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Law and Crime

Dawn of Justice Batman is the Worst Batman Ever

The Dark Knight should not kill with (or without) guns.

[Spoiler alert: This post has been brewing since Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice came out. There are spoilers below. And a kind of a rant. You've been warned.]

Here's the thing: Batman shouldn't kill people. While doing additional research for my book "Becoming Batman", I was reading Les Daniels' "DC Comics: A Celebration of the World's Favorite Comic Book Heroes". That's where I came across the following quote by writer Peter Milligan:

“…We wondered if Batman might not be passé, because for all of his dark mien he will not inflict more pain than is absolutely necessary, and he will never take a life…”

This quote stuck with me because it resonated with a major part of the Batman mythology: he takes out Gotham's worst without mortally injuring any of them. Batman simply will not use lethal force. Or not anymore, anyway. If you go back to his first appearance in May 1939, Detective Comics #27 “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate”, you actually will find Batman using lethal force.

"The Bat-man" (as described in 1939) fights several criminals while on a roof top and then “…grabs his second adversary in a deadly headlock…and with a might heave…sends the burly criminal flying through space…” Although it is never definitively stated, we do see the body of the criminal lying crumpled on a sidewalk and it's definitely implied that “The Bat-man” has hurled him to his doom.

Additionally, Batman does not use weapons that carry the likely outcome of lethal force—guns. Again early on in the Batman history he did occasionally use a gun. In the story “Professor Hugo Strange and the Monsters” from Batman #1 in Spring 1940, Batman uses an early "Batplane" equipped with a cockpit machine gun to shoot at a van full of criminals fleeing a crime scene. While taking aim with the machine gun, Batman says “Much as I hate to take human life, I’m afraid this time it’s necessary”. His shots appear to indeed kill the van drivers causing them to crash into a tree, thus freeing one of the monsters in the story’s title.

When next he takes up a gun, in the 1941 story “Victory for the Dynamic Duo” from Batman #4, Batman uses the weapon that a thug has dropped. He picks up the gun "takes careful aim—and fires” saying that he just wants “to wing him”, and very ably shoots the culprits hand. At this time in history it's pretty clear that DC comics editorial wants to make a clear stand on the use of guns.

One of the panels has the comment “Editor’s note: the Batman never carries or kills with a gun!” In all subsequent Batman stories--no matter the title--it is made clear that Batman views the firearm in the lowest regard, using lines like “Crooks are yellow without their guns…” (from “The Cat” in Batman #1, Spring 1940) and Batman never again uses a gun.

That is, until the backstory for the “Batman Beyond” animated series. In that storyline, an aging Batman with diminished physical skills resorts to threatening a criminal with a gun. This event is so traumatic for him and crosses so many lines of behavior, that Batman chose to retire after it.

Many movies have also made it clear that Batman doesn't kill. In the Warner Brothers 2005 film “Batman Begins” a conversation between Bruce Wayne and Henri Ducard (played by Liam Neeson) in the scene "The Will to Act" shows Bruce taking a stand against killing. Ducard tells Bruce that he has to demonstrate a commitment to justice and brings in a prisoner that Bruce must execute as part of his training. Bruce refuses by saying “I’m no executioner” and when challenged by Ducard, responds that not killing is “…so important. It separates us from them.”

Despite the violence (both tacit and realized) that he uses, the idea that life is precious is clear in the entire Batman canon and in the 1969 story “One bullet too many” from Batman #217, Bruce Wayne, states “All humanity is important to Batman—any life, no matter how insignificant in the public eye!”.

This concept of non-lethal action forms the main philosophy guiding all of Batman’s actions, including empty hand fighting. In the story “Spirit of the Bat” from 1994 (part of the “Batman Knightfall” story arc) Bruce attempts to regain his edge after his defeat at the hands of Bane (which was shown in The Dark Knight Rises movie).

Bruce goes in search of Lady Shiva, his most respected martial arts opponent. Shiva is a formidable fighter and Batman realizes she can help restore him to former capacity. However, her help comes at the price of trying to set Batman up so that he must kill. As part of this training Shiva shows a special technique called the “Leopard blow” that, when mastered, “…causes death with a single strike.”. Batman’s response is “Then it is a lesson, Lady Shiva…which is best not taught”.

I've brought all this up to provide a context for how Batman operates. The no killing and no guns also highlights another thing about the Batman ethos—what Batman does is never done the easy way. The easy way to take out criminals and pathological supervillains would be to use firearms and to not get too worried if a few got killed along the way.

But that is not the Bat-way. Instead Batman engages most of his foes in close-quarter unarmed combat where he refrains from killing, and that's not easy. But it is the Bat-way and it's an important part of why Batman matters to us.

Which brings me to the title of this post. Up front I want to say that the portrayal of Batman (and Bruce Wayne) that Ben Affleck gives is not in question. Ben Affleck actually, and, I'll admit, completely contrary to my expectations, did a great job as an older Bruce Wayne and Batman.

Instead it's what Batman does in Dawn of Justice that's problematic. What Batman does is kill loads of people using guns. I'm deeply saddened by this portrayal of Gotham's Dark Knight. Batman is one of the greatest American cultural icons and known and celebrated around the world . Here he has been dragged back into that other American cultural distinction, not so celebrated but equally well known around the world. That of American gun culture. Batman started there but rose above it only to be pulled back down again.

In "Batman V Superman", Alfred comments on some of Batman's methods by saying "That's how it starts...the fever...the rage. The feeling of powerlessness that turns good men... cruel." This Batman is a long way from the "hero Gotham deserves", as James Gordon said in "The Dark Knight". I'm going to paraphrase the rest of Gordon's line by saying not only is this Batman not the one Gotham (or any of us) deserves, he's also not the one we need right now.

Batman at his best can serve as an inspirational figure.

But not this Batman.

This is Batman at his worst.

(c) E. Paul Zehr (2016)

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