This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on August 18, 2016.
Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
Why is it in fact totally okay for Batman to kill people?
Some Marks just want to watch the comics internet burn. I suppose it’s time to light a fire then.
To understand this question and its answer, I think it’s important to start with why people would believe Batman absolutely should not kill under any circumstance. It’s more difficult to prove something should never occur, then to allow for its existence, but among superhero fans the idea of Batman killing is absolutely verboten.
The prohibition on superhero murder is far from unique to Batman though. It’s a view shared about many characters, especially the most popular ones, the paragons. Superheroes like Spider-Man, The Flash, and Martian Manhunter should preserve life at any cost to themselves. That’s accepted like a fact in many circles, but why?
If we’re going to discuss paragons, then we should go to the root of that word and the genre: Superman. There’s no one character more revered or iconic in superhero comics than Superman. Honestly, it’s that status that seems to be the character’s real greatest weakness at this point as the pressure of writing him overwhelms many creators and results in milquetoast narratives. If the film Man of Steel taught us anything, it’s that fans place a tremendous amount of importance on this character and many of them absolutely, definitively believe he should never kill.
I am not going to get into that discussion; it’s really not worth having for the millionth time and anyone who still cares about it should probably attend a class or something. What’s interesting isn’t the two sides of that argument, but what inspires people to believe that Superman should never kill in such an intense manner. What is it about Superman that makes this belief absolute and inspires such passion about it?
A lot of that passion comes from the fact that Superman means a lot to a lot of people. He’s a figure that men and women get tattooed on their bodies with some regularity and whose emblem covers untold numbers of t-shirts, baseball caps, and other paraphernalia. Superman is a character many of us grew up with and who features prominently in how we look at concepts like heroism, self-sacrifice, and decency. As one young man from Kansas, I can attest that Superman means a whole heckuva lot to me.
The ferocity with which many fans reject the notion of Superman ever killing suggests that the act of killing runs contrary to some intrinsic component of the character. While lots of things about a character can be adjusted, especially in something like superhero comics, there are always pieces that remain constant in telling us who a particular hero is. “Not killing” is not a core characteristic, but it does point to one that can be traced all the way to Superman’s roots in Action Comics #1.
Superman is a utopian ideal. He is not only the “Man of Steel”, he’s also the “Man of Tomorrow”. For many readers, myself included, Superman’s story is not meant to remind us of the moral and social compromises we must make in order to survive. He is both an inspirational and aspirational figure who offers the vision of a world where these compromises may not be necessary. It’s a dream, a fantasy, an imaginary story, but aren’t they all? What’s valuable is that these fantasies encourage us to keep dreaming and striving to find the better world Superman offers.
Killing is a rejection of that ideal. Homicide is to many people the original sin and still widely considered to be the greatest. While there are circumstances where taking another life is inevitable and even contributes to the greater good, that does not make the act itself any less regrettable. In an ideal society there is always a way to avoid taking any human life. Superman represents that path forward. He is the hero who always finds the better way and encourages us to seek the same. While we may be forced to live in a world where taking human life is necessitated by circumstances of crime and war, Superman gives us hope that tomorrow may be better.
This is true of many other superheroes as well. Both Spider-Man and The Flash are heroes who aspire to make the world better and realize their better selves. Spider-Man’s declaration of “No one dies” in Amazing Spider-Man #656 is both incredibly naive and brave. He commits himself to the notion that nobody, even an irredeemable mass murderer, needs to die under any circumstance. It’s this commitment that ultimately leads to him losing his own life and Doctor Octopus’ heroic transformation in Superior Spider-Man. Even Spider-Man has committed murder, or at least manslaughter, before. In the pages of Spider-Man Vs. Wolverine he accidentally kills Wolverine’s girlfriend Charlie. Spider-Man’s journey is about him becoming better and that is clearly illustrated in stories like this.
Among the paragons of superhero fiction, there are two very notable exceptions to this “no killing” rule: Wonder Woman and Captain America. The reason for this exception is pretty obvious too. Both of these characters are soldiers (or at least of a martial background for Wonder Woman) tracing their roots to World War II and the battle against fascism. When we talk about the unfortunate necessity of killing, no heroes better expose this than these two. They are the brave soldiers who take this incredible burden upon themselves in order to protect innocents and battle unimaginable terrors. It is through superheroes like these that we can see our military reflected and avoid the absolute demonization of any killing in the superhero genre.
Other heroes like Green Lantern and Aquaman may be led to kill as well. This can be justified by looking at what it reflects about their roles as an officer of the peace or a monarch. It can make sense in their stories. There is no real hard and fast “no killing” rule in superhero stories. It’s always a question of what makes sense for the characters and story being told. While some characters like Superman and Spider-Man can be perceived as being ruined by an action like premeditated homicide, others like Wonder Woman and Captain America fit perfectly with that concept in a well-told and carefully considered narrative.
So what about Batman?
Batman is not a utopian figure like Superman. His origin and continued existence is predicated on the world being an unjust place. At the same time he is not a soldier like Captain America or Wonder Woman. He is not tasked by necessity to fight global conflicts, but is focused on local and very personal issues. This has not stopped writers from following in the footsteps of Frank Miller referring to Batman’s fight against crime as a “war” and Robin’s like Jason Todd as being a “good soldier”. Altering rhetoric does not change what is actually occurring on the page though.
When I look at Batman and question what the immutable core of his character is, I think it has to do with the dystopian state of reality. He acknowledges the world as an imperfect place and does his best to impose order and justice upon it. The task is gargantuan, but he is able to have an impact.
