In case you’ve found yourself responding to rumors that Christopher Nolan will end his Batman trilogy by bringing about the death of Bruce Wayne with a sense of “It’s Batman; they wouldn’t dare to kill off Batman,” then I have some bad news for you: They would. Even worse, they already have. The character’s comic incarnation has died nine different times, in fact, with another two near-misses thrown in for good measure. Should we be looking to the funnybooks for clues on how The Dark Knight Rises will end?
We probably shouldn’t be so surprised that Batman has met his maker so many times. After all, he’s been facing certain death on a regular basis for more than eight decades since his debut in the pages of Detective Comics #27, so it was only a matter of time before he came to some kind of sticky end. Luckily, as you would expect of a man who hangs out with aliens and Amazon princesses for a living, almost all of the ends have turned out to merely temporary. Take, for example, Batman’s first death, which happened all the way back in 1952’s Batman #72: That demise was self-inflicted—Bruce Wayne poisoned himself to gain admission to an exclusive club that only let in those who had been (wrongfully) declared legally dead so that he could solve a series of murders within their ranks. Thankfully there was little worry that Batman would actually stay dead; not only was Wayne’s apparent suicide debunked at the very start of the story, but the story itself was called “The Death-Cheaters of Gotham City!”
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It took two decades for the Grim Reaper to store up enough courage to try again. “The Corpse That Wouldn’t Die!” (from 1974’s The Brave and The Bold #115) again gave away its final twist with its title, but the true joy of this particular story is the ridiculous route it takes in getting there. After Batman is declared legally dead in the middle of an investigation, his Justice League colleague the Atom decides to uphold the caped crusader’s reputation the only way he knows how: by allowing Batman to finish the case post-mortem by shrinking down and jumping all over his brain to remote control the corpse from the inside. (It was the ’70s. Science apparently worked that way back then.) In the end, Atom not only defeats the bad guys responsible for Batman’s death, but all his internal footwork results in jumpstarting Batman’s brain, bringing the Dark Knight back to life and apparently unharmed. (“As a scientist, I’d surmise all that stimulation must’ve reversed things and caused this happy miracle!” the Atom thinks to himself, thereby proving that he should really stick to being a physicist and leave the medical stuff to the professionals.)
Sadly, this 20-page epic was the high point of Batman’s dates with death—all of Batman’s subsequent demises are not nearly as entertaining. The Birth of The Demon graphic novel killed the character in 1992 with a simple shovel through the chest. (He went on to fall into a “Lazarus Pit,” filled with a magical elixir that restores health, emerging unscathed.) Later that same year, the character was electrocuted to death—and then shocked back to life—as part of the “Electric City” storyline in Detective Comics #644-646. (“I was technically dead; not clinically,” he tells a worried Robin because that’s just how Batman rolls, apparently.) Sometimes, Batman didn’t even die on panel: the multiple deaths from the 2000 “Emperor Joker” storyline that ran in four Superman series simultaneously went unseen while the reader followed Superman’s journey in the altered world created by a suddenly godlike Joker. One of his deaths was even incidental to the central story being told, with 2002’s “The Obsidian Age” storyline (from JLA #68-75) killing off Batman along with the rest of the Justice League of America as part of a magical ritual that, as is the way of these things, ensures the team’s resurrection at a later time.
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The most high-profile Dark Knight death probably comes at the end of Frank Miller’s classic 1986 The Dark Knight Returns, as the aged, insurgent Batman succumbs to a heart attack after going toe-to-toe with a government stooge version of Superman. Despite apparently being “dead” long enough to be buried, Batman later reveals that he’d simply done the same thing as he had in “Death-Cheaters” three decades earlier; faked his own death long enough to convince the relevant authorities of what they needed to believe (“He knows how good I am with chemicals,” narrator Batman explains, in case you didn’t get it), and then woke up to get on with his work. If nothing else, Batman is consistent.
Despite all of these encounters with death, there have only been two occasions in which Batman didn’t manage to find an escape route back from the afterlife. Tellingly, perhaps, both times it wasn’t “our” Batman that died, but Batmen belonging to alternate Earths. On each occasion, Batman sacrificed himself for the greater good, whether saving Gotham City from the evil magician (1979’s Adventure Comics #462) or the entire planet from an invading army of the planet Apokolips (2012’s Earth 2 #1), going out in the blaze of glory that we want our heroes to have if they’re really going to the great big Hall of Justice in the sky.
