The Politics of Batman, Part 1:

Batman vs. Osama bin Laden

The following is an excerpt from the book War, Politics and Superheroes:

When Frank Miller announced that he would be crafting a graphic novel in which Batman would confront real-world terrorist Osama bin Laden, journalists across the country picked up the story and reported on it with a combination of amusement and amazement. As NPR’s Morning Edition noted on Feb. 16, 2006:

The Joker and the Riddler can rest easy—“The Caped Crusader” will be taking on Osama bin Laden. The cartoonist says it’s silly for Batman to chase old villains out of Gotham City when there are real threats out there. Miller admits it’s a piece of propaganda. But hey, it worked for Superman and Captain America, who both punched out Hitler.

Here NPR perpetuates the widely held public perception that comic books are predominantly escapist, apolitical, kids’ adventures and the least likely place to find meditations on contemporary political and military conflicts. Yet, it simultaneously establishes that comic books have been political and socially relevant all along. At the time the story aired, Miller’s mooted Batman: Holy Terror was, in fact, only the latest in a long line of political and (sometimes) socially insightful Batman stories, including a 1943 movie serial, Batman Begins (2005), Batman Returns (1992), The Cult (1988), A Death in the Family (1989), Venom (1991), No Man’s Land (1999), and Dark Detective (2005). Since announcing the project, and proudly declaring that it will “offend just about everyone,” Miller struggled to complete it, and ultimately removed Batman from the narrative, replacing him with a thinly veiled Batman stand-in confronting Osama bin Laden. In a similar vein, the Christopher Nolan film Batman Begins features Batman confronting a thinly veiled Osama bin Laden stand-in, Ra’s al Ghul.

Batman Begins reintroduced American audiences to Bruce Wayne, an orphaned billionaire philanthropist who secretly fights crime by night as Batman. The film was released after a string of Batman narratives that strove for relevance by commenting on the pressing social issues. The Batman films from the 1990s tackled issues of sexism and corporate corruption, and Frank Miller’s comic book narratives from the 1980s, Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, raised the question of whether or not Batman was himself a terrorist or quasi-fascist dictator. In examining these adventures and building on previous scholarship by Will Brooker, Geoff Klock, and Aeon J. Skoble, this chapter will demonstrate how each Batman story operates as social commentary. Each of these Batman stories can stand alone as an individual work of art or product of its time, yet each functions as a piece of the much larger narrative of Batman that exists in the collective consciousness of fans who work to reconcile inconsistencies and to decide who the definitive Batman truly is and what form of heroism he represents.

As Brooker (1999) has observed, Batman has changed much since he was created by Bob Kane in 1939, engaging in adventures that reflect the times in which they were crafted. In his first decade of adventures, Batman was equally likely to fight gangsters, vampires, and Nazis, as well as classic villains such as the Joker and Catwoman. In the 1950s, a smiling Batman faced aliens and nuclear-age menaces akin to those found on the silver screen in Them! (1954) and Forbidden Planet (1956). In the 1960s, his comic book exploits took a psychedelic turn, and the Adam West television series he inspired became an instant camp classic. The depressed 1970s were characterized by darkly Gothic, often supernatural stories drawn by Neal Adams and Marshall Rogers, who emphasized Batman’s toned musculature and newly brooding countenance.

Batman’s adventures during the 1980s were gritty, violent, and “For Mature Readers Only,” featuring critically acclaimed stories by Jim Starlin, Alan Moore, and Frank Miller that pitted him against Communists, Muslim terrorists, the Radical Christian Right, and President Reagan himself. From 1989 to the turn of the century, Batman enjoyed renewed mainstream popularity with four major feature films and a new television show, Batman: The Animated Series, which followed the 1990s movie thriller trend of glorifying their colorful villains at the expense of the hero, who was sometimes reduced to the role of boring supporting player. Significantly, as the first major live-action Batman adventure since the 9/11 attacks, Batman Begins reflects the hopes and anxieties of modern urban American culture just as closely as previous incarnations of Batman reflected their times. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is hard for some fans to embrace all of these portrayals of Batman, and readers tend to prefer the version of Batman they grew up with. However, recent comic book stories by Neil Gaiman (Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?) and Grant Morrison (The Return of Bruce Wayne) have presented all iterations of Batman as equally valid and part of the character’s rich past.

