In most continuities, Batman retains a set of rules and codes around how far he should go. These often are done to either keep within the lines of the law, retain his own empathy or stop him from going beyond redemption. Over the years, they have generally become simplified to either No Killing or No Guns rules, though the contents of these have also ensured he doesn't inflict brutal violence upon others. However, some incarnations, including the mainline Batmen, have either broken or not retained these.
When first introduced, Batman did not have any concern about the lives of his enemies. His first confirmed kill was in Detective Comics #27, where he knocked Alfred Stryker into a vat of acid. Batman continued to murder criminals, cause their deaths or leave them in lethal situations. In some stories, he also wielded a pistol. Both Bill Finger and Bob Kane mentioned this was due to the influence of pulp action heroes in comics, such as The Shadow and Green Hornet. Both were well known for wielding firearms and often used lethal methods to dispatch enemies.
This continued until Batman #1, where he gunned down Hugo Strange's henchmen and hung one of the Monster Men with a noose from the Batgyro. However, the story featured Batman's first indication that he disliked taking lives and was only using lethal force because he saw it necessary on this occasion. According to Bob Kane, this incident evoked complaints from parents, due to children becoming interested following the introduction of Robin. This led editor Whitney Ellsworth to tell Finger to never have him use guns again. The editor later created a policy for all published characters from killing, which stated "Heroes should never kill a villain, no matter the depths of his villainy."
Officially, Batman's "no killing" rule came into affect in Batman #4. During a swordfight with pirates, Batman tells Robin "Use only the flat of your sword, Robin! Remember, we never kill with weapons of any kind!" Furthermore, the character began working alongside the Gotham City Police Department and was deputized as an agent of the law. These now meant Batman was no longer considered a vigilante and would have to work within the guidelines of the law.
Despite these changes, Batman still continued to kill criminals in his stories, though most were indirectly caused by either knocking them into hazards or throwing them off buildings. However, direct kills were gradually phased out, though they still continued to occur albeit rarely.
Batman's use of lethal tactics finally stopped after a trip to the frontlines of World War II during Batman #15. This issue was notably one of the largest sprees in his history, causing a vehicle crash and later destroyed an entire warship full of soldiers. The issues also depicted Batman using a machine gun on the cover of the issue.
After this incident and with the new policies in place, Batman would not kill his enemies and even attempt to prevent their deaths. He also stopped using weapons that could be used to cause deadly harm, such as guns and swords. Some stories would justify this as him allowing the courts to serve justice, with the character now being on the side of the police and the law.
Due to Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent targeting comics for violent acts and blaming them for juevinial delinqency, the Comics Magazine Association of America created the Comics Code Authority's guidelines to prevent government intervention. Comic books, including issues of Batman and Detective Comics, would need to abide by these if they wished to be published, meaning Batman and other characters had to abide to stricter rules.
Some of these guidelines included:
- Scenes of excessive violence shall be prohibited. Scenes of brutal torture, excessive and unnecessary knife and gunplay, physical agony, the gory and gruesome crime shall be eliminated.
- Inclusion of stories dealing with evil shall be used or shall be published only where the intent is to illustrate a moral issue and in no case shall evil be presented alluringly, nor so as to injure the sensibilities of the reader.
These meant that Batman could no longer be portrayed as a vigilante operating on the edge or use excessive violence, though these rules had been in place since 1940. This also meant that Batman and Robin could not get into fights nor use direct violence on their enemies. The codes also meant that criminals could not be portrayed sympathetically and stories could not sow distrust in authority. As such, the Dynamic Duo were to solely focus on criminals and not investigate issues like police corruption. Ironically, it also meant that Batman's supervillains could also not be shown committing violent crimes, including acts of murder or gang wars. These codes would remain in place until they were updated in the early-1970s. The new portrayal of Batman and his enemies would heavily influence the 1960s Batman series and how Batman was presented.
