Death | Comics | Video Games

The Many “Good Deaths” of Batman

Dedicated to Kevin Conroy

The Ugly Monster


Cover from DC, art by Frank Quitely

*Slight spoilers for Suicide Squad: Kill The Justice League (2024) and Batman/Catwoman: Special (2022)*

How many times can you kill a character until their death stops meaning anything? Death matters because it is a permanent end. It’s not a comma in someone’s life, but the full stop. After all, it causes longing for something impossible; a reunion with the dead.

But death in comics works differently than in real life. They’re rarely permanent, more like suspended animation, or an actor leaving for a few seasons of television.

Starting perhaps most notably from The Death of Superman (1992), comic book characters have always been resurrected in one way or another, excluding a couple of exceptions. Fictional characters are alive as long as there is still someone who continues to make stories about them, as long as ideas don’t dry up and there is money to be made.

“Meaningful” deaths and endings are relegated to alternate universes and what-ifs. Even then, fans would only miss versions of the character, and there is no shortage of superhero media to consume, only compounding with every new company merger. But if someone dies every few years, how can you decide which deaths are respectful? What is a good death?

There has been a recent controversy regarding the death of Batman in Suicide Squad: Kill The Justice League (2024), the latest release in Rocksteady’s DC video game series. This is the first work to be released posthumously after Kevin Conroy’s passing, the voice of Batman in many media since the 1990s, including the first game of the franchise in 2009.

Many fans are outraged that Rocksteady would kill off a beloved character in such an unceremonious way, especially a character that fans have played and identified with for almost two decades now. And many argue it disrespects Kevin’s last role in the video game series. But what is a good death?

How many times has the fictional character of Batman died, in how many ways, in how many media, played by how many actors? This is not even counting the deaths that happen on the page, in many issues, by many teams of writers and artists. Even in the DC video game released right before this one, Gotham Knights (2022), a completely different Batman with a completely different voice actor died. And in the most recent DC theatrical release with the caped crusader in it, The Flash (2023), Michael Keaton’s Batman died as well.

Both deaths are similar however in that they are self-sacrifices, which are by definition heroic. And as Batman is a superhero, does that mean a good death for him should constitute one of self-sacrifice and a heroic final gesture? That is what Batman himself thinks in the pivotal graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns (1986). All he wants is to end in a blaze of glory, not withering in ruin.

A Heroic Death

But even self-sacrifices have variety, as there are symbolic ones, and ones more literal. Batman has got them all covered it seems, from the death of his public identity in Arkham Knight (2015), and along with it any chance of a safe social life, to his faux martyrdom in The Dark Knight Rises (2012). This is perhaps the most common of his deaths, both on screen and off. There have been cases where he’s died fighting his greatest foe or even as extreme as fatally wounding the literal incarnation of evil. Either way, this seems to be the most accepted route that writers go to when intending to kill off Batman or cap off his story.

This is perfectly understandable, as it is an especially emotionally resonant conclusion for a blockbuster story, apparent in Christopher Nolan’s choice to have Batman carry a nuclear bomb to sea for his finale. Is this a good death? The best that he could have? There’s nothing more heroic than one man carrying mankind’s worst invention out into the horizon, to save a city from terrorists and hellfire. There is nothing more conventionally inspiring than that. It is what every powerless boy dreams of doing one day; to rid others and himself of unnecessary tragedy, to take tragedy into his own two hands.

In the end, it is even revealed that Batman doesn’t even die in the mushroom cloud; not his persona, nor his body. In something that truly can only happen in the movies, a successor takes on his mantle while he gets the girl and lives in Europe. The only thing that dies for him is his past responsibility, while what dies for the audience is the possibility of a sequel. What counts here then is not a good death, but a satisfying ending, as fans will not see this version of Batman again. This is a sort of death in its own right.

Gotham Knights (2022) from WB Games Montreal

In Gotham Knights, the game begins with Batman’s death, sacrificing himself in his home to stop his longtime enemy, and leaving his legacy and the task of protecting his city to his found family. How does this compare as a death? At the time of the game’s release, not a lot of fans complained about it, especially in comparison with the vitriol directed against his death in Suicide Squad. Many even consider this death and the whole prologue of the game to overshadow the rest of it.

