Monday, January 16, 2012

Over-thinking It: Batman's Politics

As a lifelong fan of Batman above all other superheroes, I've often been troubled by the political implications of his crusade against evil. Many times I've found myself awake late at night, tossing and turning as I struggled with the inconsistencies between my purported liberal notions and the Dark Knight's (sometimes) disturbing conservatism. It's enough make even the most strident bat-fan wonder: should I enjoy Batman so much? Can I justify my affection? As I grow older and more introspective this has become perhaps the most tumultuous ideological debate of my life, ranking alongside my choices between boxers or briefs, 7 Up or Sprite, and butter or margarine. Now more than ever - with Bruce Wayne staunchly on the side of the 1% as the heir of a billion dollar dynasty - I find myself questioning my allegiance to the Dark Knight.

A few illustrative examples from Batman's history will demonstrate the kind of conservatism I'm talking about:

1) Batman is tough on crime.

Everyone knows that today's Batman is above the outright killing of criminals. The Dark Knight's compassion is so important because it's what separates him from the criminals he fights; without it, he'd just be a guy in a bat suit out beating people to death. However what a lot of non-fans don't know is that Batman was originally a pretty cold-blooded killer. There are many instances in his early days when Batman straight-up slaughtered his enemies, including his first appearance in Detective Comics #27. There Batman remorselessly punched a guy into a vat of acid, and then callously referred to it as "a fitting end for his kind." That's cold!

Batman as he was originally depicted was not above killing in any way, shape, or form; even today he sometimes play fast and loose with the no-killing rule. In particular I'm thinking of the infamous scene at the end of Batman Begins where the caped crusader leaves villain Ra's al Ghul to die on a runaway train, saying "I'm won't kill you but I don't need to save you." That's getting into a serious moral grey area there, Bats. Also, while the modern Batman tends to avoid murdering criminals outright, I've never heard of him publicly opposing the death penalty. Seems to me like the caped crusader is less anti-killing and more just doesn't want to get his hands dirty.

2) Everyone is potentially Batman's enemy.

Batman has a plan for how to take down everyone. If anything bad happens, Batman will have predicted the possibility and have a contingency plan ready. He's prepared for any scenario, up to and including bringing down any of his so-called allies should the need arise. This has been the setup for numerous stories, including Tower of Babel in which Ra's al Ghul steals Batman's contingency plans and uses them to decimate just about every other major superhero. Some choice examples of Batman's nefariousness include giving the Flash light speed seizures, making Aquaman hydrophobic (i.e. afraid of the water he needs to live the way we need oxygen to breathe), and using science to overload every organ in Superman's body simultaneously. Wow. Needless to say, the other heroes are less than impressed by Batman's, ahem, foresight.

It's more than "If you're not with us you're against us." It's "If you're not me then you're probably an enemy." I'm pretty sure the Lannisters employ a similar philosophy, and Game of Thrones fans know how well that turns out. Batman is the epitome of self-assured, paranoia-inducing isolationism, which brings me to my next point...

3) Batman knows what's best for you.

This is the "Big Brother" factor. It goes hand in hand with the whole "crazy-prepared loner" syndrom described above, in that Batman basically thinks that he knows better than everyone else in the world. Take The Dark Knight for example. First Batman uses some sort of cellphone radar system that allows him to audibly/visually spy on every person in Gotham in order to find the Joker. It's ludicrously invasive and reprehensible, but Batman's modus operandi has always been a purely Machiavellian "the ends justify the means" kind of deal. Even Lucius Fox calls out the whole operation for going too far, and this is the guy who gave Wayne (who he'd never met before) a military arsenal for basically no reason ("Spelunking"). Not exactly careful planning there.

But even the radar thing pales in comparison to when Batman decides to take the rap for Harvey "Two-Face" Dent's sudden murder spree at the end of the movie. The general idea is that the people of Gotham can't take the truth about Dent because it more or less proves the Joker's thesis on human nature; as such the best thing is apparently for Batman and Commissioner Gordon to hide the truth and pretend the caped crusader is a violent killer so the city can rest assured that good people do exist in the world.

Ignoring the whole 'put the city at ease by convincing them the guy who prowls the streets at night dressed like a bat is a murderous psychopath' thing, let's consider Batman's foreboding statement that "Sometimes the truth isn't good enough." The truth is dissatisfactory and so Batman just decides to cover it up and pretend it's something more convenient? That's rewriting history, authoritarianism at its finest! Also, since the whole thing makes everyone in Gotham think that Batman's a murderer it more or less makes him the city's ruling crime lord (which is actually another one of his contingency plans in the comic Batman: War Games). And with that interpretation in mind Commissioner Gordon's involvement in the cover up starts to look a lot like a "better the devil you know than the devil you don't" type scenario. In one move Batman and Gordon position themselves the puppeteers of Gotham city's law enforcement and the de facto heads of its criminal element. It's a disturbing, artful, and an effective solution all at the same time, and it doesn't paint a pretty picture in terms of demonstrating Batman's politics.


So what's a liberal-minded Batman fan to do? Write to DC Comics in protest of the ideology they're exposing to impressionable young minds? Occupy my local comic shop? Or maybe I should just put less mental energy and political thought into superheroes? Chime in dear reader and let me know, because the only thing more important/worthwhile than this article is your opinion on it!


  1. Interesting article. The first point is a bit unfair. Because 90% of Batman comics feature a staunch anti-killing position from the Dark Knight. And 100% of the accepted canon takes that as fact. That fact and how many writers deal with it is what keeps him from being a purely right wing character.
    But my main thought on this is that looking at Batman as purely a metaphor for politics is to somewhat miss the point. As I see it Batman is primarily a comment on human nature itself. Most notably psychologically. Nearly all of Batman's most famed villains are a personification of a specific psychological condition. The Riddler(Narcissism), Two Face(Split-Personality), Mr Freeze(PTSD), The Joker (just straight up anarchic Insanity) and that is to miss some more complex ones like Scarecrow, Mad Hatter or Penguin.
    Batman himself is also quite a complex view of human nature and the 'duality of man' and of course paranoia, as you said. Most famously this is bought to the fore by his duals with the Joker. Which at their best always allude to the mutual respect and basic similarities they have.

    The final point of your post I agree with to an extent. But I believe it to be a more intricate aspect of his character that makes him interesting and sympathetic. He has a level of responsibility that he often struggles with.
    But he sticks to his belief that humans are fundamentally good and that they should be protected, the villains and the general public. If he was truly right wing he'd have a list of kills longer than Rambo and would only bother himself with criminals who threatened his money!
    His politics are simple I think; he has none. Not right or left. He is just Batman.

  2. I felt the same sentiments as Max recently. Especially regarding the Nolan directed films. With 'Rises' looking to nail the coffin shut on the 99%. On the other hand DC recently released Batman:Year One as an animated feature. Which has Batman depicted as almost the polar opposite as what he was in Batman Begins. Which I would like to have seen as the screenplay as in place of the one in Begins. But there seems to be a parallel with the political agenda of the hour. And why not since it's grosses how many viewers. It seems irresponsible of hollywood. Perhaps they should find neutral ground as a platform instead. The way Denny O'Neil did when the Batfamily era ended. Or remember mask of the phantasm? I want to share Thom's optimism about it, as Bats was a character I liked growing up. But I can't seem to shake the odds with the contemporary Bat.

  3. Max, you might like this examination of Batman:

    It might help sustain your interest in the character & it's various franchises. As well as other liberal fans giving Batman a second thought.