Dark Nights: Metal introduced the idea of the Dark Multiverse to the DC Universe. This added an interesting Freudian aspect to DC cosmology. The universes that make up the Dark Multiverse are all doomed to die, and in doing so, they become the raw materials from which the universes that exist in the “Light” (the “normal” or “mainstream” DC Universe) are made. Dark Nights: Metal explores what happens when people from the Dark Multiverse become aware of their position in DC cosmology. Much like sublimated thoughts and desires in Freudian psychology, the Dark Multiverse begins to rise to the surface in Metal.
While the books of the Metal main series are excellent, the tie-in books that describe the origins of the Dark Universe Batmen are some of the most philosophically interesting comics that I’ve read. They raise some of the most fascinating, complicated, and possibly disturbing questions in philosophy: are we free to make our own choices, shape our own identities, and determine our own fates? Or do forces beyond our own control shape us, determining our choices and the direction of our lives? Taken together, the Dark Knights Rising tie-in books––stories about Batmen from other universes who have gone horribly wrong––explore just those questions.
Let’s Avoid A Logical Fallacy
We should be careful here to avoid the logical fallacy (a mistake in reasoning) known as a false dilemma. The false dilemma (sometimes called the either-or fallacy) asks us to choose between only two options when there are in fact three or more.
This fallacy is especially common in political discussions. For example, if I am horrified over family separation at the border, people who think that the U.S. should eliminate illegal immigration might say, “What, do you want to just let them all in?! Do you want an open border?!” The unstated assumption here is that you either support family separation, or you want an open border. That’s obviously a false dilemma. Obviously, you can want a more secure border while also vehemently opposing family separation.
Likewise, we should be careful to avoid a false dilemma when we’re talking about free will and determinism. It might be that there are varying degrees of freedom. It might also be that some people have the strength to be truly free, while other people have weak wills. In that case, the strong will be able to overcome the influence of their environments, upbringing, genetics, or other forces beyond their control. Those people might truly have free will. The weaker-willed people, on the other hand, would be subject to all sorts of influences that determine their actions and destinies.
One Bad Day? One Bad Week?
The Dark Knights stories give us examples of what Batman could be in the right circumstances. In these stories, we meet horrifying amalgams of Batman and other characters, including a speed-force infused Batman, a part-Doomsday Batman, and a Batman who has been driven mad by the Joker’s toxin. Each of the books imagines scenarios in which Batman might become a villain. As the Batman Who Laughs says in The Red Death,
“Let me tell you a secret. All it takes is one bad day––one moment that should never happen, and the ground beneath you starts to crumble. Trust me. I know firsthand. All of us do. Now the seven most dangerous Batmen that never were are here to drag you into the dark. So yeah, one bad day will kill a world. But one bad week? That could kill a multiverse.”
One of the most disturbing aspects of these stories is the idea that the right circumstances will drive a person over the edge, that one day has the power to make Bruce Wayne either a hero or a villain.
But It’s More Complicated Than It Looks
Everyone knows the story of Batman: little Bruce witnesses the murder of his parents, and in response, he makes a vow to fight crime. He dedicates his life to perfecting his mind and body so that he can outsmart and overpower any criminal. Batman’s story is a story about the triumph of the human will. Bruce not only learns to dominate criminals who would terrorize his city; he learns to master himself, which is perhaps the greatest form of freedom possible.
But what if it’s not so much his will but rather the circumstances of his life that drive Batman? The Dark Knights stories suggest just that possibility. Small differences in Batman’s world seem to result in horribly different versions of him. In one world, we get a Batman who is obsessed with obtaining the Speed Force so that he can use it to not only fight crime as it happens, but to completely eliminate even the possibility of crime––even if that means murdering in order to achieve his goals. In another, we meet a Batwoman (Bryce Wayne) who is driven to madness by the death of her lover, Sylvester Kyle. In another, Batman’s guilt over not being able to save Alfred from his enemies sends him over the edge. Doesn’t all this mean that it isn’t so much Bruce’s will that determines who he is and what he does, but instead the circumstances of his life do?
