Sadness, loss & failure. My partner. My Soldier. My Fault. Any Batman fan is familiar with the story of A Death in the Family, it represents one of the Dark Knight’s greatest failures, when the Joker won. This story marks one of the most important parts in Batman’s history, the moment he realized he was wrong. For those unfamiliar with the story here’s a brief summary:
A Death in the Family starts with Batman and Robin (Jason Todd) staking out some bad guys. When Robin jumps our from behind cover prematurely and begins attacking the criminals. Jason says “Life is a game” when Bruce asks him if he thinks this (Batman & Robin) is a game. Bruce then removes Jason of all Robin duties before Jason storms off. While walking through his old neighbourhood Jason receives a box from an old neighbour containing, among other things, his birth certificate. The name for his mother is not the woman he grew up calling mom, and resolves to find his birth mother. Also in the box is his father’s old address book containing 3 women with the first name beginning in “S”. He uses the Batcomputer to trace their current whereabouts and runs away to find them. Joker had broken out of Arkham and stolen a nuclear weapon which he intended to sell to terrorists. Batman tracks him to Lebanon where he and Jason are reunited. They stop the terrorists and Jason tracks down a Mossad agent and Lady Shiva who both deny being his mother. The third woman is tracked to Ethiopia and turns out to be Jason’s mother. Joker was blackmailing her for her involvement in illegal experimentation and the death of a young girl in Gotham. As part of the deal she hands Jason over to the Joker. Joker proceeds to beat Jason bloody with a crowbar and then ties up him and his mother in a warehouse with a bomb. Jason throws himself on the bomb to shield his mother from the blast but they both end up dying from their injuries with Batman arriving too late to save them. Joker ends up as a member of the Iranian government before Batman (with some help from Superman) stops him.
This story arc stands as the most defining moment from the Batman mythos pre Hush. Up until that point Batman was used to winning everything. One could argue that his origin was his most important story but that would be false. His origin is a crucial element to his persona and character but he couldn’t have stopped it. He was an 8 year old boy and was powerless against Joe Chill.
A Death in the Family is the moment where writer’s took Batman and began to make him more human and more prone to screw ups. The whole incident stems from the belief that Batman had concerning Jason, that he could take this young boy so full of rage and potential and turn him into a force for good. He trained him and tested him every chance he could, Jason continued to pass every single test with flying colours. As he grew older and into the teenage years, his violence and cruelty began to take shape. He became increasingly brutal with the criminals he was taking down and injuring them more severely than was necessary, this is also when he developed his affinity with firearms. The interesting fact behind this whole story was that it was the fans who voted to kill Jason off. DC comics opened a voting poll by telephone where fans could call in and cast their vote on whether or not the Joker would kill Jason. The readers spoke and Jason was killed. Obviously because of comics Jason wouldn’t stay dead, but he did for many years until the Under the Red Hood story arc. In this story Ra’s Al Ghul had stolen Jason’s body and used a Lazarus pit to resurrect him. The pit drove Jason mad and he fled from the League’s clutches before disappearing for many years. He resurfaced in Gotham as the Red Hood and began a war that would set the stage for his final confrontation with the Batman. The DC animated film Batman: Under the Red Hood explores this story arc extensively (and is one of the best DC animated films ever made in my opinion).
Jason’s death shook Bruce to his core. It caused Bruce to call into question his insistence on allowing the Joker to live. This event also caused Bruce to swear off taking on more sidekicks. I know he has had several Robins since, but it was a long time before he reluctantly allowed Tim Drake to be his partner. This story also further fueled Batman’s obsession with the Joker and stopping him. In the Hush story arc when it is believed that Joker killed Tommy Elliot, Batman flies into a deep rage and begins to beat the Joker mercilessly citing all the horrible acts the Joker committed: Killing Jason, crippling Barbara, the thousands of innocents he has killed, almost killing Jim Gordon, and finally killing Tommy Elliot as his reason for doing it. In the end, it was Jim Gordon himself who stopped Batman from killing the Joker stating that he knew Batman was better than this and if he did kill him, there would be no turning back.
Jason’s uniform is forever immortalized in the Batcave, it’s suspended in a glass display case with an epitaph that reads “A Good Soldier”. In the Young Justice cartoon there is a monument to Jason in the cave under their headquarters for all of their fallen friends/teammates.
Perhaps one of the most heart wrenching aspects of this whole story comes again from the Under the Red Hood movie. In the final confrontation with Batman, Jason had abducted the Joker and stored him in an apartment. During the exchange between Jason and Bruce (where Jason reveals he had the Joker stored in a closet), Jason says the one line that could give Bruce peace ” Bruce… I forgive you for not saving me”. This line hits Bruce hard as it was the one thing he could never do, forgive himself for what he had inadvertently put Jason through by making him Robin. Jason then goes on to tell Bruce that while he forgives him he doesn’t understand how Bruce could let the Joker live. knowing the things he has done. It’s a very heart wrenching scene and is one of the best parts of the movie (again, I highly recommend watching it if you haven’t already).
Post Final Crisis and Batman’s “death” there is a scene in which Batman’s will is read out to his proteges. Each one is sent into a soundproof room in the Batcave where their portion of the will is read to them by Bruce via a hologram recording. When Jason goes into the reading he expects Bruce to tell him he was not given anything or given a motorcycle. Instead, Bruce tells Jason that he was his one and greatest failure and that nothing he could ever do would make up for it. He leaves Jason a large sum of money and instructs him to get the help he desperately needs, the help that Bruce could never provide.
Bruce and Jason’s relationship has always been a strained one, from the start the signs were there that this new Robin was going to meet a bad end. As far as failures go this is one of the biggest ones that Batman has ever experienced. Regardless of how it plays out in the comics, losing a family member whether adopted or not, will always affect you, even if you’re Batman.