It comes up all the time: Why doesn’t Batman just kill the damn Joker? Sure, a no-killing stance makes perfect sense at first. But when you’ve got a ravenously homicidal loony who openly admits his guilt, gleefully expresses a desire to do more murder, has a seemingly endless supply of resources and willing manpower, is hyper-competent and dangerously intelligent, and is supernaturally able to evade capture and escape any asylum or prison, then it seems like maybe the “no-killing” policy should be set aside just this once.
Eventually Joker seems less like a character and more like a force of nature. So after a while we start getting angry at Batman. He’s smart, and he knows Joker will escape and kill again. At what point do we shift some blame to Batman for letting this problem run amok? He had the power to stop the Joker, so shouldn’t some of this blood be on his hands?
At this point Bat-fans jump in and offer in-universe excuses for his policy. “He’s just too idealistic!” Or maybe they offer out-of-universe excuses: “In the old days, the Comics Code wouldn’t allow for a hero to kill people on purpose!” Or maybe they weave a message into it, “Yeah, this constant death shows that Batman’s methods don’t work!”
Those are all fine reasons. Really, whatever lets you set aside your objections and get back to enjoying your Batman is fine. But there’s a deeper reason Batman can’t kill, and it has nothing to do with his personality or cultural attitudes towards killing. It’s a mechanical necessity of his stories, and no amount of hand-waving or excuse-making can change it. If Batman killed his foes, the entire world of Batman would fail to deliver on their central promise.
Which Batman are we Talking About?
There have been a lot of Batmans over the last 75 years. Golden age Batman. Silver age Batman. 60’s Adam West Batman. Keaton Batman, Kilmer Batman, Clooney Batman, and Bale Batman. Superfriends Batman. Frank Miller Batman. Animated Series Batman. New 52 Batman. And so on. And on. This character has been given countless personalities over the decades. While Gotham itself has been reliably dark and art-deco-ish, the tone of the city has varied wildly from “typical metropolitan America” to “ruined urban hellscape of lawlessness”.
This story is all over the place with regards to tone, and don’t want to get nit-picked to death by Bat-scholars arguing over every possible version and permutation of the character. So for the purposes of this series we’re going to be talking about the Batman of the Arkham videogames: Arkham Asylum, Arkham City, and Arkham KnightNo, I’m not including Arkham Origins Batman, because that’s a slightly different Batman and like I said two sentences ago I’m trying to keep this simple.. I’m not doing this because Arkham Batman is the “best” Batman. Or because I think this version is somehow the definitive one. I’m choosing this Batman because he’s a solid example of the problem I want to talk about, he’s the version I’m most familiar with, and he’s the version I can most easily get screenshots for.
A Bent Premise
The problem with Batman is that his world is based on a bent premise. Note that I didn’t say BROKEN. This isn’t like Fallout 3, where the world fell apart because nobody could be bothered to make the pieces fit together. Batman is bent, because to accomplish the goals of the story you have to be willing to bend the world into a shape where it no longer fits with the real world. And no, I’m not talking about accepting his hyper-competence or his super-gadgets. These problems go deeper. These problems inevitably bend everyone in the world a little bit, not just the main characters.
Batman is a very particular kind of Escapist fantasy designed to scratch a very particular itch. The problem with fiction designed to appeal to a particular fetish is that if it happens to be your fetish it doesn’t seem odd. You probably aren’t bothered by – and might not even notice – how bent the story is, because the world makes sense and you intuitively understand that if it were any other way, then it would no longer be catering to your entertainment needs. That’s fine, but it makes it kind of hard to look at it objectively.
So before we look at how Batman is bent, let’s look at something that – statistically – most of the readers of this blog don’t care about. Let’s look at something that probably doesn’t scratch your itch, and so the bent parts of the story will seem jarring and strange instead of natural. Let’s look at Twilight…
The Bent Premise of Twilight
To understand a bent premise, you first have to understand what a story is trying to do. Now, I haven’t read the Twilight books or watched any of the movies, but for the purposes of this discussion that’s not important. I’m basing my assessment entirely on the stuff that I’ve absorbed about Twilight through popular culture, and I’m talking about the Twilight world in abstract, broad-strokes terms and it doesn’t matter if any of these problems are ever lampshaded or explained by the author. Even if I’m flat-out wrong about the facts of the story, it doesn’t matter. Just imagine we’re talking about some hypothetical Twilight knockoff book. There are a lot of them, and they seem to be similarly bent.
