Azrael vs. Bane: round two, Pt. 2

As we left off last time, Bane filled up Azrael with a injection full of venom, the insanely addictive strength-increasing serum.  And now Azrael has to go through some major withdrawal.  Note: we ended on a ship crash, but I’m jumping ahead a good dozen pages.  What you’ll miss: Azrael dramatically climbs a cliff wall, loses again to Bane and Bane’s soldiers, gets captured by Bane, becomes trapped in a cage, tricks Bane, and jumps over the cliff.  It’s all exciting stuff you’re not going to see.  Anyway, we pick up after that:

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Know that in the first page, it’s made clear that Azrael pooped his costume.  And while I’m no expert on addiction, my only vices being attention and adoration from others, I imagine a hot tropical island in South America with no modern amenities or anything to ease the trauma probably isn’t the best place to beat the drug.  Also, and far more importantly, those list of venom withdrawal symptoms?  That’s Batman talking to Alfred about that, which means Batman also pooped his suit.  Don’t ever forget that.

But superheroes are our betters, so of course Azrael’ll rise triumphant.  We expect nothing less.

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After losing two physical confrontations against Bane in the past four issues, it’s time for our hero to adjust his tactics.  I’m mean, it’ll still involve punching Bane a whole bunch, but now we get an added dose of psychology thrown into a fight where fiery golem claw hands aren’t enough to overcome Bane’s sheer power.  Spoiler alert: it involves lying.

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Azrael’s acting isn’t exactly Shakespearean quality, but why wouldn’t his gambit work the way it did? Bane’s weakness stems from his former reliance on venom, and without it, he’s physically weaker than when he fought Azrael’s Mecha-Batman suit.  Though it should be known that Bane still massively overpowers Azrael.  Any character in comic books who goes in combat without wearing a shirt is someone who’s pretty confident he (or she?) will splatter your butt across whatever tropical island/city block/space station/Microverse landscape you’re fighting in.

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That one line “He rose up like some primordial sea-beast” gets me every time.  I’m not addicted to venom, but I would definitely poop my costume if I saw Bane rise up unharmed from a suicide cliff drop.  But our adventure’s not over.  Y’see, the next issue takes place during the Batman event Cataclysm.  A devastating earthquake turns Gotham City into the broken post-apocalyptic wasteland you see during No Man’s Land.  And since superheroes always having such impeccable timing, Azrael delivers Bane to the Gotham police at the exact moment the earthquake hits.

But first, how about some self-doubting?  It’s more of a Marvel thing, but it’s nice to see DC try to worm its way into Azrael’s decision-making process.

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Bane’s point, while not exceptional or totally convincing, does bring up some great points.  Batman did invite Azrael into crime-fighting before immediately treating him like crap.  To be fair to Batman, Azrael refusing to give back the Batman mantle and then pummeling Bruce Wayne probably warranted Batman’s condescending future treatment of Azrael, but it’s that simple idea of power versus responsibility.  Because let’s face it, Batman’s not happy.  He devotes his crazy wealth and power to a city and cause that’s largely ungrateful and unchanging.  But if Azrael uses his own crazy power to work with Bane, he could probably live that wonderful life of pleasure and fun that his father (and Batman) deny him.  I’m just saying, remember when Nightwing took over for Batman a few years ago? We were excited for reasons that included stuff like, oh, this Batman’ll actually smile once in a while.

Then Cataclysm hits and Azrael chases Bane down.

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It’s nice for Azrael to get some therapy in before he and Bane kick each other.  By the way, for all of Azrael’s efforts, Bane escapes Blackgate Prison pretty soon after this to form his own gang during No Man’s Land.  Next time, we’ll jump back to some more venom coverage.  Want to see Batman with a full beard?  Of course you do.


Azrael vs. Bane: round two, Pt. 1

So after Azrael goes mad with power, almost strangles Robin, and assaults Batman while Azrael’s dressed like a robot, he gets put on a probation by Batman.  As in, the Dark Knight doesn’t trust him, like him, or want to be around him.  And after Azrael screws up an undercover police job, it’s time for Bruce Wayne to let Azrael know the bitter truth — he’s a sucky vigilante.  In Azrael #36-40, written by Dennis O’Neil and drawn by Roger Robinson, our dear Jean-Paul Valley has one last chance to prove himself by taking down the biggest, scariest, most powerful supervillain in Batman’s rogue gallery.