Perhaps there is merit in saying that if Batman’s death in Suicide Squad were treated more heroically, or at least adjacent to this, there would not be as much backlash. Yet it can’t be overlooked that these two Batmen exist in different continuities. A lot of things are working against Suicide Squad, as some of the hate is based on the fact that it’s not just Batman that they’ve killed, but Kevin Conroy’s Batman, and not a new version either, but one that people have played as for years.

A Natural Death

In contrast, a natural death isn’t as cinematic, explosive, or grand. But in exchange, it is intimate in its mundanity, and arguably the most human. This is a death that all of us have to face in our own lives, something that doesn’t only happen on paper or screen. Because of this, this type of death is perhaps more relatable, or at the very least easier to empathize with.

Dying in his sleep, out of sickness or just old age, may seem dull for a dark knight, but this distinction from how he’s spent his life to how it ends may be his most appropriate reward. It shows that he’s survived. The young boy makes it out of the abyss and finally meets his parents. Most importantly, in his final moments, he is not alone. At least the way those moments are portrayed in Batman Annual #2 (2017).

Page from Batman Annual #2 (2017) from DC, art by Michael Lark, words by Tom King

Even in this case of natural death, however, writers can’t help but make Batman a hero in his last breaths. Here, Batman still possesses an amount of agency in his demise. He doesn’t die just because; he’s a comic book character. Life isn’t random where he comes from. It has an arc and poetic climax. Fictional stories like his are doctored to give the most satisfaction, which reality doesn’t offer on a silver platter.

In this story where he dies of cancer, he gets it from fighting an irradiated supervillain called Dr. Phosphorus. Batman lets himself get close to the skeletal man and is slowly exposed to radiation himself. But Batman is committed to helping Phosphorus and offers him the chance for a cure, despite the villain giving him a terminal illness. He still sacrifices himself, even for the life of a villain whose name few remember.

So even in his most regular of deaths, he still dies a hero. Close to Batman’s deathbed, Catwoman — his wife — said that they’d won; that to be able to die old, even with crime still alive and well, only means that they’d survived Gotham and the worst that life had to offer. So it is a bittersweet ending. The broken-hearted boy let himself love again and was loved in return. He lived a meaningful life, gave all that he could give, and with his last breaths only wished that he could have given more. But, it still begs the question, is this a good enough death?

A Senseless Death

On the furthest edge of the spectrum, there is the senseless death, the one that is most controversial in comparison. In the Batman/Catwoman Special (2022), readers get a glimpse of the tail end of Batman’s story, after his marriage with Catwoman, after the birth of their child — Helena — and after his death from cancer. Here, old lady Catwoman is walking down an alley and then gets shot down by a random criminal, echoing the gunshots fired decades ago, the ones that took Batman’s parents.

Here, the end circles back to the beginning. The loss of Batman’s loved ones both opens and bookends his tale. It started with two bullets, and it ended with them as well. Nothing changes, at least the world doesn’t. Even great heroes die and the world still turns as if nothing’s happened. This is surely a sad and sour note to end on, a depressingly tragic take on the story. If the world ended at the same point it began, what did everyone’s sacrifices amount to? But in the same book, Catwoman quotes the recently passed Batman, “You said the pain she was feeling was because of the life that was lost… That the life was good… so the pain could be… good.Maybe all a good death needs is just that… a good life.

Crisis on Infinite Earths (2019) from CW

In the CW crossover event Crisis on Infinite Earths (2019), Kevin Conroy finally plays a live-action version of Batman after decades of being him through voice only. In this only live-action portrayal, he becomes a jaded version of his character, a Batman who kills. He dies soon after his introduction, accidentally electrocuted in a short scuffle. This may be the most frustrating type of death — the freak accident — both in fiction and reality. It seems the most meaningless since it happens at random and often abruptly.

This death disregards the feelings of the character and the audience. It isn’t slow and expected like a natural death nor a conscious choice like self-sacrifice. Without any element of choice or precognition, the character ceases to remain a hero and is instead a victim. It is a terrifying thought to contend with, as it can come at any time from anywhere to anyone.

This is also the death that happens in the Suicide Squad game, where Batman is just shot and killed at point blank, like anybody else. This type of death doles out no special treatment. It happens to the best of us, and perhaps it is comforting that not even the world’s greatest detective could prepare for it.

Is it poetic that he dies the same way his parents did? We can interpret someone’s death in however many ways, pull on thin threads of meaning, and try to make sense out of the senseless. But their life ends anyway. Is there even such a thing as a good death? Or is it as made-up as the Batman who seeks it?

