The goals, ideals, and principles of Batman changes during the different cinematic depictions of the character. What do these movies tell us about our own moral compass and how ethics and justice have changed over time? In this episode, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to APU philosophy professor Trey Jackson about how Batman’s conflict with villains represents real-life philosophical conflicts about the pursuit of justice. What lessons does Batman teach us about apathy, corruption, anonymity, and how to bring about moral change?
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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And today we’re talking with Trey Jackson, philosophy faculty in the School of Arts, Humanities, and Education. And our conversation today is about the ethics of Batman. Welcome Trey.
Trey Jackson: Thanks for having me on.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I’ve been looking forward to this. I think like many, well, millions of people, I love Batman. But when I think of who Batman is and what he does, it’s kind of complicated. And so this lets us jump into the first question. How has Batman’s morality been portrayed in his previous movie appearances?
Trey Jackson: Yeah, so actually I became a Batman fan going way back to the ’60s show and Adam West. And that was my first introduction to the character. And just thinking about how his morality had been portrayed even way back then, there his morality was pretty straightforward and it was almost a parody of the moral norms at that time, or what were perceived to be the moral norms at that time.
Several instances you had Bruce Wayne stressing the importance of education while Dick Grayson was working on his homework and things like that. And then, when he was actually as Batman, there are many times that he declined and actively discouraged anything like alcohol and tobacco, things like that. As a kid, you don’t really think anything about that. It just seems pretty natural. But now if you watch it, and I do with my kids now, it can come off pretty humorous and I think that was the intent at that point.
But then when he moves into further portrayals, like in the 1989 movie, there’s a very clear departure from that and from most of the ways that he was portrayed in the ’60s. He’s very dark and serious. He’s very influenced by the comics at that time from guys like Frank Miller and Alan Moore. And they kind of took their inspiration from a turn in the comics that happened in the ’70s under Dennis O’Neil where everything just became much more serious and grounded.
So, if you’re asking what his moral code is in the 1989 movie, he doesn’t really state it explicitly. But based on his actions and what he does, he’s all about scaring and stopping the bad guys, like the one who killed his parents. But he is also not above killing them to accomplish that. So is his moral code any more complex than that in the ’89 movie?
The movie does toy with the idea that he and The Joker are very similar. It even shows them both pursuing Vicki Vale, the female lead, in very much the same way and even repeating the same lines in some opportunities.
The difference seems to be that while Batman seeks revenge against criminals, The Joker seeks revenge against pretty much everyone. And that is kind of picked up on in the sequel, “Batman Returns,” where the villains are, again, reflections of Batman himself. He has no issue killing bad guys when he has the opportunity. And there is a case to be made that the practice of killing the villain is just pretty typical of movies at that time. But I think what it also shows is that the principles behind Batman’s heroic actions weren’t really the focus of those movies. The focus was more on how he tried to balance his competing identities and what this kind of showed us about his mental state.
And then a sequel later on, “Batman Forever,” really addresses that in an interesting way where Dick Grayson, who was Robin, joins the picture and he tries to prevent him from going down the same path. Batman really tries to take the lead in Robin’s life and make sure that he doesn’t go down that path of just seeking revenge. And it shows, that movie shows him really coming to peace with himself. And then you get the sequel to that movie, “Batman and Robin,” and that’s really just an extended toy commercial. There’s not much going on there.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I was going to say, I do like watching Batman and Robin, mainly because I can’t believe it got made, but it’s also one of those, I guess, gems of Hollywood cinema, where when you watch it, you just smile, even though it’s not the best. And it really takes great characters, and I don’t want to say lampoons them, because that’s too judgmental, but it’s just quite amazing when you watch it, what they did, especially after the great ’89 movie.
Trey Jackson: It’s really interesting to go back and watch it now. It really is a throwback to the ’60s show in a lot of ways. Some of the characters don’t really seem to embrace that, but others do. I know, for example, I remember Poison Ivy really stands out as Uma Thurman knew exactly what kind of movie she was in and you can tell.