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Seriously, conversing with Batman is like talking to your dad when he’s not angry, just disappointed. As usual in a crimefighter’s life, everything goes bonkers at once and Azrael misses his deadline. Also, love interests and stuff, but that’s off topic.  And let’s be fair to Azrael, he’s mentally ill trying desperately to impress another mentally ill man who may be legitimately impossible to impress. Batman can’t even meet his own standards — what chance does the Batfamily have?  But the stakes remain the same: Jean-Paul brings in Bane or Batman’ll punch Azrael out of crimefighting forever.

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Here’s how you know Azrael’s on Batman’s bad side: he makes Azrael fly coach.  Even Robin has his own plane.  For those not in the know (including me about two weeks ago), Nomoz helped train Jean-Paul into Azrael way back in his origin comic.  He’s the sidekick for this arc so Azrael doesn’t have to talk to himself the whole time.

There is a greater theme here spread throughout the pages.  Jean-Paul’s constantly conflicted between his identity as Azrael and himself.  He can’t fight crime without becoming Azrael, but he hates Azrael’s cruelty and violence.  It’s a schizophrenia shaped by his dead father.  Oh, and check out that the dude’s back in his “default” costume.  Of the six Azrael articles I’ve done so far, he’s had three different outfits.

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Need further proof that Azrael’s the most ’90s superhero that ever existed?  He has fire coming out of claws. And the claws are attached to giant golem hands.  You can’t get more extreme ‘tude than that.  And the cape’s not even practical — it’s looks like it’s made out of ribbons pieced together from a Hobby Lobby shopping spree.

I’m no historian, but after the super gritty, dark, realistic comics of the late 1980s, the medium compensated with brighter, supernatural, “extreme” adventures.  The 2000s reacted to that by making comics dark again.  Nowadays, we’re in a resurgence of comics written with a lighter touch.  In five or six years, we’ll repeat the infinite cycle — after all, the 1980s came as a response to the trippy, magical LSD-fueled journeys of 1970s superheroes.  For reference, you’re currently watching Azrael kick henchmen butt in 1997.

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Remember how Azrael beat Bane the first time?  He took out Bane’s venom supply causing the supervillain to freak out enough for the lucid Azrael to knock him out.  Bane’s off venom now.  Our poor protagonist has to fight Bane in his purest, non-addicted state.  That’s pretty much why he gets his butt handed to him.  Plus, we have three issues left in our arc.  Sadly, Bane only spares Azrael’s life to give him a greater pain: prison justice.

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Venom’s beyond addictive and no rehab center exists for this sort of ailment.  See what it’s doing to Bird?  If you need more evidence, Batman once succumbed so horribly to venom addiction that it took him a month locked in the batcave of sheer willpower and crazy hallucinations to break it.  Actually, we’ll cover that story next because it’s really good and serves as a prelude to Knightfall.  And Azrael’s withdrawal?  That comes soon, but first, they have to inevitably escape from being tied up and make a terrible situation much worse.

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On Friday, we get our exciting conclusion, and by that I mean several pages of Azrael sweating and crying.


Azrael & Batgirl meet the Joker

As the Batman family rushes to capture Joker as the year-long Batman event No Man’s Land concludes, each team member gets assigned a super important mission that pertains to their strengths and abilities.  I’m kidding — Azrael and Batgirl have to tell people to leave the town.  We’re talking Azrael, a man dressed like Fabio on the cover of a King Arthur-themed romance novel, and Batgirl, a girl who can’t speak to the point of just covering up the mouth part of the costume.  Good luck to these two in Azrael #60, written by Dennis O’Neil and drawn by Roger Robinson.

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Look, we assume we only get the highlights of Batman’s nightly patrols.  I bet 90% of the night is spent on top of gargoyles, singing songs to himself or trying to see if he can batarang sewer rats. Batman only gets, like, one supervillain attack a week?  Maybe two?  The rest of his time he does nothing but listen for sirens or pedestrian screams.  I doubt he even lets Robin bring his iPod.  So let’s take a glimpse into the non-fistfighting world of superhero-ing:

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I understand the nature of comics: it’s a business first.  If we watched the two of them spend the issue telling people to scram, sales would probably be a bit lower than if Azrael and Batgirl punch their way through a horde of henchmen.  Well, fear not.  Because in the fictional world of comic books, it’s mandatory for superheroes to break the face of at least one bad guy every twenty pages.  I didn’t make these rules up.  So how about a group of clowns?  And while we’re at it, let’s add the Joker.

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I know, I get it.  Azrael is the least funny person in the DC universe — don’t get upset, it’s part of his personality.  And it’s even worse when he makes a joke directed to the second least funny person in the DC universe.  But you saw that kid they all forgot about a few pages up — she gets rescued by the Joker.  And by rescued I mean almost certainly a forsaken causality in whatever drives Joker’s amusement at the moment.  You crave an exciting series of kicking and punching panels, but you don’t get it here.  First, Batman doesn’t want anyone but him hurting his one true love, but also, Azrael’s far too naive.  He’s not the detective that Batman or the Robins are.  He goes by instinct mainly, and his horribly wrong instinct saves the day.  Because y’know, despite being a psychopathic killer, the Joker still has feelings.

