Early into his tenure writing for the animated series Harley Quinn, Jamiesen Borak had a goal: “I want the world record for killing Bruce’s parents.”
By Bruce he means Bruce Wayne, a.k.a. Batman, a character who has been subjected to his parents’ death in nearly every screen adaptation of his story. And while it’s unclear whether episode eight of the third season of Harley Quinn actually breaks a record, you do see Thomas and Martha Wayne die in Crime Alley a lot over its half-hour run time.
In “Batman Begins Forever,” Harley (Kaley Cuoco) and her pals jump into Bruce Wayne’s mind with some help from their former ally Dr. Psycho (Tony Hale) in order to figure out what the billionaire did with Frank (J.B. Smoove), the talking-plant friend of Poison Ivy (Lake Bell). Unfortunately, they immediately get mired in Bruce’s distinctly deranged psyche. Instead of repressing the memory of the moment he walked out of a movie theater and his family was accosted by a murderous robber, he does the opposite: It’s all he thinks about, and the traumatic event replays on a loop in his head. Eventually, Harley has had enough and steps in to shield the young Bruce, thus trapping herself in his mind while her friends are zapped back into reality. Harley must return to her roots as a psychiatrist and analyze baby Bruce (Jack Stanton) so adult Bruce (Diedrich Bader) can return her to her life and tell her where Frank is.
“Batman Begins Forever” is both a very funny parody of the Batman mythos and a tribute to it, in which the Harley Quinn team pulled from Warner Bros. archives to mash up the eras of the hero in one perverse but surprisingly emotional stew. Vulture spoke to that team over Zoom to learn how it came together.
When Borak saw Thomas and Martha Wayne bite the bullet in Todd Phillips’s 2019 Joker movie, he knew it was time to make fun of what is arguably the most oft-used origin story in all of media. But he also wanted to add some of the emotion back into the saga.
“The first time you hear about Batman’s origin, it’s a moving thing,” he says. “It’s a really tragic scenario. But then the fact that I can watch a child cry as his parents get murdered, and I’m like, I’m so bored of this, that’s so fucked up that you can feel that way. Let’s explore that.”
Harley Quinn thrives in the “fucked up” zone, and in breaking this season the writers slowly started to develop their Batman into a main antagonist. It started with the idea that a Thomas Wayne biopic — directed in the world of Gotham by actual The Suicide Squad director James Gunn — would be in production, and spiraled from there. The question for the writers then became this: What would it be like to be Bruce Wayne and see trailers for a movie about your parents being shot? How much would that mess you up?
“There’s an overall feeling of, let’s do something so insane and silly, but take it very emotionally seriously,” Borak explains. Harley, Ivy, and their group, like the audience, are unfazed the first time Bruce remembers his parents’ murder. But their reaction starts to evolve. Harley, eventually, can’t bear it any longer, and decides to take Bruce into her arms. It’s a reaction that Borak understands. “By the 18th gunshot, I do feel disgusted,” he says.
The series had already established the rules of going into someone’s mind in season one’s “Being Harley Quinn,” which meant bringing back Hale’s Dr. Psycho, who had quit Harley’s crew and became the Big Bad of season two. Now, Dr. Psycho is running a podcast, which allowed Borak and co-creator Patrick Schumacker to tip their hat to their sitcom obsession, Frasier. Yes, it’s a Batman origin-story episode that somehow also takes place within an overarching Frasier joke.
In the series, Batman is one of the most difficult characters to voice, according to fellow co-creator Justin Halpern, because he plays almost everything straight, but at the same time has to deliver a lot of punch lines. That said, Bader, best known for roles on Veep and The Drew Carey Show, had a take that fit right in with how Harley Quinn conceived of the hero. “He was thinking about, like, anyone who is a billionaire has to project this aura of invincibility, but you don’t get to be a billionaire without being so fucking insecure,” Halpern says.
