Batman’s “no killing” rule is morally absurd

[Note from the editor: This article is by prospective staff writer Steven Birkner. Enjoy!]

It’s a common scenario in Batman comics: Batman captures a member of his rogues gallery after foiling another one of their evil schemes, only to have the villain eventually escape from Arkham Asylum or Blackgate Penitentiary. They return to the streets to cause more mayhem and violence, and the cycle begins again. Part of the point of comic books, like any kind of literature, is to enable the writer to convey moral messages through the use of story and characters, and it’s a particularly common moral in comics that heroes don’t kill their foes, no matter how many times those foes return to threaten the lives of innocent people.

This is such a common and well-worn theme that it’s often the dividing line between the traditional superhero and darker anti-heroes. Punisher, Rorschach, and Wolverine may kill, but Superman, the Flash, Spider-Man, etc. cannot. This is a straightforward, black and white message well-suited for most comic book heroes, and it also makes sense when one recalls that comic books were originally meant for young children. Simple, easy to understand (and remember) lessons like “heroes don’t kill” are important for impressionable kids who often look to characters in fiction for role models or examples.

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However, this is a rule that doesn’t work as well in the world of Batman comics, for a variety of reasons. The first is that Batman, as a hero without superpowers, is at far more of a disadvantage when he engages in battles than a character like Superman. A Superman who kills would raise disturbing issues of abuse of power, and the possibility that someone so much more powerful than an ordinary human could be setting himself up as ruler. (A great read on this type of issue is the Superman story “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way?”, later adapted into the animated film Superman vs. the Elite.)

Superman always bends over backwards to follow the rule of lawful authority, because he’s in a position where he must do so to earn the trust of the citizens he protects. Further, unlike Batman, he’s not really a vigilante, as he’s often dealing with otherworldly threats, or rescuing people from natural disasters. However, even when he’s dealing with a plan devised by Lex Luthor, or just rescuing someone from a mugging, apart from unusual circumstances, Superman is not risking his own life to do so.

Batman, on the other hand, puts himself in extreme danger whenever he goes out to fight crime. Not only is he facing enemies using guns and other weapons, but he risks serious or even lethal injury to his body as well. (Of course, this depends a lot on the level of “realism” or how “grounded” the specific approach to the character is, which varies greatly depending upon the author and the time period, and my argument doesn’t really apply to a campier, Silver Age Batman, but it does in more supposedly realistic takes.)

In addition, Batman’s lack of superpowers means he has fewer options to detain or incapacitate his foes in effective ways. Superman can trap villains in the Phantom Zone, or Fortress of Solitude, or a JLA facility. Spider-Man can ensnare his enemies in a web outside the police station. Green Lantern can conjure up a jail cell from his imagination with his ring. Yet Batman, in the midst of a fight where he’s outnumbered ten- or fifteen-to-one, with bullets flying and nothing but the gadgets on his utility belt to protect him, is supposed to securely capture criminals without risking either their lives or his own.

Batman's "no killing" rule is morally absurd

Such scenarios jar the reader out of attempts to tell a grounded story. This was a case where the Tim Burton Batman movies got it right, with Batman occasionally resorting to deadly force in fights against criminals, whereas Christopher Nolan stuck rigidly to the “no killing” rule, going so far as to make it a major plot point in The Dark Knight. However, I think it demonstrates the difficulty in adhering to this rule in a realistic scenario that it was thrown out the window when it came to rescuing Gordon’s son from Two-Face.

Another reason why it’s particularly foolish to have Batman hold himself so strictly to a “no killing” rule is the nature of the criminal justice system and prison system we’re repeatedly shown in depictions of Gotham City. Arkham and the various prisons can never hold the most dangerous criminals for long, and whether this is due to corruption or simple incompetence is irrelevant; It has the result of turning Batman’s mission into a Sisyphean ordeal where he’s destined to repeatedly catch the very same criminals who will be out on the streets again in a few weeks or months.

