The Screwy Morality of Batman in the Movies
It’s not a new argument, but the question of Batman’s “no kill” rule came up again this past week when Batman v Superman director Zack Snyder addressed fan complaints about why his version of the character kills.
This comes at time when we’re about to get another movie version of the Joker as well as — in the wake of Ben Affleck’s leaving the DC movie franchise — a new Batman. In the world of superheroes the status quo changes all the time. But one thing always remains consistent. In every version the Joker is a criminal. And so, technically, is Batman.
We frequently overlook the fact that Batman takes the law into his own hands, something that society generally frowns upon. That’s because Batman is always painted as a hero. He saves the day, he saves the world. He’s an idealized version of humanity, using every tool at his disposal to bring order back to a society overloaded with chaos. In Batman stories, we’re always glad that Batman is there.
But our collective hero worship of Batman, though perfectly understandable, makes us all too eager to forgive this hero whenever he screws up. And he’s screwed up many, many times. Worse yet, because he’s a vigilante, operating entirely outside the parameters of any legal system and without oversight of any kind, he answers to nobody whenever he gets people killed. Which, in the Batman movies at least, he does all the time.
Batman killed the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman. He blew up a goon in Batman Returns. He intentionally caused the death of Two-Face in Batman Forever. He “didn’t save” (and thus functionally murdered) Henri Ducard/Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins. And it’s legitimately hard to keep track of how many people Batman murdered, directly or indirectly, in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Every feature film version of Batman, except for Adam West and (arguably) Kevin Conroy, has at least some blood on their hands.
Tim Burton’s darker, operatic Batman movies can be seen as their own entity. So can Joel Schumacher’s neon Las Vegas interpretation of the character. So can Christopher Nolan’s morally complicated, gritty real-world version. So can Zack Snyder’s Frank Miller-inspired anger machine iteration. Batman is a character painted with very broad strokes, and every storyteller projects their own ideas onto him, regardless of the medium they use.
That’s why some versions of Batman are more moral than others. Batman: The Animated Series gave the Dark Knight a series of complicated storylines with difficult ethical and moral choices, but (with very rare exceptions) he managed to solve those problems without taking an easy way out. Adam West’s Batman is a goody two-shoes whose villains were mostly merry pranksters. He wouldn’t even get rid of a bomb if doing so would risk the lives of some ducks. These are Batmen for all ages, meant to inspire us to be better people.
Watch the video to learn about all the actors who almost played Batman!
But in the darker, more serious versions of Batman, filmmakers often struggle with just how realistic his stories should be. If he existed in “real life,” Batman would be a vigilante who fought serial killers all the time. He’d probably need to respond with deadly force sometimes in order to stop them. Hence, we get films like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which is all about Superman trying to stop a Batman who brands criminals (apparently so they’ll get murdered in prison), and in turn, about Batman trying to stop Superman from killing countless people every time he gets in a fist fight.
To Zack Snyder’s credit, Batman v Superman tackles the issue of Batman’s shady morality head-on, and crafts a narrative which forces him to grow back into the old-fashioned hero most of us wanted him to be. But it’s telling that in order to tell that story, Snyder first had to make Batman and Superman murderers (to one extent or another). The director could have simply leapfrogged over that, and told a story in which Batman (and Superman) was a morally complex hero who always does the right thing even when it’s difficult, and instead he told a story in which that hero was sullied and, arguably, tarnished forever by his worst actions.
But that, of course, is what might actually happen if Batman was real. That’s worth considering, but it’s also worth considering that Batman isn’t real. Never has been, never will be. He’s a superhero in a world full of gods and aliens and fish people. Batman Begins had to bend over backwards for the entire running time, just to make it seem halfway plausible that Batman could really exist. And even then it had secret ninja conspiracies and fear gas.
One of the reasons we love Batman is that, in spite of the inherently weird premise of a billionaire dressing up like a flying mammal and punching out clowns, he can be taken seriously as an individual. His bizarre actions are driven by understandable tragedy, the death of his parents, and as such we can forgive his odd lashing out and strange costume predilections. He does weird things for the right reasons.
And yet, the more seriously we take Batman, the more we have to take him to task. The simple fact is that power corrupts, and Batman is a billionaire who can beat up Superman. Once you show him killing anybody, or putting someone in a position to die and then deciding not to save them, you’re corrupting Batman. Unless he turns himself in to the cops afterwards he’s just not heroic anymore. He’s a criminal who thinks the rules don’t apply to him, and thanks to his wealth and resources, they don’t.
That’s why it behooves storytellers to make conscious decisions about just how “dark” the Dark Knight can get. You can’t just have him directly or indirectly kill his bad guys just because it’s easier, or more realistic, or (heaven forbid) “cooler.” You have to treat him like a superhero, or he’s just another Joker, dressing up to satisfy his own needs, and letting his own personal tragedy excuse his own unforgivably violent impulses.
It’s important for a character who straddles the line of criminality, especially in a world of (frequently) plausible homicidal maniacs, to have a definite moral line in the sand. Because without it, Batman really is no different from the Joker. The Joker kills because he thinks it’s a good idea, and he’s not just the villain because we disagree with who he chooses to murder. He’s a villain because he murders. Even the American criminal justice system, in the states where the death penalty is still legal, doesn’t leave the decision up to just one person. There are rules, there are advocates, there are pleas, there are stays of execution.
It’s easy and it’s fun and it’s freeing to look up to Batman as a heroic ideal, as someone who’s always right, all of the time. But he’s not. He’s a man, and not just any man. He’s a trust fund billionaire with extreme mental health issues who breaks the law literally every day. He’s not the kind of person we want deciding who lives and who dies.
With the new Batman movie in the works, director Matt Reeves will have a brand new opportunity to explore the morality of Batman. And in this newer, more morally responsible world of Wonder Woman and Aquaman, it’s possible that Reeves will eschew the “mostly moral but will occasionally blow random people up or try to get them killed in prison” version of Batman that Batman v Superman introduced. Even in the post-Justice League continuity, where he’s friendlier despite the impressive body count on his rap sheet, he’s on shaky moral ground, and probably not the best person to be passing judgment on anybody.
After all, it’s the “Justice” League, and killing people without due process isn’t justice.
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