Why Doesn’t Batman Just Kill the Joker?

(Image: Eduardo Ferigato)

Traditionally, the Joker is Batman’s greatest foe and the focus of hundreds of Batman storylines. There's a common sequence of events: Batman captures the Joker and sends him to Arkham Asylum. The Joker escapes and commits terrible crimes. The cycle repeats.

So why doesn’t Batman just kill the Joker and break the cycle? Quora members pondered this question recently. Jesse Richards, an artist and web designer, responded that Batman’s commitment to not killing intentionally—his self-control—is his superpower:

Because the Joker wins if Batman kills him. That's what the Joker wants. Everything he does is to taunt Batman into killing him. In fact, the interesting part of their relationship, the real conflict of each story, is not to see if Batman will stop him (he will), but to watch Batman struggle with not killing him, because anyone other than Batman would of course kill him. This self-control is Batman's superpower.  

The Joker and Batman are each trying to prove a point to society - and really to us, the readers. The Joker wants Batman to kill him because he perfectly embodies chaos and anarchy, and wants to prove a point to everyone that people are basically more chaotic than orderly. This is why he is so scary: we are worried he may be right. If the Joker is right, then civilization is a ruse and we are all truly monsters inside. If the Joker can prove that Batman - the most orderly and logical and self-controlled of all of us - is a monster inside, then we are all monsters inside, and that is terrifying. The Joker is terrifying because we fear that we are like him deep down - that he is us. Batman is what we (any average person) could be at our absolute best, and the Joker is what we could be at our absolute worst. The Joker's claim is that we are all terrible deep down, and it is only the law and our misplaced sense of justice that keeps us in line. Since Batman isn't confined by the law, he is a perfect test case to try to get him to "break". The Joker wants Batman to kill a person, any person, but knows that the only person Batman might ever even remotely consider killing would have to be a terrible monster, so is willing to do this himself and sacrifice himself to prove this macabre point. Batman needs to prove that it is not just laws that keep us in line, but basic human decency and our natural instinct NOT to kill. If Batman can prove this, then others will be inspired by his example (the citizens of Gotham, but again, also the readers), just as we are all inspired every day to keep civilization running smoothly and not descend into violence, anarchy, and chaos. This ability to be decent in the face of the horrors and temptations present all around us is humanity's superpower, the superpower of each of us. The struggle of Batman and the Joker is the internal struggle of each of us. But we are inspired by Batman's example, not the Joker's, because Batman always wins the argument, because he has not killed the Joker.

I’ve never found this view convincing. Batman has the reputation for striking terror into criminals, particularly while interrogating them. It’s not just that he’ll turn them in to the police and they’ll go to prison. They’re afraid that he’s going to kill them. But if Batman is widely known in underworld circles for his unwillingness to intentionally take a human life, then why would they be so afraid?

Criminals easily and frequently escape from Arkham Asylum. This, too, must be widely known. So when Batman refuses to kill the Joker, he knows—or must realize eventually—that the Joker will soon be free to commit terrible crimes again. The only reliable means of ending the menace that the Joker presents to the ordinary people of Gotham City is to kill him. So killing the Joker, far from being monstrous, is a civilized act. In fact, it’s the most civilized choice that Batman could make.

There are schools of pacifism that may disagree with me on that point, but I’d find it hard to place Batman within any pacifistic tradition.


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is his ego worth the body count the Joker racks up each time he gets free (and he always gets free)?

Exactly. There's nothing ethical about letting the Joker live effectively unimpeded.
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These are all weak reasons for Batman not to kill. "Because if he kills the Joker, the Joker wins"? is his ego worth the body count the Joker racks up each time he gets free (and he always gets free)? "Because after 25 (I am guessing his rogues gallery and a few others) he would just go home and retire"? Yeah, because it's not like the heroes that do kill are still putting out stories on a regular basis. What ,The Punisher, Wolverine, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and others who do take lives are out of stories now too? "Killing is too easy" What this says to me is that Batman would rather challenge himself than keep the people of Gotham safe from the regular murder sprees commited by the likes of Joker, Croc, and the myriad gang members he faces on a regular basis. "He works within the law"? Are you kidding me? Dressing up as an animal, beating citizens brutally to the point of needing lengthy hospital stays, use of non regulated and unsanctioned wiretaps, computer hacking, use of military grade weapons and explosives (I don't use a gun, but I've got missiles on my car, plane, boat, and motorcycle), extracting confessions under duress of immanent violence (rendering them inadmissible in a court of law), and even driving the Batmobile on public roads without plates, registration, and insurance. Tell me again where this guy acts within the law? Read the character, watch his movies, love the hell out of the iconography and stay loyal to your interest, but don't kid yourself. Batman is a vigilante, despite his holier-than-thou attitude and good relations with Commissioner Gordon, he is no different from any other vigilante. Is it really better that he cripples people rather than kill them? Now you end up with former criminals with medical disabilities needing social support because some nutcase in a fright suite fractured his spine by swinging into it from the top of the fifth floor roof on his Bat-line. Do you think Gotham citizens like that their tax dollars are subsidizing palliative care for rapists and muggers. Face it, the only reason Batman doesn't kill is because DC likes to make money off reusing the rogues gallery. Morality through finance. Comics, people. :)
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Batman doesn't kill beccause killing is easy. Plus, if Batman were to kill, where would it stop? In a court of law, when a prisoner is put to death, it is done through the justice system. If Batman were to kill, he would truly be a vigilante, someone who works outside the law and becomes judge, jury, and executioner. In addition, it would be out of revenge not justice. Batman at one time was a duly deputized agent of the law. Though his methods were questioned at times, he worked within the law to bring in those criminals that the police could NOT handle. The police sometimes hunted Batman because of a misunderstanding or because someone tried to frame him, or because Batman wanted to appear to be the murderer for his own reasons, but Batman always followed the law and brought the criminals in for trial. And it wasn't Batman who would send the Joker to Arkam. It was the police and the justice system who decided that. Batman wants the Joker sent to JAIL to pay for his crimes, but because the Joker is declared unstable, he is sent to the Asylum instead, but that only gives him time to plan his next move. If he were jailed for his crimes, he would be placed on death row. But the Joker is the perfect foil for Batman. He challenges the Dark Knight to do his worst and his best at the same time. He doesn't care who Batman is, only that he can do what he feels that will cause Batman pain, pain such as killing Jason. The Joker sees all of Batman's associates as a threat and an obstacle. That is why he tries to get rid of them. He wants to deal with Batman on a one-on-one level. And at the same time, he wants to see Batman in action. He has respect for Batman that no other criminal besides Ra's al Ghul has.
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I think the petty thugs fear Batman because he threatens them with pain, not death also Batman is supposed to be the embodiment of fear.

I don't think Batman should kill the Joker but I think the Joker should be tried in a court of law and sentenced to death even if he is insane.
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