“To conquer others is to have force. To conquer oneself is to be strong.”
Tao Te Ching
If you’ve followed Batman stories to any extent, you likely already know about his steadfast moral code — that is, he refuses to kill his enemies, no matter how threatening they might be.
And if you’ve ever been a fan of this famous fictional vigilante, you might have found yourself scratching your head during tempting moments when it seems to make perfect sense for him to go against his code, but he still doesn’t.
Moments like this make you feel like Batman isn’t a very realistic character, like no one could possibly be so upright.
But maybe we’re missing the point. Because the thing is, he struggles with his code, every day. But it’s not without knowing how important it is.
And that makes him arguably the most relatable comic book hero — not only because he doesn’t have any superpowers, but more importantly because he struggles with himself.
The animated film “Batman: Under the Red Hood” places the character’s moral dilemma and vulnerabilities under the microscope.
In the film, Batman has readjusted to life as a lone crusader, fighting crime without a sidekick. Dick Grayson, the first Robin, who Batman raised as his own child, had grown apart and assumed his own identity as Nightwing. Jason Todd, who Batman similarly raised and had taken up the Robin mantle, has been presumed dead for many years after being brutally tortured by the Joker.
As the story goes, Jason returns with a vengeance against Gotham City’s criminals, particularly the Joker. He fights crime as “The Red Hood” (which was the Joker’s original alias before falling into a pit of acid), albeit in his violent, bloodthirsty way.
He later confronts Batman and blames his moral code for his failure to save him from the Joker years ago, as well as the thousands of innocents that the Joker had suffered.
He says to Batman, “Bruce, I forgive you for not saving me. But why, why on God’s earth is (the Joker) still alive? I’m not talking about killing Penguin, or Scarecrow, or Dent. I’m talking about him. Just him. I’m doing it because…Because he took me away from you.”
And Batman’s answer to why he still hasn’t killed the Joker is because “it would be too damned easy.” He says, “All I’ve ever wanted to do is kill him. But if I do that…If I allow myself to go down into that place…I’ll never come back.”
At first glance, that seems like an unsatisfactory answer. But it’s really something to think about.
If Batman decides that it’s okay to kill just the Joker, it would be too easy for him to justify murdering many more criminals in the future. In the end, Batman becomes no different from the criminals he fights. He would just be another dark figure in the shadows to fear, rather than a symbol of hope for the people of Gotham to feel safe and protected in times of utter chaos.
The film’s heart-aching image of Batman, alone in his Batcave, staring at Jason’s Robin costume behind a glass case, can serve as a reminder for us that doing what’s right isn’t always easy — that sometimes, it can even mean losing a huge part of ourselves or the world we know.
But as Batman says in the film, “it doesn’t change anything”. Whatever difficulties we might encounter in staying true to our principles doesn’t change how necessary those principles are.
Realize that more often than not, it’s the small things we do that determine our character. As the Roman statesman succinctly put it, “The beginnings of all things are small.” In every small slip-up, in every seemingly insignificant moment in our everyday lives, we have to decide who we’re going to be — and that is, by deciding what to do or not to do.
Whenever you’re stuck in traffic, you can decide not to be the nutjob who uses the emergency lane without an emergency. Whenever you’re struggling in a test, you can decide not to cheat, because it’s more important to be knowledgeable than to merely have good grades. Whenever you come home from work after a bad day, you can decide to cool down before you displace your frustration towards your kids, so they won’t ever feel unsafe in being vulnerable with you.
So, always remember that the small things have more weight to them than we might think, especially when we keep doing them. As the famous saying goes,
“Watch your thoughts, they become your words;
Watch your words, they become your actions;
Watch your actions, they become your habits;
Watch your habits, they become your character;
Watch your character, they become your destiny.”