So let’s say we want to write a story, and we want our story to achieve the following goals:
- The heroine needs to be a blank-ish slate without too much personality. Her physical description should be vague and her background should be ordinary in order to facilitate her role as an audience-insert.
- She needs to be the subject of intense desire by a gorgeous, powerful man. Heck, let’s make it two men, for a love triangle!
- Sometimes it’s more about the pursuit than the finish line. Sex can be scary for some young women, and there’s always the worry in the mind of the reader that the man’s love is merely feigned in order to obtain sex. So in our story, we’ll contrive an excuse for why these two young people don’t rip off their clothes and consummate their love at the first opportunity. Instead, we’ll draw the romantic tension out for several books. Our characters will ALWAYS be teetering on the edge of that “will they or won’t they?” precipice!
This means our reader-insert character can be the subject of lust for two guys, but also the subject of love, and we’ll know the love is real because if all these guys wanted was sex, they would have moved on ages ago. She can enjoy the thrill of feeling sexy and desirable without the fantasy-ruining complications that come from graphic, sweaty, pelvic-thrusting sexNot that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just a different fantasy with a different appeal..
- To be fair, this story has been done. A lot. Knock over a rack of romance novels at Barnes & Noble and half the books you pick up will fit this description. (Although I gather most of them eventually get to the sex, after a few hundred pages of anticipation and setup?) So let’s make our male leads a werewolf (muscular, shirtless) and a vampire (quiet, mysterious, old but still young-looking) to give our book a bit of genre-fiction flair and make the guys seem like dangerous bad-boys.
There’s a reason these books sold like crazy, and it’s not because they were intricate stories with vivid prose. The books found just the right way to scratch a very particular itch. If you’ve got that itch, you’ll probably love these books. If this isn’t an itch you have, then the whole thing comes off as strange, infantile, and horribly contrived.
But the important thing here is that Twilight is bent, and you need to bend yourself to meet it halfway. No, it doesn’t make any sense that two super-sexy studs would fight over the same plain-Jane girl. No, it doesn’t make sense that a super-old vampire would have the hots for a high school girl. No, these characters don’t have a great reason to continue to not have sex as the series drags on. No, it doesn’t make sense that this ancient guy would be hanging around a high school, putting up with shallow teen drama. The reason that Twilight is bent is that you can’t fix these problems without ruining the appeal.
You could explain that werewolf and vampire have the hots for the heroine by saying she’s super-sexy, but then she wouldn’t work as an audience insert. They’re here for a, “What if hot men loved you the way you are?” kind of fantasy, which is fundamentally different from a “What if you were someone else?” sort of fantasy.
You could explain old-ass Mr. Vampire liking our heroine by saying he’s got this thing for underage girls, but while it’s alluring to have a mysterious older man interested in you, it’s revolting to have a lecherous creep interested in youYes, that line can get really blurry. No, I’m not interested in exploring that in detail. Go away..
You could help justify the “no sex” thingI know the vampire thing is part of this. I also know some people don’t think this is a very good justification. Again, I’m not interested in haggling over the details. by separating our leads with some sort of physical obstacle or putting them in different parts of the world and saying they’re struggling to reach each other. But then you lose all those scenes of staring into each other’s eyes, kissing, reciting passionately overblown dialog, and otherwise teetering on the brink of losing control and boinking each other cross-eyed.
Yes, we can make the world make more sense, but to do so would make it less fulfilling for the intended audience. The world is bent because this is as much sense as the world can make and still deliver on our four desired goals. People in the intended audience – the people who have a fetish for this particular fantasy – understand this intuitively and don’t complain about these odd contrivances, even though the rest of us notice them right away.
We’ll conclude this next time when we talk about the quirks of Batman and how the world of Gotham is unavoidably bent…
 No, I’m not including Arkham Origins Batman, because that’s a slightly different Batman and like I said two sentences ago I’m trying to keep this simple.
 Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just a different fantasy with a different appeal.
 Yes, that line can get really blurry. No, I’m not interested in exploring that in detail. Go away.
 I know the vampire thing is part of this. I also know some people don’t think this is a very good justification. Again, I’m not interested in haggling over the details.
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