I’m launching a new blog on Tumblr called Punching Up. It’s a culture blog focused on art, music, books, movies, thoughts, and humor that favors the underdog over the powerful. Luckily, most art already does this, so I’ve got like, an insane amount of material to pull from. But in honor of the blog’s launch, I’m repackaging my piece on America’s favorite right-wing superhero: Batman.
When I first watched The Dark Knight Rises, the final installment in Christopher Nolan’s epic and awesome Dark Knight trilogy, the thought crossed my mind that the terrorists in the movie voiced a rhetoric that sounded eerily similar to that of the the Occupy movement. The thought passed, and was quickly followed by “OH MY GOD, LOOK AT BANE’S MUSCLES.”
But since then, I’ve realized that this wasn’t a fluke. Batman, probably our country’s favorite superhero, is a right-wing wet dream. In a country where all superheroes a wee bit troublesome for the left, Batman is like a Koch Brothers/Ted Cruz level of troubling. The dude is a counterrevolutionary defender of the one percent. In fact, the only thing that keeps him from being marginally different from other vigilantes is a hastily tacked-on rule (read: plot device) that he doesn’t kill. Which, as College Humor so helpfully pointed out, is patently ridiculous.
The political leanings of superheroes are usually pretty far to the right.
The political leanings of superheroes in the movies are never made particularly explicit — there are a few exceptions in comic books such as in Watchmen or in the character of the left-wing Green Arrow, but for the most part, writers choose to let a character’s politics play out through the story rather than through the characters words. The rule in storytelling is show, don’t tell, and superheroes are a perfect vehicle for this.
Superman, for example, is inherently anti-communist. His name is stolen from the Nietzschean and proto-fascist concept of the Übermensch, which literally translates into “Overman” (or “Superman”) from German. The first Superman comic — before Action Comics #1 — was called “The Reign of the Superman” and featured a villain using telepathic powers to take over the world. Jerry Siegel, one of Superman’s creators, later said that it was directly inspired by Nietzsche’s Übermensch.
The Superman that took off as America’s first superhero was a bit more cleaned up. He’s benevolent, and he never does anything wrong. He’s for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. The distinction between the original Superman and the established one is thinner than it sounds though: an all-powerful man serving the established order could be a good guy or a bad guy, depending on who you’re talking to (Alan Moore referenced this more explicitly in Watchmen, when the all-powerful Doctor Manhattan is tapped by the U.S. government to murder the entire Viet Cong Army).
So Superman doesn’t need to talk about his political views. They radiate off him in waves. And he was the prototype for every superhero that followed.
Batman, Member of the Benevolent Elite
The origin story of Batman is that his alter-ego Bruce Wayne is born into a family of benevolent billionaires. What Wayne Enterprises does is almost absurdly broad — they have an oil division, a construction division, a weapons division, a tech division, a manufacturing division, and even a record company. They are — to put it mildly — “job creators.” Forbes estimates their net worth as $31.3 billion, but that seems absurdly low, given the breadth of what they work in.
Since Gotham is a mess, they are philanthropists, too. In the Nolan movies, they are portrayed as struggling valiantly against organized crime and institutional corruption by building a public transportation system that turns out to be a boondoggle, a plot device which conveniently knocks public works projects and excuses the Waynes for not using their money towards more effective ends (like politics which they could totally buy into and reform if they wanted) at the same time.
Bruce’s parents are killed by a desperate thief anyway, and traumatized Bruce grows up, decides to skip the boring politics of poverty reduction and police reform, and fights crime his own way: as a masked man who doesn’t use guns and doesn’t kill.
Batman the Reformer
Now, while the movies and comic books portray Wayne’s unwillingness to give up on Gotham as a belief in the goodness of people, it can also be thought of in another way: In his A People’s History of the United States, historian Howard Zinn suggests that the New Deal — Roosevelt’s massive economic reforms in the midst of political and social upheaval — was not, as many progressives like to portray it, a dramatic socialistic restructuring of the economic system to be more fair and equitable.
