The scene is iconic: Superman swoops down from the night sky; Batman, wearing heavy armor, stands under a solitary street light, on the very corner where his parents were killed, defiantly staring down the Man of Steel. Superman is here to confront his longtime ally, to rein in the Dark Knight from his overly violent ways. With the help of his armor and other technology, Batman beats the Man of Steel into submission before ultimately dropping dead of a heart attack (spoiler: not really). It’s the most memorable part of The Dark Knight Returns and arguably one of the most recognizable moments in all of comic history.
A Turning Point For Batman
It’s also a pivotal point in the history of Batman and the entire DC Comics Universe.
Even though it doesn’t take place within continuity, The Dark Knight Returns was a major turning point in comic books. It took the two biggest characters in the history of comics and made them go head-to-head, something that no one had done before—at least not with any serious intent. Until then, there were a few things readers could always count on: Batman and Superman were friends; Superman was the most powerful hero in the world; Batman was the smartest. But after Dark Knight, the dynamic between these two heroes was turned on its head. After all, it’s not every day that Superman gets his butt kicked. And by one of his best friends, no less.
A Darker Dark Knight
The good thing to come out of this story was that Batman got back to being dark and mysterious, something that had been all but tossed aside when Bat-mania struck back in the 1960s. For a while, Batman had become something of a joke. And Frank Miller rescued him.
However, this came at a price. Batman has evolved to become nearly unbeatable, a deus ex machina for every story. He has attained near-deity status (even if he did actually become a god for a while). Batman is only human (unlike most of his Justice League allies), but now he seems almost untouchable. Superheroes don’t typically die — they’re the stars of their comics, so of course they won’t be killed off — but at least there is some element of danger that makes you question their safety.
But not with Batman.
Superman used to be the most powerful character in the DC Universe. Now it seems that Batman has taken on that mantle. A terrorist threat? Batman has a weapon specially designed for that. Meteor hurtling toward Earth? He’s got a rocket. Need someone to beat the near-invincible Darkseid? Batman’s got a file he’s been working on for seven years that was made specifically for this moment. Crime breaking out in other cities? Batman will start a franchise of Batmen and Batwomen across the globe. This used to be played for laughs in Batman’s Caped Crusader days, but now it’s time to stop the madness and get back to his roots.
Batman is a street-level hero. That’s his charm. Where Superman is essentially a god who can tear planets in half, Batman is the pinnacle of human strength and intelligence. Superman was handed his powers. Batman is a self-made hero. Everything he has accomplished has been through sheer force of will.
And yet here we find ourselves in situations like this:
In one encounter with Darkseid, Batman wore a specially designed suit called Hellbat armor, and thus besting the alien overlord. The Hellbat suit is one of the craziest plot points ever thrown into a Bat-related story. He uses it to beat Darkseid. Darkseid. The rest of the JLA, everyone with superpowers, is down for the count. And Batman beats Darkseid by going toe-to-toe with him.
In Final Crisis, The Dark Knight shoots Darkseid, one of the most powerful beings in the universe, with a “radion bullet.” The bullet wounds him, but not before the villain seemingly kills Batman. (Spoiler alert: He doesn’t really die.)
How Did We Get Here?
So how did Batman, who was created to be a pulp hero who beats up street-level thugs, get to this point?
Slowly, the World’s Greatest Detective evolved into the World’s Greatest Inventor/Warrior/Smartest Guy in the History of the Universe.
Fact: Batman has the best rogues gallery in all of comics. Joker. Catwoman. Penguin. Riddler. R’as al Ghul. Vandal Savage. All of them spectacular villains, but their aspirations are fairly simple: destroy Gotham/rule the world. Their motivation is fairly straight-forward, and they are more than a match for Batman.
Frank Miller saved the character from that, but also inadvertently set him down another, equally limiting, path. Thanks to The Dark Knight Returns, Batman is virtually invincible. He took on Superman in a suit of armor and now every writer seems obligated to continue this theme.
Please, DC. Please. Batman’s the best character in your arsenal. Take him back to what he does best: kicking ass.
Batman has gone through several different phases of badassery over the years. We went back over Batman’s many on-screen appearances to find out which Batman is the best.