I am not sure how I stumbled across it, as I was so appalled by its content that I chose to quickly navigate away from it in disgust, but a few days ago I wound up reading some silly person’s column on Workers.org about why Americans should abandon their super-heroes. The column, titled “We don’t need superheroes,” tries to make a connection between fascism, classism, and super-heroes. Writer Caleb T. Maupin writes that in The Dark Knight Rises, “the police are portrayed as useless and restrained by civil liberties. So, in their place, like a caped George Zimmerman, Batman goes out to protect ‘law and order’ when oppressed people are duped into rising up.” Maupin then goes on to echo the tired argument that The Dark Knight Rises is pro-1% propaganda before reminding us all that a very small minority of wealthy people run everything, as if any of us had forgotten.
Maupin ends his column by saying that the solution to America’s problems is not to hold out for a savior figure but to band together and “seize society.” He then props up working class revolutionaries as “self-sacrificing, heroic individuals” before reminding us again not to wait for a savior. It’s really here that Maupin shoots himself in the foot. Surely he must know that super-heroes are a fictional phenomenon. People don’t go to Batman’s movies under the impression that they are watching newsreel footage of some valiant rich white man who is saving everyone. They go primarily to be entertained and, whether they know it or not, to be inspired.
Batman is a symbol, he is meant to inspire people. He is a man without super-powers who has decided to use the material means at his disposal to become more than a man, and he did it to help people. Nobody watches Batman films and then actually goes home and waits for a Batman figure to solve their problems. They watch them to see the difference one man can make, as depicted with fantastical elements and plots. Readers don’t put down their Batman comics and run around outside with a gun and an itchy trigger finger thinking that they’ll accomplish whatever it is that the police can’t do.
First of all, Batman is staunchly anti-gun, which completely nullifies the comparison to George Zimmerman as well as any belief that Maupin has seen the film that he is criticizing. Batman has also proven to dissuade others from taking the path of a vigilante without the (largely fictional) training and resources that only he himself can provide. The thesis of Batman is not “become a fascist, lawless authority figure,” it is simply an urban myth about a man with extraordinary means and talents that he employs for the greater good of his community.
One of the primary inspirations for the character of Batman is the pulp hero Zorro. The typical idea behind Zorro is that he’s a member of the upper class who lived in California in the 1800s and would secretly retreat to a cave at night, switch into some creepy black duds, and then hit the city as a swashbuckling hero for the downtrodden. Batman is, therefore, a 20th-century New York Zorro, plain and simple.
The main idea of these two heroes is not to paint the rich as saviors for the lower class, it’s to inspire imagination and to teach people that having wealth or status doesn’t exclude you from being morally responsible and helping your fellow man. The same can be said about the story of Robin Hood, a character who serves as the obvious inspiration for the Watson to Batman’s Sherlock Holmes: Robin, the Boy Wonder. Batman and Robin are more or less Zorro and Robin Hood. These are folk heroes that have rejected their social castes in order to help those less fortunate than themselves. (See also Iron Man, Doctor Strange, and Buddha.)
So, at this point, I believe I’ve presented an acceptable counter-argument to Maupin’s piece. It is way out of line to say that Batman is a form of propaganda for the 1% and for gun-toting, fascist conservative wingnuts. But what’s even more out of line is the declaration in the title of Maupin’s piece that we don’t need super-heroes. We absolutely do need super-heroes. We always will. Super-heroes serve as escapism when times are tough, they inspire us to do great things when the chips are down, and they teach us important life lessons. They are not saviors – it’s still up to us to get our asses out of the fire – but they represent the idea of the savior within us all. They are our best qualities given form, and to paraphrase Grant Morrison, we can take any bad idea or mortal fear and pit it against the super-hero and the super-hero always wins. Super-heroes are the better idea; they are the embodiment of selflessness, rationality, responsibility, and compassion. We’re always going to need them.
[mild The Dark Knight Rises spoilers ahead]
Oh, and for the record, The Dark Knight Rises is not conservative propaganda or an indictment of the Occupy movement. It’s just a big dumb action movie. And if you want to get technical and connect the dots of half-baked political ideologies that are presented in the movie, you have to remember that Bane is not fighting for the 99%, he just says that to play to the sympathies of the middle and lower class while biding his time before the bomb detonates. He’s a charismatic terrorist / dictator, and he’s just trying to win people over by telling them what they want to hear before blowing everyone up. The movie makes this fact very clear. The true message of The Dark Knight Rises, if there is one, is that Batman can be anybody, and in the end, it’s a working-class kid, an orphaned cop, who (presumably) takes up the mantle of the Bat. And that is a pretty democratic theme, if you ask me.