“…the New Deal’s organization of the economy was aimed mainly at stabilizing the economy, and secondly at giving enough help to the lower classes to keep them from turning a rebellion into a real revolution…
Were the New Dealers-Roosevelt and his advisers, the businessmen who supported him-also class- conscious? Did they understand that measures must be quickly taken, in 1933 and 1934, to give jobs, food baskets, relief, to wipe out the idea ‘that the problems of the workers can be solved only by themselves’? Perhaps, like the workers’ class consciousness, it was a set of actions arising not from held theory, but from instinctive practical necessity.”
We might assume the same of Bruce Wayne: he’s a man attempting to fix a system that is obviously broken, but is also instinctively preserving the system that other activists think should be scrapped because it has been very good to him. In doing this, Wayne chooses the path of the progressive rather than that of the radical: he is looking for reform, not revolution.
Batman the Vigilante
But Batman was a progressive in a weird way. He chose possibly the most theatrical but least effective way to affect change possible. He chose to put on a costume and single-handedly fight crime in a city of 30 million people. It smacks of personal catharsis rather than a genuine desire to change things. And his crime-fighting approach is weirdly one-sided: it just has to do with pummeling criminals. Why not use his billions to fund schooling in poor neighborhoods? Why not fund drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs? Why not donate to social service programs? Why not fund anti-corruption campaigns and work to mediate the relationship of the police with the people they were supposed to protect? If he was serious about ending crime, it seems weird that he would have done zero reading into how crime is actually prevented.
One explanation is that Batman is traumatized and slightly-unhinged, and is able to get away with it because he’s richer than God. Another is more insidious: the Batman story is an attempt to maintain or justify the status quo.
Batman vs. Anarchy
Part of the problem with the Nolan Batman story is that the ideological villains he fights against (and note: they’re all ideological, with the possible exception of Scarecrow) all believe really dumb, half-baked versions of their ideology. Take, for example, the Joker.
For the record: the Joker is an anarchist. He’s not a socialist. So the image of Barack Obama wearing Joker make-up with the caption “Socialism” is utter nonsense. It’s important to point out that the Joker is a terrorist as well. It obviously would’ve been boring if the Joker was a more typical granola-and-tweed Noam Chomsky style anarchist, so it’s no surprise that Christopher Nolan made him a terrorist, but it was not inevitable that he be an anarchist.
The one thing Nolan gets right about his anarchist Joker is that the Joker is very interested in the Propaganda of the Deed. This is basically an old anarchist maxim that actions speak louder than words, so commit an attack, and it will inspire like-minded people to commit similar attacks. It’s less used by anarchists today that it was a century ago, but it is most definitely used by terrorists of other stripes. The emphasis in the Propaganda of the deed is on spectacle.
But ultimately, his Joker is a straw man. The reason this Joker is not a real anarchist is in the final, climactic scene, when he puts bombs on two ferries, one filled with civilians, one filled with criminals. He also gives each ferry a detonator for the other ferry’s bomb, and says if one of them doesn’t blow up the other, he’ll blow up both. It’s a nice, touching scene when one of the convicts throws the detonator out the window, and the passengers on the other ferry can’t bring themselves to do it despite having their kids on the goddamn thing, but it’s not particularly realistic.
And I don’t mean that it’s impossible that this would happen: I mean it’s impossible that the Joker would only leave one detonator on each ship. He would’ve put one under every seat, like Oprah. “You get a detonator, you get a detonator, you all! Get! Detona-KABOOM!” Different story, different ending. But the focus of these movies is on the power of the individual, not the collective, and the whole “weakest link” argument doesn’t come into play.
The Joker, even though he’s pretty much the best movie villain of all time, becomes just another example of why we need benevolent rich-people crime fighters to protect us.
Batman vs. Socialism
Weirdly, in the Wayne’s fight against poverty and crime, there doesn’t seem to be any mention of income inequality. There’s plenty of mention of them being philanthropists, but most of the Robber Barons were philanthropists: it didn’t end the structures that perpetuate poverty.
The only people that mention income inequality are Catwoman and her Occupy friends.
There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.
