Today we are going to talk about madness.
In our entertainment, heroism tends to come with a certain amount of notoriety. Heroes are, if not famous, then certainly recognized and generally loved for their deeds. And many of those heroes, like Batman, refuse to kill – the idea being that human institutions enforcing human laws need to determine right and wrong. It’s very democratic.
But, as TJ pointed out, heroes like Batman uphold that principle at the cost of thousands of human lives because the same villains keep escaping. He absolutely refuses to kill.
If not effective, is that moral high ground good? Is it right?
As I mentioned before, sending criminals to courts and prisons is part of a democratically constructed process. The second Batman acts as the state he’s basically saying that he, not the people, knows what’s best for society.
But isn’t that what he does all the time? It’s illegal for private citizens to detain, intimidate and torture people they suspect of crimes: all things Batman does. Not to mention the trespassing, destruction of property, vigilantism, disorderly conduct, assault and illegal weapons. This establishes that Batman is not afraid to break the law. Batman doesn’t give a f***.
And Batman is crazy. He obsessively tortures himself to fight crime all the time without actually seeing a difference in super villain activity. If repeating the same act while expecting different results is the definition of insanity, Batman has been insane for more than 70 years.
Imagine that you’ve lost someone in your life. It could be an especially harsh breakup or a death in the family. It’s the kind of loss that takes you months or years to move on from. Not get over, but move on from. And the duration of that suffering causes you to do crazy things to yourself and other people. Spontaneous crying. Destructive drinking. High-risk drag racing. Whatever. At the core of it, there is a compulsive need to do those things. Everyone goes through it at some point in their life.
Now imagine living in that state for your entire life. You don’t eat, sleep, or breath without remembering what you lost and the only time you don’t feel it is when you’re beating someone bloody. That is what I imagine Batman’s life is like. All the time. Every day.
Batman is a certain kind of insane, but for some reason he’s the kind of insane that we find comfort in. The kind of compulsive that hurts so badly for so long that he never finds any measure of relief. Anyone that’s experienced prolonged emotional suffering may see a little of themselves in the Batman.
But make no mistake that it is a form of mental impairment, if not an outright disorder. Personal trauma isn’t supposed to dominate all parts of your life. And it’s not supposed to hurt that much for the rest of your life. Sooner or later that anguish is supposed to cool.
It’s a purely selfish state of existence. Batman doesn’t do it because it’s right so much as because he needs to. He just happens to save peoples lives while obeying his compulsive urges. If his trauma was a little different, he could be like The Joker, who hurts people in the pursuit of compulsive desires. It is the opposite of heroism in that heroes put what’s best for others over themselves.
A true hero is someone that can do what needs to be done at the expense of their own values. It’s one thing to risk life and limb and another thing to risk life, limb and your very soul. A true hero would hate themselves for what they’ve done while bearing that weight. In short, Batman should kill every repeat murderer he comes across. Probably the rapists too.
It’s not fair to put all the blame on Batman though. A lot of this is a result of the Comics Code Authority of the 1950s. While killing criminals isn’t explicitly prohibited, it’s clear what kind of moral standard was in place. Here are some of the highlights:
Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals.
In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.
All scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, masochism shall not be permitted.
Inclusion of stories dealing with evil shall be used or shall be published only where the intent is to illustrate a moral issue and in no case shall evil be presented alluringly nor so as to injure the sensibilities of the reader.
You can read the entire thing here
It’s a real eye-opener if you’re unfamiliar with the comic industry’s history of censorship. And the Comics Code Authority had a profound influence on comic books well into the 80s and beyond. And if you go back even farther you can see Batman’s disarmament was part of a much larger argument about the propriety of guns in popular entertainment and the limits of the second amendment. It’s oddly poignant to discover there was a very similar conversation about gun control and the exposure of impressionable minds to gun violence not unlike the one we’re seeing today. Jill Lepore for the New Yorker had a fascinating article on the disarmament of Batman right after Aurora, Colorado, shooting.
So did Batman, who started out with a gun—until he got rid of it. The nineteen-thirties, the golden age of comic-book superheroes, was a time of landmark gun legislation. In 1934, the National Rifle Association supported the National Firearms Act—the first federal gun-control legislation—and, four years later, the 1938 Federal Firearms Act. A great many gun-safety measures on the books today date to those two pieces of legislation, which together mandated licensing for handgun dealers, introduced waiting periods for handgun buyers, required permits for anyone wishing to carry a concealed weapon, and effectively prohibited the sale of the only gun banned in the United States today: the automatic weapon (or “machine gun”).
In 1939, the constitutionality of the National Firearms Act was brought before the U.S. Supreme Court, in U.S. v. Miller. A ruling issued on May 15, 1939, upheld the law, unanimously, and uncontroversially.
In a story published in October of 1939, Batman used a handgun to shoot a vampire—silver bullets to the heart. He used a gun again in the next episode, to fire some shots at two evil henchmen. At the time, Detective Comics had just hired a new editorial director, a guy from Brooklyn named Whitney Ellsworth. (Not long after hiring Ellsworth, Detective Comics established an editorial advisory board, consisting of people like psychologists and English professors.) When Kane [Creator of Batman] submitted his next story, Batman was shooting again. “Ellsworth said to take the gun out,” Kane remembered.
Read more here
What I’m getting at is that Batman’s world has been defined by 50 years of censorship which is the real reason he doesn’t kill his villains. He wasn’t allowed to kill in the comics, so he didn’t kill in his cartoons or television shows either (excluding the 1989 Batman). That history of censorship has become a cultural component of our understand of the character.
So why doesn’t Batman kill them now? DC did a massive relaunch of all their Batman properties, of which he is featured in more than four titles, and he still turns criminals over to the police. That legacy of censorship has stunted Batman’s evolution as a hero; stretching the general notion of what’s reasonable. Instead of a man that enacts long-lasting change we have a man that serves his own fetish.
Case in point, during the last big event before the New 52, an alternate universe Batman killed Reverse Flash and pretty much ended the big problem of the event. After that it was easy for everyone to save the world and launch the new line of comics. And that’s how it should go. In most alternate timelines Batman will kill criminals. DC just needs to give up the ghost.
I submit that this is the hero we need and the hero we deserve.