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Next time, Azrael versus Bane for the second time!  Get ready for tropical islands, inward character development, and all the drama you’d expect from a well-meaning crazy person and the his luchador arch-enemy.  And full disclosure, I read everything Bane says as if Tom Hardy spoke it in The Dark Knight Rises.  I don’t care if Bane’s South American, I love that voice.


Azrael & Batgirl: a Christmas story

We jump back a few years from last time’s article to the post-apocalyptic earthquake-destroyed ruins of Gotham City that took place during the Batman event No Man’s Land.  Gone is the crazy, unstable Azrael.  We get to enjoy today a kinder, friendlier, still-schizophrenic Azrael — a man who just wants to do some good while dressed as a medieval crusader.  We’ll focus on one more Azrael Christmas adventure (no dodging punches from Batman) in Azrael #61, written by Dennis O’Neil and drawn by Roger Robinson.

So No Man’s Land is over.  Lex Luthor’s company stepped in to rebuild the city and the Gotham police force/Batman and friends have regained their hold over most of Gotham City.  All that’s left is the Joker and his devious plot to kidnap dozens of babies.  But that’s for later on.  Azrael (real name Jean-Paul Valley) grew up religious, but more in a brainwashing cult than anything established like Christianity.  Ever want to hear an old woman describe Christmas to a grown man who looks like Thor?  Of course you do.

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The metaphor given to baby Jesus pretty much applies to every superhero who ever existed.  Except maybe the Punisher.  Did you know I once received an angry comment from someone in a previous article because I assumed the Punisher to be super smelly?  I refuse to back down.  The Punisher doesn’t bathe.  Axe Body Spray doesn’t come in Vengeance.  Frank Castle reeks like weeks-old gunpowder, trench coat sweat, and chunks of mobster brains.  There.  Bring it, buddy.

Back to our story, we’re in the infancy days of Cassandra Cain’s Batgirl role.  She hasn’t learned to talk yet.  Also, like Azrael, she grew up in an assassin’s clutches without all the warm fuzzies we love and experience during those loving Christmas years (or at least the first eight or so for Bruce Wayne). Fighting crime isn’t the only hobby for superheroes — sometimes it’s appreciating a sandal-wearing bearded Superman who came back from the dead to forgive all our sins or whatever.

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I want you to appreciate this moment when Oracle taught Azrael and Batgirl what presents are.  Now, we know bonding time can’t be fully complete without applying our superheroes’ new knowledge. While neither of our protagonists have any extra cash or apparently ever heard of the idea of giving other people goods or services, the two have to improvise.  Batgirl first.

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So remember last article where Batman realized Azrael may have fallen off the deep end because cameras caught him beating up a Santa Claus?  I just want you to remember that, because if superhero comics have taught me anything (and I already learned about gifts a few years ago), Santas only bring trouble.  Especially the Santas wielding axes with thick henchmen-esque accents.

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Here’s how Azrael works: if his mask is off, he’s the lovable, clueless Jean-Paul who solves his problems with smiles and hugs.  When the mask goes on, we get the powerful, butt-kicking Azrael who solves his problems by crushing the bones of all those who cross his path.  But today’s a Christmas story (that I’m writing in mid-September).  You know who hates Christmas?  Spoiler alert: Joker.

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Moral of the story?  Besides babies make terrible Christmas ornaments?  It’s about the spirit of giving. Like giving yourself up as a flame shield to protect two ladies from a tree explosion.  And the girl in the chauffeur outfit is Mercy Graces — Lex Luthor’s personal assistant/bodyguard.  Azrael may have suffered injuries saving Batgirl and Mercy, but look, Luthor’s limo isn’t going to drive itself.  Oh, and a delightfully happy ending:

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I know, I’m touched too.  On Monday, Azrael and Batgirl team up one more time against the Joker!


Batman vs. Azrael: round two

One more fight!  We jump forth about ten years from our last article, as Azrael’s solo series begins to wrap up.  Luckily, the years haven’t calmed down the hallucinating, post-traumatic suffering, fanatical religious superhero too much.  With everything poor Azrael has worked for spiraling out of control — including his sanity and friendships — only one person can bring Azrael back to the light one final time.  Using his fists.  In Azrael #98-99, written by Denny O’Neil and drawn by Sergio Cariello, Batman misinterprets Azrael’s current situation and reacts poorly and violently, like all good superheroes.  And what did Azrael do to incur Batman’s wrath?

