Courtesy of DC Comics

This article contains spoilers through Batman No. 50.

Standing up for truth, justice, and the American way is apparently hell on relationships.

Superheroes, comics tell readers, make sacrifices in the name of the mission. And often that means no time for love—that if you have attachments, they’ll only become targets for your enemies. Peter Parker’s first girlfriend famously got snatched up by the Green Goblin and wound up dead, a cautionary tale for anyone who puts on a mask and thinks they have time to date.

And yet, after nearly 80 years of largely unfulfilled workplace flirtation, Batman and Catwoman finally got engaged, with a wedding planned for the pages of Batman No. 50. Up until now, their will-they-or-won’t-they relationship was based on an assumption at the core of comic books: A hero and a villain can’t be together, because they live on opposite sides of the law. But in drafting a wedding plot over the last year, the writer Tom King has upended tradition by trying to pursue something novel for two of comics’ most iconic characters: personal growth.

Turns out in comics, much like real life, that’s not an easy to thing to come by. Without giving too much away, Catwoman leaves Batman waiting at the altar, deciding it’s better to keep Gotham’s protector on the city’s rooftops than enjoy wedded bliss. To be fair, Catwoman confronts a question any of us would ask: Is it possible to enjoy the married life with a guy who plays out his unresolved childhood trauma by blowing through his family fortune and putting on a mask to punch the pain away every night? What’s laced into all of this is not just a question about relationships, but also a question of comics’ broader struggle with the inability to change. Catwoman’s choice is certainly valid, but it simultaneously lays bare the threat to the franchise, as she writes in a letter to her fiancé: “You are an engine that turns pain into hope. If we’re happy, and we could be so happy … I kill that engine. I kill Batman. I kill the person who saves everyone.”

Naturally, the cancellation of the Cat and the Bat’s wedding has a villain behind it other than cold feet. Bane, a guy who knows a few things about punishing Batman, has been employing the villains of Gotham to draw the couple closer together and slowly sow doubt over their future, all in an attempt to “break” Batman in spirit rather than body. In the penultimate issue before the wedding, the Joker, appearing like a murderous jilted lover, tells Catwoman, “If you do this wedding, if he found some joy … he’d lose the frown and the costume and the big … black … bat. He can’t be happy. And also be Batman.”

Courtesy of DC Comics

And thus, the status quo remains intact for the caped crusader. This shouldn’t be surprising: Comics have a difficult time with lasting transformation and a harder time with depicting adult relationships. It’s as much a product of the shifting creative teams that guide individual comics as editorial edicts from publishers. Stan Lee is credited with coming up with the notion of the “illusion of change,” presenting readers with stories that make it seem like the protagonist isn’t trapped in repeating sequential panels. Still, change, imagined or otherwise, has to contend with comics’ long history of tradition and conservatism: Heroes mostly don’t kill, they don’t die or stay dead long, and they are still mostly single straight white males. Marvel saw waves of praise when Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor were replaced in the comics by women and people of color several years back. But last year a Marvel executive suggested diversity efforts were to blame for slumping comics sales. Those comments generated plenty of pushback and support for diversity, but Marvel’s latest comics relaunch this spring saw the “Big Three” with the original characters under the mask. It’s regression by way of reboot.

The concept of marriage also hasn’t fared well for other franchise characters in comics. Spider-Man married Mary Jane Watson in Amazing Spider-Man Annual No. 21 in 1987, but Marvel erased their wedding from existence in a widely reviled story from 2007 in which the hero sacrificed his marriage in a literal deal with the devil. In DC’s current comics universe, Superman married Lois Lane and the two are proud parents. But, as of the July issue of Superman No. 1, both Lois and the super son are missing in action, having been sent off to deep space as part of a series reboot by the new writer Brian Michael Bendis. DC Comics didn’t even give Batwoman the chance for a same-sex wedding in 2013 after she proposed to her longtime girlfriend. In the fallout, the creative team left the comic, and DC said the marriage decision had nothing to do with homophobia; whether that’s true, the DC co-publisher Dan DiDio still told an audience at Baltimore Comic-Con that year that heroes in the Batman family don’t deserve a happy life: “It’s wonderful that they try to establish personal lives, but it’s equally important that they set them aside. That is our mandate, that is our edict and that is our stand.”

