Batman: The Modern Revenger: A Dissertation on Batman and Early Modern Revenge Drama
The Early Modern Era of revenge drama can essentially be boiled down to key components, a chain of events that build around a core of recurring themes and archetypes. The setting is always a place full of corruption, especially from self-serving leaders: they are vice-filled; sometimes a touch unhinged, and unbound by their power, be it inherited or stolen. These villains harm others with a reckless passion and then move onto the next helpless, innocent victim. Inevitably, one of those victims get overcome with a spirit of vengeance that leads to an assault on the very villains that have been too powerful to previously confront. But, in turn, the very corruption that these heroes have faced warps their sense of justice to turn them into twisted versions of their previous virtuous selves.
This is a revenger. Batman meets many of these qualities, but he is also very different: he meets many of these components but fails to go over the line somehow. He is every bit a modern Revenger, from origin to setting to many of his stories, but in a way he has evolved from the roles of the early revenger and has created a new image of the revenger hero. His fight isn’t solely against the darkness of the world around him, but also the darkness within. And so, I would say, that Batman is the modern product of Revenge drama themes, a man against the law but not against his morals.
Introduction: Batman and his Origins
The comic book medium has many facets of heroism, with a multitude of superheroes to choose from. One staple of the Golden and Silver Ages (the period of comics being written from around the late 1930s to the mid 1950s and the mid 1950s to about the 70s or 80s, respectively) is the origin story. Every comic fan knows this term well. It is what spurs the gallant hero to combat the forces of evil.
Superman was taught by his human adopted parents that he should use his godly powers for the benefit of the human race. The Flash was Barry Allen, who, limited as a crime lab scientist, decided to use his newly-gained superspeed to do as much good as possible. Spiderman, after gaining his powers, allowed a criminal to get away from the police because of his arrogant attitude, spoiled by the life of being a profession athlete. After his uncle Ben is coincidentally killed by the very same criminal, he learns that great power comes with responsibility.
But Batman is different. Batman, doesn’t fit the mold.
Everyone knows his story, or some aspect of it. His was the perfect childhood day: his rich parents were treating him to a day at the theaters/movies (depending on which version of the story you read) to see the Mark of Zorro. Young eight year old Bruce Wayne loved the idea of a masked good guy going against bad guys for the sake of the people. Then, turning down Park Row (later aptly nicknamed by citizens of Gotham as Crime Alley), his parents were approached by a shady man who wanted their valuables. In the midst of it, the killer murdered both Bruce’s mother and father in cold blood. Young Bruce was helpless to prevent it. He wasn’t gifted with powers by some kind of silly accident or by being an alien. He wasn’t given any kind of duty or service. He was a carefree, innocent boy who expected to have a good time. Instead, that happiness was ripped right from his hands.
And after decades of stories, which get increasingly more detailed and refined with each year, this tale has exponentially matured into something complex and mature and very much like the tales of revenge plays.
The Corruption of Gotham and the Birth of the Revenger
As mentioned earlier, corruption is key to the birth of the Revenger. Looking at Middleton’s Revenger’s Tragedy, readers will see that corruption is vital to what drives Vindice, the protagonist and “hero”, and his brother (and fellow revenger) Hippolito to become vigilantes.
In this story, corruption lies at the very top or the hierarchy, in the royal court. The royal family is filled with liars, adulterers, rapists, and killers. Even the king is criminal, seen when he murders Vindice’s wife for not giving into infidelity. Vindice laments this often, and for good reason. What can he do? What can one man do against a king?
In Spanish Tragedy, Kyd gives us a cast of characters that aren’t all evil, but many are invested in the politics that would serve villainous purposes. So much that many of the characters fail to see the injustice that has fallen over protagonist Hieronimo, whose son Horatio is killed by Lorenzo and Balthazar, two princes. What can he do, even as a marshal (and more importantly a marshal without much evidence) to the sons of kings? Especially Balthazar, a person that everyone wants to have married to the princess, Bel-Imperia, to become the new monarch of both Spain and Portugal?
