What does it mean to be Batman? There are the things he does, of course–he stops crime, he protects innocents, he sheds light on the darkest parts of Gotham City. Those are challenging. But the truly difficult part is about the decisions. Batman has to make difficult, painful, and sometimes suicidal decisions. And then he has to make the decision to put the suit back on again after that.
Batman Beyond: Babel
This week’s episode marks the return of Shriek, one of the first Batman Beyond villains. He’s a classic in all the ways that matter. The first meeting between Batman and Shriek was pure business for both; Shriek had a mission from Derek Powers, and Batman had a mission to stop Powers’ plan. Batman stopped him, though, and in the process, Shriek destroyed his own hearing. Of course, Shriek blames Batman for this.
Last time, Shriek just wanted to take down an old building and take home a big paycheck, but he has much more devious plans in store for Batman. After a test run that drives Gotham’s wildlife berserk, he turns his attention to the people, scrambling their speech. As the name suggests, people lose the ability to understand each other. Bruce tries to tell Terry to be careful and it comes out more like “correct battery horse staple” than anything intelligible. Shriek releases his demands: give up Batman or the city will descend into chaos.
When this all began, Bruce and Terry were talking about one of Bruce’s old adventures that required him to knowingly walk into a trap, unsure of whether Robin would show up in time to save him. Terry was aghast. That is, of course, foreshadowing for what’s to come. The populace turns on Batman, saying that he should give himself up. This is the core of the episode. Shriek is, honestly, pretty secondary apart from a nice just desserts moment at the end. This is about Terry understanding the true price of wearing the Bat symbol.
We go along for the ride with Terry as he considers what to do; he talks to Bruce, visits the place where his father was murdered, and consults Maxine about it. Maxine sees how Terry’s potential surrender could hurt his mother and brother, as well as his friends like her and Dana. Bruce, who would’ve taken the exact route that Terry does, tells Terry that he doesn’t owe the ungrateful people anything. More and more, Bruce is treating Terry like a son, to the point of even suggesting that he give himself up–at which point Terry has to remind Bruce that he isn’t Batman anymore. Even as Bruce shows respect for Terry’s version of Batman, he also becomes more protective of him, wanting to save him from his own past mistakes as much as he can.
Terry, of course, does exactly what we’d expect, and the battle with Shriek is fun, if pretty short. The ending is satisfying–the deafened villain can’t hear the fact that the tuning fork-shaped building behind him is about to crash on his head, and his smugness at his victory is cut short. Terry, meanwhile, comes out of this test of his commitment to the mission more self-assured than ever. The recognition and love of the people of Gotham is irrelevant to his actual goal, which is to keep other people from going through what he had to.
This is a very strong Batman Beyond lore episode–one of those stories about why these people put on the costume and why they sacrifice themselves the way they do. They’re an important contrast to episodes like those where Barbara Gordon talks about the price of being a vigilante, and they almost always make for must-watch episodes in these series.