Today is Batman Day! In case you haven’t noticed, DC Comics is making a big deal out of it. Then again everyday feels like “Batman Day” now as he is (again) the centerpiece of Warner Bros. superhero movies on the big screen.
Set to be reintroduced with a new take on the origin in Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the cape and cowl are just around the corner. But if you can’t wait, he’s also having his earliest adventures explicitly explored on television right now with Fox’s Batman prequel, Gotham. No matter the medium, the birth of this legend continues to endlessly fascinate.
Yet, one of the more interesting developments to me has not been centered on his creation, but rather the continuing exploration of his end. Batman Beyond has risen again from the ashes of animated cancellation to grow its ever expanding, and fascinating, “epilogue” for the Bruce Wayne character with Batman Beyond Universe. That comic book series picks up the threads of the 1999 animated series of the same name and looks to a future where Bruce Wayne is a recluse on death’s door. It is only then that he takes in streetwise kid Terry McGinnis to carry on the mantle for a new century.
This isn’t the first time a popular writer or artist has attempted to end the Batman’s legacy, but it asks the question of why we feel the need to end Batman every few years. Indeed, there are almost as many variations on this pop culture icon’s last act as there are of his genesis—many of which with the same narrative threads, such as the need for Bruce Wayne to face his own mortality, his need to pick an heir apparent, and his desire for that person to be anyone but Dick Grayson. Even Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice focuses on a Batman closer to the end of his career than the beginning, even as it dutifully kills Thomas and Martha Wayne off (again).
Nonetheless, each of the most popular visions for Batman’s end are distinctive and give us clues as to why creators as varied as Frank Miller, Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, and Christopher Nolan felt the need to close the book on Batman, even though he comes from a medium where the book was never meant to end. This inherent contradiction makes the varying denouements all the more luminescent for the character and his generations of adoring fans.
The Dark Knight Returns
The most influential curtain call for the Dark Knight is one that actually did not end with its final pages. An awful decades-later sequel aside, The Dark Knight Returns continues to haunt comic book fans and creators who still liberally revisit it, including with a recent animated film, and its fingerprints that are omnipresent in both Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises and Zack Snyder’s forthcoming Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Yet, at its core, The Dark Knight Returns was originally a one-off gamble by writer Frank Miller and inker Klaus Janson: an apocalyptic “what if” scenario that allowed Miller to embrace the nihilist he seemed destined to become. It also was crucial due to the time it was published in.
Released in 1986, The Dark Knight Returns was birthed when the original DC Comics continuity was in its death throes, now affectionately referred to as “Pre-Crisis.” The same year Returns was published, Crisis on Infinite Earths was wrapping up its massive housecleaning of the DC mythos. In many ways, Miller was allowed to give his own unofficial epilogue to the original Batman persona whose history spanned the pulpy yarns of Bob Kane and Bill Finger to the adventurism of Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams (not to mention the Adam West-inspiring ridiculousness of Dick Sprang in-between).
And Miller figured a lonely rich kid with such a colorful past could only end in one way: Complete and utter darkness. The Dark Knight Returns is both the most cynical and hagiographic interpretation of the character ever committed to any medium.
Miller posits during an industry moment of self-awareness that a superhero, especially a psychologically damaged and wealthy one who beats up poor people every night for jollies, is the ultimate rugged individualist, and one that borders on fascism. Around the same time as Returns’ publication, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons were completing the second half of the far more negative and progressive Watchmen, which viewed superheroes as a fanciful manifestation of the American century—a power trip fantasy for a culture that obliviously flirts with tyranny. Miller arguably sees Batman as the same thing, but he doesn’t necessarily have a problem with it.
With far less condemnation, Miller imagines a powerful image of the Batman as someone who must ultimately accept that his justifiable war on the sick and depraved, a cultural disease protected by the complicit liberal intelligentsia, cannot be won as a singular crusade. But it is also too all-consuming a social illness for Citizen Wayne to ever truly walk away from, hence Returns beginning with Bruce coming out of a 10-year retirement due to disgust with 1980s America’s degradation.
Old age makes enemies of Batman and Superman in this story, because Bruce can never truly trust a product of a flawed system (and what is more mainstream than Big Blue?), nor can he accept another man as his equal. Thus after he is done giving Superman the whopping of his life, the Batman fakes his own death with the hope of privacy. This is not done to secure a second retirement, but rather to accept the second stage of his life: legacy.
Living in the sewers of Gotham, Bruce Wayne will turn a mob of drug-addled social rejects and pariahs that only weeks ago were trying to destroy the city through anarchy into his own personal army. The fact that they are sheep following his bark is inconsequential since they are willing to be subjugated. Likewise, the ultimate conclusion to be drawn is that Batman can only end by embracing his need to control and monitor everyone—not just criminals—and it starts with his own private army policing the streets as he sees fit (something we’d see revisited in the army of robot bat-drones he controls in Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come).
This bleak capper on Batman’s image is only ambiguous in how far Bruce’s successors will go in rebuilding Gotham in his own image. But as the comic also includes Batman bitch-slapping a Kryptonian god while scoffing at President Ronald Reagan, it is not hard to imagine the sky is the limit for this iteration.