Given varied Batman portrayals over time, it seems natural that each actor who has played Batman on film and television has interpreted the character in his own way. Adam West was astonishingly straight-laced, innocent, and earnest as Batman, and his wealthy alter ego Bruce Wayne, in the 1960s television series. Michael Keaton made a strong impression as Wayne in two Tim Burton–helmed films —1989’s Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns— presenting him as a likeable, socially inept eccentric prone to brooding before his oversized fireplace like a classic Orson Welles movie character. In Batman and Robin (1997) George Clooney was a charming, Cary Grant–style Bruce Wayne, but he wasn’t a very good Batman; he seemed uncomfortable acting in the rubber superhero suit and tried too hard to be “funny.” Christian Bale, famed for playing insane, murderous yuppies, as in American Psycho and Shaft (both released in 2000) portrayed Wayne as a benevolent American prince who grows from a self-involved, vengeful young man into a mature “Feudal lord” dedicated to helping the people of Gotham instead of wallowing in his own anger and personal demons.

Just as longtime Batman aficionados draw upon decades’ worth of print and cinematic adventures to create a composite, ur–Batman in their minds, the film Batman Begins drew upon dozens of classic adventures to create an archetypal image of Batman and an original, yet recognizable story. The Bruce Wayne of Batman Begins is the sane, intelligent, moral man of the classic comic book adventures written by Steve Englehart, Mike W. Barr, Gerry Conway, and Denny O’Neil. The urban “realism” of the film derives from the Frank Miller Batman stories The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One. The dramatic tone, ensemble cast, complex narrative, and the inclusion of mafia don Carmine Falcone are all inspired by Jeph Loeb’s miniseries The Long Halloween (1996–1997). The Joe Chill story and the doomed romance with Rachel Dawes have echoes in Barr’s Batman: Year Two (1987). The film also owes a debt to Batman: The Animated Series, previously regarded by many fans as the most “faithful” adaptation. The fidelity of the film to the source material owes much to the fact that the plot and the script were shaped by comic book writer David S. Goyer, and to the fact that studio executives finally began to capitulate to the fans (who were tired of seeing unfaithful and, in their view, poorly made superhero films) after the commercial and critical failure of Batman and Robin.

Faithful as the film is to Batman stories of the past, Batman Begins is obviously rooted firmly in the present and clearly reflects contemporary anxieties about the destruction of the World Trade Center, the “war on terror,” and the invasion of Iraq. The film’s signature adversary, Ra’s al Ghul, wants to destroy Gotham because its decadence personally offends him. Director and cowriter Christopher Nolan acknowledged during a 2005 interview with Scott Holleran of Box Office Mojo that the film does, indeed, reflect the troubled times we live in, but that he made these connections unconsciously, seeing them only after he had completed the film. As he explained, “[W]e wanted to allow the influences to just naturally find themselves in the story. We didn’t want to be conscious about it, because then it would be insincere. But, definitely, the broad strokes, the villain that threatens you—the things you find frightening—those are going to be influenced by what’s going on in the world. I see the parallels now, but it certainly wasn’t conscious.”

Although the Gotham City of Batman Begins derives certain significant architectural features, like its elevated train, from Chicago, its overall feel is certainly inspired, in part, by the archetypal “corrupt” New York of the 1970s, which looms large in the public consciousness thanks to films such as The French Connection (1971) and Taxi Driver (1976). But Batman Begins blends the visual feel of the dirty, overtly “immoral” New York with the more subtle corruption that infests the cleaner, tourist friendly New York of today. Even after Mayor Rudolph Giuliani helped “clean up” the city with his tough-on-crime measures, Manhattan remains a place in which the citizens fear falling victim to criminal activity, a fear that now includes the machinations of Wall Street executives and Muslim terrorists. Ever since the September 11 attacks and the Enron scandals, New Yorkers have felt a specific combination of fear, fury, and moral outrage that has been kept alive by similarly troubling events that took place over the following decade, including the global financial meltdown, the Bush-Obama bank bailouts, and the failed Times Square bomb plot of 2010. These feelings are best exemplified by a segment in the Spike Lee film The 25th Hour (2002) in which Edward Norton’s character suffers a meltdown in a New York bar and curses President Bush, Osama bin Laden, Wall Street executives, the police, minorities, and himself for destroying New York and “the American Dream.”

In Batman Begins, the title character is pitted against an amazing array of enemies, including an evil university professor, a corporate mogul, drug-dealers, a mafia don, corrupt police officers, rioting escapees from a lunatic asylum, an army of ninjas, and international terrorist Ra’s al Ghul (“Demon’s Head” in Arabic). By the end of the film, Batman foils Ra’s al Ghul’s plan to destroy Gotham City and manages to root out much of the corruption that has tainted the police department and his family business, Wayne Enterprises, but the war against crime has only just begun.

