Batman: I had my reasons. But I'm no happier than you that Ra's decrypted my computer files.
Superman: Our sympathies are marginal.
Tower of Babel is a four-issue storyline in JLA (1997) written by Mark Waid, and drawn by Howard Porter and Steve Scott. It was published in issues #43-46 between July and October 2000. JLA Secret Files and Origins Vol. 1 #3 published in December 2000 serves as a prequel to the comic showing the manner in which Batman create those countermeasures and how it was hacked, as well as an epilogue showing how Oracle, Nightwing, and Robin deal with the repercussions of Batman's actions as their own teams become distrustful of them.
The plot begins with a series of incidents that target individual members of the JLA. J'onn Jonnz is infected with nanites that set him on perpetual fire, Plastic Man is frozen in liquid nitrogen, Aquaman becomes hydrophobic, Kyle Rayner/Green Lantern wakes up blind, Wonder Woman finds herself battling a doppelganger endlessly, Wally West/the Flash is sent into an epileptic frenzy, and Superman is exposed to Red Kryptonite that turns his skin transparent and his body gets overdosed on solar radiation. Batman realizes that the culprit for this attack is Ra's al Ghul and his organization, but he also discovers that Ra's accomplice is...himself. Ra's, acting via Talia al Ghul, hacked into Batman's secret files and stole a number of contingency plans designed to immediately take down the Justice League in case they went rogue. He did this without telling them and behind their backs. Ra's uses this confusion to launch his most ambitious scheme for global domination and cleansing, a modern Tower of Babel that globally disrupts the language center of the brain, making people communicate in gibberish, triggering a global catastrophe and civil war that would thin out the human population.
Tower of Babel has proven to be one of the most influential JLA storylines. The ramifications of the story greatly affected and transformed Batman's status within the DCU. It was subsequently followed up in stories like Identity Crisis (2004) and Infinite Crisis.
Parts of the storyline inspired episodes in Batman Beyond (Babel where the sound-based villain Shriek uses a similar plot) and the Justice League three-parter Starcrossed. It has also been adapted with some changes as Justice League: Doom.
- Action Film, Quiet Drama Scene: A comic whose first three issues are full of globe-trotting and intense action and suspense ends with a scene where multiple characters talk in panels for several pages deciding whether to keep Batman in the League or not.
- And I Must Scream: Flash being hit with a bullet giving him constant seizures. He states he spent days wishing he was dead, not aware he was only under its effects for minutes.
- Batman Gambit: Ra's Al Ghul pulls one on Batman and the entire League. Knowing Batman intimately he manages to deduce that the Detective's paranoia about being a Badass Normal in a group of superpowered beings would lead him to make contingency plans to take them out. He then hacked it and turned it loose, dividing the League internally and keeping them from foiling his latest plan. He also sent Batman on a search around the world after stealing the remains of Thomas and Martha Wayne, knowing that Batman would be so fixated on the theft that he would treat anything else, including League matters, as trivial in comparison.
- Beware the Silly Ones: Since joining the League, Plastic Man has been nothing but the levity bringing comic relief and a character guaranteed to generate a chuckle or two whenever he's in an issue. Here, after he learns that he almost died because of a plan that Batman made without his knowledge? He becomes deadly serious and even votes to kick Batman out of the League despite him being the one who brought him in.
- Big Bad: Ra's Al Ghul makes his first major appearance as a DC-wide villain whose resources and cunning makes him, alone among Batman foes, a League-level threat.
- Bittersweet Ending: The bad guy loses but Batman is thrown out of the League, and the final shot of the comic shows that Superman would have cast the vote to remove him from the League, upsetting their friendship in the process.Flash: How well do you really know him? Or, I guess, more to the point...how well does he know you? Well enough to know better than any of us how you'll vote?
- Body Horror: The Martian Manhunter on a perpetual state of fire, Plastic Man frozen then Literally Shattered Lives (and his "restored" state afterward not looking much better, and his teammates aren't even sure if they put all pieces of him together), and Superman's skin going transparent that he looked like he was flayed/skinned alive.