Gotham is similar. In every depiction, from comics to movies to cartoons, there is an element of corruption (or several): be it city officials, the police department, wardens, or the doctors of Arkham Asylum. Being an honest cop can get you or your family hurt or killed. This is seen in Batman: Year One, by Frank Miller, where Jim Gordon (then a Lieutenant but later and better known to fans as the Commissioner of Gotham’s Police Department). Corrupt officers threaten Gordon by implying that his pregnant wife will be hurt if he even tries to expose their criminal activities. Being a citizen in the wrong place at the wrong time, especially at night, can get unlucky bystanders killed by petty thugs, mafioso, crooked cops, or deranged psychopaths. Even the rich are vulnerable: Bruce’s parents, despite being wealthy, weren’t held hostage by a terrorist for their riches and influence; they weren’t threatened about their investments; they were killed by a petty mugger for their money and Mrs. Wayne’s pearl necklace. And young Bruce, lucky to be alive, was unfortunate in that he had to understand and grieve over this traumatic event so early in his life.
And this is the birth. The birth of Bruce as Batman. The birth of Bruce as a revenger.
Randall M. Jensen relates in his essay “Batman’s Promise” that in the original 1939 version of Batman’s origins (as written by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, and usually in later continuities), that a young Bruce swears after his parent’s deaths: “And I swear by the spirits of my parents to avenge their deaths by spending the rest of my life warring on all criminals.”
But what spurs Bruce to make this oath? How can he avenge the death of his parents?
In Batman Begins, the fifth modern Batman movie (which also rebooted the nineties film franchise), Bruce’s origins are retold once again. In this, Bruce does meet his killer, Joe Chill, years after the murder of his parents. In this way director Christopher Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer dissect Bruce’s motivations in becoming Batman and show us where revenge fits in. Chill is in court, wanting parole, lamenting over his actions. He says that he was desperate. He doesn’t plead for forgiveness or make an elaborate reason. He sincerely looks torn apart by what he did. All this said without realizing Bruce was present, and when he does know, he looks ashamed. Embarrassed even, that he could ruin a young boy’s life.
Afterwards, Bruce is addressed by the court for his input, but just walks out. Soon after we see that Bruce is carrying a small gun hidden in his sleeve, waiting for Chill to be walked out of court. Before he gets the chance, another killer, hired by the crime boss Falcone, kills him while pretending to be a journalist.
Later, Rachel, Bruce’s childhood friend and assistant District Attorney, drives him away from the scene, saying she suspects that Falcone paid off the judge to make the trial public. Bruce replies:
Bruce: Maybe I should thank him.
Rachel: You don’t mean that.
Bruce: What if I do, Rachel? My parents deserved justice.
Rachel: You’re not talking about justice. You’re talking about revenge.
Bruce: Sometimes they’re the same.
Rachel: No, they’re never the same, Bruce. Justice is about harmony. Revenge is about you making yourself feel better. Which is why we have an impartial system.
Bruce: Your system is broken.
Putting aside his murderous thoughts, Bruce is obsessed with the faults Gotham has. As Tony Spanakos says in his essay “Governing Gotham”, “Thomas and Martha Wayne were murdered because the state was incapable of maintaining law and order, and Bruce Wayne’s response was to become the crime-fighting Batman, trying to correct the lack of order in his city.” (56). He is personally affected and personally wants to correct it because no one else is getting it done. It is a responsibility of the governing body to protect its citizens: Gotham endangers them. “The Batman is born in a city where the state fails at its most basic responsibility of maintaining public safety, where the ‘social contract’ between citizen and state is most essential.” (59)
This echoes Hieronimo in Spanish Tragedy. Ironically he already represents justice as a head marshal, but he feels alone. No one is just. Hieronimo says:
“Thus must we toil in other men’s extremes,
That know not how to remedy our own,
And do them justice, when unjustly we,
For all our wrongs can compass no redress.
But shall I never live to see the day
That I may come, by justice of the heavens,
To know the cause that may my cares allay?
