The Politics of Batman, Part 2:

Batman Begins, Feudalism, and Neoconservatism

[Note: The following is reprinted from the book War, Politics and Superheroes]

Batman Begins won the support of comic book aficionados across cyberspace as a “traditional” and pitch-perfect portrayal of Batman, while simultaneously providing a areflection of the contemporary American social and political environment. The self-appointed protector of the crime-infested Gotham City, Batman vows to battle corruption at every level of society, making Gotham safe once again for all. He uses “theatricality and deception” as a weapon “to turn fear against those who would prey upon the fearful.” Dressed in a mask, a cape, and bullet-proof body armor, Batman relies on his keen instincts as a detective, formidable martial arts expertise, and an assortment of high-tech gadgets and weapons to capture his opponents—not kill them.

In this film, Bruce Wayne was traumatized as a child when he saw his parents gunned down in an alley by a drug-addled mugger. After spending years brooding over their deaths, and nursing a burning desire for revenge, he decides to channel his rage and frustration into a more positive and selfless direction. He becomes the Batman to protect the people of Gotham City from harm so that they never have to experience the pain that he did in losing his parents. Wayne chooses the bat as his avatar because he was afraid of bats himself and wanted criminals to share his dread. In both the film and comic books, Wayne developed a primal fear of the animal after falling into a deep hole on the grounds of the family estate and landing in the future Batcave. His fall into the cave frightened the bats into flight, and their storm of flapping wings terrified him in nightmares for years to come.

The Batman Begins origin story is slightly different from the one presented in the comic book Batman: Year One (1988) in which Bruce’s parents are killed after seeing a revival of the Tyrone Power film The Mark of Zorro. The Waynes are accosted in an alley outside the movie theater by a mugger, who shots them dead. In this version, Bruce’s child-mind determined that, since superheroes like Zorro do not exist in real life, he would become one.

Given the innocent, wish-fulfillment nature of his quest to become a real-world Zorro, Bruce behaves with the purity of a child even as an adult; and his greatest flaw is that he is prone to see the world in the stark black-and-white morality of a child. Consequently, it is no surprise that, in Batman Begins, the college-age Bruce Wayne is portrayed as a frightened and angry child on the inside, who eventually grows into his role as feudal lord of Gotham City. As an anonymous crimefighter, he becomes a mature man who has conquered his demons. However, there are key moments in the story, such as when Batman leads the police of Gotham City on a high-speed car chase inside his tank-like Batmobile, when Alfred accuses Bruce of still behaving like a child.

As an orphan who cannot escape the pain of his father’s death, Bruce seeks father substitutes in Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine in Batman Begins), his policeman friend Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), and scientist and Wayne Enterprises director Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). The young Bruce Wayne even develops affection for the seemingly wise Ra’s al Ghul. Although Wayne may be faulted for investing too much in Ra’s al Ghul, his taste in father figures is otherwise exceptional, as the other men are invaluable aids in his mission to clean up Gotham City and all are good at helping him maintain a sense of fairness. All of them understand his human need to decompress and, occasionally, take the Batman mask off.

At the same time, in the original comic books that inspired Batman Begins, Wayne feels a kinship to other orphans and will adopt an orphaned child in a heartbeat and invite him (or her) to join his extended Bat-family as a fellow soldier and playmate in his war games. He invariably asks them to assume a colorful identity as he has—but only his favorites get to wear the “Robin” costume. And, whenever these partners show signs of not wanting to play any more, either because they have begun to mature or have expressed a desire to strike out on their own, Batman petulantly disassociates himself from them before they have a chance to say goodbye. He is usually too wounded to part with them on good terms. These adolescent-level friendships and intimacy issues are among the most damning signs of Batman’s immaturity.

Another hallmark of Batman’s innocence is his refusal to use firearms because the memory of the gun that killed his parents is too painful. Instead, he uses potentially lethal

weapons such as throwing stars, gas bombs, and armored cars in a non-lethal way to capture his opponents. The Dark Knight Returns, Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) are the exceptions that prove the rule, although the former takes place in the future and is, technically, “non-canonical,” and the latter are “looser” adaptations of the comic. In fact, Batman stamps all of his weapons with his “Bat insignia,” calls them by rather endearing names like “the Batmobile,” and “the Batarang,” and treats them almost like toys in an elaborate game of one-upmanship against his criminal opponents. In this light, Batman’s adversarial relationship to the Riddler is particularly “chummy,” especially since the Riddler exercises similar restraint himself, tending not to kill civilians and to place Batman into easily escapable deathtraps, just for a lark.

The campy 1960s Batman television series had a lot of fun with Batman’s utility belt, giving him a weapon for every occasion. Batman: The Movie—a 1966 theatrical release with the same cast and crew as the television show—even went as far as showing Batman fending off a shark attack with an aerosol can of “Bat-Shark Repellent” that he had handy for just such an occasion, so he would never have to kill a shark. In contrast, Batman Begins goes to great lengths to provide the title hero with a far more verisimilitudinous high-tech arsenal reminiscent of the James Bond films. His new weapons include an armored car that becomes the first Batmobile and a memory cloth cape that allows him to soar like a base-jumper across the rooftops of Gotham City. Perhaps most notable of all is his body armor, a nearbullet-proof Nomex suit designed for advanced infantry, but never issued on the battlefield because a “soldier’s life is not worth three hundred grand.”