This ending is also the true origin of Batman as the obsessive, tireless monster whose war on crime will never end. By giving the character such a chillingly abnegated end, Miller rewrote how many viewed the character in all other mediums, including the potentially psychotic hero of Tim Burton’s two Batman movies, and the “Bat-God” of 1990s comic books. Certainly, Batman and Superman’s friendship still remains tenuous for many writers because of this totalitarian love letter.
When Warner Bros. Animation decided to fast forward to the final chapters of their successful Batman: The Animated Series universe, they likely did not know how it was only about to expand years later with multiple Justice League shows in the offing. How fortunate for fans then, because the perceived winding down of their iconic version of the Caped Crusader, which populated millions of children’s minds and daydreams during the 1990s, allowed for something like Batman Beyond to come into existence.
In many ways a Batman version of The Mask of Zorro, Batman Beyond reimagines the Anton Furst-reminiscent Art Deco style of Batman: The Animated Series as a futuristic cyber-punk world thirty years later. It is there that due to old age, Bruce Wayne is reluctantly forced to give up his career as the Dark Knight, receding into anonymity as he fades away alone in Wayne Manor with only his beloved dog to keep him company.
He did not become the glorified tyrant-god that Frank Miller imagined, but he is ultimately just as miserable and tragic in his final days, robbed of any family or kinship, even from his “children,” including two Robins and a Batgirl. Dick Grayson is never seen once during the series’ entire run while Tim Drake has…complicated feelings for his surrogate dad as revealed in Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker.
Meanwhile Barbara Gordon, who was a lover to this version of Bruce Wayne, has turned into an awkward frenemy police commissioner that shares little of the affection her father had for helpful vigilantes. It is a rather dour vision for the character, making the fact that someone else actually becomes Batman surprisingly palatable.
Despite Batman being a character inherently about legacy—how else do you explain an older eccentric guy keeping a rotating milieu of orphaned boys in his house without appearing creepy?—as of 1999 when Batman Beyond began, none of his perceived successors had taken up the mantle in the comics. Sure, there was that time when Bane broke Batman’s back in the 1990s and a nutjob named Azrael became the Batman—but he was a few wheels short of a full Batmobile and needed to be put down in a bad way. With Terry McGinnis, Paul Dini and Bruce Timm finally found a worthy successor.
Terry McGinnis is essentially designed to be Peter Parker crossed with Bruce Wayne. He has the tragic loneliness and anger of Bruce Wayne that comes with his father being murdered, but he is also a teenager with a snarky motor mouth. Somehow, the combination is successful in no small part due to Will Friedle’s voice acting talents. Over three seasons, plus a terrific animated film, Terry earned his heavy title as Batman, and his friendship with a mentoring and sulking Bruce Wayne felt like a bittersweet conclusion for the original Batman.
Then came “Epilogue,” which aired for a completely different series. What was meant to be the final episode of Justice League: Unlimited (it wasn’t), and consequentially the final episode of the 13-year-old DC Animated Universe, “Epilogue” was Bruce Timm putting a bow on a world that began with Batman, and now ended the same way, even if it is a different Batman.
In this episode, we return to the future where Terry McGinnis is now a grown man who, after losing his fiancée, is convinced he’ll end up as alone and miserable as Mr. Wayne. This is compounded when it is revealed that Terry is actually Bruce Wayne’s son, albeit due to the sneaky meddling of side character Amanda Waller. It is a patently absurd conclusion that chokes down at the last minute that Bruce Wayne, in some biological form, must always be Batman since the war on crime is unending. Even if Terry is different enough that he can avoid Bruce’s silent misery, the original Batman truly does continue.
The half-hour ends triumphantly with father and son reconciling their differences, and Terry continuing on the mission in much the same way Bruce began it in Batman: The Animated Series’ very first 1992 episode. Still, there is a certain resignation to the fact that Bruce Wayne’s quest is a lonely eternal one where the best he can hope for is a son he literally didn’t ask for continuing on the good work.
The Dark Knight Rises
One of the most interesting things about The Dark Knight Rises is that despite its cursory similarities to Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, it is by far a more optimistic and life-affirming vision of the character who existed in the subsequent 25 years after that graphic novel…to the point of subverting expectations.
Viewing Batman in purely cinematic terms, Nolan attempted with his final superhero movie to give the character a beginning, middle, and end. This ending pulls from the ideas of Frank Miller: he’s roped out of retirement because of social decay. But he doesn’t knock down that society and reshape it in his image, instead defending it from a monster trying to form it in his own.
It could even be argued that Nolan’s depiction of Bane is far closer to Miller’s vision of Batman. Bane has built a subterranean army, and he is enforcing a new sense of law and “justice” upon Gotham City like a latter-day Robespierre. If anything, Nolan’s Batman is a “small-C” conservative, the kind of which Charles Dickens would approve of, who wants to reform the system, not obliterate it.
Unlike any other real interpretation of Batman, Nolan’s always had a far more self-aware goal that extended beyond punishing cultural symptoms like criminals: he always aimed to cure the city by combating corruption and suffering as a societal whole—like a very hands-on, bat-shaped political candidate.
