Batman and vigilante justice

12:14 AM September 27, 2016

NEW YORK CITY—If we are to interrogate our own, often-conflicted notions of justice, Gotham City is a good place to start. It is far enough from us to provoke the same acrimonious debates we are having among ourselves, but the circumstances are similar enough to our own to make it a worthwhile—and very timely—exercise.

Gotham City, from the very first appearance of Batman in 1939, is introduced to us as a New-York-like metropolis where crime is rampant and the police are powerless to control it. This lawlessness becomes deeply personal to our protagonist, Bruce Wayne, whose wealthy parents are murdered before his eyes as a young child. This traumatic experience causes Bruce to vow to spend his life fighting evil. With his near-unlimited resources he travels around the world and acquires the technologies and skills necessary for taking justice in his hands. Facing his fear of bats as one final test, he becomes Batman, a masked vigilante.


Batman easily overpowers the petty criminals. But his powers meet their match in those of the villains, whose motivations range from the maniacal and the absurd (Joker) to the vengeful (Penguin). They, too, operate outside the law, and are able to easily outwit the government. Helpless, law enforcement officials turn to Batman to save the city.

Though he quickly becomes a folk hero among the Gothamites, Batman is soon faced with all sorts of dilemmas. His idea of justice, for instance, is interrogated by his childhood friend, Assistant District Attorney Rachel Dawes, who in “Batman Begins” (2005) confronts Bruce Wayne when he expresses his desire to kill the man who murdered his parents:


Rachel: You’re not talking about justice, you’re talking about revenge.

Bruce: Sometimes they’re the same.

Rachel: They’re never the same, Bruce. Justice is about harmony… revenge is about you making yourself feel better. That’s why we have an impartial system—

Bruce: Well, your system of justice is broken—

Rachel: Don’t you tell me the system’s broken, Bruce! I’m out here every day trying to fix it… You care about justice?

People also begin to raise concerns about Batman’s legitimacy and how his vigilantism poses a threat to democratic institutions. In this passage in “The Dark Knight” (2008), the arguments for both sides are captured in a scene where Bruce and Rachel are with Nastascha, Bruce’s date, and Harvey Dent, Gotham’s then-idealistic district attorney who believes in Batman:

Nastascha (to Harvey): Gotham needs heroes like you, elected officials, not a man who thinks he’s above the law.


Bruce: Exactly. Who appointed the Batman?

Harvey: We did.  All of us who stood by and let scum take control of our city.

Nastascha: But this is a democracy, Harvey.

Harvey: When their enemies were at the gate, the Romans would suspend democracy and appoint one man to protect the city. It wasn’t considered an honor. It was considered public service.

Rachel: And the last man they asked to protect the republic was named Caesar. He never gave up that power.

As our protagonists themselves point out, the resort to extrajudicial means is as old as people’s attempts to organize themselves into governments. But while they understand that “desperate times call for desperate measures,” they are also worried where this desperation can lead. As one pundit warns in “Batman vs. Superman” (2016), humans “have a horrible track record of following people with great power, down paths that lead to huge human monstrosities.”

* * *

I cannot help but see Gotham as a mirror of what’s happening all over the world today. Even as governments claim to look after the best interests of their peoples, criminality persists, justice comes at a glacial pace, and the innocent are made to suffer. Amid disillusionment in democracy, people turn to strong figures who promise to bring change.

And all these parallels lead me to wonder: What is the difference between superheroes like Batman and real-life leaders who take justice into their hands?

“Actual lives are at stake in our world,” one of my friends offered. “You can blow up the whole of Gotham City with a nuclear bomb, but that’s just computer graphics. In the next movie, things are back to normal. In the world of superheroes, someone will catch you when you fall. In the real world, only death and a crushed skull await you.”

Her point is well taken. But we must also realize that Gotham is a product of our experiences, not just our imagination, and the reasons its citizens believe in Batman are the same reasons our people look up to leaders who think that “the ends justify the means.”

Another friend, a medical doctor, responds: “Batman doesn’t kill people, and doesn’t torture criminals. His real superpower is his immovable moral compass. But in real life, we all know—and we have seen many times in the past—that absolute power corrupts absolutely.” He, too, has a point. Surely we cannot count on all our leaders to be benevolent: For every Lee Kuan Yew, there are a hundred Idi Amins.

But even as we affirm our convictions that our justice system should be improved, not discarded, and that the law is our best weapon to fight the evils of the world, we cannot pretend that alternative discourses do not exist. We cannot simply dismiss what other people are saying—people who, like Bruce Wayne, feel that the justice system has failed them. If we cannot put ourselves in their shoes, we will never understand why they feel that the world needs vigilantes.

Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist. Follow him at Gideon Lasco on Facebook and @gideonlasco on Twitter and Instagram.

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TAGS: Batman, Commentary, Gotham, justice, opinion, vigilante
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