Why Batman Can’t Kill People, Part 2

By Shamus
on Jul 9, 2015
Filed under:
Batman

Remember that for simplicity I’m just talking about Arkham videogame Batman. Also, when I say things like “Batman is all about…” I’m not trying to make a definitive statement about what THE BATMAN means to all people, in some final and authoritative way. I’m not saying you’re enjoying Batman wrong if you like it for other reasons. Don’t make me cover this in footnotes and disclaimers. You know how this works. I’m just talking about my personal perception of Batman, under the assumption that if I feel this way, there’s a good chance a lot of you do too.

The World of Gotham

I’m happy with all I’ve done for Gotham, but when it comes right down to it, I have to admit I’m not really using my degree.

Assuming that you’re like me, then you want your Batman stories to deliver your escapist fiction on a very particular wavelength. Twilight is contrived and engineered for a particular type of gratification, and Batman is aimed at another.

Yes, it’s a power fantasy. But power fantasies come in many forms. Some power fantasies are about saving one person, or about a super-being that has the power to stop natural disasters. Or a spy that can unravel plans that threaten the world. Or the galaxy. This particular work is a power fantasy about bringing criminals to justice.

The Batman power fantasy has silly costumes, absurdly on-the-nose character names, and a hero in a rubber suit with pointy ears. It’s outlandish and fun, but it’s also grounded in some very pedestrian fears and frustrations. It has a lot of appeal for the sort of person that might watch the news, hear about some horrible monster that committed a crime, and wish there was someone out there who could bring them to justice – preferably in a way that lets us vicariously enjoy smashing them in the face. His foes aren’t so much criminals as the embodiment of crime itself, a punching bag with the face of today’s horrendous criminal-of-the-week taped to it.

So we want a hero that can bring down the bad guys that – in the real world – get away with it. Maybe they cover their tracks too well. Maybe they bought off the cops. Or they’re hard to apprehend. Or they’re just really slippery in court. Whatever.

Our Punching Bags

You can’t stop me this time, Batman, because I’ve got an army of incompetent, barely-loyal mooks like the kind you plow through every night, and they will… ah shit. I guess you are going to stop me.

Batman’s rogue’s gallery does a really good job of giving us a large collection of criminal effigies to punch.

Penguin represents organized crime: The Al Capone and John Gotti types of the world. Guys who want to “rule the city” in a practical sense, oversee large criminal enterprises, and are difficult for the police to catch because they do everything through intermediaries. In the real world these guys are frustrating because “everyone knows they’re guilty” but it takes so long for their crimes to catch up with them. And even when they do end up in jail, it’s frustrating to know this guy who killed so many people is spending his time in a soft, low-security prison for “wire fraud” or somesuch. (And probably still running his empire while he’s at it.) We’d really love it if some costumed badass could show up and give this guy a dose of the pain and terror he’s dished out.

Zsasz represents your garden-variety serial killer. He kills because of some gross compulsion that none of us can understand.

Riddler represents the kind of guy who is trying to pull a crime just to prove he can. Maybe he wants attention, or maybe he just wants to make a move big enough that it shows up on the news and gets people talking on the internet. He’s willing to do harm to further his goals, but doesn’t see the harm as an end in itself. He enjoys the chase more than the crime. Frank Abagnale and LulzSec are good examples of this sort of criminal.

Scarecrow and Poison Ivy are always trying to terrify or control the populace with chemical / biological attacks, which makes them a really good analogue for terrorist-style attacks without the story needing to explore the complex politics behind real, ideology-driven terrorism.

Joker is the wildcardEr. You know what I mean.. He can work in any of the roles above, or work in multiple roles at once. He can be a serial killer, a crime boss, a trickster, or a terrorist.

I’m not saying all of Batman’s foes can map to real-world criminals. (I have no idea how you’d classify Mr. Freeze, for example.) And I’m certainly not saying that these characters were designed with these specific classifications in mind. These guys were cooked up by writers who needed to sell comic books and wanted colorful villains to put on the cover. But over the years they’ve slipped into these rolesAgain, particularly in the videogames. I have no idea what the comics are doing these days., and I think it’s part of why they work so well as foils for today’s gritty “Dark Knight” Batman storiesIn a way that (say) Mad Hatter and Calendar Man don’t..

The Bent Knight

Yes, all those people are dead. But don’t stop me until you’ve heard the punchline.

Like Twilight, Batman stories have a few parameters that make them more satisfying while at the same time bending the world into this awkward position where things don’t always make sense:

1) Our hero is a master detective, master infiltrator, and a master at non-lethal takedowns. He can’t be bought, can’t be frightened, and never takes a day off. He’s always competent and the bad guys can’t evade him forever.

2) Now that we’ve created this avatar of vigilante justice, we want him to oppose a foe worthy of his skills, so we’re not interested in taking down pickpockets and purse snatchers. We want villains that are vibrant, interesting, and represent powerful criminal forces that terrify common folk. We’re here to deliver a beat-down on cruel brutes who enjoy hurting innocent people. We want Batman to be as terrifying and daunting to them as those thugs are to us.

3) Because of the way that stories usually work, we need to establish our villain as a threat by showing them doing Bad Stuff. But we don’t want Batman to just go around mopping up after atrocities, so he needs to thwart something Even Worse. So our villains need to kill N people, and then Batman stops them before they kill N×10 people.

4) Crime never goes away, so the demand for crime-fighting stories never goes away. We need our hero to keep fighting crime. ForeverAssuming I live a full life, I will eventually see Batman turn 100..

So Batman is a way to enjoy the cathartic release of seeing criminals get their due. And maybe – if you’re feeling a little vindictive – a little more than their due, in the hopes that others will think twice before launching their own campaigns of terror.

And yet you continue to heckle the Batman. You literally bring it on yourself. Dude, just start a blog about how much Batman sucks. It’ll be cathartic and way less dangerous.

This gives us a world where we can enjoy watching our hero punch crime in the face, but it also gives us a bent setting. Yes, it would be totally understandable for Batman to just LET Joker die at some point, and I think Batman could easily do it without worrying that he’d crossed some line into open villainy. Once someone is guilty of thousands of counts of premeditated murder, the expectations of due process begin to look like a luxury.

And yes, even if we accept that Batman doesn’t kill, it makes no sense that a guy with a bodycount like Joker’s wouldn’t come down with a case of “Shot fifty times at point-blank range while trying To escape” as soon as Batman dropped him off at jail.

A Batman Who Kills

You’ll never get away with this, Abraham Lincoln!

The problem is that if Batman – or anyone else – hauled off and killed the Joker, it would just move the problem from one part of the story to another. We’d need to cook up a replacement character. If the replacement is less dangerous, then we have a story where the stakes have gone down and there’s less crime for him to fight. If the new guy is just as bad, then Batman would need to kill him, and so on.

This is how the Punisher works, and I think it’s one of the reasons the Punisher is overall a less satisfying story, even for people looking to see criminals punished, vigilante-style. Frank Castle has to monologue to explain who the current bad guy is and why we’re after him. Then he kills the bad guy. Then we need to build up a new bad guy. It’s still bent: How many untouchable crime bosses can one city possibly have? Instead of “Why doesn’t he kill these guys” the problem becomes, “Where do these guys keep coming from?” And as a matter of simple storytelling, it’s probably more exciting and interesting to see Batman face off against a villain we know and understand than to watch Frank Castle brutally murder a generic bad guy we met 10 pages ago. Proper villains take time and skill to construct, and writers aren’t going to be able to create new ones fast enough to feed the Punisher’s tireless engine of vengeance.

The Bad Guys need to kill people in order to seem like a credible threat and justify the extreme measures Batman is taking to stop them. We can’t kill them off without turning this into a Punisher-style “Mob Boss of the week snuff film”. The bad guys have to keep escaping so Batman has crime to stop. The bad guys have to be too much for the police to handle to show why this problem needs a vigilante. The bad guys have to kill some people to affirm that they’re a genuine threat and Batman isn’t just beating up harmless delusional nutjobs. You need all of these things for a Batman story to work, but once you have these things you have a world where Batman stupidly allows mass murderers to kill again because [insert current in-world justification for not killing or maiming supervillains].

But it doesn’t make sense!

Dude! Put your mask on. I know you’re on a roof and everything, but you do realize everyone has cellphone-cameras these days, right? Although, I guess everyone also has photoshop. Nevermind. You’re good.

Why doesn’t Batman kill these guys? How do they keep escaping? Since the Gotham Police Department apparently has a survival rate worse than D-Day on the beaches of Normandy, why would normal men and women continue to work there? And given the attrition they experience, why don’t any of the police haul off and kill Joker once he’s captured? Given the sheer frequency and severity of terroristic attacks on the populace, why would anyone live in Gotham? Shouldn’t this entire city have collapsed by now? Why doesn’t Bruce Wayne use his billions to fight the poverty, lack of education, corruption, or whatever else we might assume is at the root of this prolonged, intense, and far-reaching crime spree?

These are all valid questions, but they can’t be answered because they stem from our inherently bent world: We need a hero to punch famously dangerous and unrepentant criminals in the face, and we need him to do it basically forever.

What’s interesting is that a lot of people just refuse to “go with it”. I can sympathize. While the bent nature of Batman doesn’t bug me, I‘ve got a few stories in my nerd diet that drive me crazy because I can’t resolve or make peace with their internal contradictions.

But what’s most interesting to me is how people continually try to impose order on the chaos. There are two ways you can look at the bent nature of Batman:

  1. This is stupid. I’m done.
  2. This doesn’t make total sense, but I’m on board because I really dig this detective-and-brawling stuff.

But some people try to forge a third way: They try to say the inherent nonsense is saying something. They look for a message in the madness. A reason for the eternal struggle.

“This is a story about one man staying true to his principles.”

“Did you notice that crime went UP in Gotham when Joker was temporarily dead? Batman understands that killing would only make things worse, which is way he’s trying to save everybody.”

“You notice that no matter how long Batman fights, Gotham never gets any better? Batman’s own story shows that his methods don’t work, and that he creates the problem he’s trying to solve!”

“You notice how often Batman is always getting saved by his allies? That’s because Batman is all about how he can’t actually do it on his own.”

“Poison Ivy. Catwoman. Talia. Batman stories are about how this sex-starved nutjob who goes around beating people up because he needs to get laid.”

“Batman is a story where there are no good guys. Ever notice how Batman breaks just as many laws and is just as crazy as the guys he’s fighting?”

But the funny thing is that some of these people end up becoming writers of Batman stories, and so all of these ideas become true at various times in Bat-lore. I realize this point strays away from the videogames, but I like the idea that we create Batman out of a hunger for justice. Then his stories fall apart because they don’t end. So then we try to impose meaning on the story, looking for a message that wasn’t there originally. But then that message ends up in the story, added by frustrated writers who are looking for deeper meaning in a story about a guy who dresses like a bat to fight crime.

That search for understanding and applicability might not explain why the Dark Knight doesn’t kill people, but I think it does explain why his stories have endured for so long.

Enjoyed this post? Please share!

Footnotes:

[1] Er. You know what I mean.

[2] Again, particularly in the videogames. I have no idea what the comics are doing these days.

[3] In a way that (say) Mad Hatter and Calendar Man don’t.

[4] Assuming I live a full life, I will eventually see Batman turn 100.



A Hundred!2020205Many comments. 165, if you're a stickler

From the Archives:

  1. Daemian Lucifer says:

    I’m not saying you’re enjoying Batman wrong if you like it for other reasons(but you totally are).

    Fixed that for you.

  2. Daemian Lucifer says:

    I have no idea how you’d classify Mr. Freeze, for example

    The sympathetic villain that turned to crime for a noble cause.Road to hell and all that.

    And you know,he and catwoman are great polar opposites.He is usually portrayed as a bad guy with a good goal,while she is usually portrayed as a good gal with a bad goal.

    • Nicholas Hayes says:

      Polar. I see what you did there!