This gets taken to absurd extremes with the Joker, who routinely leaves a large body count in the wake of his regular escapes. At some point, you have to wonder at what point the moral calculus changes from Batman’s need to adhere to strict ethical principles, to a more pragmatic approach that recognizes that his desire to keep his hands clean might have disastrous consequences. At what point does going through the motions of capturing the Joker again and again while knowing he’ll escape to kill dozens or hundreds more become so ludicrous that it defies disbelief? Why bother with the pretense? Why not just have Batman shake the Joker’s hand and say, “See you next week when we do this again.”

Batman's "no killing" rule is morally absurd

I recognize that part of the reason this cycle exists is to allow for the possibility of recurring, popular villains. I’m of course fine with that as far as it goes, because it leads to better stories and because many of those villains are some of the most interesting characters in comics. However, it becomes annoying when the writers hang a lampshade on it by incorporating it into the story, and worse, having it presented as a virtue. It’s an odd view of “virtue” to see it encapsulated in a decision to place stubborn adherence to a specific rule over the practical consequences of following such a rule. And yet, Batman stories as varied in style and approach as The Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke, Batman: The Animated Series, the “return of Jason Todd” storyline, as well as the Nolan films, all have emphasized the apparent correctness of this choice.

Beyond the in-universe need for recurring, popular villains to explain the “no killing” rule, there’s also the appeal to the nature of Batman himself. Here’s someone whose mission was defined as a response to the death of his parents, so it’s inconceivable that he himself would turn to killing. To that I would point out that, although it’s now accepted that he doesn’t kill, that hasn’t always been the case. He would kill very often in early Batman comics, occasionally in some later comics, and as I mentioned already, he did so a few times in the Burton films.

Batman's "no killing" rule is morally absurd

As a vigilante who crosses many questionable ethical lines already, it’s not clear what the effect of a Batman who resorts to killing in specific cases of strict self-defense or defense of others would have on his image. Would Commissioner Gordon be less likely to privately cooperate with him? Perhaps, but the overall result in Gotham might still be an improved one.

To sum up, I don’t think that having writers force the character of Batman to rigidly adhere to a “no killing” rule works well from either an in-universe perspective, or as a creative choice. When they’ve examined the issue in a serious way, it usually comes down to either the importance of following an ethical guideline regardless of its real world effects (which is silly), or the slippery slope Batman would face with other moral lines due to the ease of crossing that one (an argument with somewhat more merit, but still an unpersuasive one).

I think it fits better with the character of Batman to have him pragmatically cross certain lines when he has to. This opens up far more interesting story possibilities than it closes.

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  • Sword Jockey

    In the main DU Comic Universe there is a easy reason why Batman Shouldn’t Kill. The Black Lanterns, It is possible that if Batman kills say The Joker that the Joker will come back but this time he has the power of a class two civilization on his hand. Batman has just made things worse.

    • Sword Jockey

      Sorry I meant DC Comic’s Universe.

  • R.D.

    In basic principle, it’s not a bad thing that Batman doesn’t kill–murderous vigilantes tend to be kinda unstable, like the Punisher, and it should be down to courts to decide the fate of felons. It comes down to Gotham’s judiciary system apparently being a joke, and, of course, lazy writers who keep re-using the same villains. If either was addressed it would be fine.

    Honestly, I’ve sometimes felt that mainstream superhero comics should actually reboot more–have set plans for about five years where everything can be kept consistent, consequences can actually happen, and things can all come to a decent resolution than constant crises. After that, you can focus on one-shots, and then start over with different approaches and styles. Hardcore fans might not like it, but honestly, it’s the best way I can see to keep things fresh and not going into the syndrome outlined above.

    • Chefe O’Hara

      Yes, I agree with you, R.D.; Batman’s stories (and, by extension, most super-hero ones) only make sense if we go “Hypertime” (a quite clever storytelling device) and consider the most recent time he meets a villain(ess) as the first or second time he/she escapes jail. The third time onwards, he’ll see something’s very wrong with Gotham’s judicial and prison system, and would begin a new fight for changing the system from inside.So, he’d pursue not only street criminals, but also crooked cops.

