There’s been a recent uproar of coverage lately coming out of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice when producer Charles Rowen referred to the hero as an “executioner” in the upcoming film. This has caused a stir amongst hardcore fans of the hero with a “no killing” rule. The full comment reads…
“[Batman] is not giving people a chance… He is more than a vigilante. He has become not only the cop, if you will, he has also become the jury and executioner.”
He went on to state
“He’s older…[and] he’s seen the worst of what man can do. He’s been darkened by it, he’s tougher, he’s angrier, I guess… he’s still lost those that are near and dear to him, and not necessarily from old age or disease.”
To be clear, there is certainly not a whole lot of context to be read from two sentences that went public out of cleary what was a larger interview. Many fans and sites are running with the theory that Batman will serve as a de facto Punisher type roll merely offing whatever obstacle stands in his way. However, we have nothing but this out of context quote to fully believe that Batman will be forgoing his no kill rule. Even in the recent trailer that debuted in front of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, we see footage of a thug chained up with a bat brand on his chest, implying that Batman is in fact leaving thugs beaten yet breathing for the cops to scrape up behind him.
Perhaps Batman will be more vicious than before due to his age and the toll that he has taken on his body and mind. By the trailer, it is more than implied that Batman has lost one of his previous Robins to the Joker given the shot we see of the memorial in the cave. This is most likely what Rowen was meaning when he meant Batman has lost loved ones to something other than age and will most likely be part of the catalyst for a more vicious attitude. The branding of a bat on his victims seems to be a new touch, but all of that does not necessarily mean that he will be committing wanton acts of murder. We won’t know for certain till the movie hits in a couple months.
However, I am more interested in the question of should Batman be allowed to kill his victims. It’s long been a debate within the comics itself whenever the Joker rears his ugly head to once again commit the vile mass murders that he is known for. How many lives would Batman save by killing one horrendous monstrosity in the guise of a clown? It’s that debate itself that makes Batman an infinitely more interesting character than the Punisher, but before we dive head first into that let’s look at some of Batman’s past incarnations that adhere or abide by the infamous rule to leave the bad guy alive.
See early in Batman’s history, for about the first two years, Batman was completely fine with taking the life of his enemies. He didn’t even mind using a gun for a time. Don’t believe me? Let’s look.
In Batman V.1 #1 he hangs a mental patient from a plane.
In Detective Comics V1. #33, Batman shoots a criminal in their sleep.
It wasn’t until a few years into the books that Batman began to display a much deeper respect for life, instructing Robin not to kill. It was an evolution of the character years before the Comics Code took place. The weight of those death weighed heavy on the man and over time he adopted the rule that he has come to be known for.
In other versions of the character we’ve seen similar instances. In the 80’s Batman left the KGBeast trapped underground, left to starve to death. This was later retconned to allow the villain to live, but it’s obvious in the original material what the plan was for Batman’s foe.
The Batman from the Tim Burton films, clearly had no issue killing folks. He threw a man down a stairwell to his doom. He even lit two men on fire with the Batmobile in Batman Returns.
He even shoved dynamite in a man’s pants and blew him to kingdom come.
AND SMILED ABOUT IT!
In Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Batman breaks through a wall and uses a gun to obliterate two of the mutant gang members who kidnapped a young child.
Each of these stories had their own merits at the time and show the Dark Knight at his most vicious through various points of his career, but each of them, with the exception of the last, failed to really answer the question of what separates Batman from his enemies by standing apart through his moral grounding. Batman watched as the life was taken from his parents so he understands what it is like to have that which is most precious taken from you. It is the most vile act to take from someone everything they were and everything they will ever be. Batman came to understand in the books that that separation of crossing that line is what separates him from his enemies. That’s the difference between him and the criminals. That’s why he’s allowed to do what he does and part of what makes him so interesting. Batman is driven by rage, angst and guilt, yet when the time comes he doesn’t give in to those feelings completely. He is still able to allow justice to be served because he understands that it is not one man’s decision to take the life of another and that it should be left up to the law. Batman refusing kill criminals is a fundamental element of what makes him who he is.
