Law, Order and The Batman

By Billy Goss

The Batman launches onto Irish cinema screens this month and in this latest depiction from director Matt Reeves, the hero this time portrayed by Robert Pattinson is a darker, violent and more ruthless man than in previous incarnations.

This is a Batman who is fully down the vigilante rabbit hole, so immersed in his mission that he has little time for anything else, let alone legal concerns.

The Gotham City of The Batman is a dangerous, corrupt and threatening place, reminiscent of New York in the 1970s, where street gangs, mobsters and serial killers lurk around every corner and its only salvation appears to lie with a masked, violent man beating criminals to a pulp with his bare hands night after night.

Or does it?

The Batman is by definition a vigilante. He takes the law into his own hands and in doing so, violates it repeatedly. Assault, battery, trespass, possession of dangerous weapons, even dangerous driving…the list goes on. That’s not to mention the millions of dollars worth of property damage that he causes in his fights with Gotham’s villainy (a subject covered in the comic book Batman: White Knight)

Is he effective? In the face of a corrupt Gotham City police force, sure. But there is a difference between law and order. The Batman restores order, but his brand of justice, or vengeance, is lawlessness by another name. There is certainly an argument that living in fear of a masked hoodlum dealing out punishment as he sees fit is an even worse situation to be in. Over the years several commentators (and even characters in the comics) have pointed out that Batman’s mission may well be escalating the problems of Gotham City. “We start carrying semi-automatics, they buy automatics. We start wearing Kevlar, they buy armor piercing rounds. And you’re wearing a mask, jumping off rooftops…” The theatricality of Batman brings out a more theatrical rogues gallery.

In the midst of this chaos, stands Jim Gordon, sometimes Commissioner Gordon, as the check to Batman’s balance. He doesn’t deputize Batman so much as keep him in line. As the one decent cop in Gotham, he has the respect of Batman and as such, isn’t afraid to haul him over the coals when he veers to close too the criminality he battles.

However, regardless of his intentions, vigilantism can never be tolerated and Batman will always remain on the outside of the law. Gordon and Batman both know this, and so his work remains clandestine, in hope of social and state reform. In the 2008 film, The Dark Knight, this message is made clear. Gotham needs a legitimate figurehead to rally behind, not a vigilante. Batman hopes to inspire change, not enforce it. Society cannot ever accept vigilante justice as legitimate justice. If a man in a mask can go out and use violence to enforce order, it weakens the state’s already precarious public trust in their use of legitimate violence. It damages the very thing it seeks to strengthen.

The Justice Minister in Ireland in 2018 made clear the State’s views on vigilantism:

“An Garda Síochána are the sole legitimate guardians of the peace in this State, charged with upholding the law in the interests of the whole community.

“It is never appropriate for vigilante groups to take the law into their own hands and commit acts of serious violence against people, animals or property. This is a very dangerous road to go down and vigilantism cannot and will not be tolerated in this State.”