      • Jonathan Campbell

        He’s been fighting corruption and crooked cops from the outset. Supervillains for the most part only showed up after he did.

  • tcorp

    “A Superman who kills would raise disturbing issues of abuse of power, and the possibility that someone so much more powerful than an ordinary human could be setting himself up as ruler.”

    The catch to this statement is similar to what Josh Bell argued a few articles ago–that Batman would become rather dictatorial if he served as judge, jury, AND executioner. Batman may not have unlimited physical power, but as Bruce Wayne, he has nearly unlimited economic resources at his disposal. What you’re suggesting would edge Batman even closer to a de facto authoritarian regime.

    “In addition, Batman’s lack of superpowers means he has fewer options to detain or incapacitate his foes in effective ways.”

    Yeah, but I guess that’s part of the allure of Batman. If he could bring a gun (or a tank) to a knife fight, it would just be a slaughter of criminals. There would be no challenge. And doing the right thing means taking the difficult, unpopular path: that’s the lesson of Batman, one we would be well-served to consider.

    “Such scenarios jar the reader out of attempts to tell a grounded story.”

    I agree, but I guess I think it isn’t that bad.

    “Another reason why it’s particularly foolish to have Batman hold himself so strictly to a ‘no killing’ rule is the nature of the criminal justice system and prison system we’re repeatedly shown in depictions of Gotham City.”

    I agree to a point. Between the Joker and 1,000 civilian casualties, why not take out Joker? But again, I think it goes back to the right path being the hard path. The villains’ escaping later may just be, as you say, a plot contrivance to continue the story with familiar foes.

    “It’s an odd view of ‘virtue’ to see it encapsulated in a decision to place stubborn adherence to a specific rule over the practical consequences of following such a rule.”

    This is an interesting statement. I don’t agree with the death penalty (though my state does) because it’s fundamental to my belief system that we should not kill. I don’t have an explanation for it. However, I would note that once you open the door to capital punishment, there are unavoidable consequences that you can’t see yet. But they are still there.

  • Greenhornet

    Killing in the defense of yourself and others? Yes. “I’m Batman. Now DIE!!”? No!

    People (Including the comics people) seem to have forgotten that the DC heroes were once outcasts because they were vigilantes in one way or another. Vigilantes are not, as many people have been led to believe, a lynch mob. They organize when police and/or courts are either inadequate, corrupt, or non-existent. It gets pretty rough and there are sometimes on-the-spot executions. Once the DC heroes gained the trust of the public and the authorities, they had more options (There was one scene in the ’60’s TV show where Batman and Robin are said to be deputy police officers.); I think there’s one story where a hero kept out of sight, guiding the police without their knowledge.
    I kind of hate it when a comicbook or cartoon character can’t point a gun and say “surrender!”, but it’s somehow “OK” for him to throw high explosives at people.

  • Justme

    Here’s the basic difference between DC and Marvel (Or, it used to be… it’s been blurred in recent years): Marvel has heroes you can relate to. DC has heroes you look up to.

    As such, I get the weakening of the “No killing” policy for a Marvel character. The reader has to look at the actions of the character and say “Yeah, I can see him doing that.” The reader has to relate to the character – either by agreeing or disagreeing with their actions in a comic.

    But for DC, especially the big three, there is a different set of narrative rules. Those characters have to present the most purified version of ethics. The reader isn’t really expected to relate directly to the character – the reader is expected to want to emulate that character as much as possible.

    In that way, the “No killing” rule for Batman makes sense.

    • You are saying it only makes sense as a parable.

      I would argue it doesn’t make sense even then. I would want people to make the pragmatic decision to use deadly force to protect themselves and innocent people against psychos. Portraying Batman as morally correct when he has the power to stop evil but not doing so is immoral.

