There are many, many reasons to dislike Zack Snyder’s awkwardly named Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. A miscast villain here, a forced Justice League tie-in there, and a confused attempt to mash the stories of The Dark Knight Returns and The Death of Superman together ruin what should have been a slam-dunk of a movie. There are a ton of weird choices that went into making this the disaster that it is, but the most alarming to me has to be the way Batman was characterized in this film. Ben Affleck gave a fine performance as Batman, but the central issue with his character all comes back to his hotly debated “no killing rule” that gets more than a little bent in this film, and more critically, entirely ignored. Fans have debated whether or not Batman should even have such a rule for years, “The Rule” has served as a central plot point in both The Dark Knight and Under the Red Hood films, and Batman himself exists as likely the most iconic practitioner of this rule in fiction. My issue with Snyder’s Batman isn’t that he kills criminals (directly and indirectly) with sadistic glee, but that it happens without any discussion within the film for what that means for Batman. I know the last thing this film needs is more pseudo-philosophical drivel shakingly spoken by insecure meat heads, but in this case it’s kind of an important thing to get out of the way.
Before we get into it, let’s talk about the history of this no-kill rule and why it means something today. It’s widely believed at this point that Batman started off as a gun-toting vigilante with a with a very loose view on murder and what ultimately got him to adopt this “no-guns, no-killing” policy was really good old fashioned censorship. The truth is, it’s a lot more complicated than that, but that’s besides the point in this discussion. Batman’s origin (which sure as hell doesn’t need to be retold anymore) informs his character. He’s a man that lost his family to guns, so he’s dedicated his life to protecting lives all without the use of firearms. The important thing here is how that desire to get into a bat costume and beat up crooks is contextualized. In the past, Batman’s decision to be a vigilante that eschews guns in favour of his wits and fists is seen as a noble trait to his character. He doesn’t use guns, because guns are a cowards weapon, and that type of assertion just enhances the power fantasy elements to Batman’s stories.
The more modern interpretation of Batman’s no-guns and no-killing rule is tied to the increased examination into his mental health which most notably occurred with Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. The Batman series has always had something of a focus on mental health for better or worse, most of his villains come from an asylum after all, but the increased focused on Batman himself’s mental state is something that mostly happened in the latter half of the character’s long history. The suggestion that Bruce Wayne’s decision to put on a bat costume and fight crime stems from the man himself losing his mind was one that was touched on in comics like the aforementioned Killing Joke as well as in Arkham Asylum (the comic, not the game), and an extension of that can be drawn from his aversion to killing and guns. In the same way the Joker’s “One bad day” led him to look at existence in a different way, Batman’s life defining incident took him to the opposite direction and made him the kind of man that isn’t just against killing and guns, but also has a psychological aversion to it. I believe the underrated Arkham Origins explored that interpretation of Batman’s character more directly than most other stories, especially in the scenes between Batman and the Joker (who are meeting for the first time) where the Joker actually picks up on Batman’s issues with killing and guns and acts on that knowledge to interesting results. This is not to say that this interpretation of the Batman’s no killing rule is the absolute correct one, but I do mean to argue that it absolutely merits mention.
Zack Snyder’s comments justifying his more murderous blend of Batman (where he describes his actions to be more “manslaughter” than “murder”) are troubling for a lot of reasons. For one, he cites a Youtube compilations made by a fan as a point of inspiration, which is just… no. Secondly, he seems to totally misunderstand the stories he’s citing as what he drew Batman’s murderous tendency’s from. The Dark Knight featured that infamous “Hit me” scene that worked only because Batman’s rule against killing was established within the film, The Dark Knight Returns features Batman getting in a rubber bullet shooting tank and being pushed to snap the Joker’s neck as a major incident of him “going too far”, and Burton’s Batman being used a shield to defend ones misunderstanding of the character is all kinds of hilarious. The point is that the most effective variants of Batman’s character are the ones where his policy on murder is established, because this adds a weight to his choices when dealing with super criminals.
If Batman is going to be the kind of character that goes around killing criminals, that’s fine, but at least have a discussion about it. It’s a defining aspect to his character, and it’s a huge part of what makes him so interesting. If they’re just going to introduce a Batman that slaughters and maims criminals without seriously talking about it, then a number of troubling questions arise. Like, why the hell would the Joker (or any Gotham based super criminal) even be alive? I mean, this is a Batman that is willing to kill Superman based on a lot less than what the Joker has personally done to him, so why not? If this Batman is more Punisher than Caped Crusader, then there should at least be a something said on why things are the way they are on that front.
I’ve heard rumours of a solo Batman film featuring the Red Hood, and I’m at a loss as to how that sort of story would even be handled considering the fact that there’s nothing really separating this Batman from the way the Red Hood operates. The power of Batman rejecting Jason’s way of fighting crime is lost when the two would just agree and go ahead and kill criminals together. Batman doesn’t have to be the exact same character every time, him becoming a killer could have been handled in a compelling way, especially when considering that Affleck’s Batman seems far more jaded than his counterparts, but it didn’t go down that way. What we got instead was a gullible, angry Batman with a penchant for maiming and murder who couldn’t even be bothered to analyze that aspect of himself in a film full of trite existential self-reflection. “The Rule” may not have to be followed by every iteration of Batman, but it certainly merits more analysis and discussion than the director referencing some fans Youtube compilation video in an interview.
Quote of the Day:
“This is Batman VS. Superman. If there is even a 1% chance the movie is good, we have to take that as an absolute certainty.”
– Me when I was questioned about my decision to go see this film despite its abysmal Rotten Tomatoes score.