A One-Man Department of Justice
Batman as the American hero
Aug 13, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 44 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
Batman is the hero for our age. The figures in popular culture who used to play the part of the hero—the detective, the soldier, the cowboy, the gentleman adventurer—have been replaced by superheroes, men with capes and masks who sprang from the pages of pulpy, dime-store comic books. These characters have now assumed the positions once occupied by Hercules and Ajax, Perseus, and Achilles.
When we want to tell stories about ourselves, stories about the biggest, most elemental parts of ourselves, we now tell them with superheroes. Mainstream novelists, writers such as Jodi Picoult, Brad Meltzer, Greg Rucka, and Orson Scott Card, frequently write superhero stories for comic books. Comic book characters have infiltrated television on shows such as Heroes and Smallville. Superheroes are now a mainstay of the modern cinema: Twelve of the top 100 grossing movies of the last 25 years have been based on superheroes.
In this constellation of comic book heroes, Batman is the North Star—the figure around whom the rest of the heavens are arrayed. He was not the first superhero. (That distinction goes to Superman.) But from comics to radio serials to TV shows to cartoons to novels, he has been with every generation of Americans since the Great Depression. He has been a presence on the big screen since 1943. Of the 201 highest-grossing movies of all time, 6 have featured him.
The reason Batman has endured is that he is the only pulp hero worth considering on a philosophical level. He has something to say about the human experience.
Many comic book heroes have philosophical ambitions. At various phases in his existence, for instance, Superman has been a vehicle for grappling with progressivism and the anxieties of the lower class; a meditation on Nietzscheanism and the problem of the übermensch; and, of course, a symbol of truth, justice, and the American way. The X-Men were created as a crude civil rights parable. Wonder Woman was conceived as a vessel for proto-feminism.
Other heroes have been not so much philosophical as nakedly political. Captain America was drawn up as an act of nationalistic wish fulfillment: The cover of Captain America #1 showed the hero decking Hitler nearly a year before the United States entered World War II. The Falcon, created in 1969, was wish fulfillment, too, though of a different sort. He was the first African-American superhero, and when his alter ego, Sam Wilson, wasn’t fighting crime he was a social worker in Harlem. In 1971, Marvel Comics paired these two characters in their own series, Captain America and The Falcon; the awkward result, which ran for seven years, reads as shorthand for the entire sociopolitical collision of the 1970s.
But Batman is different. He is not an avatar for a particular political argument or idea. Batman is about the liberal order itself—specifically about the durability of classical liberalism in the face of modernity.
From the beginning, Batman concerned himself with justice. Whereas Superman spent the 1930s and ’40s fighting for the common man against powerful interests—corrupt industrialists, scheming munitions manufacturers, dirty bankers—Batman fought mobsters. If you look at the original Batman comics, he’s forever chasing gangsters and colorful criminals, such as the Joker. Sometimes he’d arrest the evildoers; sometimes, if they were particularly repugnant, he’d kill them. In later years he evolved and swore never to take a life.
This narrow mission made sense for the character: “Batman” was born the night Thomas and Martha Wayne were gunned down by a petty thief in front of their boy, Bruce. As little Bruce emerged from his grief he became a single-minded champion of justice. So much so that in the proper understanding of the character, young Bruce Wayne becomes Batman as a child, years before he dons his cape and cowl.
In Frank Miller’s seminal Batman comic, The Dark Knight Returns (1986), the Wayne family butler, Alfred Penny-worth, recounts a story from Bruce’s childhood, a few years after the murder of his parents: