Apr 24, 2015
Why Batman should never use guns
Oh, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Will I ever not be talking about you? Every time I think I’m done and can forget about you until next year, another damn picture comes out that I have to discuss. It’s beginning to feel like watching Zack Snyder’s Twitter feed is my whole job now.
In this case, as you’re likely already aware, the picture under scrutiny is the above image of the new Batmobile design. I’m not a fan of it overall; maybe it’s just the angle, but it seems to be a knockoff of the “Tumbler” from Christopher Nolan’s movies with a minimal hint of the ‘89 look. It’s just plain ugly with no style and nothing recognizably “Batmobile-ish” about it*.
[*So hopefully they’ll never actually call it the Batmobile, like they did with the Tumbler, so I don’t have to ever recognize it as the actual Batmobile.]
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But aesthetics aren’t what we’re here to talk about. What I’m here to focus on are these things right here:
As if it wasn’t tank-like enough already, this new “Batmobile” has a prominently displayed gun turret on its front hood. There is some precedent for this: I’m told the Batmobile in the upcoming Arkham Knight video game has a similar look, and the Batmobile in the ‘89 film sported hidden artillery under the hood. But this is the first time a movie has featured Batman driving something quite so aggressively militarized in appearance. Likely, it’s meant as yet another reference to The Dark Knight Returns, which from all accounts Dawn of Justice is heavily influenced by, and which featured a huge, tank-like Batmobile armed with rubber bullet-loaded cannons.
As with anything that involves Batman and guns, controversy is unavoidable. The Caped Crusader has a long and complicated history with firearms, and even among the fans, there’s still much disagreement on what Batman’s relationship with guns is or should be. Like any fan, I have an opinion of my own, and given the title of this post, you can probably guess what it is. I don’t think Batman should use guns, regardless of what they’re mounted on. There are reasons for this beyond the political*. It goes straight to the whole idea and psychology of the character.
[*But in the interest of full disclosure: I support gun control, and tend to gravitate towards fictional characters with an aversion to guns. So feel free to pigeonhole anything else I say as part of my “agenda”, if it makes you feel better.]
For context, let’s go back to the beginning. When Batman first appeared in the pages of Detective Comics, as pro Bat-turret supporters are quick to point out, he had no issue with guns or lethal force in general. In those early days, he was frequently seen carrying a pistol, and he sometimes casually slew his enemies, or at the very least showed no remorse when the occasional crook bit it along the way.
However, this gun-toting Batman was very short-lived, lasting only a handful of issues. Batman in these early stories had yet to really develop an identity of his own, borrowing heavily from the Shadow, with a little bit of Zorro thrown in. After his origin was eventually established, writers latched onto the idea of Batman having a code of conduct that forbade using firearms or killing his enemies, and it stuck. It’s become every bit as iconic and important to his character as the death of his parents. Almost every time Batman has been seen holding a gun, it’s universally recognized as code for “Something is seriously wrong with Batman!” Often, it appears on covers as a WTF tease to suck readers in. In many ways, the gun, or at least the use of one, is Batman’s equivalent of kryptonite.
But while it’s pretty universally accepted that Batman doesn’t use guns as a rule in the comics, the movies tend to be less consistent. In seven films, there’s only been one concrete reference to Batman refusing to use guns, when he tells Selina Kyle, “No guns, no killing,” in The Dark Knight Rises. And while no director has ever gone so far as to have Batman pick up a glock, many playfully skirt around the issue any way they can.
As previously mentioned, the Batmobile and other vehicles piloted by the Dark Knight frequently feature guns and other artillery. The rule against killing has been even more brazenly ignored, with Batman frequently sending foes to certain death with either casual indifference or willful intent, the most galling of which was the infamous “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you” moment from the end of Batman Begins.
This has, I’ve noticed, led to a certain divide among Batman fandom. For fans who mostly know the character from the movies, his rules against guns and killing are far less firmly established than it is for fans of the comics or the various animated series. This has led to a large portion of Batman fans coming to the conclusion that Batman’s code is not a hard and fast rule, or if it is, it shouldn’t be. They argue that Batman not killing his foes or refusing to use a gun under any circumstances is impractical. In real life, in order to truly make an impact on crime, Batman would have to kill people, and throwing the Joker repeatedly back in Arkham only to have him escape again and kill more people isn’t doing anyone any good.
