Batman has been a grim character for several decades now, but the last six years of Batman stories, there's been an ongoing theme of mortality and death — a thread that's leading straight into the summer event, Dark Nights: Metal.
When Scott Snyder took over Batman in September 2011, the Caped Crusader had just overcome death. Batman writer Grant Morrison had come very close to killing Batman, even making characters in the DCU think he was dead, when the Dark Knight was shot by Darkseid's Omega Beams.
The dead Batman turned out to be a clone, but the real Batman was sent back in time where he had to fight and claw his way back to the present (and regain pieces of his memory).
But with the beginning of Snyder and artist Greg Capullo's Batman run in 2011 came a renewed interest in immortality — and Batman's lack of it.
Court of Owls
The main idea behind the "Court of Owls" storyline that launched the Snyder/Capullo run was that Batman didn't know everything after all — particularly when it came to Gotham City. The hero had the metaphorical rug pulled out from underneath him just when he thought he was getting somewhere in his efforts to change Gotham.
And when he discovered that his brother might be alive, exposing a possible lie from his parents, Batman's very world was shaken. The story became a battle for, as Snyder put it, "Gotham's very soul."
But underneath the "Court of Owls" was another idea that would eventually percolate to the surface in Snyder's storytelling — Batman's mortality. The Court of Owls organization was ancient and, for the purpose of the story, near-immortal. Batman was just a briefly distracting blip on their radar. They were there before the Bat, and they would be thereafter. Batman would die. The Court would live on.
This underlying idea of death and mortality was also visible in Snyder and Capullo's invention of the Court of Owls' Talons — dead humans who were reanimated as assassins, used to fight the Court's war for all time thanks to a compound that revived them again and again.
The immortal Talons, and in particular the compound that revived them, would start a chain of connected ideas that would lead Snyder, Capullo, later Batman writer Tom King, and all their Batman readers into the upcoming story of Metal.
Morrison's seven-year run on various Batman titles introduced Bruce Wayne's 10-year-old son, Damian Wayne, establishing him as Robin for several years.
But in the midst of the New 52, Damian Wayne was killed in 2013 in one of Morrison's final Batman stories.
Because readers were given time to get to know the character — and to see his relationship with his father grow in the Peter Tomasi/Patrick Gleason title Batman and Robin — his death was particularly impactful. And the repercussions of Damian's death were felt through much of the Batman universe.
However, that thread of Batman's investigation of immortality showed its face soon again in the months after Damian's death. Batman became determined to resurrect Damian — a story of obsession that was told in DC's "Batman and…." Also created by Tomasi and Gleason, the series showed Batman on an obsessive mission to recover the missing bodies of Damian and his mother Talia, culminating in a trip to Apokolips where the Bat-family worked to bring the boy's body back to life.
In the months after Damian's death, Batman's fight against mortality came across as desperate — Batman even went against the wishes of most of his friends in the Justice League.
Eventually, Batman was successful. Using a shard of Chaos Crystal and the energy of an Omega Beam, he conquered death and revived young Damian in 2014.
Detective Comics #27
When DC gave Snyder the chance to write a story within the oversized, commemorative Detective Comics #27 in 2014, he introduced something that specifically addressed the idea of his character's mortality — a machine that could make a new Batman from scratch.
Introduced in a story Snyder did with artist Sean Murphy, the machine was built by Bruce in his desire to be immortal. Instead of actually taking some supernatural pill to be immortal, Batman uses his brain to figure out a way to re-create Batmen — and ongoing slew of Batmen into the future — by making clones and imprinting them with Batman's memories and skills.
In Snyder's words:
"I think our Batman is pretty intensely mortal compared to other versions, and he's sort of aware of his own mortality in a way that maybe makes him unique. So I figured that he would think of a way out of that trap.
"And here, he doesn't take anything that makes him immortal. But what he does is he makes a machine — in that story, at least – where there's always a mortal Bruce Wayne. They train the same way, ready to be a new Batman for a new era."
