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“This will be a good life… Good enough.”

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns seems particularly fascinated with superheroes and supervillains whose psychological origins lie in formative traumatic events. Batman of course was born in the injustice of Bruce Wayne losing both his parents to murder. Two-Face was born as acid splashed across Harvey Dent’s face turned his face into a physical manifestation of “good vs. evil.” His “cure” apparently only dooms him, his face fixed but his fortune ruined, both sides of his infamous coin marred. Two-Face’s loss of his human half foreshadows Batman’s loss of his Bruce Wayne secret identity. It’s not a good sign when you look into your supervillain enemy’s face and see a reflection.

The Joker doesn’t even have an origin, nor a name other than “Joker.” Some Web sites I found (The Dark Knight, Carnival of Chaos, “Madness in Gotham” on Kuro5shin) indicate common elements in their versions of his origin story—a failed career as a comedian, a dead wife and children, a fall into a vat of acid—but as near as I can tell these are all inventions of the Joker. At any rate, he has no origin and no name in DKR as Batman and Two-Face do, he hardly even has a personality beyond his love for Batman and his love of killing.

Bruce Wayne is driven to seek justice by the murder of his parents, Harvey Dent is equally driven to injustice by his horrible scarring. The man who killed Bruce’s parents had a motivation—”He was sick and guilty over what he did. All he wanted was money” (p. 14). Then Bruce “was was naive enough to think him the lowest sort of man” (p. 14), but now, well, now we’ve got the Mutant Gang, and why do they kill? They have a quota! In a way that’s worse than anything, because at least Bruce’s parents’ murderer wanted money, and at least the Joker’s murders are an act of passion, his own way of showing his love for Batman.

So the Mutant Gang. These poor jerks, their Mutant Leader likes to talk big—”Don’t call us criminals. We are the law. We are the future” (p. 44)—but there’s just something missing. It’s that thing with assigning murder quotas. Come on, guys, where’s the love, where’s the passion for your criminal careers? The Mutant Leader wants to be Batman’s archenemy, but he just doesn’t get it. He thinks it’s all about enacting power struggles through violence, and meanwhile Batman and Two-Face and the Joker are off in David Fiore Transcendentalist superhero land. Batman’s struggle with the Mutant Leader is played out in testosterone-drenched macho mudwrestling. When he acquiesces to the Mutant Leader’s “rules” for fighting, he’s nearly killed, but when he retakes control of the conflict he takes down the Mutant Leader effortlessly, almost with superhuman ease, considering he’s, what, 50 or 60 years old?

Oh, but the Joker and Batman, that’s a struggle between equals. Do supervillains have to take the Rorschach test? If they do, the Joker certainly failed—he hasn’t just lost his human identity, it doesn’t even exist as memory or history. He’s become a dark laughing god of death or injustice, haunting Gotham. Almost the opposite of Batman, but not quite, since Batman still has Bruce. In DKR, the conflict between Batman and the Joker comes to crisis and must be resolved, but it isn’t Batman who resolves it. As I said in my last DKR post, Batman can’t bring himself to kill the Joker, I suppose because Batman thinks he needs the super-injustice of the Joker to juxtapose with his own super-justice to make sense of the world.

I also said that Bruce Wayne/Batman is a weakling, but that’s really unfair, isn’t it? His real problem is that he can’t get away from the weight of his psychological origin. (The Joker certainly has managed that.) To take one of David Fiore’s favorite superheroes as an analytical foil to Batman: Spider-Man has a psychological origin similar to Batman’s, involving the murder of a parent figure. Peter Parker, though, gets a lesson out of his Uncle Ben’s murder—with great power comes great responsibility!—which he can internalize and use as a moral guiding principle. The murders of Bruce Wayne’s parents are entirely negative—they show young Bruce that the world is an unjust place, and he must invent Batman to fill the moral void he’s discovered in the world. How much bleaker is Batman’s story! Bleaker still, Batman isn’t allowed to internalize. Decades after his origin, in DKR, he’s still driven obsessively by his parents’ murders. It’s not any current injustices in the world which inspire the return of the Batman, but The Mark of Zorro, triggering a flashback to Batman’s formative trauma. He just can’t get away from it! Except, listen to his final lines in the book:

It begins here—an army—to bring sense to a world plagued by worse than thieves and murderers… This will be a good life… Good enough.

Happy day for Batman! That sure sounds to me like he’s finally happy, finally let go of his obsessions, ready to pursue justice for its own sake. And to reach this point, he only had to fail the Rorschach test, conquer Gotham City (with the help of a nuclear explosion and some former Mutant Gang members), fake his own death, blow up Wayne Manor, give Alfred a heart attack… Well, we are in the realm of grim ‘n’ gritty, aren’t we?

(Totally unrelated to anything else: Turn to page 102, see the third tv panel, the lawyer talking about the Mutant Leader. That red hair, those dark glasses… Could it be? A cameo appearance by Matthew Murdock!)


  1. David Fiore says:

    Good stuff Steven!

    Instructive comparison between Batman & Spider-Man–I think the key with Peter Parker is that he gets his powers before he suffers through his defining trauma, unlike Bruce, who derives his “power” directly from the trauma itself… I’ll have more to say once I’ve actually re-read DKR! I got a little behind on things this weekend…



    — 16 February 2004 at 6:10 am (Permalink)

  2. Steven says:

    That’s good, Batman gets his power from trauma. So do his villains, I guess. (Are there many supervillains whose origins involve some tragedy? I can think of Dr. Doom…)

    Speaking of “supervillains,” though, I think that whole moral binary opposition of “heroes vs. villains” takes a harsh beating in DKR, not least through the way the thematic parallels between Batman, Two-Face, and the Joker are played up.

    — 16 February 2004 at 5:52 pm (Permalink)