July 23rd is Batman Day, and I can think of no better way to celebrate 75 years of Batman stories than by looking at Justice League Unlimited‘s second season finale “Epilogue”—a Batman-centric episode that honors the character’s legacy, and one that I’m still not over.
Cartoon Network had yet to renew Justice League Unlimited for a third season when “Epilogue” was written, suggesting it was intended to bring the entire DC Animated Universe—which began in 1992 with the premiere of Batman: The Animated Series—to a close. The writers decided to end the DCAU where it all started. “Epilogue” finds a way to give the Batman character an ending that feels earned, and it reminds us of what made Batman so formidable and focuses on a side of him that often goes unnoticed.
Set 65 years in the future in the Gotham City of Batman Beyond, “Epilogue” drops a huge story bombshell: Terry McGinnis (Will Friedle)—the Batman of the future now that Bruce Wayne (Kevin Conroy) has retired—discovers he is Bruce Wayne’s biological son, the result of a genetic experiment that involved overwriting his father’s DNA with Bruce’s DNA. The sole purpose of this experiment: to create a new Batman. When Terry finds out, he assumes that Bruce has masterminded the plan out of his arrogant belief that the world couldn’t go on without him. Having witnessed Bruce’s life in his old age, Terry becomes afraid at the the new revelation; he fears being as alone, cold, and miserable as Bruce is.
We eventually find out that Bruce Wayne was not behind Terry’s birth. Rather, Amanda Waller (masterfully voiced by The Shield‘s C.C.H. Pounder) was. Waller, a former enemy-turned-quasi-ally of Bruce Wayne, created Terry because she believed the world needed a Batman.
Speaking about her time as liaison to the Justice League, Amanda Waller says to Terry, “I met some extraordinary people in that job, but none of them were the equal of Batman… I saw him save the day dozens of times with nothing but his wits, body, and will.”
And that’s what makes Batman such a daunting figure. Underneath the armor is a man with no superpowers, but in spite of great tragedy, he becomes an imposing force to be reckoned with and an exemplar for everyone.
Much of the Batman saga focuses on the dark and tragic sides of the character: his obsessiveness, his cold and calculating personality, his unwillingness to compromise. The entire Batman: TAS can be summed by the image of Batman proclaiming, “I am vengeance! I am the night!” And yet, as Amanda tells Terry, this is all a façade: “for all that fierce exterior I’ve never met anyone who cared as deeply about his fellow man as Bruce Wayne.”
There’s a heartbreaking scene in “Epilogue” that emphasizes this—a scene so poignant that it made Clerks director and Batman fan Kevin Smith cry. A little girl named Ace, who is part of the criminal Royal Flush Gang and who has the power to alter reality, has a massive brain aneurysm that will burst within a few hours. When it does, the psychic backlash will kill everyone within range of her power. Amanda gives Bruce a device and tells him that the only option is to kill Ace. Batman; however, chooses to show Ace compassion and, rather than kill her, he talks to her and convinces her to return things to normal after telekinetically warping reality in a city park. Not only does he do this, but he also holds her hand and waits with her so that she doesn’t die alone.
In his book Supergods, Batman comic book writer Grant Morrison said that superheroes “are a bright flickering sign of our need to move on, to imagine the better, more just, and more proactive people we can be.” Tragedy is only one part of Batman; the other half is compassion. It is the care that Batman shows Ace that convinces Amanda that the world would always need a Batman.
In the end, Terry is convinced that being Batman does not sentence him to inevitable isolation because of the different side of Bruce that Amanda has shown him. He comes to realize that Bruce made the choice of allowing his role as avenger and protector to consume his life and, in doing so, had alienated those who cared about him. Terry realizes that this does not have to be his fate as he can learn from Bruce’s mistakes. At the end of the episode, Terry is about to ask his girlfriend to marry him—something about which he was anxious because of his night job.
At the end of the episode, Bruce and Terry’s relationship has changed. Bruce has become the Alfred to Terry’s Bruce, and he nags Terry about eating before going back out on patrol, but Terry refuses to. Bruce then says, “You’re a stubborn piece of work, you know that?” to which Terry responds, “Just like my old man.” It’s clear that Bruce is not really alone and that both men will be alright.
Ultimately, “Epilogue” gives the story of Batman, and the DCAU, a happy ending—something that it more than earned, unlike The Dark Knight Rises. The fact that the last scene in the episode is a remake of the first scene in “On Leather Wings,” except with Terry as Batman, is just an added bonus.