This toils my body, this consumeth age,
That only I to all men just must be,
And neither gods nor men be just to me.” (ll. 1-10, pp. 74-75)
For this reason does Hieronimo feel obligated, even pressured, to take revenge and personally avenge his son. He tries repeatedly to make his grief known, but no one really cares. Those involved are only concerned that one as important as he is making such claims of injustice, and may cause a stir among the court and the town, messing up the wedding between Bel-Imperia and Balthazar.
But, unlike Hieronimo, Bruce is not an appointed man of justice. In stories such as Batman: Year One and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (both by Frank Miller), and in the movie Batman Begins, Batman’s lack of true legal authority is a problem. Despite the good he is doing, he is a vigilante. Like revengers before him, he takes the law into his own hands.
“German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) defined the state as the institution that holds a monopoly on the legitimate use of coercion in a given territory. Through the police and military, the state–and only the state–may enforce authority. The use of violence by nonstate actors (terrorists, revolutionaries, criminals, vigilantes) occurs, and may even be understandable on occasion, but it can never be legitimate.” (57)
Superheroes are generally not licensed or commissioned by the government, but Spanakos says that Batman, besides his working with Gordon, “is particularly subversive… because his concept of order and the good goes beyond the state, his use of violence is in addition to, though not in coordination with, the state.” (57)
Spanaos relates how in the story the Dark Knight Returns (which depicts a possible dystopian future where even Superman is under the power and authority of a corrupt government), Superman tries to debate with Bruce over the nature of his actions. He tries to make him ‘play nice’ and that his attempts to shake things up and clean up Gotham again makes him a criminal. Bruce replies “Sure, we’re criminals…We’ve always been criminals. We have to be criminals.” (56-57). Bruce has always known that he was acting illegally but he didn’t care. His role as a revenger and avenger overrode the dangers of being dubbed a criminal himself. His use of a disguise is an invention to overcome this.
He is driven to do what he feels he must, what he feels will bring order. And at the root of his drive is the image of his parents being shot and killed, his mother’s pearls littering the street below him, as it mingles with the blood. As Stephen Kershnar says in his essay “Batman’s Virtuous Hatred”, “Batman is plagued by nightmares and tortured memories of helplessly watching while his parents were murdered.” (28)
Corruption Spreads to the Revenger
Kershnar questions Bruce’s motives in his essay, using as an example a scene from Batman: Year One. In this scene, a disguised pre-Batman Bruce provokes a pimp who is mistreating ‘his’ prostitute. Out of all the ways he has trained himself to approach a situation like this, he chooses to finish him off by delivering as vicious a kick as possible without really addressing the prostitute and her well-being. So was this fight for her, or was it for him to hurt the bad guy and feel good about it?
Kershnar says: “This provocation suggests that Batman is looking for an excuse to injure the pimp, rather than merely trying to protect the young girl. His violence results from his hatred of evil.” (32) Kershnar argues that Bruce enjoys bringing criminals pain. He later says “Batman hates criminals and loves to see them suffer, and this might suggest that he’s vicious. For example, when smashing the pimp with his elbow, he worries about enjoying it too much.” (33) This sounds like the behavior of a revenger. When Vindice and Hippolito kill the King in Revenger’s Tragedy, they actually delight in his suffering, and later boast to Antonio that they were good at plotting their revenge. Has Bruce gone the same route?
Kershnar argues that Batman is so focused on crime that he doesn’t have time for a regular life, and so he is self-sacrificing in a way. But does Bruce even desire a normal life? Or does this drive to ‘do good’ come from the fact that it allows him to make criminals suffer? To legitimize his desire to inflict pain? To make his violence pure?
And what happens when others begin to emulate his behavior? In many stories this is a problem. In the Dark Knight Returns, vigilantes (some of whom were previously the very gang of young thugs Batman spent time dismantling) join together to become the Sons of the Bat, though their methods were barbaric. In the movie the Dark Knight, Bruce finds Jonathan Crane, the Scarecrow, leading amateur vigilantes in stopping a drug deal, which goes wrong very fast. Some of the vigilantes actually wear homemade versions of the batsuit. As Crane responds when Batman tells them to knock it, “If you can do it, why can’t I?”. This is a legitimate question. What makes Batman appropriate for this mission and others not? Who’s to say his temperament and mindset are in the right place.
