It’s been about a month since a certain movie came out, so I figure it’s okay to post something full of spoilers. This basically regurgitates a conversation between myself and Jessica Mills concerning the recent film The Dark Knight Rises, the final part of the Chris Nolan “Dark Knight Trilogy” which included Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Right after she saw the movie, Jessica had some questions and I’m basically her go-to-geek when it comes to explaining certain things in the comic book/superhero genre.
Before we go into this spoiler-filled discussion, you all know who Jessica Mills is, right? Do you not? Well, you need to explore the internet more. In a nutshell, Jess (known on Twitter as @GeekyJessica) is a talented and entertaining actor/writer/producer. She was the star and showrunner of the web sitcom “Awkward Embraces,” which the New York Times called “charming” and “sharply written.” She’s also a looker. You can find her at GeekyJessica.com.
When Jessica asked me some questions, she simultaneously suggested I restart my personal blog by answering them publicly. So here we go. And if you haven’t picked up yet on the fact that this post contains spoilers about The Dark Knight Rises, I have no sympathy and take issue with your reading comprehension skills.
Are you ready to begin? Excellent!
JESSICA: OK, number one, I hate it that he wasn’t dead at the end. I really felt that the movie was redeeming itself with a powerful ending of his sacrificial death and then handing the reins off to a new Batman.
ALAN: Wow, first question is about the very last thing in the movie. Ha! All right. I actually was ok with Batman faking his death (although I wasn’t thrilled about HOW he accomplished this) and retiring for a few reasons.
First, sometimes a heroic sacrifice is too simple/clean an ending for me. Not always, but sometimes, ESPECIALLY when a bomb is involved. Second, because it does have some precedent in the comics. In several comics over the years, Bruce has, at times, considered that one day he might feel differently about his crusade and will choose a different path or that he’ll one day simply wear out his body and will be forced to put the cowl aside. He believes people can push past pain (even if he’s not sure he personally can do this). But most of all, Bruce having a happy ending is the ultimate proof in this film trilogy that his moral values were right and the villains were all wrong.
Ra’s al Ghul believed Bruce’s principles couldn’t last long and wouldn’t inspire others, that Bruce would simply die alone and forgotten. He was wrong, Bruce’s life and “death” inspired others. Two-Face said that things are black and white, either you die the hero or you live long enough to become a villain. Bruce proved him wrong, too. He fought until his body couldn’t do much more (as we learned from his doctor’s exam). Faking his death after making sure another is continuing his work means he made his own path and that his way worked. I like that. Batman is, in the end, an optimist. He believes that good can triumph over ridiculous odds and he believes people are worth his faith, which is part of why he never kills. He is the son of his parents Martha and Thomas and his reward for sticking with those principles and morals is a happy ending and a chance to live a life as himself rather than turn half his identity into a mask to protect the other half.
JESSICA: How close is this ending to anything that happened in the comics? That he decides to retire?
ALAN: Well, let’s start with the fact that there have been a few incarnations of this character over the years. Batman first appeared in 1939, during what we now call the Golden Age of Comics. Originally, he wasn’t very different from the Batman of today. But new censorship rules in the 1950s really limited the kind of stories comics could tell. For instance, you couldn’t really show how crimes were done, which sucks when your book series is called Detective Comics, so Batman became more about capers and strange adventures against villains who were mischievous rather than murderous. This is where we first got the campy Batman whose Robin was often a joke or a hostage.
In 1964, DC decided to bring Batman closer to his roots again, making him a detective/vigilante while ignoring most stories that had been published previosly. People call this the Silver Age Batman or the “new look Batman,” since part of the changes to the comic involved giving him a new yellow-disc on the bat-symbol. This incarnation, who got even darker after lot of censorship rules were lifted in the 1970s, is still primarily the Batman we see in comics today who inhabits the mainstream DC Universe or “DCU,” although parts of his history have been altered from time to time.
The Golden Age Batman and all his stories weren’t erased entirely. Readers learned that all those adventures took place on the parallel world of Earth-2, where the Golden Age Batman still lived, now older, with his universe’s versions of Robin, Alfred and others (similar to how J.J. Abrams later explained his Star Trek reboot).
So while modern-day mainstream Batman was young and fighting his dark crusade with no end in sight, writers now had the freedom to visit Earth-2 on occasion and show an older version of Batman who could evolve down his own path. After having been a crime-fighter for over a decade of his life, Earth-2 Batman retired and married his world’s version of Selena Kyle AKA Catwoman, who had helped him learn to acknowledge his painful childhood trauma without letting it be the main focus of his life anymore. After getting hitched, Earth-2 Bruce got involved in politics and became Commissioner Wayne of the Gotham City Police Department, still helping the fight for justice. He and Selena later had a daughter named Helena who grew up to become a vigilante called the Huntress (though she kept this a secret from her father).
So in a way, the movie is recalling this possible fate for Batman. Similar to the Golden Age incarnation, the Chris Nolan version of Batman gets to retire with Selena. Possibly Helena is on the way!
JESSICA: Doesn’t he hand off the reigns in the comics? Aren’t there replacement Batmans later?
