“What a wonder is a gun/
What a versatile invention/
First of all, when you’ve a gun/
Everybody pays attention”
– Stephen Sondheim, Assassins
I was sitting in my tiny dorm room when I saw the news about a mass shooting at a school in my home state. It was near the end of my first semester of college, and my too-frequent weekend visits didn’t quell the homesickness. I no longer went to school in Connecticut, but two of my sisters did. When I found out the name of the town where the shooting took place – Newtown, CT – the first thing I did was plug the school’s address into Google Maps to see how far it was from my home. It was less than an hour’s drive away.
Not long after Sandy Hook, NRA president Wayne LaPierre held a press conference. In between potshots at violent video games and the liberal media, he delivered a now-infamous refrain: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
A few weeks ago, I saw Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice with one of the sisters whose safety had me so panicked a few years prior (the other one is more interested in Captain America: Civil War) and our father. We watched a Batplane with machine guns mow down legions of faceless, vaguely foreign terrorists. We watched the guns on the Batmobile blow up trucks. Most fascinatingly to me, we watched Batman dream about carrying a pistol and shooting his enemies in the head.
We like to think of comic book superheroes as the American conscience, and Superman more so than any of them. In a recent piece here at Audiences Everywhere, David Shreve examined the ways in which Dawn of Justice gives us a Superman whose questionable morality and hesitancy towards heroism reflect the presence of those attributes in modern American life. In particular, he said this:
“One: If Superman and Batman don’t maintain their historical baseline principles (a. Superman always seeks heroism and b. Batman never kills), can this movie still be a good superhero movie? And Two: If the answer to the first question is ‘no,’ can the movie still be a good movie?”
Since David focused entirely on Superman in his piece, I wanted to examine the other side of Dawn of Justice’s coin: Batman. Batman doesn’t just kill in Dawn of Justice, he kills with guns. To understand the significance of that, we need to understand the significance of guns in American culture. There is perhaps no single object with greater significance to America. So great is it, in fact, that in the time since twenty first-graders were murdered in the Sandy Hook shooting and the release of Dawn of Justice, there has been no noteworthy federal gun control action. Some states have even strengthened gun protections. Americans will give up just about anything before they give up their guns. The only thing they’re more reticent about relinquishing is their original interpretations of comic book characters.
The gun is the key element of the quintessential American power fantasy. It’s small enough for the average person to use, but deadly enough to compensate. It bestows incomprehensible power, and you can hide it in your jacket. Why do people want guns? Why do they need them? To protect themselves and their families. After all, we live in dangerous times. You never know who has a gun these days. Obviously, you never want to be in a life-or-death situation, but the rhetoric doesn’t position the gun as a “last resort” device. No, it’s the weapon of a hero, a “good guy with a gun.” You want to be that good guy with a gun, the guy (and I don’t use a gendered term here accidentally) who single handedly stops an evildoer in their tracks.
In the opening scene of Dawn of Justice, we see Bruce Wayne’s parents killed by a mugger. Much has been made about the redundancy of this scene – haven’t we been shown this event dozens upon dozens of times already? – but Dawn of Justice’s rendition is notable for two key details. First, in response to a gun being pointed at him, we see Thomas Wayne curl his hand into a fist. It’s this gesture of retaliation that causes the mugger to shoot him. Then, we watch as the gun is stuck underneath Martha Wayne’s pearl necklace, which explodes across the sidewalk when the gun fires. The crass sexuality of this image was heretofore unexplored in Bat-media, to my knowledge. Young Bruce watches as his father, a good guy without a gun, fails to stop his own murder and the subsequent (and metaphorically sexual) murder of his wife. We see a lot of Bruce’s dreams in Dawn of Justice, and the only one that isn’t directly related to his parents involves him carrying a concealed handgun and using it to defend himself against attackers. Unlike other Batmen, he interprets his most formative moment not as a reason to hate guns, but as justification for using them. If his father had been carrying a gun that night, he seems to have reasoned, maybe things would have been different.
A panel from Frank Miller’s seminal work The Dark Knight Returns, Dawn of Justice’s greatest source of adaptation, made the rounds after the film’s release. In it, Batman snaps a rifle in half with his bare hands. “This is the weapon of the enemy,” he presumably growls. “We do not need it. We will not use it.” Miller’s Batman, as sociopathic as he could come across, had a code. If Zack Snyder’s Batman has a code of his own, we never hear about it. He doesn’t seem to have time for one. Guns are the weapon of the enemy, yes, but it’s less efficient to think of non-gun ways of dealing with the enemy. For Snyder’s Batman, that efficiency sacrifice isn’t worth the moral high ground. This is a Batman characterized by urgency above all else, with a healthy dose of paranoia. He says of Superman, “If there is even a one-percent chance that he is our enemy, we have to treat it as an absolute certainty.” This is an almost verbatim quote from Dick Cheney regarding the War in Iraq. In the aforementioned dream sequence, the masked enemies Batman guns down all have Superman patches on their arms.
Dawn of Justice also lays bare a fundamental hypocrisy in Batman’s “no guns, no killing” policy. For years, we’ve watched screen Batmen pound their enemies into paste, surely leaving them with life-ruining injuries. When all of your victims are rendered comatose by your actions, how can you take the moral high ground? Dawn of Justice doesn’t wrestle with that contradiction so much as it circumnavigates it entirely. A Batman with no qualms about killing isn’t hindered by ethical speciousness. It wins the argument by choosing not to argue in the first place.
