C’mon Hollywood: Why Batman shouldn’t kill

Last Updated on July 31, 2021

Who doesn’t love Batman? I mean, even ISIS loves Batman! And why not? Batman is a badass avenger of the night who knows every martial arts ever, is super smart (he is the World’s Greatest Detective after all), and is also hella swole. What more do you need?

Well, I’m glad you asked. You see, besides his sweet costume, gadgets, and such, what makes Batman interesting as a hero is his #1 rule: Batman doesn’t kill. It’s been his modus operandi pretty much since his inception. Not only does it make Batman more compelling, but it helps differentiate him from his enemies – it’s the line he will not cross.

So why does he kill so many people in BATMAN V SUPERMAN, and why is that a big deal?

Well, it’s kind of complicated.

The first thing I’m going to talk about are obviously the comics, with a lot of stories that HINGE on the fact Batman doesn’t kill. For instance, in the RED HOOD arc, where Jason Todd comes back to life, he asks Bruce why he didn’t avenge his death and kill the Joker? Because Batman can’t cross that line, which then becomes the main conflict of that story. And there are countless more stories where Batman’s unwillingness to kill is a key component of the drama.

But what about other media? One example people use to defend Snyder’s choice in BATMAN V SUPERMAN is the Tim Burton films, since Keaton’s also Batman explicitly kills people in it (blowing up ACE Chemicals with henchman in it, throwing that one guy down the church stairs, The Joker, etc.). But do we really want to go back to a time when movies gave Superman wall-building eye-vision powers, or where executives thought a skull on the Punisher’s shirt would look too silly? Because SUPERMAN IV had come out just a couple years prior to BATMAN, and PUNISHER with Dolph Lungren came out the same year. So fidelity was never on anyone’s mind. Why would you take an example from that era? BATMAN was basically an ‘80s action movie in comic-book clothing (right down to the personal revenge plot), and, Tim “I don’t like comic-books” Burton’s sequel BATMAN RETURNS was even less like the comics and more of a Gothic fairy tale (even though I enjoy RETURNS overall, fidelity to the character is at an all-time low on that one).

Okay, but what about his early comics, smart guy?

So that’s a panel from Batman’s debut in ’39. Here, we see Batman punch a bad guy, and then when he falls and dies Batman says “Fitting end”. Pretty cold, Batman. Well, Chris Sims can probably say it better than I can, but essentially at the time Batman was based on a certain pulp hero trope – namely dark avengers like the THE SHADOW. And in those stories, not only did the heroes kill, but they also used guns, so Batman was sort of emulating that era. Thing is, that version of Batman lasted less than a year, and by BATMAN #1 in 1940 – his first official solo series – Batman’s oath to not take another life had already been cemented. And, it’s not like the original version of a character is always the character we think of – remember, Superman didn’t fly or have Kryptonite until years after his introduction, and those are both now major parts of his mythos.  

However, I can’t rest my entire argument on fidelity, since adaptation changes are bound to happen, and sometimes for the better (i.e. the Batcave was a product of the ‘40s serials). But, even barring fidelity entirely, Batman deciding to kill doesn’t make much sense, especially in the context of the DCEU. Like, why would that version of Batman allow Leto’s Joker to live after he killed Robin? Are you telling me Bat-Fleck’s xenophobia towards Superman is what takes Bruce over the edge – causing him to kill countless henchmen in the process – when the death of his ward didn’t? Say what you will about the ’89 BATMAN, but at least he kills the Joker in it. Also, if Batman going too extreme is such a big problem (which, to be fair, is his arc in that film), why is Alfred giving him shit for branding people, but completely mum on, you know, murder?

But, most importantly, Batman’s aversion to killing simply makes him a much more compelling character. Here’s the thing: Batman is not The Punisher or Spawn, or any other grim ‘n’ gritty heroes he helped create. While he is ostensibly a dark avenger, the best versions of Batman are about how, at his core, he is a hero born out of hope. Like Barbara Gordon in LEGO BATMAN mentions – having a rich guy who uses his resources to beat up poor people is pretty uncomfortable, once we strip everything else (like his gadgets and cool costume) away from him. But if you look at the best versions of Batman, he is a man who experienced great pain and loss and goes out of his way to not let anyone feel that loss again. It should not be about punishing villains (because again, he is not The Punisher) but rather save those from harm. Hell, there's a reason he usually sends people to an Arkham Asylum (where the mentally ill are meant to be rehabilitated) rather than Black Gate Prison (admittedly, Arkham has its own problems, but still).

It’s also why I think the Nolan trilogy resonated – Batman wasn’t battling low-life thugs (in THE DARK KNIGHT one hoodlum even says “you have a better chance of winning the lottery than running into him”), he was battling the systemic problems that create “Joe Chills” (in fact, the speech Rachel gives in BATMAN BEGINS about “looking outside your own pain” is the best encapsulation on the folly of revenge I’ve ever seen).

Or look at this scene with Ace in JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED. Batman's aversion to killing is what ultimately shows his true heroism:

Now, I mentioned LEGO BATMAN, which is fitting because like that film posits, there have been many Batmen throughout the ages. Yet, pretty much all of them – save his first appearances and early films – don’t kill (including even the grimdark DARK KNIGHT RETURNS Batman, despite what Snyder would have you believe).

So, ask yourself, if you prefer a Batman who kills – why? Do you actually like Batman, or do you just wish The Punisher wore a more flamboyant costume? There are no wrong answers, obviously, but it is something to think about. Sound off and let us know your thoughts on Batman's code – To kill or NOT to kill?

Personally, my favorite version is Zebra Batman.

Source: JoBlo.com

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