“I have been to too many funerals.”
One night, on the way home from the theatre, the last of the Wayne family died, leaving no survivors. The boy who used to be Bruce saw a cowardly nobody extinguish hope and happiness with a single gunshot. What he saw at the age of eight branded him and shaped him for the rest of his life future. To him, that’s what a gun can do. Whether aimed to kill or even terrify (as the mugger might have intended), it ends the world. To him, that is what murder is: having the right to cut short someone else’s everything. To decide in a single moment that the other person has nothing more left to give this world, that the culmination of their past decides who they will continue to be. To kill another person is to decide for them that they don’t deserve hope and happiness.
“Criminals, by nature, are a cowardly and superstitious lot. To instil fear into their hearts, I became a bat. A monster in the night. And in doing so, have I become the very thing that all monsters become— alone?”
Bruce Wayne died along with his parents. That little boy never returned from Crime Alley, not even until before the bat crashed through his window. There was rage and pain and unfulfilment and nothing. There was no one until Batman was born. Why he works alone, why he spent so long not wanting a partner, why he is hostile and closed-off and intense has everything to do with that. He is Batman because he is no one else. He has nothing more to offer except guilt and dreams of redoing an eight-year-old’s past.
“I…don’t quite know how to say this. You and I… with what we do… what’s at stake… we can’t fail. Others… don’t understand. But even if it’s… impossible, we still… have to succeed.”
— Batgirl #3 (2000).
Unlike every other vigilante in Gotham, he doesn’t do what he does out of a compulsion or motive. He’s far, far past that. He does what he does because that’s all he is. From a teenager who made a promise over his parents’ grave, he has become the night, become vengeance, become Batman. What he once did out of grief and need, he now does because it’s a part of him. He doesn’t have a “motivation” or an “origin story.” He is the personification of what goes bump in a dark night. Whereas every other vigilante has a person underneath the mask, a future (maybe even a miserable one) if they stopped saving lives, and a reason for their work, Batman has none of those anymore. His isn’t a compulsion, it’s literally his purpose.
“And as the sun, that had been too afraid to show its face in this city, started to turn the black into grey, I smiled. Not out of happiness. But because I knew… that one day, I wouldn’t have to do this anymore. One day, I could stop fighting. Because one day… I would win. One day, there will be no pain, no loss, no crime. Because of me, because I fight. For you. One day, I will win.”
— Batman #625 (2004).
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to stop. He can stop, forget the cowl and retire into the shadows. He doesn’t, because that would mean that his place would have to be filled by someone else. He doesn’t want that. Anyone else who did his job would dream of a future where they could retire, have a normal life. Maybe they’d recognise it as an impossible fantasy, but they’d want it for themselves nonetheless. To be the new equivalent of Batman would mean forgoing that dream. Batman live having forgone it because he doesn’t see himself as a person anymore, but to someone else, a lifestyle like that would just not last, leaving Gotham in the lurch.
“They say that when you kill a man you not only take away what he was, but all he will ever be.”
Death—anyone’s death—is failure to him. It means having played God and taken a decision no one has the right to make. Killing someone is exactly what the mugger in Crime Alley did. Maybe that guy didn’t set out with murder in his heart. Maybe he was cold, lonely, poor and desperate. Maybe he was a victim too. But he transcended his circumstances and did the impossible: decided two other people didn’t have lives worth going home to. Batman is determined to never do that, never become the man he despises. Death is failure, the world is black and white, because anyone who thinks there’s a middle ground is setting himself up to believe he has a choice between taking and not taking a life. Acknowledging shades of grey means acknowledging that there are circumstances when it is acceptable or forgivable or condonable to decide another human being doesn’t deserve a future.
“I believe in Jim Gordon. I believe in Harvey Dent. I believe in Gotham City.”
— The Long Halloween.