Fans of the World’s Greatest Detective know that part of what makes Batman a compelling character is the way in which his story often deals with foils and archetypes. Bruce Wayne believes himself to stand for justice. He demonstrates meticulous planning and well reasoned thinking. By contrast, nemeses like the Joker and Bane represent the opposite end of the spectrum. And it is in no small part the exploration of these dichotomies that makes for a great Batman story arc.
But it’s not just the fact that these villains represent, essentially, the opposite of Batman that makes such comparisons interesting. Rather, it’s even more fascinating to explore the extent to which Bruce fears that the same darkness that motivates his enemies lies dormant within himself, as well. So while his foes are often held up as foils or opposites, they’re also more than that. They’re reflections of Batman’s fears about himself—or, in the case of BATMAN: THE RED DEATH, his nightmares.
Batman: The Red Death is part of DARK NIGHTS: METAL, the big DC event led by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo. If you’re not current on the story, Barbatos, an ancient monster from a previously undiscovered Dark Multiverse, has been secretly preparing Batman for many years to become a door through which he can enter the Multiverse we’re all familiar with. Barbatos succeeds, and the result is a league of dark manifestations of Batman.
This one-shot focuses on one of these “dark Batmen”—The Red Death. It opens with Batman of Earth-52—a world not mapped on Grant Morrison’s Map of the Multiverse—not exactly behaving like himself. We see Bruce fighting the Flash in an attempt to steal the Speed Force from him so that he can time travel and do what, from his now warped perspective, he sees as saving the world. In reality, the world around him is crumbling into chaos.
In some ways, Batman’s entire history has led to this. The detective is now his own foil, his own opposite. He finally sees exactly what happens when the dormant darkness is let out. Indeed, the closing lines of Batman’s narration support this. He says, “Let me tell you a secret. All it takes is one bad day…one moment that should never happen, and the ground beneath you starts to crumble.”
This is, of course, a reference to the Joker’s quote from THE KILLING JOKE, in which he says, “All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy.” The line is intended to suggest that Batman and the Joker are not, in the end, so different after all. That under the right circumstances, Bruce could have found himself following the same path as the Joker. Batman’s use of his enemy’s words signals his transformation into essentially his own opposite or nemesis.
We see this playing out earlier in the issue, when Bruce’s actions lead to the deaths of Wally and Iris West. Batman’s response is little more than a shoulder shrug. He simply comments, “This world’s Flash…he’ll understand that in times of crisis there must be a sacrifice,” and moves on without a second thought. Batman is in large part defined by the grief he feels as a result of the loss of his own loved ones—his family and his protégés—so he would ordinarily have empathy for Barry’s loss. But in his current state, Batman is not particularly concerned with justice. Rather, he is somewhat myopically focused on pursuing his own ends.
While Barbatos is the one who sets events in motion, it is Batman himself who is the real enemy of this issue. Indeed, in narration, Batman proclaims, “My name is Bruce Wayne. I am vengeance. I am justice. I am Batman, the Red Death.” This, of course, brings to mind the famous quote from “Nothing to Fear,” the 1992 episode of Batman: The Animated Series. In the episode, Bruce experiences a hallucination in which he encounters his father, who calls him a disgrace. His response is, “You are not my father. I am not a disgrace. I am vengeance. I am the night. I am Batman.”
The quote has long served as a fascinating glimpse into Batman’s character conflict. Vengeance is, in many ways, the dark manifestation of justice. The flip side of the coin. The fact that Batman would choose—on both occasions—to define himself in that way points to his darker potential. And it is particularly interesting that, in this issue, he refers to himself as both justice and vengeance. It is as if, in his current state, he sees no difference between the two. While the Batman we all know understands the difference and fights for the former, Batman as we see him here apparently has no qualms with acting on a desire for the latter.
Moreover, on the second page of the issue, the narration sets the stage with the introductory words, “Listen close, now. This is a story of a world’s end, and a world transformed. Witness the rise of a dark knight.” This familiar title is a perfectly fitting description of the Batman we see in this issue. But the type of dark knight he becomes here is quite different from that which we’ve seen in the past. In previous story arcs, that title has referred to the fact that Batman has channeled his pain—the darker side of his psyche—into his fight for justice. He has used it as the fuel in his battle against darkness and evil. Here, it refers to the fact that he is himself becoming that darkness.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that in the first issue of Metal, our world’s Batman is visited by Dream of the Endless, who tells him that, “…this nightmare…has only just begun.” His words here are not accidental. In THE SANDMAN, one of the story arcs involves an earlier incarnation of Dream chasing down the Corinthian, a personified nightmare he has created out of his own essence, who has gone rogue and is wreaking havoc. The parallels between Dream’s experience with his own darkness in the form of nightmares and Batman’s experiences in this arc are not insignificant—they come to a head in The Red Death.
Batman’s constant struggle is to continue using his pain as motivation in his fight for good. And his greatest fear is, arguably, that his darkness will overtake him. In this fascinating one-shot, we see him coming face-to-face with that fear, and we’re left eagerly wondering how he will overcome it.
BATMAN: THE RED DEATH by Joshua Williamson, Carmine di Giandomenico and Ivan Plascencia is now available in print or as a digital download. Look for BATMAN: THE MURDER MACHINE, the second in the series of Dark Nights: Metal one-shots, in stores this Wednesday.