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Scott Snyder & Greg Capullo’s Run on Batman – Endgame (Review)

This March sees the release of Batman vs. Superman. To celebrate, we’ll be looking at some iconic and modern Batman and Superman stories over the course of the month.

Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman has been lodged in a constant state of apocalypse.

The duo have framed Batman as a blockbuster comic book, to the point that it seems like Batman stares down the end of all things more often than the rest of the superheroes in Geoff Johns’ Justice League. All of Snyder and Capullo major stories have placed Gotham City on the edge of the abyss, teetering (and even falling) into darkness. It is a sharp contrast to the lower key threats of Snyder’s work on The Black Mirror, very consciously a stylish affectation to reflect the fact that Batman is very much one of the comic book industry’s blockbuster title.

Bringing back the laughs...

Bringing back the laughs…

In The Court of Owls, Gotham finds itself subjected to a long night of terror by an army of undead assassins. In Death of the Family, the Joker carves his way across the city. In Zero Year, the origin of Batman is tied to a disaster on the scale of No Man’s Land. Even outside of his work on the main title, Snyder’s role as “executive producer” of Batman Eternal saw yet another apocalypse visited upon Gotham in a relatively short space of time. It becomes exhausting after a while.

To be fair, it is reasonable to ask whether this is just part of a larger cultural context. Pop culture has always been fascinated with the end of the world, but it seems increasingly fixated on the concept in recent years. The popularity of the zombie genre is just one example, but any list of critically and commercially successful art in the twenty-first century will confront the reader with multiple ends of all things. The Walking Dead, The Road, Mad Max: Fury Road, Jericho, Revolution, Book of Eli, and so on and so forth.

"Hm. Maybe we should consider counselling...?"

“Hm. Maybe we should consider counselling…?”

However, popular culture is not just fascinated with post-apocalyptic horror. Increasingly, media engages with the question of what the end of the world will look like, rather than the question of how we might survive it. Fear the Walking Dead depicts the end of the world that led to its sister series. Chris Carter revived The X-Files so that the final episode could depict the end of the world as foreshadowed across the original nine-season run. With advances in CGI, blockbusters like The Avengers and Man of Steel can render destruction on an impossible scale.

As such, Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s recurring fascination with the end of all things exists as part of a broader cultural context. Still, the writer and artist seem to position Endgame as the ultimate apocalypse for its two central characters.

Burning down the house...

Burning down the house…

Endgame is very much about the end of Batman. Not the death, necessary, but the point at which Batman ends. Scott Snyder makes this clear in a number of different ways, relying on his use of symbolism and imagery to reinforce the theme over the course of the six-issue arc. It is clear from the opening pages of the first issues, after Batman is dosed by the Scarecrow’s so-called “Cassandra” toxin, a poison that confronts its subject with varied images of their own death over and over again.

Bruce finds himself facing his end over and over again. That end comes in multiple forms, evoking Neil Gaiman’s meditation of the character in Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? Sometimes that death comes at the hands of one particular antagonist. Sometimes that death comes surrounded by allies fighting a battle against impossible odds. The particulars are not important. All that matters is that there will come a point where Bruce Wayne will die. (Although it seems inevitable that Batman will survive.)

Gordon has an axe to grind...

Gordon has an axe to grind…

This is the central thesis of Endgame, as outlined in the closing pages. As with a lot of Snyder’s work on the character, Endgame plays with themes that Grant Morrison explored during his own extended eight-year run on the title. While Morrison insisted that Batman (and Bruce Wayne) would live forever, inevitably circling back to where he began as part of a larger mythic cycle, Snyder rejects this reading of Batman. While Snyder emphasises the iconography and imagery associated with Batman, he stresses that Bruce is just a man.

More than that, Bruce’s mortality is part of the appeal to Snyder. In the story’s closing monologue, Alfred reflects, “Batman could live forever. He could escape. But he doesn’t. He dies, just like every one of us, even though he doesn’t have to.” According to Snyder, this is what makes Bruce so compelling and so unique. Bruce lives in a world with aliens and wizards. One of his arch foes has a mechanism that allows him to return to life time and time again. However, Bruce is very consciously (and even pointedly) still just a mortal man.

