Let’s Talk about Batman — A Philosophical Approach (I)


This article would be the first page of a series. The whole series would be based on the Batman Trilogy Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises. The philosophical thoughts of the director, Christopher Nolan, is hard to be exhausted. Therefore, the writer (me) will keep working on it. Also, anyone is welcome to come up with suggestions or critiques.

We are living in an age full of superheroes. Since the birth of the movie Superman(1978), those heroes are no longer characters in comics. Instead, they have become cultural icons around the world. People in China would talk about the friendship between Superman and Batman, or Captain America and Iron Man. African citizens may also celebrate the rise of Wakanda (also, R.I.P. Chadwick Boseman).

However, is there a movie, or a series of movies, that can inspire our thoughts on justice, violence, fear, and democracy? In my opinion, this must be the Batman Trilogy.

What is Justice?

Is Revenge Equal to Justice?

Justice seems to be the principle only suitable for human beings. It is associated with citizens' daily lives, and people will seek “justice” to resolve the conflicts among individuals or the clashes between individuals and society. In other words, justice is reflected by how individuals or society respond to some people or groups’ actions.

However, different people hold different opinions on justice. Confucius said, “Repay grievance with the grievance, repay morality with morality” [1] This seems to be the most direct and efficient way for individual justice. However, it may not work when it comes to a large community as a country. Imagine someone killed his enemy because this one killed his family members. It sounds fair, but will this one, or the “revenger” get away from the judge of the court in modern society? Of course not.

Therefore, Batman's idea was revealed: is “vengeful justice” can be called “justice”? As known to all, Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed by a robber when they were coming back from the cinema. This scenario had become a nightmare for young Bruce and sowed the seeds of revenge. This idea had driven Bruce Wayne to a different road. He was eager for revenge, not only for his parents but also for Gotham City.

Admittedly, Bruce did choose “revenge” as the pipeline of “justice” in the beginning. However, if Bruce Wayne chose this method, he will become a person the same as who killed his parents: a murderer, a man who violates the law. Dramatically, another murderer came faster than him and killed Joe Chill (the robber who killed Bruce’s parents). In this way, the “justice” of Bruce Wayne was implemented partially.

But did Bruce or Gotham City become any better because of Joe's death (the robber mentioned before)? No, Rachel, the crusading assistant and friend of Burce, pointed out that “revenge is different from justice.” Although Joe Chill was killed, the people who are destroying the city had not been eliminated. Thus, Gotham City does not need a revenger, but a better system or a guardian who can solve the problem from the source.

Ironically, the government officers and police department were bribed by Felcone, the hidden “boss” of criminals in Gotham City. Is it possible to achieve Rachel’s justice in this situation? The answer should be negative. Maybe we need to define justice in another way.

Is Formal Justice Equal to Justice?

The appearance of Harvey Dent had provided a possibility of achieving justice with formal justice. Or, to say, Harvey will transform the system itself and carry out justice through a rigid but just procedure. At the beginning of the movie, The Dark Knight, Harvey unutilized his knowledge of the law to eliminate the criminals of Gotham city. He manipulated the clues of the mobster and sued them in a legal way. Surprisingly, it did work. Mr. Liu was caught by them, and then the whole gang with which Mr. Liu worked was prosecuted, and the social order had been unprecedently stable for a while. Citizens thought peace could be maintained for a long time, and it appeared to be so.

However, the law system itself is full of defects in the film. Gotham city is full of desperate mobsters and hysterical criminals. They are not afraid of the law. They just want to cause chaos and deterrent the social order to satisfy themselves. Thus, even the “White Knight,” Harvey Dent, confessed his tiredness of life in Gotham city. He even expressed his appreciation to Batman when nobody trusted the justification and rationality of Batman’s actions. The reason is simple: Harvey thought people’s indifference and cowardice had indulged the criminals’ evildoing. In the banquet, he said a well-known quoting, “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

At this moment, Bruce Wayne found the possibility of implementing “justice” by incorporating Batman and Harvey Dent's power. The former is a “vigilante” (let’s just call Batman as a vigilante) of Gotham City, while the latter is the incarnation of “justice.” Batman can solve the obstacles of Harvey Dent, and Harvey can punish the criminals with law. In this way, citizens will no longer need to worry about mobsters because the law itself seems strong enough to deal with the gangsters, even if the peace is based on the hidden union of Batman and Harvey Dent. However, both of them had neglected the insanity of Joker, who has the ability to drag almost everyone to his level.

The most charming, as well as the most terrifying trait of Joker, is he does not work for any visible or physical profits. When some citizens were mocking up Batman’s actions to work as vigilantes, he killed them and terrified the whole city, “it was Batman that made this city worse.” When his companions were celebrating their “victory,” Joker burned his money to ashes and let the dogs kill his companions. When policemen were trying to save the hostages from his hand, he was planning two more crimes: let Harvey Dent murder Gordon’s families and instigate two groups of people on two boats to detonate the bombs. He was driven by “chaos,” the evil in his mind.

Therefore, Harvey Dent represented an ideal law system and began to collapse when faced by Joker. If the law cannot punish Joker, or at least let Harvey deploy his resources to punish Joker, the Formal Justice will be nothing but a puppet. This contradiction was pushed to a little climax (not the ultimate one) when Harvey learned his loved one, Rachel was controlled by Joker and his followers. In that scenario, he even wanted to use lynch to punish a man who got involved in this event. However, Batman’s words warned him. Harvey is “the light he (Batman) can never be.” If people knew Harvey is a man who also used lynch, his prosecutions would be undone, and all their efforts will be wasted. Tragic enough, Harvey did not use lynch on anyone, but he did so in another identity later.

