PART 1: CARTOONS AND THE MYTH OF PURE EVIL
In his 1999 book Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty psychologist Roy Baumeister summed up years of psychological and historical research into human cruelty. He explained that he wanted to write this book and avoid all reference to fiction, theology, cinema, or television. These sources, he wrote, have defined the popular imagination of evil in ways that amounted to a myth. Baumeister, unsurprisingly, called this “the myth of pure evil.”
What was this myth of pure evil? We actually already know it--that bad people knowingly do bad things for the sheer fun of being bad. We could insert The Dark Side of the Force, Emperor Palpatine, The Evil Empire, and go on from there. Yet in the real world perpetrators of great evil almost invariably think they are actually doing the right thing for themselves, if not for the world. However unpleasant the acts may be, perpetrators see them as necessary. Baumeister grimly observed that the world is full of people who mutually escalate violence and aggression; both victims and perpetrators have incentive to omit and even deceive to make themselves look better; and that temptations to violence are all too easy and easily understood.
Yet in the annals of fiction the myth of pure evil as irrational, unmotivated and inexplicable cruelty has been pervasive. For Baumeister nothing summed up the myth of pure evil more purely than Saturday morning cartoons and comic books (though for fans of Optimus Prime the preferred term may be “Cold War moral clarity”). Baumeister surveyed research done on 1980s cartoons and noted that villains were almost invariably rich, despotic, impulsive, short-tempered foreigners who had mountains of money and power and yet, for some reason, just wanted to be cruel. This irresistible impulse toward evil can’t be expressed any better than by Cobra Commander’s saying, "Let's reach out and crush someone!" Let’s go ruin the life of someone … and any old someone will do.
Ironically, by the time Baumeister's book had been published in the late 1990s Batman: the animated series had overturned this cartoon myth of pure evil as far back as September 1992. In Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s Gotham City the villains had plausible motives. Most villains not only had plausible motives, they even had motives for evil that Baumeister discussed in his book. Catwoman was motivated by greed. Mad Hatter and Firefly were spurred on by lust. The Penguin's ambition was for prestige. Mr. Freeze was avenging the loss of his wife. The Riddler was motivated by his inflated yet wounded ego. Eco-terrorists such as Poison Ivy and Ra's al Ghul were driven to curb human corruption of the environment. None of these were villains who were cruel just for the sheer fun of cruelty.
Roy Baumeister concluded that true sadism, which he defined as inflicting harm on others for the pleasure it brings, is an unusual and acquired mindset. The myth of pure evil may make it the face of evil but true sadism is historically and sociologically very rare. Despite Baumeister’s dogged work to show that sadism is uncommon and too easily built into a myth of pure evil, he concedes at the end that however rare they may be genuine sadists exist.
In other words, there are a lot of criminals in Gotham, but there’s only one Joker. Yet even the Joker may not see himself as truly evil. Heath Ledger’s Joker famously said, “Oh, I’m not a monster. I’m just a man who’s ahead of the curve.” Of his longest running role, the Clown Prince of Crime, Mark Hamill said he never played the Joker as someone who considered himself actually evil. "The Joker doesn't think of himself as evil. He sees himself as an underappreciated comic genius" If even the Joker didn't see himself as evil then we were looking at a cartoon that had upended the cartoon moralism of 1980s cartoons before Baumeister would write about that cartoon evil in the late 1990s.
Dini and Timm's Gothan City was, of course, still a cartoon, and there were still good guys and bad guys but the bad guys were not all bad and, just as important, the good guys were not all good. It has been axiomatic that Gothan needs Batman because even the best of the heroes in Gotham aren't good enough to stem the tide of crime within the city. For that matter not all of the cops in Gotham City even agree that Batman is fighting crime the right way or even making the city a safer place. In the Gotham of Batman: the animated series one of the Dark Knight's most persistent critics is a cop, and to that cop we shall turn.
