Mar 30, 2021
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.