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To be fair to Azrael, it was a criminal dressed as Santa Claus, but I have a feeling Batman has been looking for an opportunity to justify his takedown of Azrael for a long time now.  Attacking St. Nick just broke Batman’s back of tolerance, unlike Bane who broke his normal back.

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To Alfred’s benefit, I looked up African Rooibos and it’s a real tea.  It contains no caffeine and offers many different health benefits — Alfred’s no liar.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t prevent Azrael from clawing Batman open over an obvious misunderstanding.  But I may be giving too much credit to Azrael — the dude’s struggling.  Like right before Batman shows up: he’s having a sword fight against a ghost:

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The spirit of St. Dumas talks to him, commanding him to do all sorts of terrible things or suffer the severe punishments caused by disobeying.  So he swordfights the ghost.  It’s complicated.  And while Batman slapping Azrael around wouldn’t be so bad to snap our protagonist into a dose of sanity, the Dark Knight’s arrival sparks another global superhero problem: Azrael really doesn’t have time for this — and the time it would take to discuss their feelings or even push Batman’s opinion one way or the other would ruin other far more important plans.  Plus, Batman tends to be a bit stubborn, to put it mildly.  Note the similarities in the beginning talk from their initial fight last article.  Oh, and the yellow text boxes are Batman’s narrations.

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Yes, Azrael becomes the rare exception to Batman’s vigilante group — our buddy has actual superpowers because of the schizophrenic genetic doohickies the Order of St. Dumas fetuses receive. Comics were weird in the ’90s.  More importantly, this isn’t the whacked-out Azrael wearing the mecha-Batman costume.  I mean, he’s still certifiably crazy, but he won’t be goaded or tricked like last time.  Batman has to win this fight the old fashioned way: batarangs and kung-fu movie poses.  How beautifully cheesy was that double jump kick in the moonlight panel in the picture above?

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I am by no means a carpenter, but Google tells me oak’s a tough wood to break, which I assume Batman has punched through cabinets and coffee tables to surprise the bejeebies out of bad guys before, most likely on the other side of the wall right after the henchmen proclaims to his buddy that he thinks they’re finally safe.  If Batman has an actual weakness, his own reliance on using physical strength against stronger, more durable supervillains like Bane, KGBeast, etc. could definitely count up there with his other weaknesses like healthy relationships and smiling.  Let’s learn something valuable today: if you want to battle anybody, it’s always better to battle superheroes.  They’re far kinder in the embarrassing aftermath.

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Azrael, finally free of Batman’s influence, has one final issue of his solo series before it ends — so his freedom’s not terribly lengthy.  On Friday, we’ll delve into more Azrael but with something mushier and heartwarming.  And punching, but that’s always implied.


Batman & Azrael: KnightsEnd

Batman’s replacement Azrael eventually goes crazy.  To be fair, Azrael (real name Jean-Paul Valley) was always a bit crazy, but allow him to build a mecha-Batman suit fueled by delusions and hallucinations, and the fall happens far quicker than Bruce Wayne expected.  Remember the DC event One Year Later when Batman, Nightwing, and Robin traveled the world for a year and he left Two-Face in charge of Gotham City?  As brilliant as Wayne is, his decision-making skills occasionally need some adjusting.  In Detective Comics #677, written by Chuck Dixon and drawn by Graham Nolan, as well as Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #63, written by Denny O’Neil and drawn by Barry Kitson, our original Batman attempts to correct his mistake of allowing Azrael to inherit his title.

Azrael’s father religiously brainwashed him in the assassin cult of St. Dumas, so his insanity isn’t really his fault.  Still, a crazy Batman is a bad Batman.

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A short list of what Azrael needs to answer for: he let a murderer fall to his death, he let a hostage die, he almost strangled Robin to death, he stopped working with the police, he blocked off Wayne Manor, and other general brutality.  Except that all that has happened lies solely on Wayne’s shoulders — Batman should never have picked him in the first place.  So, in quite possibly one of the calmest Batman moments, he confronts his Gundam successor, talking to Azrael much like one would an unruly preschooler.

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Like all good superheroes, words fail as fists must be raised.  And as insane as Azrael acts, no one has more experience dealing with insane people as Batman.  I mean, Arkham Asylum exists solely to house the entirety of his rogues gallery.  Though it should be noted that Batman also solves crazy people problems less with therapy and kind words and more with punches and batarangs.