The restraint with which Batman uses his weapons of war is striking, suggesting that one day the American military might be able to do the same, defeating its international enemies in combat with a minimum of bloodshed. Indeed, another multi-billionaire superhero, Tony Stark, made just that assertion when—in the Marvel Universe—he became President Bush’s Secretary of Defense in Iron Man: The Best Defense (2004) and promised that his technology could ensure that “no one need ever die in war again”—on either side. All opponents could be captured rather than killed, and all U.S. soldiers would be too well-armored to fall to enemy fire. In a similar vein, 2008’s Iron Man film features a scene in which, thanks to the sophistication of his targeting systems, the title character is able to pacify an insurgent uprising in Afghanistan without injuring any civilians in the crossfire. The scene is powerful, partly because many audience members wished that U.S. forces would be able to avoid collateral damage in the real world as well, and not just in the make believe world of a summer blockbuster superhero movie. The scene is also arguably offensive because—to date—civilian casualties remain a reality in all armed conflicts, including the wars in the Middle East. As Scott Peterson observed in “‘Smarter’ Bombs Still Hit Civilians” (2002), civilian casualty rates continue to climb even as America deploys more and more “smart bombs,” largely because the U.S. relies on air-based attacks to keep American casualties low, and enemy combatants deliberately locate weapon stores and training camps near civilians to turn the tide of international opinion against the U.S. when they are killed (180).

Nevertheless, the dream of a war with no civilian casualties—and even no enemy combatant casualties—persists. Batman has employed a similar martial strategy in the fictional world of Gotham City. Batman wants to liberate his home city from the rule of criminals, terrorists, and robber barons. He wants to orchestrate a regime change. To all of his enemies, he is a Dark Knight, a masked avenger, but to the innocent, he is the Caped Crusader, fighting to protect them from harm. And yet, both Batman and Tony Stark may be suffering from delusion. They may think that their motives are purer, and that they are kinder, than they really are. Commenting on the Iron Man story, comic book scholar David Sweeney observed that, despite Stark’s good intentions, “fascism is still fascism, conquest is still conquest.” Sweeney also notes that “suicide bombings or hunger strikes or self-immolation … work as a protest against the West because it relativizes our

Liberal Humanist value system.” A similar objection can just as easily be leveled against

Batman’s war on crime. Therefore, Batman’s quest for justice easily begs the question: what right does Bruce Wayne have to take it upon himself to confront the evils of society? Aren’t his violent means and angry rationale little different from the methods and motivations employed by the very criminals and madmen he has sworn to defeat? Isn’t Batman himself, arguably, a terrorist, if not a fascist dictator in making? The question is a fair one.

The simplest answer is that the storytelling conceit of the Batman universe is that Batman has an unerring inner moral compass that prevents him from doing wrong, so he deserves the trust and respect of the reader. In his world, villains, following long-standing

melodramatic tropes, announce their intentions in advance and perform obviously evil acts. There is little need for speculation about their possible innocence and no need for “absurd” notions such as due process. Even in more morally ambiguous Batman stories, in which Batman’s actions are questioned by a narrator, most readers are willing to give Batman a lot of moral latitude in his crime-fighting methods. Luckily, Batman has the script on his side, so if he were to ever, say, imprison a terrorist suspect, there would be no question either of the suspect’s guilt or of his right to a fair trial. And, as a lone crusader, Batman does not have to worry about leading an army into a foreign country on the basis of faulty—possibly doctored—evidence. But real-world defenders of “truth” and “justice” are rarely as infallible as fictional characters in hero narratives. Batman, as just such an infallible hero, provides a site for a reassuringly consistent view of good and evil in the universe of Gotham.

There is another, even more interesting reason that Wayne feels he must assert his will over Gotham City: heredity. Dubbed “the prince of Gotham” by the tabloids, Wayne feels a feudal obligation to protect the citizens of a city that he frequently refers to as “his.” His wealthy family presided over Gotham for generations, and its rule has always been just, providing a general moral compass for society. The Waynes were abolitionists, and they used the system of caverns that would later become the Batcave to shelter escaped slaves as part of the Underground Railroad. Bruce’s father, Thomas, a beloved and gifted physician, never cheated on his wife, despite much temptation, and created the Wayne Foundation to fund orphanages, environmental initiatives, journalist grants, hospices, and national defense.

There is little to condemn in their record as the unelected rulers of Gotham City. Bruce Wayne, thus, is a feudal prince who happens to live in a democratic society. He embraces the values of an older social order by offering the citizens of Gotham his charity and his protection. By doing so, he effectively condemns wealthy capitalists who shirk their civic responsibilities and view the common people as commodities to be exploited. Wayne is noble and humanitarian, a true “compassionate conservative” who is more like Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy or Mr. Knightley than the Enron or Halliburton executives we are more used to seeing in the news today. As the Prince of Gotham, Wayne feels a responsibility to imprison the irredeemable, to heal the mentally ill, and to protect the innocent from harm. And so, simultaneously underlining the hero’s duality and his feudal worldview, the comic book portrays Bruce Wayne as the Feudal Lord and Batman as the “Dark Knight” who carries out Wayne’s will, acting as his sword of justice.

This desire to protect his city is at the heart of the restraint Batman employs when using his high-tech weapons. He feels a feudal lord’s desire to protect his subjects from each other and from themselves. In effect, Batman is fighting an urban war against his own serfs, so he cannot afford the luxury of hating even the worst of his adversaries. On some level, he cares for all of them—his former best friend Harvey Dent (Two-Face), the pathetic Ventriloquist, and the mischievous Riddler. He feels a measure of responsibility for “creating” the Joker—the evil clown who is his most deadly and persistent foe. And Catwoman, the Phantasm, and Ra’s al Ghul’s daughter Talia are as much love interests as they are opponents.

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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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