PART TWO: THE KNIGHT WITH RUSTED ARMOR
Harvey Bullock, Gotham's unlikable guardian
There's no getting around the fact that Batman is a criminal who fights crime. Gotham is a city full of unscrupulous business tycoons, sleazy politicians, and corrupt cops but not every cop in Gotham is dishonest and not every honest cop or politician believes Batman is really making the city a better place. Literally and figuratively law-abiding critics of Batman don’t get bigger than Detective Harvey Bullock.
We first meet Bullock in the episode "On Leather Wings" Bullock is meeting with Commissioner James Gordon, District Attorney Harvey Dent, and Mayor Hamilton Hill. Gordon is upset that Detective Bullock has told the press Batman is the primary suspect in a series of burglaries and robberies at pharmaceutical companies across the city. At best Bullock speaking to the press will tip off Batman they're after him, at worst Batman's methods don't point to him even being the primary suspect for the crimes. Bullock is certain Batman is dangerous and asks for a special SWAT team to take down the caped crusader. Gordon has already denied Bullock's request but Bullock appeals directly to Mayor Hill, who grants it.
It doesn't take long before Batman is spotted breaking into Phoenix Chemicals and Bullock rushes to the scene with his SWAT team, convinced he's about to capture the Caped Crusader and arrest him for his crimes. After a battle between Batman and the SWAT team ends in a massive explosion in the Phoenix Chemicals buildling, Bullock is humiliated to discover not only that Batman has escaped; Gordon has word of another burglary at a pharmaceutical company across town. Bullock and his team have blown up a city block chasing after the wrong suspect. Worse, Batman turns out to be the one who identifies and stops the monstrous Manbat all while evading Bullock’s dogged crusade against him. Gordon is furious, saying, "The mayor may not let me fire you, but I'm not taking the heat for your fiascoes!"
Bullock, however, often has too much ego to just admit he's wrong. In the episode "Point of View" we see Bullock simply won’t or can’t admit his own clumsiness got him into life-threatening situations. He definitely can’t admit Batman had to save him. Even when grilled by Internal Affairs, with the careers of two of his coworkers are on the line he can't admit he’s wrong. He’s also rude, impatient, sometimes careless and unlikable even to fellow cops, never mind his landlord or journalists. Harvey Bullock may be one of the knights of Gotham defending the city, but he's a knight with rusty armor. Again and again Batman has to save him ("Point of View", "The Laughing Fish", and "Heart of Steel" for just a few cases) but the most Harvey Bullock grants the Dark Knight is occasional thanks mingled with suspicion and resentment.
Early on Batman suspects Bullock might be a crooked cop taking bribes, possibly even arranging the death of witnesses. In "Vendetta" Batman investigates Bullock's past when witness Spider Conway's boat into Gotham is blown up and Conway goes missing. Batman tells Gordon evidence points to Bullock calling the shots. Conway had, after all, implicated Bullock in a graft hearing. Gordon strongly disagrees, saying there was evidence Conway lied, and says, "Look, Harvey Bullock is hard to work with, even harder to like, but he's a good cop, Batman. He's clean."
Unfortunately for Bullock, someone wearing his signature slovenly suit has just kidnapped Joey the Snail. Bullock is arrested. Meanwhile, through the sheer luck of a quip from Alfred, Batman figures out who the real kidnapper is, Killer croc. Croc was born with a disorder giving him reptilian skin. Going from sideshow act to wrestler to petty criminal Killer Croc moved to Gotham where he began committing more ambitious crimes until he was busted by none other than Detective Harvey Bullock! Bullock busted Croc based on testimony from Spider Conway and Joey the Snail. Killer Croc is the one who kidnapped Spider Conway and Joey the Snail. Batman realizes that not only is Bullock innocent he’s Croc’s next target.
In a clever reversal from “On Leather Wings” now it is Batman’s turn to realize he’s been chasing after the wrong suspect. Of course, Batman manages to save Spider Conway, Joey the Snail, and Harvey Bullock. He also manages to clear Harvey Bullock's name. Bullock is shocked. He asks Batman, "Why? Why'd you stick your neck out like that to help me?" Batman replies, "Because I thought you were guilty, too, and I was wrong.” Yet even after being saved by Batman many times Bullock can still honestly tell Batman, “I think you’re a freak and a menace and those are your good points, but the Commish says you serve a purpose so I go along.” Batman can appreciate the honesty, whether or not he ever really likes Bullock. Despite the ongoing differences between the two men Batman’s words sum things up well, “We may have different ways of enforcing the law, but we both believe in it."
