“ And there is something out there in the darkness, something terrifying, something that will not stop until it gets revenge…Me ” – Batman Begins Teaser Trailer
What constitutes heroism has always been fluid. Should one’s actions be the deciding factor, or one’s intent? I’m certain most have heard the story of the late ex-LAPD officer Christopher Dorner, who after a long, failed attempt to expose police corruption, decided to take martial action against the LAPD itself. His story isn’t too different from Frank Serpico’s, a police officer who also recognized corruption and sought to stamp it out ( with some mild success ). Paramount even made a film made about his crusade starring Al Pacino, which many would call the ultimate stamp of public approval. Will a film be made about Chris Dorner? I mean, he had good intentions (well, up until the multiple murders). We could assume the answer. This illustrates the common dissonance that exists between heroic intent and heroic action. Both men had goals that most would consider heroic, but disconnected when it came to their final actions. Dorner will never be considered a hero, in fact he would be considered quite the villain.
Compared to the other major heroes in the DC universe, Batman has consistently been written as the most suspect. Sure, all superheroes are by definition vigilantes, but Batman’s particular brand of vigilantism has an aire of madness to it.
Batman R.I.P. (2008)
He’s no god like Superman, just a guy who forced himself to become one in order to fight crime. He also has the additional peculiarities that come with the genre ( motif, modus operandi, etc ). His impetus for heroics just adds to how crazy he seems, after seeing the death of his parents, he decides “why not become a bat monster?”. That’s weird. This is probably why most works tiptoe around what happened in-between his parents murder and his modern day exploits. Hell, it took seven months into his original comic series for Bob Kane to even establish that his parents WERE murdered.
Detective Comics (1940)
Such a detail might have been considered too morbid to begin a comic series, since it casts Batman’s seemingly gallant crusade as a little more pathological. Despite this, his early appearances in Detective Comics portrayed him as not being shy about enacting extreme violence upon criminals. In his first comic appearance, Detective Comics #27 in 1939, he casually throws an unarmed robber OFF A BUILDING!!!
In the same issue, he punches a man into a VAT OF ACID.
He even expresses his pleasure at the outcome, saying that it was “a fitting end for his kind”. Cold-blooded. Oh and he occasionally carried a gun as well.
While this might sound jarring to modern fans of the character, it’s important to know that the Batman your familiar with is partially the product of censorship, particularly from an organization known as the Comics Code Authority. The organization was created in 1954 when many moral guardians were concerned with the message comics, especially ones featuring superheroes, were sending to youngsters. As you could imagine, a guy who punches people into acid was pretty disconcerting to these people. Therefore, Bats (and all superheroes for that matter) had to take on more family friendly aspects: instead of being a wanted criminal, Batman worked along with the cops through Commissioner Gordon, instead of using real weapons, Batman used gimmicky tools, and most importantly, he acquired a code to not kill.
Infinite Crisis (2005)
Whereas many other popular superheroes fit well into the brave new world of censorship, there was always some incongruity with Batman’s role as a non-killer. Bob Kane and Bill Finger based Batman on unfettered heroes such as the Phantom and Zorro, who wouldn’t hesitate to kill someone. Superman can play with kid gloves due to his power, but Batman can’t. More importantly, he still has that horrific origin driving him. His abilities stem from the pain of loss, his motif from childhood terror. Even the whimsy of the Silver Age of Comics couldn’t reconcile that, hence why it was rarely acknowledged in mediums such as the 60’s Batman live action series.
Batman Begins has a very unique take on Bruce’s mental transition from disturbed child to Batman. The film gives us a flashback to a young adult Bruce, well before his international journey, when he realizes his father’s killer has been caught. Bruce appears at the trial, only to see the man shot by a mafia gunman. In the ensuing chaos, Rachel Dawes (the attractive one) scoops him up and drives him to safety, during which he reveals that he intended to shoot the killer himself.
Batman Begins (2005)
The implications of the scene are reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, where the deranged Travis Bickle intends to shoot a senator, but is thwarted by his bodyguards, which leads Bickle to “save” a child prostitute by killing her pimp and all of his associates (it makes more sense in context). This turns him into a local hero.
