The Politics of Batman, Part 5:

Batman Returns, Enron, and the Buying of American Democracy

I first saw the film Batman Returns when it was released in 1992. I was young and didn’t understand it. I found the Penguin disgusting. I had a sense that the movie was condemning American society for being corrupt and the American people for being uneducated. While I loved all of the material with Batman and Catwoman, I hated the movie overall. An energy crisis with a power “sucker” instead of a power supplier? Stereotypical evil rich magnates? A recall election? How likely was any of this to happen in the real world? What a load of arrogant, liberal nonsense! Rush Limbaugh was right about Hollywood liberals and their propaganda!

Then Enron happened. And the California energy crisis happened.
And Gov. Davis was recalled.
And Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor of California.
And Batman Returns became prophecy.
Only in the real world, the Penguin and Max Shreck won.

When I watched the documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), I was horrified by the section that covered California, the energy crisis, and Gov. Davis. I felt as if I had been naïve in my assessment of both Batman Returns AND of the state of American democracy. Dangerously and cruelly naïve. My real education in civics and free-market capitalism was finally beginning. I had a lot left to learn. If you haven’t seen this documentary yet, I cannot recommend it highly enough. And if you are a Batman fan, I suggest you have a double-feature – Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Batman Returns. I did. Afterwards, I had to reassess Batman Returns’ value as a movie, as social commentary, and as a Batman adventure. It is a very, very important tale, and inspired much of the tone of Batman: The Animated Series and advanced a world-view and depiction of corporate evil that clearly laid the groundwork for the Court of Owls storylines.

This is what I wrote for my book War, Politics and Superheroes after I revisited Tim Burton’s film:

In Batman Returns, Bruce Wayne is confronted with grotesque doubles of himself as a corporate mogul and as an American aristocrat. He suffers a crisis of faith that causes him to wonder if his naïve aspirations to heroism have any place in the dark, film noir world he inhabits, in which everyone is corrupt to some degree. The main villain, Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), is a real-estate tycoon, department store owner, and investor named after the star of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. Shreck publicizes a bogus energy crisis to gain support for an unnecessary power plant, but Bruce Wayne and Gotham City’s mayor squash his schemes. Shreck retaliates by funding a recall campaign to replace the mayor in the wake of a sudden outbreak of urban chaos, which Shreck is secretly orchestrating through his underworld connections. Shreck’s candidate for mayor is the Penguin. In a cynical commentary on the American political process, Shreck’s campaign savvy makes the grotesque Penguin—who was born disfigured thanks to aristocratic inbreeding—attractive to the voting public, who see him as an aristocrat returned from exile who has heroically forgiven the wealthy parents that forsook him. The film’s plot, which seemed ludicrous in 1992, in retrospect appears to have predicted many of the events leading up to California’s 2003 recall of Governor Gray Davis, especially the state’s electricity crisis (2000–2001) and Enron’s behind-the-scenes role in the affair.

By the end of the film, Wayne succeeds in exposing the Penguin as a fraud using hi-tech recording and broadcasting devices to disrupt one of Penguin’s press conferences. Wayne also temporarily thwarts Shreck’s plans to build a power plant. However, he does not find a way to decisively defeat Shreck, or strip Shreck of his wealth and power. Therefore, the film suggests that Shreck is above the law and beyond the reach of both Bruce Wayne and Batman. Shreck even claims to be as permanent and unassailable as Gotham City itself. “I am the light of the city and I am its mean and twisted soul,” he says. Like Bruce Wayne, who is part Donald Trump, part vampire, Shreck is contemporary patriarchal capitalism. The angry tone of the film suggests that, in the real world, businessmen are more like Shreck, and “trust fund goodie goodies” like Bruce Wayne exist only in the realm of fiction. But Bruce Wayne is too invested in the system as it is — his feudal variant of benign capitalism — that he does not see that he is, arguably, as much a problem as Shreck is. Wayne cannot see that the roots of society’s evils can be traced to inequalities built into the unacknowledged American class system and in its imbalanced capitalist economy. So the moral of Batman Returns is that “problems cannot be solved within the mindset that created them.”