Tension is through the roof...

Tension is through the roof…

Snyder’s script to the final issue makes this even more explicit. Outlining his plan for the final page, Snyder suggests that originally Bruce would have written a note to Julia explaining the story’s theme to her:

Over this, I’ll narrate Batman’s final words to Julia from the cave. He’ll tell her no. He had many opportunities to take things that would make him immortal. Or make him more than a man. And he almost did a few times. But the thing is, he always knew, deep down, that what made Batman special, was that he was one of us.

As it stands, the comic closes on the decidedly more ambiguous note of having Bruce leave a note to Alfred and Julia that very simply reads, “Ha.”

Quilt while he's ahead...

Quilt while he’s ahead…

This provides perhaps the central contrast between Batman and the Joker in Endgame. There are any number of ways in which Batman and the Joker might be compared and contrasted, but Endgame positions Bruce Wayne’s acceptance of his mortality with the Joker’s stubborn insistence on his transcendence. Endgame finds the Joker presenting himself as a mythic force, as more than just a psychotic supervillain. The Joker tries to fashion himself into something more than just a man.

In many ways, the Joker’s attempts to build a mythology around himself provide a sharp mirror to attempts to do something similar with Batman, most notably in Grant Morrison’s The Return of Bruce Wayne. While Morrison (building off earlier work by Peter Milligan) suggested that the Batman was a primal force that haunted Gotham long before the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, the Joker conspires to cast himself as some equivalent force. The Joker reinvents himself as “the Pale Man” or “Gotham’s own Dionysian Man.”

Gotham is in pieces...

Gotham is in pieces…

These attempts to build up a mythology are seeded throughout the main story, with the Joker appearing in old photographs and hinting at some long-standing association with Gotham dating back to the European settlers and the Miagani. They are reinforced throughout the back-up stories written by James Tynion IV, in which the Joker’s gift for reinvention is explored. Mahreen Zaheer listens to alternate stories of the Joker, told by five Arkham inmates, discovering contractions and impossibilities as the Joker tries to “shape his his own story.”

The Joker attempts to build up his own supernatural history in these back-up stories. Perhaps the most memorable of these stories concerns a travelling clown murdered by the town folk early in the city’s history. The clown was burnt alive, and the city covered its crimes in the way that towns tend to cover their crimes in folklore. They also “sold off to the land to some chemical company”, suggesting that the Joker might have some deeper metaphysical connection to Ace Chemical, a location with its own mythical associations. Bruce identifies is as the place “where it all began.”

Man or monster...

Man or monster…

This portrayal of the Joker with a malleable back story is nothing new, even if Endgame does hint a much broader and epic back story than most potential origins for the Clown Prince of Crime. Snyder and Capullo are being quite provocative here, with Endgame committing quite heavily to the idea of a primal and mythical force before retreating in the final issue of the story. As with a lot of their run, there is a sense that Snyder and Capullo are being iconoclastic, exploiting the potential of the reboot to tease plots that would not have been feasible before.

After all, The Court of Owls is a story that is largely about exploiting the lacunas in continuity created by Flashpoint. The idea that Bruce Wayne might have had a secret brother would have been laughable before the reboot, but resetting continuity put a lot of options on the table. Telling a Batman origin story in continuity while Year One existed would have been unthinkable, but the reboot made Zero Year possible. Similarly, the idea of the Joker as a totemic force is something that seems a bit less ridiculous in the modern “all bets are off” continuity.

He just Sprang from nowhere.

He just Sprang from nowhere.

The Joker even acknowledges as much in his confrontation with Batman. “If only you’d known your city better!” the Joker taunts, harking back to the idea that the Court of Owls was able to slip between the folds of Gotham during a line-wide reboot. “If only you’d been the Bat-King it needed!” However, while Snyder and Capullo have played up this ambiguity before, they back away from the line at the end of Endgame. The final issue suggests that the Joker is most likely not a primal force at work in Gotham, but is instead bluffing. He is the Joker, to be fair.