None of these stories, however, offer us any glimpse of what we should expect from the final Nolan Batfilm. Miniature heroes inside Batman’s brain? Alien armies and evil magicians? In a world where even Heath Ledger’s relatively restrained Joker seemed close to being too outlandish, none of that would stand a chance of making it to the screen. If Nolan does kill Batman, then he’d be more interested in what such a death would mean, and for that kind of thing, we have to turn our attention to three stories in which Bruce Wayne is definitely down, but not necessarily out… one of which includes Nolan’s choice of villain for his final chapter.
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In 1977’s “Who Killed The Batman?” (Batman #291–294), the unexplained disappearance of the character leads his various arch-nemeses to assume that, obviously, he’s dead, and then proceed to claim responsibility for his death. Although it was unlikely to be the intent of the storyline, the fact that the various villains would rather get together to talk about Batman instead of, you know, actually trying to take advantage of his absence, emphasizes the vacuum he leaves behind even with the fake death this is revealed to be. That vacuum was also the point of the Knightfall storyline that ran throughout more than 60 issues of various Batman and related titles in 1993 and 1994; with Bruce Wayne temporarily crippled as the result of an attack by Bane — yes, the same character Tom Hardy plays in The Dark Knight Rises — it fell to another character to take over the role of Batman in order to maintain order in Gotham and keep the streets safe for citizens of the world’s unluckiest metropolis. When that replacement fell short of Wayne’s standards (he cracked under the pressure, and started killing people), Wayne had to return to act as defender once again, before temporarily handing the Batman cape and cowl to former sidekick Dick Grayson to allow him to complete his recovery.
When Bruce Wayne was believed to be dead as part of a long-running storyline by Scottish writer Grant Morrison that started with 2008’s “Batman RIP” (Batman #675-681) and ran through 2010’s The Return of Bruce Wayne series, Grayson again stepped into the role vacated by his former mentor. What had been, at best, implication and subtext by earlier writers became the central theme of Morrison’s story; the very first line of dialogue in “Batman RIP” comes from the new Batman, telling both some unseen criminal and the reader that “You’re wrong! Batman and Robin will never die!” Batman-as-symbol became more important than Batman-as-reality under Morrison’s pen, with characters in the story realizing that Grayson isn’t Wayne and enjoying the change: “I know you stepped into some big black boots you probably felt would never fit,” Commissioner Gordon tells him at one point. “But if it helps to know, most of my cops prefer you to him.” Who Batman is ultimately becomes less important for characters than the knowledge that there is a Batman in the first place; someone that protects the powerless and keeps the city safe from equally larger than life dangers. It’s an idea that Morrison makes even more explicit when Wayne returns to the role, and announces a plan to franchise the Batman identity. “Starting today, we fight ideas with better ideas,” Wayne tells his crime fighting partners. “The idea of crime with the idea of Batman.”
Batman-as-symbol is a concept that’s been hardwired into the character since the very beginning; his entire reason for adopting the bat as a totem, after all, was to become something more—or, at least, “other”—than a regular man in order to inspire fear into “cowardly, superstitious” evildoers. It’s something that had retreated into the background of the Batman structure, however, as the notion of humanizing superheroes to make them more easily relatable took hold when Marvel Comics first found success with that notion in the 1960s, only making a re-appearance in recent years. It’s also something that echoes with Nolan’s take on Batman and the story he’s been telling. While Batman may have started out in Batman Begins as a way for Bruce Wayne to deal with his pain and anger, by The Dark Knight he had become something else—a meme as much as a man. (Think of the vigilantes trying to be their own Batman in the opening sequence.) By the end of The Dark Knight, the tragedy comes explicitly from the tension between the public perception of Batman and the reality, and the way it mirrors that of Harvey Dent. While we as an audience have been taught to think that Batman is Bruce Wayne (We know his tragic origin! We feel his secret inner pain!), Nolan sees it differently: For him, Batman is Anonymous, a boogeyman working for the greater good. It makes too much sense for Nolan’s Bruce Wayne to die in the final act of this trilogy, both thematically (someone else taking over the role of Batman in his memory completes the transformation of Batman from mortal man to un-killable idea) and dramatically, to reject the idea out of hand. In the final act of the series, what better way to bring things to an unforgettable climax?
Does this mean that we should definitely be expecting a death—or crippling—at the end of The Dark Knight Rises? Not necessarily. After all, if you’ve learned nothing else from everything you’ve just read, you should remember this one fact: Bruce Wayne has historically proven very difficult to kill with any degree of certainty. Just because he wants you to think that he’s dead doesn’t mean that he actually is. After all, Batman—and Robin, of course—will never die.