I’m writing this while huddling in my darkened living room after a visit to the optometrist that involved getting my pupils dilated so that even mild light is somewhat irritating, which means that I honestly don’t want to be looking at any kind of screen at all, but I had a thought that wanted expressing, so here we are.
The first item is this: an article from Polygon discussing the odd ways that fans of Batman cling to the idea that he doesn’t kill people, especially in light of the absurd levels of violence possible in the most recent game in the Arkham series. By all accounts Arkham Knight is a very fun sandbox game, and the fact that you can summon the Batmobile pretty much anywhere and drive around the city is an extremely popular feature. Unfortunately, the combination of a sandbox style world and vehicular hijinks means that Batman’s going to do some crazy stuff that looks a lot like what people do for fun in Grand Theft Auto. The big difference between those two series is that GTA is all about letting the player be whatever kind of criminal they want to be, including a homicidal maniac who mows down pedestrians on the sidewalk in a fancy sports car; this kind of gameplay is highly antithetical to the popular version of Batman who’s careful to avoid harming innocents, and who sticks to nonlethal means of subduing criminals. It’s a trend of escalating violence that’s been pretty prevalent in the Arkham series from the very first installment, which allowed Batman to engage in some pretty brutal hand-to-hand combat that undoubtedly would leave his opponents with broken bones and concussions.
The whole series is intended to be a blend of the dark, gritty Batman of the Christopher Nolan movies with the flashy, cartoonish comic book sensibility that’s found in traditional media. What that boils down to is a hyper-violent world that revels in the grotesque nature of its inhabitants. In this kind of universe, it makes sense for Batman to be equally violent, and as many recent stories about the kinds of silliness players can get up to in Arkham Knight observe, the maintenance of some kind of in-world justification that Batman is not a killer becomes absurd.
The best question that the Polygon article asks is why we as fans think it’s so important that this one rule about the Batman mythos remain ironclad across all representations. Everyone knows that the hero didn’t begin with any particular moral qualms about offing criminals or using firearms, but somehow his trip through the strangeness of the Silver Age and the censorship of the Comics Code imparted this idea about how a man whose psychological scars lead him to dress up like a bat and fight crime must also disdain killing. It’s really an odd juxtaposition, especially from the ’70s onward when writers began reclaiming Batman’s noirish origins and developing him into the tortured figure that fans love today.
The fact is that there are two distinct versions of Batman in the popular consciousness: the zany, camp Batman that emerged in the ’60s with the television show and continued in the Burton and Schumacher films (for anyone who wants to argue, Burton certainly has a dark vision of Batman, but his films are full of absurdities that better fit the lighthearted version of the character; I mean, penguins with rockets mounted on their backs) and the grimdark Batman that gets typified in Nolan’s trilogy and Bruce Timm and Paul Dini’s animated universe (I don’t care what you say, The Animated Series is noir as hell; more on that later though). Both versions are okay, and I actually like them in pretty equal parts (I wish there were more quality writing with campy Batman, just because I don’t have the palette for Silver Age stories), but there’s a weird undercurrent in Batman fandom that wants to resolve the discrepancies between the two so that we can have some kind of ur-Batman (for an example, take a look at Grant Morrison’s run on the comic series from a few years ago; I only ever read one arc, but the way Morrison incorporated elements of Silver Age Batman in a contemporary, gritty context was bonkers). I think the most pure expression of this desire to resolve the characters is clinging to this core idea that Batman doesn’t kill people.
And the ultimate effect of insisting that no matter how dark a Batman story gets, He Can Never Kill, is one of a kind of moral dilution. We want Batman to be a hero who stands for something (I recall someone once describing DC’s Trinity as embodying the values of Hope, Justice, and Truth where Batman represents Justice), but we want it to be something we can get behind. Characters who are unrepentantly violent, like the Punisher, are hard to rally around as embodying a higher ideal, and since Batman is one of the pop culture icons of superheroes, he has to be better than that. So he has a code which forbids him from killing his enemies, even when specific cases, like that of the Joker, offer a multitude of compelling reasons for invoking the death penalty. So Batman doesn’t kill. He can threaten, torture, and maim criminals, but as long as they’re still breathing when he’s done with them, he’s free to be as gritty as we want him to be.
Aside from the fact that that’s a ridiculously low moral bar (my favorite superhero’s a paranoid fascist who tortures people, but at least he’s not a killer!), it also reminds me of a concept in neurological development called object permanence. The concept’s pretty simple: as our brains develop when we’re infants, we reach a point where we can recognize that things still exist even when we don’t see them; before that point it really is a case of out of sight, out of mind (this is why peek-a-boo is such a fun game for a six-month-old). In Batman’s case, the lack of object permanency relates to how we maintain this fantasy that the character isn’t a killer, regardless of how violent his depiction, because the worst effects of his violence are kept off screen. Arkham Knight‘s claim is that you never see anyone die directly because of Batman’s actions, so no one does. It’s kind of the reverse logic of children’s shows that insist on always showing that characters are okay following a bit of violence as a reassurance that, no, they did not die in that fiery explosion.
There’s more to this concept that I want to explore, but I’ll save that for another post. All this talk about the way Batman operates in relation to violence has reminded me of one of my favorite stories about the character, and I think that’s worth a more in-depth look.