The evil Batmen haunting the pages of DC’s Dark Nights: Metal event have each, in their own way, laid bare different pieces of Bruce Wayne’s humanity. Within ever one of them is a piece of Bruce that is flawed and fragile that if left unchecked could be the beginning of his descent into the darkness he’s always kept inside.
As we’ve watched alternate reality versions of Batman kill and then take on the powers of his fellow Justice Leaguers, Dark Nights: Metal has been reminding us of how dangerous his humanity and mortality makes him. What Batman lacks in proper superpowers and magical weapons, he makes up for in hyper-preparedness that’s deeply rooted in his belief that, at the end of the day, he has no one that he can ever truly trust except for himself.
The fear of intimacy and trust that comes out of that kind of isolation is what ends up destroying Bruce Wayne in Batman: The Devastator, a story that easily could have simply been about how Batman killed Superman. Instead, though, The Devastator gives us the briefest of glimpses into the deep emotional vulnerability that Bruce Wayne’s worked so hard to hide from the rest of the world.
Preparedness is Batman’s thing. Even without the money and the gadgets and the years of physical conditioning, Batman is able to hold his own against all manner of metahuman villains specifically because he’s always in the process of devising a plan about how to deal with any given situation at hand. Given the number of villains out there with mind controlling abilities, it makes sense that Batman would have files on every other member of the Justice League just in case it ever got to the point where he would have to take one of them out.
But The Devastator begins in a universe where Batman was not entirely prepared to deal with a rogue Superman. On his earth (Earth -1), the Batman who would eventually become the Devastator never imagined that he would ever have to fight Superman, to some extent, because he fully trusted in the friendship they shared. The idea that Superman would ever turn on the world he’d sworn to protect was simply unfathomable and so, on the day that he went dark, Batman was forced into a state of panic that we seldom see him in.
This sort of oversight would be unimaginable in one of DC’s main continuities—who would Batman be concerned about more than Superman? But The Devastator requires that you suspend your disbelief in order to appreciate the very specific kind of Batman story that it’s trying to tell. As Superman goes in for the final kill, Batman reveals the one contingency plan he has to deal with Kryptonian threats. He reaches down to his belt and initiates a sequence that floods his bloodstream with a modified version of the Doomsday virus that transforms him into a grotesque version of himself with a number of Doomsday’s features.
The transformation allows him to defeat Clark with ease, but The Devastator isn’t particularly concerned with the mechanics of how Batman killed Superman, but rather about the headspace that Bruce finds himself in as a result of his actions. The pain of being betrayed by Superman stays with Batman after his transformation. It festers like an open, infected would because in Bruce’s mind, it’s the trust that he put in Clark that eventually put the world in danger. That all too human feeling of being unmoored by the actions of a loved one sends Bruce into a spiral that leads to a physical and metaphorical closing off of his faith in others.
In a desperate attempt to protect anyone else from experiencing the pain that he’s unable to articulate, Bruce devises a plan to infect all of Metropolis with the virus. While explaining this to Lois, Bruce insists that it’s because he wants the world to be prepared for the attack like Superman’s, but what he’s really getting at is that he wants others to be prepared to have their hearts broken by the people they believe to know so intimately well.
The Devastator is one of Dark Nights: Metal’s more straightforward one shots, but it gets at an idea about Batman’s inability to experience true emotional intimacy that isn’t always articulated quite so poetically. Bruce Wayne is a profoundly lonely man who’s never truly gotten around to unpacking and dealing with the feelings of loss and abandonment that came in the wake of his parents’ death.
In his crusade against crime, he’s found a reason to live and a chosen family that plays a major role in keeping him grounded, but to look at Bruce Wayne’s life, it’s easy to see that he’s in a constant state of having to work very hard to maintain the few deep emotional bonds he’s forged over the years. That sort of maintenance is all too human, even without having experienced the kind of suffering that Bruce has. The Devastator reminds us that in absence of that important emotional work, there’s the risk of profound withdrawal from the world and, at least in Batman’s case, the chance that you could become the world’s greatest threat.