This is the stuff the future is made of. As Warner Bros. desperately searches for their next wave of film projects, they need to look no further than their current crop of Batman titles to find huge, sweeping stories with enough of a visceral punch to pack theatres. In “Court of Owls,” Scott Snyder presented new adversaries and used the dark history of Gotham to create a rich mythology to push Batman to the edge. Now, in “Death of the Family,” Snyder and company brought back Gotham’s greatest blight to push the Bat Family further than ever before. Imagine sitting in a darkened theater as the Joker, his own flesh strapped on his head like a mask, steps onto the screen for the first time. Scott Snyder is creating Batman stories for the next generation. Instead of just borrowing from what came before and rearranging the pieces, he is creating new pieces and challenging his characters in new, dramatic ways.
Snyder knows how to frighten the reader. He threatens to commit atrocious harm to long-lived and beloved characters. By removing Alfred from the board early on, Snyder created a connected sense of drama in every part of the crossover. At any moment, readers could be forced to witness Alfred’s horrific demise, so when he is revealed in the finale as the Joker’s butler, transformed into a pasty-faced lunatic by Joker gas, even though it’s a terrible sight, there’s almost a sense of relief. Batman and the readers were convinced Alfred was dead, so even though the butler had been profaned and violated, it was a relief he was still breathing. That’s what Snyder does: he makes you believe the worst and delivers the unexpected in order to manipulate those anxieties.
The recurring motifs in “Death of the Family” are masks and identity. The Joker’s plan is to show the world what is beneath his skin and do the same to the bat family. Joker removes his own face to show the world that beneath the flesh there’s still the maniacal grin. Joker is angry that Batman had found new foes and a family. He thinks these elements distract Batman from his mission as Gotham’s protector.
Snyder’s Batman stories center on Gotham City itself as a corrupt entity that has been manipulating people for centuries. The Joker is the being that is meant to test Gotham’s champion. Batman could only be perfected through a foe that is every bit his equal and every bit his opposite. Snyder broaches the question of why Batman just doesn’t kill the Joker. After all, wouldn’t it be the champion’s responsibility to end the Joker so future generations would not have to suffer his games? Snyder finally gives us the answer no other bat writer could. The answer to this question is the dramatic conclusion to the saga. Batman doesn’t kill the Joker, because if he does, Gotham will replace the Joker with something worse. Batman knows the Joker, he knows how he thinks, what makes him tick, and because of this, Batman is always one step ahead, as proven by Batman’s escape this issue. If Batman is to be tested by Gotham, then it needs to be a test he can navigate.
The idea of masks and identities is further explored by the question of whether the Joker knows Batman’s identity, and by extension, the identity of Batman’s family. The fear causes a rift between Batman and his companions. Joker wants to peel the skin off their faces in order to expose the fact that under their flesh, they are just human, while Joker and Batman are something more primal. The reveal of what has been hiding under the covered trays is Joker’s greatest and most shocking punch line.
The past three months have been devoted to showing us just how unstoppable the Joker can be. So, when Batman manages to stop him, it makes the hero and his family seems more enduring than when the arc began. It turns out that Batman was indeed a step ahead of the Joker the whole time and in complete control. It was his family’s doubts that put them all in danger, because when Batman said he was certain the Joker didn’t know their secret, he meant it.
Snyder’s most effective moment is when he teases pulling back the curtain on the Joker. Joker has been threatening to expose Batman and his family, but when Batman shows that HE is the world’s greatest detective, and has discovered secrets about the Joker’s past life, the once untouchable villain is exposed and turns into a quivering mass of anxiety. Snyder knows that the audience does not need to be privy to these secrets, it’s enough that Batman knows. In the end, Batman defeats the Joker, not with his fists, but with knowledge.
The Robins and Batgirl must all endure a descent into their own insanity, as Joker gases them and sets them upon each other. In this crazed state, Joker changes their masks into ones resembling his own, but the humanity and training of the mask Batman gave each of them wins out. Joker’s greatest failure was that Batman’s charges had too much of their father in them, too much justice and order in their heart to be overwhelmed by the same cancerous insanity that once took over the Joker.
Snyder’s world is a dark one, filled with pain and corruption, but like “Court of Owls” showed, it’s also a world filled with hope. This is the stuff legends are made of. This is the type of story that will inspire future Batman creators in the same ways Denny O’Neil, Alan Moore, Frank Miller, and yes, even Christopher Nolan did. “Death of the Family” is the type of story that takes Batman into previously unexplored places and redefines the Joker for the next generation of storytellers.