    • Greenhornet

      “Marvel has heroes you can relate to.”
      I never could. Marvel characters are WHINEY and go around with a chip on their shoulders. The X-Men are the worst offenders; they go have a beer and someone says something that offends them. The bar is then wrecked, six or seven people are beat up and someone’s car is thrown into a storefront. They then go back to their mansion to cry “nobody likes us!”.
      Yeah, I know that “mutant” was code for “negro” in the sixties and “gay” these days, but they should GET OVER THEMSELVES and STOP BEING A-HOLES.
      The (Old) JLA is made up of people you wanted to hang out with; the X-Men is made up of people you want to AVOID.

    • windleopard

      Wonder Woman hasn’t had a rule against lethal force since the 80s.

      Contrary to what people think, looking up to someone and relating to them are not mutually exclusive. In fact, you need to be able to do the latter for the former to be possible.

  • Jenny Mingus

    My problem with the Joker character is that well there’s really no nuance to his character. Joker has no redeemable traits, which means, unlike with some of the other members of Batman’s Rogues Gallery, there’s no possibility of redemption, no chance that maybe Joker will finally decide to try to leave the criminal life. He’s going to keep doing this shit until he dies.
    Plus, as many will tell you, about the only trait keeping him alive is what TV Tropes calls “Joker Immunity.” WIthout the writers on his side, Joker would be dead and there’s pretty much no way he could exist and survive in a realistic world because somebody would have taken him out. Maybe Batman won’t do it, because he’s morally opposed to killing, maybe the Gotham City Police Department won’t (even though the GCPD has been established as ridiculously corrupt with only a few good cops), but somebody would. It could be some two-bit gangster who doesn’t appreciate the extra attention Joker brings or it could be a grief-stricken parent who gets in a lucky shot.
    Because, need I remind you, that Joker doesn’t have any superpowers unlike most of the villains in the DCU, unless you count being an asshole with a skin condition. And being an asshole with a skin condition doesn’t mean Joker is immune to bullets.

    • damanoid

      Interestingly, the comics have depicted the Joker as redeemable– but only if Batman is taken out of the picture. This goes back at least as far as Frank Miller’s ‘Dark Knight Returns,’ where he depicts the Joker as lapsed into a harmless catatonic state, until Batman comes out of retirement, at which point he immediately starts killing again. There was another multi-issue story, I believe in ‘Legends of the Dark Knight,’ where the Joker believed he had killed Batman, then suddenly realized that his obsession no longer had a focus, so he was able to quit crime and tried to make a new life for himself. Of course it turned out that Batman had only been wounded, and once again, when he reappeared, the Joker’s obsession returned with full force. In Alan Moore’s ‘Killing Joke,’ we learn that Batman’s terror tactics were the catalyst that pushed an emotionally traumatized man over the edge to become the Joker, justifying his ongoing obsession. The problem isn’t that the Joker won’t quit– he would, and he has. But only if Batman quits first.

      That’s one aspect that the Nolan film seemed to embrace, when Gordon pointed out that Batman’s costumed vigilante role would lead to “escalation.” Before Batman, Gotham’s criminals were standard street hoods and Mafia goons. Batman’s example inspired a new type of criminal to adopt costumed identities to intimidate their enemies. By this logic, Batman is directly responsible for the existence of his rogues’ gallery.

      • Greenhornet

        “Batman: The Animated Series” had an episode built around the “Batman created the villains” theory. They debunked it nicely.
        This theory was dredged up to make the crazy B*****Ds seem sympathetic victims of fate; but it just doesn’t fly. Are we to believe that NONE of them ever decided to turn to crime on their own? You might say that they wouldn’t have become COSTUMED villains if it weren’t for Batman, but that was covered in the episode mentioned above. But even if they weren’t “themed” criminals, they still would have been jerks and killers.
        In the fifties, the Joker was revealed to have been The Red Hood who had planned to steal a million dollars and retire. Now, he joined the Red Hood GANG because his wife needed medicine. Oh, BOO FRIGGIN HOO!