ALAN: From time to time, yes, Bruce has had a couple of opportunities where he took a leave of absence or was prepared to retire and let someone else take over. In the story Batman: Year Two, Bruce fell in love with a girl named Rachel Caspian (not to be confused with Rachel Dawes from the films). He decided to leave Batman behind and marry her before circumstances wound up splitting them apart.
In the saga Knightfall, which large parts of The Dark Knight Rises is based on, Bruce had his back broken by Bane. He appointed Jean-Paul Valley, an apprentice of his, to become the new Batman. Weeks later, after embarking on another adventure, Bruce was healed by a woman with regenerative powers, because this is the DC Universe where Batman co-exists with Superman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman and Merlin, and if you look around long enough, you will find someone with the power to heal injuries in others.
But even after his back was restored, he considered NOT returning from retirement as a superhero. Jean-Paul Valley was acting as Batman and Tim Drake, the teen hero who served as Robin at the time, was becoming a more formidable hero every day and could eventually take on the mantle of Batman himself. So our hero told Tim he thought Jean-Paul could just continue, leaving Bruce to discover a new life for himself that didn’t involve the mask. It was only when Tim told him that Jean-Paul had become too violent and that the man’s actions had allowed a criminal AND a hostage to die that Bruce decided nope, I’ve got to become the Dark Knight again.
Soon after reclaiming the mantle, Bruce took a two week leave of absence and had Dick Grayson, his first apprentice and original Robin, to temporarily fill-in as the Caped Crusader. Dick had left Batman’s shadow years before and now operated as the hero called Nightwing, but was willing to step in for a while and the whole thing actually helped the two of them confront some lingering issues between them.
When the Justice League was believed to be dead in a story called JLA: The Obsidian Age, it turned out Batman had set up a computer program to activate if just such a thing happened. The program sent out messages to heroes he had already selected to become a new League, with Nightwing as the leader.
More recently, Bruce was exiled through time and space by a cosmic enemy. The heroes of the present day believed he was dead. After several weeks, Dick Grayson took on the legacy and became the new Batman. He served in that role for months before Bruce Wayne returned. But Bruce didn’t immediately tell Dick to go back to being Nightwing. For a while, he had Dick continue to act as the Dark Knight in Gotham City, while he himself operated as a Batman traveling around the world, finding other vigilantes and people willing to fight for justice, recruiting them for an organization he called “Batman, Inc.” that was, in a way, a response to Ra’s al Ghul’s League of Shadows.
So that’s four occasions so far where the mainstream Batman has passed on the reins, in one way or another, to an apprentice. And three of those times, it was Dick Grayson AKA Robin I AKA Nightwing.
Now, Bruce has returned to Gotham and is the only one wearing the mask of Batman. But Batman, Inc. is still in operation around the world. And in many comic book stories, we’ve seen possible futures where other people will one day take up the mantle of Batman, including Bruce’s son Damian, a techno-suit wearing hero named Terry McGinnis, and even a hero in the 853rd century. Like Bruce said in The Dark Knight Returns, “Anyone can be Batman. That was the point.”
You know, this brings up a possibility. We don’t technically know what Bruce and Selena do in Europe after we see them having a meal together. Perhaps in a few weeks, they’ll be standing in the middle of London and Bruce will remark, “Ok, so I’ve agreed to give up this Batman life. But maybe we can start training other people. Blake can’t do it alone. Gotham’s not the only city that needs a Batman. Maybe we can make a sort of Batman, Inc. What do you think?” That’s the fun of having the ending be slightly open.
JESSICA: So this guy John Blake, the cop. He says his real name is Robin. And I was like, what? But Robin is an acrobat!
ALAN: Yes, the original Robin was an acrobat. And for a while he was also a cop.
Although Bruce Wayne has remained the one, true Batman since his creation over 70 years ago (not counting the occasional stand-in), there have been several different heroes to serve as Robin, often for years at a time. In the mainstream comics, there have been five heroes to use that identity: Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, Tim Drake, Stephanie Brown and, currently, Damian Wayne.
Richard “Dick” Grayson started it all in 1940, just under a year after Batman’s first appearance. Dick was an adolescent circus acrobat whose parents were killed by mobsters. Bruce Wayne took him in and offered him a chance to bring his parents’ killers to justice, so he would have closure and wouldn’t hold onto anger and resentment the way Bruce had done. Dick was thankful for this chance but decided his working relationship with Gotham’s dark guardian shouldn’t be a one-time deal. He convinced Bruce to let him be an apprentice, a squire to the Dark Knight. Bruce took him on and trained the already very athletic and talented acrobat, making him a warrior detective.
In later years, it’s been implied that part of why Bruce did this is because of the martial arts philosophies he had learned himself years before, which included the idea that every master must teach his ways to a student because one day he/she will die and then that knowledge and legacy will be lost otherwise.
So Dick Grayson, after receiving enough training, took on the identity of Robin, which was inspired by the myth of Robin Hood (although later writers added that Dick’s mother had nicknamed him “Robin” as a child). Like the thief of Sherwood forest, Dick was a daredevil and thrill-seeker. He fought crime not just because of justice but because he enjoyed the righteous thrill of taking down bullies. He was the kind of guy who’d be disappointed if he were only surrounded by three thugs instead of six. He also sometimes had his own adventures without Batman. After he teamed up with some other teenager heroes, he became a founding member of the Teen Titans and was appointed leader. Despite the fact that he was the only founder without powers, the others trusted his leadership, skill and obvious intelligence.