Taxi Driver (1976)
Like Travis Bickle, Bruce’s intentions here are driven more from rage than heroism. He intends to get revenge upon the man who killed his father by killing him. If he could have accomplished this, would he have still become Batman, or would his bloodlust have been sated? Keep in mind that Bruce is clearly in at least his mid-twenties by the time this trial takes place, meaning that he spent most of his life wanting to kill this man, not learning how to be a ninja in order to save people. The assertion could be made that whatever compulsion makes him want to be Batman is something akin to what made him want to kill that guy. In addition, there’s no way Bruce could have committed that act without being immediately recognized as the killer. Bruce Wayne’s name would have been coupled with the title “assassin” for all history, just like the aforementioned Christopher Dorner (see, there was a point to that tangent after all!).
Bruce’s morals is a lens for real-life history,which is filled with almost heroes/almost villains. The prestigious United States Military Academy at West Point would have almost assuredly been named after Benedict Arnold, who was the commander at the military fort it was based on, if it wasn’t for that whole treason thing. Now he’s American history’s greatest traitor, despite his admirable pre-War career. Likewise, Bruce Wayne, Gotham’s favorite son, could have easily been Gotham’s infamous murderer.
Batman:Gotham Knight (2008)/Taxi Driver
Outside of the film, the idea of Batman’s heroism being a front has been touched upon in works such as Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke (1988), where Joker tells one of his many possible origin stories, this one stating that he was a down-on-his-luck comedian and husband who pretended to be the Red Hood, another Batman villain, in order to rob a chemical factory. I think you know where the rest of this goes (they really need more OSHA inspectors in Gotham). This caper was supposed to help out his wife, who dies before the heist happens anyway, on the same day he takes the dip. Joker, in a moment of terrifying insight, postulates that Batman probably had a “really bad day” like he did. Joker sees Batman as a psychopath, like he is, who went through a tragedy so jarring that he couldn’t reconcile it rationally. This casts Batman’s actions as equally as insane as Joker’s. His persona is borne of madness, not heroism.
Unlike the man Joker once was, Bruce in Batman Begins has the benefit of Rachel Dawes to set him straight about what’s just. Her response to Bruce’s confession is a slap and a trip to the ghetto to look at Gotham’s underclass, which she punctuates with “I know you are a good person Bruce, but it’s not who you are, but what you do that defines you”. For a genre as unambiguously black and white as the superhero genre, this is a very odd notion. Shouldn’t right and what’s wrong be decided by intent? Shouldn’t good intentions yield good actions?
In Batman Begins’ screenplay, writer David Goyer makes excellent use of supporting characters as a way to connect Batman with the “real” world that Bruce doesn’t exist in. Bruce is a kid dressing up and playing cowboys and Indians, he doesn’t have any social conscience for the most part. In Batman: Year One (1987), Bruce laments having to fly for his return to Gotham, claiming that “he wants to see the enemy”, indicating a fairly stark view of Gotham’s criminal underworld. In Batman: Noel ( 2011 ), A Christmas Carol homage casting Batman as a Scrooge analogue, Batman even threatens violence upon a low level Joker minion on Christmas Eve who is trying to support his children.
Due to his wealth, constant travelling, and his status as a wacko, Bruce is vastly disconnected from the concerns of normal people. This is pointed out by Rachel and the film’s warm-up antagonist, Carmine Falcone, who reminds Bruce that he’s still several times better off than most people in Gotham. Because of his disconnectedness, he views crime-fighting as almost a holy crusade rather than a social necessity. Rachel Dawes, as a district attorney, represents real life law and order, a system that wouldn’t allow the type of violent, indiscriminate action Bruce wishes to take. In a way, Rachel becomes the diegetic equivalent to the Comics Code Authority; she forces him to continue his exploits in a more socially palatable manner. He reiterates her lesson later in the film when she asks who he (dressed as Batman) is: “Someone once told me it doesn’t matter who I am inside; it’s what I do that counts”. Bruce has apparently adopted what Rachel has espoused by the film’s end; he’s subordinated his malice for the good of the city.
