Sunday, 5 August 2012

Dead, Not Really

How often do we think that a hero was dead, only to find out that he isn't? Almost never. We usually assume rightly that he must have survived. We only need to learn how. But we had better be given a good explanation. Dr Who, in one of his less serious periods, once joked, "I'll tell you about it sometime!" That is not good enough.

Three times I have been fooled into thinking that a hero really was dead when he wasn't.

"Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?" by Alan Moore, a "last Superman story," set ten years in the future, in 1997, begins by telling us that Superman died ten years ago. We accept this. A young Daily Planet reporter interviews Lois Elliot for "The Last Days of Superman," the lead feature in a Superman Memorial Edition. Lois says that Superman, whose secret identity as Clark Kent had by then been revealed, relinquished his powers and deliberately froze to death in the Arctic although his body was never found. He had killed an opponent and felt that he could no longer be Superman. Of course, as with Jim Morrison and Bruce Lee, there are rumours that he is still alive somewhere.

When the reporter has left, Lois and her husband, Jonathan, hope that the media will not bother them for another ten years. (What happened in 2007?) Only when Alan Moore wants us to, in the last three panels, do we begin to realise that Jonathan Elliot is, as his name suggests, the son of Jor-El and the foster son of Jonathan Kent. Lois says that they will live happily ever after and Jonathan winks at the reader. Since this version of Superman is ending, a little metafiction is appropriate. The author had begun the story with "This is an IMAGINARY STORY...Aren't they all?" At the end of Lois' story within the story, the Batman had described the scene of death and destruction in and around Superman's Arctic Fortress of Solitude as "like walking amongst the fragments of a legend..." - so let's see how the Batman ends both in a comic book and in a film.

The Dark Knight miniseries by Frank Miller, collected as The Dark Knight Returns and set in a possible future, describes the Batman's return from a ten year retirement. Since this is a limited series and a possible future, anything can happen. Since the four installments are entitled:

The Dark Knight Returns;
The Dark Knight Triumphant;
Hunt The Dark Knight;
The Dark Knight Falls

- we expect a defeat if not a death at the end.

In the collected edition, Alan Moore's Introduction, "The Mark of Batman," prepares us to expect the capstone of a legend, Batman's equivalent of Alamo, Ragnarok or Robin Hood's last arrow, in an "...engrossing story of a great man's final and greatest battle..."

We are not disappointed as the outlawed vigilante, having defeated two old foes and one new one, pits himself against the government agent Kent, dies and is buried, with the world now knowing that Bruce Wayne was the Batman. Except that, at the funeral, Clark hears Bruce's heart restart and winks at Robin... Bruce's new life, "...far past the burnt remains of a crimefighter who's time has passed..." is to train an army of survivalists - reformed criminals, Robin and a one-armed archer - in the endless cave.

In Dark Knight, as in Whatever Happened..., both the superhero identity and the secret identity are over but the man behind them lives on and does something new.

That leaves the film The Dark Knight Rises, which I saw yesterday. We know that it concludes a trilogy so that again anything can happen. Near the end, the Batman, in his new flying vehicle called simply "the Bat," carries an about-to-explode atom bomb away from Gotham City out to sea. I thought, "I hope he does die this time because that would be appropriate." We see a mushroom cloud on the horizon. He cannot have survived.

Civic leaders unveil a statue of the Batman. Bruce Wayne's friends, who knew who he was, commemorate Bruce. They include a young policeman. An orphan raised in a Wayne-funded orphanage, he had been prepared to defend his city without wearing a mask but the Batman had explained that the mask is to protect those you care about. Leaving the police force, he finds his way into the Cave after another character has addressed him by his middle name, Robin.

When Bruce was abroad, Alfred Pennyworth had holidayed hoping to glimpse Bruce happily married, thus never to return to Gotham. At the very end, Alfred holidays again and does glimpse Bruce with Selina Kyle. Impossible. Alfred is seeing a ghost or imagining things. Except that, earlier in the film, Bruce and Lucius Fox had mentioned an autopilot for the Bat...

From Superman in a comic to Batman in a comic to Batman in a film is a neat progression.

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