Yes, Robin looks all of 16. The image of a grown man taunting a kid whom he’s about to murder is more disturbing than I remember it, the first time around. Perhaps it’s because Robin is absolutely alone – no Batman in this scene. Or perhaps it’s because the first time around, I was all of six years old.
The picture of this adult gloating over what is basically a helpless kid, who knows he’s about to be killed in grisly fashion, is disturbingly fascinating. The Riddler taunts his victim as if he were an equal, but it’s obvious that he’s not: Robin is much smaller and slighter than the rather lanky and fit-looking villain. He’s flat on his back. And he’s outnumbered and surrounded, by grown-ups no less. This is a kid who’s really out of his league.
So it’s an inherently unequal relationship to start with. Which is as it should be – the villain’s job is to get the hero in a vulnerable position, and then into a deathtrap from which there is “no escape”. But there is, in the genre, an implicit expectation that the hero will have a sporting chance, either by virtue of size, numbers or smarts. It’s obvious that Robin is outclassed in all of these dimensions in this scene. The writers have really left the little guy dangling here, with no Batman to back him up, and facing a pretty capable foe.
So here’s Robin, a youth in his teens, wearing a doublet, panties and nylons. He’s flat on his back, helpless, and surrounded by bigger, stronger, older enemies; and his captor, a grown man in a form-fitting uniform, is chortling over him, at one point leaping up onto the conveyer on which he lies to loom over him. If this is not a allegorical depiction of homoerotic predatory behavior, I’ll eat my hat. The youth has been separated from his larger, older, and wiser male protector, and fallen into the hands of his mentor’s deathly enemy, who then proceeds to strip him psychologically before destroying him physically. Or in other terms, to ruin him so completely that he is no longer of value to his failed guardian. The victory of the nemesis is in the failed protector’s knowledge that he has been bested by his avowed foe: the death of the youth is merely a means to that end.
Then something even more amazing happens. Part of the compact between writer and audience in these morality plays is that the hero gets one last shot at survival: he gets to struggle as the deathtrap works through its machinations. But the Riddler does something unexpected: he sprays Robin with knockout gas as the conveyer starts moving. Robin isn’t even given the opportunity to struggle heroically as he is propelled toward his fate – he’s cheated of the last prerogative of the true hero, the noble struggle against an implacable foe. We note also the return to a higher level of creepily allegorical behavior: the Riddler has gone from a mere corrupter of youth to a corrupter and voyeur, as he spies upon his sleeping captive prior to deflowering (or decapitating) him. This may seem like simple “piling on”, inherently unfair and unsporting, even for a super villain. But it’s worse than that: it also represents a failure in the dramatic process. Robin chloroformed is Robin dead in this situation. The scene has effectively ended when his head hits the conveyer belt. We are left with several minutes of the Riddler giddily watching the boy’s unconscious form being dragged toward certain destruction; as we can be sure we won’t be allowed to see the bloody denouement, there is little suspense for the viewer.
Unless, of course, the focus of this scene is not really Robin at all. Unless Robin has been administered a dose of Bat-knockout spray antidote, and is merely faking unconsciousness (which may be the case – I do not have access to the entire scene), the focus shifts to the one character we have yet to see in this scene: Batman, who thus takes on the role of Deus ex Machina. It seems odd that the scene seems to have been engineered expressly to take advantage of the literary mechanism most associated with poor dramatic planning. Where most writers only haul out the miraculous timely rescue when they have run out of all other ways to get them out of the predicament they’ve written themselves into, the writers of this scene seem to have worked assiduously toward just such an unsatisfying conclusion.
So here we have a poorly crafted cliff-hanger scene with not-very understated themes of homoerotic exploitation, despoiling of youth and just plain costumed bitchiness. But hey, it’s Batman, after all; what else wold you expect? But let’s turn this one on its head: let’s make Robin a young girl of the same age. Let us imagine a grown man in a bodysuit gloating over the supine form of a curvy little girl laid out before him like a Thanksgiving Turkey, her pristine breast heaving with righteous sidekick fury while his minions watch like voyeurs of death. Let’s further imagine him, having gassed her, hovering over her unconscious figure as she slipped, ultimately vulnerable, toward violation by the blade. And then let us imagine the reaction of middle America in 1966, when this would have aired.