Batman: The Christian Achilles

Batman and Achilles are strikingly similar characters, despite being created in completely different cultures and at completely different periods of time. Their main characteristic is anger--the Iliad opens with the line “Sing, O goddess, of the rage of Achilles,” and almost every depiction of Batman in various media emphasizes his anger. Their anger drives them.
The root of this anger is a deep sense of injustice and loss. Achilles’ friend Patroclus was killed in his place, and his glory had been slighted at Agamemnon’s whim. Batman’s parents were killed by an act of meaningless violence when he was a child. They both fight to regain what they lost: Achilles, his glory, and Batman, his home.

Another defining characteristic they share is despair. Achilles’ despair comes from his inability to find meaning in his life. He tries dedicating himself to the pursuit of glory, hoping that the memory of his actions would give his life purpose, but in the end, after his death, he is still unsatisfied. He has no resolution to his life; he dies fighting for glory in a meaningless battle and spends his afterlife wandering in a dull, grey, meaningless void. He has no happily-ever-after to his story: it simply continues a cycle of despair and hopelessness. Batman’s despair is rooted in his loss of family, and is recapitulated time and time again as he struggles to combat the senseless violence and the injustice that occurs regularly in Gotham. However, despite the fact that his battle seems hopeless, he continues to fight, and believes in goodness and second chances despite being proved wrong again and again.

While Greek culture shared many of the same ideals as Christian cultures, including the desire for truth, beauty, and goodness, it lacked the hope of redemption and the combination of compassion and justice that Christianity brought. This is why Achilles’ story is a tragedy and Batman’s a comedy. This is their difference: Achilles comes from a pagan culture of despair, and Batman is the product of a Christian culture of hope.

Because Achilles lived in a culture that had no forgiveness or redemption his anger is brutal, violent, and destructive. There can be no true justice; no true equalization. When Agamemnon takes Briseis from him, Achilles’ sense of injustice is what causes him to decide to stay in his tents and allow hundreds of his fellow Greeks to die. There is no other way to restore the balance caused by the offence. And when Patroclus is killed, the pain caused by the loss of his friend could not be eased by avenging himself on Hector alone, so he continued to fight in a blind rage, delivering above and beyond what was taken from him and crossing lines he should not in his anger and despair. His rage is destructive, and so it brings no resolution, and continues the cycle of pain and despair.

Batman’s anger is almost a polar opposite of Achilles’, because it is essentially compassionate, and because he is part of a culture that idealizes redemption. He forgives the man who kills his parents, and helps him redeem himself, instead of taking revenge on him. He does not enact vengeance upon his parents’ murderer because his justice is rooted in Christian law.  Batman has limits. He doesn’t cross the lines that Achilles does, even when he desperately desires to. His anger is righteous, and allows for repentance and forgiveness, and so it brings the possibility of hope.

Achilles’ justice doesn’t have any room for forgiveness, compassion, or grace, because his cultural conception of justice excludes them. It is honourable to fight those who have hurt you, to seek recompense in the form of violence. This eye-for-an-eye form of justice in a sense isn’t really justice at all, because it does nothing to resolve the actual wrong done and does nothing to ensure that the crime will not be repeated or extended. It lacks the wrong-righting aspect, and often turns into pure revenge, resulting in blood-feuds, more pain, more death, and more suffering.

Batman’s justice is Christian justice, which esteems mercy and fairness above simple retribution. Because he has boundaries, moral limits that he will not cross, he does not judge the criminal himself, but turns them over to the law where they will  be judged fairly and without bias. Christian justice is partially educational; it seeks to edify those who have done wrong in order to keep them from repeating their crimes. This is why, even though Batman works outside the law, he honours and respects it and digs up evidence to convict the criminals within the law. Obviously, it doesn’t work perfectly, and Batman failed to properly adhere to his moral system on more than one occasion, but  he aspires to do something more than continuing the cycle of pain and violence.

Achilles and Batman are both fighting a war, but their wars are entirely different. Achilles is a warrior fighting an offensive war. His sole purpose there is to gain honour, glory, and spoils of war. He kills because it is his role in life as a warrior to kill those who oppose him. The war itself is meaningless; Menelaus’s quarrel with Paris is personal and he should have been able to settle it without starting a war that lasted ten years. There is no moral reason for the Greeks and the Trojans to be killing each other, but because of their glory-centered culture and their allegiance to Menelaus, they fight and die brutally. Whether the war is just or not does not enter the equation; it is justifiable, and they fight because they must.

Batman is, in the truest sense of the word, a knight. He wages his war to protect the people in his domain against those who wish to exploit them. It is a defensive war, and it is just. Knights were intended to protect the kingdom and the people, to be defenders of the weak. While honour and glory did matter to them, they aspired to be above all Christ-like, and since Christ gave his life to save the Church, they likewise gave their lives to protect those underneath them. This is partially why Batman’s no-killing rule is so important to his character: his role is to protect the people of Gotham, not to judge and execute them.

Because their cultures and their ideals are so different, Achilles and Batman have vastly different story arcs. They’re both tragic heroes, but because Batman is a character from a Christian culture his story is a comedy. He always wins, and evil is always defeated. Batman doesn’t ever overcome his despair, but he is a character who embodies hope. He finds family, and fights to ensure that no one has to experience his pain ever again. He is a Christ-figure. Achilles doesn’t even try to overcome his despair or break free of his circumstances. His story is a tragedy, because his pagan culture could not really imagine a true comedy. There is no great evil for him to defeat: those he kills are just men fighting for the same reason he is. There is no hope, no redemption, no true justice, only pain, suffering, and hopelessness. Batman’s anger has limits, and it works for good. Achilles’ anger has no limits, and  it destroys him.