In this context, the far more traditionally heroic vision of Batman ends the most untraditionally. Up to this point, the two most popular Batman epilogues featured him alone but resilient that his mission will continue onwards. Forever. Psychologically speaking, such emotional surrender could be viewed as equally unhealthy as it is altruistic in its previous depictions.
This appears to be the takeaway Nolan finds in Batman’s quest when he crafts a story that is not about Batman either completing his impossible mission or soldiering on into the long night toward oblivion. Instead, Bruce Wayne’s goal of a self-sufficient Gotham seems arguably fulfilled (as long as someone is there to let all the cops out of their makeshift prison cells!), and it is just as much about Bruce Wayne outgrowing this rage that that has consumed him whole.
At the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne’s Howard Hughes styled middle age is not that far removed from Bruce Wayne’s old age in Batman Beyond. Except, instead of being in need of a successor, Nolan argues Bruce is in need of acceptance and the ability to move on from his childhood hang-ups involving dead parents and bats. For Bruce to defeat Bane, he literally must scale the heights of his inner childhood demons, depicted in an unsubtle prison wall, and liberate himself from his anger and self-loathing. It is only after he puts away the childish flights of superhero fantasy that he can leave the prison, appear as Batman in the daylight (a first for The Dark Knight Trilogy), and even kill without hesitation despite his previous ideological fanaticism to the contrary.
In this version of the story, the mission does not consume Batman; he conversely surpasses the adolescent ideal of a lone hero. It is potentially confrontational to the fantasy for those who love superhero iconography, but for the first time ever it allows a big budget Hollywood happy ending to appear subversive: Bruce Wayne sitting happily at peace for the first time since his parents died at a Florentine café with Selina Kyle at his side no less, wearing his mother’s pearls. The necklace that caused his parents to be targeted for a fateful mugging has been given away, and so has Bruce’s angst over their deaths.
Seeing a happily ever after for Batman is either surprisingly welcome or blasphemously heretical, depending on your denomination of fandom. Either way, it stands as a complete counterbalance to the two above entries and suggests the most finality ever given to the character.
Which is again an oddity for a character designed for a series of unending adventures. Perhaps excusable for Nolan since the medium of film demands an eventual ending, the others come from a world of storytelling that is designed to have readers or viewers ready to jump into the next installment.
This is likely why so many are curious about imagining a final coda for the Batman. Each of these versions is approaching the character from a different context, and each finds a radically different finale for him. Yet, all deal with aspects only teased in the original comics but never fulfilled.
The idea of Batman being a legacy character can never be explored in the comics truly, because if it were, then Bruce Wayne would no longer be Batman and the status quo would be irrevocably changed for future generations (or next year’s sales projections). Unlike, Pre-Crisis, most Post-Crisis, or even Batman: The Animated Series, The Dark Knight Returns and Batman Beyond are allowed to traverse aspects of the character only hinted at. Whether that includes Bruce’s predilection for potential fascism or simple lonely misery in a big gloomy house, these are facets that will never be comprehensively contextualized in weekly adventures.
Similarly, only in the post-script can we see the torch passed, be it to Terry McGinnis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s John Blake, or a legion of empty headed revolutionaries ready to follow the Bat into the future. Plus, the extreme differences of these successors highlight how diverse Batman’s multiple interpretations can be.
In the end, any of these conclusions are justifiable, because there is no ending for Batman. Just as there is room for a thousand interpretations of Robin Hood, King Arthur, and countless other characters of myth and folklore—often with their own catalogue of possible “end times” narratives—Batman’s birth and his conceivable death will be told and retold by how any artist sees fit. It is perhaps why the most definitive Batman ending is in actuality one of the least revered variations on it.
In 2009, Neil Gaiman’s dreamlike storybook narrative eye was allowed to riff on DC Comics’ long defunct “Whatever Happened…” label when he wrote Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? at the conclusion of Grant Morrison’s Batman RIP storyline. In this simple, two-part story, a deceased Bruce Wayne narrates his own wake in the back of a grungy bar like William Holden in a Billy Wilder film.
He watches Selina Kyle, the Joker, Robin, and Superman all eulogize his memory after a mysterious death, but no two grieving “friends” have the same image of Batman’s death or life. That is because the concept of Batman as a pop culture figure is infinite in its countless configurations and no one continuity or narrative is more legitimate or “definitive” than the other. “Canon” be damned.
In the second part of Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?, Bruce Wayne’s spirit is met by his mother; she tells him that because Batman never stops or retires, that “in the end Batman dies.” But Batman never really dies or ends. His reward isn’t Heaven or Hell. “Do you know the only reward you get for being Batman?” Martha Wayne asks her son. “You get to be Batman.”
The only happy ending, Gaiman contends, for the Dark Knight is one where he gets to relive his few childhood years of blissful peace before tragedy strikes. Thus after Bruce Wayne gives a “Goodnight Moon” farewell to his cave, friends, and enemies, he is reborn for another reimagined lifetime in Martha Wayne’s arms.
Batman doesn’t end. He just gets reborn. When you think about it…that may be the definitively final word on the character.
This article was first published on Sept. 23, 2014.