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Batman doesn’t hate Azrael, he just feels bad for him.  Less growling and more pity.  I know discussing “power levels” of fictional characters amounts to arguing about whose imaginary friend is stronger, but Batman holds a firm advantage in speed.  And if Nightwing teaches you anything, speed usually matters more than power.  That and how can the traditional, disciplined Batman possibly lose to the ultimate ’90s version of himself?  Seriously, stop drawing Azrael’s feet and give him a mullet and we’ve just created the perfect ’90s superhero caricature.  He has spikes on his legs.  How can he drive the Batmobile with spikes on his legs?

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I like the dual meaning behind Azrael keeping his mask on.  Obviously, he uses it to see in the dark, but it’s a beautiful representation of Azrael’s desperate identity.  When we ask whether Batman needs the existence of Bruce Wayne, here’s the perfect example of the emotional drain-circling that comes from an identity wrapped solely in fighting crime as a giant bat.

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Religious symbolism!  I’m saying Batman is DC’s Jesus.  But this Aryan madman’s quest has just begun.  His solo series branching out of this event lasts for a 100 issues.  I’m always a sucker for redemption stories, and Batman lets Jean-Paul Valley find his own peace.  Just far away from Batman.

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On that note Batman leaves Gotham City again, letting Dick Grayson take over the Batman for the first time. If you wonder why Wayne chose Azrael instead of Nightwing to fill his costume’s shoes, so is Nightwing.  You can read that awkward conversation in a previous article.  Next time, more Azrael!


Azrael & Bane: Knightfall

With Batman out of action (broken back and whatnot), Bruce Wayne assigned Jean-Paul Valley, the vigilante Azrael, as the new Batman.  It was the only reasonable choice.  Robin’s 5’5″ and in high school.  Nightwing — as Wayne believes — wants to be his own man and not in the shadow of Batman.  Batgirl and Huntress are girls and thus can’t accept that last half of that Batman title.  So it’s all Azrael, the religious crazy person that they doesn’t know that well.  We’ll definitely explore his story in a later article.

Azrael loses his first fight against Bane badly.  Embarrassingly badly and in front of many Gotham citizens.  So for round two, he creates his own Batman suit, that Gundam Batman you’ll see below in Batman #500, written by Doug Moench and drawn by Jim Aparo & Terry Austin.  We’ll finally be able to sleep at night as we find out if the meaner robot Batman can stand up to the might that brought down a tired and sick Bruce Wayne.

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Only Bane would enter the battlefield by dangerously jumping through an electrified billboard.  Azrael’s strategy involves stepping into the dark side — the same plan that worked so well for Anakin Skywalker.  If only Azrael can dirty himself down to Bane’s level, then the fight becomes the fair fistfight it needs to be.  Robin doesn’t approve, Bruce Wayne doesn’t approve, Nightwing doesn’t approve, but one can’t argue with three batarangs impaled in Bane’s forearm.

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Let’s be fair: Bane’s way physically stronger than Azrael even without the venom.  But Bane also doesn’t have projectiles, claws, armor, or the support of the entire Gotham police department. Look, I’ve played Injustice: Gods Among Us.  Bane’s tough, but I can’t win with him if Batman’s on the other side of screen spamming batarangs.  So ever the master strategist, Bane uses his genius tactical mind to formulate a new plan: run really fast.

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Train fight!  As far as battles inside transportation goes, train definitely tops the list.  Notice that both combatants enter the fight the same way: unnecessarily bursting through materials not supposed to be burst through.  If Azrael wants to stoop down to Bane’s level, then he has no choice but for property damage.

I imagine by this point you may be confused as to Bane’s cowardice.  Allow me to attempt to justify Bane’s fear.  Up first, he definitely didn’t plan for Mecha-Batman.  All the new sharp stuff throws wrenches in whatever idea Bane thinks the fight will go.  Also, no more venom.  He even fought super weak Bruce Wayne pumped full of venom, a man who didn’t stand a chance against Bane even if the big guy took a nap halfway through the fight.  And most importantly, the story demands Bane loses. Azrael begins his official reign as Batman as the event Knightquest starts and we can’t have Bane ruling the underworld if that’s to happen.  Plus, it always feels good when supervillains get what’s coming to them.  Like this:

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The future of Batman begins here.  Will Azrael fully dump himself permanently in Bane’s cesspool of murder and violence?  No, of course not.  That’s a silly question.  But for a city (and Robin) that just witnessed a wild brutality not representative of the old Dark Knight, they must question his superheroic motivations.  Can the city feel safe with Bionic Batman patrolling its streets?  Most importantly, note Bane’s acknowledgement of this new Caped Crusader.

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Next time, Azrael no longer earns the right to the costume!


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