Of all the villains populating Batman Begins, Ra’s al Ghul is presented as Batman’s arch nemesis, who seeks to gas Gotham with a toxin that will cause the city to “tear itself apart through fear.” Ra’s al Ghul, the ultimate terrorist, forces Batman to fight a literal “war on terror.” The film’s villain is an amalgam of three comic book characters: Dennis O’Neil’s original “Ra’s al Ghul,” Sam Hamm’s “Ducard,” and Mike W. Barr’s “Reaper.” The comic book character’s Arab ethnicity is changed for Batman Begins. The character is played by Irish actor Liam Neeson (Michael Collins, Schindler’s List). Thus, the extent to which viewers will agree that Ra’s al Ghul is a commentary on Osama bin Laden will depend on how they view bin Laden.

In Legacy of the Prophet (2002), journalist Anthony Shadid explained how bin Laden’s message of “defending Palestinians, ending sanctions on Iraq, and curtailing near-total U.S. sway over the region” was seen as heroic and appealing to many Muslims who viewed the 9/11 attacks as a self-defense response to unjust American foreign policy (693). Leo Braudy’s From Chivalry to Terrorism: War and the Changing Nature of Masculinity (2003) notes that the 9/11 attacks were motivated by a warrior culture’s disgust with American capitalism because it fosters three philosophies a warrior despises: secularism, pacifism, and feminism (202–203). The implication here is that America inspired wrath because it is “godless.” President Bush has commonly referred to the September 11 attacks as an attack on “freedom.” On the other hand, bin Laden himself gave these reasons for orchestrating the attacks in a “Letter to the American People” released on November 24, 2002:

You attacked us in Palestine, … in Somalia; you supported the Russian atrocities against us in Chechnya, the Indian oppression against us in Kashmir, and the Jewish aggression against us in Lebanon. Under your supervision, consent, and orders, the governments of our countries, which act as your agents, attack us on a daily basis. These governments prevent our people from establishing the Islamic Shariah, using violence and lies to do so. These governments give us a taste of humiliation and place us in a large prison of fear and subdual.

These words echo the motivations Ra’s al Ghul expressed in attacking Gotham City with fear gas. As he says to Batman:

The League of Shadows has been a check against human corruption for thousands of years. We sacked Rome. Loaded trade ships with rats. Burned London to the ground. Every time a civilization reaches the peak of its decadence, we return to restore the balance…. No one can save Gotham. When a forest grows too wild a purging fire is inevitable and natural. Tomorrow the world will watch in horror as its greatest city destroys itself.

The use of words like “corruption,” “decadence,” and “injustice” reflect those used by jihadist fanatics appalled by American excesses. Ra’s al Ghul is a lunatic who is too driven by “righteous” fury and ideology to be reasoned with. This is far from the view of bin Laden as a militant revolutionary figure staunchly opposed to American imperialism, as asserted by many of the Muslims interviewed in Shadid’s book, or by bin Laden himself in his “Letter to the American People.” But it is also possible that one of the reasons Nolan muddied Ra’s al Ghul’s ethnic background was to underscore the similarity between Muslim and Christian fundamentalists who believe that sinners should be purged from the world to make society more righteous and acceptable to God.

For example, novelist Salman Rushdie has argued that the “‘clash of civilizations’ theory is an oversimplification: that most Muslims have no interest in taking part in religious wars, that the divisions in the Muslim world run as deep as the things it has in common” and that the “real wars of religion” are “the wars religions unleash against ordinary citizens within their ‘sphere of influence.’ They are the wars of the godly against the largely defenseless: American fundamentalists against pro-choice doctors, Iranian mullahs against their country’s Jewish minority, the Taliban against the people of Afghanistan, Hindu fundamentalists in Bombay against that city’s increasingly fearful Muslims.” He concludes, “the real wars of religion are also the wars religions unleash against unbelievers, whose unbearable unbelief is re-characterized as an offense, as sufficient reason for their eradication” (382). Rushdie has had personal experience with such persecution since, after publishing The Satanic Verses (1988), he was condemned for blasphemy by the Ayatollah Khomeini, the Islamic fundamentalist leader of Iran, and condemned to death. Living in fear from the price placed on his head, the Bombay-born author lived life out of the public eye, and under guard, in England for many years.

One of several cultural critics who cited Muslim and Christian fundamentalists as equally dangerous, Rushdie has called upon like-minded progressives worldwide to stand up to their pernicious influence. Rushdie’s argument was validated to a considerable degree when, on the eve of 9/11, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder of the Thomas Road Baptist Church and Republican Party stalwart, argued that the secularization of American culture caused God to “lift the veil of protection which has allowed no one to attack America on our soil since 1812” and allowed the 9/11 attacks to occur. “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen,’” he said, citing Proverbs 14:23 as the basis for his accusation. While Falwell eventually apologized for the assertion, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Executive Director Lorri L. Jean said, “The terrible tragedy that has befallen our nation, and indeed the entire global community, is the sad byproduct of fanaticism. It has its roots in the same fanaticism that enables people like Jerry Falwell to preach hate against those who do not think, live, or love in the exact same way he does.”

