The DC Extended Universe is indisputably filled with commentary on our world and this includes areas of philosophy. This series will attempt to illuminate and expand upon those philosophical musings. And each part will span the entire DCEU up to Wonder Woman. I warn that there are spoilers for every DCEU film from here on out.
Crime and Punishment:
Laws are instituted in societies to provide a basic guideline of behavior that those societies deem appropriate. Crime occurs when someone steps outside the law and acts in opposition to those laws. What does society do about crime? How do we deal with criminal offenses? Crime affects us all though, and oftentimes crime creates victims. Take Bruce Wayne, a young child of an aristocratic family in Gotham City- a Prince of the modern world. When Joe Chill confronts the Wayne’s one night outside the Monarch Theater and murders Thomas and Martha Wayne in a robbery, we understand that there is no station in society so high as to be free of the devastating effects of crime. Bruce Wayne is orphaned, more a victim than his murdered parents precisely because he survived to suffer. What do we do about the Joe Chills of our world, robbing their fellow man of possessions or even of their own life? What about the Batmen of our world, who rob the criminals of due process and civil liberties? Crime is a serious issue.
In a way, the term “Crime and Punishment” is a loaded term as it assumes punishment is the appropriate response to crime; but that is certainly not the only camp in that academic debate.
One school of thought with regard to law enforcement, and Justice as a whole, hinges on the concept of retribution. In the DCEU, as with most continuities of the character, the best example of this is The Dark Knight himself. While Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice does not outline precisely the mentality of why Bruce became Batman, it does rely on the widely understood nature of Batman. He is vengeance, he is the night. Batman’s crusade is vengeance by proxy. Every criminal he beats is just another Joe Chill robbing someone else of something they had no right or claim to violate. Subscribers to the Philosophy of retribution, like our Mr. Wayne, tend to believe that when a citizen becomes a criminal, they are surrending their rights to be sympathized with. Immanuel Kant, an 18th Century Philisopher, went so far as to claim that retribution is the only judicial action that can be taken against crime. A more extreme example of this would be Marvel’s Punisher but that’s another article.
Retribution is a pitiless form of Justice. It has greater consideration for the rights of the victims than the rights of the accused or condemned. In this mindframe, Civil Liberties tend to be less well-valued and can lead to some frightening leaps of power and authority. For this reason, the Batman of the DCEU scares criminals and victims alike. Notice how the human trafficking victims in the beginning of Batman v Superman are notably scared of this Dark Knight even though he saved them from their grim fate. Not even the GCPD’s presence on the scene is a comfort to them in light of the demon of vengeance that is the Batman.
The concept of deterrence doesn’t just apply to Nuclear Weapons, which will not be discussed any further here, but is different in principle when applied to criminal justice. Deterrence employs numerous methods with the goal of preventing repeated offenses by either the original offender or any others considering commiting crime.
While the DCEU has no one figure which so neatly embodies deterrence as Batman does Retribution, there are nonetheless examples of deterrence in practice in the DCEU. Lex Luthor gave lip service to the idea of deterrence in his pitch to Senators Finch and Barrows about Kryptonite. Amanda Waller’s pitch regarding Task Force X similarly frames things in the context of the latest deterrent in a new kind of arms race “it’s World War III”. Batman’s branding and the GCPD’s Batsign can also be seen as kind of deterrent. But the best example comes from the Man of Steel himself.
In his dispute with Batman, Superman employs the principles of deterrence twice. After Batman completely wrecks the Batmobile against Superman, the Man of Steel issues to Caped Crusader a warning. Warnings are the essence of deterrence. A warning is meant to convey the message that lawbreaking will be met with retribution. When Batman refuses to listen shortly before his fight with Superman, Superman displays a show of force to let that warning sink in for Batman. He then warns him again “If I wanted it, you’d be dead already.” This deterrence doesn’t work on Batman, though it is widely debated how effective it is overall at preventing crime. Ultimately though, Kant is still sort of right as deterrence still more or less hinges on retribution of some kind.
You Kant be right every time. The rehabilitation model of justice focuses on attempting to correct criminal behavior rather than merely punish it. The DCEU displays a version of this early on, as it seems to be the guiding principle of justice on Krypton as depicted in Man of Steel. After General Zod’s failed coup, he and his crew are sentenced to somatic reconditioning. The implication is that their neurological systems will be reconfigured to remove any deviant or criminal behavior, as well as bring them back in line with their genetically determined roles. This is an extreme, science fiction/fantasy version of rehabilitation but the essence is the same. The goal is to bring the criminal back in line with societal expectations of conduct.
Another scene in Batman v Superman, demonstrates this desire to rehabilitate criminals. Lex Luthor is deemed unfit to stand trial for his crimes and it is suggested that he be institutionalize instead. Mental Health Institutions are society’s best example of attempts at rehabilitation. They deal with a range of disorders and pathologies of the mind that cause psychological distress or disconnect from reality that can occasionally lead to criminal behavior. Batman explains as much to Lex in the Ultimate Cut of the film: “We have hospitals that treat the mentally ill with compassion,” the retribution-minded Batman can’t leave it there though.
