Why Batman Must Kill the Joker.

Late 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 his extralegal behavior is premised on preserving and strengthening what legitimate authority exists in Gotham so that a better and more responsible society can ultimately be built. Batman exists because of the extraordinary circumstances in which Gotham finds itself — a city so tainted by corruption that the local government is incapable of acting in the most rudimentary public interest.

So it isn’t actually Batman’s role to kill his enemies — even those as crazed and sadistic as The Joker. That would undermine the larger project, the restoration of Gotham. Batman’s endgame isn’t a Gotham without crime — it’s a Gotham where the problems can be handled by public institutions rather than costumed vigilantes, where Jim Gordon isn’t an anomaly. That can’t be built on vigilante murder, particularly since doing so would make Batman a target of the very institutions he’s trying to save. The moment Batman decides to kill the joker is the moment Gordon decides he’s going to stop pretending he has no idea what Bruce Wayne really does at night.

To the extent that The Joker is still alive, that’s Gotham’s failure. Batman has captured him time and time again, only for the state to choose the lenience of a stay in Arkham Asylum over trial and state-sanctioned execution. The Joker, after all, isn’t really insane in the sense that he’s not responsible for his actions — it’s not like he kills because he doesn’t know right from wrong. He kills because he thinks it’s funny.

This seems like an overly generous reading of Batman’s objectives with respect to Gotham’s law enforcement. It’s a stretch to say that Batman’s adventures serve to provide Gotham’s legal institutions with more room to function; if anything, the police department is increasingly reliant on Batman, since his tactics invite the presence of the kind of bad guys that are way outta the GCPD’s weight class.

Even if you buy Adam’s argument, it doesn’t seem to me that a police outfit willing to overlook Bruce Wayne’s myriad extralegal, rights-violating exploits — and I think we can all agree that all that high-tech eavesdropping, jumping through people’s skylights and flying experimental fighter planes through the middle of a major city is some undeniably criminal shit — would suddenly see the stealthy elimination of an unstoppable sociopathic mass murderer who cannot be effectively imprisoned as a bridge too far.

I’m certainly not arguing that Batman start murking every supervillain in Gotham (the Riddler and the Penguin, por ejemplo, are more schemers than cold-blooded killers) but the Joker is clearly an outlier. Since there’s no legal avenue that can be taken to neutralize him — he can’t be executed because he’s insane — stopping the Joker requires stepping outside the law, which Batman does all the time, with no repercussions.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • There’s never really satisfactory real life answer to this question. The issue is about the idea of not killing, not the actual logistics of who deserves to die/who doesn’t.

    You kill the Joker, fine. Then do you kill other mass murders too? It’s not like the Joker is singular in that respect. He’s not the only mass murderer in the world, nor will he be the last after you kill him. So you can’t argue it like it’s a one-time-only situation without opening the door to the possibility of next time. The only possible exception to that rule that doesn’t open up the floodgates has to be something as fantastical and extreme as Darkseid who is trying to kill the entire universe and all of existence. Because that’s pretty literaly singular.

    What makes Batman ultimately fictional is that in real life I don’t think even Gandhi could watch someone kill as much as the Joker and not say “ok, exception to the rule time.” And if they made Batman do that, it would be more “realistic” but the price is he would then become just human and not the ultimate expression of what humanity could be.

    People love Batman because we could be him, not because we are him.

  • brent

    This is just a repeat of what I said in the original post but with Batman, as with us all, there are lines that we do not cross because they put us beyond society’s authority in a way that society would not consider acceptable. Even with Batman, even with Superman, even with any run of the mill police officer or with respect to any one of us facing any sort of extra-judicial situation, there is a boundary past which we are no longer in a grey area. Deciding, on our own, who lives and dies is well outside of that grey area. Planning and committing a murder because we think someone is bad is a drastic usurpation of authority that rightfully belongs to the society in which we live.

    Dexter, the serial killer on Showtime, knows that whenever he is finally caught, his circumstances are not going to be mitigated much by the fact that he chose only to kill serial killers (although predictably he has failed to maintain that rule on a few occasions). He knows he will be put down just like the rest because that is not a line that we can allow him to cross.

    It is not just Batman but the ethics of most superheros that have reasonably decided that such acts would be more than a step too far.

  • You essentially postulate that a big reason Batman doesn’t kill is so Gordon & society can let him do all that other stuff with minimal repercussions. Essentially making his policy a factor of Batman deciding how far society will let him go. The anti-killing aspect of his personality then becomes simply a logistical compromise, an external limitation and nothing internal and inherent to who the character is.

    The way I see, what makes Bruce Wayne’s code against killing special is that even if it were socially acceptable for a vigilante to kill, he still would not do it. It’s a personal morality choice, not a logistical one.

    • brent

      You essentially postulate that a big reason Batman doesn’t kill is so Gordon & society can let him do all that other stuff with minimal repercussions. Essentially making his policy a factor of Batman deciding how far society will let him go. The anti-killing aspect of his personality then becomes simply a logistical compromise, an external limitation and nothing internal and inherent to who the character is.