To me, this argument misses the point of Batman entirely. First, it’s completely irrelevant to argue practicality about fictional stories, especially stories in science fiction or fantasy settings like comic books. Yes, in the real world, Batman would probably find himself in desperate kill-or-be-killed situations that would force him to off people quite frequently. But Batman doesn’t live in the real world. He lives in Gotham City, an exaggerated pulp/noir universe perpetually stuck in a pseudo-‘30s art deco world where a gangster movie is happening on every street corner every damn night. Batman doesn’t find himself in those situations because the writers are under no obligation to put him in those situations. Batman’s entire arsenal and fighting style are designed around nonlethal force. Batman can always take care of any situation with a Batarang instead of a gun, because it’s fiction and he can do whatever the writers need him to do. And the reason he keeps imprisoning the Joker over and over despite how futile it seems is no one wants to kill off Batman’s most popular nemesis. Duh.
But more importantly, arguing practicality with Batman is especially pointless, because Batman doesn’t do what he does for practical reasons. In case you didn’t notice, the entire premise of Batman is entirely impractical. If Batman really wanted to combat crime, he’d do far more good simply using his personal fortune to improve the police force, or better yet, to improve the economic situation of the city to wipe out poverty, a proven cause of high crime rates. Dressing up as his childhood boogeyman and going around taking down criminals one at a time would have almost no effect on crime overall. It’s a pointless endeavor that would, at best, only serve to feed his own guilty conscience.
So why do it then? Why become Batman? This is supposedly the “World’s Greatest Detective”; surely, he knows somewhere deep down that this isn’t the best way to go about things. The answer is pretty simple: Batman didn’t become Batman to wipe out crime. He became Batman in order to be the guy he wishes had been there the night his parents were killed.
Bruce Wayne isn’t fighting crime in a practical sense. He’s fighting the idea of crime, and his idea of crime is personified in Joe Chill, the man who murdered his parents. That’s what a criminal is to him. That’s what he must fight, and to do that, he must become crime’s opposite, which for him means Joe Chill’s opposite. Joe Chill was a coward, thus criminals are a “superstitious and cowardly lot”. Joe Chill killed his parents, therefore Batman must never kill. Joe Chill carried a gun, therefore Batman will never use guns. Batman doesn’t shun even the brandishing of guns because he has no use for one, but because guns, to him, are the symbol of everything he’s fighting against. Guns are the tools of superstitious and cowardly criminals. Batman, in his mind, is above them. Murder is an act of desperation that the cowardly Joe Chill resorted to, and Batman must never stoop so low. Batman is anti-crime, and if “crime” is Joe Chill, than Batman must never be anything like Joe Chill, even in appearance.
Batman’s entire character has revolved around this concept ever since the classic story “The Origin of Batman” from Batman #47*. In it, Batman finally tracks down Joe Chill, and must decide what to do now that he’s found him. It’s the defining moment for the character, when he chooses not to take revenge and not to kill.
[*This story was beautifully retold in an episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold titled “Chill of the Night!”, which you should definitely check out if you haven’t seen it.]
The best Batman stories are usually about this difference between justice and vengeance. Even Batman Begins touched on this point: “Justice is about harmony, revenge is about you making yourself feel better.” Chill is crime and injustice personified, therefore Batman is justice personified. Batman must never kill or carry a gun, not because it wouldn’t do any good to anyone, but because if he did, he wouldn’t be Batman anymore. To kill would make him like the criminal, the enemies of justice, and guns have no purpose but to kill. Guns are the tool of the criminal and therefore unjust. Batman is the enemy of the criminal and must never resort to their tactics.
I’m not necessarily saying this is a correct or even healthy worldview. I’m saying this is how Batman sees things. It’s the entire point of his character. And the more we get away from it, the more he ceases to be Batman. His story begins to lose all meaning, and he becomes just another vigilante action hero. So yeah, Batman driving around in a friggin’ tank bothers me. We’ve already seen these filmmakers get Superman wrong, we’ve seen signs that they’re getting Wonder Woman wrong, and now it seems like not even Batman is going to feel like himself in this movie. You may disagree, but to me, this is yet another sign that this movie is going to be oppressively dull.