Forty-two years after his first appearance, Dick Grayson officially retired as Robin in 1984. In the story, Dick was 19 and believed that he had grown out of Batman’s shadow. He was a man who needed to find his own path. A few months later, he created the new costumed identity of Nightwing and has kept that name since (not counting times he’s stepped in for Bruce and other special occasions). For a few years, Dick’s adventures involved him operating in Gotham’s neighboring city Blüdhaven. There, he became a police officer for a while. Recently, he’s moved back to Gotham.
Months after Dick Grayson left Bruce’s side, Bruce found a street kid named Jason Todd stealing the tires off the Batmobile. Jason was living on the streets, his mother having died of cancer and his father having vanished to pursue criminal activities (which later got the man killed). Jason was an angry kid with a natural talent for survival and fighting. He was also good at escaping from orphanages.
Bruce believed Jason would easily evolve into a dangerous criminal if left alone and he saw a lot of himself in the kid’s anger, more so than he’d ever seen in young Dick. So he took in the street kid and trained him to become the new Robin, hoping to turn his anger into a positive force. Jason was effective at first but proved to be too violent and rebellious. Eventually, his attitude led him to be trapped by the Joker, who brutally killed him (although thanks to strange forces, he later was literally resurrected and began a new, darker life). Years later, when Bruce was believed to be dead, and before Dick officially became his successor, Jason briefly tried to become a new, lethal version of Batman but was quickly shut down.
After Jason’s death, Batman became colder and far more vengeful. He brutalized criminals and focused more on combat than on detective skills. Which brings us to Tim Drake, a teenager who was Bruce Wayne’s neighbor and possessed prodigy-level intellect. The kid was a gifted detective and figured out a while back that Bruce Wayne was Batman. Tim saw how Batman had changed and knew he was blaming himself for Jason’s death. The kid approached Nightwing and then Bruce about the situation, arguing that the Dark Knight needed a partner to keep him sane, to remind him that he was not alone and that hope was still important.
Impressed by the kid’s talents and maturity (especially after Tim helped Nightwing and Batman in a case against Two-Face), Dick suggested Tim become Bruce’s new apprentice. After some discussion, Bruce reluctantly agreed and Tim underwent more training than any previous Robin. He proved to be a very formidable hero, one who was a partner and not sidekick. In his adventures with other heroes, including as a founding member of the team Young Justice, Tim became known as a deep moral center. In some stories that have shown possible futures, Tim eventually becomes Batman himself.
There were two other Robins after Tim, but I’m stopping here because these three young heroes, the longest-running Robins, are the ingredients for John Blake AKA Robin Blake. John Blake is a cop like Dick Grayson was. He’s a bit of a smart-mouth in the same way Dick was. He has a past that resembles Jason’s and some of Jason’s anger. And he has Tim’s moral core, acting as a conscience for those around him. He also has an introduction scene similar to Tim when he confronts Bruce and basically says, “We’ve never officially met but I know you’re Batman.”
Dick is the most famous Robin whereas Tim often rivals him as the most popular. Jason’s darker attitude and street kid origin makes him seem a bit more natural for Nolan’s universe. So the compromise was to turn them all into one unified Robin, a character who serves the familiar role of being Batman’s helper and moral compass in the movie even if he doesn’t literally wear the costume, a man who follows in the hero’s footsteps just as Dick has, as Jason tried to, and as Tim might one day.
I do wish we didn’t find out his name was LITERALLY Robin. That was a little too on the nose for me. If that had been his nickname or if he had said he always liked Robin Hood, I would’ve been okay with that. Also if his name were an amalgamation of the Robins, that would’ve been cool to me. Maybe Richard Drake instead of John Blake. Something like that. Just my opinion.
By the way, if you’re curious about seeing some of the after-effects of Jason’s death, you should grab the direct-to-DVD film Batman: Under the Red Hood, starring Bruce Greenwood as Batman, John Di Maggio as the Joker, Neil Patrick Harris as Nightwing, Jason Isaacs as Ra’s al Ghul, and Jensen Ackles as the mysterious Red Hood. Excellent stuff. Little dark for any kids below the age of 12.
JESSICA: OOH! All that stuff is really cool and interesting! Thanks! Now I’m just wondering about some of the villains’ motivations.
ALAN: Maybe we can talk about that another time! Cheers!
Join us for Part TWO of this discussion with Jessica on the villains of The Dark Knight Rises. Stay geeky, my friends.
Thanks to Jessica Mills for suggesting I post this and for convincing me to start a blog again. In other news, you can still pick up my The Unofficial Batman Trivia Challenge to learn more about the Dark Knight and his friends, enemies, equipment, world, etc.
THIS WEEK’S SUGGESTED READING: The novel The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “What I need is a strong drink and a peer group!” - Life, The Universe and Everything by Douglas Adams