A Meaningful Life

Does a good death for a soldier mean they die fighting for their country, or beside their loved ones in old age? I think therein lies the problem, assuming that one end is better than another, that there is a dignified death, a justified one. What if there is none that‘s morally superior to all the others? Especially as death itself is so often tied to circumstance and not choice. There are no good deaths in real life. Good deaths are reserved for the movies, and even then, people debate them all the time.

As Batman’s foster father Alfred said,

“There are no good deaths, but there are good lives.”

Kevin Conroy was born on November 30, 1955. At age 18 he earned a full scholarship to study drama at Julliard. By 25, he had performed in theatre and TV, and at 37 first voiced Batman all the way until his death at age 66 on November 10, 2022. But who am I to comment on his death? All I know is that Kevin Conroy impacted my life for the better, and his voice rings still in my head. As a child, his voice was my inner voice, lifting me up. And as an adult, what he represents is nothing short of inspiring. Because he not only led a good life, he also had a difficult one.

It’s revealed in his autobiographical comic titled Finding Batman that he had to grow up with his family’s mental health issues. Moreover, he faced discrimination due to his homosexuality, which not only affected his personal life but also his work. He won a posthumous Eisner award for best short story, but long before that, he had already won all of our hearts.

No one knows how our lives will end or when. It may be abrupt, accidental, or natural — done in by just plain old time. The ultimate ending of things is beyond our control, but our lives before that point are not. We have a whole life to live, each and every one of us, and we choose each and every minute of it. That’s what makes it good, defines it as so. Not chance, not fate, choice. There are no good deaths because we don’t get to decide that. There are good lives because we can make them good.

Batman’s whole life, mission, and crusade is trying to make two nonsensical deaths meaningful, to justify horror and pain. In that way, he is no different from any of us. Every individual lives to make sense of their pasts, to make meaning out of being born into this world, to make it worth it. We work to make our degree worth it, love to make our parents’ love worth it, and write to make our experiences worth it. But as Batman forgets that his parents’ deaths do not erase the good lives they’ve lived, sometimes we too forget that good things do not have to be justified just because they’ve ended. Our childhood is still there, along with our old flames, and Kevin Conroy.

In Neil Gaiman’s Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader (2009), Batman’s death is confronted existentially. Loosely adapting Nietzche’s concept of eternal recurrence, it’s spelled out to the reader that the reward of a good life is that life itself. Meaninglessness induces anger, but a meaningful life would lead to acceptance of any death. In Nietzche’s thought experiment, the infinite arrangements of matter and time dictate that what happens after death is life all over again. What has happened will inevitably reoccur. Every childhood is relived and old flames are rekindled. Everything happens in a cycle. The same joy and the same pain repeat forever in the far far future. So a life well lived will be.

Maybe a good death contradicts itself. There are no lesser of two deaths. How someone dies should not matter as much as how someone lives. A good death only works for narrative satisfaction, for a tried and true formula for emotional catharsis. In the world of scripts and screens, a heroic death is a satisfying resolution, a reward for the audience’s hard-earned money. A natural death is sad, a vehicle for the audience to express their bottled-up emotions. A senseless death makes audiences angry and gives them a chance to rage at meaninglessness as they would in reality.

Page from Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? (2009) from DC, art by Andy Kubert

In conclusion, maybe it’s not necessarily about a physical or human death that fans of Batman are emotional about. It is about endings in general, about the last of things. Like love, there are no good breakups, only a good relationship. It can be civil, natural, or senseless, but good is an adjective reserved for the relationship, not its end. And sometimes every ending feels like a death in their own right. The same with actors’ tenure portraying loved characters, it’s never been about the characters’ deaths, but an actor’s last time playing them.

People think that Batman’s death in Suicide Squad is insulting because it’s Kevin Conroy’s last video game performance. But an end doesn’t discount the journey. The fond memories are still there, and anytime people go back to play the games, Kevin is there with them. If time is circular, then Batman will meet his parents again, spend time with them as a child, be happy, and lose them all the same. Just as we will experience Kevin’s voice for the first time, and also inevitably for the last, back in yesterday, and there in tomorrow. Tune in next life, same bat-time, same bat-channel.



The Ugly Monster

Chronic dreamer. Self-proclaimed poet, writer, and artist. Lover of art in all its myriad forms.