Batman, Guns, and Murder: Should the Dark Knight kill?


So it’s no secret that broadly speaking, Batman usually has a moral code in most depictions of him that strictly prevents him from killing and especially from the use of firearms in practically any situation.  This idea is most firmly established in the comics but also in most animated TV shows depicting Batman and the videos games.  However, there are tons of exceptions to this where Batman has shown a willingness to kill or use guns.  Sure, there’s that recent rather widely discussed instance of this in Batman v. Superman, where the Dark Knight killed without compunction and used firearms throughout the entire movie.  However, it should be noted that’s not the first time Batman has killed and used guns before.

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It’s easy to forget but Batman definitely straight up murdered people in the 1989 Batman movie and that never seemed to bother anyone.  And not only do many alternate versions of Batman kill and use guns, but the mainstream Batman even showed such willingness when it came to confronting Darkseid during Final Crisis.  It’s not so simple to say Batman doesn’t kill or never uses guns.  It really depends on what universe we’re talking about and, in some cases, what constitutes a firearm.  So what gives?  Does Batman kill or not, and more importantly, should he?

Well, it kind of comes down to the fact that he does and he doesn’t.  He should and he shouldn’t.  What matters more is that a story is consistent and that a character behaves in a way that has been established from before.  If the main comics version of Batman wanted to start using guns and killing people, that would be pretty lousy writing because we know that’s not who that version of Batman is.  However, let’s say there’s a reason for it.  Perhaps in classic comic book fashion he gets mind controlled and goes on a rampage.  Maybe Batman forgets Superman’s mom has the same name as his mom so he and Superman want to fight and he uses that cool Kryptonite rifle thing!  The point is, things happen in stories and characters can change because of it.  But it has to be earned and carefully written.

Now, I’m not saying that means DC should make Batman into the Punisher, but, if a new version of Batman, who has been doing this for a long time and has become jaded and worn out, if that version of Batman wants to kill, well, I was pretty down with that when we saw it last year in Batman v. Superman.  It was set up and worked for the kind of story they were at least trying to tell.  But was it Batman?

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I would argue yes, overwhelmingly so.  In fact, Ben Affleck’s Batman deserves the accolade it often gets as the best live action Batman to date.  I think a big part of this is that fact that I don’t believe this rigid moral code is a core part of Batman’s identity.  This is a difficult point because while you could argue against this, I really think it all depends on how the content is treated and handled.  Here’s my issue – if we can jump around in time periods, if we can change him to evil, or if we can make him another person entirely – and it’s still Batman, well, then we can pretty much change anything we want about Batman.

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When we boil things down, I really think Batman, like most DC heroes, comes down to imagery and iconography matter more than specific ideas or rules.  When I think of Batman I think of either a Dark Knight, a terror to criminals who swoops down dark, rain soaked allies and beats the crap out of them, or a goofy, fun loving hero with a questionable relationship with a child he’s brought along to help him solve convoluted mysteries.  But I can also think of Ben Affleck flying down on Luthor’s troops and KILLING THEM ALL or of Terry McGuinness fighting crime in this fun and weird future.  Batman can be a lot of things, and he’s hard to peg down because of it.  You could say it comes down to the cowl and cape, yet neither of those are always there in every depiction of Batman.  You could say it’s Bruce Wayne but he’s not always Batman, is he?  You could point to themes of justice, and I could point to Owlman, Vampire Batman, or Leatherwing.  Are they still Batman?  On some level you do recognize these characters for what they are, and where they come from, so I would argue yes.

You might argue an essential part of Batman is him not having powers – him being a regular man that stands up to gods.  That’s a bit more on the nose, since it is more consistent across depictions.  But I wouldn’t be against an Elseworlds comic that gives him powers, while most fighting games totally give Batman superpowers and he’s still Batman in everyone’s eyes.  Again, you could argue that’s all tech, but then we have the Batman from Gods and Monsters that very much has these vampire powers, and I still think of him as a pretty solid alternate depiction of Batman.

This is why I’m not so sure the traditional moral code is so vital to Batman.  I’m not entirely convinced there’s anything truly essential to Batman.  This is a 75 year old character.  One of the most popular fictional people ever made, who has changed and transformed with our culture and society.  Blanket statements about Batman don’t really work.  There are no rules with the Dark Knight.  Not any that I can think of. He’s a dark character until he’s in a lighthearted story.  He doesn’t kill generally but some forms of him very much do.  Nothing is sacred and nothing should be sacred.

That being said, there’s something very admirable about the versions of Batman that don’t kill.  They show us a sense of heroism and being above the villains that Batman fights.  It is important… until it isn’t.  Until you get a writer that has their own ideas and wants to change this, and if they wind up making a good story with a Batman who kills, then it’s a good Batman story, and little else really matters.

That’s what I like about the character.  He’s open to interpretation, to being remade again and again as we, all of us, conceptualize the world around us and use that perception to tell our own stories and ideas about this character.  So that’s my conclusion.  Should Batman kill?  Yes.  No.  Sometimes.  Maybe.  It all depends on what kind of story you’re trying to tell with him.  That’s the dirty little secret of writing, for Batman but just in general.  There are no rules in storytelling.  Not really.  You can break just about every rule there is, so long as you do so in the service of the story you are trying to tell.

There are always bounds of reason, sure, and any decent writer should ask themselves how far can they push the character and unnecessary changes made for arbitrary reasons shouldn’t be done for the sake of doing.  It’s also worth mentioning that sometimes restrictions can lead to creative thinking.  You can’t think outside of the box if there’s no box to begin with.  So I’m not saying the rules should be abandoned, we just need to understand them for what they are – best followed until you have a really good reason to break them.  They aren’t rigid, and we can’t respond with hostility when a writer or director might go for something beyond the typical depiction of Batman.

This is why I wanted to make this post because asking whether or not Batman should kill isn’t a stupid question, by any means.  It’s worth talking about.  It’s worth exploring this idea and the character, and in doing so, I hope you might look at the Dark Knight a little differently because of it.

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