“You are the symbol of hope. I can never be.” The Dark Knight, retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qY3UkAHufLY&ab_channel=YouTubeMovies

When Harvey’s life was ruined by Joker, he chose another way but trusting the legal system. A courteous attorney quickly transformed into a vengeance angel and used his method to implement “formal justice.” That means everyone who was involved will be judged indifferently. Harvey Dent is not Harvey Dent anymore. His new identity is as rigid as the justice in his mind, “Two-face.”

Harvey Dent (Two-Face), retrieved from https://www.gogocosplay.com/two-face-costume/

The way he judged criminals is even crueler than those mobsters: he flipped a coin to determine should kill a criminal or not. Now, Harvey’s actions had deviated from his initial maintenance. It is not justice anymore. It is pure violence and a threat to both criminals and normal citizens [2]. If we choose to neglect the differences among various peoples, the “law” will be the Sword of Damocles over everyone’s head. The judge will also be useless because one criminals’ adjudication had already been determined when he committed the crime. We just need an executor to punish them (even include ourselves). Just like Harvey (Two-Face) judged himself in front of Batman [3]. Now, formal justice had fallen apart, and we must seek another form of justice, which can punish the criminals and maintain the stabilization of our society.

Is Democracy Equal to Justice?

Photo by João Marcelo Martins on Unsplash

Before we talk about the justification of Batman, we may need to dig into the system of Gotham City. Of course, Batman did not work for the government. He was saving Gotham City itself. However, this city has its own legal system and police department. If Batman is not registered, he is destined to work underground in the darkness, instead of being glorified as a hero like Harvey Dent (even if he turned into Two-Face eventually).

Can we regard the Gotham government as a representation of democracy? To some extent, yes. To be honest, it has almost everything a democratic system should have. Even Rachel mentioned “democracy” in the banquet with Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent. She thought the existence of Batman would influence the democratic system itself. However, the system itself is broken and outdated, even become a shackle of some ambitious people, like Gordon and Robin (who used “John Blake” as his name in the film). Also, the officers of the government are already corrupted. Otherwise, Harvey and Rachel will not be kidnapped by Joker’s followers. Plus, the police department is weak in all three films. Although Gordon tried his best to guarantee the city, it is not unified, and the crew is definitely incapable of all kinds of emergencies in Gotham City (Anyway, it is Gotham!). Therefore, “democracy” is nothing but a fantasy. Gotham does not have a particular group to make decisions. Neither does it have a robust backup to execute the judgment [4].

“This is about Democracy,” The Dark Knight, retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qY3UkAHufLY&ab_channel=YouTubeMovies

Controversially, if the government of Gotham accepts the existence of Batman, it means some ordinary people will regard being a vigilante is in the acquiescence of the government and mock Batman’s action and costume, even if they don’t have the power at all. Yet if the government denies the legitimacy of Batman’s actions, his power will be restricted tremendously. Joker found this dilemma of Batman and asked him to stand out. Otherwise, he will kill innocent citizens, and people will think it is Batman’s fault. Is it caused by citizen’s ignorance? Not completely. From another, the actions of Batman are full of controversies: if he thinks he was working for the city, then he should listen to the Joker and turn himself in. If he not, his action contradicts his initial maintenance. While if the government allows Batman's existence, it means people are allowed to arm up and act as vigilantes, which will cause more potential troubles. For example, who will save them if they don't have the ability to beat the criminals? And what if a villain like Joker kidnapped all of them [3]?

Fortunately (or unfortunately, maybe), Harvey took the responsibility of Batman and made people see the insanity of Joker. Joker will not stop his brutal crimes without Batman, but the city needs a hero like Harvey and Batman. However, the defects of Gotham City were not solved completely. In The Dark Knight, the “civilized” people in the government still have some considerations, at least the yearning for a peaceful and stable life. While in The Dark Knight Rises, democracy had become a toy of mobsters.

Dr. Crane (Scarecrow) in the Court, retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H1JAeBT2FJ0&ab_channel=YouTubeMovies

On the one hand, the glorification of Harvey Dent was blemished, and criminals were described as “oppressed people” in Bane’s mouth. On the other hand, is it possible that ordinary people will turn into mobsters when ruled by totalitarian? The scenario is similar to the Committee of Public Safety in the French Revolution. It is said to maintain the safety of the country, but it was soon controlled by Robespierre and became the stairs to the center of power. This also reminds people of Julius Caesar. He was elected as the leader when the Roman Republic was in an emergent situation, but he did not give up the power after the emergency and caused the decease of the Roman Republic, but fostered the rise of the Roman Empire. To prevent the “emergent situation” becomes an “ordinary situation” in society and forestall the society from becomes the paradise of criminals, we may need some power to restrict those in power.


The situation in Gotham City is so complicated. Revenge, formal justice, and democracy can not be equal to “justice,” but we must need a solution to Batman’s condition and come up with an answer to the question, “What is justice?” Due to the restriction of time of my strength, we cannot finish it today, but I will keep digging into it and share it with you. Please keep watching!

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[1] Confucius (1999), The Analects of Confucius: a Philosophical Translation. New York: Ballantine Books

[2]T. D. CAMPBELL, Rights Without Justice, Mind, Volume LXXXIII, Issue 331, July 1974, Pages 445–448, https://doi.org/10.1093/mind/LXXXIII.331.445

[3] SuperY超級歪,Political Philosophy of The Dark Knight Trilogy: what do we do justice? YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zXP8XmSRdN0

[4] Valentini, Laura, Justice, and Democracy, The Queen’s College, Oxford, retrieved from https://www.politics.ox.ac.uk/materials/centres/social-justice/working-papers/SJ012_Valentini_Justice&Democracy.pdf

Undergraduate student / Research assistant/ Always curious / Opinions are mine

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