incapable of mercy and has no interest in reform. The Judge will only be satisfied with blood. Batman stops the Judge from killing Two-Face but by now the man who was originally Harvey Dent is completely lost. What remains as Dent sits straitjacketed in Arkham is a man plunged into darkness and despair with two different personalities within him. Two-Face has robbed and defrauded and crushed and the Judge pronounces him guilty, a condemnation Two-Face agrees with but cannot change. This is the last time we see Two-Face, recognizing his own guilt and unable to change, doing things he knows are wrong yet unable to stop. The end of Harvey Dent ends up being Romans 7 without any hope of deliverance.
Up Next: It’s Never Too Late for Arnold Stromwell!