The only notable time Batman killed during the Silver Age was in 1968's The Brave and the Bold #84. In a World War II story, an undercover Bruce Wayne used explosives to destroy a plane shooting at him and the Easy Company. Later, the group planted charges on a bridge to destroy it and an entire battalion of soldiers, with Bruce being the one to detonate them. However, given the time-frame in question, it could be argued that it was before Batman adhered to the non-lethal codes or took on Robin as his sidekick. The story also came at a time when Julius Schwartz was trying to reinstate the darker Batman seen in the later 1930s and early-1940s.
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With the Comic Codes being restrained in the early-1970s, Batman began to take a somewhat looser approach to non-lethal crime-fighting. Many of these came at the hands of incidents that the villains fell into, though most were indirectly caused by Batman. These usually ranged from moves pulled in self-defense to indirectly causing incidents. Despite this, he still would not use guns. However, swords and bows began to reenter his arsenal, primarily due to encounters with the newly-met Ra's al Ghul and his League of Assassins.
The first of Batman's murders during this time was in Batman #221, where the Dark Knight tossed Otto Kramm into a pit with a killer lamb the scientist created. In narration, it is mentioned that the two killed each other off-panel and Batman regarded it as "a fitting end" for the villain.
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Following the company-wide reset of the Crisis on Infinite Earths, Batman is established as avoiding death from the beginning; Batman: Year One sees him even subject himself to a beating to stop a random criminal falling off a fire escape during an early patrol. Another early case sees Batman use a flamethrower in the Bat-boat, but this is explicitly used only to stop a boat that is still close to the coast so that the criminals using it can swim to shore, and Batman is stated to have phased out such extreme weapons.
One storyline saw the Dark Knight abandon the killer the KGBeast in a locked room in the sewers after an intense battle, with the implication being that he would leave the KGBeast to slowly die, but later appearances by the KGBeast reveal that Batman sent police to find him once the killer was sufficiently weakened to be arrested.
When Jean-Paul Valley took over the mantle of Batman, the moment that drove Bruce Wayne to take back the mantle himself was when Valley's actions led to the deaths of serial killer Abattoir and his hostage, Graham Etchison, Wayne and his allies all agreeing that Batman cannot kill. Wayne has also refused to allow his allies to carry guns (with the exception of Alfred, justified given Alfred's greater age and how he doesn't accompany them on patrol).
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Aside from the "Earth One/New Earth/Prime-Earth" Batman, many different versions have been established to possess similar rules and codes of conduct.
- Earth-1: In the Batman: Earth One graphic novel series, Batman is depicted as adopting a no-killing rule after rumors circulate that he'd murdered the mayor. These also include avoiding leaving criminals in potentially deadly situations. However, Batman is also shown paying the Cat for information, despite her being a wanted criminal. He also gives Killer Croc a place to hide from the authorities despite him being wanted for theft and assault, thereby harboring a fugitive.
- Earth-2: After the establishment of the DC Multiverse, the Golden Age Batman stories and activities were retconned to have been undertaken by the Earth-2 Batman. These included the initial encounters, including deaths of criminals at his hands. These also included adoption of the codes after allowing Robin to join his war on crime.
- Earth-31: In The Dark Knight Returns, Batman is depicted as more brutal and violent compared to other counterparts. These range from using torture to gain information and using guns when necessary. During a confrontation with the mutants, Batman is forced to shoot a member to save a hostage's life. The story remains ambiguous whether they were killed, though charges made against Batman by Ellen Yindel imply that they survived. Batman also considers gunning down the Mutant Leader from inside the Riot Tank Batmobile, though decides against it. He also breaks the Joker's neck during their final battle, though it remains ambiguous whether Batman killed him or whether the Joker finished himself off to frame him. In the sequel Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Batman is shown as having abandoned these codes, using vehicles and weapons to kill opponents. He also has modified the Batsuit's cape to slice through enemies. Batman also allows the death of multiple characters, including Lex Luthor and the new Joker.
- In the prequel All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder, Batman is shown as a violent sociopath who's more than willing to kill enemies or leave them in almost-certainly lethal situations to die. He also abducts a traumatized Dick Grayson and forces him to join his war on crime, even verbally, psychologically and physically abusing him. Batman's actions in the comic have been widely criticized, with many regarding his depiction as incredibly unlikeable and unsympathetic.