Some institutions for treating the mentally ill, especially the criminally insane, are still erroneously focused on retribution rather than rehabilitation. The DCEU highlights this with The Caped Crusader’s threat to Lex Luthor. “But that’s not where you’re going. I’ve arranged to have you transferred to Arkham Asylum in Gotham. I still have some friends there. And they’re expecting you.” Arkham Asylum represents every failed or misguided attempt at rehabilitation society has tried on criminals. It is a place that is supposed to be about rehabilitation but focuses instead on retribution.
What if we could remove the criminal’s ability to commit a crime in the first place? Incapacitation places high priority on the safety of victims, the accused, and the condemned. Rather than punishing the criminal or attempting to correct their behavior, incapacitation focuses on making a crime impossible to commit by hindering the would-be criminal’s ability to do so. Notice that a single action may fulfill the goals of several of these models of justice. Imprisonment deters some, retaliated against others, rehabilitates a few, and most certainly incapacitated the imprison d person. The DCEU has a whole slew of incapacitations on display.
The Batman uses a disrupter of some kind to prevent the use of firearms in his warehouse confrontation and while this alone is not total incapacition, it severely limits how those people can commit a crime. Indeed Batman’s entire combat mantra is about incapacitation: disarming, disabling, and decommissioning threats as they appear. Even his use of Kryptonite against Superman and Doomsday utilizes incapacitation. Our Dark Knight isn’t the only one who relies on incapacitation though.
Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth is another such example of incapacitation at work. Steve Trevor and Doomsday are both restrained by the lasso and are thus incapacitated by it. Not so much on Doomsday if you ask Superman though. Even her goal of killing Ares to save mankind, misinformed as it is, is an example of incapacitating a threat. Finally, her belief in love represents a philosophical incapacitation. If love is promoted and indeed takes root, one’s ability to commit crimes against one’s fellow man is greatly diminished.
Imprisonments in the DCEU abound, as we learn in Suicide Squad. Even specific imprisonments designed to incapacitate special criminals such as Harley Quinn, Killer Croc, and Diablo are employed. Incapacitation, however, cannot be relied upon every time. Prison breaks happen all the time and sometimes restraint just isn’t possible. Superman, for example, had no way of incapacitating Zod short of permenantly incapacitating him through death. And unlike deterrence, incapacitation is reactionary in nature. Proactive incapacitations are rare and often faulty (airport security checkpoints, for example).
Do criminals owe a debt to their victims or to society at large? How do they repay that debt? The justice model of Reparation is about criminals and offenders paying some sort of restitution to either the victim or society at large. In the real world we can see this demonstrated through fines, court settlements, or money paid out in a lawsuit. We can also see this in compulsory labor that has been and, depending on where you are, still is expected of prisoners (and much of the time it is uncompensated labor). The DCEU presents us with a compelling and amoral form of reparation justice however: Task Force X.
Amanda Waller’s suggestion to plant micro bombs in the necks of criminals to coerce them into taking on dangerous and ugly combat missions for the government may seem like a far-fetched, idea but it is not entirely without precident. Prisoners being forced to work on roads or bust rocks with an armed escort is similar in principle. As a prisoner, you could be considered a slave of the state and labor could be seen as repaying a debt to society. Waller just had a more sophisticated gun to the head and her idea of “labor” is dangerous black-ops missions. Task Force X or, as it is more commonly and appropriately known, the Suicide Squad is a form of reparation where black-ops missions are a form of currency to repay their debts to society.
Reparations are usually victim focused but it often creates two victims instead of making any sort of meaningful change. It is still a common practice to focus on reparations however, so remember: crime doesn’t pay but criminals are expected to.
Do criminals have a right to privacy? Is it suitable to have their offenses publicly known? Those who believe in denunciation would certainly think not for the former and think so for the latter. Again, many actions taken in the name of one form of justice may meet goals of another as well. Denunciation is a sort of deterrence whereupon the shame of one criminal deters copycats. While not strictly guilty of any crime, the most denounced figure in the DCEU would be Superman. Bruce Wayne denounces Superman on the basis of his alien status and sheer power, Lex Luthor does so along similar lines, the media denounces him as an American actor who works without government oversight, and General Zod denounces him from birth as a living heresy.
But hold on, not everyone has the same views on what constitutes crime. Sin is, in essence, a form of crime and Lex Luthor claims that Superman’s sin is existing (a sentiment Zod would agree with, but was perhaps a little more able to look past). In this way, Lex Luthor perceives Superman as a criminal and therefore treats him like one. Rationalizing to Alfred, Batman considers a high negative cost to even a low percentage of doubt in Superman’s innocence constitutes a threat and so Batman treats Superman as a criminal and denounces him when interviewed by Clark Kent. Not that Zod, Lex, and Bruce all find Superman guilty of crimes before he even commits them and each of them denounces him for these imagined crimes. Denunciation is all about soiling the reputation of a criminal but this can definitely backfire when one comes to find the accused innocent. The denouncer becomes the denounced and the defamed becomes a martyr.
Are any of these of forms and ideas for justice adequate to bring about true justice in society? No. We highlighted blind-spots and flaws in all of these forms. There’s no perfect answer to what true justice is or looks like. The best we can do is take all the positive considerations for each; concern for the victims, for debts incurred, for the rights of the accused and convicted, and for the hope of restoring criminals; and try out best to keep those factors in mind when dispensing justice. We’re already seeing different takes on Justice from the Justice League members we’ve seen. It’s exciting to think we’re soon to get even more diverse takes on Justice when we see Justice League this fall.