    • Zeta Kai says:

      Mr. Freeze, oddly-enough, has come to represent what the average law-abiding citizen could become if the System fails them. What happened to Victor Fries was tragic set of circumstances (abusive father, sick wife, uncaring company, freak accident) that drove him into a life of crime, a life where he has no choice but to be a criminal. In fact, being a criminal is the only time he has ever displayed any personal agency; prior to that, he was being acted upon by outside forces, & afterward, he can either rot in a freezer or go out & do something with himself.

      Mr. Freeze is now the Everyman, pushed into becoming a criminal because the System couldn’t protect him. In another, more just world, he would be a normal guy, a researcher at a tech firm, with a loving, living wife & an unremarkable life. Everything normal was taken from him, & he is left alone, in the cold, forever. And now he acts like a criminal because there’s nothing left for him to do. Thus, he’s a cautionary tale for Batman’s world, an example of what happens to the victims of Crime, & the stakes of failing to stop it in all its forms.

      • sudowned says:

        This is the best analysis of Freeze I’ve ever heard. It squares less in the New 52 version of the character, where he comes across as a psychotic whackjob (and IIRC it’s revealed that he murdered a girl before becoming Freeze) but for earlier, better versions… yeah, bang-on.

      • Taellosse says:

        That works as an analysis of the Mr. Freeze from BTAS, the Arkham games, and maybe the pre-New 52 comics (I understand he’s been reinvented since). But TAS did a pretty major overhaul on his character, actually, which informed later iterations. The earlier comic version of Mr. Freeze was more a version of the classic mad scientist trope – he had few if any redeeming, human qualities. I don’t think he even had a tragically dead wife.

        • Daemian Lucifer says:

          He didnt.But lets face it:what best fits the character is not what the character was early on.Early on,batman didnt care if he used guns,and superman was just jumping really high.

      • Ledel says:

        This is also represented by his freeze suit. From all that has happened to him he can no longer touch the normal world. If he were to try be a part of the world it would kill him. He’s smart enough that if he really wanted to, he could find a cure for himself, but his trauma leaves him feeling like he can’t fix himself until he saves his wife.

        • MugaSofer says:

          I think it represents it in a more direct manner. Freeze is literally physically incapable of surviving without his crime/gimmick, because of a medical condition that isn’t his fault (but also kind of is, because it happened while trying to save his wife and he could have chosen to walk away.)

          Similarly, he’s trapped as a supervillain, incapable of not committing literal crimes because he’s made to by forces “outside his control” (although logically he could walk away at any time.)

          Freeze is both literally and figuratively trapped inside a Mr Freeze costume.

          (And interestingly, in the episode of Batman Beyond featuring him where he was temporarily cured, he instantly reforms and then returns to villainy when the cure wears off. There’s no causal connection, in-universe it’s a complete coincidence. But thematically…)

    • Steve C says:

      I see Mr. Freeze as profoundly selfish and completely lacking empathy. He could be a fully functioning member of society if his needs were met. With his needs not met he’d dispassionately throw a baby into a wood chipper. He believes the ends always justify the means when they serve him.

      I do not agree with Zeta Kai that Freeze was a victim of circumstance and failed by the system. Freeze is much like Brainiac- an uncaring robot. He will see his goals realized and he does not care who he hurts in the process. Unlike Brainiac, Freeze’s personal end goals are mundane and small in scope.

      • Roland Jones says:

        An uncaring robot… Whose goal is to save his dying wife, who he loves and cares about so much that he’s been driven to desperation and madness by her circumstances? His whole thing is based on how much he cares, and he tends to by far be one of the least murderous of Batman’s enemies besides that. (At least, depending on how realistic the particular work is about the whole “getting frozen” thing that tends to happen to people in his way.) I am legitimately baffled here; it seems almost like you’re talking about an entirely different character.

        • Steve C says:

          Caring about his wife isn’t about his wife. It is about Freeze. Freeze’s goal is not to save his dying wife. It is to save his dying wife so he can be with her again. Freeze cares about his wife but that is the only thing he cares about. He isn’t putting his wife first. He is putting his need for his wife first. Freeze is like Sandman who only cares about his daughter and justifies everything he does in her name.

          • Nimas says:

            Very late, but it depends on which one you look at. In the comics based on TAS when his wife gets a cure and leaves him (can’t remember why, I think it was because he was in Arkham as just a head at the time) he never tries to be with her again, beyond writing letters (some of which boil down to, I just want you to be happy, so if this new guy makes you happy, be with him) and then he basically leaves Gotham and goes to the Arctic because he basically has no more goal, so he sees no point in crime.

  3. Daemian Lucifer says:

    @Footnote 3

    I dont know.Mad hatter and calendar man can work quite well as gritty batman villains with just a touch of change.I mean,look how easy alice can turn into serious stuff of nightmares,and calendar man can be seamlessly replaced with the zodiac killer.

    • Ingvar M says:

      Also, the Alice presented in Warehouse 13 (“killer” is only the beginning).

    • MaxieJZeus says:

      And BTAS’s Mad Hatter is actually very similar to BTAS’s Mr. Freeze: lonely guy fixated on unobtainable girl. The difference is that Hatter’s girl isn’t dead and Freeze’s girl practically is. You’d think the guy chasing the warm-and-living girl wouldn’t be creepier than one chasing a popsicle; as usual, BTAS is more perceptive, and more perverse.

  4. MichaelG says:

    “some of these people and up becoming writers…” should be “end up”?

  5. Incunabulum says:

    (I have no idea how you’d classify Mr. Freeze, for example.)

    Mr Freeze is the sort of guy who got into crime because he had an overriding goal (to save his wife) and, over time, he put aside all other moral considerations in the pursuit of that goal.

    And then he found out that he *liked* being a criminal mastermind.

    I don’t know of any particular *real world* examples, but Mr. Freeze is basically Walter White.

    • EwgB says:

      I think he also has a dash of mad scientist added to the mix. Not really a criminal template, but “overreach of science” is also something a subset of population is afraid of.

      • Nimas says:

        Honestly he’s more a Shakespearean villain, someone who fell from grace not entirely of his own volition, but is eternally damned because of it.

        As an aside, I really love his episode in Batman Beyond, as it shows how much of a tragedy the loss of his wife and accident robbed the world of a truly great man.

    • Dreadjaws says:

      I wouldn’t say he’s Walter White. White was the kind of person who let his pride get the better of him. He had good qualities, but he always was a dark person inside, and as soon as he acquired power, he showed his true colors. Note that White uses the excuse that he does all this for his family, but deep down he knows very well he’d doing it for himself.

      Freeze, on the other hand, unlike White, doesn’t enjoy the power or the crimes he does, he just sees them as a means to an end. He has problems, yes. He has no interest in the rest of the human race, all he cares about is his wife. But he’s still not doing things for personal satisfaction, he does it all for his wife.

      • Incunabulum says:

        So did Fries – and like White, Fries, for most of his adult life, had little personal agency.

        Its as Heisenberg that White truly feels *macho* – with all the good and bad that comes with that.

        Both chose to enter the criminal world because of necessity – White to take care of his family after his death and Fries to save his wife – and, once inside, found out that they were *good* at it and *liked* it.

        And in both cases, high on their success, they made decisions that made it basically impossible to leave. Even if Fries saves his wife, well now he’s Mr. Freeze – he’s not the same person he was before.

        I don’t think he really wants to save her. Recognizing that he’s a monster now, savnig her means either she leaves or she likes the new him more. Either would destroy him.

        • Dreadjaws says:

          No, again, White used the “providing for his family” as an excuse. If you remember the first episode, he had a very good job opportunity handed to him and he turned it down because of his ego. His interest wasn’t providing for his family, it was doing it on his own terms. Had his family been his real reason, he would have taken the job.

          In the case of Freeze, he has actually saved his wife. Twice, once in the comics and once in the animated series. Both times he was really happy of seeing her alive. In the animated series, he simply retired to a hermit life. In the comics, he was forced to come out again due to her suffering from an accident that turned into a supervillain, so he had to freeze her again and return to his status quo of finding a new cure.

        • SL128 says:

          Walter was offered help from Gretchen and Elliot numerous times and turned it down. There were also several points where he had enough money to stop, but continued anyway. When he actually did get out around season 2, Gus tried to lure him in with multiple attempts, but he went back when Jesse was using ‘his’ formula and getting credit.

          Fries, however, has acted fairly consistent with his purported motive.

  6. Wide And Nerdy says:

    Top Ten Reasons Batman can’t kill.

    1) Because he doesn’t punch hard enough.
    2) Because his stand up material is weak.
    3) Because Bill Finger swore on Bob Kane’s grave.
    4) Because villain season ended.
    5) Because he’s not a British spy.
    6) Because he uses rubber bullets and rubber Batmissiles
    7) Because he doesn’t believe in himself
    8) Because its against the law.
    9) Because kids would start killing each other to be like Batman.
    10) Because Batmen don’t kill people, people kill people.

  7. Wide And Nerdy says:

    Mad Hatter could stand in for a stalker. At least in the cartoon Jervis Tetch was obsessed with Alice.

    And you closed it out beautifully. Yes this is why we shouldn’t take Batman quite so seriously. Yes, these attempts to assign greater meaning to superheroes fall apart. They aren’t popular because they became the new Greek myths, or they’re archetypal paragons of ideals or whatever. They’re simple power fantasies that are either fun or visceral or whatever. Wish comic book writers throughout my comic book reading years had gotten that (Ok, well some did).

    • Dreadjaws says:

      “Stalker” is putting it mildly, I think “date rapist” fits him better.

    • Metal C0Mmander says:

      Yeah I think you said it best. Really that’s all Batman should be. A vigilante style hero that punch people while “being the night”. Whether he achieve to do so properly can be left for the author of the time to decide.

  8. Daemian Lucifer says:

    I dont think the answer you are using here works with the premise of “Im just looking at the video games”.Its a separate continuity than the comics,and (as was shown by the joker actually dying) it doesnt have to keep the status quo.In fact,that is precisely the reason why Burton batman killed people,and why in begins he lets ra’s die on that train.

    • Shamus says:

      My assumption here is that:

      * The videogames will continue to be made as long as they are profitable.
      * Villain death will not prevent them from using whoever they think will sell videogames. (Given the fact that you-know-who died two games ago and he’s still appearing in these dang things.)

      I suppose a more apt title would have been “Why Batman Villains Can’t Die Permanently” but… meh. You know how it is.

      • Daemian Lucifer says:

        The videogames will continue to be made as long as they are profitable.

        Not every company has to follow ubisoft and ea in their “milk it until it runs dry,then milk it even more” model.Some of them can still stop at the peak of profitability in order to pursue other projects.I mean chances are small,but it could happen.

        • Wide And Nerdy says:

          MrBTongue did a pretty good episode about this (one that was surprisingly sympathetic). The short of it is, yes they pretty much do. They’re a giant corporation with responsibility to tons of employees and shareholders, they have to do things that will keep the company in the black. And that means selling Batman as long as the public is buying. Reboot if necessary, but don’t you dare stop selling Batman. Its not just greed, its responsibility. Obligation even.

    • Nimas says:

      While that’s fair, I *really* didn’t like the whole “I don’t have to save you” line. You’re Batman damnit, yes, you do have to save him! (or at least try) :D

  9. Arkady says:

    I’ve always thought Batman’s rogues gallery is what makes him so interesting. The actual man himself is, well, a bit flat. There’s not a lot of personality besides his tragic backstory, pure cause (in the sense that he doesn’t allow anything else to dilute his quest for “justice”), and hyper-competence – great for an audience insert, though!

    But if you look at the most interesting members of the rogues gallery they all reflect or contrast (as in: go the opposite way) a part of Batman:

    – Riddler is his detective abilities turned bad

    – Two-Face is a reflection of his dual identity, as well as contrasting pure “for justice” cause (Studied in The Dark Knight)

    – Catwoman reflects his skills at infiltration while contrasting his repressed sexuality

    – Poison Ivy also contrasts his sexuality, while being an opposite to his reliance on gadgets and technology (studied in Batman and Robin)

    – Bane reflects Batman’s physical strength

    – Ra’s al Ghul reflects Batman’s desire to purge the world of crime, but contrasts on the “no killing” rule and – crucially – believes himself to be above the law. (Studied in Batman Begins) Arguably his immortality is a reflection on Batman’s refusal to kill.

