In the Weekly Standard, political science professor Travis D. Smith has written a response piece to Jonathan Last’s Standard essay on the virtues of Batman as a hero of our (and all) time. Smith counters that in fact it is Spider-Man who embodies the noble spirit of the classically liberal order, and is more accessible than Batman as well.
But this discussion either ignores or underplays the single most important feature of the Batman canon, without which it cannot be properly understood: that Batman and his villains are human. This is not incidental to the storytelling of Gotham City’s travails. Other superhero stories may begin as modern political parables, but they immediately morph into something else entirely. X-Men, for example, may be an obvious retelling of the Civil Rights era, as Last noted, but it proceeds along classic comic lines: superhuman good guys fight superhuman bad guys. Batman is completely different in this respect. The stories follow the human paths on which they set out, offering far more value as a vehicle to telling our own story. On Batman’s lack of superhuman powers, in contrast to his favored Spider-Man (and just about every other superhero), Smith writes:
But when you consider the life he leads in and out of costume—the monetary and technological means at his disposal, his training in umpteen martial arts disciplines to the highest degree of proficiency, his mindboggling skills as The World’s Greatest Detective, plus his uncanny ability to disappear like a ninja and his apparent lack of a need to sleep—Bruce Wayne is so extraordinary as to be beyond emulation by any actual human being.
But this gets it exactly wrong. Bruce Wayne’s physical abilities come through training—years of intense focus and hard work. His wealth is acquired honestly. It may be difficult for a normal person to turn himself into the Batman, but it is impossible for such a person to turn himself into Spider-Man on his own.
In The Dark Knight Rises, director Christopher Nolan makes this point explicitly. A young, idealistic cop named John Blake (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) figures out Batman’s true identity—that he is Bruce Wayne. He asks Wayne why he wears a mask, and Wayne gives two reasons. First, to protect his friends and family. Second, he says: “the idea was to be a symbol. Batman could be anybody. That was the point.”
It’s just as important that the villains of the Batman series are human as well. Supervillains—that is, superhuman villains—are a moral copout. They are not of our world, and their utility to us as anything more than entertainment is thus limited. Smith objects that Gotham’s crazy villains, such as the Joker, are imprisoned in Arkham Asylum, a suggestion that Batman believes in the redemption and rehabilitation of the worst elements of society. But in fact it’s quite the opposite: it is a recognition that there exists evil which cannot be reduced to its logical components.
In The Dark Knight Rises, the third of Nolan’s trilogy, Batman confronts Bane, who leads an uprising fueled by an Occupy Wall Street-style anarchist impulse. But as Last noted, The Dark Knight Rises script preceded Occupy by about a year. The key moment comes when Bane’s uprising appears to have succeeded, and he addresses his followers as well as his new subjects, with the world watching on TV:
We take Gotham from the corrupt. The rich. The oppressors of generations, who have kept you down with myths of opportunity. And we give it back to you: the people. Gotham is yours–none shall interfere. Do as you please. But start by storming Blackgate [prison] and freeing the oppressed.
Step forward, those who would serve, for an army will be raised. The powerful will be ripped from their decadent nests, and cast out into the cold world that we know and endure. Courts will be convened. Spoils will be enjoyed. Blood will be shed. The police will survive, as they learn to serve true justice. This great city–it will endure. Gotham will survive.
If Bane had meant what he said about his intention that Gotham would survive and endure, he would be less an Occupy figure than a sort of modern-day Peisistratos, the ancient Greek tyrant who held power by exploiting inequality and class resentment. But of course he had no such intentions; Bane was going to destroy the city of Gotham. He was not a demagogue or a tyrant; he was something much worse. “You’re pure evil,” a business associate tells Bane as it becomes clear Bane is about to murder him. “I’m necessary evil,” Bane cheerfully corrects him.
The presence of evil—human evil—is the constant theme of the Batman trilogy. In The Dark Knight, the second in the trilogy, Heath Ledger’s astounding turn as the Joker presents moviegoers with the paradoxical villain that is criminally insane but also knows exactly what he’s doing. He, like Bane but through far different (and more cerebral) methods, wants the breakdown of the social order. Alfred, the caretaker of Bruce Wayne’s estate and something of a father figure to Wayne/Batman, lectures Wayne on the need to understand his nemesis, something he doesn’t think Wayne has yet done. “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with,” Alfred tells Wayne, concluding with the most famous line in the entire trilogy: “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
Men, not monsters. The human element allows Nolan to enable human history to shout its echoes at the audience throughout the Batman trilogy. The Stalinist show trials that Bane calls for come to Gotham City. The “guilty” are sentenced to “death or exile”—their choice—but they turn out to be the same: death by exile. Exile is the chance to walk the icy waterway outside Gotham; the surface isn’t frozen thick enough to hold the weight of the exiled, and one by one they slip through to their deaths.
As this suggests, the Batman movies are deeply conservative. But the presence of the Occupy movement coinciding with the The Dark Knight Rises conceals the ambiguity of Nolan’s message. In the previous movie, Batman turns the city’s cell phones into a massive sonar map enabling him to spy on anyone in Gotham. And in The Dark Knight Rises, while Bane is addressing the city, his focus on freeing the prisoners of Blackgate prison becomes clear. Watching the address from a secure location are Police Commissioner Jim Gordon and John Blake. In his speech, Bane reveals that Gotham’s police department lied about the heroism of its fallen “white knight” prosecutor Harvey Dent and allowed Batman to take the blame for Dent’s crimes, and kept some Blackgate prisoners locked up on false pretenses. “You betrayed everything you stood for,” Blake tells Commissioner Gordon. Gordon responds:
There’s a point far out there when the structures fail you and the rules aren’t weapons anymore, they’re shackles, letting the bad guy get ahead. One day, you may face such a moment of crisis. And in that moment I hope you have a friend like I did, to plunge their hands into the filth so that you can keep yours clean.
“Your hands look plenty filthy to me, commissioner,” Blake responds caustically. Bane didn’t invent that particular injustice; he exaggerated, magnified, manipulated, and exploited it. There is no moral equivalence here. Nolan never seeks to justify anything Bane (or the Joker) does. But he does warn his heroes of the pitfalls of living in the spotlight. After all, they’re only human.