But Catwoman isn’t interested in Occupy’s Robin Hood rhetoric of taking from the rich and giving to the poor: she’s only interested in taking from the rich and giving to herself. And given that her compatriots are mostly depicted as criminals and looters, it’s not surprising that the flock so quickly to a savior promising a new socialistic era and an end to the reign of the elites. That man, unfortunately, is Bane.
The implication in the final movie, The Dark Knight Rises, is that people who speak of economic injustice and redistribution of wealth are either criminals or are actually planning on tearing down society as a whole. Ayn Rand couldn’t write it better herself. So while Bane is at least more ideologically consistent than the Joker, the facade he puts on for the public is a lie.
This implication, by the way, is not solely in The Dark Knight movie trilogy. One of Batman’s most famous writers is Frank Miller, the right-wing comic book artist who wrote books like Sin City, 300, and two of the Batman storylines that Nolan borrowed from heavily in his scripts: Batman: Year One, and The Dark Knight Returns. Miller once called Occupy protesters “louts, thieves, and rapists,” “pond scum,” and “losers,” and even attempted to write an anti-Muslim Batman story called Holy Terror, Batman but eventually changed it to a non-Batman story.
Political dissidents are generally not treated well in superhero comicbooks, often portrayed as druggies, leeches, or malcontents, but in the Batman stories, they are even less likely to be portrayed sympathetically because they are oriented against the hero of the stories.
So the final movie sticks pretty closely to the right wing’s narrative about the left: that they are moochers and criminals being guided by a much smarter übermensch who is simply manipulating the masses for his nefarious ends. This is once again a battle between individuals. The collective means nothing.
Batman the Decider
The final point I have about Batman’s weird right-wing, fascist leanings I’m going to hand off to my friend Paul, who commented on this original post:
Bruce Wayne held in his hands, the one energy source that could cheaply and efficiently render most fossil fuel, wind, solar, thermo, and fission energy sources obsolete; potentially providing energy needed to heat/air condition homes, run businesses, hospitals, schools and non-profits; enough cheap power to reduce the costs of economic development, industry and science, and to slow and/or reverse the ever-present threat of climate change posed to all of the island-states and costal regions.
The Dark Knight pocket vetoed the cheap energy needed to provide countries with rapidly depleting water tables like Yemen with the vast power necessary to desalinate water (the resourse likely to replace Oil and mineral wealth as a source of conflict).
The Caped Crusader, decided all on his own, that the danger of fusion technology outweighed its benefits. The danger being, it could be used to make a 4 megaton thermonuclear weapon…
“hmmm,” said Wayne, “I could fix a shit ton that’s wrong with the world economy, but it could- potentially- maybe- one day- be used by the US and other governments to develop a weapon that they have known how to build for 60+ years, and has 1/10 the yield of previously tested thermonuclear devices, at probably 10X the cost. Ehhh, better not risk it.”
What a dick.
And another thing, if he didn’t want it weaponized why did he dump all that extra money to miniaturize a reactor? A reactor, that in all likelihood would require a giant magnetic field to contain-something that in its prototype-stage or even first and second generations would probably need to be housed in a building the size of a few football fields.
Batman: Vigilante Defender of the One Percent
The obvious argument against everything I’ve said is, “Dude. It’s just a comic book movie.” And while that’s true, I would point out this: The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises are both in the Top 10 highest box office returns of all time. And stories do matter. Your heroes say a lot about who you are, and if you were to ask, “What would Batman do?” as, say, a cop, you might decide to take action outside the law because it’s “right,” or you might imagine that you yourself are an übermensch, and thus have the right to make choices that can seriously affect the lives of others.
And none of this is to say that I don’t love these movies and, to a lesser extent, Batman comic books (I like them less because the crypto-fascist element tends to be a bit stronger in the comics). Batman’s mythology isn’t what it claims to be: he is not a Robin Hood. At best, he’s ineffectual and traumatized, at worst, he’s a deliberate attempt at maintaining the right-wing status quo by drawing the public’s attention away from ineffective governance and inequality that requires political action (and likely wealth redistribution) by fixating on the crime that is symptomatic of the systems his family helped create.