Batman: The Animated Series is often held up as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, cartoon shows ever made. I was the perfect age to enjoy this show as a kid, and I find myself enjoying it on a whole new level as a grownup. But even as a kid I knew I was watching something special when I saw a particular episode entitled “I Am the Night.” It deals with heavy topics like depression, mortality, futility, suffering, and revenge.
It’s my favorite episode because it manages to package all of these into an exciting and cathartic 22-minute story. It explores Batman’s relationship with Commissioner Gordon in a way I’ve never seen it explored anywhere else. And it delves into an avenue of Batman’s psyche that usually goes unaddressed. It’s a brave episode that is light on laughs and packed with pathos. In my opinion, it is the best episode of Batman: The Animated Series.
The Futility of Crimefighting
The episode begins with an image that has been forever etched into my brain. We see Batman sitting slumped down on what looks like a throne deep in the Batcave. He looks utterly dejected and inconsolable. Batman has always been a stern, serious character in my mind, but I had never seen him actually look depressed before.
As I noted in my “Bruce Wayne vs. Francisco d’Anconia” article, the trouble with Batman is that he never actually solves any problems at the core. He punches bad guys, breaks up mob mischief, and solves crimes, but in the end, he sends a few villains to prison and then they get let out or escape so that he can fight them again. It’s a never-ending cycle. Despite his best efforts, nothing ever changes. Batman points out the futility of his quest to wipe out crime in Gotham City. He puts out fires, but the war just goes on and on. It’s a brilliant observation. This is the 49th episode of the show, so by now the formula is pretty well established. Batman himself has become self-aware enough to notice that he’s not really having much of an effect. If anything, he’s inadvertently helped to create more villains than he’s stopped.
In real life, there is no happy ending. We happily end one thing and then we wake up the next day and continue with our lives.
Batman visits Crime Alley on the anniversary of his parents’ murder. He places two roses on the spot where they died at the hands of a thief. Unfortunately, a couple of thugs choose that moment to start picking a fight with one of their lackeys. Batman easily deals with them, but during the fight, one of the thugs falls on the roses, crushing them. It is at this point that the normally stoic Batman’s facial expression shifts from blank to one of profound suffering. He is in agony as he picks up the crushed roses. He can’t even have a peaceful moment to remember the reason he took on his crimefighting mantle in the first place.
Failure and Fury
Batman’s bout with depression and his scuffle in Crime Alley couldn’t have come at a worse time. They make Batman just a few minutes late to a police bust of the illegal operations of a gangster nicknamed the Jazzman. Jazzman has it in for Commissioner Gordon, and he’s obsessed with killing him. He and his men open fire on the police, and the Jazzman tries to make a break for it. He’s about to get away, but Batman manages to disable his truck and bring him to justice. It looks like any other action sequence from the show where Batman triumphs over his enemies. But this time it comes at a big price. Commissioner Gordon got hit during the firefight. He lies face down on the street, and Batman is horrified at the sight of his wounded friend.
After visiting the unconscious Gordon in the hospital and expressing his sincerest apology for not being there on time, Batman returns to the Batcave where he wallows in more self-torture. He is surrounded by computers, chemicals, and other equipment he uses to solve crimes, but none of them can do him any good now. The pain is too much for him to bear. He lashes out, smashing his expensive hardware, ripping them out of the ground, and throwing them off a high ledge. Exhausted by the physical and mental strain, he screams out in naked rage.
A Cry for Help
After Batman’s fury has been unleashed, he falls even deeper into a cycle of depression. Thankfully, his old friend Dick Grayson pays him a visit to try to help him. They share some profound words:
I love that Batman admits his mortality in this scene. He’s just a man. He might be killed in an instant by an ordinary thug or go down in a blaze of glory against the Joker. The point is that his days are numbered. Every year that he goes to Crime Alley to honor his parents, he wonders if it might be his last. But it’s not fear of his own death that makes him consider renouncing his role as the Batman. It’s the fact that his actions could hurt everyone he cares about. He doesn’t want that weighing on his conscience. In the end, Grayson convinces him that he does more good than harm as Batman. He’s willing to pay the price to keep doing what he can to make the world better.
Batman and Gordon
We learn so much about the relationship between Batman and Commissioner Gordon in just a few lines of dialogue. Batman points out that Gordon is the same age his father would have been if he were alive today. Gordon is a living reminder of everything his father could have been had he not been senselessly gunned down years ago. It looks like history might be repeating itself. That’s why Batman is taking this all so personally. The sight of his father lying in his own blood is tied to the sight of Gordon in a similar position.
Later, Gordon begins to recover from the gunshot wound, and he has a chance to tell Batman what he really thinks of him. He wishes he were a few years younger so he could be a hero like Batman. Batman assures him that he is a hero.
We don’t usually get this kind of insight into these two characters. I don’t think any Batman film has managed to say so much with so little. On paper, a vigilante and a by-the-book cop shouldn’t be such close friends. But this riddle is perfectly solved when we realize how much they both admire each other. Batman wants to protect Gordon and he looks up to him as though he were his own father. Gordon loves that Batman always does the right thing, and he wants to think of himself as that kind of hero.
My favorite part of the episode comes at the very end. The young lackey saved by Batman at the start of the episode shows up one more time. Batman thinks he’s up to his old tricks when it looks like he steals someone’s suitcase, but it turns out that it’s his property. At the start of the episode he was cynical about Batman and he treated him with contempt even after being saved by him. But it turns out that Batman did more than just save him from a beating; he helped the kid turn his life around and realize that a life of crime isn’t for him. That’s the real difference that Batman makes in Gotham City. It’s not the lives he saves and the fires he puts out. It’s the people he inspires through his example. Rather than the cliché he thought he had become, he is a figure of tough love that the people of Gotham need.
“I Am the Night” is a brave episode that is willing to go to a dark place to give us a richer understanding of how hard it is to be Batman and what it takes for him to keep going. No matter how dark the night, it can’t stop Gotham’s favorite son from rising to the challenge.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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