It’s this absence of argument that has so many Batman fans disturbed by the Dawn of Justice version of the character. People are more comfortable with a film ignoring its own hypocrisy than a film displaying a worldview with which they don’t agree. You never heard anyone complaining about Batman’s uber-violent heroism in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, because Nolan’s films aren’t self-aware enough for the possibility of Batman’s wrongdoing to even come up. An early scene in The Dark Knight features several amateur Batman imitators. Upon seeing one with a shotgun, the Scarecrow remarks, “That’s not him.” A few minutes later, the camera slowly moves in on the Batmobile’s dashboard as a screen display changes from “Lethal” to “Non-Lethal.” For the amount of praise that film received for its complex ethical quandaries, it goes out of its way to absolve Batman of any undeniably unacceptable violence.
Dawn of Justice cuts out the middleman and simply has Batman kill his enemies. With guns. Though the film doesn’t shy away from the idea that Batman is a disturbed individual (one of his other dreams involves blood oozing from his parents’ crypt and a hellish beast bursting out of it) it refuses to judge him for his actions. Even Superman, his ostensible foil, doesn’t seem to care about the killing. How could he, given that he was directly and indirectly responsible for so many deaths in Man of Steel? No, Superman’s main concern is that Batman brands his victims, which leads to them getting killed in prison. This sort of one-step-removed murder closely resembles the Nolan Batman, and this specifically is what strikes Superman as a bridge too far. By the way, the film never explicitly states why he brands certain people, but the list of bad guys who got the brand gives it away – he only seems to do it to sex criminals. This recalls the overtly sexual imagery of his mother’s murder. Imagine a digitized growl rumbling over the sound of sizzling flesh: “This one’s for Martha, pervert.” This is a 70s gritty revenge thriller Batman, a Dark Knight Death Wish. In Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, Batman grumbles at Catwoman during a fight, “No guns, no killing.” She quips, “Where’s the fun in that?” Where, indeed.
This film and its predecessor have now both been criticized for the blase murder impulses of their heroes. Audiences seem profoundly disturbed by the idea of superheroes remorselessly killing others. We’re so used to watching antagonists stumble backwards into bottomless chasms or roast in the flames of their own technological hubris that it’s startling to see a film that isn’t interested in that sort of cop-out. We like our superhero films to have neat and tidy endings, where threats are permanently eliminated (unless they aren’t, because they’re coming back in a sequel) without the heroes being liable. Maybe people would like Dawn of Justice better if it had more scenes of its heroes staring forlornly at their hands and mumbling, “My God, what have I done…” On-screen killing is forgivable if the killer feels bad about it. Remorse is treated as a greater indicator of righteousness than the actions themselves.
What so many Dawn of Justice critics seem to miss is that Batman’s black-and-white worldview exists in a world that accommodates it. Why should he feel guilty about killing bad guys? He is the moral center of his world. Nothing he does can truly be “wrong” because everything he does becomes the definition of “right.” This obviously doesn’t map to the real world, but why should it? Superhero movies have never honestly depicted the muddy moral waters of reality. None of them have ever been brave enough to depict their protagonist as being wrong. Dawn of Justice positions Batman as righteous only within the confines of a universe whose moral arc bends towards him. How can we expect this depiction of Batman to conform to the ethical standards of a universe without him? Batman isn’t real.
Still, we so desperately want to make him real. We want a hero whose actions and ideals we can imitate and apply to our own lives. If you’re a member of the outraged contingent of Batman’s fanbase, guns and killing don’t factor into your immaculate hero archetype. In Dawn of Justice, they saw a Batman whose politics did not match up with theirs, and they cried foul. Whether or not you agree with a character’s politics shouldn’t act in place of a value judgement. That notion is an ancient artifact thanks to thinkpiece overload. Culture writing is now dominated by one recycled thesis: “I disagree with this work of art, therefore it is a bad work of art.”
That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of nuances and legitimate critiques to be found therein. I also don’t mean to suggest that it’s invalid to dislike something because you find its ideas distasteful or offensive. That being said, when you are arguing to a work’s effectiveness as adaptation or even just as art, this is as useless a discussion as there can be. This Batman doesn’t have to be just like previous Batmen to be “good.” He just has to be intriguing on his own terms. You may not be interested in this Batman, and that’s all fine and good. But the widespread disdain for Dawn of Justice on the basis of a lack of faithfulness to the character is head-smackingly pointless. Approach the film on its own terms. Take it as a work unto itself, not as a work intrinsically connected to countless other incarnations. This Batman kills people with guns. That fact is worthy of a discussion that most people don’t seem to be willing to have.
The day that I started writing this article, I saw another news story about Newtown, CT. A science teacher at the town’s middle school was arrested for carrying a gun. I don’t know all the details of the incident, but there’s a good chance that this teacher wanted to be a “good guy with a gun.” Do we blame Snyder’s Batman and his ilk for this type of thinking? No, we can only blame the society to which his Batman was a natural reaction. Guns are, for better and (mostly) for worse, part of the fabric of American society. Maybe it’s time for our mythology to stop ignoring that fact. I don’t believe in good guys with guns. But I don’t believe in superheroes, either.