The Once and Future Batman

By James Griffin on in Entertainment, Literature. Permalink.

Despite the efforts of a domestic terrorist in Aurora, The Dark Knight Rises lived up to its title and climbed to a spectacular success at the box office. The Batman is on everyone’s lips, ensuring his place in American pop culture for generations to come. A few respectable commentators and a legion of hack writers have been swept up in Batmania, publishing their thoughts on the last film’s political implications. Is The Dark Knight Rises a tool of the right-wing propaganda machine to quash the Occupy movement? Is Bane a stand-in for Bain Capital and Mitt Romney? Why even bother asking these questions about another dumb superhero flick?

Those issues have assuredly been talked to death on countless Yahoo! comment boxes and juvenile flame wars by now. I’m more interested in examining what the character of Batman means as a cultural icon. Who is this man whose likeness or logo appears on every other kid’s t-shirt or bedsheets, or on billboards and bus stop posters across America? The thought that prevailed in my mind above all others as I left the theater that opening night was this: that Batman is not quite an American icon at all.

Sure, Bruce Wayne is a natural-born American citizen. Gotham City is geographically somewhere in the United States. But the connections end there. The following thoughts will examine Batman as a character and reveal why he is truly the Dark Knight… and why he is not a classically American hero, but a medieval, aristocratic one.

Noblesse oblige

 “Indeed you can usually tell when the concepts of democracy and citizenship are weakening. There is an increase in the role of charity and in the worship of volunteerism. These represent the élite citizen’s imitation of noblesse oblige; that is, of pretending to be aristocrats or oligarchs, as opposed to being citizens.” —John Ralston Saul

Why does Batman don the cape and cowl night after night, risking his life for the people of a city so hopelessly corrupt and ungrateful?  “You don’t owe these people anymore. You’ve given them everything,” Catwoman tells Batman in the third film. He replies, “Not everything. Not yet.”

As long as Batman draws breath, he owes the people of Gotham his wealth, service, even his life because he is the prince of Gotham and lives by the code of conduct of the ideal aristocrat: noblesse oblige (nobility obliges it). That is to say, that because Bruce Wayne has been blessed with wealth, resources, and privilege beyond ordinary men, he is bound by duty to use them in service of the people of his “domain”, just as his father did, and his father’s father, and so on.

The principle of noblesse oblige is the counter-balance to that of divine right, presenting power as a gift, rather than something to be won. The American mindset could not be more different. “My wealth is my own, to be disposed as I please”, a classic American entrepreneur would say. He spends a lifetime working, perhaps even in multiple jobs at once, to join the elite one percent of society. Some American self-made millionaires value “work” so much that they even refuse to pay their grandchildren’s way through college. What do such folk have in common with a man like Bruce Wayne, born in a mansion, and who as an adult still never answers his own door or makes his own bed? Even other people born to wealth may resent the Waynes’ philanthropy and charity. The comics provide such an example in the character of Roman Sionis, a fellow trust-fund baby who, unlike Bruce, led his family’s company to ruin. Bruce rescued Sionis by buying out his company, only for Sionis to grow embittered and turn into the mob boss known as Black Mask.

And yet, Batman is no socialist. He does not say, “My wealth is not my own, but the state’s.” How could the Waynes have developed the public railway system in Gotham, research into cancer treatment or alternative fuel sources, or the many gadgets that make Batman the world’s greatest detective without the resources of Wayne Enterprises? If Bruce decided to simply liquidate all his assets and make paper rain in Gotham from helicopters in the sky, most of it would simply find its way into the pockets of the criminal underworld. If he simply wrote a massive check to the IRS, the money would be squandered on weapons contracts, pointless wars, or bloated bureaucracies. No, Batman is none of the above: he is an aristocrat. “My wealth is to be given to the people, but according to how I see fit.” It’s a method that works effectively (at least in the hands of an ideal aristocrat like Bruce Wayne), and earns the resentment of criminals and honest working Americans alike.

