When I was younger, I never questioned Batman. I will admit to bending my brain trying to figure out how a bunch of cat kisses saved Selena Kyle from falling out of a skyscraper in Batman Returns but my consideration of the caped crusader was fairly limited. He was a superhero who showed up to beat criminals when they did bad things. He wore a cool costume and had a Batmobile. When you’re five years old, that sort of simplicity is all you really need.
Twenty some years later and the web is now filled to the brim with opinions on what Batman is supposed to be and mean. Following the release of The Dark Knight Rises, for instance, there were more than a few voices proclaiming the film’s version of Batman as a conservative hero whose efforts amounted to nothing less than oppression of the poor and a denial of the ideas espoused by movements like Occupy Wall Street.
I can see where those sorts of claims are coming from. I’d hardly be the first to point out, that Batman, for all his vaunted skills, really only gets to do what he does because he has Scrooge McDuckian sums of money at his disposal. The street and drug crime he fights so hard to stop, in turn, can be linked to the sort of poverty that he has no real experience with. The Nolan films actually touch on this directly, painting Joe Chill, the murderer of Bruce Wayne’s parents, as little more than a desperate man trying to make a quick buck during the height of an economic depression. When you look at it that way, it’s not hard to see how some might look at Batman pummeling some street thug and see it as nothing more than a rich man beating up a poor person for not having all the same advantages he’s had.
A rich man beating up a poor person for not having all the same advantages he’s had
It’s not a baseless argument, but it’s also one I don’t give particular credence to. Some of my dismissal comes from how easy it is to argue in the opposite direction. The Dark Knight Rises, for instance, might have Batman restoring the rich-on-top status quo, but the film also leaves him dirt poor and ends with Wayne Manor being turned into a group home for needy children. It’s hard for me to watch that and summarize the film as “successful businessman screws over the poor.” Stepping outside of that movie there are even more examples. In Batman: The Animated Series the episode Heart of Ice primarily blames corporate greed for the origins of Mr. Freeze. Appointment in Crime Alley likewise sees Batman foiling the plans of an entrepreneur trying to force the denizens of a poor neighborhood to abandon their homes so he can buy up and redevelop their property. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that the Dark Knight is as much a foe of capitalist exploitation as he is of the anarchic redistribution of wealth.
Batman doesn’t embrace the left or the right. He doesn’t cozy up with either side. No matter what beliefs or politics Bruce Wayne might maintain as an individual, the second he dons the cape and cowl he abandons them and dedicates himself to justice and order no matter where it’s being threatened. It’s not to say that Batman can’t be in stories of a political bent. While I would suggest that The Dark Knight Rises isn’t altogether kind to the wealthy, the film as a whole does take a bit of a conservative view of things, casting Gotham’s social revolution in a fairly negative light. Likewise, its predecessor The Dark Knight embraced the “by any means necessary” attitude that many on the right-wing have adopted when it comes to stopping terrorism.
We live in a world where everyone has an agenda and corruption exists as a rule.
The difference for me comes from the motivations of Batman himself. While Batman, especially in the Nolan films, is definitely an “ends justify the means” sort of guy, I tend to see him lacking any real personal politics. The revolution in The Dark Knight Rises might have drawn on and, to an extent, mocked the populist rage of the 99 Percent and Occupy Wall Street movements, but Batman’s involvement was more of a reaction to Bane and his goal of nuking Gotham than anything else. Looking over the breadth of his long career, you’ll find countless other examples of Batman entering into conflict with forces from almost every corner of society. He battles politicians, businessmen, other vigilantes and, at one point, even rock and roll. His issue is less with any particular cause or movement, and more with the actions of the people involved.
Batman’s lack of bias, his “incorruptibility,” to paraphrase Heath Ledger’s Joker is why I think so many people love Batman. We live in a world where everyone has an agenda and corruption exists as a rule. Politicians are crooked and pandering and businessmen lie. How refreshing is it, in turn, to be presented with a hero who can’t be bought? A champion who saves the day and unflinchingly does the right thing with no consideration for his image or the personal costs? Put shortly, Batman is our ideal of what justice should be.
His enemies, in turn, are a reflection of what society wants crime to be. We enjoy watching him battle gangsters, thieves and psychopaths because it allows us to escape to a reality where crime is limited to simple, tangible threats that our civilization knows how to respond to. Having Batman focus in on black and white villains like the Joker and Bane allows us to escape the anxiety of living in a world filled with shades of gray that can be equally, if not more, dangerous.
Recent events have shown that your fine-suited executive at a desk in a skyscraper can do more damage to the world than even the worst members of Batman’s rogues’ gallery. The Joker might have lethal laughing gas, but Wall Street has the derivatives market and the willingness to abuse it. Where does justice come into play when a CEO can hire a cabal of lawyers or argue that their company is “too big to fail,” regardless of what it’s done? Whether or not it’s true, there’s a perception that people like that get to walk away from their crimes scot free.
We want real crime to be subject to ideals of right and wrong that it often isn’t.
Batman’s foes, in turn, occupy a stratum of criminal simplicity that’s actually attractive. The mere sight of the Joker is enough to tell us that he’s up to no good. A goon with a gun doesn’t really need much of an explanation. Even when Batman stories focus in on someone from the business sector, ambiguity rarely comes into play. When the businessman in the aforementioned Appointment in Crime Alley attempts to blow up an entire block of homes, we know he did it and that someday Batman is inevitably going to take him down. What we want is for the world to work that way. We want evil schemes to be stopped with a batarang and a few cracks to the jaw. We want real crime to be subject to ideals of right and wrong that it often isn’t. Batman serves as something of a blank canvas upon which writers and fans alike are able to express these desires.
There’s a quote from a recent issue of Scott Snyder’s ongoing and fantastic run of Batman that stuck with me. Coming at the end of the recent Year Zero story, Alfred is telling Bruce why he thinks the public will accept the newly unveiled Batman. “[They want to be] transported to a world where bigger truths are at work, and anything- anything- can happen. A world where the impossible is possible… [Batman can be] someone who defies every damn rule of logic that governs their lives.”
As much as this applies to the fictional citizenry of Gotham, I think it also very much extends to us. We’re willing to set aside the character’s contradictions because we want, more than anything, for the world to reflect the same sort of idealism that he represents. It’s funny but, in many ways, I think I might have had it right when I was five. Batman, for all the complex situations he enters into, isn’t a figure born of complexity. Rather he’s one born from our inherent desire to keep things simple. He’s the easy solution we all wish existed to the dark and dangerous problems that confront us. He punches the world’s problems so we feel better about the fact we can’t do the same to ours.