Fair warning: spoilers ahead. A decent summary of the entire story arc (from Batman #676-681)—and its precursors, pretty much the entirety of Morrison’s two-year run—can be found here.
This wasn’t a case (as it seems to be with Final Crisis) of DC promoting the story as something other than what the author intended. Morrison himself pushed this tale as “the definitive story of Batman,” promising to put the character through “a fate worse than death. Things that no one would expect to happen,” and warning readers that in the final issue, “when we find out the identity of the villain, it’s possibly the most shocking Batman reveal in 70 years.” He utterly failed to deliver—not only on his grandiose claims, but even on the basic expectations of a coherent, satisfying narrative.
This certainly wasn’t a character-driven story. Morrison’s characterization throughout was cursory at best. One of his additions to the supporting cast, supermodel/politician Jezebel Jet, turned out to have all the depth of motivation of a typical Bond Girl (pre-Daniel Craig era), the kind that turns on the hero for no clear reason and then meets an ironic end. Another, the long-lost Bat-offspring Damian, remains an obnoxious one-note annoyance. Morrison’s treatment of the regular supporting players was every bit as slapdash; from Robin to Nightwing to Gordon to Alfred (not to mention his own recently re-created Club of Heroes), he shoehorned them all into the story yet reduced their roles to cameos of no consequence to the actual plot. Even Batman himself never seemed to ring true: his voice, his attitude, his behavior, all seemed to be driven by the needs of the plot, rather than driving it.
Yet this wasn’t a plot-driven story, either, inasmuch as the plot didn’t particularly make sense. Indeed, fans online have been debating at length about not only whether they liked the story, but over simpler questions of what exactly happened and why. Morrison’s approach to storytelling has never been entirely transparent, but these days it’s become downright cryptic… and the results of decoding it seem hardly worth the effort. He seems inclined to throw in anything that catches his fancy, and expect readers to swallow it and keep going, without benefit of logical explanation. In this case, quite a few of those elements served no purpose except to gratify Morrison’s fascination with obscure details from stories nearly five decades old, stories that no one (until he got his hands on them) considered a valid part of today’s Batman continuity. (That, and working out his personal issues about “the death of Western civilization.”) Meanwhile, he glossed over a great many details that were (or should have been) actually relevant to the story.
- What exactly was Bat-Mite supposed to be? (He seemed at first to be a manifestation of Bruce’s unconscious, but then had access to information Bruce didn’t.)
- Why would the Batman we know, as chronicled for the past 20 years, ever have agreed to participate in a government-run sensory deprivation experiment?
- Are we really expected to believe that Bruce, while drugged and hallucinating, managed to sew (by hand) a functional, form-fitting Batman costume, complete with cape, cowl and belt, out of random multicolored rags he found in an alley?
- Or, for that matter, that his self-imposed psychological Zur En Arrh “backup plan” included the need to do so?
- If the Batman was really a step ahead of the villainous “Black Glove” plotters all along as he described, why did he allow himself to be caught unawares, more than once?
- Why on earth would Alfred allow nine-year-old Damian to drive the Batmobile, much less react so sanguinely when he runs an ambulance off the road? (The ambulance contained only the Joker, so we readers can rest assured that no one was harmed, but Alfred didn’t know that.)
- How (and why) did Gordon travel from Wayne Manor to Arkham before Damian, Alfred, Talia, and the others?
- Speaking of Gordon’s role in the story, whatever happened to the sordid allegations about the Wayne family history? That plot thread was left dangling in the air.
- For that matter, not only did all the villains of this story learn Batman’s true identity—and (mostly) live to tell about it—but if there was ever any doubt whether Gordon and/or the Joker knew, it’s now been erased, as the events of this story made it glaringly obvious to both of them… yet Morrison treats all of this as unworthy of mention.
I could go on, but it becomes painful to do so. What this story was clearly all about was the mechanics of storytelling itself—its symbolism, its narrative structure—Morrison showing off his technical wizardry. As one online commenter put it, “He writes things so overly complex and convoluted, that you cannot tell if he is trying to make a statement or if he is high and just putting things in because they are groovy. Thus… his work ends up losing all meaning.” Indeed, for all the effort Morrison put into piecing together obscure references and planting tiny details and looping the denouement around to the prologue, he neglected to make sure the story as a whole measured up to the sum of its parts.
Far from being deconstructed and rebuilt as a character, as Morrison promised, the Batman prevailed here in a fairly conventional way—by having anticipated and prepared for every possible contingency, turning the tables on his adversaries, being (just as in Grant’s JLA days) basically the “Bat-God.” (That, and having a world-class bench press—600 pounds, according to the narration.)