Snyder brought the machine back later, first in Batman #43, when Alfred thought he destroyed the machine (but he didn't) and again, when Bruce revived his own memories. But before we get to that story, we have to talk about...
In 2015, Snyder and Capullo tugged on the mortality thread again with the "Endgame" storyline in Batman. The entire theme of the story, according to Snyder, was Bruce facing his own mortality.
"It's a huge, cinematic story that's also personal to me," Snyder said. "It's about Bruce coming to terms, in a lot of ways, with the idea that, no matter how big he makes himself, and no matter how big Batman is, he's still just human, and there's no cure for that. There's nothing that's going to preventing one of those nightmarish endings [shown as dream-like sequences in the "Endgame" storyline] from happening one day. It will come. "
To reinforce this idea, the main threat in the storyline — Joker — claims that he's immortal. He says that he discovered a compound called dionesium before the history of Gotham.
It turned out that the dionesium was also connected to the immortality being utilized by the Court of Owls.
By the conclusion of "Endgame," the theme of death was complete — both Joker and Batman died while in a cave that was rich with dionesium. In the final scene of the fight, Batman and Joker were lying next to each other when an underground chamber collapsed on them. They were both assumed dead as the six-issue "Endgame" storyline concluded.
The world believed that Batman was dead. His nightmares about mortality had come true.
For a while, that is.
Just like the Talons at the beginning of the New 52, just like his son Damian, and just like the Joker had allegedly been resurrected time and again, Batman was reanimated toward the end of the New 52. As Alfred explained to Clark Kent, "After his fight with the Joker, he was dead for hours. His heart stopped. His brain died. But then he was… healed" by dionesium. The Joker was also healed, but both he and Bruce Wayne had no memory of their former selves. In fact, Bruce's brain was somehow rebuilt without the scars and experiences of his past.
But the theme of immortality didn't stop there.
It turned out that the machine Snyder and Capullo had teased many issues earlier could give Batman back his memories and revive him as the Dark Knight.
And even though Alfred thought he destroyed the machine, as always, Batman had a back-up copy (of course he does! Doesn't Batman plan for everything?). The memories of Bruce Wayne — all the way up until the moments before his battle with the Joker — are saved and ready to go.
Batman might be mortal, technically, but Snyder and Capullo have brought him back from death — not one, but twice. First as Bruce Wayne, and now as Batman.
But the idea of death permeating Batman's thoughts and stories hasn't disappeared with the departure of Snyder and Capullo from Batman. As Tom King took over the title in 2016, he continued the theme of death with his very first issue #1.
As King described the first issue's scene where Batman decides that he's going to die, he said: "By the end of the issue, [Batman] in his mind believes he's going to die. And to me, he knew he was going to die from like Page 6 when Alfred comes back and says, 'Hal Jordan and Clark aren't available. You have to do this on your own.' He's like, OK, I'll save the city. …
"It's like, yeah, I'm willing to give my life for my city; I'm willing to give my life for that vow. And what that means to him, and to Batman, that will play out throughout the whole year."
King wasn't kidding — the theme of Batman being aware of his own mortality has continued during his run. In fact, the writer already hinted — at the end of Batman #5 — about a future where Batman is dead (and Duke Thomas is married to Gotham Girl). "Well, this is nothing that will happen overnight," King explained to Newsarama about Batman's death and his protégé's marriage. "I'm not saying it's going to happen tomorrow or the next day. But … I mean, when I make promises, I execute them. So you'll see some of it happen."
And in Dark Days: The Forge, readers were shown that Batman's obsession with the metals connected to immortality have led him to the path he's currently taking toward the Metal event. Involving characters who have been alive since the dawn of time, as well as characters who are reincarnated, the mini-series looks to be continuing a theme that's been woven throughout the Batman mythos since the New 52 began.