23 June 2005

Batman and vigilantism

“It's not what’s in your heart that defines you, but what you do.”
(Batman in this year’s movie Batman Begins)

On the surface, Bruce Wayne is a handsome, glamorous, philanthropic, industrialist billionaire and somewhat of a playboy. He seems to have no worries, no problems. However, inside, he is still carrying the torch for his parents, who were killed in front of him in a random act of street violence. Years later, in his Batman alter-ego, he responds to crime by taking justice into his own hands. And so begins Batman’s vigilantism.

Are there then two identities to a superhero which need to be reconciled?

“This ambiguity is part of the appeal,” suggests Frank Miller, author of the 1986 novel The Dark Knight Returns, who recreates the Batman saga. Miller tells the story of how Batman “gets dragged back into the vigilante trade. The story is steeped in enormous distrust of authority, and the necessary outcome of this attitude is a straightforward endorsement of vigilantism.”

Nationmaster.com, in one of the best-researched accounts on Batman, reports that, in the original 1939 DC comics series which introduced Batman, the superhero was a violent avenger who left his foes more dead than not. Yet, the series was a runaway hit.

This report is validated by an NPR programme archived from June 2002: “As imagined by Bob Kane, the comics wonder boy who dreamed him up, Batman had violent crime in his blood. As a young boy, he had witnessed the murder of his parents. And unlike other conventionally good-vs-evil superheroes with more spectacular or otherworldly talents, Kane’s hero was always just a step away from criminal behaviour himself.”

These are the origins of our superhero. Yet, millions of people across the world, many of them children, marvel at Batman’s victories, glorifying his methods and motivation. The superhero credo – along with its vigilantism roots – are not only endorsed but actually praised by the whole world.

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