Even though the modern Batman has been consistently portrayed as never breaking the sixth commandment, it hasn’t stopped many writers from alluding to his desire to kill. In The Dark Knight Returns, in order to stop a bomb from destroying a skyscraper, he rewires an explosive in some goons’ helicopter to explode while they’re flying. His comment on the act? “Two men die, leaving the world no poorer”. Bruce recognizes the consequence of his decision, but is almost callous in his indifference towards it. As with the Joker minion in Noel, all criminals are pieces of shit as far as he’s concerned, so who cares if they die? What keeps him from making lethal action a norm doesn’t seem to be concern for his enemies, but instead a fear of who he will become if he does take such action.
Batman Forever (1995)
In Batman Forever, Bruce makes an appeal to Dick Grayson/Robin as to why he shouldn’t kill his parents’ murderer;
“It will happen this way: you make the kill, but your pain doesn’t die with Harvey, it grows, so you run out into the night to find another face, and another, and another, until one terrible morning you wake up and realize that revenge has become your whole life. And you don’t know why…We’re the same”
Bruce sees the same anger that drives him in Dick (which is similar to how Robin recognizes Bruce as Batman due to his “hidden anger” in The Dark Knight Rises  ) and gives him what is his rationale for not going down a lethal path. What’s interesting is that he doesn’t speak hypothetically, he’s making an assertion (“It will happen this way“). One could hypothesize that the film’s Batman HAS killed men in the past, but another argument is that Bruce views his crusade as Batman as a long revenge mission anyway, sans killing. If Dick is destined to follow the same path, he could at least live with it better if he foregoes lethal methods. Robin works well as a foil for Bruce’s psychoses since he represents the child that Bruce was when his parents died (specifically, the first Robin). This is why it’s so important for Bruce to guide Robin, since he fears that the boy could possibly succumb to the compulsions that plague him.
Batman: Under The Red Hood (2010)
In the comic arc Under the Red Hood , Robin (albeit a different one) once again acts as a foil for Bruce’s mental state. Jason Todd, a Robin who died in a fight with Joker, is resurrected and attempts to get revenge on the clown.
During a tense showdown with Joker and Batman, Robin asks Batman why he didn’t kill Joker to avenge him (or at least for all the countless others). He responds:
“ It’d be too damned easy. All I’ve ever wanted to do is kill him. A day doesn’t go by I don’t think about subjecting him to every horrendous torture he’s dealt out to others and then end him…but if I do that, I’ll allow myself to go down into that place, I’ll never come back”.
Notice that Bruce doesn’t make an appeal to a social code of any kind (which Robin assumes he will). Instead, he makes an appeal to his desire for self-control. He knows his desires are not as pure-of-heart as others may think, and allowing himself to exercise them will possibly destroy what he’s been trying to create his whole career. Would the people of Gotham be as inspired by a murderous vigilante? Would children have the same admiration for him? Would law enforcement be as willing to rally behind him, as they do in The Dark Knight Rises? Probably not, since killing is often considered the most savage of human compulsions. As Ra’s al Ghul instructs him in Batman Begins, in order to change Gotham, he must transcend humanity and become an ideal. While this sounds like motivational bullshit, it isn’t really. Look at Marxism, Nazism, Christianity, all bodies of thought created by humans. These men were not their ideals in life, but in legacy. The Bruce Wayne of Batman Begins succeeds in leaving a legacy in The Dark Knight Rises, as his defeat of Bane and liberation of Gotham causes a monument to be erected in his honor. He will be associated, for better or worse, with the preservation of life, not the deliverance of death. Batman Begins’ Bruce Wayne could be thought of as attempting to create the image of Batman that exists in mainstream comics; a man who utilized personal tragedy in order to change the world for the better.
Batman Incorporated (2010)
“My parents taught me a…lesson… lying on this street… shaking in deep shock… dying for no reason at all. They showed me that the world only makes sense when you force it to”-The Dark Knight Returns
For more Batman related posts:
For more DC Comics related posts:
For more superhero related posts:
And finally, proof of Batman’s douchiness: