Harley Quinn holds the Joker at gunpoint. Flames paint the sky red and orange from plane crash that brought the Joker to the ground, to Harley’s feet. Batman and Robin call her to stop, but they dare not get too close. Tears stream down Harley’s face. She used to think it was some kind of joke when he’d push her around, laugh at her, bully her, endanger her, even threaten her life. Whenever he tossed her aside to save himself, she thought it must be funny somehow. But she can’t laugh anymore. Can’t unsee her boyfriend’s abuse. Even now, he taunts her, saying she doesn’t have the guts. Shaking, sobbing, Harley pulls the trigger.
A little flag pops out with the words “Rat-Tat-Tat.” Harley stares at the flag, then drops the gun, defeated. Joker stares at the scene, then smiles his trademark smile and says, “Baby, you’re the greatest!” Harley Quinn squeals with delight and jumps in his arms and the two of them laugh.
What the heck are you supposed to do with a scene like that? Laugh at the irony? Cry for Harley? Cringe at the blatant abuse? Be confused over whether Harley knew it was a trick gun or not and whether the Joker just likes a joke or actually seems to appreciate her for a moment?
But that’s what made Batman the Animated Series such a unique kid’s show: you weren’t “supposed” to feel anything.
Rewatching the old show, I can’t help appreciate its maturity. Most superheroes have villains with particular powers or advantages, and Batman has those, too, but a remarkable majority of his rogues gallery are simply mental foes, broken people pushed to the edge, much like Batman himself. While lesser shows would try to play down the psychological warfare inherent to most episodes in order to cater to children, Batman didn’t dare. It kept the darkness, it kept the confusion.
Another episode showed a 30-year-old actress with a little girl’s body kidnapping her former co-stars to relive her former glory because nobody would hire her anymore. While hiding from Batman in a house of mirrors, she shoots at Batman’s reflection, but spends the most bullets bringing down a mirror that makes her look like a full-grown adult for the first time. When it’s over, she hugs Batman’s leg and cries. Should you feel sad? Does it justify what she did? Is she still just an evil brat?
In another, Killer Croc runs from Batman and stumbles on a mountain hideaway where a family of former circus freaks live in peace. They welcome the deformed Croc and he seems to connect with them, but then he tries to steal from them and Batman stops him. In the end, a little boy asks, “Why, Croc, why?” Croc replies, “You said this was a place where someone could be himself. I guess that’s what I was doing.” Is that defiance? Pain? Acceptance? Should you pity Croc or fear him more?
The answer to all these questions is the best answer possible: there isn’t one. You have to think for yourself. The show isn’t trying to make you feel anything in particular. It simply throws the whole gambit at you and lets you feel whatever you feel. Nearly every complex episode ends on such an ambiguous note.
Very few shows treat children with such respect. Not even that many adult programs do. So many shows and movies either paint things in the most embarrassingly simple black-and-while colors (100% good vs 100% evil, no actual characterization) or they try to trick you into feeling something with gimmicky acting, camerawork, and especially music.
In The Matrix Revolutions, Trinity dies…again. This time, the background score is very powerful and sad, in fact I bought that track. Only when I looked back after the scene did I realize, “Wait…that was stupid!” Trinity had already died once in the last movie, and despite the fact that she’s been stabbed in three places by a horrible crash, she rambles on for four minutes (I timed it). The music tricked me. Moulin Rouge did this, too. The films overly-dramatic style forces you into feeling sadness, pleasure, and anger. I mean I like the movie, but it’s still true.
In the Nostalgia Critic’s review of The Lorax (the film), he poked fun at the filmmakers’ inability to understand the complexities of the book. The book used an everyman villain that could be anybody and ended on an uncertain note. The film, however, distanced the villains as far from the viewers as possible and ended the movie on a happy note. The “filmmakers” in the episode argue that moral grays confuse children which makes them like the movie less (thus reducing cash flow). The Nostalgia Critic replies, “Maybe they should be confused!” He says maybe making kids uncomfortable will make them think.
The only feeling Batman wanted you to feel was ambiguity. Instead of giving clear-cut answers for kids, it made them think and wonder. They let you come to your own conclusions, to see the various shades of moral gray, and that life itself isn’t black-and-white. It’s complicated and often uncomfortable. Batman thought it was okay for kids to start feeling this discomfort before the adult world shocked them into it.
And you know what? The show won an Emmy in 1993 for Best Animated Program. It also won two more and and was nominated for 19 others (source). It’s one of the highest-rated, most beloved children’s shows of all time. Its rendition of Batman and the Joker are some of fandom’s favorites, even rivaling Tim Burton’s and Christopher Nolan’s versions of both. The show invented Harley Quinn, who became one of the franchise’s most beloved villains. In other words, it’s one of the best and most influential children’s shows of all time.
I do think it’s okay when a show wants you to feel something. And I think it’s okay to use music, camera tricks, etc, to enhance a mood. The problem is when we shy away from the questions, from the ambiguity. When we tell our TV and filmmakers that we don’t want an uncomfortable, uncertain ending, we effectively tell them, “I don’t want to think.”