The Prince of Gotham

If Gotham is in such need of dramatic examples to stir the good citizens of Gotham out of apathy, it’s reasonable enough to think that Batman would like them all to don pointy-eared masks and patrol the streets, right? Perhaps allow Batman a night off?

As The Dark Knight revealed in the second scene, that route will sooner get you bound and gagged with the rest of Batman’s victims than a solemn nod of thanks. Batman’s crusade is hisburden alone; other masked vigilantes in his city only operate with his consent and according to the same set of standards he’s imposed upon himself. It’s like a medieval serf picking up a sword and shield to patrol a knight’s territory. It’s insulting, and the serf is likely to get himself hurt. And when it comes to the business of crimefighting, ordinary Gothamites are indeed serfs in Batman’s mind. The police, with a few honorable exceptions like Gordon, are little better.

Only a natural elite are allowed to rise from the ranks to join in Batman’s inner circle as vigilantes. His “squire”, Robin, must endure intense training to live up to Batman’s strict no-killing code, and even then, Batman often keeps Robin away from the front lines. It’s no surprise that the first Robin, Dick Grayson, was stifled by Batman’s control and had to strike out on his own as Nightwing, even moving to a different city. Batman essentially rules Gotham as his own fiefdom, where there can only be one man at the head. Certain comic writers have taken Batman’s control of Gotham to extreme lengths. In the miniseries Kingdom Come, set twenty years after the present, the Caped Crusader is no longer fit to patrol the streets. His future self watches over the city with an army of robots in his likeness and a surveillance camera on each corner, all which he controls from his computer console in the Batcave. Excessive? Perhaps, but in Batman’s mind, still preferable to allowing outsiders like Superman take his place as the protector of Gotham.

Batman critics are quick to accuse the Caped Crusader of elitism or of being a rich bully. The truth lies in the simple fact that as most of Batman’s villains are agents of chaos, Batman is a symbol of order. His entire crusade is to dispel the chaos left in the wake of his parents’ murder and ensure no Gothamite will have their loved ones taken away by a madman on the streets. In the traditional medieval mind where characters like Batman fit best, order is best given from monarchy: the rule of one. It sees a city or a country not as a disparate group of voices needing to reach a consensus, but rather as a human body. The people are the heart, which pump life throughout the nation. The police and Batman’s vigilante allies are two arms, enforcing justice and order. But there can only be one head, and make no mistake, it’s not the mayor. The mayor of Gotham changes every election cycle by the whim of the masses. He’s prone to corruption (such as whenever Gotham elects the Penguin or a member of his family, the Cobblepots), mind control (Quincy Sharp in the game Arkham City), or assassination (in countless comic arcs). It’s truly the Wayne family that provides a dynastic continuity of leadership in the city by day, and the sigil of the Bat illuminated across the night sky that strikes fear in the heart of criminals.

Blasters are so uncivilized

“I thought the movie was terrible, just an awful trainwreck of plot holes and stupidity. Also, Batman’s idiotic unwillingness to use a handgun despite him being perfectly happy strapping heavy machine guns onto every vehicle he drives has killed more Gothamites than 9/11 did New Yorkers.” –A neoconservative NRA member’s review of The Dark Knight Rises

 Batman’s aversion to guns is one of the distinguishing marks of his character… but what could be a greater blasphemy to the American spirit? We have the minuteman, musket in hand, ready to fight for independence at a moment’s notice; the cowboy winning the West with a revolver on each hip; the protagonist on every other movie poster brandishing a semi-automatic at the viewer. Even a director who personally advocates strict gun control is likely to lay down heavy gun violence in his film because it’s the American way.

To be sure, the Bat’s attitude toward guns has evolved with time. The original Batman strips did have Batman use a firearm on occasion. Soon after, comic censorship forbade heroes from carrying guns so they wouldn’t usurp the place of police and stand above the law in the imaginations of 1950’s children. The old Comics Code has long since bitten the dust, but Batman’s disdain for the firearm has prevailed… and frankly, it makes sense. It’s not solely because Bruce’s parents were gunned down in Crime Alley. Other comic characters such as the Punisher have lost loved ones to gun violence, only to pick up even bigger guns and exact vengeance. But for a man as rich, powerful, and intelligent as Bruce Wayne, guns are truly beneath him.

