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culture who used to play the part of the hero—the detective, the soldier, the cowboy, the gentleman adventurer—have been replaced by superheroes, men with capes and masks who sprang from the pages of pulpy, dime-store comic books.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:
But once Bruce Wayne grows up and formally becomes the Batman, he realizes that justice is about more than nabbing crooks. It’s about fighting corruption and perversion—the twin forces of illiberalism. This is why great chunks of the Batman mythology deal with his partnership with Commissioner Jim Gordon and their attempt to cleanse Gotham City’s corrupt police force. It’s why one of Batman’s most enduring storylines is his quest to cure “Two-Face” Harvey Dent—a noble district attorney who becomes criminally insane after half of his face is disfigured in a mob hit. Batman doesn’t just want to arrest Dent, he wants to rehabilitate him. He understands that the institutions of liberalism can be corrupted; but he believes that, in order for the entire project to endure, it must be possible to purify them.
The fact that these stories are set in Gotham City is not an accident. Batman is unthinkable as a rural hero—there could be no adventures of Batman in Smallville, Kansas (as there are for Superman)—and Gotham is the quintessential 20th-century American city. As such, it is both Western civilization’s highest achievement and a source of challenges to the liberal order. And Batman has a great deal to say about both.
The post-Cold War world has been defined by two events: the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the global financial collapse of 2008. It is not an accident that the best two attempts of popular fiction to grapple with these calamities have been Batman movies.
Christopher Nolan has written and directed three films about Batman. The first was a disposable piece of entertainment, but the second and third, 2008’s The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, which is in theaters now, are movies with big ideas.
Amazingly enough, The Dark Knight is the best exploration of 9/11 produced by our creative class. In it, the Joker arrives in Gotham City and his mission isn’t to steal money or gain power. He doesn’t even want to kill Batman. He simply wants to demonstrate how frail society’s mores are. “When the chips are down, these ‘civilized’ people will eat each other,” he tells Batman conspiratorially. “You’ll see. I’ll show you.”
And with that, he embarks on a campaign of terrorism designed to stampede Gotham’s citizens into forsaking democracy, abandoning their social norms, and striking bargains with evil. The Joker is the kind of foreign, illiberal threat that al Qaeda presented to the West, and the movie’s 9/11 parallels are explicit: In one scene Batman stands in the wreckage of an exploded police station where the set is arranged precisely to resemble the ruins at the World Trade Center.
At a superficial political level, The Dark Knight is a deeply conservative movie. It sides with the Bush administration on questions of torture, as Batman is forced to beat information out of several villains in order to prevent further attacks. It even gives an alibi to the administration on warrantless wiretapping: Batman designs a secret method of eavesdropping on the city’s cell phone network, and the device is a crucial tool in Gotham’s salvation.
These heresies were not lost on the left. The Dark Knight was a critical and commercial smash, and practically the only people in America who quarreled with it were movie critics who saw it as an exoneration of President Bush. New York magazine’s David Edelstein, for instance, complained that Bruce Wayne had a “smirk” with “a trace of Dubya entitlement” and that Batman employed “FISA-like surveillance.”
But at a deeper level, the movie was even more conservative. The question The Dark Knight asks is, Can liberalism defend itself from illiberal threats? And the verdict it renders is, No. Throughout The Dark Knight, Gotham City’s institutions—the police, the courts, the mayoralty, the citizenry—prove incapable of answering the Joker’s assaults. And bit by bit, the city descends into Hobbesian anarchy. In the movie’s climax, the Joker has placed bombs on two ferries. One is filled with citizens trying to flee the city; the other is filled with criminals being transported from the city’s jail. Onboard each boat is a detonator which, the Joker claims, is wired to the other boat. The Joker informs his victims that if, in an hour, one of the ferries hasn’t been destroyed, he’ll blow up both of them.
On the prisoner boat, the warden keeps possession of the detonator but, as time ticks by, he begins to eye it nervously. A small group of convicts who have been praying approach him and, with just minutes left, the leader tells the warden, “Give it to me and I’ll do what you should have done 10 minutes ago.” The warden reluctantly hands over the detonator, and the religious convict—to everyone’s surprise—throws it overboard.
Meanwhile on the civilian boat, the people take a vote as to whether or not they should use their detonator, thus killing the convicts and saving themselves. The result is a small majority in favor of blowing up the prisoners. But when the captain refuses to push the button himself, none of the other passengers is willing to commit the act either. With moments to go, Batman happily saves them.
