Out of the Past
Bruce Wayne is lured to the Lazarus pit by a still-young Talia.
Written by Paul Dini
Directed by James Tucker
Music by Shirley Walker
Animation by Koko/Dong Yang
Will Friedle as Terry McGinnis
Kevin Conroy as Bruce Wayne
Cree Summer as Max Gibson
David Warner as Ra's al-Ghul
Olivia Hussey as Talia
Mark Hamill as Carter
Charles Kimbrough as "Musical" Gordon
Michael Rosenbaum as Carl
Gary Sturgis as Punk
As the opening sequence of "Rebirth" makes clear, Bruce Wayne did not retire willingly as the Caped Crusader, but was betrayed by time, age and sickness. Indeed, it is clear that his willingness to sponsor Terry McGinnis as the new Batman was less a matter of his surrendering the role to an acolyte than of his eagerly wanting to return to the game, albeit through a stand-in. So it is necessary to see the events of "Rebirth" not merely as a prelude to the new series, but also as a further development in the life of Bruce Wayne. Thus, the old man cannot be conveniently shunted aside as the benign if crusty mentor to the new Batman; as mortality beckons, he must look back upon and judge his own time in Gotham, and try to gain a greater clarity on his own contemporary purposes. And "Out of the Past" deserves high praise for recognizing and deepening this insight, even as it occasionally staggers uncertainly beneath the implications it raises.
For Bruce Wayne, who never forgot the death of his parents, and who re-enacts that fatal night in every confrontation he has with a criminal, the past is not a foreign country but a land he still inhabits, and a landscape which grows larger, darker and more forbidding with each passing year; for Wayne, experiences do not vanish into the memory but accumulate like coral on the sunken hulk of an ever-present obsession. It's important to recognize this fact, for it goes a long way toward explaining many features of his psychology:
For instance, it explains why the Dark Knight so famously lacks a sense of humor. The ability to joke, after all, implies a certain amount of distance on oneself and on life, but the oppressive and omnipresent sense of his own pain prevents Wayne from ever achieving that kind of distance. (Even the 60's TV show recognized Batman's fundamental humorlessness; Adam West's Batman was all the funnier because he couldn't admit he was stuck in a comedy.) True, he jokes quite a bit in "Out of the Past," but the wisecracks are inevitably hostile in tone or intent. Humiliated by the musical version of his life, he mutters "You hate me" to Terry; revolted by the creature he confronts at the climax he sneers "You hit like a girl." That is, being made uncomfortable by the lack of a bone fide distance that (incidentally) would justify a good joke, he uncorks an acid remark in the hope of creating a distance between himself and the thing he loathes. And in both situations he is recoiling from uncomfortable truths out of a misplaced pride. Clinging to a sense of noble victimhood, he cannot acknowledge that his quest has frequently left him looking faintly ridiculous to others; rendered impotent by the archfiend, he clutches at and throws a schoolyard taunt.
His ever-present pain also explains why Batman is both implacable and unafraid of death. Most of us can imagine the loss or disappearance of something we've always had, and can in the limit imagine the loss of everything we've hadwhich is to say we can imagine our own annhilation. But Wayne cannot imagine himself separate from his tragedy. And since he cannot imagine the disappearance of the pain, he cannot imagine the disappearance of the person having the painhimself. It is not that he thinks himself immortal because his pain is immortal; it is only that, by comparison, death has a kind of shimmering unreality that makes it easy to ignore. Or, at least, it is easy to ignore until that moment when, crouched with a woman in the glaring headlights of an onrushing truck, the possibility of her death merges with the possibility of his and gives it a concrete purchase on his imagination. In that instant, death begins to look like something worth trying to avoid.
And, as already noted, it explains his trying to reclaim the mantle of Batman vicariously, through the person of Terry McGinnis. The Batcomputer is already configured so Wayne can watch and hear the world through the Batsuit; in "Shriek" he makes a proprietary lunge on the name "Batman" that is just this side of being ugly; and here Terry overtly wonders if he isn't about to be either unceremoniously retired or shoved into the ignominious "Robin" role.
Obsessive; proud; humorless; instinctively inclined to regard himself as both immortal and indispensible; tempted to usurp the place of someone who he cannot decide is a successor or a usurper: Framed this way the implicit comparison between Bruce Wayne and Ra's al-Ghul is not just unsurprising, but seemingly inevitable. And when the comparison is made this explicit, the revelation of the true content of Bruce's character is more shocking than even the revelation of Talia's, and it throws a potentially hideous light on his entire previous career. Put bluntly, the implication is that our hero has spent his entire life unwittingly shaping himself into the very image of his most insidious foe; the resemblance is now so complete that that foe can make of Wayne himself a new and very comfortable home. The implication is dramatically expressed in the episode's final confrontation. At the end it may be less that Ra's is usurping Bruce's identity than that we are witnessing a meeting and merging of truly identical minds. The differences between the two have grown so small that they might merge without loss into one person.
There are depths here that make "Over the Edge" and "Perchance to Dream" (the previous deep-diving champions in the series) look as shallow and uninteresting as "Christmas with the Joker." So why am I dissatisfied?
The plain fact is that "Out of the Past" runs too ambitious for a single episode. In other places (e.g., "King's Ransom") I have praised the producers of the various Batman series for their ability to pack more meaning into smaller spaces than anyone else in the business. And yet here the character of Wayne looms so large and is amplified so powerfully that it cannot be comfortably contained in a mere twenty minutes; like the cartoon fish that swallows the steamer trunk, the episode winds up looking grotesquely distended. The ideas, the metaphors, the analogies and the symbols are expertly fitted together; the dialogue is on-the-spot perfect; even the supporting characters are etched with wit and precision. (From the Department of Flabbergasting but True: Paul Dini is so good he makes even his talented colleagues look like hacks.) But material this rich and savory cannot be rushed, else we court indigestion. So there are moments where our aesthetic sensibilities rebel at the rush toward resolution. Wayne, newly rejuvenated, works out with zestful abandon, then suddenly announces it is all a cheat and turns on his heel to leave. The revelation about Talia is good for a solid ten-second shock; but had it been tipped earlier, and to the audience before it was to Wayne, all the horripilating implications of incest, rape and transsexual seduction might have been left to sink slowly and insidiously into our understanding, to color subsequent events in a lurid and decadent glow instead of being trampled underfoot in the final action sequence.
Dini has worked with the Batman character for ten years now, and in "Out of the Past" he demonstrates again that he can see into corners of the character we never suspected existed and can express his discoveries in a style that manages to be simultaneously weighty and ineffable. I do not know what considerations lead to the production of one-part versus two-part episodes, but I do know it would have been better if "Out of the Past" had been (at least) twice the length. Still, to call attention to this fact is not to point to a defeat or weakness, only to diagnose a flaw in the design, and to back-handedly praise the episode for its immense ambition and success.
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