This is the final part of a five part series on the concept of identity viewed through the lens of comic books and superhero mythology.
In Me and My Shadow I said:
The villain is the projection of the Shadow. This is why Batman could never kill the Joker, […] Where Batman is the height of personal discipline and control, the Joker is pure chaos.
In this, the final part of the series, I’ll go into more detail with regards to why Batman can’t kill the Joker. I’ll also talk about why, sometimes, being the hero sucks.
A common discussion among Bat-fans revolves around how Gotham City would be better off if Batman just killed the Joker. It’s pretty clear that the Joker is beyond any help that Arkham could provide, he’s so fundamentally broken that rehabilitation isn’t an option. Joker’s time spent incarcerated is, at best, a small window of calm. Eventually he will find a way to free himself and chaos will reign down on the city again.
So, why doesn’t Batman just kill the Joker? For the sake of argument, let’s accept that there are people who pose a grave enough threat to warrant the death penalty. If that is true, surely the Joker fits the description. Countless lives would be saved by killing the Joker, the death of one for the lives of many.
However, for some people that’s a step too far. For such people, myself included, the death penalty is never appropriate. I’m not delusional, and I know there are evil people in the world. I also recognize that, in fiction, the Joker is just shy of being the epitome of evil. But, I think the key component to consider is that the Joker is fiction.
The Ticking Time Bomb Scenario is a thought experiment that applies in this instance:
“Suppose that a person with knowledge of an imminent terrorist attack, that will kill many people, is in the hands of the authorities and that he will disclose the information needed to prevent the attack only if he is tortured. Should he be tortured?” – Source: Defusing the Ticking Bomb Scenario
A similar thought experiment is the Trolley Problem, in which you are given a choice to sacrifice the life of one in order to save many.
The goal of both experiments is to promote provoke deep ethical and moral thought with regards to the value of life. They are designed to make us think about our ethics with regards to taking a life, the justifications we offer, and at what point does our thinking risk crossing the line from ethical to murderous. And that is why Batman can’t kill the Joker.
At the risk of one rogue’s gimmick bleeding into another, Batman and the Joker are two sides of the same coin. The characters each represent absolutes, with a balance being found somewhere between. Batman, at best, will always remain relatively two-dimensional. He will always do the right thing in the end. He will skirt the gray areas of law enforcement but, ultimately, he will turn over the villain to the the authorities and let the courts determine their guilt. It’s what sets him apart from characters like Punisher or Judge Dredd. Perhaps the most overlooked part of Batman’s mandate against killing is the fact that Batman doesn’t convict. Regardless of his certainty with regards to someone’s guilt he doesn’t pronounce a sentence, and death would be the ultimate sentence.
The Joker will always be an agent of chaos. His goal is to challenge the very fabric of society. He wants to prove that everyone is corruptible, even the most disciplined of heroes. The Joker represents that implausible threat, the evil so unstoppable that the decision to torture him is easy. He wants people to pull the lever that will doom him to death, all the while laughing in the face of the oncoming trolley.
Batman’s struggle is to overcome fear, to be victorious over chaos. He is the hero who is able to make the descent into hell without being overcome in the process. The Joker represents the need for men like Batman to exist, he is the darkness that only the bravest are able to confront.
Killing wouldn’t make Batman like the Joker, but it would make Batman less like us. We need Batman not to kill. We need him to go through hell, to embrace the darkness and channel fear into something good. Ultimately, Batman is simply a character on whom we project our fears. If he were to succumb to the desire to just end it all, to kill the Joker (or any of his rogues gallery), then fear and chaos win. A Batman that kills would no longer be a hero. He’d be a sociopath who holds his morality above all else when determining who lives and who dies. Batman’s choice not to kill is important because it defers to our morality, our ethics.
And that’s why it sucks to be the hero. Because sometimes, being the hero means that you don’t get to be pragmatic. You don’t get to decide what is “right.” Being the hero often means that you’re more like a servant than a king. Kings don’t need to justify their actions, but heroes do.
Alan Moore has written two of my favorite takes on the idea of what it means to be a hero (and, the occasional admission that it sucks):