Certain unspoken rules have always governed the course of the DC Universe. Aquaman's got to swim, Hawkman's got to fly and Batman...can never be happy. Not because of the traumatic night in Crime Alley where he lost his parents, but because of the oath he took right after: to wage a never-ending war against all criminals, which the universe has ever since been all too willing to supply. As long as there is evil in the world, Batman's solemn duty is never done and he may never rest.
But, as Dark Knights: Death Metal reminded us in its revelatory conclusion, it's a great big omniverse out there. Is there truly no reality, no version of the timeline, where Bruce Wayne can find a road to happiness? Today, we take a look at some promising selections through our gallery of infinite earths to see if we can't find one with a smile on the Dark Knight's face.
THE GOLDEN AGE
We don’t actually have to look too far for our first candidate for a happy Batman—there may actually be one, relativistically speaking, right next door to the prime Earth we know best. On Earth-2, the heroes of DC’s Golden Age were allowed to age, retire and move onto the next stage of their lives. In Batman’s case, Bruce Wayne eventually settled down with Selina Kyle and even raised a daughter, Helena Wayne, who went on to continue her father’s sworn duty as the Huntress. But as time went on, Bruce’s final enemy, mortality itself, got the best of him as he succumbed to cancer. We’ve seen radically different versions of Earth-2’s history since that original telling, but the best stories always return to us in some way or another: you can see a reality much like this one playing out currently in Black Label’s Batman/Catwoman.
The Batman of Bruce Timm and Paul Dini’s “Animated Universe” beginning with Batman: The Animated Series is one many fans hold as the gold standard of what Batman should be. The coolest, the most compelling and the most thrilling to see in action. But is this Batman happy? Sweet Martha, no. The future depicted by this universe in 2000’s Batman Beyond animated series and all the comics that followed shows us an embittered Batman disillusioned with his own capabilities and reckoning with a life he fears he may have wasted pursuing an impossible goal. There could be hope for redemption for Old Man Bruce in his relationship with his new protege, the plucky young Terry McGinnis, but this may be a Batman beyond smiling.
While the elderly Bruce we see in Batman Beyond is decidedly haunted by the path he’s taken, the old man we see in the future of Kingdom Come is a more complicated figure. Unlike his animated counterpart, this Batman has refused to relinquish his oath in his old age, relying on mechanical exo-suits and employing robotic Batman drones to keep Gotham City free of any crime. From a certain point of view, you could say that this Batman has achieved his dream of a crime-free Gotham, though some—his peers, and perhaps a piece of himself, included—would argue that it has come at the cost of the city’s freedom. This isn’t the last time we’ll see a Batman who had to compromise himself to follow through on his oath, but he may still be happy despite it all. By the end of the story, an elderly Bruce is actively working towards more humanitarian goals and finds a bright future in his role as godfather to the child of Superman and Wonder Woman.
Okay, this one is almost cheating, but I’m counting it. In the Bizarro Universe, every individual is the exact opposite of who they are in the core DC Universe. Barry Allen is the slowest man alive. Hal Jordan is the man of many fears. So it should stand to reason that where our Batman is cursed with a constant sorrow, Bat-Zarro, the World’s Worst Detective, is blessed to always be happy. In fact, the angular, chalky people of the backwards Bizarro World generally seem much happier than we are, which sends kind of a disturbing message about the state of the Earth we know.
THE DARK KNIGHT
Frank Miller’s moody and manic vision of Batman in The Dark Knight Returns and its sequels could never be mistaken for a happy one and is often credited with bringing the character down to a darker level than ever before. But through his gritted teeth and gravelly intonations, one cannot deny that this particular take on Batman in his later years takes some amount of joy in his work. Miller acknowledges that Batman isn’t just motivated by a childhood oath, but that he’s propelled by a bit of a sadistic streak as he punishes those who have earned his ire. I wouldn’t say that Frank Miller’s Dark Knight is happy, but he’s clearly having a really good time being mad.
To review, we learned from Earth-2 and Kingdom Come that for Batman, happiness can be achieved even in the midst of his never-ending mission when he learns to accept the love of his friends and family. In John Byrne’s Superman & Batman: Generations, Batman begins patrolling the Gotham rooftops in 1939, the year he debuted on the comic rack, and is allowed to age and grow from there in real time (aided by a Lazarus Pit or two). This version of Bruce experiences the joys and heartbreaks which define the peaks and valleys of every life, but is ultimately fulfilled by the generational family he fosters and his lifelong friendship with Superman.
THE BATMAN WHO LAUGHS
Locus: Earth-Negative 22
Well, he seems pretty happy. I mean, just look at him. I think we’re gonna have to give it to this one by default. But if you want to see what happens when you blast Batman with a face full of Joker venom—and hey, who wouldn’t—you’ll have to read the full Dark Nights: Death Metal, in stores now.
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Alex Jaffe is the author of our monthly "Ask the Question" column and writes about TV, movies, comics and superhero history for DCComics.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AlexJaffe and find him in the DC Community as HubCityQuestion.