After enduring the madness of his greatest foe, in a fortress built to house his greatest foes, Batman has been led to the Joker’s final joke. It’s the finale to “Death of the Family” in BATMAN #17. Will the family truly die? What has the Joker planned? And what secret connection do these two iconic characters share?
Unfortunately, if there’s one word I could use to describe this finale, it’d probably be “disappointing”.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a bad issue. Far from it. BATMAN #17 is a great installment in the series. The problem is it doesn’t quite seem like a good end to the storyline. Or maybe, if I’m being more generous or more accurate, it doesn’t seem to be able to top the very previous issue. The story climaxed, peaked as it were, an issue too soon.
To recap, Batman barged himself into Arkham Asylum, battling through his rogues gallery that Joker conscripted for the occasion. He saw all of the Joker’s atrocities, from the living mural to the horrible crimes against equines. It was all very surreal and disturbing. Then, the Joker knocked Batman out and he was transported…
…into the caves he calls home (just a random cave in the system, not the Batcave proper). A cave with a “dinner” set, and his entire “family” tied up for the occasion. Oh, what happens here is creepy and surreal and disturbing, no doubt.
But then the whole thing gets ruined by the fact that, regardless of what happens, everything needs to revert back to the status quo. That’s where this issue faults. Not in itself is it bad, but as a product of the system.
The Batman franchise has for a long time been caught in a recursive loop. Able to collect more elements but never allowed to deviate substantially from its formula. Batman himself is trapped in a state of limbo, unable to move on from his war against crime, nor even make strides in winning it. The Joker is the ultimate expression of that limbo: Batman cannot kill the Joker, no matter how catharsis and poetic justice cry out for the end of the clown.
In fact, the book itself broaches the subject of why Batman can’t kill the Joker, with the latter mocking the presumption that it’s because of his code or because he’ll go down a slippery slope. We do get at least one more additional reason (besides the Joker’s delusional one, of course): that if the Joker died Gotham would simply throw up another monster to replace him, or return the Joker to life somehow even worse. This does fit into the twin ideas that Gotham itself is a force and a character with a will of its own, and that the Bat-man needs an opposite that the universe will furnish heartily. But at the same time, it seems ever more like these are mere excuses. That the weight of karma, of peoples’ need for resolution, would demand that Batman and the Joker have a decisive showdown, that the Joker die, and that the Batman be allowed to win his war or die trying.
Which is why works such as The Dark Knight Returns or the Nolan Batman films are so popular. They give Batman and his mythos arcs and ends. The main Batman books cannot end; they must remain in limbo.
So why does this matter in the issue at hand? Because Death of the Family seemed, in tone and pace, like it was going to be decisive. That something would happen, good or ill. That this would be the Joker’s last stand (at least until DC resurrected him, obviously). That the identities of either men would be revealed to the other. That someone in the family would die. That something really horrible would occur. Indeed, for most of the issue it seems like some really dark stuff did, in fact, occur that would at least inconvenience the heroes in some fashion. But then the recursive loop enforced its will, and all that was done needed to be undone. The only significant lasting change is that the Joker still has a rotten face, but he could easily get skin grafts between now and his next major appearance.
And not only that, but we’ve still yet to tie up the loose ends established way back in Batman #0. Maybe that’s coming next, but it’s still disappointing.
So other than the loop, should you read this issue? Yes, because Death of the Family was a good storyline and this at least gives more of that for a while before recursion sets in. What are you going to do if you’ve read the books this far? Refuse to the read the conclusion? And Scott Snyder’s writing isn’t bad, it’s just hampered by the status quo.
In fact, this is a lot like Snyder’s other recent work, the Rotworld finale. That story at least got to carry its horror to the logical conclusion. Sure time travel allows the heroes to cheat in that story, but it didn’t undermine the struggles and losses that had occurred up to that point by doing so. Here, Batman can’t just go back and undo these things, which means whatever happens can’t be as horrible as it could be. As it deserves to be.
Maybe now that the recursion has been maintained, we can move on to stories that aren’t so bound by status quo. Maybe something…involving Snyder’s favorite engineer, Harper Row!