The Ethics of Superhero Gun Use: Why Indy Does It in Raiders of the Lost Ark But Batman Doesn't in Dark Knight Rises
(Note: significant plot details of both The Dark Knight Rises and Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark will be discussed--in short, spoiler alert.)
The new Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises has two main flaws: its final minute, and the exit of the villain, Bane. Here was a figure who not only physically bested our hero -- seriously, the dude broke Batman's back -- but even succeeded where the maniacal Joker failed. For close to five months, Gotham was his. As imposing a physical presence as the movies have conjured in years, Tom Hardy's masked brute stole every scene he was in and elevated an otherwise disappointing conclusion to the most celebrated cinematic trilogy this side of Lord of the Rings.
But after all that, he still gets killed like an afterthought -- and not even by Batman himself. (Even Matthew Modine got a postmortem close-up.) Then Catwoman's line: "About that whole 'no guns' thing...turns out I'm not as committed to it as you are." Ah, here we are. With this one out-of-place pronouncement, Christopher Nolan recasts Bane's underwhelming death into a subtle critique of Batman's holier-than-thou technique. "No guns, no killing," is the line from earlier in the film to which she refers; it's as much a liability for the Caped Crusader as it is forced nobility that likely stems from the fact that his parents were gunned down in front of his eyes. In a place as inexplicably besieged by supervillains as Gotham, it's pretty important to maintain the moral high ground.
So for all his doom and gloom, Batman isn't exactly an antihero -- a point that's worth bringing up right now because another, less tortured hero can currently be found on IMAX screens across Los Angeles: Indiana Jones. Suffice to say that, from one iconic franchise to another, Harrison Ford's best-known characters aren't especially committed to the whole "no guns" thing either. George Lucas's unending revisionism aside, Han absolutely shoots first in Star Wars; then, as the eponymous hero of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ford plugs a baddie after minutes of slow buildup in this scene:
(There is the behind-the-scenes fact that Ford had dysentery at the time and, too tired to film a lengthy battle sequence, requested Steven Spielberg's permission to "just shoot the fucker" to contend with, but consider this a reading of the film itself, and Spielberg did keep the scene in there, after all.)
It's both an abrupt punctuation mark on a slow-burning sequence and something of an anticlimax. What to make of this difference, especially in light of how dark and tortured Nolan's Batman franchise is usually thought of as being? Well, the final minute of The Dark Knight Rises -- in which, gotcha!, Batman's not really dead and Robin (seriously?) looks poised to take his place -- certainly put an uplifting spin on a series that was at its best when mired in questions of the intrinsic tragedy of being a hero in a city overrun by savages and loonies.
One could argue that Batman's darkest shades come through in his nonviolent methods -- the Big Brother-esque tracking in The Dark Knight, for instance -- but his interrogation techniques certainly fall under the "enhanced" umbrella and, despite his "no killing" line, he doesn't have much of a problem letting nature take its course: "I won't kill you, but I don't have to save you," he coldly tells Liam Neeson's Ra's al Ghul at the end of Batman Begins.
Whereas Indy doesn't waste much time building up much of a philosophy at all. He just does what's called for in the moment: "I'm making this up as I go," he says near the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Still, anyone watching Raiders for the first time may at first have trouble reconciling what seem like two alter egos at odds with one another. (Hey, kind of like a superhero!) In his "normal" life, Indiana Jones is an archaeology professor at an unnamed college who wears eyeglasses and carries around multiple tomes at once; when he's out searching for artifacts and swashbuckling, he swaps the spectacles for a fedora and the books for a whip and gun. That neither his employers nor those who know him personally ever question how many people he either kills or watches die in the midst of looking for small golden statues on the other side of the world is nearly as odd as the fact that Batman's true identity isn't blindingly obvious to everyone in Gotham.
Even if the stark differences between their franchises means that there can't really be a one-to-one comparison between these two, the fact that both are at their most effective when shirking high-minded ideals is telling. We like Indy because he doesn't care about these things, Batman because he does. Count the latter lucky, then, that his few slip-ups in holding himself to his own standard are either wholly warranted or further add to his brooding mystique. Honor only takes the good guys so far when they've got Nazis and Jokers to deal with, and sometimes rules have to be broken--including their own.
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