As long as Gotham City is still standing, Batman will always be there keeping the forces of darkness at bay. Or will he? Gotham Knights introduces a version of the DC Universe where Batman has apparently been killed, leaving his former sidekicks to carry on his war on crime.
As it turns out, this is hardly the first DC story to show us a world without Batman. There have been many comics, shows and movies over the years to explore what happens when Bruce Wayne is either killed in action or simply gives up being Batman. Here are the important ones every Bat-fan should know – and who knows, maybe some elements here will wind up playing into the events of Gotham Knights as well!
In the classic DC multiverse, Earth-2 is home to the original Golden Age versions of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, as well as their children. In this world, Batman gets married to Catwoman and ages out of the superhero business, leaving an adult Dick Grayson to carry on the fight. Bruce and Selina’s daughter Helena eventually becomes the Huntress, and Bruce eventually meets his end in a battle to the death against a magically empowered criminal named Bill Jensen.
DC later introduced a new version of Earth-2 as part of the New 52 relaunch. In this world Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman sacrifice their lives to protect the planet from Darkseid’s forces. The Batman mantle passes first to Bruce’s estranged father, Thomas, and then to Dick Grayson.
The Dark Knight Returns
There’s probably no more iconic take on the “retired Batman” trope than Frank Miller’s 1986 graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns. In this universe, the heroes of the Justice League are middle-aged and mostly forced into retirement by the US government. But even pushing 60, Bruce can only spend so much time wallowing in alcohol-fueled misery before renewing his war on crime. Over the course of the story, Batman faces off with Two-Face and Joker for the final time, puts down the Mutant Gang and recruits a new Robin named Carrie Kelley. Bats even manages to put up a decent fight against the Man of Steel before finally faking his own death.
Miller has continued this saga through several spinoffs and sequels, most recently in 2019’s The Dark Knight Returns: The Golden Child, which features Carrie as the new Batman.
DC made headlines in 1992 by killing off the Man of Steel in the pages of Superman #75. It was inevitable they would apply the same formula to the Batman franchise. 1993’s Knightfall crossover pits Batman against Bane, a villain every bit as cunning and driven as the Dark Knight himself. After systematically wearing down his foe, Bane defeats Batman in one-on-one combat and breaks his back.
That’s just the beginning of this dark chapter in Batman’s career, however. Bruce passes the Batman mantle onto Jean-Paul Valley, formerly the fanatical mercenary Azrael. The new Batman makes short work of Bane, but he quickly proves to be an even greater threat to Gotham City thanks to his unstable mind and violent methods.
Over the course of follow-up storylines Knightquest and KnightsEnd, Bruce manages to heal his broken body, get back in touch with his inner Batman and finally challenge his successor for the right to wear the cowl.
No sooner did Bruce Wayne return to his old job in KnightsEnd than he promptly passed the mantle off to Dick Grayson in Batman: Prodigal. Even as Bruce leaves town in order to find his superhero groove again, Dick gets a crash course in playing Dark Knight and rounds up the villains still on the lam after Bane’s attacks. This story is also notable for cementing the bond between Dick and Batman’s third Robin, Tim Drake.
The New Batman Adventures: “Chemistry”
Batman: The Animated Series tackled its own version of the retired Batman story in one of its final episodes. In “Chemistry” Bruce becomes so infatuated with a woman named Susan Maguire that he proposes to her and gives up his nighttime antics. Is love really a force powerful enough to drown out Bruce’s obsessive need to punch criminals?
No, of course not. It turns out “Susan” is a plant creature created by Poison Ivy, who’s busy targeting Gotham’s wealthy elite in the hope of stealing their fortunes. Bruce comes to his senses and leaves Susan to drown in a sinking ship. Even for Batman, that’s cold.
The animated series Batman Beyond offers one of the most chilling accounts of what happens when Bruce Wayne grows too old to be Batman. The series premiere reveals what happens decades after the events of Batman: The Animated Series. Even with the help of a high-tech new suit, Bruce calls it quits when his heart begins failing and he finds himself almost turning to a gun for protection.
20 years later, the elderly Bruce finds a worthy heir to the Batman mantle in young Terry McGinnis. Though as fans would find out years later in Justice League Unlimited, Terry becoming Batman was anything but a chance encounter.
Batman: Battle for the Cowl
DC did the unthinkable in 2008’s Final Crisis, with Batman losing his life in a standoff with the almighty Darkseid. Though by the end of the series, it became clear that Bruce wasn’t dead, but merely blasted backward in time by Darkseid’s Omega Sanction. Still, as far as anyone in the Justice League knew, he was dead and gone.
