By Raymond Lam
(Read Part One of this blog series here)
In my first entry, I attempted to explain how the theology of the DC Universe came to be (over a decade between 2008 and 2018) defined by the metaphysical conflict between Batman, DC’s ultimate human archetype or ideal, and Darkseid, who serves as not just a god but “the” god of evil, the perversion of a monotheistic imperative to submit completely. While stories since the Rebirth quasi-relaunch have cast the fundamental conflict of the DC Universe as one of hope versus futility and cynicism (most notably with the introduction of Doomsday Clock’s Dr. Manhattan and the Watchmen, with cosmic forces like Perpetua as lesser influences), the decade during which what I would like to call “bat and evil” theology dominated cast the existential question of DC as one of free will, or human agency, against inevitability or destiny.
A fascinating question that can perhaps be explored at a later point is whether the existential, philosophical conflicts defining each era – hope (Superman) versus cynicism (Dr. Manhattan) and free will (Batman) versus surrender to destiny (Darkseid) – are semantically different enough to be separate conflicts, or really one and the same, with each putting a different emphasis or spin on what is at stake in the theology of some comics writers. For now, we’ll focus on the free will versus destiny framing, and why the Batman-Darkseid conflict has been of such significance and benefit to DC storytelling.
As explained in this detailed and informative video analyzing the role of the New Gods in Final Crisis (FC) a crucial component of the story is that Darkseid uses time itself as a weapon. Indeed, his first act, which triggers his cataclysmic, multi-dimensional “fall” onto New Earth, literally crunching time and space into a singularity of oblivion, is to fire back in time the Radion bullet that kills Orion, his eldest son and prophesied slayer. The next occasion he uses time as a weapon is to transport Batman back to the beginning of New Earth’s history, hence setting into motion the story of The Return of Bruce Wayne (RBW). “The death that is life,” Darkseid proclaims as he unleashes what he calls the “Omega Sanction.”
Once more, we see hints of this inversion of monotheistic ideas: in a universe ruled by Darkseid, there is indeed teleological purpose, except it moves towards a nightmarish hellscape in which “all is one in Darkseid,” as Darkseid himself proclaims triumphantly upon unleashing the Anti-Life Equation in FC. The standard doctrine of Apokolips, those that have fallen prey to the Anti-Life Equation, has flavors of the strictest kind of Calvinism, without even a “chosen few” that might be shown mercy. It is a perverted kind of predetermination.
Fighting against this determination with grim tirelessness is Batman, whose very existence is a statement of defiance against that which has been ordained by the god of evil. Even among non-comics fans, most people who know about Batman see him as the embodiment of the indomitable human will. He has been interpreted, to various degrees, as DC’s Overman or, perhaps, the Ur-bat, the god of will. This complex interplay between human agency and cosmic forces like time and destiny (which are weaponized by the god of evil and focused against our heroes) is a staple of Morrison’s theology.
Indeed, RBW is, thematically, a celebration of the human spirit over the apparently inevitability of the triumph of evil, that humanity is fundamentally good and free, and that no one in DC embodies this hope better than Batman (otherwise, why send Batman back in time rather than Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, or even Superman?). As Superman and the other heroes that are trying to find Bruce discover, the Omega Sanction “tagged” Batman with Omega energy as he was thrown back in time, and the closer he travels back to the present, the more that energy accrues, turning him into an unwitting bomb. It was a poetic punishment inflicted on the embodiment of free will by a god of subjugation and tyranny. As Superman says: “He took your memories, relied on your survival instinct… you’ve been booby-trapped! Darkseid turned you into a doomsday weapon and aimed you directly at the 21stcentury! If you go back you’ll kill everyone!” To make matters worse, Batman, who can only regain his memory with each hop forward in time, is being tagged by an eldritch hyper-adapter (y’th’lay’yh nrgrai), a demon that latches onto Bruce Wayne and, upon forced separation by Superman and Wonder Woman, is sent back in time to become the very bat-god that forms the mythology of the bat-people tribe. “Whatever they touch turns to myth.”
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t: the inevitability of destruction and despair set upon Batman by the hand of a great dark god, as the doomed witch Annie tells him (during his sojourn in the era of Gotham’s early colonial settlers). What is the avatar of the unbreakable human will supposed to do in the face of these odds?
Batman deduced very early on (in each period of time that he landed in) that the hyper-adapter relied on him regaining his memory in order to infect him and turn him into a means to effect “the end of time… end of everything,” even as it overloaded his nervous system and condemned him to death. As he explains upon being lassoed by Wonder Woman, “But I had to forget so that the hyper-adapter would have nothing to go on. I tricked it into coming here to this day, this moment. Nothing. I’m Bruce Wayne. Now it knows. I need your help, Diana.”
He further says to the hyper-adapter that has possessed him: “That’s my plan to burn out your battery fighting the League before leaving it to 21stcentury urban pollution to finish the job. You were too powerful and dangerous to beat at time’s end. So I took a big risk. But right here, right now, in an age of superheroes… you’re just another monster for my friends to practice on.” In other words, Batman never stopped strategizing and looking for a flaw in the enemy’s plan, refusing to believe that just because a dark god declared it predestined, that it was thus.
Batman also had one other card up his sleeve: the first truth of Batman, the saving grace, is that he was never alone and he had help. In other words, freedom is not an individualistic, atomized conception of the lone Dark Knight facing the horrors of Gotham alone. When Batman places his hope and trust in the free will of everyone, of his friends and allies, even a mortal human being like Bruce Wayne can say to the god of predestined evil (in both FC and echoed in RBW), with a dose of defiant bravado:
(Read Part Three here)