Since its release, [Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice](tag:711870) has received an extremely justifiable bashing by both critics and fans alike. The massive drop-off over opening weekend is proof that people are very ambivalent about Zack Snyder's grimdark take on the world's two most recognizable superheroes.
But Snyder and his fans continue to try and defend this extremely flawed film. One particular line of defense that has been deployed is in service of Snyder's depiction of Batman.
The Batman of the comics does not kill. There have been exceptions, but for the vast majority of Batman's 75+ year history, that's a line he refuses to cross. It's a notion that comes up in virtually every single story about the Joker, so it's kind of hard to ignore.
Some movies largely ignored this interpretation—Batman as portrayed by both Michael Keaton and Val Kilmer didn't mind offing criminals (gratuitously in Keaton's case). Christian Bale refused to kill in Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy, although he employed some loopholes to this rule ("I'm not going to kill you, but I don't have to save you"—really?). Ben Affleck's Batman, however, does kill. He kills willingly, he kills mercilessly, and he even sadistically brands those he doesn't murder.
The most consistent line of defense I've seen used from fanboys and from Snyder himself is The Dark Knight Returns defense. The Dark Knight Returns was Frank Miller's seminal take on an older Batman coming out of retirement. Batman v Superman is clearly inspired by Miller's work, so much so that you'd think in Snyder's eyes, no other writer has ever worked on Batman.
I would say that in the Frank Miller comic book that I reference, he kills all the time. There’s a scene from the graphic novel where he busts through a wall, takes the guy’s machine gun…I took that little vignette from a scene in The Dark Knight Returns, and at the end of that, he shoots the guy right between the eyes with the machine gun.
I was pretty floored when I read this, because this certainly doesn't jive with my own memories of The Dark Knight Returns. Yes, The Dark Knight Returns is pretty grim. And while it presents a very good take on Batman, as a Superman fan as well I'm a bit conflicted because Miller's take on Superman is extremely insulting (but that's a story for another time).
In The Dark Knight Returns, Batman is arguably more violent than ever before. He's portrayed more as a drill sergeant. But he's not the killer that Snyder and his fans portray him as. Quite the contrary in fact.
Allow me to start by referencing the scene Snyder cites in his defense, from Batman: The Dark Knight Returns #2:
In this scene, Batman holds a massive gun and fires a shot at a member of the Mutant gang who is holding a child at gunpoint, threatening to kill him. Snyder would have you believe that this makes it clear that Batman kills. However, Snyder and his defenders present this image free of context. Look at the first panel on the very next page:
The Mutant is falling to the ground and there's what looks like a blood splatter on the wall. But the coloring makes it difficult to tell if this splatter is blood or something else. This is a dilapidated building, after all. And one of the Mutants shot another earlier in this scene as well.
There's also the issue of the placement. The bullet hole is clearly visible on the wall. But if this is the Mutant falling down after she was shot, then how come the hole is above the blood splatter? And where is the entry wound on her head? Is that really a dead Mutant we're seeing? One of the things Miller portrayed in the comic was that all these gang members were basically aimless kids who were getting sucked up into whatever cause came along. But when push came to shove, most of them folded fairly easily.
So is this the case of Batman shooting a criminal, or is it the case of a scared kid not knowing what she's doing getting freaked out when an old guy dressed as a giant bat fires a bullet just inches from her head?
The scene is a bit ambiguous, I will give the defenders that. This is why it's important to look at the context. And context comes from reading the rest of the story.
Look at this sequence from later in that same issue:
Here, Batman is attacking the Mutant gang directly. He's driving his new, tank-like Batmobile, which is heavily armed. But it's made clear through the narration in the third panel that the guns are firing rubber bullets. Or in other words, non-lethal rounds.
Now look at this scene in the very beginning of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns #3. Some gang members are robbing a liquor store. Batman is in disguise as an old woman and breaks up the robbery, then chases after the leader. Just before he goes, the shop owner takes out his gun and puts it against the heads of one of the kids who tried to rob him. Here's how Batman responds:
Finally, let's look at one of the most important scenes in the entire book. During this very same issue, the Joker re-emerges. He's been sitting in a psychiatric hospital near-comatose for years. But when Batman comes back, it reinvigorates the Clown Prince of Crime. And throughout the issue, Batman makes it clear that he is done with the old games. One example is in this scene:
These words and the narration a few pages earlier, Miller is building up to this idea that enough is enough—Batman is not screwing around anymore and tonight, the Joker will die by his hand. And finally, the Batman has his hands on the Joker's neck. He twists...
Batman's narration here says it all:
I hear...voices...voices calling me...a killer...I wish I were...
Then it's followed by Joker's statement saying he's disappointed that Batman didn't have the nerve to kill him. And on the very next page:
Even when push came to shove, even when Batman was faced with his greatest enemy—a man who has killed hundreds, maybe thousands of people. A man who killed Jason Todd, the second Robin. This grimmer, darker Batman who, according to Snyder, "kills all the time," couldn't bring himself to kill the Joker.
He came close—very close. But he didn't go through with it. He couldn't. And so, the Joker finished the job in order to implicate Batman in his death.
Now, with all this context in mind, look back at the scene with the gun that Snyder references. When facing down an entire gang of criminals and he's in a tank, Batman still uses rubber bullets and refuses to kill. When he could leave a gang member to be shot by the shop clerk he was robbing, Batman warns the clerk that he'll be next if he pulls the trigger. And when faced with the opportunity to kill one of the most brutal mass murderers Gotham has ever seen, a man who has caused him endless pain, Batman still can't cross that line.
But we're supposed to believe that he would shoot a kid in the head?
It just doesn't make any sense. The context of the story makes it very clear: contrary to popular belief, Batman does not kill in The Dark Knight Returns.
Much like how Snyder misunderstood Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen on a very fundamental level, he also clearly misunderstood The Dark Knight Returns. For all Snyder's talk of being a comic book fan, for being a fan of these seminal classics, it seems he's never really attempted a serious reading of them.