The born-to-the-purple Bruce Wayne is very good at fighting street crime or foreign enemies with his impressive arsenal and cool Batmobile, but he is clueless when it comes to combating the real evils of capitalist society. Therefore, Wayne has no real understanding of poverty, racism, or the inequalities suffered by women in a male-dominated system. Ironically, while Shreck is decisively dealt with at the end of the film, it is not by Batman, but by Shreck’s personal secretary, the lower-middle-class Selina Kyle, who is in a better position than Wayne to know just how evil men like Shreck are. Kyle, played by a frumpily costumed but still quite gorgeous Michelle Pfeiffer, lives in a run-down Gotham City apartment, alone except for the stray cats who visit her for food and shelter. Romantically frustrated, financially strapped, and nagged by the mother she doesn’t call enough, Kyle is eager to impress her boss and graduate from secretary to personal advisor and confidant to Shreck. Researching Shreck’s business ventures to better advise him, she stumbles across evidence that his power-plant plans are an attempt to drain power from Gotham, rather than provide power to the people. When Shreck realizes that Kyle has found him out, he kills her by pushing her through the window of his high-rise office building. What Shreck doesn’t anticipate is that the many stray cats that Selina has been caring for discover her broken body in the alley below and mystically breathe life back into her, granting her nine new lives.

Back from the dead and furious, Kyle returns to her apartment and destroys her dollhouse, stuffed animals, and pink clothes, effectively cleansing herself of girlhood. The scene is powerful as Kyle destroys these symbols of passivity and domesticity that brainwashed her into investing in a man like Shreck. Selina then uses her domestic arts to sew herself a black leather costume. Then she arms herself with a low-tech bullwhip, which she adopts instead of the too-phallic alternative, a gun. Reborn as Catwoman, Kyle launches an extended campaign against Shreck by attacking him where it will hurt the most—his wallet. She breaks into his department store after closing time, chases the useless guards away, and blows up the store using an aerosol can, a microwave, and a gas line. (A nice, no-frills approach. No C-4 for Catwoman.) These weapons are low-tech in comparison to Batman’s, but are just as non-lethal. The explosion is an act of revolution, carried out mercifully, when no guards, customers, or Shreck employees are still in the store; but it brings down the wrath of Batman, who tries to bring her to justice for property damage and domestic terrorism. She evades capture long enough for Batman to get to know her—both in her Catwoman and Kyle identities—and to fall in love with her. When he discovers that her ultimate goal is to assassinate Shreck, he tries to dissuade her to save her from her own darkness. Catwoman isn’t interested in being dissuaded, however. She says, “Don’t give me a killing-Max-won’t-solve-anything speech, because it will. Aren’t you tired of this sanctimonious robber baron coming out on top when he should be six feet under?” Batman responds by declaring that she doesn’t have the right to kill him, asking, “Who do you think you are?”

At the end of the film, Catwoman captures Shreck and is about to kill him when Batman intervenes, promising Catwoman that he finally has enough evidence to turn Shreck in.

CATWOMAN: Don’t be naïve. The law doesn’t apply to him or us.

BATMAN: Wrong on both counts. Why are you doing this? Let’s just take him to the police. Then we can go home … together.

Batman continues to speak softly to Catwoman, pleading with her, and unmasking to show her Bruce Wayne’s face. After a long moment of indecision, Catwoman replies: “Bruce, I would love to live with you in your castle forever, just like in a fairy tale. [Pause.] I just couldn’t live with myself.” Then she kills Shreck and disappears into the night. Batman does not pursue her. The film ends shortly afterwards.

