Despite what some might think, Batman's no stranger to death. As the decades have passed and Bruce Wayne has faced impossible odds, horrifying monsters, and countless no-win scenarios, his methods have changed--and now Batman's violence in movies stands accused of crossing a line.
The idea of Batman killing, or even using lethal force that could result in death is equal to heresy for some comic fans. Bruce Wayne, the caped crusader, the dark knight--resorting to killing and breaking his ONE rule to separate him from his enemies? How could that be? Well... it wasn’t always his one rule. In fact, Batman actually killed somebody in his very first comic issue.
As many fans will already know, Detective Comics precedes the actual Batman character, with Bruce Wayne just one of several heroes created within its pages. As Batman celebrates his 80th Anniversary, there's no better time to return to the original version of the man audiences met as 'Batman.' In short, a costumed vigilante debuting in the pages of Detective Comics #27, released in March of 1939. And in that first appearance, the crimefighter who pushes the mercenary villain 'Stryker' to his death in a vat of acid. Ring a bell? It should, because it was later retconned to become the origin story of the Joker.
For years Batman (or 'Bat-Man') would kill when necessary, even sporting a gun as part of his equipment now and then. As time went on, DC Comics wanted less violence in their titles, leading to Batman starting to lament having to kill his criminal foes. And while it might make sense for the greater good, or given the abundance of deadly scenarios, it wouldn’t be a great business decision for DC to let Batman kill off the most impressive Rogues Gallery in all of superhero history.
Leaping ahead to the modern era of DC Comics, writer Scott Snyder embraced the idea of 'a Batman who kills' to create a a monstrous collection of Batmen wreaking havoc across an entire Dark Multiverse. Before that, Snyder had his Batman deliver a killing blow to both himself and the Joker in the finale of his New 52 'Endgame' storyline. Grant Morrison has written a Batman that killed Darkseid with a Radion Bullet, and warned of a murderous Damian Wayne in Batman #666, released in July 2007.
Modern writers in every medium have done much to add and alter the mythos of Batman. That includes his "one rule," as it was called by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, the film that saw Batman face an impossible situation: killing Harvey Dent to save the life of Jim Gordon’s little boy. Largely overlooking Bruce killing his mentor in Batman Begins, since... well, that wasn't what that story was about.
Ben Affleck’s most recent version of Batman may have dropped jaws with his disregard for collateral damage, but he wasn’t the first live-action Batman to kill, or allow to be killed. And he won’t be the last, either. When writers take on the task of writing an 80-year-old character, it’s difficult if not impossible to break new ground--especially when readers and audiences are so skeptical of new characters and storylines.
Compelling writing needs tension, and a figure like Batman needs drama. For years, a shift away from violence or 'mature' content meant comic book writers were charged with creating a Batman who would have to solve every criminal riddle without a simpler, more lethal solution. But at the same time, Batman can’t always have that tool in his utility belt, lest there be no real stakes or risk. There’s isn’t always a perfect answer, even for superheroes (he's not Superman, after all). And when faced with the choice of letting a criminal die to save an innocent life, comics and movies have allowed Batman to make that choice, and live with the consequences or move on in the next page.
Fans around the world will always have their favorite stories and iterations of Batman to fall back on. For some it will be versions truly able to live up to their idealistic image, and save the day while protecting every life due to impossible planning and precaution. But they should also prepare themselves for something new. Over time Batman will change his costume, his identity, even his powers. And he will certainly change his "one rule," as he has before.