After writing about Justice League Unlimited last week, my thoughts kept coming back to one episode in particular: “Epilogue.” It’s a story that managed to tie together so many years of Batman in such a perfect manner, it was almost the last-ever episode of the DC animated universe—and it truly understood what makes Batman so great.
Welcome back to The Exact Moment When, our irregular listing of a moment where something changed—for the better or the worse.
“Epilogue,”—written by the remarkably talented Dwayne McDuffie, who wrote scores of comics, produced and wrote for Justice League and Justice League Unlimited, and co-created both Static and his animated series, Static Shock—was the finale of the show’s second season, and written as the series finale, a goodbye to the universe that Batman: The Animated Series began in 1992. The show’s creative team was unsure that a third season would be commissioned, and with the show’s major arcs resolved, they chose to tell a story that wove together all three generations of animated Batmen—the classic Animated Series, Justice League, and Batman Beyond.
The episode is framed by the setting of Batman Beyond, where future-Batman Terry McGinnis is estranged from the elderly (and, it’s hinted at, near-death) Bruce Wayne after discovering that, through some genetic meddling courtesy of Amanda Waller, he is really the former Batman’s son. Terry is petrified of the revelation, that the tragedy of his adoptive father’s murder was engineered to make him Batman—but ultimately what Terry is truly afraid of is becoming Bruce Wayne: alone, dying, and brooding away. Terry sees that the life of a Batman is a life of tragedy and despair.
But the episode’s real moment to shine is when the elderly Amanda Waller tells Terry that being Batman isn’t a sorrowful endeavor. She recalls a heart-wrenching moment that sees “Epilogue” flash back to the modern day era of JLU, a moment where Batman’s real strength wasn’t his ability to go toe-to-toe against threats alongside super-powered gods, but where Batman’s compassion saves the day.
When Ace, a psychically powered member of the Royal Flush Gang, develops a brain tumor, her reality-altering abilities threaten to destroy an entire city. Waller tasks Batman with killing Ace to save hundreds of thousands of lives, but instead Batman confronts Ace alone, quietly listens to her grieve for her short life, and offers his hand to stay with her in her final hours, peacefully resolving the situation.
Batman is a character steeped in death, loss, and darkness, and while this sets him apart from other heroes in some ways, it also this means he understands death, loss and darkness more than the others do, too. His tragedy allows him to empathize with Ace in her darkest moments, not just sympathize with her— something the other heroes of the Justice League, despite all their compassion, just couldn’t do.
It’s not just a wonderful coda for the audience, but a realization that makes Terry believe that being Batman means he needs people to care about in his life, to understand why he fights—leading to Terry reconciling with his real father, and planning to propose to his girlfriend, his vindication as Batman renewed. Bruce and Terry part at the end of the episode knowing that neither of them are really alone, whatever the “curse” of being Batman was.
It’s a Batman story with a happy ending, for both Terry and Bruce—a happy ending that feels earned, because it not just builds upon years and years of stories with these two Batmen, but completely nails the very core of what Batman is about as a character.
There have been many Batman stories beyond “Epilogue.” Hell, even in animation alone there’s been several. But this JLU episode was the perfect culmination of so many years of this specific incarnation of Batman, and by giving this Bruce Wayne and his son a happy ending, it explored the real reason why there should always be a Batman. And it closed the book on one of the most definitive takes on the Dark Knight that there has ever been.