When you consider the notion of marriage in the larger arc of King’s current run on Batman, it’s clear the writer is interested in interrogating what emotional vulnerability means in comics. That’s a bold idea for a character whose only other lasting relationships are with his butler and a rotating cast of trusted sidekicks. Batman’s so closed off from feeling that his defining trait is brooding while crouching on gargoyles and saying things like, “I am vengeance, I am the night.”  There’s plenty of unexplored territory there, as King told GQ in May:

I was just looking for something new to do with Batman, and the thing that would really fuck him up is not making him sadder … but what would happen if we made him happy? He has that power to turn grief and pain and turn it into hope. That’s his whole power. He’s like a machine that works that way—so what happens when you reverse that, feed the machine what it puts out? Give him hope, give him happiness. Does the machine still function?

And so we see both Catwoman and Batman open up to each other, as in Batman No. 12, in which the Dark Knight confides for the first time to Catwoman (and to readers) that he attempted suicide after his parents’ death—and it was in that moment (“the choice of a boy, the choice to die”) that he dedicated his life to fighting crime. In this, he was a crime fighter forged not by way of hope, but in the wounds of post-traumatic stress disorder.

By the time the wedding day arrives, readers have seen Batman and Catwoman face murderous assassins, mind-control plots, and even alternate realities. All of which is … fairly normal for comics. But throughout, King has heightened the intimacy between the two: They reveal their fears and share their scars, sometimes literally helping to patch each other up following a fight. The couple, on a double date with Superman and Lois, separately confide—the Bat to Superman, the Cat to Lois—that when they fall, their partner catches them. In a world of benevolent Kryptonians, demigods, and speedsters, Batman and Catwoman remain singularly human; they grow closer by being more vulnerable, and become more relatable to the audience.

Courtesy of DC Comics

The characters, in other words, go on a surprising emotional journey. Batman writes to his fiancée that, with her, he can be more than the boy who continues to mourn his parents. And in breaking things off with Batman, Catwoman sees it not just as part of his hero’s quest, but her own: “To save the world, heroes make sacrifices. That’s the lesson of every story. I wish I could give my life, but I can’t, I have to give more. My sacrifice is my love.” It’s the comics world’s classic false bargain of saving the world at the expense of happiness.

This is what ultimately makes Bane’s plan devastating to the Bat and the Cat: It didn’t take murder, mayhem, or hostages to break them apart, just the cribbing of a few plot points from Much Ado About Nothing. It’s also a frustrating plan because it is based in the trappings of traditional marriage: It suggests that a formal ceremony is necessary for legitimacy, that rings carry consequences, and that vows afford old-fashioned stability.

If anything, the past year has shown the concept of marriage to be ever malleable, stretching to new limits while remaining easy to mold into familiar forms. On Everything Is Love, Beyoncé and Jay-Z have seemingly emerged from the solo album–spawning wreckage of pain and infidelity freshly emboldened by love, if not a shared desire for conquest. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle modernized the royal wedding, simply and subversively featuring a gospel choir and a sermon that characterized love as key to not just a lasting marriage, but also social change. And, of course, there’s Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s ride-or-die marriage, in which defending each other against the slights of the world is a constant act of love.

Batman and Catwoman’s wedding may have been a bust, but their companionship serves as the latest example of pop culture’s ongoing conversation about redefining modern love. King has said the relationship between the Bat and the Cat looks to remain front and center in his run on Batman. DC also used the wedding plot as a jumping-off point for a new Catwoman series—encouragingly led by a female creative team invested in redefining the character as she deals with the fallout from the wedding day.

Ultimately, the most fruitful area of inquiry is not why Batman and Catwoman didn’t walk down the aisle, but rather how they will move forward, unmarried, to reconceive the modern romantic relationship. How King resolves this particular cliffhanger will say a lot about the ability to crack comics’ restrictive norms as well as DC’s willingness to redefine iconic characters through intimacy and emotional growth.

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