    – Scarecrow reflects Batman’s idea of instilling fear in his enemies. (Studied in Batman Begins)

    – Deadshot contrasts Batman’s attitude towards guns

    – Mr Freeze reflects Batman’s pure motivation as well as his reliance on intellect and technology. Also a reflection on Batman’s highly suppressed emotions.

    – Joker arguably is a reflection of Batman’s insanity. For all that he can hold himself together and focus, there’s no doubt in my mind that Batman isn’t all there, from his casual approach to violence to his unnatural devotion to a cause. Joker reflects the casual approach to violence, while contrasting the devotion to a cause. Either that, or Batman is incredibly sane for the things he’s seen and done, and Joker contrasts this by being the madman that Bruce Wayne could have become. (Not finished Arkham Knight yet, but it seems to study this.)

    – Penguin … erm… I’m not sure about this one actually. He’s also quite heavy on the gadgets, but also has the “respectable” public persona thing going on, sometimes.

    – Killer Croc … okay, I’ve got nothing on this one. They can’t all be winners.

    Anyway – I know I’m not the think about this idea, but it is certainly fun to think about what the villains represent about him.

    • Nicholas Hayes says:

      As far as Penguin goes, he’s a different direction that a scion of a wealthy family of Gotham could take their life. Same goes for Hush – though as with Two-Face he’s got some of the dual identity stuff going on as well

    • Wide And Nerdy says:

      Also Poison Ivy is made of plants to contrast Batman who is made of meat.

      On a more serious note, Bane matches Batman on every level as seen in his introduction (when he hunted and broke the Batman, even deducing his secret identity.)

      The way he contrasts Batman most is he was born in prison (I guess criminals learn in prison to reproduce asexually because the prison seemed to be filled with men). And perhaps his use of drugs to do his thing, something associated with lower classes and the streets (unfairly) contrasts Batman’s use of gadgets, a rich man’s implements.

      • Zeta Kai says:

        It would be interesting to explore Bane’s addiction to Venom a bit more, & how his addiction to drugs forces him to become/remain a criminal. Kinda like how Clayface in the animated series became a de facto addict to the RenuYou drug, which directly led to his initial downfall. Illegal drugs often lead addicts to commit other crimes in the real world, so it would make sense for a Gothamite criminal to have drugs as a more central theme, but from what I’ve read, Bane has mostly left the Venom kick behind him.

        • Taellosse says:

          Bane and Clayface’s respective drug addictions are a reflection of Batman’s own overriding obsession to avenge the death of his parents by ridding the city of crime all by himself – it’s an overpowering compulsion he has no hope of truly mastering, but it drives and informs all of his behavior, and ultimately will prove his ruin (except, because Batman will go on forever, it won’t ever quite do that to him).

          In Bane’s case, at least in the comics, he was also a reference to an earlier storyline when he was first introduced. Bane was what would have happened to Batman if he himself had not managed to kick himself of his own addiction to Venom (which he had previously used, though nowhere near to the extent Bane did, and become hooked on for a time).

      • Vect says:

        Bane’s comic backstory was that his father let his pregnant wife serve his prison sentence for him and ditched them.

    • TheLurkerAbove says:

      Bane reflects Batman’s quest for perfection and the ability to dominate any situation.

      Great examination of Bane

    • Blue_Pie_Ninja says:

      I guess a link to miracle of sounds joker and batman songs would be a good thing to listen too, as the songs do show batman to be mad

  10. Wide And Nerdy says:

    So if the appeal of the fantasy is primarily punching faces that need to be punched, then its funny that more recently, especially in the games, we’re encouraged to salivate over the gadgets and the car. I wonder if thats execs seeing the appeal of Iron Man and thinking “wait, we have a young rich guy with cool gadgets too. Do you . . . do you think we could sneak some power armor into his Batsuit?”

    The sexy women in Batman’s life are easier to explain but in light of Shamus’ explanation of the character, its a clashing appeal. Our incorruptible force for justice is letting at least two villains run around because he thinks they’re hot (this is exactly why I don’t like Catwoman. Talia is more complicated.)

    • Robyrt says:

      To be fair, Catwoman is usually willing to help Batman out against the other, even more villainous villains, so she has some practical value as well. If a super-thief is the worst problem your city has, it’s a good day in Gotham.

      • Wide And Nerdy says:

        Its less the using her as an informant that bothers me (another of my favorite fictional lawmen, Odo, does that as well), and more the times Batman has let either his desire for her or need to protect her distract him long enough to let her get away. We can’t have one guy that doesn’t fall prone to that trope?

        On the other hand, dressing up the appeal of the fantasy with other things like the cars, the gadgets and the sexy women does give it some interesting flavor and variety. Most of the criminals are in some way fighting for what is given freely to Batman.

        You’ve got a point. Catwoman adds to the variety. And I shouldn’t be so quick to take down one of Batman’s few sane villains.

        • Khizan says:

          Catwoman is a superthief who only really steals from the rich, because only the rich have things worth superstealing, and as a villain she’s really kind of small potatoes, you know? Let Catwoman get away, maybe she steals a painting from a museum or diamonds from some millionaire’s trophy wife, no big deal. Anybody rich enough to be worth her time can probably absorb the loss.

          In real life, Catwoman is not a supervillain at all.

    • Shamus says:

      The new Batsuit struck me as being VERY power-armor-ish. It’s got some sort of super-strength, and it’s made of moving, interlocking metal plates instead of rubber. You actually switch into the new Batsuit about an hour or so in, and it did indeed feel like a little “Too Iron Man” for my taste.

      On the other hand, it’s attached to a fantastic gameplay mechanic. The suits internal kinetic systems take incoming force and [cough cough mumble nonsense] back at your foes. Which means if you hold the stick TOWARDS an enemy for a split second before you counter them, you’re able to launch them away from you. It gives you the option to clear some space or keep your foes close according to your needs. It’s hard to go back to Arkham City now, because I really miss that.

      • Wide And Nerdy says:

        I love the gameplay aspect too. Now that I think of it if we’re looking for a justification, this is supposedly pretty late in Batman’s career. Its long been a part of the mythos that in the future Batman dons some kind of power armor once his body can’t keep up anymore and/or his injuries catch up with him. I can let this slide as some kind of intermediate step on that path.

        There, now we can enjoy our gameplay upgrade guilt free.

        • Izicata says:

          That would certainly be an interesting way to take the Batman series. As Batman becomes old and decrepit, he uses more and more powered armor and gadgetry to fight crime. Eventually not even that is enough for Batman to keep up, and he starts to augment his body with cybernetics and artificial limbs, culminating in the upload of his mind to a computer. The ideal Batman strives for, the tireless, unstoppable, one-man crusade on crime, drives him to literally become a robot that does not sleep, does not eat, does not get distracted by Catwoman’s breasts, and does not ever stop.

          The Baterminator.

          • Muspel says:

            “Power armor Batman” is actually pretty common in storylines that involve an older Bruce Wayne. Off the top of my head, it happens in Dark Knight Returns, Kingdom Come, and Batman Beyond.

            • Wide And Nerdy says:

              Yeah but I haven’t seen anyone suggest Izicata’s cyborg Batman and quite frankly, the tech is pretty much here for that. It would make sense for him to augment so that he could keep fighting.

        • Richard H says:

          I don’t know if this is what you were thinking of, but the Batsuit in Batman Beyond is definitely over on the power armor end of things. (I’d say it’s less armored than what you’re describing, but it has strength enhancement and rocket boots…) Bruce Wayne also retires in the pilot because we need to put a teenager in the Batsuit, I mean he’s getting too old for it.

          • Wide And Nerdy says:

            Yes, the Batman Beyond suit, along with the prototypes we see Bruce wear in the pilot. Then there’s Dark Knight Returns though I guess he only wore it to battle Superman.

            Kingdom Come he had both powered armor and robot drones (and was running a police state). Batman Beyond, he had a cool looking flying wheel chair that could turn into powered armor.

        • Trix2000 says:

          I think it’ll be fine so long as it doesn’t actually TRY to be Iron Man. I’m actually not entirely sure what that would entail (similar gadgets? similar theme?), but I don’t feel like it’s gone that far. Might just be how much focus is on the gadgets – as much as Batman relies on them, they still don’t feel like the main attraction… they spice things up.

          • Wide And Nerdy says:

            Yes, the problem with full blown power armor is that it limits the way Batman can fight. It amplifies certain modes of attack but limits reflexes (at least traditionally) range of motion, speed and manual dexterity. Plus it has blasters which just aren’t Batman’s thing. Batman’s kinetic armor is more about assisting him in the way he is used to operating.

            And in light of Batman’s philosophy about what types of help/gadgets/improvements are example, I actually like Izicata’s idea that Batman should eventually go cyborg. Its a frontier we’re already crossing into so why not let our rich ultimate human superhero lead the way?

        • Vect says:

          That’s what Batman Beyond did. The Batsuit in that series had jet boosters and could actually fly.

  11. psivamp says:

    Some of these themes are totally explored in the comics. I’m not an aficionado, but the Batman is just as crazy as the villians is basically the premise of Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth graphic novel by Grant Morrison — it’s the only Batman graphic novel I’ve read.
    It takes Batman as a severely damaged individual and forces him to confront some of his crazy.

    The author in the afterword or whatever actually says that he doesn’t like Batman like this, that he much prefers 70’s Batman sitting in his mansion looking at a bureau covered in pictures of supervillian women he’s slept with.

    Forgive me if my memory is way off on either of these — that thing is buried in the attic somewhere and I haven’t read it in ages.

    • Zekiel says:

      I like the Arkham Asylum graphic novel too! I seem to (very hazily) recall that Grant Morrison’s point about Batman and supervillainesses is more along the line of him moaning at Robin about his bad luck with women (oblivious to the fact that the problem with his love life is very clearly himself)

      • psivamp says:

        That does sound more correct.

        He might also have more luck if that version of Batman had tried to date athletes instead of supervillianesses.

        New side-tangent: how freaking amazing are Olympic athletes in comic-book worlds?

        • Matt Downie says:

          Batman did have a line in one of the RIP-era Grant Morrison comics about how he knew deep down that his new girlfriend was a villain – because it’s only the badness in these girls that attracts him.

  12. Darren says:

    I’d say that Mr. Freeze and many other Batman villains–Two-Face and the Ventriloquist (some versions) being other prime examples–represent those individuals who we understand arrive at a life of crime for reasons that aren’t fully their fault. We get to nod sympathetically at their plight while still decrying their crimes, and they alone are given the hope of rehabilitation. In real life sympathy for criminals is complicated, to say the least, but these fictional characters give opportunities where the lines are relatively clear-cut.

    I’d like to say that I like that you bring up the various interpretations of the character at the end there. The on-going nature of comic books is necessary to produce those multiple takes, but those takes are what make self-contained arcs and/or entire continuities so viable and so effective. The Arkham universe and Nolan universe are distinct and each have a unique take on the character that is satisfying while still being true to the character.

    • Zeta Kai says:

      Ventriloquist is a mix of two forces: organized crime & mental illness. The mafia thing is better handled by less cliche examples, namely Black Mask & the Penguin. But the mental illness thing is very interesting. Like Two-Face, the Ventriloquist could be given treatment, & perhaps one days cured of the sickness that forces them to turn to crime. But the constraints of the never-ending story cannot abide a criminal eventually getting better & reforming, so we are stuck with an embodiment of how the mentally ill turn to crime because the System failed them.

  13. Gunther says:

    I’ve always figured it has something to do with Dunbar’s number – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar's_number

    Basically, humans evolved to live in groups of about 150 people and our instincts haven’t caught up with the world we live in now. In a group that size, the Batman solution to crime (just have one really strong guy beat up any criminals) probably works fine. It’s only when you get to cities that you have to start thinking about socio-economic factors and more sophisticated crime prevention techniques… and our brains didn’t evolve to find that satisfying.

    We see a report of something horrible on the news and our first thought isn’t something like: “if only we had an evidence-based approach to lowering crime through preventative measures” or “if only our prisons were more focused on rehabilitation and reintegration into society” or even “If only the economy was stronger and people weren’t so desperate”, it’s: “The person who did that is evil! I hope they get punished!”.

