Batman: The Animated Series, “Trial”

21Sep11

For the last few decades, one of the interesting questions about Batman, both in and out of his own setting, is whether he does more harm than good. People have argued that he actually creates supervillains, and then other people get caught in the crossfire, even though Batman stops the ultimate plan every time. It’s an easier argument to make than it used to be, since it seems that villain bodycounts have to keep going up for them to remain menacing; they can’t just pull strange crimes, they have to involve hundreds (if not thousands) of people being killed for each scheme. And not simply as potential casualties either-it’s usually a case of hundreds are dead even though Batman stops them from killing more. It’s very rare to see a clean cut victory for him now. To some extent, that’s caused by the writers and editors aiming for an older audience of comic book fans, and not wanting to risk insulting their intelligence with notions that Batman can save everyone. But there’s still an aspect to it that’s deeply troubling, as though blood is the only way to make people read comics anymore.

To stop myself from digressing too much from the intended point, the reason I bring this up is that “Trial” is all about that very question. It is not the closing argument on it; after all, it’s only 22 minutes in a children’s show about Batman. No matter how much you may agree with its ultimate point, it doesn’t have the space to go that deeply into it. But it introduces the question in an intelligent way, showing that people who honestly want to improve Gotham and make it safer can oppose Batman for principled reasons.

That point is driven home in the very first scene, where Poison Ivy is sent to Arkham instead of prison, because she was brought in by Batman, rather than a recognized law officer. I’m not sure how that works, but given my limited understanding of law in general, I can’t cite any legal precedent that would clearly prove the judge wrong. Plus, who knows what strange local laws Gotham has on its books? Regardless, it’s pretty economic storytelling, since it introduces us to the new district attorney, Janet Van Dorn, who’s staunchly against Batman. Considering she just lost a case because of him, she’s got at least one good reason to resent his involvement. Technically, this isn’t her first episode-she actually appeared in “Shadow of the Bat.” But she only appeared there to lay out the case against Commissioner Gordon for one scene, and she gets a central role here.

There’s actually some amusing lines between Van Dorn and Batman himself, along with Gordon’s assessment, which underlines that his support of Batman is as much conditional as anything; he feels like he’s under siege when it comes to Gotham crime, so he can’t afford to lose Batman right now. Then we get to see Van Dorn talking about it with Bruce Wayne, though it’s really just a set up for her to disappear. At the same time Van Dorn has been attacking Batman verbally, Arkham has had its monthly breakout…but this one is a little different, as the Mad Hatter puts his mind control cards on all the employees so the inmates can run the asylum. You’d think they would remember to take them away from him!

They manage to get out of Arkham and kidnap Van Dorn during her date with Bruce Wayne, so naturally he’s a little pissed about being delayed in both wooing women and/or punching criminals. When he tries to find her, the villains use his tendency for indiscriminate violence against him for once, by tricking him into tackling a statue head first. At this point we find out the whole purpose of this, as Two Face tells Van Dorn the scheme: because they were inspired by her remarks about how Batman causes crime, they’re putting Batman on trial, and she’s going to defend him. If she wins, they both live; if she fails, they both die. I have to wonder how they heard those remarks, or how they managed to kidnap her without being seen, but those aren’t big issues with the episode, just lingering nitpicks.

As for the trial itself, it’s the highlight of the episode. My only complaint is that there isn’t more of it. Things are a little condensed, but you get to see Van Dorn display her intelligence, effectively picking at all of the witnesses and their psychological disorders to show Batman isn’t at the root of them. As she puts it, their gimmicks might not be the same without Batman, but they would still be doing damage to Gotham without him around to stop them. She even wins an acquittal…and then the Joker says they’ll kill the two of them anyway, because as Van Dorn has proven, they’re rotten, vile people anyway, so why not?

The episode sags a little here as the animation, adequate for talking and the occasional short action, is asked to do more involved fighting, and comes up short. It’s not terrible, but it’s actually less exciting to me to watch Scarecrow try to swing a scythe in a narrow hallway than to hear Van Dorn take apart Ivy on the stand. Of course, it’s a more logical ending than the villains actually letting Batman go, so I can’t complain on that front. Fortunately, it’s not too drawn out, and it’s really more about Batman helping Van Dorn to escape than a real fight.

As I said before, this episode doesn’t close the book on whether Batman is ultimately a good thing for Gotham City. Not by a long shot. But it’s more important for bringing up the theory at all, regardless of Van Dorn’s conclusion that she still wants to get rid of Batman at the end, just by making him unnecessary, though I’ll admit that’s a neat way to square the two perspectives. True, it’s a perspective that’s put to the test by Batman’s enemies, so the theory is completely weighted towards “Yes, he’s a good thing” here. But it’s still kind of amazing that it came up at all in the Animated Series, especially from someone who ends up being a fellow protagonist. Unfortunately, Van Dorn never makes another significant appearance in the show, but she still works well here. I would say that “Trial” is well worth watching, just for the court scene if nothing else.

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