- Both Sides Have a Point: The debate in the League about Batman's actions in the final issue where some argue (Kyle Rayner, Wally West, J'onn J'Onzz) that Batman does have a point about making these contingencies in case they go rogue (they even cite Agamemno, who was able to take control of Leaguers before) while others insist that it's a terrible betrayal by someone who is their partner to do behind their backs (Plastic Man, Aquaman, Wonder Woman). The comic believably underscores both the rational justifications for what Batman did, and the emotional consequences his actions unleash on his teammates. Wonder Woman even points out that having the contingencies and not telling the Leaguers what they are isn't even really the problem, it's that he didn't even tell them he was doing it before it was too late.
- Cold-Blooded Torture: Batman's counter-measures against the League, which is intended to "non-lethally" incapacitate them amount to personalized torture chambers:
- Superman's is exposed to Red Kryptonite which makes his skin translucent and causes him to experience sensory overload from the Solar Radiation he absorbs.
- Wonder Woman is implanted with a VR device where she is attacked by endless waves of enemies until she dies of exhaustion and/or heart attack.
- Flash is shot in his spine with a "vibration bullet" that causes him to experience light-speed seizures.
- J'onn J'onzz's body is covered with magnesium-laced nanites that catch fire on exposure to air.
- Aquaman is dosed with a modified dose of the Scarecrow's fear toxin to make him afraid of water, which he needs to live.
- Plastic Man is traumatized by being shattered into pieces after being frozen in liquid oxygen.
- Green Lantern is hypnotized during his sleep to make him blind while wearing his ring, preventing him from using it.
- Continuity Nod:
- When Kyle Rayner reflects on Batman's plan for counter-measures against the League, he argues that had such plans existed when Hal Jordan seemingly went rogue as Parallax, then many people would still be alive.
- When Clark questions why Bruce would develop failsafes against them, Batman brings up Agamemno, an obscure alien super-villain that once came to Earth and took control of many heroes. Batman decided to create plans to counter them in case something similar happened again.
- J'onn brings up the plot point of Justice League Year One where he had researched files on his teammates that enemy forces were able to steal and exploit.
- Corrupted Contingency: Batman created contingency plans to be used against the Justice League in the event they either turn evil or were mind-controlled. Ra's al Ghul discovers these plans and modifies them to be more lethal so he can use them to kill the League.
- Crazy-Prepared: Batman cites the case of Agamemno hijacking and possessing the Justice League as justification for creating counter-measures to take out the League in case they are possessed. Martian Manhunter admits that he himself made some plans early on but never to the extent Batman did.
- Curb-Stomp Battle: Ra's men don't last long against the Justice League once they survive the stolen contingency plans. Superman simply waits until everyone is evacuated from Ra's tower before leveling it.
- Curse of Babel: Ra's grand plan is to unleash a literal modern tower with neurotransmitters that emit an ultrasonic frequency that cause worldwide Dyslexia.
- Cutting the Knot:
- All the anti-League contingencies have some level of complexity to them...except Plastic Man, where he was just shattered into pieces.
- Realizing that the post-hypnotic suggestion used against him revolves around his ring, all Kyle had to do was remove it to undo the hypnosis and start seeing again.
- Deteriorates Into Gibberish: As Ra's activates his tower, the languages of people around the world descend into gibberish. The League escape it thanks to Martian Manhunter's telepathy.
- Didn't Think This Through: Batman's plans against the League leave a few holes in them.
- In making contingency plans against the League should they turn rogue, Batman never once factored in the possibility that they could be stolen. He kept the files on his computers while ignoring the fact that a few villains know his Secret Identity and have resources to access it.
- Additionally, when it's pointed out that telling the League about his plans would defeat their purpose (since they'd be prepared for it), Wonder Woman points out that he could've just told them he was making plans without telling them what they were, which would've fulfilled Batman's purpose without trashing his relationships with them.
- The Dragon: Talia serves as this to her father, being the one in charge of the field operations to distract and take down the Justice League, as well as being the one who infiltrated the Watchtower to steal Batman's plans in the first place.
- Easily Forgiven: Martian Manhunter, The Flash and Kyle Rayner are willing to forgive Batman for his actions but the other members of the League are not. Downplayed as they are still mad at him, they're just able to see where he was coming from.
- Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Despite Talia undermining him, Ra's is still outraged at one of his men for shooting her.
