The final days of Batman have captured the imaginations of writers and audiences alike for decades, with comic books like The Dark Knight Returns and films like The Dark Knight Rises exploring the idea in a variety of ways. But one of its darkest and most grimly exhilarating interpretations was brought to life by Batman: The Animated Series in the 1998 episode “Over the Edge,” which follows a destructive war between Batman and Commissioner Gordon, former allies turned deadly enemies in the wake of Batgirl’s death.
B:TAS is a nearly never-ending source for fantastic Batman stories, ranging from thrilling one-of-a-kind adventures to character-redefining origins. In “Over the Edge,” written by Paul Dini, who is responsible for many of the greatest B:TAS episodes, audiences are given a glimpse into what the ultimate end of The Dark Knight could be, should a life of crime fighting take its darkest turn. While some “what if” tales of Batman’s end find the hero sacrificing it all to stop a legion of villains and others detail an aged Dark Knight finding peace after a life of crime fighting, “Over the Edge” is all about sudden and terrible tragedy abruptly destroying the life of Batman and his allies in their prime. It’s far different from the type of story that has been revisited again and again in various mediums and is all the better for it.
Kickstarting in media res with Police Commissioner Jim Gordon (Bob Hastings) and a legion of officers inside the Batcave and in pursuit of Batman (Kevin Conroy), who he knows to be Bruce Wayne, viewers are thrown into a chaotic and vastly changed world from the outset. Brilliantly, this delirious beginning throws first-time viewers for a loop, making them question what is happening and solidifying the high stakes endgame nature of the story. At first, viewers feel like this couldn’t be possible, but “Over the Edge” stays committed to the story, which forces viewers to buy into what is happening.
Following a bombastic and emotionally fraught chase, “Over the Edge” quickly flashes back to the event that started it all – the death of Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl (Tara Strong). Knocked off the edge of a building by the villain Scarecrow, Batgirl dies after landing on the roof of her father Commissioner Gordon’s squad car. As she dies, Gordon suddenly realizes that his daughter is the dying vigilante that he holds in his hands, and upon her death he swears vengeance upon Batman. The path of secrets and revenge sends both Gordon and Wayne, as well as the many people entangled in their lives, on a deadly and destructive journey.
One cannot analyze “Over the Edge” without drawing comparisons to Alan Moore’s 1988 graphic novel “Batman: The Killing Joke,” which has recently been the subject of greater public discussion than ever due to Bruce Timm’s 2016 animated feature film adaptation of the story. In both stories, Barbara Gordon is the victim of a villain who targets her in a moment of extreme violence. In “Over the Edge,” it’s the Scarecrow who sends her plummeting to her death. In “The Killing Joke,” it’s The Joker who shoots her in the spine and paralyzes her. However, there’s something inherently more abusive and victimizing in the actions seen in “The Killing Joke,” despite the character living after her attack. Gordon’s death in “Over the Edge” comes in the line of duty as an active and willing participant in fighting the Scarecrow as an outgrowth of her life as a crimefighter. In “The Killing Joke,” Gordon is the civilian victim of The Joker, who seeks to break Commissioner Gordon’s mind by victimizing his daughter, who he most likely does not know lives a dual life as Batgirl.
Of course, one crucial, spoiler-filled twist most thoroughly separates these two stories. Barbara’s death in “Over the Edge” is a dream, a fear-fueled hallucination brought on by Scarecrow’s toxin. And it’s not only a dream, but Barbara’s dream, a distillation of her own fears, not someone else’s, which she is able to confront by the episode’s end. Although “The Killing Joke” was originally conceived as a standalone tale, it was quickly and irrevocably made part of continuity, altering the character of Barbara Gordon for years to come, even though her role as Oracle resulted in one of the great female superheroes of the decades to come.
And while it’s Barbara’s death that propels the story forward, “Over the Edge” is strongly focused on Batman and Jim Gordon’s painfully soured friendship. In B:TAS, the comic books, and more, the relationship between Batman and Gordon has rested on a certain quietly knowing understanding between the two partners. Here, that partnership is broken down when pain and loss cause the secrets at its core to come rushing to the surface without empathy or understanding. Because Gordon didn’t know that his daughter was Batgirl, his trust in Batman is shattered and turned into hatred.
The end of Batman seen here isn’t simply the end of Bruce Wayne, but everyone he holds dear. Alfred is quickly arrested by the GCPD, Nightwing is captured when on the run, and Robin is shattered when Bruce tells him to turn himself in for exoneration, last seen running into the dark distraught. Even the greater good of Bruce’s life as Batman is damaged, with the revelation of Bruce’s identity as The Dark Knight and the police’s pursuit of him causing the public as a whole to turn on him. Even Batman’s villains get a chance to win here, with a group of them appearing on TV to blame their criminal lives on Batman and announce a massive lawsuit against Wayne.
Having Gordon recruit the villainous Bane in order to capture Batman is the final straw in the police commissioner’s descent into darkness, with his desperation causing him to abandon all morals to accomplish his goals. And in turn, Batman attempts to use lethal force in his battle against Bane in a rooftop climax that sees both Gordon and the villain attempting to destroy The Dark Knight. The Batman of B:TAS strictly adheres to a no-killing code, never using lethal force in accordance with his comic book characterization and a morality befitting an all-ages cartoon. So to suggest that Batman would attempt to kill Bane (electrocuting him in a broken Bat Signal) is highly evocative and demonstrative of how Batman has lost everything.
In the end, Gordon and Batman’s reconciliation is tragically cut short by Bane, who knocks the pair to their deaths with the Bat Signal as he too seemingly dies. It’s a shockingly grim ending that is quickly reversed by the reveal of it all being Batgirl’s fear toxin hallucination. And while some may see that as a frustrating fake out, contextualizing the story as Barbara Gordon’s ultimate fear adds great meaning to what could have been simply a way for the writers to indulge in a narrative they could never actually do in a continuing series.
Barbara’s awakening from her hallucination spurs her on to confess her secret life to her father. Yet when she is about to reveal her secret identity to Gordon, he tells her that she doesn’t need to tell him anything. She’s a grown woman who can make her own choices and he trusts her. In the end, “Over the Edge” reinforces the good hearts of its heroes, the agency of Batgirl, and the value of trust, which overcomes fear and enables good to triumph. It’s a simple and positive message that contrasts well against the shocking dark of the episode as a whole.
All Batman stories are “what if” stories by nature of being fiction. Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, and the team behind Batman: The Animated Series always found ways to give them heart, meaning, and a resonance that continues to this day.