Bruce Wayne, the Dark Knight, the Caped Crusader, the World’s Greatest Detective… The Batman. He’s one of the most famous literary characters to come out of the 20th century, or as Carmine Falcone jokes in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, “You’re Bruce Wayne, the Prince of Gotham; you’d have to go a thousand miles to meet someone who didn’t know your name!” There’s something about a person rising from a traumatic past to defend the innocent from evil that continues to capture the hearts and minds of audiences the world over.
Wayne can be seen as an idealised version of a vigilante thanks to his moral compass and martial arts mastery. But his billionaire status and access to Wayne Enterprises’ property – let it be noted that in The Batman, Zoë Kravitz’s Selina Kyle notes his privilege — gives him military-grade suits, high-tech gadgets; and the car/tank hybrid that is the Batmobile. Back in 2012, Centives found that the average Batmobile would set the hero back about $218,000 — while the most expensive version of the car was a modified Mercedes CLK-GTR which comes in at around $1.8 million. Ouch.
To be fair, it’s worth spending that eye-watering amount on the supercar considering it helps the Bat stay ahead of the criminals plaguing Gotham’s streets. And he’s got the moolah, so why not? There’s been a number of live-action Batmans (Batmen?) to grace our screens over the years, all with their own versions of the Batmobile. But they often cause more damage than the very villains they’re trying to stop… not to mention putting the lives of members of the public in danger. Although, the Caped Crusader would never face charges because of his working relationship with Commissioner James Gordon and the Gotham City Police Department. Right?
Um, well, that might not be quite the case in real life. We spoke to prominent defense lawyer Doug Ridley to find out how various movie Batman incarnations would fare in a court of law if the authorities — or a member of the public — decided to press charges against Mr Wayne’s alter ego for some of the big screen’s most serious Batmobile incidents.
Michael Keaton escaping the Joker’s goons in Batman
In 1989’s Batman, Michael Keaton’s hero faces off against Jack Nicholson’s Joker – who takes gleeful pride in terrorising Gotham. But when the Bat saves Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) from the villain’s clutches, Joker’s henchmen start chasing the Batmobile through Gotham’s streets which causes plenty of destruction. One moment in particular sees the Bat use a grappling hook to quickly skid around a corner — while the thugs drive straight into oncoming traffic, causing a multi-car pile-up. Batman is definitely at fault here for initiating the maneuver in the first place. Several civilian cars and a truck get caught up in the crash, with metal pipes cascading across the numerous vehicles from the back of the truck.
“When someone gets into a traffic accident because it’s at high speed, it actually would be the person who started this pursuit who would be the person that the police would hold liable for that because they caused the high-speed chase to happen,” says attorney Doug Ridley, founder of Ridley Defense in the U.S. “If someone’s hurt then potentially criminal charges, potentially civil lawsuits. It just depends on the exact circumstances. Like you said, somebody gets whiplash, somebody in one of those cars gets seriously injured, we have criminal statutes that charge people with reckless driving causing serious bodily injury.” Batman hurtling round a corner with a grappling hook is definitely reckless, but at least it looks cool. Unfortunately, cool doesn’t pay the legal fees.
Christian Bale defending the S.W.A.T. van in The Dark Knight
Every generation needs its Joker, and Heath Ledger delivers a terrifying portrayal in 2008’s The Dark Knight. The unhinged villain just wants to “introduce a little anarchy,” even going after District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who’s being transported in a S.W.A.T. van after falsely handing himself in as the Batman. It’s another chase scene, but Christian Bale’s hero defends the van from missiles with the Batmobile before crashing through one of the tunnel’s concrete support beams and leaving his vehicle to self-destruct. Sure, Batman escapes by riding the Batpod, but at the very least the road and the tunnel will need significant repairs due to the size of the explosion. Luckily, Batman can afford to foot the bill to pay for damaged city property should he be held legally accountable — or if just by virtue of the fact that he’s rich, and considerate, he chooses to pay for the damage he’s caused.
However, Ridley says the hero will get some credit for defending the authorities.
“He’s defending the S.W.A.T. van with his own car. At that point, he is protecting someone. It would be like a random civilian, a good Samaritan, pulling somebody out of the way of a speeding vehicle.” Because he’s helping the authorities, that should, says Ridley, “put him in the good graces of the government, Harvey Dent, and law enforcement”. He’s going to need all the help he can get because the Batmobile’s self-destruct is definitely going to get him in trouble.
“Setting off an explosive device in the middle of a crowded city? I mean, there are charges just for setting off explosive devices,” Ridley continues. “It’s not that different from somebody putting a briefcase with an explosive device in the middle of a crowded area, or just putting an explosive in their car. The argument from the defense side is that he is trying to save people’s lives and he’s doing it so the bad guys don’t get away.” Although Batman’s doing the right thing, Ridley says the Batmobile’s self-destruct mode goes too far: “We don’t have a Batman exception to the rule.” The punishment? Well, a resident of New York was recently imprisoned for two years for setting off explosive devices in a city neighbourhood so Batman could be looking at a substantial custodial sentence.