What Nolan is saying in The Dark Knight is that our social order is far more fragile than it seems, and that even democracy is not sufficient to maintain it. Upholding the liberal order requires larger guiding forces—such as religion and natural law, as suggested by the ferry dilemma. And sometimes maintaining order requires illiberal actions, such as those undertaken by Batman.
“These people need you now,” the Joker lectures Batman. “But when they don’t . . . they’ll cast you out. Like a leper.” The Joker is right—by the end of The Dark Knight, Batman has become a public enemy, hunted by the police and disavowed by the authorities. Nevertheless, Batman accepts this burden precisely because he believes the city is worth saving. Even if the means of salvation are terrible.
Which brings us to Nolan’s final Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises. It begins eight years after the Joker’s reign of terror. Gotham is now healed as a city. Order has been restored; crime has dwindled; prosperity has returned; and Batman has retired. Into this fat and happy city arrives another terrorist, named Bane. Unlike the Joker, Bane doesn’t want simply to destroy the liberal order. He wants a revolution. In rapid succession, Bane assembles a small army, infiltrates Gotham, destroys the bridges and tunnels, and uses a nuclear device to keep the federal government at bay. He liberates the city in the name of “the people” and announces open season on Gotham’s elites.
What follows is an ode to conservatism and the free market: Important charities close down without businesses to support them. A kangaroo court is established to try the wealthy—and any dissidents who don’t like the new regime—for crimes against society. Citizens loot with impunity, and the men and women who don’t stoop to informing on their neighbors simply lock their doors and cower in the dark. At one point, a pair of characters stumble into a penthouse apartment which has been ransacked and turned into a flop house. One of them picks up a broken picture of a family, and notes sadly, “This place used to belong to someone.” Her friend cheerfully replies, “Now it belongs to everyone!”
Yet despite appearances, The Dark Knight Rises is not an attack on the Occupy Wall Street movement (the script predates the Occupy movement by nearly a year). Nolan is out for bigger fish: Reacting to the 2008 financial crisis, he asks, Can liberalism survive its own excesses?
In interviews Nolan says that The Dark Knight Rises was shaped in large part by A Tale of Two Cities. It’s worth remembering, however, that Dickens’s views on the French Revolution were complicated. He deplored the revolution, but held no brief for the ancien régime. As Orwell noted, “Dickens sees clearly enough that the French Revolution was bound to happen and that many of the people who were executed deserved what they got. If, he says, you behave as the French aristocracy had behaved, vengeance will follow.” Here is Dickens himself on the subject:
All the devouring and insatiate monsters imagined since imagination could record itself, are fused in the one realization, Guillotine. And yet there is not in France, with its rich variety of soil and climate, a blade, a leaf, a root, a spring, a peppercorn, which will grow to maturity under conditions more certain than those that have produced this horror. Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms.
This isn’t to say that Dickens thought the revolution was justified. He believed that the revolutionaries were savages and that the revolution itself was, as he says, a “monster.” He believed, as Orwell put it, “that the results are inevitable given the causes, but . . . that the causes might have been avoided.” Which seems to be Nolan’s view as well. At the beginning of Dark Knight Rises, we see Gotham’s overclass at a decadent party, hatching political schemes and behaving in a Bloombergian manner. Bruce Wayne notes that the city’s glitterati are constantly throwing “charity” events that serve no purpose other than feeding the vanity of the dilettantes who attend them. And so, when Bane comes to town the people of Gotham participate in his revolution with equal parts horror and glee.
But there is a catch: Unlike Madame Defarge, Bane has a hidden agenda, and the story of The Dark Knight Rises turns when it’s revealed that despite the revolution, Bane is going to detonate his bomb, wiping out the city.
What Nolan is driving at in The Dark Knight Rises are two deep truths. First, that however stable and pacified Gotham appears—and however good the fruits of the liberal order—we must realize that it is still part of the City of Man, imperfectible and subject to our inherent weaknesses. Liberalism is necessary, but not sufficient, for justice and peace. And left to run its course, it can create terrible chains of events. Nolan’s second argument is that the men who arise to command these events (Robespierre, Stalin, Bane) are not to be trusted. This is a deeply conservative reading of human affairs. And, not coincidentally, a perfect distillation of Batman’s philosophy.
All of which is why, if you believe that the Western project is the capstone of human experience, the apex to which our history has pointed—but that it is a structure which is neither inevitable nor immortal, and requires defense—then Batman is not just the hero for our age. He’s a hero for every age.
Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.