      I am assuming that this is meant as a response to me since it sort of seems more relevant to what I wrote than to the actual post. If so, then I would say that is not quite what I am saying. First, I don’t think its so easy to separate our personal moral choices from the choices we make as part of our acceptance and understanding of the social order. At the very least, one heavily influences the other but that is perhaps a topic for another discussion.

      More pointedly with respect to this discussion, I am not thinking so much about what “Gordon will let him do” as I am thinking of where any of us understands the boundaries of civilized behavior to be. Part of that is a fear of authority but another part of it is a respect for the authority as the key element of an ordered society. To act without regard to civilization’s rules, especially when it comes to life and death, is to place oneself outside of it, above it and that is not really where most reasonably sane individuals want to be.

      So, if I was essentially omnipotent and I could choose who lives and dies, would I want that responsibility? I think that I wouldn’t. Not because I don’t think there are circumstances in which the world would be better off if certain individuals were dead but because the world will definitely be a better place if the authority inherent in a just and ethical social order is responsible for making such decisions.

      • First of all, thanks for the thoughtful response. It maybe one of the most intelligent comments I have ever read on a board.

        In my own life, I generally agree with what you’re saying. I may take exception to some small points (ie, whether choosing to act without regard to civilization’s rules constitutes insanity) but I tend to operate under the principles you describe.

        However, we’re not discussing what you or I would do. We’re discussing how the character of Bruce Wayne/Batman would handle the situation and why. This is a person who has dedicated his life to committing vigilante acts, something I don’t do and presumably you don’t either (I hope!). We don’t do it for many of the reasons you stated above regarding respect for authority, civilization, acceptance and so on. Batman already operates under a different philosophy than us.

        What makes him and his myth special, I believe, is that it postulates an inherent moral compass within most humans, one that Batman is almost perfectly in touch with. It’s not that he has no regard for civilization’s rules or the need for authority. Quite the opposite, since he does enforce them. It’s more like he is so far ahead in terms of figuring this stuff out that he’s doing his own thing until civilization catches up. This is why he is compelled to act outside of the law in the first place, and continues to do so even once in-story elements such as Gotham’s corruption are dealt with. Batman has already reached a level of moral understanding that most of us are still working towards.

        Of course, there is a lot more nuance depending on which Batman we’re talking about; Year One Batman is different from the 60’s TV show is different from the Modern Age and so on.

        There was a lot of food for thought in your post. More than I can even begin to think about or address right now, what with work and such! I will be mulling it over, though. If you ever want to talk Batman you can catch me on Twitter @roshow

        • these are really thoughtful responses. i’ll have to remember to check in on where this conversation goes.

        • brent

          What makes him and his myth special, I believe, is that it postulates an inherent moral compass within most humans, one that Batman is almost perfectly in touch with.

          You raise an interesting argument. What I said in the earlier thread on this topic is that when it comes down to it, Batman’s ethics are not really much different than the ethics of just about every superhero. There are obviously some notable exceptions, but for the most part, it is part of their definition as heros that they do not kill. From my point of view, I have always thought about that particular prohibition as a kind of dividing line between where, imagining a real world scenario, non super humans can think of them as heros and where, once they cross that line, we might start thinking about them with terror and loathing.

          There have been a spate of recent comics (Irredeemable, The Authority, Powers and many more) that deal with the concept of “what if someone like Superman decided that he didn’t obey our rules or our authority anymore?” If he decided that he was essentially God or at least, a God? Why exactly wouldn’t he after all and how would we really react to that? Each of these stories come up with very different answers but the bottom line is that they all believe it would be a paradigm shifting moment for our humanity and how we think about our social order.

          Its an interesting question to me because I do think it is relevant to a lot of real world considerations like, for instance, the role of the US as a real superpower in the world and how individuals conceptualize their God within the context of their religious beliefs.

          But in the context of this particular conversation, I think the difference between us is that, while I see quite a lot of merit in your reading of Batman, when it comes down to it, I just don’t believe in an “inherent moral compass.” Perhaps that makes me more like the Joker or really just a run of the mill moral relativist, but it has just always seemed obvious to me that if we create the right social conditions then just about anything will be considered moral. An absolute statement like Freddie’s below that any particular act is just flat out “wrong” absent any context is the sort of thing I have difficulty even getting my mind around. For instance, I am not an advocate of the death penalty, but it is very easy for me to imagine many situations in which intentionally taking another’s life is absolutely the right thing to do.

          The point is that its difficult for me to read any character or indeed any real human being as acting according to an inherent morality. Perhaps my reading of Batman is just a projection of my own particualr perspective.

  • Freddie

    Intentionally taking human life is wrong.

  • Trackstre

    Wrong, yes, But justifiable..that was one part of Batman that I could never quite believe. That could never suspend my disbelief. I could understand not killing anyone because eventually someone could bring charges, but otherwise i’m not buying it. But its the DC-verse so meh.

  • Which Batman are we talking about here. After looking up some wiki stuff, the only time modern Batman used a gun was to off Darkseid who threatened ALL OF EXISTENCE> What are the lives of security guards in comparison to that?

    To take this totally off topic: what about Vash from Trigun? That dude takes the cake for ‘totally arbitrary good guy rules that ought to be broken from time to time’.