Ben Affleck shooting Lex Luthor’s goons in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Fast-forward to 2016, and Batfleck investigates the nefarious Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) in Batman v Superman, which leads him into a pursuit where he annihilates the businessman’s gun-toting henchmen with the Batmobile’s automatic weapons… Oh, dear. But Doug Ridley says there’s an easy defense for the hero.
“If I’m defending Batman on that,” says Ridley, “I’m going to argue that that’s self-defense plain and simple because they also have a gun pointed at him. So the basic principle of self-defense is you’re allowed to use equal force that is being presented to you.”
He adds, “You could argue that if Lex Luther’s goons are using the same sort of weapons, he’s allowed to use those to defend himself.”
But Batman isn’t free from the responsibility of firing weapons in the streets: “It is a tough argument for Batman to be able to make, that somehow he’s justified shooting bullets all over Gotham city. There also is a lot of liability. If somebody shoots a gun you’re responsible for where that gun goes. Say it’s self-defense and he’s firing a machine gun and bullets are flying all over the place, and it goes into an occupied dwelling and hurts somebody, he’s responsible for that. So really, really tough.”
Thankfully, the entire chase takes place at night through Gotham’s docks and its industrial district — so Batman’s stray bullets probably wouldn’t hit a civilian because it’s quiet. But he clearly does significant damage to various buildings by crashing through walls and wrecking warehouses, so it’s highly likely that the hero would face a civil case from those businesses affected by the destruction. Thank goodness for his deep pockets. And if there are a ton of lawsuits in progress against Wayne in the movies, you’ve got to feel for Alfred who’s likely doing the bulk of the admin on his boss’s behalf.
Robert Pattinson hunting the Penguin in ‘The Batman’
That brings us up to 2022’s The Batman, starring Robert Pattinson in Matt Reeves’s truly grim vision of Gotham. But his brand of vigilante justice is definitely going to cause some trouble for the justice system. One memorable sequence sees Oswald Cobblepot/Penguin (Colin Farrell) start a chase down the Gotham freeway, as Batman smashes through barriers in the road in hot pursuit of the villain. The gangster causes a fiery crash between two trucks, which Batman drives over (Fast and Furious style) before ploughing into Penguin’s car.
It’s a pretty devastating crash, as Cobblepot’s car spins in the air several times before landing upside down – it’s fair to assume he’s at least got a concussion. As Ridley previously pointed out, Batman would be liable for reckless driving — but the police would hold Cobblepot responsible because he initiated the chase itself. However, the sequence also leads to an unofficial interrogation down by the docks with James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), which is where it gets into legally murky territory.
“Yeah, that’s problematic for a lot of reasons,” says Ridley. “Gordon has to follow all the rules regarding police procedures — otherwise, whatever information he gets he’s not allowed to use. So if Penguin was to confess to something while being roughed up by Batman on the side of the dock, arguably under arrest, but he hasn’t been read any of his rights, then everything that Penguin says ends up not being able to be used as evidence.”
Considering this all involves police corruption and organised crime, this could make things incredibly difficult in court.
Ridley says, “If the unofficial interview ends up producing evidence, which is the only reason why they would do an interview, then the argument there is that everything that stems from that, everything that branches off from that, could potentially be thrown out.”
Uh oh. Is there any hope of Batman getting out of this one? Possibly, as “a defense attorney might argue that Batman is an agent of the GCPD.” Unfortunately, because Gordon’s also present, it makes things clear-cut: “Jim Gordon’s there. There’s no question about it, right? You don’t even have to make that argument. Gordon is there. So, again, it makes for super cool films… But, if they’re looking to have people answer for their crimes in criminal court, that’s not the way to do it.” Gordon’s been a cop for so long, he should know better!
Ridley points out that the legal logistics obviously don’t fit in the action-packed nature of these movies: “The Batman films aren’t about, you know, having somebody to answer for their crimes — court and the criminal justice system and do the trial, or do all that. It’s about justice.” Plus, they usually just get sent to Arkham anyway. Paul Dano’s Riddler certainly does.
With a laugh, Ridley adds, “Exactly! And, we don’t get the sense that there’s some sort of procedure that takes people to Arkham. Did they take them to Arkham because he went in front of a judge and the judge found them mentally incompetent to stand trial? So therefore all criminal proceedings were suspended and they were committed to a state hospital so they could get their competency restored with proper medication and treatment? And then have them brought back into the criminal court and face the charges?”
So what’s the solution for the GCPD, should they deputise Batman so they can officially use his work to prosecute criminals? That could be equally difficult “if all of his practices are attributed to law enforcement then that includes all the excessive force claims, all of the illegal search and seizure claims. If he’s going to have the benefits of law enforcement, then also he has to have the duties of law enforcement. So that’s one of the things that makes Batman so cool, he doesn’t have to wait for a while for the bureaucratic process.”
So it looks like Bruce might just have to keep evading the GCPD, because if he gets in front of a judge he’s going to get the book thrown at him. Hopefully, they still let him wear the cowl in Blackgate prison.
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