It is this kind of fanaticism, found at home and abroad, in almost every ideological tradition, that Ra’s al Ghul embodies, potentially making him as much a Timothy McVeigh figure as an Osama bin Laden figure. Of course, if Ra’s al Ghul is Batman Begins’ ultimate fundamentalist terrorist figure, that suggests Batman, the one who stands between al Ghul and Gotham City, is a commentary on the United States government. Like President George W. Bush, who made his principle concern national security, Batman is open to great praise for using a firm military hand in protecting his home from foreign threats, but he is also open to great criticism for curbing civil liberties. A critical question is, therefore, to what extent do Batman Begins and other classic Batman stories present Batman as violating civil rights? Also, to what extent do these adventures, by extension, suggest that Batman harms the very same American people he is trying to protect?

In How to Read Super Hero Comics and Why (2002), Geoff Klock observes many problematic elements built into the classic super hero narrative, not the least of which is an inherent strain of fascism. As Klock observes, Batman is depicted as a violent fascist in Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. The landmark story criticizes both Batman and then President Ronald Reagan for highly martial tactics and a too–Puritanical worldview. According to Klock, “Batman’s use of conspicuous force parallels the Reagan-era cold war politics … ‘fighting crime’ in a conspicuous display of power … to impress the population they want to control…. Batman becomes the worst sort of reactionary fascist terrorizing people into his control with cheap theatrics” (45–46). At the climax of the story, Reagan orders the American military — and Superman — into the fictional islands of Corto Maltese as a means of ending a 1980s–era Cuban Missile Crisis. Instead of backing down, the Russians respond in kind by detonating a warhead that plunges America into a nuclear winter. For his part, Batman’s own uncompromising tactics provoke a confrontation between him and Superman in which Batman is beaten near to death and is forced to go into hiding. As Batman Begins demonstrates, the parallel between Reagan and Batman drawn by Miller in The Dark Knight Returns is easily updated by substituting Bush for Reagan. Notably, in the film, Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred acts as his conscience and questions whether the allure of Batman and all of his army-issue toys is enough to cause Bruce to become lost in a crazed, martial persona and lose all connection to reality. Meanwhile, in the “real” world, presidential advisors tend to be high-ranking party members and members of the military industrial complex, often advocating doctrinaire thinking and extreme, single-minded courses of action, insulating the Oval Office from alternative perspectives represented by members of the opposing political party, international allies, journalists, and social activists. They are hardly the moderating influence that Alfred is on Batman.

Still, critic Aeon J. Skoble offers a more balanced view of Batman: “[d]espite Batman’s willingness to break rules, he has always been cautious and measured in his use of violence, he has refused to cross certain lines, and he has consistently interfered with and apprehended only criminals” (33). According to Skoble, Batman’s methods are appropriate given how crime-infested Gotham city is portrayed as being, and how operatically evil his opponents are. Therefore, when pacifist or liberal characters criticize Batman on the news or at a peace rally, the criticism rings hollow and hypocritical, as he is being attacked by the very people who would not otherwise be able to survive in Gotham City without his protection (2005, 33). The vision of Batman that Skoble presents here is ultimately the one that Batman Begins embraces. Even as the film draws parallels between Batman and President Bush, making both look heroic in the process, it distances Batman from Bush by emphasizing his greater restraint, intelligence, social liberality, wiser choice of battles, and superior tactics.

But what exactly makes Batman heroic? What would motivate a man to dress up as a bat, shirk the company of women, and take up residence in a cave surrounded by an arsenal of weapons? And can a man who chooses to do so be considered anything but a maniac? These are the key questions asked by Batman Begins. Who is Batman? What motivates him to do what he does? And is he a hero or a lunatic?

To be continued…

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Marc DiPaolo is associate professor of English and film at Oklahoma City University. He wrote War, Politics and Superheroes (2011) and Emma Adapted (2007). He is editor of Godly Heretics and Unruly Catholics from Dante to Madonna, and coeditor (with Bryan Cardinale-Powell) of Devised and Directed by Mike Leigh (all 2013). His personal web site is here.

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1 Comment

  1. Samuel Crowe says:

    Very interesting. Your acknowledgment of both sides of the America/Middle East issue is very insightful and it’s interesting to hear about their relevence and exploration in a character that can seem so caught up in such a fictional and irrelevant world.

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