Batman and the Problem With Vigilante Justice: A Love Story
“Batman? Batman! Why is he running, Dad?”
“Because we have to chase him.”
In one of the last lines of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, Jim Gordon attempts to explain to his son why Batman flees the scene only moments after saving the child’s life. Gordon offers an enigmatic answer to his son’s question, acknowledging both Batman’s importance to Gotham and the inherent problem in his mode of operation by referring to Batman as a “silent guardian, a watchful protector,” but also notes that Batman is “not our hero.” This description by Gordon places Batman in a gray area, unable to be fully defined or understood. He does not fit neatly into one particular categorization and is, therefore, problematic. But to whom exactly is Batman problematic? And what is it about Batman that places him behind such an opaque lens? Batman is considered an outsider because, instead of going through the proper channels and managing the situations he finds himself in with a certain amount of decorum, he mercilessly deals out his own brand of vigilante justice. He smashes any and everything in his way while pursuing his ends. Interestingly, it is the same vigilante justice that Batman supplies that endears the Caped Crusader to so many readers (and viewers). So why must Batman endure constant hounding from the authorities? And what does it mean that fans of Batman are so quick to vehemently defend his actions when the authorities label him as a criminal?
Batman is a character that takes matters into his own hands. He does not wait for approval and effectively answers to no one. When a problem arises, he rises to the occasion and remedies the situation, often times to the chagrin of the local authorities. Much like many other comic characters such as Spider Man or V from Alan Moore’s V For Vendetta, Batman is often portrayed by the authorities as a pariah and a menace to society. Just as Jim Gordon tells his son that the police must chase Batman, others are as well. But why? It seems that, in the worlds in which these characters exist, the authorities need all the help that they can receive. Therefore, it would make sense that characters like Batman would be lauded, not reprimanded. That is, however, not the case. Batman does not play by the prescribed rules. Were he to follow the regulations of the authorities, perhaps they would have left him to his own devices. Frank Miller explores the possibilities of superheroes coexisting and assimilating in everyday society in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Superman, representing an obedient faction of super heroes implores Batman to submit to the will of the United States government and obey their rules. He says, “I gave them my obedience and my invisibility. They gave me a license and let us live. No, I don’t like it. But I get to save lives… and the media stays quiet.” He goes on to say, “They’ll hunt us down again… because of you.” Superman, in this instance, is the perfect example of the lackey that the government wants superheroes to become. He acts according to the will of the President, and in return, is allowed to continue his work of saving the planet from ever impending doom. The fact that the government would attempt to interfere with the going-ons of such a class of people is laughable, but made real in Miller’s book. When Batman does not concede to their wishes, they call in Superman to put an end to Batman. Miller’s commentary is the crux of the problematic nature of Batman. He cannot be controlled.
Batman’s unwillingness to accept being controlled causes three major problems for the government. First, Batman is not interested in politics. He is not running for elections. He has no constituents to answer to. He has no ulterior motives other than bringing hardened criminals to justice. When the government is unable to control Batman, they are unable to use him as a positive tool for their political rhetoric. They are unable to stand upon a pedestal and hail Batman as their creation, their beacon of hope for the citizens of Gotham that keeps them safe. Even Jim Gordon, in The Dark Knight, acknowledges Batman’s diametrical opposition to the politics of Gotham when he states that Batman is, with Gotham at its worst, “the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now.” Batman is not the knight in shining armor to bring peace to the mean streets of Gotham through heady political maneuvering. He is The Dark Knight, gritty and part of the salt of the underworld, that grinds justice out of sludge.
The second problem Batman creates is that he presents a counter-argument to the ability of the government to safeguard its citizens. While Batman obviously cannot be everywhere, he saves countless lives throughout Gotham through his exploits. The protection of Gotham is first on the agenda for Batman. It was, after all, a senseless act of violence that became the impetus for Bruce Wayne when he was a child that would eventually lead to his becoming the Batman. Desire to rid Gotham of all those bent on destroying the peaceful social order is what drives Batman. The fact that he is so good at what he does serves notice to the Gotham authorities, presents them in an unfavorable light, and thus creates the tension that leads to Jim Gordon’s statement about Gotham’s finest having to chase Batman. They must chase him because without doing so, they become irrelevant. The only way for the government to attempt to maintain control is to paint Batman as a villain, as someone who puts his own desires well before concerns about the laws and enforcement agencies designed to protect the citizens of Gotham.
Lastly, and most importantly, Batman is problematic to the government because he gives the people back their power. The citizens of Gotham feel as if they have been completely stripped of all of their power, of their voice, to stand up against the injustices committed against them both by criminals and the government itself. Batman’s public display of vigilante justice provides an outlet for the public to understand that they do not have to hide in the shadows and feel as if they are perpetual victims of an impotent system that fails to protect them. Lana Lang, in TDKR, says of Batman, “A man has risen to show us that the power is, and always has been, in our hands. We are under siege — He’s showing us that we can resist.” Batman gives the people the power to fight back, to assail the assailants, to rebel against a broken system. This aspect of Batman is particularly problematic for the authorities because an angry population that has suddenly found its voice is a very dangerous thing in the eyes of a government. When the oppressed finally rise up, change happens. And nothing stifles the oppression of a stagnant government like an angry populace bent on having their lives returned and restored to some true semblance of freedom.
So what does it mean that we love Batman as a character despite the fact that his actions are, by all accounts, illegal and, at the very least, morally questionable? I believe that we love Batman because somewhere inside of most people resides a tiny piece of what Batman represents. Down deep, many of us wish that we could rectify many of the societal problems that our governments are either too afraid, too inept, or too deeply invested in to change. We want to fly down from on high and deliver a swift and silent roundhouse kick of justice to those wreaking havoc throughout our societies. We want to be The Night. But where we fall short, Batman delivers. However, despite the fact that we cannot actually be Batman, we can learn from him. We can learn that the ability to change our world exists within us, that we do not have to be afraid. We can, as Lana Lang suggests, resist. And that is why Batman, and his vigilante justice, is simultaneously so inherently problematic and yet so very important. We rally around this masked vigilante, not because he breaks the law, but because, through the way he fearlessly clings to his own moral compass and breaks through hegemonic rhetoric, he becomes a rallying cry for change and accountability. And for that we should all throw up the Bat Signal.
Miller, Frank. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. New York, NY: DC Comics, 1986. Print.
The Dark Knight. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2008. DVD.
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