30 years ago, The Dark Knight Returns showed an old, dissolute Bruce Wayne putting on the cape and cowl to become Batman again. This week, we get to see the tragic spiral that made him take it off.
The Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade is a dynamic-duo character study, focused on a mentor and a protege at opposite ends of the vitality spectrum. Co-written by Frank Miller and Brian Azzarello with art by John Romita. Jr., Peter Stiegerwald, and Clem Robbins, the one-shot finds Batman facing up to inescapable reality that his body can’t keep up with his war on crime. He’s also doubting the psychology of the second kid to wear the red tunic and yellow cape of the Boy Wonder, looking with dread at the glee that Jason Todd finds in hurting bad guys.
The Last Crusade’s biggest appeal comes from the fact that it finally shows a Batman and Robin story that’s only been alluded to in passing in Frank Miller’s other DKR work.
Wrapped up in its own continuity and grimy feel, Miller’s body of Bat-stories stands apart from the vast majority of other Caped Crusader comics. So, the conscious decision to have this version of Jason Todd lean hard on previously published portrayals is an unexpected one. This is jerk Jason, the character that Batman editors angled into the most asshole Robin ever once they heard how much readers hated him.
Because it’s concerned with a smaller, more personality-driven story, Last Crusade feels more focused than Master Race. There’s a shallow mystery about rich men dying in mysterious ways but it’s only there as a stage to show Batman and Robin’s tense relationship.
Part of the Jason Todd mystique is the fact that he’s the Robin who Batman couldn’t save from himself. The character loses his life in the 1980s storyline A Death in the Family because he doesn’t listen to orders. The same thing seemingly happens here after the Joker escapes Arkham Asylum a short time after being apprehended by the Dynamic Duo and, despite orders from a critically injured Batman to stand down, Jason goes out on his own anyway. We don’t see the Clown Prince of Crime kill Jason but we don’t have to. We know what happens because we’ve already seen where Bruce winds up. The events here feel more tragic by the fact Batman physically isn’t able to stop him.
The Dark Knight saga is all about Batman getting old.
A subtextual component of the animosity between Batman and Superman in the DK-verse seems to come from the fact that Clark is aging more slowly. Bruce continues to throw his crumbling body at the battles for what he thinks is right. Meanwhile, Clark’s near-immortal self either intrudes on the fringes of Earth’s affairs in aloof fashion or gets bullied into maintaining an awful status quo. The man who can still fight with the strength of million men chooses to do nothing while the infirm vigilante keeps dragging his creaky muscles into superfights.
In Dark Knight III: The Master Race, Carrie Kelly wears the pointy-eared mask of Gotham’s protector. She’s a Robin who brought Batman back to life twice over, living out the destiny that Bruce wanted for Jason.
The Last Crusade succeeds at creating a necessarily nihilistic chapter in the saga of the DKR iteration of Batman. This is where Bruce gets punched in the face by the realization that he can’t be Batman anymore. Its biggest flaw is in how it handles the Joker. He’s a virulent chaos figure here, ranting or teasing in frustrating threads that never resolve into any kind of internal logic.
“Why would they?” Miller and Azzarello seem to smirk. “He’s a maniac, right?” There’s no seductive method to his madness. Things just explode because he wills them to. Since the Joker has decades of interpretations accrued around him, longtime readers can hand-wave the emphasis on idiosyncratic presentation away and just invoke the idea that he’s evil. But we don’t see the specific kind of evil he is. A Joker defined by negative space feels lightweight compared to the operatic mastermind we see in The Dark Knight Returns; that wispiness makes it hard to swallow the moth-to-flame attraction that pulls Jason to his sad fate. Again, it feels like the reader is supposed to rely on previous knowledge.
In A Lonely Place of Dying, Under the Red Hood, and the Arkham Knight game and comics and other stories with Batman, the Joker and Jason Todd, this is what always happens. The junior partner with too much rage goes after the archfoe and his cowled mentor’s life gets changed forever. But Dark Knight stories are supposed to show us Batman in bleeding-edge situations we haven’t seen before: fighting Superman, faking his own demise, fighting an insane Dick Grayson to the death. For all its moodiness, The Last Crusade shows us something we’ve seen before, something a Frank Miller-led take on Batman should never be guilty of.