I spent a good chunk of my long weekend in a nostalgia-fueled fugue state, watching back-to-back-to-back-to-back episodes of Batman: The Animated Series. It’s a fascinating show to watch as an adult, as the show’s best episodes are full of highly, sometimes eerily subversive social commentary that was largely invisible to my five year old self. Batman aficionados are of course used to a dark Gotham, but the show’s Saturday Morning Cartoon status meant that the disturbing text in some comics and the Nolan movies becomes subtext in the cartoon. I’d argue that makes it one of the purest distillations of a quintessentially Batman approach to social commentary.
Reviewing B:TAS over at the A.V. Club, Oliver Sava makes a perceptive point: Batman’s most enduring and effective villains work as characters because they represent a twisted version of an element of Batman’s identity. For example, Two-Face embodies the inherent risks in developing a dual identity and The Scarecrow is a perversion of Batman’s use of fear as a weapon against Gotham’s criminals. The Joker headlines the supervillain pantheon because he is Batman’s polar opposite, sharing only an obsessive, ingenious commitment to the struggle for Gotham’s soul. By reflecting evil versions of Batman’s identity, Sava suggests Batman’s opponents sharpen the viewer’s understanding of their hero’s psychology. The villains are the windows into Batman’s soul.
This approach to the relationship between hero and villains parallels a broader approach to the relationship between Gotham and the real world. Gotham is a disfigured version of our reality, where concerns like crime and terrorism are intensified and altered in order to give us some insight into their real-world equivalents. Christopher Nolan’s films, as I’ve argued, used several different variants of this funhouse mirror approach to make a broad-based argument for the moral worth of liberal democracy. While The Dark Knight trilogy deals in a broad dramatic arc, B:TAS applies the twisting tactic in micro-moments, the lack of serialization allowing for short explorations of particular topics. While not every episode of the show pulls off this trick effectively, and the weaker ones don’t even try, the show is at its best when it uses Gotham’s bizarre environs as a means of making us think about very real problems.
Perhaps one of the most affecting of these episodes is “Harley and Ivy,” an episode focusing on the relationship between the Joker’s lieutenant/girlfriend Harley Quinn and ecoterrorist Poison Ivy. After a near-miss escape from Batman, the Joker blames Harley, ultimately throwing her (literally) out of the gang. A dejected Quinn accidentally meets up with Ivy, and the two become friends and successful crime partners. The Joker and Harley dance around getting back together, and everything culminates a free-for-all fight with Batman at Ivy’s home base.
The thematic crux of the episode is the Joker and Harley’s abusive, one-sided relationship. B:TAS’ Joker straddles the traditional divide between depicting the Clown Prince as a playful prankster or a psychopath, but this episode tones down the character’s cartoonish characteristics, casting the Joker in the all-to-real role of a violent and dominating boyfriend. Over the course of the episode, he verbally abuses Harley, physically throws her out of their residence, taps her phone to find where she’s living, and then ambushes her and attempts to poison the friend (Ivy) who’s protecting her. Quinn, for her part, is hopelessly infatuated with her abuser. She pines over him and seems to truly believe his wheedling compliments represent sincere emotion, even as Ivy (who’s cast as an outspoken second-wave feminist) tells Quinn again and again that he’s only going to keep hurting her.
That this terrible psychodrama is obvious only to the show’s adult viewers is part of the point. Domestic violence is a crime that hides in plain sight, something that people outside the relationship often either miss or choose to ignore. The abusive structure of the Joker-Quinn relationship being obvious to adults but invisible to the show’s young audience reminds the adult viewer of how societal blindness perpetuates actual instances of horrific abuse.
Further, the fact that both the victim and her support network are violent criminals serves to metaphorically undermine the sort of victim-blaming that’s sadly common in conversations about domestic violence. Harley and Ivy nearly kill Batman and commit several robberies over the course of the episode, but these crimes seem entirely irrelevant to the nature of the former’s relationship with the Joker. The Joker’s abuse seems no less horrific in light of Harley’s criminal predilections; his violence is not a consequence of her actions. No one is “asking for it.”
The central relationship in “Harley and Ivy,” then, uses the fact that we’re watching a children’s show with fantastic characters as means of exploring deeply rooted social phenomenon surrounding domestic violence. It’s a perfect execution of the funhouse mirror strategy that pervades Batman stories, and exemplifies one of the many ways in which speculative fiction can be used to cause us to check our basic assumptions about the world around us.