Diametrically Opposed: Nightwing / Deathstroke
Diametrically Opposed is a series exploring the best hero-villain rivalries in the DC Universe.
Though most often thought of as a member of the Bat-Family and identified as a defender of Gotham City, Dick Grayson – aka Nightwing – has developed his own rogues gallery as he has grown up and struck out on his own. One of his most notable enemies, and perhaps the one who poses him the greatest physical and existential threat, is Slade Wilson – also known as Deathstroke the Terminator. But in order to explore this admittedly less iconic rivalry, we must first examine each side.
Dick Grayson was the youngest member of the Flying Graysons, a family of high-flying trapeze acrobats. As a young child, he witnesses his parents’ murder at the hands of the mob in Gotham City. This parallel was not lost on Bruce Wayne, who immediately took in Grayson as his ward and eventually as his sidekick in crimefighting. Grayson became the first Robin, employing his extensive acrobatic abilities in addition to combat, tactical, detective, and intellectual training provided by his mentor. He is a master martial artist and detective, and possesses peak physical athleticism. Together, he and Batman managed to apprehend Tony Zucco, the mobster responsible for the death of Grayson’s parents, providing him a sense of closure that Batman was never able to gain.
This core difference came to define the relationship of the Dynamic Duo. In later years, after the formation of the Justice League, Grayson joined the young super-team the Teen Titans. It was during this time that he realised the stark differences between he and Batman – Grayson’s greater ability to trust and allow himself emotional attachment to others meant that, unlike Batman, he was unwilling to manipulate and lie to others the way his mentor would on occasion for the sake of a given mission. This was a building source of tension between the two, and eventually, wanting to become his own hero and be able to fight crime in a manner more suited to his beliefs, he left behind the mantle of Robin and became Nightwing, using his own wealth to fund his crimefighting in the nearby city of Blüdhaven. He has taken up the mantle of the Batman in times where Bruce Wayne has either been incapacitated or killed (or presumed dead).
Nightwing has been the leader of the Teen Titans, The Outsiders, and even the Justice League, during his time as the Batman.
Deathstroke the Terminator
First introduced in The New Teen Titans (vol. 1 #2), Slade Wilson was a military veteran turned mercenary and assassin, a master of all martial arts, marksmanship, and weapons, as well as an unrivaled tactician and manipulator. He possesses a military-enhanced healing factor, allowing him to recover from most major wounds as long as his brain is undamaged, though he cannot regenerate lost limbs (unlike the Marvel character Deadpool, inspired by Deathstroke even down to his name, Wade Wilson). These incredible abilities made him a terrific nemesis for the youth and inexperience of the Teen Titans. He has been one of their most powerful and formidable enemies ever since.
Deathstroke’s storylines often revolve around contracts he is meant to carry out, which he does according to his own personal code of honour – in which his word, and his payment, is his bond. Conflicts (and occasional team-ups) with the Titans often illuminate Deathstroke’s personal struggles, including a strained relationship with his wife and children, many of whom are also assassins or mercenaries of some description – usually as a direct result of Deathstroke’s interference and manipulation of their lives for his own ends.
Deathstroke has been a member of the Injustice League, Checkmate, and was a founding member of the Secret Society of Super-Villains, during which time he dropped the sentient chemical-being Chemo on Blüdhaven, destroying the city and killing over a hundred thousand people.
While it is true that Deathstroke has been an enemy of all the Teen Titans, and indeed has transcended that and developed intense rivalries with members of the Justice League (most notably Green Arrow), his most iconic and metaphorically interesting conflict has been the one he developed with Nightwing specifically. This is a natural fit in many ways, not the least of which being the fact that Nightwing is the long-time leader and central character of the Teen Titans series. There are a number of direct confrontations between the two, of course culminating in the destruction of Blüdhaven, the city Nightwing is meant to have protected. But the contest between these two goes much deeper than skirmishes.
For a start, they both represent peak athletic and combat ability. Indeed, they are both masterfully proficient martial artists with extensive combat training, both with a keen tactical ability and strong adaptive reflexes. Both have access, via their personal wealth, to a vast array of highly advanced and specialized weaponry which they employ both in direct combat as well as misdirection, communication, and capture functions. The primary difference between these two, other than their morality, is Deathstroke’s considerable experience, as a military veteran as well as a seasoned assassin and mercenary. This level of experience puts him, in many ways, more on a level with the Batman than with Nightwing, and therein lies the meat of this rivalry.
What makes Deathstroke such a formidable opponent for Nightwing is his nightmarish similarity to Batman. Beyond the tech and the combat ability, and even beyond their intelligence and experience as tacticians, the Terminator and the Dark Knight share a key characteristic – their ruthless, myopic dedication to their personal codes and goals. Granted, their codes and goals are different, but in both cases they are willing to sacrifice all of themselves, and those around them, in order to achieve those things. Batman, despite years of working alongside Nightwing when he was the first Robin, used him more as a pawn than a partner. And while not deliberately endangering him, he often left him out of key mission details, not trusting him with the full extent of his plans. This attitude of subordination is best illustrated when Batman decides he cannot trust Jason Todd, the second Robin, and relieves him of duty. They begin keeping secrets from each other and the rift between them allows for Jason’s capture and murder at the hands of the Joker.
Deathstroke, on the other hand, has continually manipulated others and used them as unwilling (or brainwashed) pawns to destroy the Teen Titans, the Justice League, or just individual heroes. He has coerced and blackmailed Geo-Force, Batgirl, Risk, Inertia, and many others into joining his own teams or spying on the heroes he is contracted to destroy. Members of his own family have been tortured and killed and, though painful, have been considered “acceptable losses” by Deathstroke. His rare anti-heroic efforts are often met with disdain and distrust as a result, and he is constantly estranged from his wife and children, despite his best efforts to craft his family into a cohesive unit of assassins with allied goals.
Whether he knows it or not, Deathstroke exploits a critical psychological weakness in Nightwing. He can see a reflection of his own mentor in the meticulous, Machiavellian methods of his nemesis. In Deathstroke, Nightwing sees the qualities of the Batman that made them grow apart in the first place. A Batman who will sacrifice the well-being and relationships of those around him for the greater good. A Batman who uses manipulation and deceit as much as he does deduction and combat. In essence, the only thing separating Batman and Deathstroke in the eyes of Nightwing is their morality, a line that is far too thin for comfort (as Nightwing and Deathstroke, along with the other Titans, have frequently teamed up when their goals align).
To fight Deathstroke is to fight Batman, or rather, those aspects of the Dark Knight with which Nightwing is not aligned. It is the classic student-teacher conflict, and it has made the Nightwing-Deathstroke relationship one of the most dynamic in the DC Universe.