Everybody knows the origin of Batman. Bruce Wayne and his parents walked down a dark alley and became victims of a mugging that resulted in the death of Martha and Thomas Wayne. This event shaped Bruce and his future alter ego of Batman, but what kind of philosophy drives Batman? Why is he so adamant about not killing the Joker, or other criminals? It might surprise some of you, but Batman's beliefs can be very effectively connected to the philosophy of existentialism. Before we can connect the dots between existentialism and Batman, we have to establish what existentialism is.
What Is Existentialism?
Existentialism was coined by authors and philosophers of the 19th and 20th century and was an answer to the enlightenment of the 19th century. If you want to learn more about the enlightenment, take a look at this article explaining the ideas of the enlightenment, at hand of Barry Allen's decision to create the Flashpoint timeline. Authors and philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and many more shaped the idea of existentialism.
Existentialists believe that life has no specific meaning but that this fact gives us all a choice and responsibility for our own actions. The fact that life has no definitive meaning or is lead by a higher power gives us the ability to choose our meaning/purpose in life; every life has potential and life for it's own sake is worth living — morals and beliefs are a result of this.
"Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself." — Jean Paul Sartre
To summarize: You're responsible for your life and to choose a path and meaning for it. There is no higher power to guide you nor destiny stopping you from accomplishing your goals.
Now how does this philosophy bleed into Batman's behaviour?
The Philosophy Behind Batman's 'No Kill' Rule
Batman's rule against killing is a result of his belief that every life has the potential to accomplish great things. He knows that taking a life takes away all the potential it has. Killing them takes away their chance to redeem themselves and do good. That's also why he doesn't kill the Joker — if he kills the Joker he would admit that there are people who are evil and can't be changed.
This also ties into Joker's nihilistic world view, which deserves its own article. Batman, for however dark he might seem, believes in the good of people and that even people like the Joker can change and maybe do some good. That's also the reason why he took in Jason Todd, a child who seemed to be destined to become just another thug in Gotham. Jason might not be what Batman hoped he would become, but he still does good in his own way, which is more than he would have done as just another criminal in Gotham.
The "no kill" rule is a symbol for the hope Batman has for Gotham and even people like the Joker who seem to be too far gone. It's the belief that we all can choose and (most importantly) change our lives
The Philosophy Behind The Persona Of Batman
The persona of Batman was born out of the anger and sadness of a child that was confronted with a hopeless situation. This is quite similar to how existentialism was born out of the hopeless realization that the universe might not care about us. Existentialism at its core is a philosophy that tries to regain control over the realization that we don't matter in the bigger picture. You could say it was the glass half full approach that looked at the bright side of the situation, next to its nihilistic counterpart that had a more, glass is half empty approach. Existentialism — while acknowledging the indifference of the universe — believes that we can create our own goals and happiness.
Batman is the embodiment of this thinking. Bruce Wayne could have just accepted his parents' death and become some billionaire that gives some money to charity and drinks the pain away, but he decided that this was a wakeup call — that he wouldn't waste his life. Surviving this terrible situation and using the money his parents left him gave Bruce the chance to become something that can protect others from experiencing his pain and inspire a new generation of Gotham citizens that might change Gotham more than Batman could ever do. Who knows, he might inspire the future Major of Gotham.
Batman might be a scary monster of the night for criminals, giving them something that makes them rethink if they should really go out and commit a crime, but often it's overlooked that to the good citizen of Gotham, he is a symbol of hope — a guardian in the night. He might not be the bright symbol of hope that Superman is, but at his core he tries to spread the same message of hope.
"‘Oh, DC films are gritty and dark and that’s what makes them different.’ That couldn’t be more wrong. It’s a hopeful and optimistic view of life. Even Batman has a glimmer of that in him. If he didn’t think he’d make tomorrow better, he’d stop.” —Geoff Johns
Batman's War Against Crime And The Bat-Family
One of the core principles of existentialism is the choosing of one's path and goals in life. These goals should fulfill one's existence and, if possible, benefit the lives of others. Bruce Wayne chose to dedicate his life to the war on crime. In his earlier years he was very serious about spreading fear into the hearts of criminals and was quite brutal. He choose a lonely path in a war he will never win.
That's why he changed his approach when he got older, beginning with him taking on a sidekick, Dick Grayson a.k.a Robin. Robin represents hope in Batman's life and in his crusade. That's also what he states in Justice League: The New Frontier when Superman questions him about taking on a sidekick.
"Let's just say I set out to scare criminals, not children." — Batman
Robin (and for that matter, every member of the Bat-family) represents Batman's legacy. It might seem weird how Batman surrounds himself with children and teenagers, but they're the future of Gotham; his war on crime is for them, and he is training and raising them to continue his war. At the same time, they give him a more hopeful perspective. Batman raising these children gave him something he could finish. Turning them into superheroes who will continue to make Gotham better is his greatest success. In many ways they're better than Batman.
Dick Grayson, who is a more hopeful figure and is naturally more talented in fighting, is basically a Batman 2.0. Grayson (to a degree) is the perfect amalgam of the best aspects Batman and Superman have to offer. After all, Grayson combines Batman's training with and admiration for Superman, even adopting the name Nightwing from a Kryptonian legend Superman told him. Scott from Nerd Sync made a great video on this topic, which you should give a watch after finishing this article.
Batman having a family and the goal of passing down his hope for a better future, is what keeps him going, or how Nietzsche would say it:
"He who has a why to live for can bear almost every how." — Friedrich Nietzsche
Batman: The Ultimate Existentialist
To bring it all together, Batman's entire character, from putting on his costume every night, to him having sidekicks fits all into the teachings of existentialism. How hard he is on his rules and his code against killing even gives us a reason to call him the ultimate existentialist. Being so stubborn when it comes to his rules might seem ignorant to some, but that just shows how deeply he believes that humankind can redeem itself and that nobody is too far gone. At his core, whatever Batman might think, he is a hopeful character that believes that a better tomorrow is coming and I think that is the reason Batman connects so well with readers and moviegoers — he acknowledges the darkness in us all but he never forgets the good we're capable of.
"Men are still good. We fight, we kill, we betray one another, but we can rebuild. We can do better. We will. We have to." —Bruce Wayne
Take a look at the singular event that launched the birth of Gotham's Caped Crusader — 10 times over:
What do you think of Batman as the epitome of existential thinking?