Just what happens when Bruce is pushed too close to the edge?
Batman, Issue 614: Crossing the Line
In Batman #614, by Jeph Loeb (collected in the graphic novel The Joker: the Greatest Stories Ever Told), Bruce is chasing the Joker, who seems to have killed Bruce’s recently found childhood friend and surgeon, Tommy Elliot. After years of dealing with the Joker, his archnemesis, Batman is seriously pissed-off : pushed as close to the desire to murder his enemy once and for all as ever before.
He reminds himself and the reader that the Joker is responsible for crippling and ending the physical career of Barbara Gordon, Commissioner Jim Gordon’s adopted daughter/niece, and until that point, Batgirl. Although she is still alive, and working in an even greater capacity as an information center for the superheroes she works with, she still suffered at the Joker’s hands. He even embarrassed her by having her stripped naked and photographed so that her father could be forced to see it later. And Batman not only failed to prevent that tragedy, he failed to bring Joker to justice. “The fact that she is alive does nothing to lessen the anguish he brought down on her,” Bruce says. “Deemed ‘insane’ by the courts, he never went to jail for the crime.” (149).
The Joker also killed Lt. Sarah Essen–Jim Gordon’s second wife– by facing her in a standoff while holding a baby, throwing her the baby to make her drop her gun, and shooting her. Bruce laments “The Joker’s life should have ended then and there.” (149).
The Joker killed the second Robin, Jason Todd, a teenaged boy, and got away with it. “He walked away from any responsibility for that crime by using some bizarre ‘diplomatic immunity’ he had obtained.” (151).
After the death of Tommy Elliot, who earlier dragged himself to a hurt Bruce and stitched Bruce up while he himself was dying, Bruce had had enough.
Additionally, Bruce feels responsible for the Joker. He comments on knowing the Joker “longer than any other criminal” (149), and comments on how Dick Grayson, the first Robin now called Nightwing, has said that they are interlocked. That they are always in opposition to one another, and that in some sick way the Joker exists because of Bruce. That Joker, as chaos, seeks to disrupt the order that Bruce took upon himself to instill in Gotham. And we see this fuels his anger and rage when he says “I think about what Nightwing said. My being responsible for the Joker as years’ worth of rage courses through my fist.” (151). Later his rage gets even worse, and he says “I cannot… I will not… accept my responsibility… for the Joker. Except that I should have killed him long ago.” (152-153).
Plus, he begins to see how his drive for revenge may have been foolish, particularly in his recruiting others under his cause. In the same way Vindice’s use of Hippolito in his schemes damns them both, Batman’s allies have all suffered as well. Bruce feels responsible for Barbara, and we can see in his speech that he perhaps should have discouraged her pursuit in vigilantism. He says “She loved the job. Possibly even more than Dick did as Robin. And I indulged her, maybe out of respect for her father,” and very importantly “I understood her addiction to seeking out justice. To rid this city of the evil that manifests itself here.” (157). While Bruce claims to do this for a purpose, using his willpower, allowing a teenaged girl to join because she was “addicted” to the thrill of it and to “indulge” her father (something of which I’m sure Gordon would not have improved) seems purely irresponsible.
Selina Kyle, or Catwoman (a villain turned sometimes-hero, sometimes thief, sometimes-lover of Batman) enters the scene trying to stop Bruce from “doing something [he’ll] only regret” (159), and Bruce even temporarily disables her to keep his pursuit of Joker, while focusing on the death of Jason Todd.
