Alex Wainer: The Dark Night of the Dark Knight’s Soul

A young boy kneels by his bed, lit by a single candle. His hands clasped in a prayerful posture, he pronounces a vow that will shape the rest of his life: “And I swear by the spirits of my parents to avenge their deaths by spending the rest of my life warring on all criminals.”

In the original telling of Batman’s origin, the traumatized young Bruce Wayne, days after witnessing the brutal murders of his parents, has committed himself to a path that will become a double life, torn between light and darkness. When he eventually takes on the likeness of a night creature to terrify criminals and to ensure no one else will suffer his losses, he will succeed so well that the being he created leads to an identity crisis of faith—one that might resonate in our own hearts.

Weeks ago, the news circulated that in Batman#53, Batman would be declared an atheist. There was little surprise, since Batman is the most self-made superhero in the comic book pantheon, and the one least likely to feel dependent on a supernatural God. But fans were intrigued to hear that writer Tom King was going beyond the implications that Bruce Wayne acknowledges no Higher Power, and exploring the dynamics of how this rejection of faith came to be and its consequences.

Yet in a tweet, King himself questioned whether Batman is actually a practicing atheist: “That’s not how I read that comic.” Indeed, the issue ends with a hint that Bruce Wayne is at a crossroads of faith in God versus faith in himself.

Jury Room Debate

The three-part story, “Cold Days” (in Batman, issues #51-53)—written by King and beautifully illustrated by veteran artist Lee Weeks, an outspoken Christian—picks up after Bruce has been left at the altar by Selina Kyle, a.k.a. Catwoman, who had decided that marriage would hinder Batman’s mission. Standing on the edge of a skyscraper in his groom’s apparel, abandoned, Bruce quickly reverts to his other identity, leaving any chance of mourning and recovery behind. Investigating the deaths of three young women, he finds evidence pointing to his old enemy, Mr. Freeze. He finds Freeze and viciously attacks him, leading quickly to Freeze’s confession and trial.

But then, a twist: Bruce Wayne is called to serve on the jury. He becomes the one “not guilty” vote and questions whether there might be another explanation for the murders. “If we follow the actual facts, take out Batman’s … I don’t know … the presumption of supercompetence. His infallibility,” Bruce argues, maybe they can avoid rushing to judgment based on the Dark Knight’s reputation for always seeing what others miss. It’s obvious that Bruce fears his hasty conclusions may lead to a miscarriage of that which obsesses him, justice, and that Batman’s excessive force had terrified Freeze into confessing to the police. Bruce is at war with his alter ego.

But the jury needs more than Bruce’s theory, and so the millionaire explains how his father, a Christian, took him to church. “He held hallow the immortal soul, heaven, the Father and the Son, giving your will to the Lord, trusting him with that will. He wanted me to believe too. But he wanted me to come to it on my own. We went to church. He told me all the stories. Talked a lot about what we can control, what we can’t.” After the loss of father and mother, “I was upset. I … put aside believing in … a deity. Or believing in anything my father thought had saved him. I couldn’t really see that anything had saved him. … After my parents died, I sought transcendence. I found Batman.”

What the jury hears as Bruce’s source of relief from the fear that had stalked him since childhood, the readers see as Bruce’s tortured confession of his search for an alternate savior, who became himself. When a juror asks if Bruce thinks Batman is God, he responds: “If you define God as the infallible, the responsible, the one who determines life and death, then yes. That’s my argument. I thought he was God.” He asserts that the jury’s confidence in Batman is tantamount to that owed to deity. “God is above us. And he wears a cape.”

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Source: Christianity Today