This is rooted in Batman’s origin when as a child he is irrevocably altered by the worst possible event a child could endure. The death of the Waynes reveals the world to be a cold, cruel place. That this family has immense wealth, power, and status but can still be shattered further shows that there is no real protection from factors like crime and violence.
Everything he does, in every iteration of his story, follows an attempt to rectify this imbalance. He seeks to punish the wicked and protect the innocent. Batman is not guided by a legal sense of justice either, as he is regularly pursued by the police and labeled a vigilante. His actions only operate alongside the law when his own internal sense of right aligns with that of legal actors. This quest is often expanded to the point of him creating his own forces to create order, whether they are in the form of the Bat Family, the Justice League, the Outsiders, or some other group. Every iteration sees him as a leader and he grooms his protégés and molds his peers to pursue his goal.
Batman is a force for order in a chaotic world. He seeks to return power to the powerless. He aims to create justice where there is none. He reveals the potential of one human being to make the world just a little bit better.
There’s no part of this character that is inherently at odds with the act of killing.
Consider each of the core themes found within the character of Batman and how they have been expressed in other media. Related characters, those that fill roles like vigilante, police officer, and detective, are often forced to kill in their pursuit of the truth and what is right. Tangential genres to Batman’s breed of superhero story like noir and crime fiction do not shy away from the necessity of taking a life as the least bad option. Even Batman’s own genre does not disallow killing. While the concept that superheroes do not kill is occasionally expressed, it is far from a truism of the entire genre in an idealized or practiced form.
Superheroes do kill. What makes this action stand out is that when it occurs it is almost always treated with a great deal of gravitas. Murder stands contrary to many ideals which is why even when a soldier like Wonder Woman has to kill a foe, it has a cost. But there is a difference between saying that an action should be taken seriously and that an action should never be taken. What really matters isn’t whether Batman kills or not, but that if it does so it should be a carefully considered part of the story that aligns with the presentation of both character and themes.
In some Batman stories, the act of killing would run contrary to both that specific presentation of the character and the aims of the story. We’ve been discussing Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s “Zero Year”, their magnum opus on Batman, recently. It’s a story the specifically confronts the greatest fears for the future confronting post-9/11 America and offers Batman as a hopeful alternative. Like much of Snyder’s work on Batman and Detective Comics, it transforms the character into an aspirational figure with a striking thematic resemblance to Superman. This is a Batman haunted by demons, but one that is able to regularly overcome them to find the best possible solution. He is a character that discovers a third way and his arc in “Zero Year” follows him on a quest that is as much about becoming an inspiration for Gotham City as it is about him saving the city.
For Batman to kill The Riddler or another foe in a story like this would run contrary to what is on the page. It would represent a catastrophic failure in the effort to become something greater than Bruce Wayne. In this case I would argue that Batman committing murder would not be okay, but this is only one case, not a universal truth.
The Christopher Nolan films were criticized by some fans for having Batman kill his villains or at least be complicit in their deaths. At the end of Batman Begins he allows Ra’s al Ghul to die by abandoning him on a doomed train. In The Dark Knight he tackles Harvey Dent from a height that causes his death. In The Dark Knight Rises he watches Catwoman murder Bane without so much as a reprisal.
None of these actions are at odds with the Batman shown in these films though. Nolan’s Batman still adheres to the core origins and characteristics of Bruce Wayne, but his quest for justice is not limited by an arbitrary line between intense, physical violence, and murder. In each of these films he accepts the death of a foe as a necessary component of creating the most good outcome. Whether it allows him to save the life of Jim Gordon’s son or end an ongoing terrorist threat to Gotham City, Batman takes the course of action that saves the most lives and creates the best possible world in his eyes.
There is an importance to these actions too. The abandonment of Ra’s is the climax of the film and clearly taxing for Batman. The death of Harvey Dent effectively ruins his life and the public image of Batman. There are consequences to what is done that makes sense within the morality of these stories.
Furthermore, it is hypocritical to place many Batman stories as being opposed to murder. The actions Batman takes in many comics, cartoons, and movies are incredibly brutal. While he does not claim to kill anyone in some of these stories, he often permanently cripples individuals and causes lifelong medical issues. Moments in which The Dark Knight Returns in which Batman says of a brutalized criminal, “He’s young. He’ll probably walk again.” have become a trope in Batman comics. The line between savage physical violence and actual murder becomes increasingly blurred as more instances show off just how destructive Batman’s actions are.
While drawing this line in comics targeted at a younger audience makes sense, it seems fewer Batman comics are actually intended for a young audience than ever before. The current Batman series features suicide bombers and horrifying imagery of gore. Death and destruction are the order of the day in this series and Batman is a contributor. To claim that his unwillingness to purposefully take human life gives him a moral high ground is tenuous at best. I would go so far as to say that in some instances it is not only okay for Batman to kill, it’s farcical to pretend that he does not.
Batman is a hero. Batman is a superhero. But Batman is also a man. His is the story of one man tasked with taming a chaotic universe to save others from the cruelty and violence that shaped his own life. Violence is one of his key tools in this battle against the entropy of the universe and violence inevitably leads to death. While it is not to be praised or admired, heroes sometimes have to kill given the constraints of a dystopian world and the restrictions of confronting real-world violence. These are all key components of who Batman is.
Like it or not, Batman is an inherently flawed hero fighting for a tomorrow in which he is not necessary, because where Batman is needed death cannot be far behind.