This resolution represents an interesting reversal from the comic book, where Catwoman is regularly begging Batman for a relationship, and he always spurns her for being too corrupt for him. Here Batman wants the relationship, but Catwoman doesn’t want to betray her principles, or compromise her independence, by marrying a rich prince after all. It is a great tragic ending. As satisfying as it would have been to see a Batman-Catwoman relationship, it is good that Selina Kyle doesn’t “sell out,” and a pleasant surprise that she doesn’t wind up safely jailed or killed at the end. Unsurprisingly, Batman Returns had been widely criticized for being a bleak and angry film. It certainly is, but it is also an excellent, thought-provoking film, especially since Catwoman is a marvelous character who has a very legitimate point about the evils of “sanctimonious robber barons”—both in the world of Batman and in “the real world.” Clearly, Batman thinks she does, or he would have tried harder to capture her after she killed Shreck.

Having It Both Ways

When asked if the Batman story is “pro-vigilante” or “anti-vigilante,” Batman Begins auteur Christopher Nolan observed that, “it’s kind of both at the same time. It’s enjoying something and questioning it.” Certainly that is the case when one considers, side-by-side, Batman Begins, which presents a largely positive portrayal of Batman, and Batman Returns, which is more concerned with the limits of Batman’s power and heroism, despite his likeability and his good intentions. The two films represent two polar opposite perspectives on the character that are equally valid.

Admittedly, there are many problematic elements to the Batman story featured in films, comic books, and cartoons. The story is consistently sexist in its thinking and its almost uniformly male cast of characters. It is in love with technology and weaponry—a narrative about boys with toys. It is, therefore, obviously the product of adolescent male power fantasies and wish-fulfillment. It is also, in this day-and-age, a potentially dangerous narrative that can be easily exploited as propaganda that supports the excesses of American imperialism and global capitalism.

However, at its best, the Batman story is about justice, restraint, and the desire to take a stand against evil—to make society as a whole the better for the effort. It is about a man who has the power, the money, and the influence to behave self-indulgently, but who, instead, uses moderation and behaves selflessly. It is possible for a fan to embrace Batman’s more problematic character traits—his flirtation with fascism, his sexism, his single-mindedness—and that is, of course, not desirable. But it is also possible for someone to enjoy the heroism that Batman represents, and to strive to find a real-world way to emulate it, while being critical of the Batman universe and aware of the limitations of Batman’s philosophy.

It is in Batman’s nobility—his desire to protect and improve his home city—that he has a renewed appeal for modern audiences. He is especially appealing to the modern day New Yorker, who fears that the city might be too far-gone to save, or that the city might be attacked by a real-life Ra’s al Ghul. He is an exhortation not to give up, but to remain hopeful, and to keep striving for a better future.

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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. Bruno Franco says:

    Sexist? But wait, what about all the female characters that have proven to be superior to batman in certain aspects? Cassandra Cane, Stephanie Brown, Barbara Gordon, Katherine Kane, etc?

  2. “It is also, in this day-and-age, a potentially dangerous narrative that can be easily exploited as propaganda that supports the excesses of American imperialism and global capitalism.”

    That’s certainly a core piece of the Nolan films which never sat well with me. Especially with the “occupy movement” villains in the last one. There’s a direct comparison to be made between Burton’s Catwoman and Nolan’s Bane in this context I’d imagine.

    Anyway, although I certainly buy the political subtext you’re presenting in Returns, I always felt that Burton was more interested in the idea of outsiders and how society marginalizes them, compared to any specific political statement, to the point where I barely picked up on it until I read your article. But its clearly there, since 3 of the 4 lead characters are either millionaires or come from millionaire families.

    Certainly there’s a strong case to be made of Batman being completely oblivious. His statement, “We’re the same. Split right down the center,” always struck me as a ludicrously naive thing to say the one female character he has the least in common with. If anything, he should have said that to Shreck or Penguin (or both… somewhere there’s an alternate movie where all three are brothers).

    Its a shame that almost all of this subtext is buried under six feet of tacky costume design, puns, rocket-launching penguins, etc.

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