    The actual solutions to crime are unsatisfying to us, but one really strong guy punching crime right in its stupid face? That makes us feel good. Just like how sugar tastes really good despite being bad for us, because we evolved to want easily digestible high-calorie foods.

    • Nidokoenig says:

      This is also a reason for Batman to not kill: The Joker, the Riddler and so on are all named people we know and identify as part of the Bat tribe, whereas the people the villains kill are distant statistics that are basically more visceral versions of a scouter’s power level reading. Joker crippling Barbara Gordon was a big thing precisely because it was serious violence within the tribe, without even getting into the other super fun discussion that can be had there.

      • Darren says:

        I love this interpretation so much.

      • Slothfulcobra says:

        That’s the thing that has always really bugged me about the prominence of ludicrous amounts of murder in the Batman setting. It’s narratively irresponsible, and it ends up turning into this horrible Randian thing where anyone not directly at the center of the story is nothing but a piece of driftwood being buffeted about by the waves that Great Men make. Their lives are worthless, they don’t exist beyond one or two panels, and nothing is gained or lost from their puny demise. They don’t have families to grieve or responsibilities to go unfulfilled, they’re just there for shock value.

        And then you get all these horrible holes in the setting staring you straight in the face like more people than could ever live in a city dying in Gotham just because writers love to get their murder on.

        • Nidokoenig says:

          Never read the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, it will do your nut in. Tens or even hundreds of mooks will die in battle just so two supermen can meet and ask what the hell each other are thinking. It’s a cheap method of raising the tension and raising the stakes, Joker killed several dozen, Zhang Fei wiped out an army before his wine got cold, it’s an efficient method of making clear what stakes the fight has in a work of power fantasy-based fiction.

          The comments on death rates make me wonder, has anyone totted up the carnage over however long the stories are supposed to have run in-world and compared them to, say, Colombia or Iraq?

          • Joe Informatico says:

            Same with The Iliad. But those are both products of old, pre-industrial societies with different values. Batman is the product of a supposed egalitarian liberal democracy. The main difference is Batman has inherited wealth instead of inherited title.

            • Nidokoenig says:

              Being in a modern society doesn’t really change the number of characters we can care about or keep track of, if anything Rot3K expects far more of its readers in that regard, to the point where the named characters should be enough to make up a Dunbar number-sized group without focusing too much on the tens and hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Keeping real people in the dozens and treating everyone else as a statistic and human resources is just better story telling from a point of view of having it read and understood. Though a story that followed a couple of days in the life of a few dozen individuals before the Joker kills them would be pretty chilling.

  14. Wide And Nerdy says:

    Something only very loosely related. One of the things Arkham Knight got right that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a PC Port before. The XBox Controller support is completely seamless.

    Its so seamless that I can be playing on keyboard and mouse, pickup my XBox Controller midplay and just keep playing. Furthermore, the button prompts will immediately switch to reflect the controller. Same if I switch back to keyboard. If I like, say, the Batman play on the keyboard and the Batmobile play on the XBox Controller, that playstyle is completely and fluidly supported.

    Granted, I don’t always try to use both control schemes in the same game but I’ve seen worse. Some games I have to pop the batteries out of the controller if I want to use KBM.

    • Zekiel says:

      I’ve actually seen this on quite a few games (e.g. most recently the Witcher 2 and iirc the Tomb Raider reboot). But it may be different for me since I have a wired Xbox controller and I have got the impression that (for reasons completely incomprehensible to me) the wireless controller has problems with some games that the wired one doesn’t.

      • Wide And Nerdy says:

        Maybe its programmed to tolerate periods of unresponsiveness and the method of tolerating it gets in the way of switching.

        I wanted to add, a lot of games make you shut down the game and relaunch it if you want to switch.

        Glad that Tomb Raider does it. I’m really looking forward to that one once the exclusivity window expires.

    • Matt K says:

      All of the Arkham game did this. As did Saints Row 3 as I loved driving with the controller but everything else with the keyboard. Alot of games, especially AAA tend to support this.

  15. Mechaninja says:

    “Poison Ivy. Catwoman. Talia. Batman … needs to get laid.”

    I’m almost certain this comes from the same well as the current Ivy X Harley thing that I’ve been told is happening in the comics.

    I.e. from the 14 year old in all of us.

    • Wide And Nerdy says:

      I wouldn’t have a problem with this as they’ve been building up to it for so long but Harley is thematically so tied into the Joker (granted, I’ve not seen even one page of the New 52 incarnations of Joker, Harley, or Ivy). I wonder how all of this makes Green Goblin feel. He couldn’t get Harley to leave the Joker for him.

      • Zeta Kai says:

        Uh, Green Goblin? The Spiderman villain from Marvel? What are you talking about?

        • Wide And Nerdy says:

          The JustSomeRandomGuy YouTube channel. Features the heroes of Marvel and DC as action figures. They all interact like they’re in the same universe and Green Goblin for a long time had a crush on Harley Quinn. Goblin was the least like his comic book version, much more human. Had a vlog called “Goblin Bloggin”

      • Dreadjaws says:

        “Building up to it for so long?” The entire thing had already been happening for years, but DC likes to pretend they’re doing fresh things when they recycle old ideas after their reboot.

        Originally, Harley simply outgrew her love for Joker, and even agreed to it when Ivy said they should kill him. Which is fine, because as interesting as her original characterization is, characters have to evolve at some point, or they become stagnant.

  16. Septyn says:

    Shamus, you made me realize that Mystery Men is what you get when you take Batman and throw him into a semi-logical world where the bad guys stay locked up or dead. Aside from the comedy bits, the main Batman-clone that Greg Kinnear plays has spent a career outsmarting and defeating the supervillains, and now there aren’t any serious ones left. He’s losing his corporate sponsorship because he’s just not needed any more.
    That would be an interesting story to me — how does Batman turn back into Bruce Wayne once the job is done and the city’s clean? What happens after you’ve accomplished what you set out to do? (And for Pete’s sake don’t just have another villain show up. Feh.)

    • Kylroy says:

      The Dark Knight Rises dealt with the “what comes after” question: their answer was Bruce holes himself up in his mansion and turns into Howard Hughes-lite. And then, yeah, they brought in another villain.

    • Veylon says:

      I don’t see Batman as someone willing to admit victory. He’d chase smaller and smaller crimes, but since that’s not what he signed himself up for, it’d feel off and wrong, like his life is incomplete somehow. The natural instinct when that happens is to try harder in hopes of better results.

      He’d spy obsessively on everyone and everything. He’d set the bar higher and higher for himself, becoming less and less tolerant of minor or even trivial crimes. But nobody can really thwart every petty thief, spray can vandal, and pickpocket in a city; it’s a bottomless ocean. He’s a relentless guy, but relentlessness only means that he’d burn himself out faster. Once he does, he’s going to feel like a failure. Maybe he could come to terms with his own limits and find some peace and maybe not. I imagine he’d have a lot of trouble letting go.

  17. Starkos says:

    To me Batman isn’t as cool as Gotham City is. It’s dark, moody, overcast and/or raining all the time. It’s also why I enjoy Deus Ex and Blade Runner. Cities that have a noir or cyberpunk feel to them give me a chance to wind down and get introspective in my gloomy apartment with the only light lancing through the window blinds and reflecting off of my whiskey.

  18. newplan says:

    This is why Nolan-verse Batman works so well.

    Guy sees a problem does what it takes to solve it. Encounters difficulties and set backs but he’s not Sisyphus – when he pushes the boulder it stays up. He wears down from the difficulty but he actually makes a difference in Gotham. (The movies still have to disregard reason for the story in some parts – the Joker wasn’t a criminal he was the commander of a paramilitary army.)

    The idea of comic book Batman is horrifying – a nightmare Gotham where insane criminals continually escape and murder thousands.

    • Wide And Nerdy says:

      Yeah. And Shamus brought up how ridiculous it is that anybody continues to live in Gotham. All I can figure is property values must be extremely low and regulations are lax because Batman and the GCPD are too busy with the crazies and the mob to worry about corporations.

      But after Arkham Knight, my suspension of disbelief on this point is shattered. They need to reboot. I can forgive the status quo Batman of the comics about never lowering the crime rate. But in the Arkham series its been getting worse at an exponential rate. Arkham Batman really is a failure especially after this game.

      • silver Harloe says:

        In the comics, people don’t leave Gotham because every major city is pummeled by a non-stop stream of villains come to take on the local hero or hero-group. If Gotham is any worse, it’s not by enough to matter. In fact, Gotham may be *safer* because all the *really* hard-hitting baddies queue up for Metropolis.

        • Wide And Nerdy says:

          I’d still generally prefer to live in Metropolis. I could die in either city but I’m much more likely to be subjected to sadistically designed psychoactive drugs, mind control, torture, and bizarre murder rituals in Gotham.

          Plus, Superman is a better first responder.

          But living in the DC universe is a nightmare anyway. I’d stay the hell away from heroes or any place interesting. Then again, sometimes the smaller towns just up and vanish.

  19. James says:

    The feeling i get from Ivy is she isn’t inherently bad or evil. she doesn’t impose terror because she likes to kill or cause terror like Scarecrow does, but she has goals to her Plants and Natural life are more important then people. and she truly hates Gotham.

    In some people eyes Ivy is a freedom fighter and a martyr, where as Scarecrow is a Terrorist.

    But that’s just my 2pence

    • Dreadjaws says:

      Poison Ivy is an ecoterrorist. She does what she does because her love of plant life and her misandry. She’s not “evil” in the usual sense of the word, but she’s not necessarily a well-intentioned extremist like Mr. Freeze is. Unfortunately, this is a character that has suffered a lot from lack of focus in her writing. I like her depiction in the old Harley Quinn comics much better.

  20. ChristopherT says:

    I don’t know, I think some of those explanations are a little too reliant on other material. Looking at only the Arkham games, I find it hard to say that Batman cannot kill because then we wouldn’t have established returning enemies. When, looking at City a number of villains show up, I don’t think there was much of any ground work for Penguin, Two-Face, Clayface, Mr. Freeze, or Grundy. And there was only very little done with Bane in Asylum that his appearance in City almost contradicts what little character he had. Then, the big Arkham Knight character coming, from game world, out of nowhere, without any previous build up. (?)

    And as for the badguys needing to kill people, in game, does Penguin kill anyone who is not within the walls of Arkham City? I don’t think Mr. Freeze did much killing within game. Nor Bane(?), Did Two-Face messed with Catwoman, I think Harley ordered people to do things but did she herself do much killing?, I can’t think of too many villains in Arkham Asylum and City that killed much – Zsasz, I’m sure Joker was reported to have killed people, Poison Ivy I think, and Mooks many mooks killed many guards. I don’t know, could be wrong, could be forgetting parts of the games, and maybe is Knight they all go on drawn out murder sprees.

    Bit of a nitpick, are there many officers dieing in the Asylum games? I know Asylum has many guards dieing, but that’s a slightly different profession. And in City I think there were some small groups of officers, firefighters and or paramedics(?), but I don’t remember too many officers dieing left and right. The little I’ve seen of Knight seems like officers are in danger there a lot. But I don’t remember there being that many police officer deaths in Asylum and City.

    I can accept most points made, Batman is too perfect, he’s too smart, too strong, too capable, and if you cannot accept that then Batman might not work for you. I just don’t think so of the points work in regards to the limit of the Arkham games.

    Personally I’ve liked the idea that Batman doesn’t kill because it’s that one saving grace that can keep him out of Arkham.

    • Neil D says:

      I think the point about the Bad Guy needing to kill people to establish his threat-level is primarily about the main bad guy. In fact, the secondary ones actually need to keep a low body-count so that the Big Bad stands out in contrast.

      • Syal says:

        The bad guy doesn’t need to kill people to establish his threat level. He kills people to make the setting seem darker and grittier, and to establish that it’s not acceptable to maybe just let the bad guys win this one, but if a bad guy kidnapped the Mayor and turned him into a bomb or something, it would establish the stakes just as well without any casualties.

