Alright, so we’ve established already that it’s more than a little absurd to insist that the moral event horizon for Batman is killing, but everything up to that is perfectly acceptable behavior, right? Good.
So in thinking over all the stuff that was swirling in my head about that last Batman post, I was reminded of the story that actually made me a real Batman fan; up until college, I had never really been into Batman. The movies we’re fun because they were about a superhero, not because they were about Batman, and if I’m honest, I thought The Animated Series was a snooze fest most of the time (eight year old me did not have the patience for hardboiled detective fiction in my superhero action show). When I was a little older, I got into the spinoff series Batman Beyond, which was set in the future when Bruce Wayne is an old man who’s retired from vigilantism and has taken on a protege named Terry McGinnis to carry on the Batman legacy (I absolutely watched Saturday morning cartoons when I was in high school, and I’m not ashamed of it). It wasn’t my most favorite show, but I thought it was a good one that I remembered pretty fondly.
So anyway, when I was a senior in college, I discovered Wikipedia (this is around 2006, mind you, so Wikipedia was still really novel), and more specifically I discovered that Wikipedia has an insanely detailed database of entries on superheroes. I’m not sure why I decided to start educating myself about superheroes with Batman, but I did, and in my reading I learned about a direct to video movie (called Return of the Joker) that connects the Animated Series and Beyond eras of the character in a larger story about the Joker, who’s the one major Batman villain who never gets a callback in Beyond (the gangs of kids who dress up like clowns and call themselves Jokerz is cute, but it’s not the same as the arc that, say, Mr. Freeze gets in the cartoon).
Now at this point, you have to understand that this was my very first in-depth look at any comic book character. I didn’t have the wealth of knowledge that I’ve amassed over the last decade as a superhero lore hobbyist (I should make that a line on my resume), so all I knew about the Joker was that he’s a crazy guy with a clown face who sometimes murders people in “funny” ways.
What I did not know is that nestled among the many variations of the Joker that exist is the one in the DC Animated Universe who kidnapped, tortured, and mutilated a child.
The setup goes like this: when Bruce Wayne was on his third (or second; it’s not really clear if Jason Todd exists in the DCAU) Robin, Tim Drake, they were pursuing Joker following one of his capers, and due to some bad luck, Tim was captured. The Joker disappeared with Tim, and spent weeks torturing him into giving up all of Batman’s secrets, and then on top of that brainwashing him into being a child version of the Joker, complete with purple suit and painted face. Once the job was done, the Joker lured Batman into a trap and took him by surprise with what he had done to Tim, getting the upper hand before tossing Tim a popgun and telling him to kill Batman. Laughing maniacally, Tim aimed the gun at the Joker and pulled the trigger, killing him.
That’s some disturbing stuff, right?
Now here’s the thing that gets me about this particular story. It takes the consequences of this whole episode super seriously. Tim Drake’s traumatized to the point that he stops being Robin and spends years in therapy to try to deal with what was done to him. Barbara Gordon, who was Batgirl in this universe, has a falling out with Bruce over the fact that Tim was put in harm’s way. Essentially, everyone who was an ally of Batman turns their back on him because what he allowed to happen is horrible, and shatters the illusion that crimefighting is something fun or admirable. The Bruce Wayne that we see in Batman Beyond is an extremely damaged man, and he suffers a lot of misgivings over putting another kid in the line of danger for the sake of his mission.
The fact that Batman didn’t even kill the Joker in this story (Terry believes that he did, but Bruce won’t give him a straight answer) is irrelevant because Bruce did something much more deplorable than just breaking his no-kill rule. There’s a higher moral standard at work here, and all too often that standard gets ignored in other depictions of the character. I’m not super well read in Batman stories, so there may be other examples that are just as good, but this one really stands out to me as one of the more mature approaches to the problems of the character. Violence erupts in a variety of ways in this story that break down the usual action cartoon tropes, and the characters react with the horror that they should.
For anyone interested, here’s the full scene of the Joker’s confrontation with Batman and his subsequent death; it’s really rough stuff, but I think it’s worth paying attention to for how differently it approaches violence in comparison to other gritty Batman works like Arkham Knight.