- Earth-43: In the Batman: Red Rain trilogy, Batman is turned into a vampire in order to defeat Dracula. Initially after the transformation, Batman sustained himself using a blood substitute devised by Tanya, a rogue vampire who had also opposed Dracula. While he did kill at this point, all his victims were other vampires, Batman justifying this action as the vampires weren't even alive (although another vampire countered that this was a weak justification considering that Batman was a vampire himself). Eventually, events led to Batman succumbing to his new thirst for blood and driving him to kill his human villains, although he was able to restrict himself to only those criminals who were themselves killers, and the series ends with him walking into the sunlight to destroy himself so that he cannot endanger his city further after his enemies have all been destroyed.
In Other Media
In the 1960s Batman series, Batman does not either use weapons or kill any of his enemies. This was primarily due to influence from the Silver Age depictions of his character. The show presents these as him giving them the chance to reform and do good for society. Batman also attempts to save criminals from situations that were potentially lethal. Despite this, he is also depicted as open-minded enough to consider other causes or even challenge authority, primarily suborn attitudes from Commissioner Gordon and Chief O'Hara.
The same codes also carry over to Batman: The Movie. Though some point to the apparent deaths of the Five Guinea Pigs, their fates arguable rest in the hands of their boss, Penguin, by restoring them with heavy water used for the Batcave's atomic pile. Though Batman and Robin both attack and cause the transformation of two of the Guinea Pigs, they were unaware of their nature and Batman indicates they may have survived, though only as Anti-Matter. Whilst chasing the villains, Batman allows Robin to use the Batzooka on the villains' submarine to force them to the surface, though this weapon is apparently non-explosive and does not cause any damage to the vehicle's hull.
DC Animated Universe
Though more darker compared to the 60s series, Batman: The Animated Series does have its version of Batman retain the same rules as other counterparts. In the episode "The Underdwellers", he states that he abides by the rules to ensure justice is held and that the authorities can do their work. Batman does considered breaking them on several occasions, most notably the Sewer King after learning about his use of children as slave labor.
He continues to abide by them in the subsequent The New Batman Adventures, Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. However, during the latter series episode "Dead Reckoning", Batman is possessed by Deadman to save Wonder Woman, grabbing and firing a gun at her attacker Devil Ray. This causes the villain's death, horrifying Batman when he regains control and realizes what has happened. Given Deadman was in control at the time, the blame arguably doesn't rest on Batman.
In the sequel series Batman Beyond, Bruce is shown, whilst suffering a heart attack, being forced to threaten a criminal with a gun to save a hostage's life. This event horrified him so much that he decided to leave the role, never to continue patrolling Gotham regularly. When Terry McGinnis takes on the role of Batman, he abides by the same rules as Bruce did. However, in some situations, Terry causes several presumed deaths of his enemies, such as the Terrific Trio. These often occur because there is no visible alternative to stop them or to save the lives of others, and in most cases they die mainly because Batman cannot save them from the side-effects of their abilities.
In Batman, it is implied that the Dark Knight murdered small-time criminal Johnny Gobs prior to its events. Later, he uses the Batmobile to plant a small grenade within the Axis Chemicals building, which detonates by the legs of two Joker Goons standing next to that side of the vehicle. It also possible that others, such as truck loaders or "employees" like the elderly labtech, could have been injured or even perished in the resulting explosions. Shortly thereafter Joker's men appear in great numbers at Bicentennial Festival indicating that the attack did little to thin their numbers. Joker himself mocked Batman for the ease of his escape in a helicopter, having had enough time to flee from his studio in the the bowels of the pipeworks to the launchpad after hearing the gunfire and chain of explosions. Batman then guns down some henchmen in the Batwing and, during the confrontation at the Old Gotham Cathedral, throws one of them down the building's staircase without any support or safe landings. He then attempts to kill Joker by punching off the side of the building. When this fails Batman decides to tether Joker's leg to the building, to prevent his escape in a helicopter with a rope ladder. Batman still ends up being responsible for Joker's death when he refuses to let go of the ladder - breaking the gargoyle loose and pulling him down to the ground. Additionally, in a cut moment from drafts and the shooting script for the alleyway fight, Batman used one of the henchmen as a human shield against his friends' gunshots.
