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“This would be a good death…. But not good enough.”

I think Frank Miller really wanted to be writing 300 when he was working on Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. It’s clear from the mention of porn star Hot Gates (= “Thermopylae,” for those readers who’ve let their Greek get rusty) that the story wasn’t far from his mind. But Batman is no Leonidas. In fact, he’s explicitly an antihero. Miller has set him up to reject heroism in the classical mode, to deny himself the pinnacle of immortality, Heroic Death.

I keep meaning to post my translation of some of Tyrtaeus’s poems, because there’s nothing like a good Spartan number to make you want to go out and throw yourself onto a spear. At any rate, Miller’s Batman is aware, instinctively if not consciously, of these Greek heroic tenets, but is in the odd position of having to hold himself above them while exhorting others to take them up. It’s a beautiful thing for a young man to die in battle, but Batman is no longer young. He’s not entirely willing to take on the role of an old man, training youngsters to fight and imparting wisdom and rousing slogans. He wants to be out there on the front lines, but he can’t give himself over to the lure of martyrdom.

Steven has already taken on Batman’s final words, but I’m interested in the other bookend, the face that stares from the first page of that story straight into its mirror in the last panel (and not a true mirror; the faces tilt in the same direction, symmetry broken by the story) Bruce Wayne descending into flames. “This would be a good death… …but not good enough.” It’s a call to heroism, a split-second decision that a literal blaze of glory is nothing compared to superpower. Does he know in that moment of fiery certainty that he will end up creating his own status quo? Or perhaps this is what makes DKR epic, a struggle over so much with so little really gained, a play of principles and ideals to give meaning to the stretch of living before death. Batman’s name lived on (in infamy) after his retirement, but nothing he had done seemed to matter. Gotham was falling apart and memories of a mythical figure were no deterrent against the collapse. Heroism was a sham and Batman knew it. If he died fighting, his death would mean nothing. There would be no lasting fame or glory as a monument to his deeds. Even his life so far had left no impact. Something needed to change, and each of the major foes he faced - The Mutant Leader, The Joker, Superman himself - helped Batman mold himself into his new heroic mold, his bourgeois good-enough heroism, his only hope for lasting change.

Even with Batman back in the saddle (though not yet literally) the Mutant Leader is clear on where he stands, what makes him a leader and vigilante:

We will kill the old man Gordon. His woman will weep for him. […] I myself will kill the fool Batman. I will rip the meat from his bones and suck them dry. I will eat his heart and drag his body through the street. (p.44)

It may be more likely this is a universal threat than a sign that the Mutant Leader read The Iliad a few too many times in his formative years, but I still think the lack of references to dogs gnawing on genitals is probably more a sign that dogs are as absent from Gotham as horses than that the sentiment is not present. The Mutant Leader likes to talk big, but he wants to be a hero. He wants his visage and voice to be known, feared, remembered. “We are the future. Gotham City belongs to the Mutants. Soon the world will be ours.” (p. 44) Batman’s seen the preview for Troy; he knows how these things work. No matter how many minions he mows down, what matters is the mano a mano, and he buys into this heroism, at least for the moment. He cuts off his escape routes and fights. And yet it isn’t enough to be pure of heart (or whatever the singlemindedness driving Batman is); muscles matter. The Mutant Leader is young, tough, and stopped by someone younger and wilier and more female, Carrie Kelly, who won’t adhere to the rules of heroism if it means letting Batman die. This heroism isn’t dead, though. A barely healed Batman sets up a rematch on the Mutant Leader’s terms, turning them around and doing what the Leader had done to him, shifting the advantage of the “fair” fight. The Leader doesn’t die a hero. He had no name and his stunned followers immediately turn to Batman in his stead. How could this be heroism if it leaves no legacy even among those who claimed loyalty to the ideal?

Then there’s The Joker, who knows the value of a trademark. He doesn’t fight fair but prides himself on his ability to outsmart anyone. Batman can’t fight him squarely on those grounds, can’t afford to take hostages the way Joker does, although he’s not above manipulating and attacking the police. This is a Batman who takes time out in a busy fight to admonish a child who almost said “ass!” (p. 145) Being the anti-Joker won’t work either, though, since every person the Joker threatens is under a greater threat because Batman is present. The Joker knows that killing people Batman can’t protect hurts him at least as much as personal physical damage.

The Trojan Horse is a hero’s trick because the Trojans don’t get to tell the story. The Joker doesn’t care about the way he’ll be portrayed when this is all over. He wants control of the narrative Batman will replay to himself for the rest of his life. He wants the last laugh, and he gets it. Killing Batman would have been satisfying, but reminding him of the limits of his heroism is the best legacy the Joker could desire. Batman beat the Mutant Leader playing by his rules, but who set the game here? Who was the winner? Again, the one who saves the day and Batman’s life is Carrie. Again, she doesn’t seem to wonder about whether this makes her a hero.

And then there’s Superman, the biggest Good Guy of them all. He clearly believes Tyrtaeus that “it is a beautiful thing when a good man falls and dies fighting for his country.” Well, ok, it’s not his country or planet, and he falls but can’t manage to die, but at least his heart is in it. He does right because he is right and he doesn’t question. He’s not a guilt-creature like Batman but the sort of principled person Batman longed and failed to be. Batman, still haunted by the Joker, sets up another role reversal. He wants to bruise Superman rather than defeat him, wants to defiantly die in his arms. But he doesn’t want that death. It wouldn’t be good enough. He has a message, more universal and less personal than the Joker’s revenge narrative. “They showed me that the world only makes sense when you force it to,” he tells Superman (p. 194). This is perhaps the conceptual heart of the story (as well as the emotional epicenter, according to J.W. Hastings). Batman admits his insanity and the cognitive changes he’s put himself through, defends his masochistic crusades: it was all to make the world make sense!

But what sense does it make? Enough, perhaps, or enough for both of them to know what they’re fighting for, or at least why they’re still fighting at all. And just as Batman has subsumed and digested and reformed his adversaries’ techniques, Superman keeps a spark of Batman alive inside himself, letting it show in a roguish wink. This is a world where the old ways don’t work, where there are now several ways to be a hero, none of them wholly successful. The Achilles trajectory doesn’t work for superheroes who can wrap themselves around a nuclear warhead and come back ok, either. But Superman can go on trying to resolve the dissonance between state and justice while Batman tries to figure out what it means to be a hero and a leader. I think he has a good idea. Good enough.