The Dawn of Justice is upon us. Batman v Superman promises Ben Affleck as a much more violent, harsher Bruce Wayne, loosely based on the interpretation of the character from Frank Miller’s magnum opus, The Dark Knight Returns comic book series. He’s older, he’s grizzled, he’s more experienced, and he’s had enough with the superstitious and cowardly lot infecting Gotham City. Aside from simply being a much darker character than previous renditions we’ve seen in the movies, this new Batman promises to break one of Bruce Wayne’s unbreakable oaths: this Batman kills. Whether directly or indirectly, the Batman of Dawn of Justice doesn’t hesitate from putting the final nail in the coffins of thugs and lowlifes, which makes for a departure from the tried and true Dark Knight that so many know.
However, this isn’t Batman’s first time at the murder rodeo.
Hitting the spinner racks in Detective Comics #27 in 1939 from creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger, the first version of Batman wasn’t a huge fan of killing to be sure, but he went that far when necessary. Plowing down gangsters and monsters with machine guns from the cockpit of the “Batplane,” Bats felt mild regret over taking a life or two, but wasn’t averse to it. At one point, he even hung a “monster man” from a noose and lamented as the monstrosity choked to death, soaring through the air. “He’s probably better off,” the grim Dark Knight noted as he flew through the moonlight.
It’s gruesome for sure, but this was standard fare for the pulp noir stories of the time. Wayne even carried a gun, which would be considered blasphemy by many later on as it would be written that Bruce abhorred guns, swearing to never use them in avoidance of the method by which his parents met their demise. It was only once Batman’s origin and life story were hammered out in later years that his oath against killing truly took form.
This isn’t to say that the modern comic book Dark Knight didn’t have a slip up or two. When combating the nefarious “KGBeast” in Batman #420, Wayne had seemingly met his match. Rather than combat the Soviet Supervillain, Batman did the next best thing: he locked him in a pitch black room in the sewers, never to be found by a living soul! Granted, KGBeast would return, but the Dark Knight essentially left him to die without food or water (until this, of course, was later retconned). Ironically enough, KGBeast appears in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, though he never goes by this moniker and maintains his civilian identity of Anatoli Knyazev instead. Also in the comics, there have been numerous “Elseworlds” stories, presenting Batmen far different from the one we know and more willing to kill, including a Vampire Batman, a Nazi Batman, and even a Pirate Batman!
On the silver screen, however, we’ve seen most iterations of the Bat kill many a time before Affleck’s take (minus Adam West’s version, of course, unless you count his murder of our funny bones, HA HA). Michael Keaton’s interpretation of the character, under the eye of director Tim Burton, wracked up quite the body count. In the original 1989 film, Batman, while in the Batmobile, is surrounded by the Joker’s goons inside Axis Chemicals. Rather than simply drive away, Bats decides to leave them with a present: a bomb, which not only brings down Axis—it also obliterates all the hired thugs in Batman’s general vicinity. This wasn’t the last time that Keaton’s bloodlust would go unchecked, as in the sequel, Batman Returns, Batman killed members of the “Red Triangle Circus Gang” in ways that were meant to elicit a chuckle from the audience. When presented with the strongman of the gang, Bruce strapped a ticking time bomb to his chest, punted the rogue into a hole, and simply walked away, leaving the brute to explode in a cacophony of debris.
And Keaton wasn’t the only on-screen Batman to get his hands dirty—Christian Bale’s version of the Dark Knight also got in on the action. In Batman Begins, Wayne declares to Liam Neeson’s Ra’s Al Ghul, in the big finale, that while he won’t kill Ghul, he has no responsibility to save him either and allows the villain to die in a subway car crash. A stalwart personality trait to many of the character of Bruce Wayne is that all life is precious and Batman goes out of his way to save any life, even those of villains. Thus, his leaving Ra to die can be considered killing him, in a sense. In the Dark Knight, in order to save Jim Gordon and his family, Batman knocks Harvey Dent, now Two-Face, off a construction site to fall to his doom. While not necessarily meaning to snuff Two-Face, it would at least be considered third degree murder in any courtroom. Finally, in Dark Knight Rises, he causes the truck driven by Talia Al Ghul to crash, once again inadvertently taking a life in order to save Gotham City.
So with all this death that at the hands of the the Caped Crusader, why do we as an audience still feel uneasy with a darker Batman willing to go that final mile? Perhaps it’s because underneath the haunting visage of the Bat, we recognize that Bruce Wayne strives to bring about a sense of hope among the citizens of Gotham, and in a way, among readers and viewers. He goes out night after night, sacrificing himself in an ultimately futile attempt to stop crime so that no one else will ever have to go through the loss of a loved one, whether that be the average Joe or even the Joker. So, if you happen to catch Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, remember that Affleck’s murderous portrayal is in good company.