In Batman Returns, Batman uses the Batmobile's afterburner to ignite a Firebreather. It's ambiguous whether they died from their injuries or survived, albeit badly burned. Later, he attaches a gang member's bomb to the Tattooed Strongman and knocks him into a sewer opening, letting it in the construction zone. (This is the only time the character singles out an individual for needless execution, other murders occur amid a desperate struggle or causing collateral damage in a vehicle.) In the fight with the Penguin, Batman releases a flock of bats from the Batskiboat and, having tricked him into stealing an Ultrasonic Bat Beacon, allow them to attack him. This causes the criminal to fall backwards into toxin waste below, though Batman was unaware of the poison pool and unable save Cobblepot from a fall at that distance, echoing his failure to save the Ice Princess earlier in the story. Batman then insists on arresting Max Shreck rather than let Catwoman kill him, though why is never properly addressed. Additionally, at the start of the story Batman chooses to fire non-lethal Batdiscs from his car to dispatch criminals, the machine guns and grenades from the previous film are never used.
In Joel Schumacher, Batman seems to retain rules against killing criminals. In dialogue shared with Dick Grayson, he implies that he has adopted it to prevent him from falling down a darker path. Batman also stops using weapons that can be used lethally, including those equipped to his vehicles.
In Batman Forever, Batman does not directly kill any criminals or henchmen. However, during the final confrontation with Two-Face, he throws multiple coins during at the criminal, causing him to lose track his own. Dent subsequently loses balance and falls to his death; Batman not attempting to save him. In addition, he also indirectly causes multiple explosive crashes whilst chased by Two-Face's Thugs, though these were possibly unintended.
In Batman & Robin, Batman does not attempt to kill or cause the death of any characters or henchmen. This likely means he has officially adopted codes against killing after allowing Grayson to help him as Robin. Despite this, the two comment about having to kill Barbara after she learns their identities. However, this is likely a joke referencing how most villains in their previous adventures die after learning their identities.
In Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight film trilogy, Batman adheres strictly to non-lethal tactics. In Batman Begins, he comments that he avoids killing to avoid become like the criminals he faces, believing that doing so will make him no better than his enemies. In The Dark Knight, Batman comments that he "only [has] one rule", likely referring to this. In The Dark Knight Rises, he also comments to refuse to use guns, knocking one out of the hands of Selina Kyle before she can shoot one of John Daggett's men. Despite this, Batman does make use of vehicle attached weaponry, some of which is explosive. However, these are almost rarely used to attack enemies. Regardless of this rule, he is at least indirectly responsible for multiple deaths during the films.
While escaping the League of Shadows in Batman Begins, Bruce knocks a heated poker over from a braise, starting a fire. This causes several explosions, presumably killing some of its members, and structural collapse, which kills the decoy Ra's al Ghul. Batman also causes one of Jonathan Crane's henchmen into shooting another's foot, though this injury is non-fatal. In the final fight with the true Ra's, he chooses to abandon him in a dangerous situation rather than rescue or actually murder him. Many have interpreted this as Batman choosing to kill his mentor as opposed to leaving his fate out of his hands.
Batman retains the rules during The Dark Knight, not using any weapons or firearms in fights and avoids indirect kills. He also refuses to kill the Joker on multiple occasions and even saves him from a lethal fall during their final confrontation. Despite these, he does cause several deaths. Whilst protecting Harvey Dent from the Joker's men, he crashes the Tumbler into a garbage truck driven by them, causing the front to be crushed between it and the tunnel's ceiling. Though likely to have survived, it's ambiguous whether the driver and passenger died in the incident. During the confrontation with Two-Face, Batman tackles the District Attorney off a ledge to save Gordon's son, causing him to fall to his death. This was likely done because he saw no other way of saving the child, forcing him to break the "No Killing" rule. Since Batman survives the fall after losing grip, it's can be inferred that Dent's death was simply bad luck.
