by CulturalGeekGirl, last updated 31 Jul 2012 18:47
[SPOILER WARNING, for TDKR, Batman Beyond, and a bunch of TV and Comics stuff. Basically, all the Batman spoilers. Also, I figure we can use this thread to openly discuss movie spoilers.]
Nolan had a chance with The Dark Knight Returns to do something few people ever will: end a Batman story. And I think the decision to end it, and end it this way, was the right one, because it's an ending that the comic always implies we're moving towards, but never seems to reach.
This relates to my love-hate relationship with Batman Beyond. For those of you who haven't seen it, it's basically "Batman gets old, hires Peter Parker to be his legs." OK, not really1, but close enough. In the "origin story" for the show, a late-middle-aged Batman is batmanning around in a powered suit, when he injures himself. Even his souped-up batsuit can't save him; he's lying helpless on the floor, and he actually reaches for a gun… to threaten, not to kill, but that's still bad. It's at that moment he realizes he can't continue anymore; it would either be suicide, or he'd become something he hates, so he quits.
By this time, he's alienated everyone who cares about him, so he lives alone with his dog in his mansion, brooding and updating his crime computer, right up until my second-least-favorite member of the Bat-family shows up and offers to sidekick for him2.
The first part of this equation is pretty inevitable. Someday, Batman is going to be too old for this shit. Unless we're cloning fresh bodies and transplanting brains3, he's going to get old and eventually die. The question is, does he die on the job, or off of it? Once he can't do the job, does he do it until it kills him, does he sulk like Achilles in his tent, or does he go on and live his life?
All of these paths are equally plausible, and what's great about this movie is that they're all explored. In the beginning, he's well on his way to being "crazy old Mister Wayne" from the Batman Beyond universe, living sad and alone in his mansion. The joke about his knees, his limp, these are all signs of his mortality. These are things that may periodically show up in the comics or the other iterations of his existence, but they'll never be the main focus of the story, because he's the Goddamn Batman. No matter what you put in his way, everyone knows he's just one psychic girlfriend away from being 100% better4.
Still, any real fan of the Bat knows that if his story were allowed to end, it would pretty much have to end one of those three ways: death, isolation, or allowing himself to make a family.
See, that's one of the things I love about Batman: for an insane broody loner who lies to everyone and works nights, he builds impromptu families around him without even trying. Alfred, Batgirl, the various Robins, Catwoman - the dude has more sidekicks, partners, and affiliates than anyone else, and that's not even getting into the deep cuts. He even built one of his impromptu families a clubhouse, while still claiming not to be a real member of their club.
Admittedly, his various impromptu families do have to put up with a lot: his fear of abandonment and of losing people causes him to periodically push everyone away, and it makes sense that he might someday actually manage to convince them it wasn't worth the effort anymore. It's plausible, and it's the only way to lead into something like Batman Beyond. Why would Batman take in another random new kid, unless he had no one else left to turn to, unless he'd spent several decades stifling and and starving that family-building impulse until he just couldn't take it anymore? That setup enabled Terry McGinnis do what every kid dreams of doing, what Robin was meant to symbolize all those years ago: he can hang out with Batman and be Batman's friend and learn how to be Batman from Batman. And he does this without being some kind of crazy acrobat or super-genius. He's just this guy, you know? He could be anyone. He could be you5.
In order to give Terry that really great, deep, almost sweet relationship with Bruce, the writers had to cut Bruce off from anyone else who he could have a stronger, deeper past with, and that hurt. It made the whole series feel almost like a Ghost-of-Christmas-yet-to-come vision, like a warning. And oh, how it loved to taunt me. The episode where Terry fell for a villain, and Bruce walked him off saying "Let me tell you about a woman named Selina Kyle" still bothers me to this day. I hoped that they'd bring that up, that they'd resolve it somehow, but they never did.
To be fair, I now realize they never did because they couldn't. If you bring Selina back, and Terry instantly loses the "most important person in Batman's life" position, something that is vitally important to the show. With anyone or anything else left in Bruce's life, the series could falter, or lose some of its pathos. Anything that would keep Catwoman out of the picture after introducing her would have to be either grim or contrived, so perhaps it was wiser to let things proceed as they did. This wasn't a show about old Batman and old Catwoman teaming up to fight crime and stick it to the man6, it was a show about an average teen who gets to be Batman.
So the "growing old as a recluse" thing has been done, and done well, but it only really works in a long-form work with a lot of timelapse (Batman Beyond would not have worked without B:tAS). So we're left with the other two options: when he gets old enough that the risks become riskier to the point where they verge upon suicide, he can die, or he can retire.
I felt that Alfred leaving was completely in character and made sense, though it was certainly incredibly jarring. He wasn't leaving because Bruce was becoming Batman again, he was leaving because Bruce was absolutely intent on committing slow suicide by criminal. When you stop fearing death, it is so easy to die, and it was pretty clear he had no other plans - he almost deliberately avoided making any other plans.
This also ties in with the absolutely terrible and forgettable quality of all of Bruce's non-Selina romances in the movies. I can't actually say that this was intended, and I don't sincerely believe it was, but god damn the previous films' leading ladies were dull and inconsequential. I don't know that Batman has ever had a good "mundane" girlfriend in any incarnation of any of his stories, and this was no exception. Contrast that to Lois Lane, who is the bomb, a perfect personality compliment for Superman in every way. MJ and Gwen Stacey are both cool enough too, so it can easily be done, but Batman never has good mundane girlfriends. When Batman dates a mundane, he sees her as a representation of something he thinks he can't have, and that prevents him from engaging with her on any emotionally interesting level. Compare that with Selina, who represents the reality of compromise right from the start, and he never puts her up on that pillar of unattainable unreachable perfection that needs to be protected… and so they can actually freaking connect to her in a way that he won't allow himself to connect with his ivory-skinned apotheosis of normalcy7.
When they killed off the girl he had almost-but-not-quite-but-maybe decided to quit being Batman for, that allowed him to even further convince himself that there was no future for him, that Batman was his only destiny. The thing is, this coincided with the realization a-la Batman Beyond that he was breaking down physically, that bandaging up his legs and installing cyberware was only going to work for so long, and probably not very long at that. Thus he was clearly heading towards the only ending still available to him in this format: death.
But then there's Alfred, with the first half of the message Batman needs: "You are romanticizing things, convincing yourself that you lost your one true love. Well guess what? You didn't, that wasn't your only life chance, it wasn't a chance at all. Open your eyes, see what you're doing."
And Selina is there with the second: "You're right, you can't have a normal life. Who wants a normal life? We can go anywhere, do anything. Things won't be the perfect ideal you remember from your childhood, that really and truly is lost to you, but that doesn't mean that freaking LIFE is lost to you."
The great thing is that you don't realize that this message is actually getting through to him until later on.
Killing Batman in that explosion was the ultimate act of batmanning. If Batman had been killed by a street thug, or by the next masked idiot who came along, or had just stumbled one day and fallen in the street… that would be the end of the idea, and the way he was playing it made that kind of petty death pretty much inevitable. Bruce's determination to never stop being Batman was both selfish and unbatmanlike in this context, almost as unbatmanlike as using a gun would be. The only way to keep the idea of Batman alive forever was to do what he did…
If he had actually died, that would have been OK.
That he didn't die was great. It demonstrated that he was actually listening, all those times when people he cared about were talking to him. He's not necessarily going on to live a normal life; we know he'll always have bats in his belfry and she'll always have cats in hers. But in the end, Batman managed to save Bruce Wayne and preserve his legacy in one fell swoop.
The best end.