Batman, fake existentialist

Comic-book heroes are not all portrayed at the same point in life. Spiderman was obviously an adolescent, with all the soap-opera drama that entails. Even Superman and Batman, despite seemingly sharing the smooth-faced but definitely hipness-deficient stolidness of incipient middle age, are not really at the same stage upon life’s way. Superman is an innocent, a naif (probably because of being an alien), while Batman has the morose loneliness of a much older man. Indeed, when I first started reading comic books about age 5 he had that certain world-weary authority that comes with age, and indeed he seemed to embody a higher kind of justice (even wisdom) than the craven and ineffectual police. Also there is a difference in employment. Superman uses his special abilities to fight villains when called upon, but he is almost a supernatural neighborhood volunteer, just as comfortable putting a fire out in a building or getting a cat out of a tree. It is hard, on the other hand, to imagine Batman helping someone trapped under a bus like Superman would–or Jean Valjean. He is purely on the discipline and punishment wing.

Perhaps it is only the passage of time that makes watching the new Batman movie somewhat discomfiting after all these years. Sure, I am older, but Batman seems younger, too young, especially since this movie portrays him at the very outset of his career. One sees the origins of the notion of justice that becomes solified in all the other Batman productions. It starts out as the desire for revenge, pure vigilantism. He is repelled from the notion of private justice in the face of an entirely extra-legal organization that presumes to judge and punish entirely on its own. He oscillates, not entirely convincingly, between that and subservience to the “due process” of the judicial system, and it is tempting to view the ultimate product, the character Batman, as a composite of, or compromise between, the two. But that autonomy is largely cosmetic. Sure, he works on his own and has his unorthodox style, but he is basically an adjunct of law enforcement. The police station even has their own beacon to summon him and he essentially gets sent out on patrol. He practically admits himself that he is just a mascot for the law, with his speech about the need for a symbol to rouse people from their lethargy. Granted this helps to defuse the potentially farcical nature of the comic-book scenario–the costumes, the names, the whole personae element. At the same time, this movie pretty conclusively demonstrates that the character has made a conscious decision to not set himself apart and above the courts. He seems to be his own man, but he isn’t. His actions are meant to signify, not to accomplish. Maybe his name should be “opiate of the masses.”

5 Responses to “Batman, fake existentialist”

  1. Mike Renzulli Says:

    I can appreciate and see where you are coming from but I would point out that “Batman Begins” (speaking from a strictly libertarian point of view) is also about a wealthy individual who fights crime and has nearly brought it to a halt which leads to undermining the very system established to combat it in Gotham City. The audience sees the corruption in the form of bribed judges and police officers and Batman affiliates himself with the honest elements (albeit a minority) of Gotham’s law enforcement in order to root out crime and the bureaucrats who help perpetuate it. I saw nothing in this film that lead me to believe that Bruce Wayne was ‘repelled by private justice’ since (if I understand your point correctly) that system you speak of (in the form of the “League of Shadows”) was one not based on Wayne’s values. It lacked the compassion he was speaking of and he decided to go it alone. In a way, Batman has no alternative to combat crime using the government-run police and courts since they have a monpoly on the services they provide. This film should be praised by libertarians since it demonstrates that private efforts to combat crime and corruption can do a better job than government. I would also point out that the producers of this film got much of their ideas from Frank Miller and David Muzzucelli’s “Batman: Year One” comic series and Miller is well-known for his libertarian-oriented comics like his excellent “Martha Washington” and “Sin City” series. Thanks for the time!

  2. Curt Says:

    I saw nothing in this film that lead me to believe that Bruce Wayne was ‘repelled by private justice’ since (if I understand your point correctly) that system you speak of (in the form of the “League of Shadows?) was one not based on Wayne’s values.

    I suppose I base that on what seemed to me the somewhat trivial distinction that he made in his “I will fight crime, but I’m not an executioner” speech, exemplified by his later declaration: “I won’t kill you, but that doesn’t mean I have to save you!” I mean, sure he doesn’t want to be executing criminals himself, but it’s hard to picture him opposing the government if it decided to do so. Yes, I don’t doubt that there is semi-libertarian subtext intended, my only point is that it seems to me to be a fairly superficial one. Unless you agree with all the laws and one’s opposition to police bullying is merely procedural, what does it matter if the law is being enforced by cops or a superhero in a cape? How does Batman fulfill a role any different than that which would be filled by an additional 50 officers? As I suggested, if Batman were truly independent one would think he would have a different standard of justice and ethics which would put him in opposition to the police semi-frequently, which doesn’t seem to be the case when they are shining the bat-beacon every time they need a crime solved. I’ll put it this way: think of the difference between Batman and Robin Hood. Well, I’m probably reading too much into this, but it seems semi-relevant if only because many children are introduced to it, as I was, at a very young and impressionable age.

  3. shonk Says:

    This film should be praised by libertarians since it demonstrates that private efforts to combat crime and corruption can do a better job than government.

    A fictitious superhero in a cape “demonstrates that private efforts to combat crime and corruption can do a better job than government”? I guess David Friedman and John Hasnas have just been wasting their time, then.

  4. Curt Says:

    In addition to the fact that, once again, he himself says he’s just a symbol. A symbol for what? Well, that’s the question.

  5. Dave Says:

    I have got to admit Curt, that you have an interesting take on the new Batman movie. I will have to see it soon. If I understand you correctly you criticize the movie because of its pro establishment attitude. If so it is only being true to its origins and the origins of all such post WWII comic book and TV heroes. Remember, these media emerged at a time when the U.S. had been victorious in war at great cost and now faced the new Soviet enemy. Then came McCarthyism. Old WWII serials seen at the movies and on later on TV featured mysterious subversive nefarious elements who were either Germans or inscrutable Orientals, who inhabited underground submarine bases and trapped their victims in mysterious rooms that issued poison gas or featured other bizarre ways of harming people The comic book heroes faced similar villains who always had evil magical like technological powers, such as kryptonite or strange rays or poisons. The establishment, the government, police etc. were helpless in the face of such evil. The super heroes were staunchly pro –American. I remember that each Superman program on TV stated his dedication to “truth, justice and the American way!? The comics got more and more graphic, especially the horror comics, until they were upsetting parents and teachers. It is ironic that the psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, a fan of Marxist, Theodor Adorno, got these comics removed from circulation and those which remained were censored. ( http://www.comics.dm.net/codetext.htm) (www.reason.com/0506/cr.fh.the.shtml -) This one of political correctness’s first victories and more followed.

    Later movie heroes, such as Dirty Harry, Die Hard or Beverly Hills Cops took the approach of the good guys breaking procedures in order to get around incompetent authorities, and every movie since that time features corrupt or incompetent police department or government that the hero must over rule in order to make justice prevail. These people worry little about social justice or libertarianism. They just want get the villain.
    Superhero movies have exploited the incompetent or helpless authorities theme almost uniformly and many such as Robocop have also featured the corrupt influences of big business, and are thus more antiestablishment than the movies that merely portray authorities as incompetent. Still, I have never seen Bat Man, Superman or the Phantom out helping organize labor unions or demonstrating for civil rights in their off hours. Most superheroes live in mansions or work at regular boring jobs when not saving the citizenry. Maybe I haven’t been to the movies enough lately, but maybe you can name a few superhero flicks that do promote a libertarian or anti-establishment point of view?

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