“Jason never had the skills that Dick had. I should never have let him put on the costume. No matter what differences we’ve had through the years, I’ve always known that Dick had a gift. Jason only had…rage. And I thought… hoped… that if I could channel that rage into something more productive…. for these reasons, I’ve carried the burden of responsibility for Jason’s death. When it was… is.. The Joker’s fault. His price to pay.” (161)
He justifies his rage by saying that he doesn’t want to one day find Selina, dead too. But at this point, Bruce seems like he’s looking for a reason to carryout this dark desire, to finally rid himself of the Joker. Despite the Joker continually saying he’s innocent (and I should note that the Joker rarely claims that as of late) Bruce convinces himself that the Joker is lying to save himself. He says “I can hear his confession, but it means nothing.” (154) and when Harley Quinn, an insane self-titled sidekick who crushes on the Joker, tries to save the Joker, Bruce adds “I will let no one–nothing–defend the Joker or his actions.”
Joker again tries to plead innocence, saying “I’m not joking, Batboob. Check my gun… nothing but blanks…” (156) but Bruce says “It’s just another lie. Another lie to keep himself alive.”
His dark path gets darker as he continues to pummel Joker while thinking about all that the Joker has done. He says “Still haunted by that single moment… And I tell myself that Barbara would understand what I have to do tonight.” (158) and “I think of Barbara… and snapping the Joker’s neck becomes that much easier.” He adds: “There is nothing I can do to him that would cause him the agony that he has brought upon others. But I can come close.” (165). Clearly at this point he has become the revenger and clearly he is corrupted. He even lists the ways he could kill the Joker. The one and only thing that pulls him out of it is Jim Gordon, the commissioner, who becomes Bruce’s voice of reason, his very conscience, at this point.
Gordon tells him, with a gun raised “I wouldn’t let you do this when he shot my daughter… killed my wife. I don’t know how I could stop you. But I won’t let you throw your life away.” Bruce, confused, thinks “Jim Gordon. With all he’s lost. I thought… he’d understand.”
“You and I have seen more than our fair share of tragedies and thirsted for revenge. If Batman wanted to be a killer, he could have started long ago. But, it’s a line. On one side we believe in the law. On the other…
Sometimes, the law fails us. Maybe that’s why I’ve understood you… allowed you to help protect this city. Batman, if you cross that line–if you kill the Joker tonight–I will lead the hunt to bring you to justice. In the eyes of the law…in my eyes you’ll be no different from him.”
In response to Batman asking Gordon how many lives the Joker can ruin, Gordon says “I don’t care. I won’t let him ruin yours.” Bruce, once again allowing reason to overcome his emotion, and to become the Batman we know, love, and respect, comes back to us. Comically, at this point, a very beaten Joker weakly chimes in: “I’m innocent.”
Ironically, for once, we later find that the Joker hadn’t done anything. Had Bruce finally gone the right of a revenger, he would have taken an innocent man’s life (innocent in the context of the situation, of course) and regretted it, as Selina told him. He says:
“It was from an alley like this one that a man with a gun emerged from the darkness and murdered my mother and father. In that single moment, my childhood ended. I made a promise on the grave of my parents that I would rid the city of the evil that took their lives. Tonight… I nearly became a part of that evil.” (169)
How Batman Has Overcome Revenge for the Sake of Justice
Going back to the dialogue between Bruce and Rachel in the Batman Begins movie, we remember how revenge-driven Bruce was. He wanted to kill Joe Chill and he didn’t care that Falcone did it before him. He claimed justice and revenge were the same and that the current justice system of Gotham was corrupt. But Rachel reminds him that his ‘justice’ was even worse because he isn’t seeing the chain of events that lead to crime:
Rachel: You care about justice? Look beyond your own pain, Bruce. This city is rotting. They talk about the depression as if it’s history, and it’s not. Things are worse than ever down here. Falcone floods our streets with crime and drugs, preying on the desperate, creating new Joe Chills every day.
Afterwards Bruce travels through the worse neighborhoods in Gotham, touring the despair and desperation of the homeless and the impoverished. This makes him understand that certain people are, as Chill said in court prior to his death, desperate and misguided. And, as Rachel told him, crime comes from a root. And so he begins to thinks twice about how he goes about tackling the problem of crime in Gotham.
