Before we were interrupted by RWA Nationals, we were having a nice chat about antiheroes. Remember that? The topic of Batman came up, and Alicia and I agreed that Ian Healy seemed to have a much better handle on this than we did. So we asked him to share his thoughts about Batman as antihero, and here is what he had to say:
Say there’s this guy. He has a strong conviction about what is right and what is wrong, and his convictions don’t necessarily match up with those of his society. He decides to act on those convictions and operate as a vigilante – performing the task of judge and jury with his own cognizance and punishing those he deems are wrong in his eyes. To protect his identity, he wears a mask. And in this guise, he metes out his own form of justice, regardless of the actual law.
Sound familiar? Are you thinking of Batman by any chance? It certainly describes him and his crusade against crime well enough. But let’s say he’s not our friend Bruce Wayne, and he’s not targeting criminals, but African Americans. Whoa! He’s a KKK guy!
Think about that for a minute. We think of Batman as a hero because of his quest for justice, but is he really? Or is he an anti-hero?
An anti-hero is defined as “a persona characterized by a lack of ‘traditional’ heroic qualities.” What exactly are those qualities? Webster’s says a hero is “A being of great strength and courage celebrated for bold exploits; often the offspring of a mortal and a god.” Well, Batman certainly has great strength and courage and has bold exploits, so why do I postulate that he is in fact an anti-hero?
First and foremost, Batman is driven not by a quest for justice, but by a desire for revenge. His entire life and persona is devoted toward punishing the criminal community for his parents’ deaths at the hands of a common mugger. Revenge isn’t a particularly noble cause, and many of Batman’s actions in pursuit of it are not only anti-heroic, but downright criminal. By choosing to act as a vigilante, ignoring the law in favor of his own sensibilities, he has become the very thing he seeks to eradicate: a criminal. How many laws does Batman break? Let’s start with his habit of ignoring peoples’ civil rights to administer brutal beatings. Yanking someone several stories into the air and then nearly dropping them back to the ground just to obtain information is torture, plain and simple. Batman has always claimed he will not kill in pursuit of his so-called justice, but time and time again he has allowed people to die, either as a direct result of his actions or his inaction at a crucial moment. Think of the moment at the climax of Batman Begins, when Ra’s Al-Ghul tells him “You’ll have to kill me,” and Batman replied “I don’t have to kill you, but I don’t have to save you either.”
He assaults, he kills, he breaks-and-enters, trespasses, and blows things up. He tears through the city causing great damage and putting countless lives at risk. He doesn’t follow the established system of justice, put in place just to prevent the kind of knee-jerk reactionary vigilantism that he espouses. Are these really the qualities of a heroic character? I submit to you they are not.
This makes a lot of sense. But it brings up another question. Is a protagonist antiheroic because of his actions, his motivations, or some combination of both?