It’s been seven years since the Joker tortured and killed Jason Todd, only the second Boy Wonder to don the Robin costume on his young shoulders, and also the first to die doing so.
After an uncharacteristically quiet night in the dark alleys of Gotham, Bruce Wayne aka the Batman is taking slow sips of some of the finest that Tennessee has to offer.
Sitting slouched and with his back to his information centre, cowl undone, a look of remorse plastered across his face, this is not Batman. This is not The Dark Knight. This is not the legend that for two decades has instilled fear into the hearts and minds of the criminally corrupt and insane.
No, this is a man. A broken man. This, as he had always feared, underneath that mask is who Bruce Wayne really is. Broken.
Bruce Wayne: I should have killed him when I had the chance instead of putting him in Arkham Asylum. I should have killed him many years ago when we encountered so many times in the past.
Alfred Pennyworth: Would that have absolved you of your guilt, Master Wayne?
[Even in this moment of anger and grief, Bruce Wayne aka Batman keeps his calm and refrains from taking a rushed swig of the whiskey.]
Batman: No. No, Alfred. Perhaps not. But it is the not knowing that’s killing me. Paradoxical as it may sound, the knowledge of not knowing if I would have felt any less guilt had I killed him is the thing that’s killing me.
Alfred: Perhaps sometimes it is best to not know some things. Perhaps, there is some truth in the old adage that ignorance truly is bliss.
Batman: You know there’s no truth in that as well as I do, Alfred. If knowledge is power than doesn’t it mean that ignorance, not knowing, is weakness?
Alfred: The absence of sorrow does not mean the presence of happiness, does it now, Master Wayne?
[He ponders upon Alfred’s words. Alfred, who’s been with the family since his father Thomas and mother Martha were married and took over the role of running Wayne Manor from his father, Jarvis. Alfred, who made sense when the rest of the world refused to. Alfred, who now Bruce Wayne wished didn’t make sense.]
Batman: What fuels a man like Joker, Alfred? What drives so much insanity in one man?
Alfred [Pauses]: …who knows… Maybe a traumatic childhood or a series of failures as an adult. Who knows…
[Bruce takes a quick sip from his glass, walks towards the glass case housing Jason’s Robin costume.]
Bruce: He was troubled. Ever since the first day I met him, and till the day he died, he was always troubled. I don’t know if I ever did enough.
Alfred: You did all that you could, Master Wayne. Do not let the weight of responsibility and guilt bring you down. I don’t mean to imply that Master Jason was so far gone that he couldn’t be repaired but perhaps he was so damaged much before you caught him trying to steal the wheels of the Batmobile that night that he would have had to been remoulded from scratch. And if you did, he would not have remained Master Jason anymore. Perhaps he would have lost the essence of what made him, him.
[Alfred’s words sink in, slowly, into both Batman and Bruce’s consciences. Painfully.]
Bruce: Are you saying that the essence of who Jason was, that his very soul was corrupted to the extent that no matter how hard I tried or how much effort he put in, beyond redemption?
[Pursing his lips, Alfred takes out a votive glass, walks to the desk of the information console, and pours himself a stiff one. He takes a deep breath, and in one single gulp, downs the Bourbon.]
Alfred: Master Bruce, I don’t like to think that the world is divided into just two kinds of people; that from out of all the billions of people living and breathing today that one half of them is one way and that the other, another. That applies to the dead too.
Bruce: So what do you think?
Alfred: What I think is irrelevant, Master Bruce. What I believe is that at the end of the day we always have a choice how we play the cards we’ve been dealt with in life.
Bruce: Life is poker?
Alfred: In a way, yes. You can lose to someone who has a pair of deuces even if you have a chance of a royal flush. Now, you can wait for the river card but the most important decision is what you decide to do in turn.
Bruce: So we deal with the hands we’ve been dealt in the best way possible?
Alfred: Yes. And sometimes, we aren’t sure what the best way possible is. Not all of us are capable of owning the cards we’ve been dealt.
[Bruce Wayne morphs into Batman once again as Alfred’s words play on repeat in his head. Realising that his glass is now empty, he walks to the bottle.]
Batman (pouring the drink into his glass): What cards do you think Joker was handed?
Alfred: Perhaps we should have this conversation in a more sober mood.
Batman: Perhaps I wouldn’t want to have this conversation when we are sober.
[Some things need to said. Some conversations need to be had. Many of them, drunk.]
Alfred: I believe, Master Wayne, that the cards the Joker was handed are irrelevant. I believe that no matter what he had in his hole, no matter the flop, he would have gone all in before the turn and the river cards were ever shown.
Batman: Do you think he had a troubled childhood?
Alfred: As I said before, what I think is irrelevant. What I do believe is, is that two people may undergo the same experiences but that does not necessarily mean that they will react to those experiences the same way.
Batman: Do you believe he had a troubled childhood?
Alfred: Maybe he had a troubled adult life. But for your sake, I’ll say that maybe he did indeed have a troubled childhood. Maybe he grew up in Gotham and his parents too were killed on the same cursed night that your parents were.
Bruce: So maybe, that’s his motive. Maybe that’s what drives him. Maybe that’s what makes him the Joker.
Alfred: You had a troubled childhood.
Bruce (With a smirk on his face): I also had an Alfred to comfort me through the difficult times. Maybe he wasn’t heir to a multi-million dollar empire.
Alfred: Did that make it any easier for you?
[Silence engulfs the Batcave. In the dim greyness of this cave, the pain of the two men is echoed more than ever. What only lasts a brief minute, seems to stretch on forever.]
Bruce: Clearly not. I play dress-up every night and haunt the streets and skyscrapers of this city. Clearly, I am the maniac here. I’m the psychopath.
[Chuckling, Alfred pours himself a last peg; a large one at that.]
Alfred: No arguments there, Master Wayne, but here’s the difference- you chose to act differently. Maybe the Joker did indeed watch his parents die the same way you did. Perhaps they suffered an even worse death. Maybe he had and has his reasons for being and behaving the way he does. But that doesn’t make it right. That doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s killed hundreds of people in his lifetime.
There are families grieving today because of him. Wives who are eating their mac and cheese alone because of the Joker. Young boys who will never play catch with their fathers or little girls who won’t get to braid their fathers’ hair when they read them bedtime stories. All because of one man’s actions.
Perhaps the two of you did share a similar childhood but you chose to defend a city that took away your world. He seeks to destroy it.
Bruce: You are saying…
Alfred: I am saying, Master Wayne, is that when you have every reason to become corruptible and yet you choose not to, that’s what makes you who you are. When you have every right to do the wrong thing and yet you choose not to, every night, every time you put on that mask, that is what makes the Batman, Bruce Wayne. Not the mythical, dark, hiding-in-the-shadows psychopath who clearly needs to see a shrink. But the choice you make every night is what defines you.
Note: September 15 is celebrated as Batman Day by fans of the truest superhero of all time.