        • Neil D says:

          Kidnapping and threatening to blow up the mayor sounds to me a lot like a secondary villain kind of thing: still very bad and villainous, but minor compared to, say, poisoning the entire city. In fact, this is exactly what the Riddler does in Arkham Knight, except that it wasn’t the mayor.

          I have no doubt that you could come up with some scenario that would be an equivalent atrocity doesn’t, but I think this is all outside the point Shamus was trying to make when he talked about “So our villains need to kill N people, and then Batman stops them before they kill N×10 people.” Substitute whatever you come up with for ‘kill N people’, and whatever worse thing will happen if he doesn’t stop them for “kill Nx10 people”.

          The point is about the need to establish the threat more than the method. And whatever method the major villain uses, the secondary villains need to come in somewhat under that otherwise they overshadow the main villain, which is all I was saying in response to ChristopherT. The secondary villains are deliberately kept at a lower level to make the main villain seem more threatening by contrast.

          Maybe in a future game Two-Face becomes the main villain and puts Gotham City into yet another city-wide panic while Scarecrow goes back to being an occasional nuisance. Eventually they’ll all get their turn in the spotlight. (Unless Joker doesn’t stay dead, in which case get ready for more all-singing, all-dancing, all-Joker time, because Joker.)

  21. James says:

    Something that just came to me.

    A Batman who uses his intelligence and wealth to try and eradicate the underlining problems sounds a lot like Ozymadias (Adrian Veidt), though in the Watchman universe things are darker and the underlining issue is less about poverty leading to crime and more about fear leading to world war 3.

    • Vorpal Kitten says:

      “Something that just came to me.

      A Batman who uses his intelligence and wealth to try and eradicate the underlining problems sounds a lot like Ozymadias (Adrian Veidt), though in the Watchman universe things are darker and the underlining issue is less about poverty leading to crime and more about fear leading to world war 3.”

      I’m pretty sure each of the ‘heroes’ in Watchmen are meant to be a reflection on Batman.

      Well, not Dr Manhattan, I meant the vigilantes.

      • Gordon says:

        “I’m pretty sure each of the heroes in Watchmen are meant to be a reflection on Batman.”

        Neh. Only insofar as heroes without powers are bound to have some overlap with batman at some points in his career, since he’s like 78 by this point. More directly, the Watchmen characters were adaptations of the old “Charlton” characters from the sixties that had been bought by DC. Nite Owl is Blue Beetle, Rorschach is The Question, Dr. Manhattan is Captain Atom, The Comedian is Peacemaker, etc. As Moore originally drafted it, Watchmen used those characters.

        Really, it’s a general exploration of the flaws and foibles of the idea of “superheroes,” which only overlaps with Batman because he’s such a core character to what we define a superhero as being.

        Edit: Also consider that, when Watchmen was written, super-broody-violent batman was still super new to the character, being really thrust into the public eye with “Dark Knight Returns” earlier the same year. At the time, Batman was mostly considered the Neal Adams Detective in the blue costume. Comedian and Rorschach only parallel Batman from the 90’s onward, unless we’re just talking about vigilantism in general.

  22. Ed says:

    Great post shamus. I’ve got three separate points to make from your post, so I’ll be posting them separately to better facilitate discussion.

    1: On message. I’ve been reading this site long enough to know the bit about you calling Batman stories nonsense and that forging a message out of it isn’t something you actually mean, but is more poking fun. I definitely think individual batman stories have a narrative message behind them. It is very clear to me that Arkham Knight has Something to Say regarding batman based on how it ends. All works have a “message” to them. It doesn’t mean that society is going to agree on that message, that its the message the author intended, or that the message is any good. But everything does have a theme. And you are right, it is impossible to look at the collective whole of Batman and assign a particular message to all of it, beyond dead parents are bad I guess? (but maybe not even then). But I don’t think that saying that invalidates talking about the message/theme in individual batman works.

    For example, in my opinion, the theme of Arkham Knight is (Spoilers, including the 100% teaser) That batman does not work. Scarecrow wins, and he maybe wins right when the game starts by getting Gotham to evacuate period. Its almost unimaginable that a real world city would ever evacuate entirely in the wake of a terror attack, and Gotham folds like a house of cards. The city is exactly what Scarecrow wants, afraid. And at the end, by revealing Bruce’s identity, succeeds in striking down the symbol that is supposed to protect Gotham. Even though Scarecrow is captured, by initiating knightfall Batman himself is admitting that Batman does not work, and that he needs to become (presumably) the “bat-demon” thing from the 100% teaser. Whether Bruce’s new form actually kills, or merely is even more violent without killing is unclear (I do think he’s using some variant of Scarecrow’s fear gas). The question then becomes, “Is this more dark/violent batman the solution?” I would think not, but I would guess that if a real sequel ever happens, that is what would be explored.

  23. Ed says:

    2: On the Punisher. Almost every time I talk on here, its about Marvel Comics, something I enjoy greatly. And, truthfully, everything Shamus lists as a weakness about the Punisher is completely true. The Punisher never really works as a main character, in all honesty. He works best as an antagonist to a more idealistic hero, like Spider-Man, or best Daredevil, who is unwilling to cross the line that the Punisher crosses but goes right up to it. Punisher series tend to get really self-indulgent, either becoming empty power fantasies, or worse, boring empty power fantasies. Not that a good Punisher series cannot be written, but they need to be about another character reacting to the Punisher, rather than about the Punisher. I believe the 2011 Punisher series is this, where the main character is a female ex-marine whose to be husband and family get massacred in a mob hit, and we follow her efforts to get revenge alongside the punisher as she becomes a darker and darker character.

    • Dreadjaws says:

      The Punisher MAX miniseries is probably the best one of his comics, but that’s probably because he doesn’t take the central role, the story is mostly told from the perspective of others. Yet, when he does take the spotlight, he shines.

      • Ed says:

        If I recall ( I have not read any of the MAX imprint, its not on Marvel Unlimited), Punisher MAX is in its own universe, thus freeing him from the conventions of the Marvel Universe and its need to obey the rules Shamus applies. Which in itself helps.

        • Dreadjaws says:

          I don’t know about that. There are no other superheroes in sight, but Nick Fury makes a couple of plot-important appereances. I don’t actually recall if there’s any other Marvel character mentioned in them (besides those in Punisher’s “family”), it’s been a while.

          • Vect says:

            The Punisher MAX takes place in it’s own universe, but figures such as Nick Fury and Wilson Fisk exist. No actual superheroes/villains, and there’s no way you could write characters like Barracuda into the main Marvel setting without pissing a lot of people off. Also, Punisher MAX deals with way darker stuff like human trafficking and sex slavery that they would never touch in a mainstream comic.

  24. Ed says:

    3: On the “endless” nature of comic book stories: You touch on this with the mention of imposing order on the chaos of continuity. I think some people just cannot do the mental gymnastics that are necessary to look at a comic universe the “right” way (sorry if that sounds condescending, its not meant to). What I mean is, with a comic book, there are so many ways to approach and analyse each one. You can view each issue in a vacuum, each arc in a vacuum, each creators run in a vacuum, each creators run in comparison with previous creators series and runs, each story as part of a greater whole including only some parts, or including all parts. Some people say that comic books are stories with no end, and that makes them worse. I’d say that they are stories with many ends, each arc being the end of one part, which might lead into the next part, or might have nothing to do with it. Trying to make it all “one” story forces all the bad continuity or plot points to constantly reappear. It makes the best creators slaves to the worst. And there is nothing wrong with being unable to do that, or unwilling. But I think the rewards are worth it.

    • JAB says:

      Hmm. This makes me think of Marvel’s New Universe in the 80s, which tried to do away with a lot of those conventions. Which may be why it died a horrible painful death.

      • Ed says:

        Interestingly, Jonathan Hickman’s avengers/new avengers series takes elements from the New Universe and puts them in the main continuity. It’s minor stuff when taken as a whole, but it’s certainly there.

  25. The question: “Why doesn’t Batman…”

    Can simply be answered with: “Because he’s broken!”

    Same with most of the villains Batman fights too, something just ain’t right in their membrane.

    Sometimes this has been pointed out to Batman as well, but Batman even if he knows can’t stop, because this is what he is, he does not know what else to be. (maybe he’s afraid to be happy?)

    The most daring Batman story would be one where Batman just say “screw it” and tops being Batman. Just be Bruce, and live the way he wants (and not as Playboy Bruce).
    Obviously somebody else would have to if not pick up the mantle of Batman the at least fill in the gap.
    But it would be awesome to see Batman go “I’ve had enough of this shit!”.
    (and without any end twist where he grudgingly puts on his suit again)

    • Dreadjaws says:

      That’s what he did at the end of The Dark Knight Rises and people protested.

    • Syal says:

      The most daring Batman story would be one where Batman just says “screw it” and stops being Batman.

      They did that; it was called Atlas Shrugged.

      • I’ve never heard of that batman story before.

        Also by “they” do you mean DC Comics or?

          • I was being sarcastic.

            Also I fail to see how a woman that cheats on her husbands brother as revenge for him cheating on her has anything to do with Batman.

            Also there is no masked vigilante in that story either so I don’t see how that relates to Batman.

            • Supahewok says:

              He’s referring to John Gault (and the other geniuses and industrial visionaries of the world) basically saying “screw it” and let the world collapse on itself. Which is pretty much exactly the same as Batman saying “screw it” and letting Gotham tear itself apart.

              Also, I don’t think you have that “romance” plot quite straight. (Edit: I’d forgotten that Rearden had a brother. Although I don’t remember if Rearden’s wife cheated on him with his brother) And its a really shallow examination of the book if that’s all you take away from it, although to be fair the book is pretty terribly written and what it has to say about sex and romantic relationships is simultaneously ludicrous and disturbing. Which is just as common a theme in Rand’s works as her philosophy.

              • I’ve never read or looked at that book nor any other works by that author.

                Just did a cursory glance at wikipedia and saw nothing connecting with Batman.

                Also “geniuses and industrial visionaries” do not actually run the world. Whomever has all the money does.

                BTW! Even kindly Superman just said eff it and left earth since the humans became too dependent on him.

  26. Dreadjaws says:

    I’d classify Mr. Freeze as a well-intentioned extremist. He’s doing what he does for a good reason, but he doesn’t mind the consequences as long as they don’t directly affect his goal, which is saving his wife. This, of course, talking about classic Freeze (after the Batman animated series came up with this storyline). The old one was just a regular criminal with a cool freeze gun, and the New 52 reboot turned him into an asshole, like it did with every other DC character.

    “Why doesn’t Bruce Wayne use his billions to fight the poverty, lack of education, corruption, or whatever else we might assume is at the root of this prolonged, intense, and far-reaching crime spree?”

    To be fair, he does. All the time. But for some reason people simply assume that’s not the case.

    Anyway, all of these problems stem, of course, from the periodic nature of the comic book format. These things would fly better in a TV series and they generally don’t form part of film adaptations, since once a villain gets killed, he stays dead. In Tim Burton’s Batman, for instance, Joker died just a few days after he was “born”.

    But, as you say it, it’s damned if you do and damned if you don’t. What are they to do? Publish stories yearly instead of monthly? They’d bankrupt. Should they only publish Batman stories untill all the villains are dead and the city is saved? Then what? Reboot the universe and publish the same stories again with small variations, then rinse, repeat? I don’t see that going well for long. Do they replace him with an entirely different character that has the same problems and risk being called derivative or do they constantly try to invent new situations? That’s ridiculously hard to do even for films, so in this format it’d all go down very quickly.

    In any case, as long as it’s enjoyable, I don’t feel the need to look too deep into it. Every piece of escapism fiction will crumble at some point when put to scrutiny. As long as it’s stable enough for me to enjoy it, I will happily lampshade its flaws.

    But seriously, F**K Kai Leng.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      To be fair, he does. All the time. But for some reason people simply assume that’s not the case.

      This is what I dont understand about movies:Bruce is always portrayed as a womanizer who likes to party a lot and doesnt care about anyone,because otherwise he might cause suspicion.Um,why?Why not be a guy who disappears to do missionary work in africa for a year,be photographed once or twice there,while in actuality he is back in gotham being batman 24/7.This whole “he seems like a douche,but truth is he is a superhero” is baffling,and not just for bruce.

