Superman is known for his great powers but his foes all challenged his mind or his morality. This is a good thing as it showed there was more to Superman than those great powers. However, they wanted to create a villain who would be a true challenge for those powers alone, while Darkseid and Mongul only came close to that. The death of Superman came during a pure slugfest that pushed Superman beyond his limits, and the story that came out of it explored what Superman meant to the city he protected. However the villain of his return was not Doomsday but the Cyborg Superman, a dark mirror of what Superman is far beyond anything the likes of Bizarro could match.
So why not do the same for Batman? Only replace Doomsday with Bane and Cyborg Superman with Azrael. In the day before the status quo was changed every few months Bat-Editor Denny O’Neil sought to do for Batman what Death Of Superman/Funeral For A Friend/Reign Of The Supermen did for his Metropolis counterpart. Only instead of showing what Superman means to Metropolis the Knightfall/Knightquest arc went into what it means to be Batman. What are Batman’s limits? What is the importance of his no kill rule, even as the antiheroes rose to popularity in the 1990s? Jean-Paul Valley was as much a dark reflection of Batman as Hank Henshaw was for Superman. This is where the similarities end mind you. Batman didn’t die, but more than his body was broken by Bane.
However, like Doomsday, Bane was simply the inciting incident for the story that makes the whole event matter and succeed. Doomsday was most important to the storyline he was involved in but Owen of Owen Likes Comics would tell you, and will in the following video, that it wasn’t the man who broke the Bat that mattered in Bruce’s own character arc but the replacement that showed us the importance of the right man wearing the symbol of the Batman!
First, if you need a refresher, here are Owen’s two videos (from a previous BW repost) on the Death & Return Of Superman storyline. If you’re already up to speed, see if you can find the parallels between Superman’s breaking and Batman’s breaking as Owen discusses the fall of Batman.
While I don’t think Knighfall had quite the same impact as Death Of Superman, but that may be more about the characters themselves. Batman rarely leaves Gotham City unless he’s tracking a villain from Gotham or on a mission with the Justice League or the Outsiders. Superman travels around the universe and around the universe and works with the League more often. Thus Batman’s impact was felt more in Gotham City and Jean-Paul took on the mantle a lot quicker than it took Metropolis to decide which of four Supermen to support before the real deal’s return. Also, anyone can be under the mask while Henshaw had to pull a lot of shenanigans to trick people into believing he was Superman. Jean-Paul was picked by Bruce himself, for better or worse.
I was happy to see that the goal was met, that fans were not fond of Jean-Paul’s more violent nature and more willing to kill. (I guess Zack Snyder didn’t read this storyline or he would have sided with Valley.) I know this is occasionally a point of contention, especially as modern Bat-Writers have made the Joker a mass murderer on a regular basis and use him as often as they can get away with (while overestimating what “get away with” limits are) but Batman is not judge, jury, and executioner. He’s there to save lives. That’s his mission, not to enact bloody revenge. He doesn’t want to become that which he fights, soulless monsters with no regard for human life. We can debate from now to the other doomsday whether or not killing the Joker when the legal system won’t put him to death…which could also lead to a debate over the death penalty and this site wishes to avoid that kind of discussion since we’re all about the art of storytelling around here and sociopolitical discussion. However, Batman doesn’t kill. Simple as that, though in the darker 90s and the even darker 2000s+ we can’t seem to decide whether that’s a good thing or not. We’re kind of a mess but Batman stays true to who he is and that’s the kind of hero I like, the virtuous kind who does not take the law into his own hands and just saves everyone.
One final note: I have posted that fight between Batman and Azrael if you want to see it, back during the Friday Night Fights. There’s a lot more symbolism in it than Owen went over.