Batman writer Tom King has an excellent grasp on what makes Batman an interesting character underneath the cowl. But what of tackling The Dark Knight’s mightiest foes?
Having conquered Bane and asked Catwoman to marry him, Bruce’s life finally seems to be finding some semblance of normal. That is, if you consider a vigilante superhero marrying a sometimes-anti-hero-sometimes-villain something resembling “normal.” But before he can really ask her to tie the knot, he says that he has some explaining to do – a time in his past when he made a grave mistake, during a war between two of his strongest enemies – Joker and Riddler.
The image of the Joker on the front cover of the volume can be deceptive, however; Riddler gets a great deal more attention than Joker. It’s Riddler who breaks out of Arkham, who sees Batman’s every move, who outmaneuvers the Joker, just to “solve” him, as well as to get the first crack at Batman. Joker, on the other hand, can’t seem to laugh these days because . . . well . . . reasons, I guess. And he thinks that knocking off the Batman will bring his smile back.
None of this reaches particularly deep places. The war between the two, while packing a few fun surprises and being well-plotted, serves mostly as surface-level superhero fun, as well as some colorful art. The grand act of vice that Batman keeps alluding to while relating the story to Catwoman is significant to the hero’s arc, but also feels a bit anticlimactic after several issues of buildup. There is, however, a statement that comes toward the end of the story that is more meaningful. Bruce’s regret comes primarily from what he did, but also that, in his own words, “He (The Joker) made me.”
Unfortunately, the Joker is given so little attention through the story that this element is robbed of its punch. But as much time as is spent with the situation in Gotham growing increasingly desperate, the character of Batman in and of himself never quite feels that way. There’s very little character conflict, especially in comparison to King’s previous volumes, to set up his final desperate act, and the little attention that Joker is given makes the connection between the characters somewhat tenuous.
If there’s anything to be said about the themes of the story, it is that the trauma of Bruce’s formative years are still being explored, just from a different direction. Catwoman replies, “Who cares?” to Bruce’s lamentation about the Joker “making him,” which could be connected, albeit thinly, to King’s previous explorations of the trauma he is still living with.
But all of that said, what themes are here are only residual elements that come with the character himself. King’s volume details a formative Riddler and contains a few pleasant surprises, but ultimately fails to deliver anything of lasting value in terms of character development or world-building. That’s not necessarily to say it’s bad or useless per se, but it certainly doesn’t have the depth of previous King Batman stories.