The Complicity of Bruce Wayne.

There’s a scene at the very beginning of the recent animated film Batman: Under the Red Hood in which the Joker, in a characterization that is more Heath Ledger than Mark Hamill, is taunting a bound Robin while he beats him over the head with a crowbar. This homicidal Joker is the way Batman’s archnemesis looks much of the time these days, and when it’s done well, the character comes across as both fascinating and terrifying. He kills capriciously, for no discernible reason besides  his own amusement.

But it also showcases a real problem for the Batman mythology. Later in the movie, a character gives an angry speech in which he asks why Batman hasn’t just killed the Joker, considering all the atrocities he’s committed. And that guy’s right. The Joker’s caught mad bodies, has beaten the second Robin to death, and crippled Barbara Gordon, the first Batgirl, by breaking into her house and  shooting her in the back. The Dark Knight’s response is thoroughly unconvincing: “Because it would be too easy!”

Motherfucker, what?  So thousands of Gothamites have to die — all those guards at Arkham Asylum, all those random civilians blown up or gassed or gunned down — because Batman, the only person who can ever seem to get close enough to The Joker to take him out, doesn’t want to violate his moral code? At what point is the blood of all those dead people on Batman’s gloved hands? We’ve all heard hypotheticals put forth by death penalty proponents in which the only way to save countless lives is to execute someone too dangerous to even be imprisoned. Well, the Joker is that hypothetical.

(Batman isn’t alone in his culpability. Arkham, from which mass murderers seem to escape monthly,  should have been decommissioned a long time ago. Also, Gotham’s corrupt police force doesn’t have a single cop with an itchy trigger finger? In real-life Gotham, cops shoot. Tragically, and often with  much less provocation.)

There are larger narrative reasons for keeping the Joker alive; he’s probably the most well-known bad guy in all of comics. But the in-universe logic is type janky. Batman and Joker are supposed to be locked in an endless metaphysical stalemate between good and evil, two demigods whose epic battles results in all sorts of collateral damage for regular-ass people.  By that measure, it’s not really a stalemate. Batman is losing.

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Avon Snarksdale

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6 comments to The Complicity of Bruce Wayne.

  • Batman is not recognized as law enforcement so if he were to kill criminals, despite his good intentions, it would be first-degree murder and the Gotham City Police Department would be forced to apprehend him.

    A better question is why doesn’t Gotham City have a death penalty?

  • There is a conspiratorial element about the Batman saga and for that matter any story which pits two divergent forces against one another. The Bible anyone? In the case of Batman we see two absurdities…a vigilante in a form-fitting bat costume and a sociopath dressed as a clown who although he says he plays by no rules ironically does. While the heroic absurdity (Batman, a riff on the old-as-dirt sacrificial hero archetype) sacrifices himself, the Joker is a nihilist who sacrifices others. He believes there is no purpose to life and protests this lack of meaning by destroying it. He is angered by the myopia of the masses who are too dumb to share his nihilistic viewpoint. He cannot simply tell them about their insignificance because they will not understand, instead he exploits their fears. He kills for no reason, but ironically, the lack of reason becomes the reason

    This arbitrary violence inevitably wakes them from their slumber–just as the sensationalism of a “Bat Man” piques the curiosity of regular everyday folks. Yeah, we come in all of this diverse packaging, but most of us toddle about this planet like herds of cattle, just grazing until we die. It takes something sensational to ‘shock’ us out of our coma. It’s the relative rarity that provides a stark contrast. These absurdities provide such a contrast, but they’re only absurdities in relation to the relative majority. It’s a ratio of sorts.

  • brent

    I have seen Under the Red Hood and that line about it being “too easy” stood out for me but mostly because it was a piece of bad writing. It was a throwaway line meant to sound dramatic without having to explain too much.

    The fact is that Batman’s ethos about not killing is quite well established as the same one shared by most superheros with a few notable exceptions. To kill, indeed to do anything with criminals other than hand them over to the proper authorities after they have received a sufficient pummeling, is to step towards establishing themselves as a kind of god-like authority that they/we would not accept as appropriate. Superman can participate in human society as a “hero,” not someone to be fear and loathed, precisely because he consciously decides to accept, to the reasonable extent possible, human social limits on his behavior toward us.

    Whether that is the way it would actually work in practice is an interesting question and gets to how our society conceptualize god(s).

  • David

    You could just as easily ask why can’t one of the Arkham guards bring a gun and shoot the Joker the next time he’s in custody?

  • [...] pass me on this, but Adam Serwer responded to my post on how Batman bears some of the blame for all the bodies the Joker has caught. The right answer is that Batman is already an outlaw, but [...]

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