- Even Evil Has Standards: Ra's berates his underlings for causing a large forest to be set on fire while dealing with Martian Manhunter.
- Godzilla Threshold: Of all of Batman's contingency plans, the one he dislikes the thought of using the most is using the Red Kryptonite on Superman. He didn't know what effect it would have, but in his files he states he was so horrified about using it that he wasn't sure if he could ever look him in the eye again.
- Grave Robbing: Ra's plan to keep Batman distracted while his plans are in motion is to steal the coffin of Bruce's parents.
- Healing Vat:
- Martian Manhunter is kept into one to prevent him from perpetually combusting. He's later put into a Healing Vat suit that allows him to fight.
- Plastic Man is also stuck in one to prevent him from falling apart.
- Heroic Willpower: Brutally deconstructed with Batman's contingency plan to defeat Wonder Woman. Since Diana lacks the obvious weaknesses of other Leaguers (Superman's Kryptonite factor, Aquaman's need for water, etc.), Bruce instead relies on her psychology: he knows that she absolutely refuses to give up a fight under any circumstance. As such, his plan traps her in a perpetual fight that will eventually kill her, because her body will give out before her willpower ever does.
- Hypocrisy Nod: Martian Manhunter admits to having made similar plans to Batman in the past, though he never went as far as Batman did. Nonetheless, he votes to allow Batman to stay in the Justice League since he feels his own actions mean he's not in a position to judge him.
- I Did What I Had to Do: This is Batman's justification for his scheme—he wanted to make sure the League members could be defeated if they ever went rogue. If that meant betraying their trust and learning their every weakness, he was willing to do so.
- Karma Houdini: Despite plunging the world into chaos, and turning the League against each other, Ra's Al Ghul escapes, though the League note that his plan failed and his organization faced a major setback.
- Manipulative Bastard: The Secret Origins prequel issue shows how Batman managed to create weaknesses to take out his team-mates. He mostly partnered and buddied with them (by his standards) to get them to let their guard down. Mostly learning from Kyle Rayner how important his sense of being an artist was, and how much he would be handicapped by going blind.
- Lotus-Eater Machine: Diana becomes stuck in one thanks to a VR chip implanted in her head. In her mind she's having an eternal battle with an Evil Counterpart villain while her body is completely unresponsive.
- Mistreatment-Induced Betrayal: Ra's indifference towards his men's safety eventually leads to his downfall. Talia defects, tired of being treated as a pawn and wanting no part in his genocidal plan. Diana manages to convince a Mook to surrender by convincing him Ra's would not care or remember him sacrificing himself for Ra.
- My God, What Have I Done?:
- Talia ends up having a crisis of conscience over her father's genocidal goals and defects, and helps the League by tipping them off about his final plans so that they'll stop him.
- During the debate over what to do with Batman, J'onn reveals he felt horrible shame over how his similar actions nearly condemned the world over his distrust.
- Navel-Deep Neckline: A rare male example, Ra's shirt has a V cut on his chest that exposes his Carpet of Virility. Talia's Spy Catsuit also has one, but much smaller than his.
- No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Even among the people willing to forgive Batman for making the contingencies, it's clear that their trust and friendship with Batman has taken a critical blow. Just because they understand why Batman did what he did doesn't mean they have to like it, especially as Batman exploited their trust to figure out how to counter them.
- Non-Action Big Bad: Ra's relies on Talia and his Mooks to use Batman's plans to take down the League, while he himself simply monitors the situation. Even when the heroes break into his lair, he simply escapes, knowing he'd be no match for them.
- O.O.C. Is Serious Business: The normally goofy, wisecracking Plastic Man is deadly serious when he discovers Batman created the plans that took down the league, and remains so for the rest of the arc.Flash: What? No wisecracks?Plastic Man: Not today
- Poor Communication Kills: This is ultimately the crux of the League's issue with how Batman betrayed them all. All of them are able to recognize the validity of his backup plans to defeat them in case of emergencies, but as Wonder Woman puts it, he could have found a way to tell them about those plans rather than keeping them secret and then deliberately manipulating the heroes into trusting him. The counterargument—that knowing about the contingencies would negate their effectiveness—is a weak one, as the heroes agreed with Batman on their use overall and likely would have realized that trying to sneak around them would defeat the purpose.