But that does lead us into my personal favorite Batman portrayal, the one we got in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy. So with “Batman Begins” and the Dark Knight Trilogy as a whole, that’s when we really get an exploration of Batman’s goals and the principles that guide his actions. And this is where it really gets interesting for me, as someone interested in philosophy and excited to see that kind of portrayed up on the screen. So he has a desire for revenge, especially when the movie first starts out, but he sees the futility of operating based on that.
He even takes a gun to try and gun down Carmine Falcone, which he holds responsible for the death of his parents, and that goes really poorly because what he realizes is that what he really wants to do is redeem the city, even more than just taking revenge for what happened to his parents.
So, he even says that he wants to become a dramatic example that shakes people from their apathy. And he doesn’t want to become an executioner, doesn’t want to take anyone’s life while he’s doing that, what he really wants to do is become that example for other people to follow.
And we see throughout the trilogy that he never acts in a way that his primary motivation is to end another person’s life. His mission, the way it’s portrayed and the way he himself describes it, is to redeem the city from the criminals and the corruption that plagues it.
And what I really liked about this, is how you have his stated goals and his ideals that he’s committed to and that naturally leads to conflicts with villains that also represent philosophical conflicts. So he wants to show Gotham what justice really looks like, what it would really look like to be free of criminals and corruption.
And when he does this, and because he does this, he’s confronted by someone who denies that justice even exists. And this is the nihilistic interpretation of the Joker brought to life by Heath Ledger in that really memorable performance. And that conflict between the reality of justice and commitment to actual moral truth and then the denial that such things even exist that is at the core of that middle movie in the trilogy, “The Dark Knight.” And that’s as old as philosophy itself. And you even get a character like Harvey Dent who literally gets caught in the middle of that conflict and you see what happens to someone who is trying to, it starts off motivated by principles of justice and truth, who is just brought down by someone like the Joker. It just shows that even the best of us can be corrupted and brought down.
And then in the final movie, the character of Bane represents what can go wrong when Batman kind of takes his eyes off the goal as he did at the end of the second movie. So this really shows that if you’re pursuing justice, half measures won’t do. You really have to commit to your goal and you have to push through the pain and the difficulties that will come along with that.
And one other thing I think is worth mentioning about that last movie in the trilogy, “The Dark Knight Rises,” Nolan’s version of Robin, actually to circle back to what he said in “Batman Begins,” Robin kind of represents the city that Batman has been trying to redeem all along.
So Robin’s been through tragedy the same way Gotham itself had been through tragedy. He wants to do the right thing, but he’s hampered by the corruption around him, and he’s looking for an example to lead him forward.
And in the end, Robin actually takes up Batman’s mission when Batman completes it, which, even if Batman didn’t say that that’s explicitly what he wanted him to do, that was his goal all along, to be an example for other people to step in and kind of do this for themselves. So Batman wanted to shake people from their apathy and show them that they could stand up to evil and corruption themselves. Not in a sense of putting on hockey pads like we saw at the beginning of the middle movie, “The Dark Knight,” but actually committing yourself to developing that character and adopting those convictions that you need to be virtuous. Robin does this, and it shows that Batman’s mission was a success throughout that trilogy.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Now, when you think of Batman, it’s hard to even know where to start, because I haven’t read the decades of comic books. I’ve seen, I think, all the movies, but then there’s so many movies and so many different Batmans that have existed that it’s hard to even know where to start. Probably the most important question I’ll ask you today: Where does the Lego Batman version come into this?
Trey Jackson: The Lego Batman version is a celebration of all great things Batman. I don’t think it needs to be much more complicated than that. I think it’s just a great reminder of why we’re Batman fans in the first place. And it’s a really good introduction for someone like myself with little kids. This is just a great way to kind of bring them into that world. So I don’t know that it’s as complicated as anything Chris Nolan did, but I don’t think it has to be either.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: For me, the Lego Batman is my favorite Lego movie. I actually like it better than the original Lego Movie and Lego Two is okay. Lego Ninjago, I didn’t quite get it personally, but that’s just me. So this goes to our next question is, where would he fit, Batman, if anywhere, in our current political spectrum?
Trey Jackson: So I think this is a really interesting time to ask this question because I don’t think he fits very neatly into any of our partisan categories. I think this really says a lot about him, but also about the categories themselves. People want to talk about, is he left wing or right wing, who would he vote for, things like that.
