This is the third and final installment of our look back at the Batman crossover “Knightfall.”
Click here to read Part I- The Breaking of the 20th Century Bat.
Click here to read Part II- Who Rules the Night.
A Villain for Our Times, Then and Now
In our previous installments we’ve discussed the archaic state of Bruce Wayne in the white-hot light of the 1990s comic market and the long, strange trip of Wayne’s Image-influenced replacement Jean Paul Valley. Both Wayne’s breakdown and his nearly two year absence from the cape and cowl served to forge the character anew, tying together elements from film, TV, and gritty graphic novels to inject a darker, sleeker version of Batman into the mainstream. The Batman at the end of “Knightfall” stands not as the square-jawed, Bronze Age father figure, but rather the black-clad Dark Knight that resonates in full force throughout global pop culture today.
The catalyst for this powerful and lasting change to Batman came, as is par for the “Knightfall” storyline, from the unlikeliest of places. It wasn’t the insane Joker, ruthless Two-Face, or criminal Penguin who took Bruce Wayne to his breaking point- It was a man in a luchador mask jacked up on steroids.
Bane, like the other central figure of “Knightfall” Jean Paul Valley, was introduced into the Bat mythos just months prior to the beginning of the crossover. Writers Chuck Dixon and Doug Moench and artist Graham Nolan gave readers their first look at the man who would break the bat in a series of one-shots, introducing the world to a force of nature born into a Caribbean prison, reared in brutality, and super-charged by Venom, a steroid on steroids.
Bane is the antithesis of Batman’s traditional rogue gallery, substituting the theatrical and grotesque hallmarks of Batman’s classic foes for a no-holds-barred and cunning pursuit of power. If the Joker “just wants to watch the world burn”, Bane aspires to be the king of the ash heap.
Bane confronts Wayne with the brute force and shrewd tactics of a barbarian warlord, turning Gotham City into a battlefield. “Knightfall” takes Batman’s fight away from muggers in dark alleys and transforms it into a literal war on crime. When the inmates of Arkham Asylum are sprung loose, readers bear witness to Bane unleashing 50 years worth of villainous barnacles on Batman. How could one city produce, let along hold, such a cornucopia of murders, thieves, and super-powered miscreants? How could one man, Batman, be their sole foil? Who could hope to hold that impossible line? Bane’s presence forces the issue on these questions, and challenges the readers to ponder the legitimacy of Bruce Wayne’s dressing up as Batman as being heroic at all.
Not that the character has always been used with much potency in the years since “Knightfall.” Comic depictions have waffled between underwhelming to purely a wink to the excesses of the ‘90s, and Bane’s depiction as mindless goon in 1997’s Batman and Robin is a painful low point. However, salvation for the character of Bane arrived via Tom Hardy’s portrayal of the villain in this summer’s blockbuster film The Dark Knight Rises. The film’s critical and financial success has vaulted Bane into the upper strata of Batman antagonists, where he is likely to remain for a generation.
The brute in the wrestling mask, brimming with the power and nihilism of the modern era, provided an exorcism of the Batman legend, permanently purging the character, for better or worse, of the last vestiges of camp from the Adam West era. Bane, as odd as his origin and arrival is, represents Batman’s chickens coming home to roost. He who ruled Gotham’s criminals by conjuring fear and intimidation is called upon in “Knightfall” to face a man in black just as driven and single-mindedly terrifying as himself. The crack of Bruce Wayne’s spine breaking over Bane’s knee in 1993 served as a shot heard ‘round the zeitgeist- For Batman, the kid stuff was over. The world no longer needed a tight-wearing sleuth and his acrobatic, underage sidekick to give it hope- It needed a Dark Knight.
The Return of the King
Bane’s hurricane-strength challenge to Bruce Wayne stands as more than just another slugfest. At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, Bane’s takedown of Batman is the midlife crisis of a fictional character made real. Could millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne’s adventures as a man dressed up as a bat hold water in the morally asymmetrical world of the late 20th and early 21st century? At the doorstep of this new future, awash in digital technology and a globalized culture, did the concept of Batman still make sense? “Knightfall” takes a generous amount of time to answer these questions, but in the uber-arc’s final moments, the verdict is a definitive “yes.”
Wayne’s emotional reason for being, the killing of his parents, happened decades before and the triggering moment for his metamorphosis into Batman was becoming distant with the passage of time. New traumas, new motivations, and a host of new challenges were needed for the character. “Knightfall” is far from a perfect read, but it’s remarkable in the sense that it shatters Batman’s established motifs and makes readers marvel once again at Bruce Wayne’s physical and mental fortitude. Wayne is broken completely, yet by employing the monk-like focus that turned him into Batman in the first place, he is able to put his body and the pieces of his life back together and return to the cowl, perhaps more fully-formed than ever before in the character’s history.
After weathering the moral drought of Jean Paul Valley’s reign, it’s nothing short of thrilling to see Bruce Wayne return to the role of Batman (although before “Knightfall” it would be impossible to think of anyone else ever holding the role). Post-“Knighfall”, Bruce Wayne emerges a stronger, more confident character with shades of depth beyond that of the one-dimensional patriarch hero shown in Batman Family 100 Page Giants of yore. Wayne comes back into the role of Batman such a sublimely capable All-American ninja that the mainstream comics even feel secure enough to return to some of those Batman Family tropes, without risk of watering down the Dark Knight into a Dark Step-Dad. Recent books like Batman, Inc., which takes the concept of Batman global, work so well because of the undeniable core strength of Bruce Wayne as Batman emeritus. The character of Batman has been forever tempered by the events of “Knightfall.” Razor-claw gloves and ‘90s-style excesses aside, “Knightfall” stands as the defining moment in Batman’s modern era, and its legacy is one that is just beginning to be fully realized.