Part Three: FINDING THE RIGHT SHADE OF GRAY
Catwoman’s awkward place in Gotham City
No version of the Dark Knight is really complete without his most famous femme fatale. Just as no vision of Batman is complete without the Joker, no vision of Batman is complete without Catwoman. Neither a heroic crusader like the Dark Knight nor a sociopath like the Joker, Catwoman is not a black or white character, she exists constantly within a realm of gray. She has to be just good enough that Batman can trust her when terrible things are happening, but bad enough that he has to doubt her motives even when she’s on her best behavior.
For a show like Batman: the animated series, which did so much to blur the shades between good and bad characters, Catwoman might have seemed like a can’t-fail character. Yet twenty years after the premiere of the groundbreaking animated series Catwoman is a weak link. There was no “Heart of Ice” for Selina Kyle. Worse yet, she appeared in some of worst episodes of the entire series, such as the widely fan-reviled "Tyger, Tyger". None of this was the fault of Adrienne Barbeau, whose sultry voice was perfect for Selina Kyle. Yet despite fine casting, solid character designs, and a clear commitment to quality how did Catwoman manage to be less than the sum of her parts?
There were a number of crucial problems in storytelling early on that can be summed up in a single observation, for Catwoman the writers took too long to find the right shade of gray. In the earliest episodes the shade of gray was far too light. In her first appearance in the two-part story "The Cat and the Claw" we see that Catwoman is a cat burglar but far more time is devoted to establishing her sincerity as an advocate for wildlife than on her life of crime. No sooner has she appeared than she is helping Batman fight off the terrorist network of Red Claw. Red Claw being revealed to be a woman was an irony that is as perfunctory and pat now as it was twenty years ago.
This is not to say there weren't compelling elements to Catwoman in the series. In the post-Frank Miller obsession with making Selina Kyle a damaged former prostitute it was refreshing to have a Selina Kyle who was a happy-go-lucky socialite thief. Selina Kyle actually was the glamorous, decadent socialite Bruce Wayne was pretending to be. Bidding $10,000 just to go on a single date with Bruce Wayne is nothing if not decadent and absurd. These were the small moments where Selina was more interesting than as a wildlife activist. Her hedonism simultaneously attracts and repels Bruce Wayne who realizes that Selina is attracted to Batman and can never imagine Bruce Wayne as more than a friend. Though Bruce Wayne can recognize in “Perchance to Dream” he would like to marry Selina in reality he knows she will never see him as more than a friend.
An early and unfortunate storytelling mistake was having Batman turn Catwoman over to the authorities. Selina could not be Catwoman without facing decades in prison but if Selina Kyle wasn't Catwoman what was the point of even having her on the show? Unfortunately, for many episodes Selina showed up just to save Batman (or be saved by him) while avoiding a life of crime. She might save Batman from the Joker in “Almost Got `im” but she’d be the damsel in distress caught up in the schemes of tedious also-ran villains like Professor Milo ("Cat Scratch Fever") or Emile Dorian ("Tyger, Tyger"). Selina Kyle badly needed to be written in a darker shade of gray. It seemed even Selina Kyle couldn’t believe she was as heroic as the writers had been making her out to be.
