The Short Version: Everyone knows that Bruce Wayne lost his parents in a tragic accident at a young age – and the young Bruce took that moment and the idealized image of his parents as the catalyst to becoming Batman. But when an unexpected visitor to Wayne Manor sets off a chain of mysterious events, Bruce realizes he barely knew his parents – and the legacy they left behind is far more than Wayne Enterprises…
The Review: So, okay. It’s weird to head back into the non-Nolan Batman universe. It just is. There’s no doubt about it, especially so hot on the heels of The Dark Knight Rises. Gotham has been irrevocably changed by that trilogy and so one’s first reentry into the broader Batman canon at large is inevitably going to feel weird. In this sense, Hickman’s novel is actually the perfect reentry point – the timing is too spot-on for the author not to’ve realized that the book would be read by fans post-TDKR and so he does his best to be gentle and make distinct nods to several parts of the Batman canon. There’s even a reference to the original Batmobile as seen in the Adam West TV show – and while these references sometimes feel a bit forced (“oh, here’s another reference to a criminal or a minor supporting character!”), there’s also something somewhat comforting about it.
The plot itself is maybe the most interesting part of the novel, although it has some rather large holes. The idea SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS is that Thomas Wayne, as a younger man, was involved in what can only be described as eugenics research. He and an escaped German scientist had developed a way to alter a patient’s sociological makeup: essentially, a cure for aberrant (murderous) behaviors. Of course, as always happens with these things, the cure becomes worse than the disease and generates the first of Gotham’s supervillains. Not surprisingly, the question is then raised: did those supervillains and that ‘disease’ spread and is that why Gotham is overpopulated by crazies? Hickman waffles on the answer – it’s implied that Bruce himself might’ve somehow caught it and that’s why he’s Batman… but then, nope, he tests negative for it. And it’s implied that some of the villains aren’t infected either.
All of that led to me to ask “well, then why bother?” and once that rabbit hole was opened, I found myself spiralling down it quickly. The unnecessary Alfred/Bruce antagonism was, well, unnecessary; the motivations behind the villain feel murky and rather spur-of-the-moment; and the action is a little flat. Sure, plenty of things happen – and Hickman’s take on all of the various Bat devices comes off mostly interesting – but for some reason I found most of it to be just sort of stale. It all feels just a little rote.
The flashbacks to Thomas Wayne’s youth are perhaps the most interesting part of the book as they shed light on a part of the Batverse we don’t get to see that often… but they also felt somewhat distracting and underdeveloped. It turns out Bruce’s mom was totally crazy! and only fell in love with his dad after she saw ‘him’ (but not him) fight off a mobster! And, again, the whole “oh, it turns out my Dad was secretly part of this eugenics project that apparently spawned four serial murderer villains but who Bruce has, somehow, never come across in all his years of searching? I dunno. It all felt a little too dashed off.
That said, it IS fun. The various technology that goes into the Batsuit and the Batmobile are fascinating – and his relentless tinkering is a reminder that Batman is really just a savvy nerd. It does get a little too Tony Stark, I’ll admit, but I was willing to forgive it after Christian Bale’s somewhat grittier take. Seeing villains pop up - including a Joker who is far more like the Joker we all grew up with Ledger’s – was fun, even if it felt shoehorned sometimes. I just wish it had all felt a little less forced and a little more engaging.
Rating: 3 out of 5. The gaping plot holes and somewhat forced inclusion of various elements and characters keep the story from ever taking flight – even the characterizations of some of the characters (Bruce especially) felt a little off the mark. But that said, it’s an intriguing story (even if the denuement felt just totally, totally wrong) and – perhaps most importantly – a nice way to return Batman to the universe at large instead of the (admittedly amazing) one that Nolan has created.