SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for Batman #32, the final chapter of "The War of Jokes And Riddles" by Tom King and Mikel Janin, on sale now.
Behind the theatrics and under the superheroic drama, Batman stories are often driven by one pervasive rhetorical question: is the Dark Knight the problem, or the solution? It’s a chicken-or-egg scenario that’s served to build tension in Gotham City for decades, with classic story after classic story exploring whether the evil around him inspired Bruce Wayne to put on the cape and the cowl, or did Bruce Wayne’s creation of Batman inspired the evil in Gotham to rise up to meet him. At the end of the day, what actually separates the Bat from the rest of Gotham’s unhinged, mask-wearing mad men?
“The War of Jokes and Riddles” has officially come to a close in Batman #32 by Tom King and Mikel Janin, and it’s brought some answers with it in more ways than one.
“The War of Jokes and Riddles” has been told via flashback as Bruce recounts the events to Selina with the actual events occurring around the earliest days of Bruce’s time as Batman -- before the events of foundational stories like Batman: Year One -- which is to say that the end of the war itself has never really been the focus of the story. We know how it ends, clearly. Bruce wouldn’t be here -- Gotham City wouldn’t be here -- to tell the story if the fighting hadn’t stopped and the world hadn’t been able to move on. The point, then, of telling the story (both on the page, from Bruce to Selina, and off, from writer Tom King to readers) has been to admit something about Bruce’s past that he’s kept hidden -- something, we could infer, that he considers deeply shameful.
Something he wants Selina to know before she gives him an answer to his marriage proposal.
So what, exactly, has been haunting the Dark Knight for so long? Well...it’s complicated, to say the least. It turns out that, after a devastating reveal from the Riddler -- that he had been orchestrating the entire war in an attempt to craft a perfect punchline for the Joker -- Batman snapped. And by “snapped,” we mean he was genuinely ready to kill the Riddler.
In his own words, Batman was “in control,” he “knew what he was doing,” and it “wasn’t an accident.” He was ready to break the single most defining rule of his vigilante career: Batman does not kill.
The thing is, he had pretty understandable reason for breaking his own code -- as much as any motive for murder can be “understandable.” Remember Kite Man and how he lost his son as a casualty in this war? The story that had intercut the main plot as “The Ballad of Kite Man” explained that his son Charlie had been murdered by the Riddler which had, in turn, inspired Charles Brown to adopt a vigilante identity of his own (inspired by his son’s interest in kites) and join the Joker’s side. This, of course, would later prove useful to Batman, who was able to convince Charles to betray the Joker and help Batman stage a massive final showdown. A pretty absurd and meteoric rise for a D-list gag villain with a lame gimmick, right?
The Riddler happens to think so, too. He did it all to make the Joker laugh... but the Joker isn’t laughing. And neither is Batman.
It’s in that moment, after this epiphany, that Batman decides the only logical course of action is to kill the Riddler. Of course, that’s not what ends up happening, and the last laugh really does end up going to the Joker, though not because of Riddler’s carefully laid plans -- the Joker ends up being the only reason the Riddler survives, stepping between the Dark Knight and his target, and taking the knife intended for his enemy.
Still, the effect of the moment is the same for Bruce: the sudden, immediate reaction that the difference between Batman and his villains is just “a hand on a knife.” The only thing that keeps Batman from sliding past the point of no return isn’t actually innate to him -- it’s not something internal or genetic or even practiced -- it’s the completely external force of something stopping him from going too far.
This is what Selina needed to know, before she could say yes or no to proposal. Batman isn’t the solution, or the problem. He’s just another cog in the machine that keeps Gotham going.