In honor of the release of Rocksteady’s final installment of the incredible Batman: Arkham videogame series, this week I will be reviewing Batman: Knightfall. Knightfall is a huge Batman arc written by Chuck Dixon and Doug Moench and illustrated by Alan Grant, Jim Aparo and others. If you’ve ever seen a “must-read Batman stories” list, chances are very good that this series is on there, particularly since the most recent Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, is heavily influenced by it.
Knightfall is the story of how the supervillain Bane arrived in Gotham and broke Batman over the course of one long night. Defeated and broken in body and spirit, Batman must give himself time to recover and thus allows a member of the Batfamily, Azrael, to fill in for him while he’s gone. The three volumes of this series cover each portion of the story with the first volume (Knightfall) covering Bane’s rise to power, the second volume (Knightquest) covering Azrael stepping into Batman’s shoes and the third volume (Knightsend) covering Batman’s return.
The beginning of the story which contains Bane’s rise is one of the most compelling Batman stories ever written, largely because Bane finally becomes a full-fledged character rather than the dumb brute that he’s often been portrayed as. We get to see Bane’s origin as a kid who grows up in a prison in Pena Duro, which appears to be an island somewhere in Latin America. Instead of relying on his strength, Bane spends his time in prison training both mind and body to be perfect and crafting himself into the ultimate powerhouse. After hearing of the riches of Gotham’s crime lords, he resolves to escape and force Gotham, and Batman, to their knees. It’s fantastic to see Batman finally come up against a villain who can seriously challenge him both mentally and physically and I loved that Bane’s plan didn’t just involve going head to head with Bats. The rest of the arc details the fallout from this showdown.
The new character Azrael is the big weak spot in this storyline. The part where Azrael fills in for Batman is a roughly 600-page middle finger from Chuck Dixon to Batman fans who wanted a darker, grittier Batman. Jean Paul Valley, a.k.a. Azrael, is a young man who is friends with Tim Drake (Robin) and Batman and has worked with them in the past. His family was part of a secret society that brainwashed him into a mysterious System whose purpose was to make him into a ruthless warrior who exacted justice on any evildoers. This essentially created a superhero, when the Azrael part of his personality was in control, who believed that mercy was for the weak. The struggle between the Jean Paul personality and the Azrael personality could have made an interesting comparison to Batman’s strict no killing policy. Instead, Dixon approaches it with all the subtlety of a two-by-four to the skull. Instead of the World’s Greatest Detective, the reader is treated to a crimefighter who solves every problem with his fists. I’m not sure I could count all the times that Azrael did something idiotic and then declared that he was superior to Batman and the real defender of Gotham. Worst of all, this System acts as the biggest deus ex machina I’ve ever seen in a comic book. If Azrael can’t solve a problem by beating it into submission, the System miraculously solves it for him. There’s a point at which he rescues a woman who only speaks Spanish and then suddenly finds that he can speak Spanish. What a coincidence! And it’s far from the only one. It’s unfortunate that it follows such a great story as it really detracts from the arc as a whole.
Knightfall is a difficult one to recommend unconditionally. Bane’s rise to power and his defeat of Batman is a compelling and very well written story. If you enjoy Batman at all, it’s a must-read! However, Dixon and company do such a poor job with Azrael that I wouldn’t wish reading those parts on my worst enemy. Unless you’re a total completionist, you skip Knightquest. Knightsend is one I’d really only recommend if you’re a big fan of Nightwing as there’s a pretty great moment between him and Batman at the end of it. Overall, worth reading if your goal is to read all the great Batman stories but, aside from the Bane fight, not one I’d count as a favorite.