 

In the Middle Ages, a knight’s prowess was tested in close combat with lance, mace, and sword. Bows were most often used by commoners, but even those required extensive training to use effectively. It was the invention of the crossbow that drew ire from the knightly caste as an unsportsmanlike, unchivalrous weapon. The crossbow allowed any peasant to point, shoot, and pierce a knight’s costly armor, negating decades of training and battlefield experience. The crossbow was so reviled that Pope Innocent II allegedly forbade its use on anyone but infidels. And of course, the introduction of the firearm to Europe signaled the end of the armored knight as the prince of the battlefield. A culture of training and martial discipline gave way to a new strategy: putting guns into as many peasants or mercenaries as you could find and have them point in the same direction.

It was the gun, “the great equalizer”, that allowed a vagrant like Joe Chill to murder the most powerful couple in Gotham City, Bruce Wayne’s parents, at the twitch of a finger. With such a traumatic moment shaping his life, Batman would rather learn 77 ways to incapacitate an enemy rather than take the commoner’s route and draw a gun on them. Perhaps the best example is in the first episode of the series Batman Beyond, where an aged Batman suffers a heart attack while rescuing a kidnapped hostage. With his body failing, he scares off the last thug with a handgun. When the cops arrive, Batman drops the gun in horror and realizes that he’s become too old and unworthy of wearing the cape and cowl, then seals the Batcave for decades until a worthy successor rises up to take his place.

The Mark of Zorro

“I have so often been asked the question: ‘But how did you come to think of The Scarlet Pimpernel?’ And my answer has always been: ‘It was God’s will that I should.’ And to you moderns, who perhaps do not believe as I do, I will say, ‘In the chain of my life, there were so many links, all of which tended towards bringing me to the fulfillment of my destiny.’” –Baroness Emma Orczy, author of The Scarlet Pimpernel

It would be remiss to not mention Batman’s literary inspirations, neither of whom are particularly “American” heroes. The first is, of course, the colonial Californian swashbuckler known as Zorro. By day, he is Don Diego de la Vega, a Spanish nobleman who poses as a poor swordsman and a fop who cares little for the poor. This is a ruse to diffuse suspicion of him being Zorro, a hero who dons a black mask and cape to defend the oppressed from bandits and corrupt politicians. It’s no surprise that in many tellings of Batman’s origins, Bruce was at the theater watching The Mark of Zorro the night his parents were murdered.

Less direct but no less relevant is the character of the Scarlet Pimpernel, a British aristocrat with limitless wealth who dons disguises to rescue fellow nobles in France from the terror of the French Revolution. His playboy persona and mastery of intrigue have served as the template for Zorro, Batman, and other rich men moonlighting as heroes. The Pimpernel’s creator, Baroness Emma Orczy, was an expatriate in Victorian Britain. Her family fled Hungary over fears of a peasant uprising. Those sentiments were clearly reflected in her characterizations of the French Revolution in the Pimpernel novels, as well as her many public statements in support of British imperialism and aristocracy. Whether by intention or not, Batman also frequently grapples with villains who wreak chaos throughout Gotham in the name of empowering the common people… including Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.

The Once and Future Batman

Although Batman strives for a Gotham in which he’s no longer needed, where the police and rule of democratic law will be sufficient to keep citizens safe, it’s a utopian fantasy that will never come to pass. Like the Arthurian legends, Gotham’s fate is tied directly to the presence and health of Bruce Wayne. When he disappears to train in the Himalayas, is broken by Bane, retires, or even does so much as attempt to take a vacation, the city rots. It’s the ultimate proof of original sin: men are inclined to evil and need to be governed. But in Batman’s world, the American way; cops, lawyers, and due process; is not good enough. They can be corrupted or destroyed. The people of Gotham need a dramatic example and all the pomp that goes with it. They need the ultimate symbol of benevolent order in our modern age. They need an aristocrat, a Dark Knight. They need the Batman.


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