      • Otters34 says:

        Bruce Wayne is weak, petty, well-meaning but hopelessly naive and ignorant about the city he lives in. Bruce Wayne doesn’t help anyone directly except through using his company as a personal candy-store for pet causes while leaving the Real Issues untouched. Bruce Wayne, the character Batman plays for society, is an indictment on the class he comes from.

  27. Vorpal Kitten says:

    Shamus makes a great point – you can explain why Batman doesn’t kill Joker if you want, but there’s no way to explain why somebody in the setting doesn’t kill him – a city like Gotham sure isn’t filled to the brim with idealists. The only thing that would really work is taking a cue from Superman: Red Son and have ‘the Joker’ become a sort of meme, and it becomes a thing where every time you stop the Joker it’s not too long before some other crazy has a bad day and puts on some clown makeup.

    • Christopher says:

      Like everyone else, presumably Batman is there to save him. I remember reading a comic I think was called Hitman during which the main, antihero character does shoot the Joker and Batman stops chasing him to save the Joker from bleeding to death.

  28. MaxieJZeus says:

    TL;DR of Why Batman Can’t Kill: “It’s a genre convention necessitated by economic factors.”

    Slightly longer: “The genre requires that the hero defeat the criminals; DC wants to sell future issues; readers want something new but familiar. Thus, DC sells new adventures featuring old villains, and for the old villains to be available they cannot die. If Batman killed them, they couldn’t return; they must return; therefore, etc.”

    Sorry, but if this is the game we’re playing then the correct answer is, “Dopamine. It’s all about the dopamine hit we get when Batman socks the Joker. If he ever killed the Joker, he could never sock him again, and we wouldn’t get that sweet, sweet hit of dopamine [Homer drool].”

    Also: Why did Luke blow up the Death Star? “Genre conventions and dopamine hits.” Why did Ilsa walk off with Victor at the end of “Casablanca”? “Genre conventions and dopamine hits.” Why does Hamlet feign madness and contemplate suicide? “Genre conventions and dopamine hits.”

    See how easy it is to play? Every question of every work of literature in every form and genre can get the same five word answer. [As was basically asserted in Part 1 by dragging “Twilight” in at the start to show how this style of analysis is not restricted to Batman but applies outside it as well.] Anything else, apparently, is just “imposing meaning on the story, looking for a message that wasn’t there originally.” Because, really, all of fiction and all of literature, from Homer to Dante to Dostoyevsky to Stephenie Meyers is just genre conventions exploited by business enterprises selling dopamine hits at a profit.

    This kind of answer is so bad it isn’t even wrong. It’s as wrong when applied to pulp comics and paranormal romances as when applied to Shakespeare.

    “Mommy, why did Goldilocks eat the little bear’s porridge and break his chair? Didn’t she know it would make him sad?” “She ate it because of genre conventions, dear. You’ll understand when you get that juicy hit of dopamine at the end.”

    Certainly it’s noteworthy that the commenters are ignoring the essay’s arch-reductionist thesis, and instead treating the characters and story on their own terms, as is proper.

    • Shamus says:

      It’s like you forgot the reason this question comes up.

      The thing with your examples involving Luke or Goldilocks is that those questions aren’t problems people have with the story. People aren’t constantly noticing these questions, objecting to the story, and trying to contrive answers to those questions to make the story work.

      I have no idea what you wanted or expected from the series, but declaring it, “Not even wrong” when you clearly didn’t understand the point of the exercise isn’t terribly persuasive.

      • MaxieJZeus says:

        I expected an explanation for why Batman can’t kill, not an explanation why killer-Batman books would sell relatively poorly. I expected a discussion of moral, narrative, or psychological points, not economic ones. A discussion whose subject was the motives and beliefs of Batman, not the motives and beliefs of DC Comics. I expected that because the series was titled “Why Batman Can’t Kill People”, not “Why DC Comics Can’t Let Batman Kill People.” For the record, I think your series gives a fine answer to the latter question; but I am still mystified why you think the latter question has the same meaning as the former question, and should get the same answer.

        I hope my error is now at least explicable. If you asked me “What time is it?” and I answered “A hamburger and fries,” I think you’d be astonished too, and might accuse me of giving an answer “so bad it isn’t even wrong.”

        In your reply you write: “Those questions aren’t problems people have with the story.” This actually goes a long way toward clarifying things. Thank you.

        If I now understand you correctly, your argument is similar to a side comment you made about AC’s Freeze [there’s that dumb pun again] boss fight: “It doesn’t help that the fight is really poorly justified from a character perspective.” The subtext of this comment appears to be: “Why do we have this fight? It makes no sense from a character or narrative point of view; therefore its presence can only be explained by appealing outside the story, to the motives of the game designers. They wanted a fight here, and that’s the real reason Freeze fights Batman.” At any rate, that would be my analysis of the Freeze boss fight; certainly I agree that it is “poorly justified from a character perspective” and that fact bothers me as it appears to bother you.

        Important: Note how such a comment is implicitly a criticism of the fight. A story element is NOT working if we have to appeal to the author’s motives in order to make sense of it. If we’re forced to do that, we then either have to acquiesce in it (“I’m on board because I really dig this”) or we check out (“This is stupid. I’m done”); in both cases, we are exiting the story to some extent.

        So, if I am now interpreting you right, you are making a similar point about Batman’s lack of a killer instinct: You cannot come up with any in-universe explanation for why Batman doesn’t kill (just as you can’t come up with an in-story explanation for Freeze fighting Batman); therefore, the only explanation has to be an extra-narrative one, such as DC Comics’ desire to keep a franchise going. After that, you are stuck either tepidly buying it, or checking out entirely.

        I certainly don’t think THIS kind of analysis is bad. Explaining that an individual element only makes sense as an authorial insertion is fine; it is different from what I took you to be doing (a global claim that ALL narrative elements can only be explained as authorial insertions). But I still think it goes wrong.

        Notice how the Freeze analysis proceeds in three stages from the question “Why does Freeze fight Batman?” (1) Is there an in-story motive? No, say I, and I think so say you. (2) Am still I on board because I dig it? Meh, say I, and I think so say you. (3) Do I think this is dumb, it’s just the publisher jerking the characters around so we can have a fight? Pretty much, say I; I don’t know if you’d go that far. The sequence of stages is really important. Stories are supposed to be internally coherent, so one must always start by trying to justify things in terms of the story and characters. Only when you can’t do that do you look outside the story to explain why a certain element is present; and when you do that you are implicitly asserting that the story has failed at this point.

        But this is the exact opposite of what you’ve done when talking about Batman’s ethics. Instead of entertaining the many, many theories to account for Batman’s actions, you leaped directly from “Why doesn’t Batman kill?” to “Do I buy this or is this stupid?” Further, you dismissed theories about Batman as “impositions” of meaning from the outside. No good ever comes from this kind of leap, for it short-circuits reflection and speculation. In any half-way decent literature class, the sentence “Because the publisher wanted to sell copies” is the answer of last resort, never the first. So why did you make it the first here?

        One of the reasons Batman resonates is that his stories raise questions about the difference between vigilantism and justice; the tension between individual and social responsibilities; the universality or particularity of moral imperatives; the nature of character formation; the relationship between psychological and moral development. Most of these issues only become visible or salient because Batman refuses to kill. They become invisible when his character is dismissed as a publisher’s trick. That enough, I think, is reason to never make the leap to “because that’s what sells.”

        • Syal says:

          As other people have mentioned, there are a lot of reasons you can have for Batman not killing, but there’s basically none for the rest of Gotham not killing. If you came up with an answer for that, you would have a question about why these criminals keep getting out of prison. If you have an answer for that, you have to ask why Batman keeps fighting the same villains in the same way when clearly it hasn’t worked. If you have an answer for that, you need one for why Gotham’s residents stay here. And in answering all the setting’s questions you’ll either end up with a story in which everyone is severely mentally disturbed, or you’ll accept the premise is narratively flawed. I think the first one is going to drive away as many people as the second.

          I think you have the last bit backward; Batman raises those questions because he resonates enough with people to get them invested in his world. It’s a symptom of the broader appeal, like KOTOR 2 is a symptom of the popularity of Star Wars. It’s not a level of scrutiny the setting was designed to handle.

          Of course, it’s still pretty fun to try.

          (Batman doesn’t kill for the same reason he doesn’t use guns; he associates it with his parents. Gotham doesn’t kill or defend itself very well because it’s secretly Amish. Their beliefs mean they don’t believe in imprisonment, so only the least competent people take work as prison guards. They stay in Gotham because it’s the one city in the country where they control the vote. Batman fights the same people the same way because he thinks keeping Gotham’s belief structure intact is more important than taking out the bad guys for good, and feels he’s already doing enough to preserve that way of life.)

          • MaxieJZeus says:

            You might be addressing my post below; I’m not sure. (Short version: Gotham looks screwed up because we are looking at all the stories, the vast majority of which may be safely regarded as not being in continuity with each other. Each micro-universe is in bad shape, but is not nearly as bad as the entire set suggests each individual one must be.) If this is so, then the same reply about Batman applies to Gotham as a whole; do not assume each micro-universe is as hellish as the collective Batman “multiverse” is.

            Separately: Nerds are weirdly inconsistent about when they’ll accept something as an expedient exaggeration (Batman landing hard w/o broken bones after dropping several hundred feet onto asphalt) and what they’ll insist must be treated as literally true (no one presses for Joker’s execution? Crazy!). If Gotham is an exaggeration of the real world to make a dramatic point, then complaining that Gotham is unrealistic is like complaining about a Roadrunner cartoon’s exaggerations to make a comic point: “No way the Coyote would fold up like an accordion if sandwiched between a boulder and the valley floor! This is stupid!” [Disclaimer: I myself as a tot thought Roadrunner cartoons remarkably stupid because unrealistic. Now I think them sublime.]

            Gotham as Amish? I like it, though I’d hypothesize based on the civic miasma that a theological substitution got made somewhere along the way, and that Cthulhu is the reigning deity.

      • MaxieJZeus says:

        And as long as I’m aping my betters, here’s a suggestion for why Batman doesn’t kill. Like Shamus’s, it’s an explanation that talks about genre conventions; but it doesn’t dismiss Batman’s ethics in terms of the publisher’s desire to sell books.

        Start where Shamus does, by restricting discussion to the Arkham cycle of AA-AC-AK games. Stipulate that we are only talking about those games, events in those games, and what can be inferred from those games. This is a little bubble universe, one cut off from comics, movies, animation, TV series, Underoos, etc.

        We notice that Batman doesn’t kill any of the villains; neither do the authorities seem inclined to. For the sake of space, restrict this observation to the question “Why doesn’t Batman just kill the Joker?”

        But before you answer this question, answer another: Why should he? Why should he (or anyone else) give serious thought to taking Joker out in the woods and putting him out of everyone’s misery?

        You say: “Because he’s killed tons of people and always escapes to kill lots more. It’s just going to keep going until he dies, of old age if nothing else.”

        Well, is that true? Remember, we’re talking about the Arkham bubble. You’re not allowed to appeal to general lore about the Joker of the kind drawn from comic, cartoon, TV continuities. What evidence is there that Joker has the reputation in this bubble universe that he has among us?

        You say: “There are lots of references to his killing lots of people and constantly escaping. Batman even says as much at the end of AC.”

        True. We also have serial killers in the real world, and sometimes lunatic killers escape and go on terror sprees. (Thankfully it’s rare, but it does happen.) But do real world authorities typically take serial killers and escaped prisoners in back of the precinct and accidentally run them over half a dozen times with a couple of squad cars? Do we expect them to, and demand an explanation for why they didn’t? In fact, we’re shocked when they do engage in a little extra-judicial roughhousing. (Cf. Ferguson, Baltimore, etc.)

        You say: “It’s Joker! Everyone knows he’s unstoppable and irredeemable!”

        I remind you that the characters in the Arkham games don’t necessarily know all that we know from the other Batman lore. They know that he is mad, bad, and dangerous to be around. That doesn’t mean they have made the same extrapolations we have.