Batman continues to abide by the No-Killing and No Firearms rules during The Dark Knight Rises. Despite this, he uses the Bat's cannons to destroy one of Bane's Tumblers, likely killing its driver and mercenaries inside. In a last-ditch effort to stop Talia al Ghul escaping with the Nuclear Bomb, Batman shoots at her and the truck carrying it. The shots kill the vehicle's driver and force Talia to crash the truck, causing her death.
In the DC films, Batman is shown as more brutal and violent compared to other film counterparts. These range from branding criminals with bat insignias to killing them without hesitation or remorse. Batman also uses firearms, including lethally, and leaves criminals to die in some situations. Some have justified this either as a reaction after the death of Robin or an escalation after Superman's arrival.
In Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Batman kills at least twenty-one people; thirty-two if including the Knightmare sequence. These range from crashing into their cars in the Batmobile, using vehicle attached weaponry, stabbing them with batarangs and crushing them with grappled objects. Batman himself also attempts to kill Superman with a Kryptonite spear, though relents after realizing his mother is in danger. The only time considered "justifiable" by some fans is when, in order to save Martha Kent, he shoots the gas cannister on Anatoli Knyazev's flamethrower, as it is clear he will kill her regardless of his actions. However, the resulting blast presumably kills other nearby henchmen, many of whom he had already incapacitated non-lethally.
In Matt Reeves' The Batman, Batman is never explicitly stated to have any rules against killing. However, in interview, actor Robert Pattison stated in an interview that he does. He claimed this is could be interpreted as either Bruce's desire to inflict what he deems to be appropriate justice or his own self-control suppressing the desire to kill others. The film shows him on avoiding killing on various occasions and using firearms. He also stops Catwoman's attempted to murder Carmine Falcone.
However, the film shows him using brutal violence to incapacitate or subdue enemies, though he is shown to hold back in his fights with Catwoman. However, under the influence of adrenaline, Batman comes close to killing a member of Riddler's Followers, though is stopped by Gordon. Some also argue that he indirectly causes the death of several civilians whilst chasing the Penguin by possibly igniting a gasoline tanker with the Batmobile's afterburner. However, others have argued the criminal is responsible by causing the initial crash.
Batman: Arkham Series
In the Batman: Arkham video games, its version of Batman abides to the same rules as regular continuity, such as not killing or using firearms. He also refuses to do so on multiple occasions, most notably with Joker in Batman: Arkham Asylum and Ra's al Ghul in Batman: Arkham City, and even attempts to save them. Batman's non-lethal tactics are also mentioned by henchmen, including the Arkham Knight's army. However, he does arguably murder some characters and henchmen throughout the series.
In Batman: Arkham Asylum, the player can have Batman pick up opponents and throw them at either enemies or hazards. These also include knocking them off platforms into seemingly bottomless pits and into electrified floor panels. Though splashes can be heard if the former takes place, the latter are established to have been made lethal in one cutscene. While fighting Solomon Grundy in Batman: Arkham City, Batman pulls out a vital organ to defeat the villain. However, given that it's later established Grundy is a zombie, it's possible Batman knew he would survive this.
In Batman: Arkham Knight, Batman is frequently pushed into killing by hallucinations of the Joker. These are successful after during the final one when he breaks the neck of one of the Jokers, leading to his first intentional murder (albeit in a hallucination rather than there being any sign that he actually killed a real person). During the Shadow War missions in "The Season of Infamy" DLC pack, Batman can chose whether he should use Lazarus chemicals to heal a dying Ra's al Ghul or destroy the machine to let nature take its cause. If the latter is chosen, some characters conclude that Batman has chosen to cause Ra's' death, thus breaking his rules. However, in an earlier conversation with Alfred, Alfred observed that given Ra's' age letting him die at this point was essentially just letting nature take its course.
- Since its mention in The Dark Knight, most publications have usually claimed that the "No Killing" rule is Batman's "Only Rule". However, multiple stories in the comics and other media indicate this not to be the case.