I’m not sure any of that really matters to the core of his character. I think what you see with him, especially throughout the Nolan’s trilogy, the Dark Knight Trilogy, is he’s someone who takes it upon himself to make his own circumstances better. He doesn’t really look to public policy or politicians, however charismatic they are. He doesn’t look to them to bring about the changes that have to happen. And when he does consider doing that, like he did in the case of Harvey Dent, he learns that it won’t work because he actually has to do the work. And that kind of speaks to the truth about what we have to do.
And Batman doesn’t want to be that person who establishes this top-down style of moral change where everyone needs to look at me and just do everything that I say. And this is an interesting contrast with someone kind of like Superman, who, when he’s portrayed as a hero, it’s very much by example, look to me and be inspired, which is one way to go, but Batman chooses to be very anonymous working in the shadows. One city block at a time is how he does his work.
And he wants to stay anonymous. He says that it’s because he wants to protect the people around him, which is definitely true, and he also wants change to happen through the actions of people taking it upon themselves. Not because they’re caught up in some kind of fervent political movement necessarily, but because they just take it upon themselves to do what they can in their own circumstances.
And he even literally says this in the first movie of that trilogy, “Batman Begins.” He said, “It’s not about who I am. It’s about what I do.” That’s an ideology that some people might identify as right wing, this idea that you need to take it upon yourself to improve the circumstances around you. I really think it’s a lot bigger than that. I think it’s about just doing what you can in your own way and hoping that others will do the same in their circumstances and just kind of coming together. That kind of justice and moral code in a community is organic. It doesn’t happen from the top down. It’s not dictated.
And he also shows a willingness to take on those in powerful positions and root out corruption. And a lot of people want to identify this as exclusively left wing. But again, I think it’s a lot bigger than that. I think that more than anything, he tells us and shows us that genuine moral convictions and change for the better, they often defy political categories that we want to try and put them in. And the more interesting conversations to have are about moral ideologies, not just partisan politics.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s excellent because oftentimes politics, especially today, certain political parties or political figures will want to own a figure, own a character, and say, “This person is more like us. This writer, this whatever, is more like us as Republicans, more like us as Democrats.” And, in reality, life is more complex than that. I always say that politics is not Twitter. And for some reason, so much of our news is taken from Twitter, then presented to people in which Twitter doesn’t give us the best of humanity. That’s very judgmental, I apologize.
But even if you look at who’s on Twitter, if you look at Pew research, the percentage of people who are on Twitter, and then the percentage of people who actually tweet, does not represent America. And so you get a very, very, very false sense of what people think. And so this really leads us to the next question. So Batman is often criticized for his vigilantism. Critics argue that he should combat crime with his money as Bruce Wayne. Does this criticism make sense given his circumstances?
Trey Jackson: Yeah. So me personally, I’ve never really bought into this criticism. And a lot of times when it’s offered, it’s done so in a pretty shallow way. The fact is that if money could solve all society’s problems, his parents would’ve never been murdered in the first place, because in most portrayals, they’re among the most generous examples of people in Gotham City. Their philanthropy is just reaching into all aspects of city life.
And then when you consider Batman’s villains, like the most famous ones are Joker, Two Face, Riddler, they don’t seem like the sort of people that you could ever buy off or just throw enough money at them that they wouldn’t cause trouble. The fact is that money doesn’t solve all problems, either for an individual or for society as a whole. There’s still a capacity for evil, along with a capacity for good, in every human being.
Now, I do think maybe the more reasonable version of this claim, should he just throw his money at the problem, the more reasonable version may be that his money would eliminate most crime except for those committed by his very worst villains. But I don’t know that that’s really true either because as we know, corruption is a lot more contagious than maybe a lot of people like to think.
His parents weren’t killed by some sadistic super villain, except in Burton’s version where Joker was the one who killed him, but typically the portrayal shows that they were killed by just a common criminal. And it was a criminal who just got desperate despite the generosity of people like the Waynes. And even without villains like Joker, you’d still have these corrupt gangsters, the typical examples are Carmine Falcone and Sal Maroni, who thrive on greed and corruption. So even if Bruce Wayne stepped in and paid everyone’s bills, people are still not perfect.
