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Pro VS Con: Batman's End

A catechism: Who is Batman? He is Bruce Wayne. Who is Bruce Wayne? A billionaire fighting crime under a secret identity. Why does he fight? In memory of his parents, murdered in an alleyway mugging when he was a child. How did he react? He swore by the spirits of his parents to avenge their deaths by spending the rest of his life warring on all criminals. How did this event and oath change him? He became dark, obsessed, dour. How will his quest end? Only with his death or exhaustion. Will another replace him when he dies? No—Bruce Wayne’s origin, history, talents and resources are unique; others may imitate, but none can replace him.

Another catechism: Who is Bruce Wayne? He is Batman. Who is Batman? A vigilante crime fighter, a haunter of the urban night. Why does he fight? For justice; for virtue; for Gotham City and all who inhabit it. How does he fight? With force, but without fatal violence; he apprehends, he does not punish; he rescues all who need rescuing, even criminals. How will his task end? It will not end; crime and injustice are forever. Will another replace him when he dies? Perhaps, perhaps not; if injustice is forever, then so too should be the hero who fights it.

Complementary catechisms, but concluding with disparate dogmas. And before Batman Beyond extended Wayne’s life and career into an unimagined future, the question about the survival of the Batman persona would have had only speculative interest. But with mortality beckoning, and a putative heir in the waiting, it acquires new force. Does “Batman” end with Wayne, or does he continue through the efforts of Terry McGinnis? Is Batman merely an extension of Bruce Wayne, or in creating Batman has Wayne inaugurated a hero that transcends himself, and any individual? And the choice is Wayne’s to make. He can make Batman immortal by surrendering the cowl and sundering himself; or he can assert his own indivisibility, his own peculiar claim upon his life and work, by taking it with him. Until the moment of his own ending, he can also choose Batman’s.

How fitting and necessary that Wayne should be defining himself even in the twilight of his life, for self-creation through the exercise of choice has always been the essence of his character. He has no superpowers, either intrinsically (like Superman) or gained through accident (like Spiderman). He made himself into what he is, initially through a deliberate reaction to his parent’s death, and then through the long training to fit himself to his chosen task. The choices he has made at each step have been the conscious acts of the person making the choices, and the person making those conscious choices has been shaped by the choices previously made. And so it stands even at dusk. To anticipate his decision here—whether it is Batman or merely Bruce Wayne who dies of old age—is to implicitly endorse one catechism or the other, for those catechisms describe different individuals who may make different choices. As Otto Friedrich observed, it is a long-standing conceit in fiction that the manner of a character’s death in some way reveal the meaning or purpose of his life; to speak of a man’s “end” may be to commit a pun—to refer both to his demise and to the goal to which his life had led, and which finally reveals the person that he is. So it is that the catechisms’ beginnings lead inexorably to their conclusions: Who is Batman? becomes What is his proper “end”?

Here is one common explanation of who Batman is and how he became that way: The decisive change in Bruce Wayne’s life occurred the night his parents were murdered: that was the instant he became Batman; everything else merely follows. Strictly speaking, it is impossible that matters should be this way, for when and how did that boy choose to fight through non-fatal means, and to cooperate rather than compete with the authorities? Those were important choices too, for they mark the fundamental difference between Bruce Wayne and, say, Victor Frieze. But grant the answer its essential point, that beneath the cape and cowl is a boy with his dreams of vengeance and recovery, however displaced.

Now, if that crisis in the alley marks the moment he stopped developing, we should recognize the consequences: This is a character perpetually on the edge, both morally and psychologically, for his actions at bottom have only an emotional basis and are only as stable as those emotions. Neither he nor we can ever be sure of either his sanity or his rectitude, or that he can properly be distinguished from the criminals and villains he fights, for the differences between him and them can only be a matter of degree and not of kind. Furthermore, his is a life that can only end in nihilism and despair, for it is predicated upon desires that can never be met. However many others he saves, he can never save his parents; however many lives he restores, he can never restore his own. And since his pain is peculiarly his own , he can pass neither it nor his quest on to another. With him Batman dies. This is the standard diagnosis of who Batman is, and explains why so many recoil from contemplating Wayne’s death, for in it lies the death of the iconic Bat.

The other catechism takes seriously the idea that someone must train to become Batman; although Batman may have been born the night that Thomas and Martha Wayne were murdered, the mature character did not emerge until much later. Many choices had to be made, many angers and weaknesses overcome. Emotion must be mastered by reason and discipline, and reason and discipline must be laid down according to certain principles and guidelines. “Batman” thus becomes an ideal and not merely a man; he is the pattern for the warrior-hero fighting for the innocent and the just. And because training can only bestow wisdom and experience, not perfection, Wayne may never succeed in becoming Batman, for he could always fall away from the high ideals; indeed, only if “Batman” were an ideal to strive for could Wayne ever be remonstrated for failing to act as he should. Furthermore: Although Batman is a self-created role originating in Wayne and his choices, it remains something outside of Wayne himself, a projection of the ideal self he would like to be. And for this reason it remains a role he could train others for, and pass on to them when he can no longer carry its burdens.

I remarked above that the catechisms were complementary. And so they are, for where one looks to the austere idealism implicit in the character, the other emphasizes his raw humanity. This is yet another source of Batman’s hold on our imaginations, for he embodies the tensions we all feel between our own self-ideals and our compromised selves. And if some interpretations of Batman have too strongly stressed one aspect of the character—so that he emerges alternately as an abstract defender of justice and as a borderline psychotic—the Bruce Timm animated series has excelled at merging and reconciling them. And yet the character’s peculiar power also resides in his tendency to continue forcing choices to the very end. At the moment of his death, both he and his creators would finally be unable elide the tensions. Spirit or flesh, one or the other must ultimately prevail.

This essay comes to its own end without choosing one alternative or the other, and contents itself by continuing the evasions, and by emphasizing the fact of the two alternatives. To be sure, in its very title the future-day series seems to choose the second—after all, it is called Batman Beyond and not Batman Culminated. And so it would be one of the tasks of that series to give us not only the beginnings of the new man beneath the mask, but the final parting of the old, and so to gently guide Bruce Wayne to his proper end. It is merely one of many pities that Batman Beyond comes to its own end without being given the chance to do so.

Acknowledgement: DarkAngel’s posts on the World’s Finest Message Boards, on this and other matters, were an invaluable aid and stimulus to the thoughts expressed in this essay.

By Jay Allman


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