The Inadequacy of Vengeance: What ‘The Batman’ Teaches Us About Justice

The Inadequacy of Vengeance: What ‘The Batman’ Teaches Us About Justice

Matt Reeves’ The Batman hit theaters earlier this month and audiences finally experienced Robert Pattinson’s highly anticipated portrayal of the world’s greatest detective. Despite early concerns about whether Pattinson was the right casting choice for the movie, both viewers and critics loved it. Some are even saying that The Batman is better than Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. 

I don’t know about all that, but it was really good.

Not everyone loved it, though. 

The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro published a video review of the film shortly after its release, wherein he claimed that the makers of the movie actually hate the Batman character. To Shapiro, The Batman was depicted as a woke ideologue who actually hates justice, white people, and the police. 

I don’t know what movie he was watching, but I didn’t get that at all. In fact, I think Shapiro may simply be haunted by whatever woke boogeymen he believes to be lurking under his bed. 

Shapiro’s bad take notwithstanding, I thought the film was a celebration of certain aspects of the Batman character that many comic readers have grown to love but as yet had not been explored on the silver screen. 

And as someone who has almost as many Batman comics on my bookshelf as bible commentaries, I thought I’d chime in with a theologically minded review of The Batman that literally no one was asking for. 

**Below are spoilers for The Batman. So if you haven’t seen it and don’t want me to ruin the fun, stop reading now.**

The Plot and Message of The Batman

At the beginning of The Batman, viewers are introduced to both the title character and the main antagonist in strikingly similar ways: men in the shadows waiting for their opportunity to do what they feel they were called to do. 

For the Riddler, he emerges from the shadows of the apartment of a corrupt mayor, murdering him in his own living room as he watches a televised recording of himself debating another candidate who had been challenging his reelection. 

For the Batman, he emerges from the shadows of a train station to stop a gang of would-be muggers from robbing an innocent commuter. The leader of the gang asks the shadowy figure who he is. After pummeling one of their own, Batman replies with a line that was first popularized in the 1990s Batman Animated Series: “I’m Vengeance.” 

Throughout the film, this is how Batman comes to be known. Selina Kyle (Catwoman) refers to him as such on a number of occasions. 

As we learn more about the Bruce Wayne of this cinematic adaptation, what we learn is that he’s a recluse. He has no visions of furthering any of the public works or humanitarian projects begun by his parents, attending gala events, maintaining PR, or really doing anything that doesn’t pertain to his dark crusade. In one scene, Wayne even winces and reaches for sunglasses at the mere sight of sunlight beaming in from the window. He is singular in his focus and his new dark identity. 

Yet despite Batman’s devotion to beating up criminals and striking fear into the heart of anyone who would perpetrate violence against innocent citizens, after two years, crime is still up in Gotham.

As the Riddler executes an intricate plan to dispatch with all the corrupt figures in the Gotham government and police system, Batman is faced with what appears to be the first major test of his detective skills. The Riddler, as his name would suggest, leaves behind coded clues that point to his master scheme, but Batman and Sergeant Jim Gordon are constantly left one step behind. 

After an exchange wherein the Riddler expresses his belief that his mission is the same as the Batman’s, Batman discovers that the Riddler intends to flood the city, causing citizens to retreat to the high ground of a sports arena where an event for the new mayor is being held. Once there, the Riddler’s plan is to unleash his followers to begin murdering thousands of Gothamites by shooting at them from the rafters of the facility. 

When he arrives on the scene, Batman begins apprehending and incapacitating Riddler disciples. He gives one assailant a particularly forceful beating, and the Riddler disciple removes his mask to unveil what he believes his true identity to be, a line we heard earlier in the film. He says, “I’m vengeance.” 

It is at this moment that Batman begins to realize that his mission for vengeance has made it impossible to distinguish between him and those whose only goal is to simply expose corruption while on their way to destroying the city. 

