Any disciple of the martial arts will tell you that while great warriors can win many battles, they do not become great until they know how to lose. Knowing the price of failure, and how to recover when failure comes for you, is as fundamental to victory as winning itself, especially in a long campaign. And no campaign is longer, none more ambitious, than the goals of the Dark Knight, who battles every night to eradicate injustice.
Some consider Batman the most skilled fighter in the DC Universe. They’re almost correct, give or take a few rivals. But even if he’s not, it’s his ability to recover from loss which ranks him among the greatest. On the occasions Batman does lose a fight, it’s by such an order of magnitude that any reasonable person would collapse under the weight of the loss. But Batman wears each defeat he suffers like a badge, emerging stronger and more determined each time, and becoming a greater hero from that tragedy. Last week, ahead of Batman Day, we celebrated the Dark Knight’s greatest victories. This week, we acknowledge the true measure of his heroism, by celebrating his greatest defeats.
Batman vs. Bane
The page everyone remembers from Batman: Knightfall is Bane “breaking the Bat” over his knee. But Bane beat Batman by working smarter, not harder. Bane was able to defeat the Dark Knight physically by first exhausting him spiritually (and, well, also physically). He did this by creating the conditions that forced Batman to first spend all night rounding up his greatest foes after a mass Arkham breakout, only to then have to face this new masked enemy waiting for him at the end of the night. Through his defeat at Bane’s hands, Batman learned that victory doesn’t always come through martial skill, but careful patience and planning to strike when your foe is weakest.
Batman vs. Prometheus
The myth of the “Bat-God”—a nickname often applied to the archetype of the all-knowing, always-prepared Batman capable of beating any foe—began in earnest with Grant Morrison’s tenure on JLA. To create their new Olympus of Super-Gods, Morrison bestowed Batman with deific levels of cunning and strategy for a worthy place among the likes of Superman and the Flash. But just as Morrison brought Batman to greater heights of superhuman ability than ever before, the enemies that this mythic JLA faced grew just as large in proportion. The arrival of Prometheus, a man who sought to rid the world of heroes, meant that Batman had to contend with a foe just as prepared to take out each member of the Justice League as Batman himself was in his own worst-case scenarios. For once in his life, Batman was completely unprepared the first time Prometheus beamed himself up to the Justice League satellite. In his defeat, Batman learned the lesson that as you grow in power, so do the obstacles you face.
Batman vs. Deacon Blackfire
The audacity of Batman’s defeat against Deacon Blackfire, a man who ran a cult in the sewers beneath Gotham City, is that it doesn’t feel like a battle that Batman should have lost. Bringing down a vainglorious, deluded and self-styled messiah in Gotham’s underbelly is the sort of thing Batman does on a typical night before he gets to whatever the real threat happens to be. But as much as Batman professes to be a symbol, he really is also just a man. And on the night poor Jason Todd, still new to his role as Robin, found Batman trapped by Blackfire’s machinations in a personal hell of his own making, the ideal vision he once had of his mentor was tainted forever. Batman’s loss to Deacon Blackfire in Batman: The Cult is a lesson to all of us that no matter how certain the odds may seem, failure is always a possibility.
Batman vs. Wonder Woman
The Hiketeia, Batman’s first true clash with Wonder Woman, was a conflict of ideals as much as a conflict of strength and skill—the difference between justice, as represented by Batman, and morality, as represented by that boot mounted on Batman’s face. You can take a guess which side won. Batman lost to Diana that night, in his pursuit of a young criminal under Wonder Woman’s sworn protection, and it wound up being precisely what a hard-headed Dark Knight needed to listen to a perspective outside his own. Batman’s defeat at Wonder Woman’s heel proved to him that even when you stand for right, you may not always be in the right.
Batman vs. Batman
Batman: Last Knight on Earth, the epic Black Label finale to the Batman story told by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo throughout the New 52 era, saw the Dark Knight trudging through a post-apocalyptic wasteland to topple its tyrant warlord, the mysterious Omega. What Batman never suspected, though, was that he was actually a clone implanted with Bruce Wayne’s memories—and the true, original Batman had been Omega himself, warped into a fascist control freak through the darkest of circumstances. But one thing we know for sure about Batman is that he’s always prepared to defeat anyone…even himself. In fact, this was the very reason why the cloned Batman program was set up—in case the true Batman ever lost his way. In the Dark Knight’s mind, the only force capable of defeating a broken Batman is an unbroken one.
Batman vs. Lady Shiva
That brings us, finally, to Lady Shiva. Batman’s quick and simple defeat at Lady Shiva’s deadly hands in Detective Comics #952 was no mere trick. Batman suffered no exhaustion, no surprise. The only time Batman has ever fought Shiva fairly, he was at the very top of his game. No excuses, no handicaps. And yet, he lost. How? How could the Dark Knight, the symbol of victory against impossible odds, lose in a fight against a mere mortal woman with no supernatural, metaphysical, or technological advantages?
The answer is only this: Lady Shiva is better. Because the lesson of Lady Shiva is that even if you’re Batman, there’s always someone better out there. There is always a bigger, higher mountain to climb, another goal to strive for. And another benchmark to recognize your own limitations. Lady Shiva exists to prove that even men like Batman are still only just men. And no matter how far you’ve come on your journey to becoming the greatest you can be, you always have miles further to go.
But don’t worry, Batman fans. If Batman ever truly had to defeat Lady Shiva, he can still be the perfect strategist you know and love so well. He has a plan for that too.
That plan’s name just happens to be Cassandra Cain.
Alex Jaffe is the author of our monthly "Ask the Question" column and writes about TV, movies, comics and superhero history for DCComics.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AlexJaffe and find him in the DC Community as HubCityQuestion.
NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this feature are solely those of Alex Jaffe and do not necessarily reflect those of DC Entertainment or Warner Bros.