Indeed, the plot owes a considerable debt to Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s work on The Killing Joke, as Tynion acknowledges in his back-ups. Discussing his own history, the Joker confesses, “I prefer not to think of it as multiple choice… it’s more choose-your-own-adventure.” This a rather conscious riff on perhaps the character’s most memorable and iconic line in his entire seventy-five-year history, one that comes with no small amount of irony given it appeared at the end of a graphic novel focusing on just one origin story. Endgame is ultimately conservative.

They have great chemistry together...

They have great chemistry together…

Then again, all of this serves a very clear purpose. The Joker’s attempts to fashion his own mythology and elevate himself beyond mere mortality are portrayed as grotesque and horrific, a grim joke. These efforts stand in sharp contrast to Bruce Wayne’s acceptance of his place as a mortal man. Endgame seems to suggest that Batman is just a man, underneath it all. Batman is not a mythic construct that has been lurking in Gotham waiting to manifest itself. Batman is finite, at least in this incarnation.

So, appropriately enough, there is a note of finality to Endgame. Snyder and Capullo would remain on Batman for another year after this story, and would see Bruce returning to claim the cowl that he vacates here. Nevertheless, it is clear that the pair see Endgame as something of a conclusion for the character. Indeed, Snyder and Capullo even carefully apply symmetry to the run to this point, as if to imply that everything has come a full circle and certain key themes have been resolved.

Team-up time!

Team-up time!

The opening pages of the first issue of The Court of Owls found Batman and Nightwing-pretending-to-be-the-Joker teaming up to take on his iconic rogues, culminating in a double-page splash that serves to introduce the issue. Here, Snyder and Capullo twist that opening on its ear. The opening pages of the final issue of Endgame finds Nighting-pretending-to-be-Batman and his iconic rogues teaming up to take on the Joker, culminating in a double-page splash that serves to introduce the issue. Everything comes around.

Endgame finds Bruce contemplating his death. Indeed, Snyder’s script even teases the idea that Batman has been a sort of living death for Bruce. The last time that Bruce felt truly mortal, Snyder suggests, was at the moment before he came into contact with the darkness that would birth Batman. “The last time I remember believing — really believing — I was going to die, I was thirteen years old, falling through the darkness of the cave,” he reflects. It is a sentiment that suggests perhaps Batman was a fevered dream, one extended breath in that plunge into darkness.

Pooling resources.

Pooling resources.

Indeed, this underscores the irony at the heart of Endgame. Snyder and Capullo’s subsequent arc, Superheavy, suggests that the death of Batman allows the resurrection of Bruce Wayne. Perhaps life and death exist in a more delicate equilibrium for Batman. Perhaps Batman has always represented death for Bruce Wayne, born from the apocalyptic loss of Thomas and Martha Wayne. As such, does the death of Batman represent a turning of the proverbial wheel? Does the death and end of Batman allow Bruce Wayne to live again?

To be fair, mythic cycles often follow death with a form of rebirth. The death of Batman in Endgame ultimately leads to two separate births, the resurrection of Bruce Wayne and a new form of Batman. This is even true of stories about the apocalypse and the end of the world. By definition, post-apocalyptic narratives focus on lives after the end of all things. Most religious teachings about the end of the world assume the existence of some form of live beyond that which comes to an end. Still, even allowing for that, Endgame is positively apocalyptic in tone and imagery.

What a Dick.

What a Dick.

Batman has faced down the end of the world before, in many different ways in many different stories. Over the course of Endgame, Snyder and Capullo allude to quite a few of those stories. Endgame finds Batman’s world collapsing around him. A viral Joker toxin sweeps across Gotham, as in the bleak future of Batman Incorporated. The Joker and Batman are locked in a fatal struggle in a tunnel together, as in The Dark Knight Returns. (At one point, Snyder even puts Bruce inside a literal tank, evoking the Frank Miller classic.)

Doomsday imagery pervades Endgame. Batman finds himself facing a zombie apocalypse that just happens to be cast in the Joker’s image. Capullo’s artwork evokes horror classics like The Night of the Living Dead in its portrayal of a city transformed by viral apocalypse, Jim Gordon hiding in a house with boarded-up windows while Batman stalks the corridors of a hospital reportedly haunted. The transformed citizens wander the street, almost feral. The Justice League are out of action and Gotham burns.