- On a more literal level, this is Ra's overall goal—pull a Curse of Babel on all of humanity and make them unable to communicate with each other permanently.
- Round Table Shot: Used in the final issue of the League's conference table as they vote on Batman's fate.
- Sealed Evil in a Duel: Heroic variant with the contingency against Wonder Woman, where she is forced to into an endless fight until she tires herself out.
- Sense Loss Sadness: Batman's contingency for Kyle Rayner was derived from a conversation they had over what sense they'd be most sad to lose. As an artist, Kyle admits that he wouldn't know what to do with himself if he somehow lost his vision. Batman would then use this knowledge to develop a means of hypnotizing Kyle blind, thereby demoralizing and incapacitating him.
- Shut Up, Hannibal!: A classic one from Superman to Ra's:Ra's Al Ghul: God-powerful aliens. A child with a magic ring. So much wasted potential. So much they could do to remake an endangered Earth.
Superman: Agreed. Why don't we start by taking you out of the picture?
- Surprisingly Realistic Outcome:
- The League members successfully overcome their individual tortures, overpower Ra's, and save the world—and then they have to deal with the extremely lasting psychological damage that Batman caused with not only his contingency plans, but the manipulative and cruel way he went about creating them. The Leaguers are people, and being deeply betrayed by a close friend is something that not even a superhero can easily forgive or accept. Similarly, while they're able to recognize the logic behind Batman's decision, the emotional pain outweighs that logic, which often happens when trust is broken.
- When Ra's realizes that the League is beating down his door, he cuts and runs—though he may be an immortal Master Swordsman and The Chessmaster, he functionally a Badass Normal in a straight fight. This means he's not nearly powerful enough to take on Superman or Wonder Woman by himself, let alone the entire League.
- Team Killer: Batman proves to be one. His plans decommission the League and could have killed them had he wished so. The reason he was able to do so was because he was able to win their trust and gain psychological insight into them.
- This Is Unforgivable!: Plastic Man's torture at Batman's plan is so awful that he is not willing to consider bringing Batman into the League again, despite their former good relationship:Green Lantern: C'mon, man, he brought you in.
Plastic Man: Yeah, yeah, he did. I owe him. I know that.
Green Lantern: Then.....?
Plastic Man: [pause as a panel shows a flashback to his brutal treatment] Get him out of here.
- Too Dumb to Live: One of Ra's goons tries to curry his favour by shooting his daughter. She was helping the heroes at the time, but still... Surprising no-one but himself, he doesn't last long afterwards.
- The Unapologetic: While Batman admits he's responsible for Ra's Al Ghul hacking his countermeasures he never once apologizes or believes it was wrong of him to have done so behind the backs of his fellow League members.
- We Need a Distraction: Ra's makes great use of this against the League, creating some crisis to draw their attention while he strikes at his true goal without their noticing. He does this when Talia infiltrates the watchtower, so she would only need to get past the automatic defenses, and pulls this on Batman, distracting him by robbing the Wayne's coffins, so Batman would be too busy to notice the League was being defeated by his own failsafe plans.
- Wham Shot: The final panel has the League going back to the conference room where Batman was kept waiting as they decide on whether to keep him or not. Batman isn't around because he knew fully well that Superman wouldn't allow him to stay and he didn't want to stay to hear his expulsion.
- What the Hell, Hero?: Batman gets several of these, from most of the cast. Alfred highly disapproved of Bruce working on ways to fight against his teammates. The League themselves also have this reaction, feeling unable to trust Batman again after he breached their trust. Even Talia is shocked at the brutality of Batman's plans.
- Villainous Underdog: Ra's Al Ghul would have no chance against the Justice League normally, hence stealing Batman's contingency plans. Once the Justice League survives the plans, Ra's plans are quickly thwarted, neither he nor his men posing a threat to the League.
- You Have Failed Me:
- Ra's is shown ordering the execution of one of his subordinates after they messed while caring for a rare tiger and ended up killing him.
- Later, Ra's also executes the henchmen who shot Talia, even though the henchmen did in order to prevent her from assisting the League.