The first three episodes of Batman: The Animated Series can be viewed as a trilogy, giving a primer on the Batman mythos by using the three villains with the strongest thematic connections to the character. Man-Bat takes the bat persona to the extreme, the Joker is the anarchic, insane yin to Batman's cool, calculating yang, and the Scarecrow’s main weapon is the same as our hero’s: fear. Hideous mutations of Batman’s core values, these villains reveal the depth of Bruce Wayne’s humanity, detective genius, and honor-bound duty. Each episode also unveils a different element of the core supporting cast, with the pilot introducing Alfred and the Gotham P.D., the second bringing in the Boy Wonder, and “Nothing To Fear” featuring the first appearance of the two characters most integral to Batman’s development: Thomas and Martha Wayne.
The series’ first truly great episode, “Nothing To Fear” explores Bruce Wayne’s tortured psyche in the wake of his exposure to the Scarecrow’s fear gas. Haunted by visions of his dead father, Bruce is forced to confront his greatest fear: that he has failed to live up to his murdered parents’ expectations. Heavy subject matter for a cartoon, but the episode establishes the tone that will define most of the series, showing the creators’ refusal to dumb down their plots for a younger target audience.
While visiting Gotham University for a charity event, Bruce Wayne learns about the string of robberies and incidents of vandalism that have jeopardized the school’s enrollment rate. Before he gets a chance to investigate, an unpleasant encounter with one of his father’s colleagues leaves Bruce shaken, as Dr. Long accuses him of disgracing his parents with his “self-centered, jet-setting playboy” lifestyle. While patrolling the campus, Batman meets the man responsible for the recent crime spree: the Scarecrow, ex-university employee Dr. Jonathan Crane. Fired for his unethical experiments on the nature of fear, Crane paralyzes his enemies with a gas that forces them to live out their worst terrors. In the midst of foiling Scarecrow’s arson attempt, Batman is shot with a time-released dosage, and the drug, combined with Dr. Long’s words, throws Bruce into a spiral of self-doubt triggered by the images of his father.
Any examination of Batman’s daddy issues is incomplete without looking at his relationship with Alfred, and “Nothing To Fear” shows just how much Bruce relies on his butler. Alfred is both an enabler and a moderator of the Batman persona, and he keeps Bruce grounded while consistently motivating him. In a telling line after turning off Summer’s broadcast, Alfred jokes, “Someone dressed up in a frightening costume running around scaring people? What will they think up next?” Alfred’s ability to appreciate the irony is a boon to the perpetually serious Bruce, and he is a source of optimism and hope, whereas Bruce can only associate despair and guilt with his real father. At the height of his hallucinations, Alfred tells Bruce, “I know your father would be proud of you because I’m so proud of you.” The words revive Bruce’s self-worth, and give Batman the ability to overcome Scarecrow’s fear gas and dispel the image of his father.
Bruce overcomes his fear of disgrace, but writers Henry T. Gilroy and Sean Catherine Derek begin to suggest a deeper demon: his guilt over his parents’ deaths. The only hallucination that doesn’t take the form of his father’s ghost occurs while Bruce watches a television news report of the Scarecrow’s arson attempt. After recounting how Batman failed to catch the perpetrators, Summer Gleason turns and looks directly out to Bruce, repeating the word “failed” until Alfred shuts off the television. The small moment serves as a reminder that Batman is ultimately driven by his will to find and punish the first perpetrator he ever failed to capture.
Watching Batman interact with his father’s ghost, I can’t help but see the similarities between Bruce Wayne and Hamlet, two heroes who put on masks to avenge their father’s deaths. Where Hamlet disguises himself in lunacy, Bruce takes on a much more literal costume, albeit not necessarily less insane. Darwyn Cooke explores this aspect of the character in his one-shot Batman: Ego, pitting Bruce against the madness that threatens to consume his subconscious. Unsurprisingly, Cooke’s big break came when Bruce Timm hired him as a storyboard artist for Batman: The Animated Series.
Both Hamlet and Bruce Wayne find themselves crippled with doubt after encountering their fathers, the former succumbing to his rationality as the latter collapses under his insecurity. The difference is that Hamlet’s enemies have a direct relationship to the incident that spurs his revenge, whereas Batman displaces his hatred across the entirety of Gotham’s criminal community. Proximity leads to Hamlet’s downfall, while Batman is able to pursue an abstract war on crime, transforming him into a relentless force of nature obsessed with preventing the tragedy that spawned him. In arguably the series’ most famous line, Batman howls at the skeletal apparition of his father, “I am vengeance! I am the night! I … AM … BATMAN!”
Notice how he doesn't say “I am Bruce Wayne”?
- I’m Oliver Sava and I’ll be guiding you through Gotham for the remainder of the season. Batman’s been a part of my life since childhood, when I used to race home to catch B:TAS before my parents could enforce their “no TV on the weekdays” rule. My favorite rogue is Catwoman, my favorite Robin is Tim Drake, and my favorite Batman comics are the first 12 issues of Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka’s Gotham Central.
- The scene with Batman’s “I am vengeance …” line is an amazing example of juxtaposition, as his battle cry is set against the image of him clinging to the front of a blimp, looking decidedly unheroic as he wriggles in mid-air. The appearance of vulnerability reminds us that Batman is just a man on the outside, but Kevin Conroy's forceful voice suggests something much more within.
- Why is Kevin Conroy’s Batman voice so much better than Christian Bale’s?
- Bullock refers to Batman as “Zorro.” Despite being an obvious influence on Batman as a character, in the comics The Mark of Zorro is the film that the Wayne family attends before Thomas and Martha are gunned down. Little details like that make this series great.
- If Scarecrow’s fear gas is to be believed, nearly everyone is terrified of OH GOD SPIDERS EVERYWHERE.
- Jonathan Crane was fired from Gotham University because he trapped people in tiny rooms filled with rats and noxious green gas. Big surprise there.
- Apparently, everyone that falls out of the Gotham sky lands on awnings or rooftop shrubbery. Convenient.