Owl be there.

Owl be there.

Endgame signposts its fascination with doomsday from its opening pages. Bruce’s introductory monologue talks about the averted apocalypse during Zero Year. When Bruce is attacked by the Justice League, he enacts “Plan Fenrir.” Appropriately enough, his defensive protocol is named for a piece of Norse mythology tied to Ragnarok. Fenrir is the wolf foretold to kill Odin during the end of the world, fitting imagery for an arc that sees Gotham burn and everything turn to ashes.

At the same time, there is something quite draining about all of this. As overseen by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo, Batman seems to have been stuck in a constant and perpetual apocalypse. Barring the short one- or two-part stories that punctuate the run, it seems like Batman is constantly staring down the end of life in Gotham in one form or another. Snyder and Capullo position Batman as effectively a one-man Justice League, with the first chapter of Endgame making that comparison rather literal.

You can practically hear the Prince music.

You can practically hear the Prince music.

The Court of Owls wiped out most of the city’s infrastructure as part of the Night of the Owls crossover. The Joker tried to poison the reservoir in Death of the Family. The Riddler set the city back to the stone age in Zero Year. It seems like Gotham endured multiple cataclysmic events over the course of Batman Eternal. Since the start of the “new 52”, under Scott Snyder’s pen, it seems like everyday is doomsday in Gotham; the city is rocked repeatedly by horrors on the scale of The Dark Knight Rises or No Man’s Land.

To be fair, this is not unreasonable in comic book continuity. Gotham bounced from Contagion to Cataclysm to No Man’s Land in the late nineties. More than that, Snyder and Capullo seem to have positioned Batman as one of the industry’s “blockbuster” books, a choice that justifies a sense of scale to the stories. More to the point, the extended nature of The Court of Owls and Zero Year allow a bit more room for the stakes to gradually escalate as the stories progress.

Keeping it handy...

Keeping it handy…

At the same time, there is something quite numbing about putting so many stories like that back to back. The impact is blunted when the reader jumps straight from “Gotham tearing itself apart” in Zero Year to “Gotham tearing itself apart” in Endgame. Alfred even acknowledges as much early in the story, advising Bruce, “I can’t imagine it’s been pleasant seeing your own end over and over, regardless of how colourful the variations might be.” The apocalypse loses some of its power when it arrives once or twice a year.

Then again, this arguably reflects the default mode of modern superhero stories, where the threats are constantly escalating. No longer is it enough to stop a bank robber or a hostage-taker. As heroes seem to grow in stature, so must the threats that they face. Villains can now threaten the fabric of reality itself. Even within Endgame, the Joker is elevated to a credible threat to the entire Justice League and capable of sneaking all the vital trophies (including a giant penny and a robot dinosaur) out of the Batcave before Batman can return to catch him in the act.

It took Bruce three pages each to deal with Wonder Woman and Flash. He deals with Aquaman in four panels. Just sayin'.

It took Bruce three pages each to deal with Wonder Woman and Flash.
He deals with Aquaman in four panels.
Just sayin’.

This is true across all forms of superhero media, to the point of absurdity. The Avengers: Age of Ultron featured a villain who threatened to drop half of a city on top of the other half of the same city, all while trying to create an extinction-level event. There comes a moment where a threat escalates beyond recognition, being rendered in purely abstract terms. While the devastation wrought is horrifying on a purely intellectual level, it is placed so far outside the human frame of reference that the effect is diminished.

To be fair, this is not a problem solely confined to superhero narratives. Blockbuster similar has become fixated upon the scale of devastation that can be rendered on screen, from disaster films like The Day After Tomorrow to science-fiction franchises like Transformers. It is interesting to wonder where this fixation on apocalyptic scale came from. Is it a reflection of contemporary cultural anxieties, some sort of subconscious death impulse projected on screen? Or have advances in CGI technology simply made it easier (and more common) to render such horrors?

A vial plot.

A vial plot.

Certainly, the apocalyptic tenor of Snyder and Capullo’s Batman run is not unique in the broader context of popular culture. It is not even unique in the broader context of the Batman mythos. The apocalyptic vibes running through Endgame and Zero Year are not too far removed from those running through the climaxes of Grant Morrison’s Batman & Robin or Batman Incorporated, let alone classic Batman stories like The Dark Knight Returns or Knightfall or No Man’s Land.

