Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Geek Chorus #6: Why Batman Must Never Kill

This is an issue that's been stewing in my head for sometime. It's was almost brought to fruition by that trailer for that horrible Batman fan film Suffocator of Sins, but the internet more than did my job for me on pointing out what a blight on humanity that was. I thought perhaps I had worried over nothing. Perhaps everyone already knew what I had to say and there was really no need to add my voice to the pile. But recently I met someone. Very briefly, we never got as far as exchanging names. He had just come from seeing The Dark Knight Rises at the theater where I work, and we were discussing the various Robins from the comics. To my shock, he cited Jason Todd of all people as his favorite Robin.

For those only familiar with the movies, Jason Todd was the second to wear the infamous costume after Dick Grayson. He started out as a Dick Grayson clone, but was later revamped into an impetuous former street orphan, who was universally hated by the readers. He was brutally killed off by the Joker in a now iconic story called "A Death in the Family", and unlike most comic book characters he stayed that way for a very long time. 

Then in 2005, someone had the bright idea to resurrect him. He came back, and now he was far worse than just a bit of a brat...he was an outright villain. He began calling himself "the Red Hood" (a named long connected to the Joker), and decided he wanted revenge on Batman for NOT taking revenge on the Joker. It was actually a decent story that was made into a excellent Direct-to-DVD animated movie. It brought one of Batman's greatest failure's back to haunt him: the fallen squire, the apprentice who never really got the point. It came down to the most basic theme, the real lesson of the Batman story: Justice vs. Vengeance. Jason never understood that, and that is why he failed as Robin. It was never about justice for him, just the self-serving catharsis of revenge, the good feeling that comes from beating people you don't like to pulp with your bare hands. 

And this is the man this guy cited as favorite Robin. The thug. The coward. The black sheep of the Bat Family. The antithesis of everything Batman stands for. This guy even pointed to Jason Todd's later schemes, which basically amounted to becoming a gun-toting version of Batman in order to upstage him. I believe he phrased it like this: "He did more good than Batman ever did, and he did it by killing."

My heart sank a little when I heard those words. They were so disturbing, so wrong-headed, and yet the more I thought about it, so typical of what seems like a frighteningly large part of Batman's fanbase. So many people I have meet seem to look at Batman's rules against killing & guns as less as a moral imperative at the core of his character, and more as a sign of weakness. Every time Joker breaks out of Arkham, shoots his 43rd puppy that quarter, and dares Batman to finish him off, Batman fans groan when the Dark Knight once again refuses. They honestly can't seem to understand why Batman can never, will never take the life of another. And that frightens me, because it honestly makes me wonder how they look at the world.

I am hesitant to bring anything political into this, but here it goes: I am anti-death penalty. I think it's an horrible, archaic practice that is kept alive purely by the worst impulses of human nature. Don't misunderstand, I am not so naive to as think that every criminal can be rehabilitated. There are, and will always be, people who will, if given the opportunity, do horrible, unspeakable things to their fellow man, and there's nothing you can do to ever change that. However, I cannot bring myself to support marching them out to be publically murdered for the emotional catharsis of those they have hurt. There is no other real reason for execution to exist other than to satisfy bloodlust. People have a natural emotional desire to see those that have wronged them wronged in return. But to ease that urge at the cost of someone else's life, anyone else's life, in unconscionable. Even to a cynic like me, it's horrible to think the way to deal with deviant behavior is to simply eliminate the offenders. It's the societal equivalent of bloodletting.

But the morality of State or Federal execution is irrelevant. You can argue till doomsday about the plausibility of Joker's constant insanity pleas, because that's not what's being discussed. Fans, for the most part, aren't arguing that the State should kill the Joker. They're saying Batman should. They are arguing that Batman, when faced with a defeated foe, should choke the life out of him with his bare hands lest he threaten the citizens of Gotham again. 

Some of you might argue that Batman should be prepared to kill in the heat of battle, in a kill-or-be-killed situation. There might, MIGHT I stress, be some validity to that argument. But it's once again irrelevant because that's never the case when this issue comes up. Batman has developed an arsenal and skill set designed specifically to handle any combat situation with nonlethal force. Realistic or not, Batman can use a Baterang to solve any problem a cop might need a bullet to. People aren't saying Batman should be ready to shoot some thug with a hostage in the head to keep him from firing. They're saying he should outright execute criminals he's already subdued on the grounds they might do more damage if allowed to live.

You know, I've come under fire recently for some of the less than flattering statements I've made with regard to Christopher Nolan's Batman Trilogy. And while I stand by my summation that Nolan's attempts at realism are ill-advised and unintentionally laughable, at the end of the day those are mere aesthetic & atmospheric problems. There is one thing, a far more important thing that Nolan got absolutely right, something that even Tim Burton didn't quite understand. It was the overriding theme of the Batman story, his "With great power..." essentially. And that is that there is no justice in revenge. Batman Begins summed it up perfectly: "Justice is about harmony, revenge is about you making yourself feel better." It's been the lesson of Batman ever since Batman #47, "The Origin of Batman", in which Bruce Wayne finally confronts his parents killer and must finally decide what he put on the mask for: justice or himself.

Later retellings of Batman's origin would drive the point home deeper by never revealing the killer's identity. Batman wasn't after one man for his own satisfaction. He was fighting for a principle, for a world where no one would ever have to suffer what he did, to establish order in an orderless city. That's why the Joker being the killer in Burton's Batman was such a mistake. It lowers the scope and stakes of the story, no longer one man fighting on behalf on an entire city, now it's just two guys in a grudge match.

And it is for this reason that Jason Todd cannot be considered a hero of any kind, not even and anti-hero, and he certainly did not do good through his actions. What did he actually accomplish? Killing a few criminals. Even the Joker does that! His motives are different, certainly, he does it to attain power or punish subordinates. But at the end of the day, there is nothing of significance separating the Joker & the Red Hood. That's the great ironic tragedy of Jason Todd: his anger and selfishness turned him into the very thing he hates most.

But to this fellow I spoke to, he's not a fallen angel, wretched and pathetic. He's Batman improved. He's Batman the way he wants him to be: The Punisher in a cape.

You know, honestly, I think this kind've attitude can be traced back to...well, the 90's, when they were trying to make EVERYONE the Punisher in a cape. But going even further back, it could conceivably be traced back to 1986, when the Punisher was given his own solo series. Remember, the guy started out as a Spider-man villain, but what made him interesting was that he was a villain who thought he was a hero. But back when he was trying to kill Spider-man, even seemed to still realize that he was a villain nonetheless.

And I won't say giving the Punisher his own series was a bad idea. I love my villainous protagonists with semi-positive goals as much as the next guy. I love my Dexter Morgan's, my Light Yagami's, my Travis Bickle's. But with all such stories, they run the risk of the audience identifying with them too much. People forget that when all is said & done, the Punisher is nothing more than a serial killer. He's just targeting people we don't feel as sorry for.

It is vitally important to remember why we love characters like these in the first place. It's because they are interesting, not because they are something to aspire too. Jason Todd is a interesting foil for Batman, but what he is not, never was & never will be, is a hero.

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