Far from “a fate worse than death,” the tale ends with a complete cliché, as Batman and the master villain plunge into the river in a crashing helicopter—the kind of situation Bruce can escape easily six times before breakfast. Nothing that has occupied months of speculation happens: he doesn’t die. He doesn’t retire. He doesn’t go crazy. He doesn’t turn evil. He doesn’t even learn anything new or interesting about himself. In fact, he’s walking around hale and hearty, as if nothing has happened, in the early issues of the Morrison-penned Final Crisis (which the author has confirmed does follow these events, and does have Bruce in the costume). It practically defines the word “anticlimactic.”
The grand reveal? It didn’t happen. Or rather, it happened completely ambiguously, and thus with no emotional impact. The villainous head of the Black Glove organization claims to be Thomas Wayne, but both Alfred and Bruce immediately reject that possibility. (As should we; it would do permanent damage to the Batman’s very foundations as a character. Fucking around with one of the best origins in comics is not a good idea.) He appears to be Dr. Simon Hurt (another obscure character Morrison extracted from limbo and repurposed), but could perhaps be the disgraced actor Mangrove Pierce (an even more obscure character Morrison invented as a plot device). But we’re given massive hints throughout the story that he is actually… no, really… the Devil.
As dramatic revelations go, that’s not “shocking,” that’s embarrassing. In an attempt to be profound, it comes across as ridiculous. Batman’s best stories are usually grounded in a (relatively) real world, but the DCU is expansive enough to encompass more supernatural tales, and I don’t necessarily mind seeing him in them. However, this wasn’t one. This was a story about a guy taking control of an international cabal of corrupt high rollers (all interchangeable), recruiting a group of costumed criminals (all forgettable), and having the chutzpah to launch a plan (absurdly convoluted) to demoralize, degrade, and defeat the Batman. That’s not really how the Prince of Darkness operates, at least in any literary tradition I’ve encountered. An embodiment of Evil would, one might think, have more productive ways to pass the time, and more direct means of achieving his goals. So what we’re left with—whether you buy the Big Bad as the Devil himself, or just a second-rate doctor who’s gone round the bend with delusions of grandeur—is a master villain who lacks any discernible motivation for doing what he does, much less for holding a grudge against Batman. And straight through to the end, this story fails to provide one.
Other reveals are equally empty. The final page shows us that “Zur En Arrh,” of which Morrison made so much, is nothing more than Bruce’s distorted memory of his father’s passing remark that the authorities would likely put “Zorro in Arkham”—an explanation that’s both contrived, and thematically vapid. The much-speculated-about “R.I.P.” of the title, meanwhile, apparently stands for nothing at all.
Let me spare a word for the art: Tony Daniel’s work here is competent. No better: the storytelling is not especially dramatic, nor even entirely clear at moments. It’s not really up to the epic scale this story was supposed to have. But I’ve seen far worse, and any criticisms here are really secondary to criticisms of the story itself.
Yes, something will come out of all this… with “Battle for the Cowl” on the horizon (to be both drawn and written by Daniel), we know Bruce will apparently give up that cowl shortly, for reasons about which this story provides no real clue. But we also know he’ll return soon enough: DC’s grand editorial poobah Dan DiDio has already assured the press that “Bruce Wayne will always be back as Batman someday.” And for fans who may be hoping to see Grant himself pick up the threads he’s left dangling here, don’t get your hopes up: at least the next three months of Bat-comics will have other writers, and DiDio is extremely cagey about when and where Morrison will return to the character (saying only that he’s “sure we will find [an outlet] for him”). So all we have to look forward to is Bruce taking a break and letting someone else (mostly likely Dick, as strongly hinted here) take over for a while… which seems like a reprise of recent and familiar stories (something of a trend lately, as I’ve written), in this case “KnightQuest” and “Prodigal” from the early ’90s. (Except that this time Dick will apparently be accompanied by Damian as Robin, a move sure to make Jason Todd seem likable in retrospect.)
The one strong, memorable bit of this concluding chapter—indeed, of the entire story—was Morrison’s use of the Joker (after mishandling him somewhat in earlier issues). His faceoff with the members of the Black Glove, and his self-aware yet still insane take on the conflict between himself and Batman, captured more than a little of the deranged intensity Heath Ledger brought to the role on screen this summer. This is hampered somewhat, however, by the still-unanswered questions about why Morrison’s version of the Joker is so irreconcilably different (at least physically) from the version seen in every other DC comics appearance in recent months.
In the end, it’s also in the Joker’s self-satisfied monologue that we discover what may be the one real theme of this story, wrapped up in a single word: apophenia. “The experience of seeing patterns or connections in random or meaningless data.” It’s what the Joker was trying to induce in the Batman with all the red-and-black imagery… and it’s ultimately all that Morrison offered us, the readers, in this storyline.Tags: Batman, Dan DiDio, DC Comics, Grant Morrison, super-heroes