Perhaps, but that might be looking at things too simply. And while in some of the Dark Knights stories, changes in circumstances make Bruce into a different kind of Batman than the one we know and love, the examples of The Dawnbreaker and The Batman Who Laughs show that it’s more than just our environments that determine who we are and what we do.
In The Dawnbreaker, we witness the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents yet again. The circumstances of their murder are almost identical to the one we all know from comics and movies. The only difference comes afterward, when Bruce decides how to respond to the death of his parents:
“How did I feel? . . . When I stood there helpless as my mom and dad’s blood was running into the gutter? I felt . . . nothing. Like the sky and the ground broke apart and all that was left was a void as big as everything. And that void was inside me. I didn’t feel anything. Not even fear.”
The artwork on these pages makes it clear that Bruce’s lack of fear isn’t simply apathy or foolhardiness. He weeps for his parents, and his face darkens with anger as he watches the killer run away. This Bruce uses his rage to destroy any fear that he might feel; it’s the same rage that might enable Bruce to fight crime as an adult.
Because Bruce defeats fear and chases down the killer of his parents, the Green Lantern Corps sends him a Power Ring and makes him his Earth’s Lantern. But instead of becoming the hero that he might have as Batman (or that Hal Jordan became as the Green Lantern), Bruce becomes a cold killer. Instead of bringing criminals to justice, he kills them. (For example, he takes the Penguin into space and leaves him there, where his body freezes and splits apart, spilling his organs into the airless void.) Worse, when the Green Lantern Corps arrives on earth to confiscate Bruce’s ring for his crimes, he murders the entire Corp.
At first, the Ring resists Bruce’s desire to kill, saying that “lethal force is not permitted,” but Bruce’s will is so strong that it overpowers the Ring’s protocols. Such strength of will definitely supports the view that the Dawnbreaker becomes evil freely.
But what if the addition of the Ring itself to the story is what determines the kind of person that Bruce becomes? We might say that this universe’s Bruce chooses to become evil because he desires revenge. But we might also say that The Dawnbreaker is what happens when Bruce is given power when he’s too young to handle it. In that case, it’s too simple to say that he chooses to become the Dawnbreaker.
The Batman Who Laughs
The Batman Who Laughs (about whom I’ve written before) offers another complicated case. This Batman is driven insane by the Joker’s toxin, becoming perhaps the most horrifying of the evil Batman in Metal. At first glance, this might seem like a clear case of determinism. Batman’s personality and will are changed by an outside force. But we don’t have to deny free will in order to admit that our minds change when they become damaged by trauma, poison, or disease. It might be that Bruce Wayne was truly free until the moment when the Joker Toxin destroyed his mind.
The case of the Batman Who Laughs might be a good illustration of how freedom and determinism can coincide or coexist with one another. In the universe of The Batman Who Laughs, Batman has always lived by the same rule as our universe’s Batman: he won’t kill. But a desperate moment leads this Bruce to give in and kill the Joker. He does it because he realizes that the Joker will never stop terrorizing and killing innocents. But when he snaps the Clown Prince’s neck, Joker Toxin begins to seep from his body, and Bruce breathes it in. Eventually, he succumbs to its effects and becomes the Batman Who Laughs.
What makes the case of this Batman difficult is that while he freely chooses to kill the Joker (maybe; someone really determined to deny free will might say that even this is debatable), Bruce doesn’t freely become the Batman Who Laughs. He resists the effects of the toxin at first, but eventually his will isn’t strong enough to overcome it. This has to complicate our answer to the question about free will.
But often the right answers are going to be the complicated ones. Life itself is complicated, and sometimes the simple answers are too simple. What happens to Bruce in The Batman Who Laughs is (in some ways) what happens to most of us: the free choices that we make now will determine what choices are available to us later, and sometimes we can make choices that destroy our freedom altogether. For example, freely using an addicting drug now might later mean that I am enslaved to it, unable to make a truly free choice at all. So perhaps in choosing to violate his moral code and kill the Joker, Bruce makes a free choice that later ends up taking away his ability to choose.
In other words, we can use our freedom in a way that ultimately undermines or takes away our freedom.