What is unique is the frequency and intensity of that apocalyptic imagery. For Grant Morrison, the threat to Gotham manifested at the climax of the second and third acts of his epic Batman story, with lots of space in between. Knightfall and No Man’s Land were spaced approximately five years apart, meaning that there was ample time for low-key adventures in between. While Snyder and Capullo have done a couple of smaller stories, the bulk of their run is composed of epic narratives that built to this sort of threat.

Croc on to yourself...

Croc on to yourself…

More than that, it does not feel like a lot of time has passed since Snyder and Capullo did their last big Joker story in Death of the Family. The Joker has not been gone long enough for his return in Endgame to feel entirely justified. To be fair, a year and a half passed between the final issue of Death of the Family and the first issue of Endgame; however, a full year of that was taken up with the Zero Year story which happened to feature a proto-Joker as one of its central characters.

To be fair, Snyder and Capullo work hard to make the end of the world in Endgame feel different from the end of the world in Zero Year. While Zero Year was always a big blockbuster superhero story, Endgame is consistently framed as a creepy psychological horror. The tone of the story is consciously askew. “Doesn’t feel like a Batman story anymore, does it?” Doctor Dekker taunts at one point in the narrative, and it is a valid observation. It feels like even the story logic that Bruce Wayne takes for granted has been eroded and corrupted.

Face off...

Face off…

At the same time, Endgame suggests that perhaps there is a limit to the storytelling model employed by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo on the monthly Batman series. Perhaps there is only so far that particular storytelling modes can be pushed before they snap or lose their effectiveness. With the announcement that Batman would ship twice monthly following the “DC Rebirth” initiative, it was revealed that Snyder would move from Batman to Detective. it seems likely that his storytelling style would shift in the same way it did after The Black Mirror.

Endgame is a clever and fascinating Batman story which reveals a lot about how Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo see their protagonist. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t have the impact that it might have had if this threat felt like more than just another Tuesday in Gotham.

4 Responses

  1. I actually read where Scott Snyder said he wanted to move to Detective Comics again so he can tell smaller/low key stories. So he is probably burnt out from all these big events himself. I too look forward to more stories like Black Mirror again though his run on Batman was great and the clear highlight of both the New 52 and all the other Batman titles. Like you though I found John Layman’s run on Detective underrated. Any hope seeing that run reviewed shortly? Also now that they have finally started collecting the classic runs by Alan Grant/Norm Breyfogle, Doug Moench/Kelley Jones and Greg Rucka & Ed Brubaker, any chance those runs might get some reviews too?

    • Hi Douglas! Yep, I’m hoping that’s what we get. Although I think the rumour is now that Snyder is not doing Detective any more, but a prestige monthly series with a rotating a-list art team. So I wonder whether that means he is still going smaller.

      As for more Batman reviews, I would love to. It is just a matter of finding the time. Everything seems to be catching up to me of late. Running to stand still.

  2. I’m not sure I agree about a shift to apocolyptic fiction (as against post-apocolyptic fiction) being a recent development.

    If anything I’d say it was much more prominent during the Cold War when such mainstream works as Dr. Strangelove, On the Beach and Beneath the Planet of the Apes depicted outright human extinction and the even works were mankind survived like the 1953 War of the Worlds could humanity to the very brink with the world more than half in ruins. Then you have the likes of Threads or The Day After where survivors of the apocolypse are doomed to live a short and dwindling coda to civilisation. Comparatively speaking many modern apocolypse stories feel rather optimistic, even nominally bleak works like Children of Men or the Walking Dead (whose angst often feels like a thin screen the make the wholesome joy of killing zombies seem more respectable.)

    It’s true we’ve seen a shift away from post-apocolyptic works being set long after the event but I’d consider that more a shift in technology making the fall of civilisation filmable rather than a real cultural shift – Stephen King, with the unlimited budget of a novelist, spent literally hundreds of pages lovingly detailing the collapse of the world in a global pandemic before he got to the ‘post’ part of his post-apocolyptic story.

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