Batman Begins on Justice

A few weeks ago I began to look at the Dark Knight trilogy’s primary themes, starting with Batman Begins on Fear. Close beside fear as a theme for Begins is that of justice and the main difference between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” is their definition of justice. Interestingly  Bruce fluctuates between the two to a degree. Early on it seems like he is going to go the way of justice being equivalent to vengeance, something we would normally call retributive justice: punishing the bad and rewarding the good. He originally tried to kill the man who killed his parents – he deserved it after all – and only didn’t because somebody else beat him to it. This raises an interesting hypothetical question: if Bruce had succeeded, would the chain of events necessary for him to become Batman still have happened? Or would his sense of justice be solidified to be in terms of retribution?

Ra’s leaving Bruce to die in his burning house

After leaving Gotham, determined to learn more about the “real world” in which criminals function, Bruce ultimately ends up training with The League of Shadows. The League takes on a vigilante definition of justice. They claim that for centuries they have provided corrections whenever societies have become corrupt. Constraints such as those placed by Just War Theory do not hold as they are willing to do whatever it takes if they think it will make the world a better place in the long run.

Batman rejects the extreme and refuses to be a part of anything which causes the death of someone who is even possibly innocent by his judgement, leaving the League when he was told to kill a thief without a trial. This is his turning point where his conscious comes through. Unlike his attempt to kill the thief who killed his parents, he refuses to end the life of this thief in cold blood without any kind of trial. At the same time, he ultimately realizes that the government being largely corrupt will not do the job correctly. The solution, then, is back to the League’s solution: vigilante justice.

Batman’s vigilante justice is different than the League’s in some ways, although it is the same in others. After leaving the League, Bruce develops his one rule: he will not kill anyone – innocent or otherwise. He will beat them up to the point that they can’t move. He’ll arrest them and let the government kill them or imprison them for life. And most frustrating of all, he will set somebody up in the position that they will inevitably die… as long as he isn’t delivering the death blow himself. In my opinion, Batman may as well have killed Ra’s himself. We’re not even talking about an aikido concept here: using an opponent’s own force against them so that they self-destruct. I’d be willing to argue that God uses a concept similar to aikido as a way to hold us accountable by forcing us to deal with the consequences of our sinful decisions. But this is different: Batman very actively beats Ra’s up on the train, has Gordon blow up the tracks, and leaves him to die. Ultimately, then, Batman is operating on a similar violent and vigilante justice as the League. His definition of when such violent and vigilante justice is justified is a lot stricter, much more like the Just War tradition. He never kills anyone and never allows anyone to die other than those who are very clearly the worst villains in the world.

That is exactly why I would encourage caution, though, before trying to act like Batman in the real world. In the movies, it is always clear that the bad guys are bad and the good guys are good and that most of the time nobody will ever change from one side to another (Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight would be an exception). In real life, we like to make the same categorizations and unsurprisingly we usually put our own selves, friend groups, religious groups, nations, etc. clearly within the good guy column and the people we don’t like in the bad guy column. Then we can feel justified in demanding “justice” against them. Jesus gave us something better than Just War Theory, though: radical enemy love to the point of giving up our lives for them. While Batman is a hero in the simplified world of the movies, he also shows us the fundamental human flaw of feeling able to decide who is good and who is evil.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.