They still make mistakes and sometimes people feel unwanted or they feel vulnerable or prideful. They feel tempted to do things that are wrong and they are prone to corruption and all this other baggage that comes along with being human. And money doesn’t take that away. And especially in a city like Gotham, where people are conditioned to assume the worst and fear for their safety, if someone steps in and just throws money at everything, it might even encourage crime among those who are already willing to commit it.
So, I think the main thing that we have to understand is that for Gotham City, and in the real world, unless the character of the people changes, the problems will remain. And Batman’s mission is about addressing the character of the people that surround him.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I love that you said it’s about the character of the people, because even when you think of politics, just in general, there is a characterization of criminals as they’re bad. Or one side will characterize as, oh, they just want to be soft on crime. One side wants to be tough on crime. And the reality is that if you’re soft on crime or if you’re too tough on crime, that doesn’t help anything, because it’s all about the individual. And each person, this is, of course, a huge generalization. Each criminal say who’s in jail has a very unique experience in their life, in what brought them to that, and the desperation that got there.
And one of the things that I think the old Batman in the ’60s didn’t portray but the new ones do a little more is just that there is no absolute good, there is no absolute bad. That there’s such a complex mixture within every person. And people’s motivations, even if they’re “bad” might come from a place where they’re trying to defend themselves or their family. Of course, that’s not defending any criminality, but it’s just the reality that there are motivations for why people do stuff.
Trey Jackson: When you want to treat everyone on a case-by-case basis like that, it can be a little difficult to turn that into a rallying cry or a political platform. But the fact is that reality is that complex and complicated.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. I always think one of the best snidbits about conservative versus more liberal in crime is the Simpsons, where Krusty the Clown was running for mayor. And he had all these advertisements. It was just so blatant and silly, but then you watch the news and the advertisements today and it’s like, well, they weren’t that far off and that was like 20 years ago.
And so this leads us to the last question. Is there a place for him in the Justice League, given the moral and ethical dimensions of his portrayals? And I’ll also ask, why is he in the Justice League when the Justice League is composed of gods?
Trey Jackson: Well, I think that there is a place for him. And as someone who likes to see him there, I hope that there is a place for him. And to me it’s not so much about what powers does he contribute or things like that. I think that it could make Justice League stories all the more compelling to have him included.
To me, the best portrayals already make use of his moral worldview compared to those around him. Like we’ve been discussing, in the Dark Knight Trilogy and other portrayals. That’s what made those portrayals so effective because it was an examination of competing notions of morality where we saw Batman’s commitment to justice face off against things like the nihilism of the Joker. So, can we see a similar dynamic between him and other heroes of the Justice League? And I think we can.
So how about comparing Batman’s organic one night, one city block at a time approach to justice with someone like Superman whose approach is a very public demonstration of what it means to be virtuous and be a hero. So I think that’s an interesting dynamic that could play out in a compelling story. Or what about Wonder Woman, who her current portrayals and in the past has shown her as someone who has endless love and compassion for humanity? What does she have to say to someone like Batman who sometimes can be tempted towards vengeance?
And then you take someone like Green Lantern. I think he’s an interesting contrast as well because he’s someone who literally draws his strength from the power of will. And Batman does too. But he also utilizes fear, which if you’re a Green Lantern fan, is supposed to be the antithesis of will. And from his perspective, he’s wondering, “How do I work with someone who makes use of something that I consider a bad thing?”
Plus, just in general, I think Batman represents the best of humanity amongst the godlike heroes who are committed to protecting it. He is what they’re committed to saving and protecting. He’s right there with them. And, in these ways and in others, he really challenges them. So I think there is potential there that he can be part of a great story and see those dynamics at work between those characters. I think that’d be something I’d like to see sometime in the future.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I agree because Batman is relatable, in the sense that in the Justice League or in the DC world or in any superhero world, it’s composed of gods and monsters. And if there’s a Superman, my whole question is, why are there still criminals? Because you’re going to be going up against Superman, or even something like The Boys, where there’s a Superman character, again, that world is still filled with criminals. But yet, if you’re a criminal, I’m assuming you’re just hoping to fly by and not get caught by Superman?