Apart from her perfectly calibrated role in the third act of "Almost Got `im" the first flicker of real life for Catwoman doesn’t arrive until "Catwalk". Selina Kyle has begun to feel imprisoned within her law-abiding life. She realizes her real self is not the noble crusader or the law-abiding citizen but the adventurous thief. When Arnold Wesker, the Ventriloquist (much more about him in Part 6), has his goons kidnap Kyle so he can offer her a jewel heist job Selina can't resist. Selina is sure that her return to Catwoman is on her terms and in a way she can handle, not realizing that the Ventriloquist has been playing her as his patsy for his own schemes. Catwoman is smart enough to figure out she's been played and the Ventriloquist plans to have her killed but, of course, Batman intervenes. Catwoman destroys Wesker's dummy Scarface. Wesker pleads that Scarface isn't him but another person. Catwoman says "But he's inside you somewhere and I'm going to keep scratching until I find him."
"Don't make it harder on yourself." Batman interjects.
"He cost me my freedom." Catwoman replies.
"No, you gave it up."
Catwoman has managed to foil the Ventriloquist and put an end to the plans of one of the most dangerous criminals in Gotham, but purely for the selfish reason of exonerating herself in her own eyes. She’s managed to do something heroic by accident and for the wrong motive. Now we’re finally looking at the right shade of gray for Gotham’s best thief.
Unfortunately by this time Catwoman’s limitations for character and storytelling possibilities in the series were all too clear. She crosses yet another group of criminals Batman considers more dangerous than she does; she manages to steal something in a way where Batman chooses not to pursue her. Lather, rinse and repeat. Catwoman was never going to have a story as disturbing or memorable as Poison Ivy’s “House and Garden” or, for that matter, Harley Quinn’s “Mad Love”.
PART FOUR: THE WEAPON OF EMPATHY
Harley Quinn in Gotham's Depraved Duo
Empathy, unmixed with sympathy, can be a dangerous tool in the hands of someone who wants to hurt. ... The true sadist is not lacking in empathy--on the contrary, empathy helps the sadist to derive maximum pleasure and inflict the greatest pain.
Roy F. Baumeister. Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty. W. H. Freeman and Company. 1999. pp. 246-247
In popular imagination the evildoer laughs at the suffering of others, neither knowing nor caring how the victim feels. Yet as psychologist Roy Baumeister noted in his landmark book on cruelty this may be the most significant misconception about cruelty in the myth of pure evil. Even serial killers do not kill when they are in the presence of uniformed police officers. They frequently choose victims whose disappearance may attract no notice until it is too late; serial killers also take great care to avoid getting caught. At the most basic, literal definition of empathy even serial killers have at least some capacity to imagine what others may think or feel even if it's only so the killer may avoid capture.
Baumeister's examination of sadism led him to conclude that we must distinguish between empathy and sympathy. While in popular thinking and discussion the two may be used interchangeably the differences matter. Empathy is the capacity to imagine the thoughts and feelings of another person. It is sympathy which is the capacity to express and share those thoughts and feelings. Empathy lets me imagine you missed an appointment because you lost your car keys. Sympathy is what prompts me to let you reschedule the appointment. Empathy untouched by sympathy may be the most horrifying weapon an abuser has. With this grisly idea in mind we can now turn our attention to the Depraved Duo of Gotham City, the Joker and Harley Quinn.
Harley Quinn began as the Joker's ditzy girlfriend in Batman: the animated series and has found her way into comics. If the Joker by himself could make life miserable for the Dark Knight, the Joker with a little help from Harley Quinn can make life miserable even for the Man of Steel (see Superman: the animated series, "World's Finest").
But Harlene Quinzelle (aka Harley Quinn) is easily misunderstood and underestimated. She is aware of this herself when she taunts, Batman in "Harlequinade":
"See, do I know how Mr. J thinks, or what? Ha! And here you thought I was just another bubble-headed blonde bimbo. Well the joke's on you, I'm not even a real blonde." This hilariously ironic and self-incriminating put-down may sum up the paradox of Harley Quinn. She is ditzy and foolish yet if that was all she was Batman wouldn't recruit her to help him stop Joker from destroying Gotham with an atomic bomb ("Harlequinade") or trying to help her adapt to normal life ("Harley's Holiday"). Unlike the Joker the Batman believes Harley has a better nature to appeal to.