Yet rules are made to be broken right? When done in the correct manner, it can create great drama in a story. No more so in Batman’s case when he is debating about causing the death of the Joker, when he finally feels pushed too far. A great example of this is in the story Hush, when the Joker has just killed one of Bruce Wayne’s oldest friends. This isn’t the first time the Joker killed someone close to the Batfamily. The Joker had already killed Jason Todd, paralyzed Barbara Gordon, and murdered Sarah Gordon. This final straw brings Batman to the closest he had been to ending the clown up to that point, and it made for an amazing moment when he is finally talked down by Commissioner Gordon, a man who had lost just as much to the Joker. Gordon reminds Batman that this is the line they do not cross, and if Batman were to cross it, Gordon would lead the chase against the Dark Knight himself.
That inner moral debate only enriches the story in that case. Because it’s Batman being pushed to his limits mentally and emotionally that’s forcing him to debate about whether or not it is justified in doing the one thing he swore not to do, to violate in his own very code.
The one other great example of this is in Final Crisis. Batman has a way to save the universe from Darkseid, but it will require him to violate his very code of ethics and take Darkseid’s life. It’s the fate of the very universe at stake and it weighs heavy on the man, but in the end Batman sacrifices his very code in order to save… EVERYTHING!
However, if Batman chooses to execute criminals too flippantly, it loses all value to the story. Look at the case I mentioned above in the Dark Knight Returns. That moment is the one great flaw in a near perfect art. Batman executes a thug with a machine gun in order to save a child. He could easily have done it without killing anyone. He’s Batman! Yet, the next issue, Batman debates about whether or not he should kill the Joker even after he’s murdered some no name thug. Why is there a debate at this point? Clearly he believes that it is fine to end someone’s life to save another. So why does he debate this when fighting the Joker? His resolve makes no sense at this point and it robs the moment of the great debate it is highlighting. If Batman is allowed to kill random thugs in Batman V Superman, then why has he not killed the Joker yet? Why is the joker allowed to live. Not only does it negate Batman’s very code, it negates him as a quality anti-hero if he’s executing random peons yet letting the worst scum to face the Earth live.
Look at Man of Steel in the case of another hero. Superman is faced with the conundrum of having to snap Zod’s neck or watch as he burns four people alive. Superman, who also follows the no kill rule, chooses the darker path and drops Zod to the floor in a lifeless sack of skin, but you know what would have made this moment more dramatic? If Superman had shown at any point during the film the respect for life that he is known for and his absolute allegiance and passion for protecting the innocent. The biggest issue with that film is that Superman is NOT a superhero in it and clearly Zack Snyder doesn’t understand him as a hero. Superman is dragged into action. He saves some people at the oil rig when it’s right in front of him, but after that it literally takes Zod going after his mother for him to do anything with all these powers he’s been given. What does he do with those powers? Destroy a small town. Look at the entire end of the film. Superman allows millions to die because he fights Zod there in the middle of the city and only when he is faced with seeing four people die in front of him does he do something to save anyone from all the damage he and Zod are causing. Rocket Raccoon puts more effort into saving people he doesn’t know in Guardians of the Galaxy than Superman does in Man of Steel. Again that ending where he has Zod in his clutches would be immensely more potent with drama if we knew how important human life was to Superman, but the film failed to showcase that up to that point. So why should that moment mean anything to me since he hasn’t shown much concern for life up to that point? Him killing Zod is far less egregious than him allowing millions to die.
Batman and Superman are not us. They are ideals in comic book form. They are things we can strive to be. Superman is the representation of the best of us in compassion and goodwill. Batman is the pinnacle of human will and represents our need for justice. Yes, they both could easily take the lives of anyone in their way without a challenge, but they wouldn’t be the characters that have lasted for so long if they did. They can be the hero’s we need without having to take human life on their own and still allow justice to be served. What makes them stand out is their ability to make the hard choices when we would choose the easier path. They serve as inspirations for people everywhere and represent us at our best. If they are killing simple thugs and allowing others to die so easily then what does separate them from the criminals anymore? Neither hero should be allowed to kill so easily. They just aren’t the heroes we need when they do. Allow them to be the hero’s they are and continue to fight the good fight without the need for ending human life by bringing those to justice alive.