That twist sparked a crossover called Battle for the Cowl, with numerous heroes and even a few villains all vying for the right to become the new Batman. That responsibility eventually falls on Dick Grayson, who teams up with Batman’s son Damian to form a new Dynamic Duo. Even after Bruce returned, Dick would spend another year sharing the Batman role before finally reverting to his Nightwing identity.
For more on this particular tale, recently did a deep-dive with Final Crisis writer Grant Morrison about their lengthy Batman run and the decision to “kill” Bruce.
The Dark Knight Rises
Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy showcases Batman at the beginning, the peak and the twilight of his costumed career. 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises takes a few cues from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and the Knightfall crossover. Bruce has given up being Batman and becomes a recluse following his hollow victory at the end of 2008’s The Dark Knight. But when a terrorist named Bane threatens Gotham, Bruce is all too eager to put the costume back on and resume his crusade.
Much like Knightfall, Batman underestimates the threat posed by Bane and winds up with a broken back for his troubles. But Bruce claws his way back to health and out of a literal pit, ultimately returning to Gotham just in time to save the city from nuclear annihilation. The world believes Batman sacrificed his life in the process. Instead, the movie ends by revealing he faked his death and is now living a life of quiet anonymity with Selina Kyle.
But Gotham must always have a Batman, and the film’s final shot shows crusading cop John Blake becoming the new Dark Knight. Too bad we’ll probably never actually see a Dark Knight 4.
Final Crisis writer Grant Morrison famously said that every Batman writer should give the Caped Crusader both a birth and a death before their work is complete. For New 52 Batman writer Scott Snyder, that death came in 2014’s Batman: Endgame, which culminates with Batman and Joker dying in each other’s arms deep underground.
Rather than have Dick Grayson take up the cape and cowl again, Snyder and artist Greg Capullo instead made Commissioner Gordon of all people the new Batman. Paired with a Bat-mecha nicknamed “Rookie,” Gordon becomes Gotham City’s first government-sanctioned Dark Knight in Batman: Superheavy.
Over the course of that story, readers learn Bruce and Joker both survived their apparent deaths thanks to a pool of a mystical chemical called Dionesium. Both men are restored to health, albeit with no memories of their old lives. But when a new villain called Mr. Bloom threatens the city, Bruce has no choice but to shock his brain back into alignment and become Batman once more. Hey, at least he got a nifty new costume out of the bargain.
Batman ‘66 Meets Wonder Woman ‘77
Batman ‘66 Meets Wonder Woman ‘77 not only gives us the superhero TV crossover we always dreamed of, it also reveals what happens to West’s Batman after his series was canceled. It turns out even this happy-go-lucky Caped Crusader eventually hit a rough patch.
As a middle-aged Bruce meets Diana Prince in 1977, he reflects back on his final failure as Batman. Joker, who evolved from a campy prankster to a homicidal lunatic, eventually discovered Batman’s secret identity and attacked Wayne Manor. Alfred died of sheer fright, causing Bruce to lash out and kill his foe. All in all, a surprisingly bleak end to this incarnation of Batman, but at least Bruce is able to find redemption through his team-up with Wonder Woman.
For years, it was a major point of debate as to whether the Arrowverse actually had a Batman. That mystery was finally solved with the introduction of Bruce’s cousin Kate Kane in 2018’s Elseworlds crossover. It turns out there was a Batman in this universe, but he mysteriously vanished years ago. Eventually, Batwoman viewers learned Batman went into exile at some point after apparently snapping and killing the Joker.
Sadly, Batman never really appears in the Batwoman show outside of a couple quick flashbacks and a lot of namedrops. The closest the series ever got to a real Bruce Wayne appearance came during 2019’s Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover, where Kate meets a very twisted version of her cousin from an alternate universe.
Dark Crisis on Infinite Earths
The DC Universe can’t seem to go more than a few years without being ravaged by another Crisis. 2022’s Dark Crisis on Infinite Earths is the second Crisis to result in the apparent death of Batman. He, along with nearly every other member of the Justice League, is annihilated in a battle against Pariah at the very beginning of the crossover. The deaths of the Justice League force younger heroes like Jon Kent and Dick Grayson to fill the void and defend Earth from one of its greatest threats.
Unsurprisingly, it’s eventually revealed that these heroes aren’t dead, but trapped in false realities designed to keep them out of commission. Dark Crisis isn’t the first time Batman has been temporarily taken out of commission, and it surely won’t be the last.
How do you think Bruce Wayne’s story should end? Let us know what you think of these classic Bat-tales in the comments.
Jesse is a mild-mannered staff writer for . Allow him to lend a machete to your intellectual thicket by following @jschedeen on Twitter.