It’s in those worlds from a storytelling perspective, there’s a disbelief that you have a lowercase god who is making the world better. And it’s like, that would literally stop most people, unless there’s other super villains, of doing anything, yet there’s still common criminals. Why do you think they do that in common books in still having common criminals when there are lowercase gods walking around?
Trey Jackson: Well, I think that this is something, that this is an interesting thing that comes up in recent Superman portrayals too. How do you save the world and get things going in the right direction without just telling everyone what to do and forcing them to do it? How do you save the world without remaking it in the way that you want it, instead of letting people lead their own lives and seek whatever goals and values that they have for themselves? That can be a really tricky thing to do.
That’s something that we struggle with. That’s why we have different political parties because they’re offering different answers to basic questions like that. And this is another instance where I think Batman’s approach is really, it’s not to say that he gets it done perfectly, but his approach is one where his scale is smaller and his actions are not, sometimes you see him involved in things that are worldwide or super catastrophic events or things like that, but in his typical portrayals, he’s just trying to make his city better or his neighborhood better.
He’s trying to do things on a smaller scale and not necessarily tell everyone how they should be going about their lives. He’s just going and addressing the smaller problems where he finds them and someone who’s committed to doing that and someone who believes that that’s the right way to go about it, I do think they offer a unique perspective on a team of gods and legends who are trying to save the whole world.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: As with science fiction and with DC and Marvel and stuff, it’s a really good way of talking about issues that exist today. And I really liked how you talked about things can’t really be fixed unless a Superman told people what to do. But then, of course, Superman not actually being a god and just being from a different world, who’s more powerful, would still have the mistakes. In the more recent versions of Superman, obviously they were a little more gritty and they went into that.
But it makes me think of China versus the United States. So China will tell their people what to do and then see what happens. It’s hard not to come from the American perspective being American, where it’s just like, let people do what they want and things will work out most of the time. But there’s a very natural human tendency for authoritarianism, even soft authoritarianism. You see that in our own political parties where there’s certain elements of all political parties where they’re just like, do whatever you want, but you have to do this because I’m telling you and it’s right.
Trey Jackson: And this is where I think Batman’s anonymity really helps him in that goal. Because going back to the Dark Knight Trilogy, when you look at someone like Harvey Dent, he for a while was being set up to play that role as someone who just stands in front of everyone, says, “Look at me, this is how we’re going to do it. Follow my lead and my example.” And that’s exactly why Joker targeted him is because he wanted to show, “Look, if you’re going to do this, I’m going to show you that you can be corrupted and you can be brought down.”
And if the moral character of a community rises and falls on the basis of one person, then that’s just naturally going to happen. It’s going to fall apart if that one person ever does anything wrong or makes a mistake. So it just invites all kinds of problems because no one person is ever going to be perfect or do everything exactly the right way.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s a really good analysis. It makes me think of politicians when everybody’s so surprised when a politician rises and then has a spectacular fall. It also makes me think of religious leaders when there’s a religious leader that rises and has a great ministry and maybe TV stuff and then they have a spectacular fall. They’re like, how could this happen? Well, they’re human. And it could happen to anybody.
And the difficult thing is having, and this is, of course, different than we’re talking about Batman, but having just such a reflective process for yourself to not let yourself be corrupted, going back to Batman stuff, because corruption is pervasive in the sense that we can all be corrupted. And it’s not that we’re all corrupted by money. There’s other things that can corrupt us.
Trey Jackson: If you know that you’re in a position like that, one thing you can do, which is kind of how Batman approaches it, is not make it about yourself. Make it about the ideas and the values that you’re trying to instill in the community around you and keep the focus on those. And I think that’s one thing that he manages to do by being anonymous and refusing to make it about himself or his public persona. That’s a good approach we could all take. Focus on your ideas and your values and don’t try to make it about yourself.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And also keep it local. All politics is local, and in my own personal opinion, the national stuff is just a distraction. And so, absolutely wonderful conversation. Any final words, Trey?
Trey Jackson: Just really appreciate you having me on. Thank you for the opportunity.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: No, this was great. And today we’re speaking with Trey Jackson about the ethics of Batman. And my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And thank you for listening.