Immediately, Batman jumps to help the citizens below, cutting a wire that would have connected with floodwaters to electrocute them. Lighting a flare and pulling people out of the rubble, Batman leads a group of citizens to safety. 

What Batman’s battle with the Riddler has taught him is that his vision for his life has been incomplete. Vengeance will never be enough to save the city. In order to truly make Gotham a better place, both Bruce Wayne and the Batman have to become something more. They have to pursue something better than vengeance: justice. 

What is Justice, Really?

When most Christians think about justice, what our minds typically go to are punishments that fit the crimes. 

In criminal cases, we think about getting bad guys off of the streets. We think about victims being able to rest easy and begin a healing process in the knowledge that the person who perpetrated evil is getting what they deserve. 

In civil cases, if something was taken from the victim, we see justice as it being returned to them or them otherwise receiving compensation. Wherever there has been an injustice, the damage is sought to be undone at the expense of the offending party. 

To be sure, this is part of justice. Just retribution is rendered to offending parties, in order to right the specific wrong, as well as to serve as a deterrent against others who would be tempted to commit a similar offense. 

In the Old Testament Pentateuch, God gave all kinds of case studies and principles for exactly how retributive justice needed to be adjudicated in Israel. 

But that isn’t the whole story when it comes to God’s definition of justice. In fact, when God sent prophets to speak against the nation of Israel for allowing injustice to go unchecked, it likely wasn’t even those types of offenses they were talking about. 

Because justice is about more than punishing the evildoer, even if it can’t be less than that. Justice is about ordering a society in such a way that causes its people to flourish—all of its people. 

This is why God placed such an emphasis on welcoming the stranger and the immigrant when he set forth a vision for justice in the Old Testament law. These types of people were commonly oppressed and enslaved in the ancient world, but justice meant seeking their flourishing. 

This is also why God called for the canceling of debts after a certain number of years. He was for the flourishing of the debtors. This is why he instituted laws whereby farmers would not circle back to pick up every bit of the harvest as they reaped their fields. He was for the flourishing of those who lacked resources and would come to glean from what had been left. 

This is even why God instituted a law about allowing land to rest from farming every seventh year. God knew that if they did so, the land would be able to flourish, and by extension, the people would be able to flourish. 

This kind of ethic extended into the New Testament when the apostles placed an emphasis on the church caring for orphans and widows. In the first century, those without a patriarch were often doomed to poverty. But since God was for their flourishing, he instructed his people to likewise be for their flourishing. 

Justice extends far beyond correcting or even preventing a particular offense. Justice is about taking what is broken and making it whole again. On an interpersonal level, on a community level, and—where we have the ability to effect it—on a societal level. 

How We Often Fall Short of Justice

Christians, like all people, fall short of justice whenever we are more hungry for retribution, punishment, comfort, and control than we are for flourishing, healing, and wholeness. 

This can take the form of ignoring or even perpetuating systems of racial inequality that result in a criminal justice system that disproportionately prosecutes and punishes people of color. This can take the form of fighting legislation that would benefit those among us who are the most economically disadvantaged on the grounds of a misguided understanding of “personal responsibility.”

If we are apathetic to the things holding back the flourishing of others, we are falling short of justice. This is among the very reasons for which Israel was led into exile. 

In an era of Christian deconstruction, it can also look like seeking a pound of flesh from the Church writ large because of the systemic or personal ways particular churches, denominations, or Christian institutions have failed to uphold justice for the abused. 

We can and should dismantle unjust systems within our own Christian institutions with ferocity. In some cases, certain institutions should even die. But if we are content to wage only a crusade of vengeance and retribution that punishes the evildoer but not a kind of justice that also seeks the flourishing of the whole, then we will never create a truly just movement of believers. 

So let us not settle for vengeance or retribution. And let us not turn a blind eye to injustices that we feel do not affect us. Instead, let’s expand our imagination. May we do more, become more. May justice “roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). And may it be us who open the floodgates.