Yet the bubble-headed blonde bimbo remains a startlingly persistent foe for Batman. Harley is slender, athletic, genuinely sweet, and dazzlingly attractive. She's also a trained clinical psychologist. It would seem there would be no one better trained to recognize a sociopathic sadist than Harley. Yet time after time she is at the Joker's side for his worst escapades (if you want to see just how bad watch Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker). Many in Gotham have marveled that this woman would take up with the Clown Prince of Crime.
Even the world's greatest detective can't solve the mystery of what this woman is drawn to in Joker. Quinn's explanation itself doesn't seem to make any more sense: "Look Bats, when I was a doctor I was always listening to other people's problems. Then I met Mr. J, who listened to me for a change and made everything fun."
"Do you think it's funny when he hurts people?" Batman asks.
"It's just a joke."
"Hope you're still laughing when it's your turn."
Batman knows to expect the unexpected from the Joker, but Harley Quinn is Batman often underestimates Harley Quinn. This is even more true of the police in Gotham. Not once but twice Harley Quinn just walks straight into a jail or Gotham police headquarters and gets things done for the Joker (see "Joker's Favor" and "The Man Who Killed Batman"). Despite having a criminal record and recognized as the Joker's girlfriend Harley is enough of a chameleon to literally walk into the midst of cops and sociopaths and is able to get what or who she is after.
If Harley Quinn had a superpower it would be empathy and sympathy that she can have for, or elicit from, others. Before meeting the Joker these were tools she could use as a psychologist, after the Joker they become her easily underestimated weapons. In the episode "Harlequinade" we hear in a tossed off line that she considers men like Two-Face, Mad Hatter, Killer Croc, and the Ventriloquist friends! When she says hello to a raving Scarecrow in "Harley's Holiday" the mad Dr. Crane suddenly stops and becomes warm and paternal toward her, as though she were a child or favorite pet. With a weird, childlike cruelty, Harley also has a childlike innocence that can even bring out maternal instincts in the Poison Ivy! In “House and Garden” we see in Ivy’s scrapbook that Harley’s friendship made the plant-loving villain realize how badly she wanted to have a family. If Harley is capable of bringing out the humane in remorseless killers like Poison Ivy why stick with Mr. J? Even Poison Ivy wants to know.
The answer is tragically revealed in "Mad Love". We get to see Harley in her days as a psychologist. She admits to being drawn to the glamor of super-criminals and she buys hook, line and sinker Joker's fabricated story about how he was abused by his father. We are shown that Dr. Quinzelle was lured in by the Joker's promise to share with her his secrets, yes, but she was lured in by her own naive belief that she could save the Joker and along the way get a bit of glamor and fame along the way.
Though empathy and sympathy are tools Harley Quinn is able to use to sucker Batman into a trap she doesn't realize that what are her strengths are also weaknesses. We get to see what she doesn't, that Joker pegged her for hired help the minute she walked into Arkham Asylum (something Batman figured out quickly enough). What Harley doesn't grasp, that Dini's story shows, is that Harley Quinn is seduced by a fantasy that her empathy and sympathy can save anyone, even the Joker. What happens instead is the Joker seduces her at every level into joining him in his life of crime. Even though with her mind Harley can grasp that Joker is a lying, manipulative murderous psychopath her heart belongs to him even after he's beaten her and tried to kill her. Joker has taken her capacity for empathy and sympathy and warped them into weapons not only against his enemies but even against Harley herself, who can’t break free of his hold on her even when she sees him for what he is.
When Batman discovers Harley’s dream that if she kills Batman she can settle down to a sweet domestic life with the Joker he laughs at her. Harley stammers to the Dark Knight, “I’ve never seen you laugh before. I don’t think I like it.” Batman dismantles the illusion Harley has been harboring about a sweet life with Mr. J. But Harley can’t accept the truth but also can’t really bring herself to admit that though she’s used empathy and sympathy as her weapons against Batman and the people of Gotham, the Joker has been using these against her all along without her realizing it. Her delusional belief that her love can save him becomes the best tool Joker has to make sure Harley is his. After years of telling Gotham “The joke’s on you” the sickest joke is ultimately on her.