By the end of the episode, it’s revealed that older Bruce has become his mind’s version of Joe Chill, the gunman pursuing young Bruce inside his brain, in an act of self-punishment. It gets at the writers’ broader sense that Batman’s whole deal isn’t purely altruistic. As Halpern puts it, “There’s an element to being Batman that is really fucking selfish.”
Borak packed his screenplay with references to Batman movies — so much so that Warner Bros. and DC eventually told him to cut down on the number of memory sequences because there was just too much going on. But their shared aim was toward winking reverence over modern gags.
In Bruce’s mind, he goes to see The Mark of Zorro, most commonly identified as the movie he went to before his parents were shot. (Later, Harley cracks that he saw an Antonio Banderas film, but Bruce clarifies it was the black-and-white version, actually.) “This has been a discussion on social media for it seems like over a decade: What movie would Bruce have seen now? If Bruce is 40 now, what is The Mark of Zorro,” Schumacker says. “At one point we were just like, they saw Freddy Got Fingered and got shot.” Ultimately, they resisted that impulse, but, Halpern adds, “I just want to say it would have been really funny if it had been Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever that they had come out of.”
Stylistically, the goal was to harken back to Bruce Timm’s Batman: The Animated Series. To accomplish that, the Harley Quinn team actually used some of the backgrounds from that show, including its version of the Gotham City cityscape, alongside their own animation.
“We were all really attracted to the idea that the world inside Bruce’s mind is a love letter to Batman: The Animated Series,” Schumacker says. Harley’s lead character animator, Shane Glines, came up under Timm and was able to meld their work easily. Similarly, show composer Jefferson Friedman had a history with Danny Elfman, who wrote the Tim Burton Batman scores and the theme for the Animated Series. For the “Batman Begins Forever” soundtrack, Friedman wove some of Elfman’s motifs into his composition, evoking the past while transforming it yet again.
Of course, this show belongs to Harley, who has to go on a journey of self-discovery inside Batman’s head that doesn’t just involve finding out Bruce Wayne’s alter ego. It’s Harley who has to tap into her past life as a mental-health professional to help this kid unpack his trauma, all while trying to save herself and Frank. All season long, she’s been questioning what she stands for. “We wanted child Bruce to be this ultimate symbol of innocence lost, and we use his character to do a lot of the heavy lifting to bring Harley around to her ultimate decision in season three, which is kind of recalibrating her moral compass,” Schumacker says.
Borak actually drew on his own experiences in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR therapy, colloquially) as Harley helps Bruce liberate himself from some of his trauma. “The whole thing that she talks about with how to get him out of the subconscious, that’s literally the comedown process you use in EMDR,” Borak says. “You’re in these traumatic memories, you’re reliving these experiences, and when it’s time to come out of it, my therapist would talk about how you have to bring yourself to your happy place. Think of this memory where you felt safe and comfortable.” And while Borak wouldn’t suggest following Harley’s suggestions over a real therapist’s, he wanted to ground the episode in genuine therapeutic processes, taking Batman’s sorrow seriously while also making fun of the way it has been portrayed.
So should this be the be-all and end-all of Batman’s parents dying onscreen? Borak, Schumacker, and Halpern say absolutely not. They want as many more as Hollywood is willing to give them. In Halpern’s estimation, “It’s Don Quixote: Every single director is going up against this windmill, and they’re like, But this time I’m going to slay this dragon, but we know as an audience member, no, you’re not. It’s so fun to watch them all run up against this same wall.”
As we talk, Schumacker pitches that Warner Bros. should do an anthology series where “legends of cinema do their own interpretation of Thomas and Martha’s murder,” prompting Borak to wonder, “How quirky can a murder be from Wes Anderson?”
It’s a tradition they’d all like to see continue in perpetuity. “I hope I’m still watching Batman’s parents die when I’m 80,” says Borak. “I think especially in this world today, where it’s like, there’s so few collective experiences, it’s wonderful that we could all come together to watch this little child’s parents be brutally murdered.”