“A vigilante is just a man lost in the scramble for his own gratification. He can be destroyed, or locked up. But if you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can’t stop you… then you become something else entirely.”
“Legend, Mr. Wayne.”
Uttered within the first five minutes of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, these lines neatly summarize one of the enduring tensions through 75 years of Batman comics, films, and TV shows, as well as the pivotal question of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy: In appointing himself protector of Gotham, how can Bruce Wayne rid the city of the evil that took his parents’ lives and yet remain a symbol of hope — without becoming merely a police-sanctioned thug, an extrajudicial killer, or even the harbinger of permanent martial law?
Where is the line between the vigilante and the legend?
Batman has always been a character of contrasts. Bruce Wayne is the playboy billionaire “Prince of Gotham,” the hot topic on every gossip talk-show and in every tabloid by day; by night, he is a “weird figure of the dark” that preys upon the criminal underworld as the mysterious, terrible Bat-Man (Detective Comics 1937 #33). Known and unknown; light and dark; hope and fear; these contrasts have kept the character vital through the decades.
But the duality in Ra’s al Ghul’s words to Bruce Wayne — the merely mortal vigilante versus the immortal legend — has nowhere been illuminated more clearly than in Christopher Nolan’s films Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). The tension between these two figures, these aspects of the Batman, drives Bruce Wayne’s saga while elucidating his relevance: his is the dramatization of an ordinary human being’s search for an ethical, meaningful response to a world plagued by apathy, senseless tragedy and willful acts of evil.
The word vigilante derives from the Spanish for “one who is vigilant”; a guard, or watchman. In modern parlance it describes an individual who pursues and punishes wrongdoers without legal authority to do so. Vigilantes, bounty hunters, and lynch mobs all cast long shadows over American history and fiction, from the fanciful (such as Zorro) to the pseudo-historical (Wyatt Earp, “Wild Bill” Hickok and other mercenary lawmen of the late 1800’s) to the completely real and despicably violent legacy of white supremacy in the American South.
Much of Bill Finger and Bob Kane’s inspiration for Batman can be traced to Zorro, the dashing pulp hero of the early 20th century, and the Scarlet Pimpernel before him; DC Comics writers have often acknowledged this lineage by writing that Thomas and Martha Wayne took their son Bruce to see The Mark of Zorro (1940) on the night of their murder.
On this basis, “vigilante” means at least this much: he or she takes action against injustice (real or perceived) where legal authorities can not or will not, employing some degree of violence. Contextually speaking, a vigilante may also violate alleged criminals’ due process and be subject to legal action themselves.
Though comic writers’ characterization of him has differed wildly over the years, the Batman always fits these criteria neatly. He relies on martial arts training, detective work and technological superiority to bring his personal vision of justice to Gotham’s criminal underworld. The vigilante ignores due process, violates suspects’ civil rights, and in Nolan’s trilogy he resorts to increasingly unethical methods as his campaign against Gotham’s organized crime escalates. This Batman forever lingers in the shadow of his parents’ death, locked in an ultimately futile struggle to prevent others from suffering similar pain and loss. According to Brooker, this crime-fighter extracts “a merely personal catharsis from beating up petty thugs like the one who killed his parents, rather than attempt[ing] to alter the society which produced those criminals” (27).
The other aspect of the Batman is less tangible. Until now we’ve referred to him on Ra’s al Ghul’s terms: a legend, “an extremely famous or notorious person, especially in a particular field.” While this also quite accurately describes the character, it isn’t necessarily very helpful for our purposes. If Bruce Wayne was interested in fame or notoriety, he’d announce on national television that he is the Batman. And yet if he desired complete anonymity, he would not have chosen such a distinct and theatrical guise.
In terms of setting up Bruce Wayne’s vision of this legend in the making, the following scene seems most relevant:
This aspect of the Batman, the symbol, strives to save a city strangled by its own lawlessness and corruption, to inspire in its citizens a revival of the civic engagement and altruism he learned from his parents before their murder at the hands of an impoverished, desperate mugger. This Batman believes without reservation that the people of Gotham City are basically good; they just need “dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy” (Batman Begins). The symbol is “incorruptible, everlasting,” hiding behind anonymity to imply that “Batman could be anybody” (Batman Begins; The Dark Knight Rises). The symbol’s function is to transcend the individual’s limitations — “as a man… [he] can be ignored… destroyed” — while dramatizing the individual’s will to act against injustice (Batman Begins).
Following the films’ lead, I will continue to refer to these alternate personas of the Batman as “the vigilante” and “the symbol.” Both address separate and sometimes conflicting concerns of their unifying alter-ego, Bruce Wayne, but they also rely on each other; frequently, the vigilante creates the dramatic examples on which the symbol thrives, while the symbol inspires Gotham’s law enforcement officers and public officials to pursue the city’s crime syndicates more actively, despite fear of reprisals.
And though these two Batmen seem to mesh fairly well in Batman Begins, the vigilante becomes increasingly problematic and unethical in The Dark Knight, damaging the Batman’s symbolic power almost beyond repair. As a result, one of the primary aims of the trilogy’s finale The Dark Knight Rises is the restoration of Batman as an icon of individual commitment to moral action; after abandoning the vigilante’s questionable motives and methods, the Batman returns to the role he devised for himself early in the first film: a hyperbolic, theatrical display of the “ordinary citizen standing up for what’s right” (The Dark Knight).
Whether Bruce Wayne, the billionaire “Prince of Gotham” counts as an “ordinary citizen” is also a question we must address, especially with The Dark Knight Rises, which incorporates contemporary American perceptions of economic inequality and class warfare into its narrative. Can anybody be Batman? Of course not. But we should also be careful of applying a purely Marxist lens to a film (and character) whose background and ambitions are significantly broader than merely a reprised version of A Tale of Two Cities with Batman thrown into the melee.
Over the course of many posts I will examine Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy with a focus on not only the tensions between “symbol” and “vigilante,” but also the ways in which these aspects of the Dark Knight intersect with issues such as corruption, mass surveillance, terrorism, and class warfare.
Batman Begins. Warner Home Video, 2005. DVD.
Brooker, Will. Batman Unmasked: Analysing a Cultural Icon. London: Continuum, 2000. Print.
Finger, Bill, and Bob Kane. “The Batman Wars Against the Dirigible of Doom.” Detective Comics 1.33 (1939). Print.
Miller, Frank, and Klaus Janson. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. New York, N.Y.: DC Comics, 2002. Print.
The Dark Knight. Warner Home Video, 2008. DVD.
The Dark Knight Rises. Warner Home Video, 2012. DVD.