Knightfall emerged swiftly on the heels of the Funeral for a Friend book which detailed the reactions of a world that had lost Superman to the brutal attack on the Man of Steel in the streets of Metropolis by the super villain, Doomsday. The Justice League was in pieces and few expected the next devastating blow to befall the team – a severely beaten and broken Batman.
While it has never been directly linked to Knightfall, the events of the Death of Superman must have had some impact on Bruce Wayne; his closest friend and ally thought to be dead. While Batman would never have shown it, the effects of losing another person so close to him would have been incredibly arresting and was probably a catalyst (and likely explanation) to the rash decisions he makes; the employ of Jean Paul Valley as his successor, pushing Robin and Nightwing to the side and, most significantly, the pressure he puts his body through following Bane’s release of the inmates of Arkham Asylum and their subsequent chaotic spree across Gotham.
Bane was introduced to be a rival to Batman in a way that paralleled Doomsday’s onslaught on Superman; the latter being a merciless opponent of extreme ferocity that exploited Superman’s greatest flaw – he could not reason with the beast and was forced to kill it, destroying himself in the process – while the former was a master strategist that was physically capable of besting the Dark Knight. While Doomsday was a reflection of the trend in 90’s comics to be uber-violent, Bane – and the Knightfall trilogy – was to form a reaction to that.
During Knightfall, Batman has to take on a host of his greatest (and not to great) rogues gallery without taking a break or allowing his allies to help with the clear up. As previously stated, his reluctance to fully involve others may have been a reaction to seeing the murder of his best friend and not wanting to put those closest to him at risk. Over the increasing number of nights the denizens of Arkham are on the loose, Batman continues to best them but burns himself out at a rate he was never prepared for. This culminates in an encounter with Bane in Wayne Manor (the villain figures out his secret identity) and, with Batman too weak to defend himself, cripples the Dark Knight.
Unexpectedly, Bruce puts up little of a fight against his new nemesis. Looking at other titles on shelves at the time, tells a story as to why. The innate violence shown within emerging superhero titles of the time was rife, engaging darker and much more extreme vigilantes who had a tendency to go to any length to stop their foes. By Batman NOT killing Bane, DC was able to reflect a nobler side to their hero – even though it proved to be his downfall, Batman was stuck to his initial mantra which was never to take another life.
Jean Paul Valley’s ill-preparedness for the role of the Dark Knight and his descent into madness is further comment on this. The differences between the two Batmen are stellar but clever writing initially led us all to believe that Valley may have been more than capable to take on the mantle of the Bat. Sure, his methods were much more visceral but many thought “Well, he got the job done and his back isn’t broken,” which, particularly with Who Rules the Night’s cliffhanger ending when Valley defeats Bane, suggests that he could actually take on the role of Batman.
It could have been Valley’s brainwashing at the hands of the cult of St. Dumas or his violent methods that drove him mad but Bruce Wayne’s position was further validated when, after his training with Lady Shiva (in which he notable refused to kill an adversary at her behest), he takes down Valley in the Batcave in a much more calculated way as opposed to a huge face off. He traps the pretender and forces his to shed his armour making him much less than a match for the debilitated Dark Knight.
Knightfall is also significant in how it paved the way for the foundation of the Bat-family, in the form we have come to know and love them. The story revolves around his reluctance to involve his colleagues and, as such, ultimately proves his downfall. As other stories have done before and since, few have been able to show how destructive it is for Bruce Wayne to alienate those who love him and want nothing more than to see that he is safe. It proves to be a hard lesson learned that Batman needs to support of others and his quest to seek justice for his parents death is something he should never seek alone.