        Perhaps they have not made those extrapolations because Joker has not (yet) done enough to warrant them.

        Hang on tight, because I’m about to do a double back-flip.

        Shamus says: “Joker is bad enough to deserve immediate, extra-judicial extinction. So why haven’t they killed him?” I turn it around: “They haven’t killed Joker. So why ought they to think he deserves immediate, extra-judicial extinction?”

        If you have evidence that, within the Arkham games, Joker absolutely and unequivocally deserves a fast whack—if you are saying that even nuns, rabbis, ACLU lawyers and Supreme Court justices should be lining, up like the passengers in “Airplane!”, to take turns putting a bullet in his corpse—then you are entitled to ask why he hasn’t gotten it. But if you don’t have that evidence, then the fact that the authorities (including Batman) haven’t considered whacking him is itself evidence he hasn’t done the kind of stuff that would merit introducing him to a dark corner and a lot of fast-moving bullets.

        Restraint is not necessarily evidence of trope-driven stupidity. Absent other evidence, restraint is itself evidence that the monster hasn’t behaved as monstrously as we assume he has.

        Note: I’m not saying Joker isn’t a monster in the Arkham games; I’m only suggesting that he is not as transparent to the game characters as he is to us, who know him from other places and know exactly how little good will come from keeping him around. Don’t impute your own relative omniscience of Joker as a franchise concept onto the Batman, et al, of the Arkham games.

        Of course, this argument only works if Arkham is a bubble universe sealed off from the others; but remember, that’s what Shamus said he meant to do in these posts.

        So why doesn’t Batman kill the Joker? Maybe because it hasn’t occurred to him (yet) as a serious thought that the Joker needs it, and maybe it hasn’t occurred to him because this Joker hasn’t killed those thousands of people across multiple franchise platforms that are not part of this bubble universe.

        The point is generalizable: No one thinks that Burton movies, Nolan movies, various animated series, Adam West series, 1940s serials, and the immense and contradictory catalogs of comic books belong in a single continuity. Some Batman stories are clearly in continuity with others; for most, though, there is only the nebulous sense that one story is part of an indeterminate set of other stories. The Batman universe does not consist of well-defined threads intersecting at determinate points; it consists of vaporous clouds drifting in and out of each other.

        To ask Why doesn’t Batman kill people? given the blurry lines that join or separate stories is like asking why Sherlock Holmes has never run into Oliver Twist. Sure, they both live in a place called “England” but that doesn’t mean they share the same reality.

        So if these stories exist as a set of micro-universes with limited boundaries, then if Batman doesn’t execute a criminal at the end of a story, maybe it’s because in that micro-universe, not enough has happened to tempt him to.**

        I could say more on many of these points, but this post is already about 14x longer than is tolerable.

        ** Yes, there are stories where this explanation isn’t available; see anything Frank Miller ever touched. There the question still needs an answer. But the question will be “Why doesn’t THIS Batman kill?” and the answer won’t be applicable outside that particular story.

        • Cinebeast says:

          When you first posted you sounded a little snotty and I thought Shamus might ban you, but you’ve got some cool things to say. Thanks for posting.

          • Steve C says:

            I likewise thought the same thing. I think it’s the use of “you” which tends to be confrontational and which makes the tone seem worse than it is. Interesting posts though.

            • MichaelGC says:

              Personally, I like the tone – it’s intelligent, well-written, and feisty & energetic. But the original criticisms are basically nonsense, so there the tone seems jarring and undeserved. As soon as criticism is set aside, though, the strong rhetoric lends itself really well to the (many many more) separate, positive statements being made. (‘Positive’ in the ‘this is wot I think and am proposing’ sense rather than the ‘everything is awesome’ sense.)

              • MaxieJZeus says:

                About words: “reductionist” is a property of theories; “pithy” is a characteristic of expressions.

                Reductionist theories are “nothing but” kinds of theories, as in “Love is nothing but a chemical reaction in the body”; “the Mona Lisa is nothing but a conglomeration of molecules spread over another conglomeration of molecules”; “your arguments are nothing but a bunch of pixels smeared across a monitor.” Reductionist theories are often objectionable because they “reduce” an interesting phenomenon to an uninteresting phenomenon—like turning a beautiful oak into charcoal. “Batman’s ethics are nothing but a consequence of DC Comic’s desire for profits” is, in this sense, a reductionist account: It turns an interesting question about a character into an uninteresting claim about corporate marketing strategies.

                I gave this reductionist account a pithy expression; I condensed a reductionist theory into a bite-sized packet.

                I’m only clarifying my use of terms, by the way. I don’t think there is any disagreement between us. ;)

                Were my original criticisms nonsense? The weird thing is: I was actually trying to give Shamus the benefit of the doubt. Really. He asked why Batman can’t kill, and answered by saying (pithy paraphrase): “Because then they couldn’t make money selling Batman vs. Joker stories.” Now, I’m a year older than Shamus, and I remember kicking this idea around in high school, and it wasn’t a new idea back then in the days of daguerreotypes and the Reagan Administration. I’ve always thought Shamus much too clever to say something as simplistic as that, so I thought he must—he HAD to be!—saying something more interesting and complex than a bit of bong-water-saturated cynicism, especially since he thought his answer big enough that he could also use it to analyze a book like “Twilight” without even reading it. (Neat trick, that: It beats even reviewing a book based on its cover.) The best I could come up with was that he was offering a general theory about how to analyze and critique any and all stories, and using Twilight and Batman as case studies. Yes, I got real shirty with him, because I thought even that theory wasn’t very good. But if he’s only saying the sort of thing that bored and irritated me when I was 15, I guess I can only shrug.

                *****
                Funnily enough, you can take most everything Shamus says, and with a little re-emphasis and rearranging, make what I would consider interesting points. There is much food for thought in what he says.

                A story is a contract between the author and the reader. The author agrees to tell a believable tale; the reader agrees to pretend to believe it. This contract is violated when the author fails to deliver a plausible story; the reader is then allowed to chuck it in the trash. By the same token, the contract is violated when the reader approaches a story skeptically, but that’s a separate topic.

                The author tries to sustain credibility, but he can strain his story to greater or lesser degrees in various ways. A plot point may be too convenient; a detail may be jarringly wrong; a character may behave illogically. When this happens, readers have a couple of choices. They can accept the in-story explanation; they may infer facts not stated but which would explain the anomaly; they may reject the explanations but continue to accept the story because they are enjoying it; or they can exit the story with a chuckle (if they are in a forgiving mood) or by hurling it against the wall (if they are not).

                Sometimes an anomaly is so striking that a reader can learn about it even before reading the story. I’ve never read “Twilight,” for instance, but I understand it’s a romance story where the sex act exists at the center of a black hole: the petting is always approaching, but never arriving at, coitus. This makes me a bad target reader, because even before picking up the book, I’m deeply skeptical of such a plot point, and that means I really can’t enter the contract that the author is offering.

                So why would an author tempt fate this way, by building a non-credible premise into the story? Obviously, to set up and motivate other pleasurable plot elements. I suspect—though I do not know for sure, and am open to correction—that readers of “Twilight” find their loins stirred longer and harder in direct proportion to how long those deep-thrusting yearnings go unconsummated; a “no sex” rule (however badly motivated) keeps things going without ever coming.

                Here we find another interesting aspect of the author-reader contract: the willingness of one party (the reader) to forgive a contractual violation in return for considerations of another sort: Some readers (again, I only speculate) are willing to trade the credibility of the “no sex” rule for long, loving strokes in those areas not covered by the chastity belt.

                There are other ways the contract can be modified in mid-read. There is, for instance, the story about a woman who became convinced the house she was living in was haunted. No one else saw the ghosts, not even when the woman shouted “There they are!” and pointed. But everyone else went along with her, and soon everyone was convinced the place was riddled with spooks. They all went slightly nuts, and things ended badly with the death of a child. All this, as I say, even though no one except this one girl ever saw the ghosts.

                This seems incredible—and most readers I’ve talked to confess they got more than a little angry at the characters for being so credulous and dumb. Many readers come close to checking out of the story because it strains their disbelief. But there usually comes a point—it varies from reader to reader, and from page to page—where they suddenly “get” it. They realize it’s not really a ghost story, it’s a story about social contagion. The girl who sees the ghosts has a high social standing and great influence in the house; that is why everyone follows her lead, with disastrous results. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether the ghosts are real or the woman is crazy; the wrong person has started seeing things, and tragedy has ensued.

                This is interesting because this seems a case where the author has intentionally broken the contract in order to force the reader to understand the story at a deeper level. The author starts by saying “I’m going to tell you a story about ghosts,” and the credulous reader goes along with him, because that’s what the implicit contract says he should do. But the story becomes less and less believable as it proceeds, until the reader finally shouts, “The girl’s not seeing ghosts, she’s just bonkers! Why is everyone too stupid to see that?” The author never tips his hands, but the reader, groping for an explanation for why he should continue to believe this story about people acting foolishly, typically hits on it: The other characters have trusted exactly the wrong person (a crazy person of high influence) and what that person is telling them. And at this point the reader might reflect, ruefully, that he himself has been the victim of a wicked practical joke: He similarly trusted the author, and similarly had the rug pulled out from under him. The reader might go farther still, and reflect that he himself ought to be careful in the future about going along with his social betters just because they “see things” (ghosts, moral depravity, Communists, structural racism; take your pick of potential bugaboos) that he worries he is too stupid to see with his own eyes.

                This kind of complex storytelling game is sometimes called “art”, and it sometimes deserves to be.

                Here’s another case, not in the field of art, but in the field of pulp: Why doesn’t Batman kill any of the villains?

                I won’t rehearse the reasons he’d be tempted to; most readers have wondered at one time or another why Batman doesn’t take the Joker to a very high place and “accidentally” lose his grip. But the sheer scope and intensity of Gotham’s crime problem sometimes challenges our credulity: Is it really believable that all these psychos have a semi-permanent lease of freedom?

                Of course, lots of reasons have been given for Batman’s “no kill” policy. As with “The Turn of the Screw” (the ghost story described above), the stories and authors are relatively mum on why Batman doesn’t kill; it’s the readers who invent and supply them. On the other hand, it seems likely that Henry James intended his readers to suss out the theme of his novella, but I doubt very much that DC is making any kind of thematic point with Batman. They seem content with churning out credulity-straining stories about a vigilante who practices catch-and-release with psychos, and to let the fans invent reasons for why he does this. (Nice work if you can get it, DC editors; how do I get a cushy job like that?)

                [Parenthetically, there is one other difference between Batman and the earlier examples. With “Twilight” and “The Turn of the Screw” the author intentionally tells the reader “Believe the incredible, and I’ll make it up to you elsewhere.” With Batman it is, at best, a case of DC saying “Wait, what? We were asking you to believe the incredible? Oops.” The explanation for the difference is not hard to see. A novel is a complete thing, and the author in control from start to end before releasing it to the public. Batman is a continuing franchise, and invention accumulates. Nor is it hard to understand why DC fell into this hole: The Joker was popular, and you don’t kill a cash cow. (I believe Sax Rohmer had the same problem with Fu Manchu.) The difference, then, lies in the way Batman stories never stop coming [in marked contrast to “Twilight” ba-dum-CHING!], which leads to patterns unintentionally developing.]

                There’s an old joke: Owe the bank a hundred dollars, and the bank owns you; owe the bank a million dollars, and you own the bank. Batman fans are so invested in the character now that they will probably never stop inventing reasons for believing the unbelievable, lest the whole thing fall down around their ears. We have thus arrived at the other end of what turns out to be a continuum: We have gone from “Twilight,” a franchise whose premises repulse potential readers even before they pick up the book, to “Batman,” a franchise whose premises are desperately propped up at every turn by countless ingenious fans.

                I just said that Batman fans strain to believe the unbelievable. I should withdraw a remark made only to emphasize a point. What we should understand is that, in literature, at least, there is no thing as “the believable” or “the unbelievable.” “Literary reality” has no reality outside what the author and the reader jointly agree to believe; canons of credulity that apply to the real world have no relevance to the literary.

