Batman #50 and Catwoman #1 explore whether superheroes can change: EW review
The new issues find these DC superheroes at turning points in their lives
How does a plot twist maintain its power even when the machinations become apparent ahead of time? This is a question that’s plagued pop culture for the past few years, especially now that streaming has drastically changed how and when people consume media (since now people can binge entire new seasons of Luke Cage or Queer Eye before you even wake up that day). Another source of spoilers comes from discussion boards and social media groupthink, as we saw when dedicated Westworld viewers were able to discern season 1’s biggest twists weeks ahead of time, weakening their impact upon arrival.
Something similar happened this past week with Batman #50, the much-anticipated wedding issue between Batman and Catwoman. Days before the issue hit stands, the New York Times spoiled the big twist with an article in its Vows section: Batman and Catwoman didn’t get married after all. Instead, Selina Kyle left Bruce Wayne at the proverbial altar (that is, a Gotham City rooftop) and took off into a new solo series; the first issue of Catwoman, released the same day as Batman #50, finds her in Mexico, hiding from her old life in Gotham and plagued by youthful imitators.
So that’s the twist. Many knew it before Batman #50 was available for purchase, and many more know it now. Is the issue still worth buying and reading?
The beauty of Batman #50 is that, though the issue will make the most sense to readers who have been following along with writer Tom King’s run on the book since it started in 2016, it evokes all eras of the Dark Knight’s history, thus becoming a cultural testament with greater staying power than just its plot twists and turns. The main illustrator on the issue is Mikel Janin, who has depicted the most explosive arcs of King’s run so far, including “I Am Suicide” — in which Batman follows his enemy Bane to Santa Prisca and explores his own history with trauma and suicidal ideation — and “The War of Jokes and Riddles,” a supervillain gang war that changed Gotham forever.
Janin continues demonstrating his strengths in Batman #50, from his innovative layouts — one beautiful splash page finds Bruce and Selina accidentally seeing each other in wedding clothes for the first time and meeting in the middle of a Wayne Manor hallway for a passionate kiss — to his incredible, subtle facial acting. The big decision about the wedding, for instance, is built up by Selina and Bruce’s facial reactions in conversations with Holly Robinson and Alfred over the course of the issue. One of the single most emotional sequences in the issue comes when Bruce asks Alfred to be his best man. Alfred’s reaction, presented by Janin over four wordless panels and a hug, is a breathtaking moment of love and acceptance between these two battle-scarred men. Even though the issue ends with a bit of a fake-out, there are plenty of moments of real catharsis involving long-standing relationships between characters, all of which feel earned.
Batman #50 is mostly structured around two letters Bruce and Selina wrote to and for each other. In between the sequences illustrated by Janin, these letters are excerpted over one-page illustrations of Bat and Cat by the artists behind many of the most iconic Batman comics of the past few decades. Dark Knight Returns mastermind Frank Miller contributes a page, as does The Long Halloween’s Tim Sale and Batman: Year 100’s Paul Pope, plus Jim Lee, whose Batman: Hush took an earlier deep look at Batman and Catwoman’s relationship. King’s Batman run has featured a revolving door of brilliant artists, and many of them (including Mitch Gerads, Clay Mann, and Catwoman writer/artist Joelle Jones) return to summarize their previous contributions to the saga with new one-page illustrations. Previous artists who weren’t around to make a contribution are honored as well, in the names of Gotham City locations. The rooftop where Selina makes her fateful decision is labeled Kane Plaza, and Bruce is left atop Finger Tower — the two locations named for Batman’s creators, Bob Kane and Bill Finger. Other classic DC writers and artists like Len Wein, Gardner Fox, and Denny O’Neil get their own shout-outs throughout the issue in the names of Gotham streets and wings of Wayne Manor. Like Action Comics #1000, this multiplicity of creators turns Batman #50 into a lovely time machine showcasing this iconic character’s past and pointing the way toward his future.
Above, around, and between the art is King’s writing. Many of the central themes he’s been building throughout the run come to the fore here; the very first page, for instance, features Bat and Cat preparing for their wedding by beating up Kite Man. This C-list villain has become the unofficial mascot of King’s run, with his goofy catchphrase (“Kite Man! Hell yeah!”) masking a deep well of futile misery and Sisyphean struggle. Kite Man’s name happens to be Charles Brown, so King has played his ineffective attempts at supervillainy as just another version of Charlie Brown trying to kick the football before Lucy pulls it away again. Kite Man’s presence here serves to signal that Batman himself is actually going through a similar struggle. After all, what is Batman’s endgame? The instinctual answer is “until crime is ended and/or Gotham City citizens feel safe,” but more than 70 years of Batman stories have shown us that’s not a realistic achievement. Well, then maybe his endgame should be securing some happiness for himself while still fighting the good fight? That’s been the premise of the wedding build-up until now, that it is possible for Batman to achieve happiness in the arms of his longtime lover and rival.
This is, of course, no simple question for Batman. Marriage would be a true change in his status quo, as would happiness; Batman’s whole premise is being a dark, morose avenger of the night. Can superheroes ever change? This question was at the forefront of classic comics like Sandman and Watchmen, and it’s even more relevant now that superhero franchises dominate our culture like never before. This was what was so energizing about the potential Batman marriage, that Batman might change into a happier, married version of himself even as the dark avenger version continued to make millions of dollars on the big screen.
Alas, such a change was indeed a bridge too far for superhero comics. In the end, both Bruce and Selina backed away from this momentous change. Worried that a happy Batman would be less capable of stopping villains like the Joker from killing people, Selina decides to sacrifice their happiness for a chance at justice. This changes the question from “Can corporate-owned characters ever meaningfully change?” to “Is misery always necessary as a motivator?” Her worries that “if I help that lonely boy with the lonely eyes… I kill Batman, I kill the person who saves everyone” are reminiscent of Ursula Le Guin’s classic story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” or the Adventure Time wizards whose magic is powered by their madness and sadness. For the time being, Selina declines to mess with that formula.
And yet, change is in the air. Catwoman #1, by Jones and Laura Allred, picks up with Selina navigating life in Villahermosa, Mexico. She has abandoned her wedding dress for a new Catwoman costume, and yet, in a funhouse mirror reflection of the themes of Batman #50, finds herself unable to escape her past when she suddenly comes face-to-face with a squadron of younger women dressing up as Catwoman and committing violent crimes. The only explicit reference to her just-missed wedding is when Selina receives her costume in the mail, courteously forwarded by Alfred, and sobs at the Wayne butler’s note. So, perhaps a real Bat-Cat wedding is in the cards sometime down the road; King says he’s only halfway done telling his big story about their relationship, and the final page of Batman #50 reveals that the whole fake-out may have been a master plan by Bane to finally break Batman.
For now, these superheroes can’t bring themselves to change too drastically. But there are little changes along the way (whether a new costume or a new comic series or a new relationships to their fellow characters) that make it feel rewarding to follow these characters year after year, and make a big issue like this worth reading, even aside from the twist.