One thing that makes Batman stand out from the rest of the Justice League is the way his stories facilitate horror elements. You can certainly find such things if you look hard enough in stories about Flash, Superman, and others, but it’s all over in Batman, with characters constantly falling into acid, being transformed into otherworldly beings, and having their own experiments turn back on them. If you think too hard about this episode, it’s one of the creepiest Batman episodes ever.
Batman Beyond: Disappearing Inque
That’s one of my favorite things about the best Batman animated shows; despite being aimed squarely at kids, they find ways to be truly creepy. Oftentimes, it’s the very fact that the show is aimed at kids that allows it, as the writers have to think of a way to do what they want to do that the network will accept. That means no guns and heavy restrictions around things like blood and death, and the writers have used that to their advantage, with this episode being a great example.
Things start out unnerving and get worse from there. Following her capture a few episodes back, Inque is now “imprisoned” in the only place she can be trusted not to get out of, a literal block of ice. Her caretaker is an unlucky rube named Aaron Herbst, voiced by William H. Macy. Aaron comes in each day and talks her ear off, assuming that her brain is in the same suspended animation that her body is trapped in. When Aaron is fired for misconduct, he clips the wiring that regulates Inque’s tank, and soon she’s out. She goes right to Aaron, much to his short-lived joy. He soon realizes that she has absolutely no interest in him and that he’s just a stepping stone for her to get her freedom back.
Meanwhile, we’re learning more about the relationship between Bruce and Terry. They’ve been working together for about six months, and are still navigating what they can and cannot tell each other. Terry finds a mechanized Batsuit and asks about it, and Bruce tells him that the suit was dangerous for his heart. They go back and forth about it, as Terry doesn’t fully believe that a heart problem alone would stop Bruce. Terry faces off against Inque a couple of times, first with a freeze gun and then with electrified batarangs. Terry ends up captured and Bruce shows up in the mechanized suit to save him, though Inque poses as Terry and almost manages to break his suit as well.
In the process, Aaron gets the first half of the treatment that made Inque into a shapeshifter, and doesn’t get the second half before Terry breaks a window that lets in rain and dissolves the master thief. Aaron ends up a shapeless blob kept in a glass tank in exactly the same room that he talked to Inque in. Only now, a woman named Margo (Kimmy Robertson, best known as Lucy on Twin Peaks) gives him the same obsessive, doting treatment that he heaped on Inque.
There are a lot of little character moments in here. Aaron is a real creep, and the episode doesn’t do anything to redeem him. Once Inque is close to him, he keeps making sexual advances on her, even using the old “lovers making out to hide from cops” trick. She pushes back each time, but he remains undeterred.
The formless blob that he becomes due to the chemicals is just as impossibly cartoonish as Inque’s design, but without her forceful personality and physical grace, he becomes a living nightmare. Inque, meanwhile, ends up seemingly dead (though we know how hard it is to kill any character that can take liquid form) precisely because she tried to take advantage of Aaron’s obsession for her own benefit.
As Margo feeds him through a tube and tells him about her sad life, it has the same kind of ironic fate vibes that made so many classic Twilight Zone episodes work. It’s really marvelous how well the episode captures that feeling despite the presence of two high-tech Batmen reminding us that this is a superhero show.
The dynamic between Bruce and Terry is fun as well here. While the comics would later establish that Terry is actually Bruce’s biological son, that didn’t seem to be the plan when the show was in production, so the father-son stuff here is the kind of earned closeness that comes from developing two characters and their relationship, and it makes them fun to watch together.
The episode itself is more good than it is great, but the horror inherent to Inque and Aaron’s storyline makes it a memorable one worth rewatching.