    • Cameron Vale

      There’s some nuance to him. He makes an interesting contrast to Batman, since they both have placed themselves above the law, and they’re both crazy in their own ways, yet seem almost like different animals altogether. Also, Joker tends to be depicted as a master deceiver to some degree (lying, manipulating appearances, speaking to the public, committing theatrical crimes, psychologically manipulating people, acting in an unpredictable or disingenuous way to throw people off his real intentions, etc.) so I can buy to some degree that he would be able to elude justice in the absence of Batman.

  • Lord ShinyPants

    The city, county, and state(?) of Gotham doesn’t kill, either. I don’t think it’d be fair to ask the Batman to ask Batman to dirty his hands to do things that Gothamites aren’t willing to do.

  • damanoid

    I think there’s a much more sensible reason why Batman doesn’t kill: he can’t. It has nothing to do with morality, he is simply psychologically incapable of doing so. Batman’s behavior is ultimately driven by obsession, just as much as any villain in his rogues’ gallery. He’s the mirror of the Joker in that respect. One is driven to kill innocents, the other is incapable of killing even to save innocents. It’s not really a choice for Batman. It’s more like asking the Riddler to stop riddling. He just can’t do it, no matter the situation.

    • Jonathan Campbell

      Actually the canon reason is that he very easily CAN, and that’s why he doesn’t. It’s SO easy for him to snap the Joker’s neck that he is afraid that he wouldn’t be able to stop.

      • Greenhornet

        I agree with both of you.

      • Brian Shanahan

        Kind of like Commander Vimes of the AMCW in the Discworld series then, who follows the due process of the law completely and absolutely, because he knows how bad it would get if he let himself loose.

  • damanoid

    ‘I think it fits better with the character of Batman to have him pragmatically cross certain lines when he has to. This opens up far more interesting story possibilities than it closes.’

    I think that depends on how realistic one prefers one’s Batman stories. It is unrealistic that Batman never kills, but it is also unrealistic that Batman never attacks an innocent person by mistake. In real life, when people choose to pragmatically cross such lines, it sometimes turns out that they have done so wrongly, which is arguably why society puts a line there to begin with.

  • Cameron Vale

    I figure that Batman views himself as a sort of cop, the self-styled ‘World’s Greatest Detective,’ and cops can’t go around killing people. I much prefer him hating guns, though; it makes a lot more sense to me, and it’s also more obviously tragic.

    • Mulciber X

      “Cops can’t go around killing people.”

      Heh.

      • Cameron Vale

        He isn’t styling himself after a dirty or racist cop, obviously. He’s the “World’s Greatest.”

  • mamba

    Personally, I just thought Batman followed the rule “No killing…unless absolutely necessary”, because after watching his parents die, he knows that anyone HE kills is going to have the same effect on someone connected to the criminal (family, comrade, lover, etc).

    He knows the torment of having someone ripped from your life, and can’t bring himself to do that to someone else no matter how much he may hate them personally (..unless he absolutely HAS to of course). He’s not quick to kill even “for the greater good” unless he HAS to, and lowering a body count doesn’t seem to be enough of a reason to make him consider it.

    Shooting Darkseid though…the body count is billions in exchange for one trigger pull. THAT’S worth it for him, no sweat.

  • The funny thing is, Batman kills people in all three of the Nolan movies and no-one in the films ever comment of this. He blows up an entire ninja fortress in the first film, killing everyone inside including the guy he refused to kill, and then has Gordon destroy the monorail at the end, killing Ra’s. In TDK he pushed Dent off a building, and in Rises he kills the driver of the bomb truck with the Bat’s cannons.

  • Light-hearted Adam West type Batman should never kill but gritty “realistic” Batman sometimes needs to.

  • Michael Ejercito

    Batman operates outside the law.

    Killing people would, at a minimum, result in a homicide investigation.