His vigilantism is positive. While he is not acting within the law, he, perhaps like his first hero Zorro, is taking a stance against the criminal element, and creating the myth of an urban hero. As an avenger of wrongs that can not only make evil villains cower in superstition and fear, he also gives hope to the people of Gotham and unites them under a banner of willpower: will to resist corruption and desperation.
As Spanakos says, Batman is not licensed by the state, “but society also has a role to play in providing security: Batman symbolizes and inspires that, and Gordon knows it.” (65). In the movie the Dark Knight, Harvey Dent, the incorruptible District Attorney meets Bruce (in his playboy persona) testing him by his virtue. Bruce makes fun of the Batman myth to see how Harvey feels, and Harvey answers: “When their enemies were at the gates, the Romans would suspend democracy and appoint one man to protect the city. It wasn’t considered an honor, it was considered a service.” Bruce notably ceases to badger Harvey, agreeing with his philosophy at heart. Bruce does what he does as a service, not for glory or self-interest.
Returning to Bruce’s oath to his parents, Jensen says that it obviously feels like “an expression of a desire for vengeance”. Importantly, “it’s crucial to recognize it isn’t simple revenge he’s after; Bruce doesn’t promise his parents that he’ll kill the man who killed them.” (86) And Jensen is right: Bruce takes on a much larger task of warring on all criminals.
As Jensen relates: “In the first volume of Justice (2006), Batman tells us that “When I was a boy, my father and mother were murdered before my very eyes. I have dedicated my life to stopping that criminal, regardless of the forms or faces he wears. Really, the form is of no consequence’.” (87). He is prudent and he is virtuous.
Batman is not a sadist. As Kershnar says “Batman seems to get immediate satisfaction from dominating and destroying the bad guys, although he never seems to get outright pleasure from it.” (28). Bruce is satisfied not due to bloodlust, but to the success he has in driving out the very filth that took his childhood away. He gets happiness from getting the job done, not the method of how he does it.
In a city like Gotham, or Spain in the Spanish Tragedy, or the royal court of Revenger’s Tragedy, a hero needs to take action when others won’t. They need drive, they need a purpose: but too personal and it corrupts everything they have worked on and built, turning them into the same kind of criminal they hunt. But Batman is the perfect revenger, using his hurt and anguish to drive him and give him the focus needed to train himself and really see the real problems at hand. He is the evolution of the early Revenger, being aware of his role in society and what his impact on the society will bring.
With all of this said, Batman not only inspires the people of Gotham, but also the readers who follow his struggles. We believe we can aspire to greatness, that we, too, can change our world. Batman may not be a killer, but as an agent of justice he has spread its message. Because even when things get so bleak that you cannot see any possibility out but through death, Bruce Wayne encourages us to find a way, there’s always a way, to bring the villains to justice and make them face the horrors of the legal system.
As Spanakos says “Our problem, as readers and fans, is that we know that law and order are not perfectly correlated. Sometimes there is so little order that the law does not work well, and that is precisely why we need the Batman in the first place.” (58)
Jensen, Randall, M. “Batman’s Promise”. Batman and Philosophy: the Dark Knight of the Soul. White, Mark D., and Robert Arp, eds. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2008. Print
Kane, Bob, et al. The Joker: the Greatest Stories Ever Told. New York, NY: DC Comics, 2008. Print.
Kershnar, Stephen. “Batman’s Virtuous Hatred”. Batman and Philosophy: the Dark Knight of the Soul. White, Mark D., and Robert Arp, eds. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2008. Print
Kyd, Thomas. The Spanish Tragedy. New York: Manchester University Press (1996). Print
Middleton, Thomas, and Cyril Tourneur. The Revenger’s Tragedy. Ed. R. A. Foakes. New York: Manchester UP, 1996. Print.
Spanakos, Tony. “Governing Gotham”. Batman and Philosophy: the Dark Knight of the Soul. White, Mark D., and Robert Arp, eds. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2008. Print