                It also shows that literary reality is not entirely in the hands of the author. What the author writes and intends it to mean may constrain the reality in his invented world, but he still depends upon the acquiescence of the reader; in some cases (as with Batman) he may even depend upon the readers’ active ingenuity in order to make his lies credible.

                Finally: Any discussion of what a story means, or why certain things happen in it, or what characters mean by their actions, does not end—as physical theories attempt—in a final statement of the single, univocal, “true” reason. Rather, literary discussions never end, and they only expand as readers join, debate, invent, expand, and modify their own credulity-enhancing contributions to the sustained illusion. A living literary universe is an expanding universe.

                • Shamus says:

                  It’s not “bong-water cynicism” to point out that making the story go on forever causes a build-up of problems. It’s the truth. More importantly, it’s a truth that often gets lost in the discussion as people obsess over body counts and culpability. I can appreciate that you’ve heard this one before, but not every Bat-fan is in their mid-40’s. Some of them are young people – or new fans – who haven’t considered this angle, and even if it is old hat to you, it’s still an interesting discussion.

                  • MaxieJZeus says:

                    Do long-running stories acquiring problems? Yes, and that’s a fair point. It’s just not the one I decried. It was the corollary that followed—that “Batman can’t kill because DC would lose out on sweet, sweet Joker money if he did”—that makes me tired. And that seemed to be the conclusion that this series was designed to lead up to.

                    At best it seems like a minor point, nothing that needs a build up about “bent stories” or Twilight. A few years ago you had a lot of fun with Arkham Batman, who was stuck cleaning up the asylum while the guards just shot inmates and went home early to watch TV (IIRC). Your joke did not intend a serious criticism of the Bat universe, but it did genuinely reflect something people have noticed: that the Caped Crusader makes his job harder than it ought to be. But Batman’s not going to change his methods, and he’s not going to change his methods for the same reason Arkham Origins couldn’t leave the Joker dead but brought him back in a flashback story. Fact is, the villains sell. If you put them in the graveyard, the series would follow shortly thereafter.

                    So when DC created the Joker, they created a monster, in several senses of the word. If I were Batman, I’d swing by whatever offices DC Comics keeps in Gotham, and punch the editors in the face.

                    At least one of my double posts really needs to be nuked. (I thought I requested a deletion?) I already blow like a hurricane, and someone could probably use the catharsis.

        • guy says:

          I would say that in the Arkham games it’s clear that the Joker has escaped and gone on killing sprees on several occasions in the past. During the opening, Batman and Gordon are apparently very familiar with how he operates. Granted, it’s quite possible that it’s only happened two or three times, and the asylum has been extensively retrofitted in the recent past.

    • MichaelGC says:

      There’s nothing wrong as-such with reducing a long argument/discussion to five words, but it does mean one is no longer able to complain about arch-reductionism! :D

      Also, boiling an argument down and eliminating any nuance in order to apply it more generally to similar things is totally fine. However, you can’t then rely on particular nuances of those similar things in order to criticise the argument in its original form.

      Agree about the vaporous clouds, though!

  29. Slothfulcobra says:

    The way that Marvel comics normally plays this sort of thing is to spin out the heroes’ personal stories more, so things end up being more about various interrelationships, and half the reason you keep following is for those old soap opera reasons, but that doesn’t really work with DC, since every couple years the slate will be wiped clean and started again.

    So instead you get these archetypes, these platonic ideals of characters, that have to reincarnate again and again. If they ever change or grow as a character it sort of retroactively unwrites who they once were and replaces it with a new archetype of what always was. You can get nifty stories within those constraints, but you always can see the edges of the screen, the borders past which nothing matters, the broken premise of the world staring you right in the face.

    • Ed says:

      Great point. One of the reasons DCs characters are so iconic is their nature as a somewhat static “pantheon” of gods. And these characters then aren’t given much room to change and grow because the ideal they represent or embody prevents them. Batman can’t kill in part because by doing so he ceases to be Batman. The marvel characters have more fluidity. As each hero can actually grow and change (and often times revert) over time. I love what marvel is doing right now with what I call the endless shifting status quo. At any point someone’s status quo has changed. Yes, at some point the “default” status quo will come back. Steve Rogers will become captain America again. But at no point will everyone’s status quo be the same.

    • Joe Informatico says:

      The flipside of that is, so much of Marvel’s stories revolve around the heroes relationships and inner struggles, most of their villains are uninteresting. Other than Magneto, Doctor Doom, Loki, some of Spidey’s rogue’s gallery, and maybe a few others, most of them are one-dimensional badguys built around a single gimmick. The few who end up showing depth often end up as heroes, or at least antiheroes (Deadpool, Emma Frost, Scarlet Witch, etc.).

      • Cinebeast says:

        Hell, even Venom is a hero now.

        • Dreadjaws says:

          Venom has gone back and forth from villain to hero so many times I lost count.

          • Ed says:

            Venom is interesting, as the man inside the symbiote is now flash Thompson, spider-man’s high school bully. Flash lost his legs in the war in Afghanistan (the regular war). Flash as venom is the story of a good man without any power using a bad thing to gain power to help people. This gets muddled when he joined the guardians of the galaxy for some reason. Constrasted against Eddie Brock, who is not a great guy that the symbiote pushes the edge, and It actually has a lot of depth.

          • Trevel says:

            As far as my understanding of Marvel goes, the dichotomy of hero/villain doesn’t really work. There are villains, certainly, but mostly there’s complicated people trying to accomplish mutually exclusive goals. People can switch sides without even needing to change, because sometimes their goals align and sometimes they don’t. Doctor Doom is kind to the people of Latveria. Reed Richards is a sociopath. Complicated.

            “I believe you find life such a problem because you think there are good people and bad people. You’re wrong, of course. There are, always and only, the bad people, but some of them are on opposite sides.
            ― Terry Pratchett, Guards! Guards!

      • Ed says:

        That’s a core difference between the two big comic publishers. Marvel’s focus is the heroes, DC is the villains. Not that marvel doesn’t have interesting villains or that DC has interesting heroes.

  30. Syal says:

    My two cents on Batman:

    It’s more than just catharsis; it’s the old fantasy that one man, with enough intellect and determination, can singlehandedly overthrow an established ideology. The bad guys may be various versions of Crime, but Batman is the embodiment of Justice. He fights the fight that no one else can, and he wins it because he wants to.

    There are several factors to make this fantasy work:

    The established ideology must be ugly. With Crime, that’s no problem, nobody likes crime. This is why Batman is pretty universally popular and similar fantasies like Atlas Shrugged are highly polarizing.

    The hero’s ideology must be pure. This is why Batman doesn’t kill; he’s the representation of Justice, and if you bring killing into it you get into ugly, murky territory about what Justice is. Shamus mentioned the Punisher is less popular than Batman; part of that is because the Punisher splits the fantasy into people who agree with killing and people who don’t.

    For the hero to win singlehandedly, there must be no one else to do so. With Crime, this means the police must be ineffective and there must not be other vigilantes running around. This is why no one else can kill the Joker; Batman wouldn’t be Batman if they could.

    The villains should be numerous enough and nuanced enough to represent the way things are. Usually there will be one particular villain at the top of the hierarchy that is the representation of the system, the Joker in this case. Generally they will be more interesting than the hero, because the story demands more subtlety from them than it does from the good guy. The reason criminals never stay locked up in Gotham is simply because it’s much easier to keep using established characters than it is to try to constantly replace them with sufficiently nuanced new guys.

    The hero should win, no matter what gets thrown at them. This is the one comic books are worst at; they keep going, and going, and going, until people realize the bad guys aren’t really losing and the good guys aren’t really winning. This is why people ask why Batman can’t kill his enemies; they want the story to wrap up, with the good guy really winning.

  31. Joe Informatico says:

    This is how the Punisher works, and I think it’s one of the reasons the Punisher is overall a less satisfying story, even for people looking to see criminals punished, vigilante-style. Frank Castle has to monologue to explain who the current bad guy is and why we’re after him. Then he kills the bad guy. Then we need to build up a new bad guy. It’s still bent: How many untouchable crime bosses can one city possibly have? Instead of “Why doesn’t he kill these guys” the problem becomes, “Where do these guys keep coming from?”

    I don’t know, why does organized crime continue to exist in the real-world despite all the heavily-armed and trained government-funded agencies that exist to fight it? Why does the War on Terror continue despite the “#2 leader of Al-Qaeda” continually being killed? Maybe because these things aren’t actually the real problem, but the symptoms of much larger and more complex societal problems that can’t just be solved by killing?

    If crime and terrorism continue to exist in the real world, there’s going to be a audience of people who like revenge-power-fantasies about one-man army characters successfully fighting them. That’s why The Punisher’s remained relatively popular for 40 years, and why the exploits of his biggest inspiration, Mack Bolan: The Executioner, filled the pages of almost 600 novels for almost 35 years. They have much less appeal than Batman, who’s easily adjusted for a wide range of ages and views of the world, but the basis for the appeal’s still there.

  32. MaxEd says:

    That’s why I don’t like comics, or MMORPGs: I need my stories to have a conclusion. I hate it when author repeats himself eternally, never changing his world.

    The stories I love the best is the ones where we are explicitly shown how the world changed after heroes’ victory (or whatever else the main story ends in).

    For example, that’s why I prefer Glen Cook’s Garret to the original Nero Wolfe stories, even though they written just as solidly, or maybe even more so: the world in Cook’s books changes, the old characters sometimes go away (for good), character development happens and isn’t reverted (Morley Dots comes to mind).

  33. Zaxares says:

    Heh. You actually stated why I DO like the Punisher more than Batman, Shamus. The question isn’t “where are all these mob bosses and serial killers coming from?”, because as you mentioned earlier, “crime is eternal.”

    There will ALWAYS be criminals who, through power or wealth or familial connections, are untouchable by justice. The Punisher is the power fantasy we cherish as the one person who WILL see that justice gets done, even if his fight is never-ending.

  34. Decius says:

    The Adam West Batman avoided most of those problems, except maybe that the villains didn’t make themselves credible enough threats because they didn’t kill anybody.

  35. Scerro says:

    What’s interesting is that a lot of people just refuse to “go with it”. – Shamus

    Actually, I would argue that your blog attracts people that refuse to just go with it. Only on this site have I run into people that have such a hard time accepting a story’s premise. Sure, there are some on other sites, but this site has a clear majority of people that are extremely picky as to what premise they’ll accept.

  36. Iunnrais says:

    TAS has always been the “true” Batman for me, and I’ve found that the problem doesn’t really come up there. The primary reason is that, in the vast majority of cases, Batman isn’t the main character. The main character is the villain, the story is the classic tragedy, and Batman is the driving antagonist who forces the main character’s self-created downfall to come to a conclusion.

    When viewed from the point of view OF THE VILLAIN, being confined to Arkham Asylum is often worse than death. They lose everything they’ve been striving for, everything they ever wanted– in the context of the current story, the current tragedy.

    It helps a lot that TAS rarely reused villains. But when it did, each story was generally still a new tragedy, so it worked. Rarely Batman would actually be the main character and the story wouldn’t be a tragedy, but I always found those to be the weaker stories anyway.

  37. DJ Doena says:

    Another explanation you have hinted a but – IMHO – then didn’t follow through is the following:

    You said that these characters like Penguin represent crime. Poison Ivy represents terrorists.

    Right there you have your explanation why Batman can’t kill them. You can’t kill an idea.

    Just because Batman put away one Riddler doesn’t mean there will be no more criminals trying to prove how clever they are. There will always be another Riddler and another Szasz.

Leave a Reply to Kylroy

Comments are moderated and may not be posted immediately. Required fields are marked *

*
*

Thanks for joining the discussion. Be nice, don't post angry, and enjoy yourself. This is supposed to be fun.

You can enclose spoilers in <strike> tags like so:
<strike>Darth Vader is Luke's father!</strike>

You can make things italics like this:
Can you imagine having Darth Vader as your <i>father</i>?

You can make things bold like this:
I'm <b>very</b> glad Darth Vader isn't my father.

You can make links like this:
I'm reading about <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darth_Vader">Darth Vader</a> on Wikipedia!

You can quote someone like this:
Darth Vader said <blockquote>Luke, I am your father.</blockquote>