How the Dark Knight Rises reveals Batman's Conservative soul
PUBLISHED July 17, 2012
Imagine that you are a child billionaire, orphaned in a mugging that goes terribly wrong. You decide to devote yourself to making sure that no one else will suffer as you did. But how? Do you open a series of outreach centres, hire probation workers, sponsor rehabilitation schemes? Or do you put on a rubber suit and prowl the streets at night, clobbering members of the underclass until they promise to stop breaking the law?
The answer goes to the heart of Batman's most terrible secret - not his true identity as Bruce Wayne, playboy industrialist, but the fact that he's secretly, wonderfully Right-wing. And it's a secret that is now being exposed by one of the year's biggest movies. In The Dark Knight Rises, British director Christopher Nolan explicitly casts Batman as the plutocrats' champion, forced to defend his city against the impoverished victims of depression and globalisation. The ostensible villain may be Tom Hardy's hulking, monstrous Bane, but the uprising he inspires is essentially Occupy Gotham City, if the "99 Per Cent" used shotguns rather than megaphones.
For some, it may come as a surprise that the Caped Crusader turns out to be a Caped Conservative. But Nolan's played these tricks before. In his previous Batman film, The Dark Knight, he confronted the people of Gotham with a terrorist threat - Heath Ledger's Joker - that, like al-Qaeda, could not be predicted or reasoned with. In the process, Batman wrestled with the same quandaries as President Bush. Can it be right to torture a prisoner to obtain vital information? The film's answer, like the president's, was an unequivocal yes. Can total electronic surveillance be justified to catch one or two bad apples? In this case, Nolan's answer was more liberal: Batman hands control of his all-powerful spying device to that unwavering moral arbiter Morgan Freeman, the closest thing to St Augustine that our fallen age can muster.
You could say that Nolan is just reading things into the character. Yet it's not just that Batman is a standing reproof to the liberality of the justice system, forced to pick up the pieces when lily-livered judges and incompetent guards release the bad guys to kill again. From the moment of his creation, as the comic-book writer and superhero historian Grant Morrison argues, "Batman was the ultimate capitalist hero… a millionaire who vented his childlike fury on the criminal classes of the lower orders" in his "obsessive, impossible quest to punch crime into extinction, one b------ at a time".
Indeed, if Superman is, at heart, a power fantasy - a puny nerd who can secretly kick sand in bullies' faces - Batman is all about cool. Or rather, a child's idea of cool: the man with the most money and the biggest house and the best hide-out and the fastest car, chased by the prettiest girls.
That is why he strikes such a chord today. Other heroes - such as Spider-Man or the X-Men - may be marginalised loners. But, as Morrison says, it's no coincidence that "in a world where wealth and celebrity are the measures of accomplishment… the most popular superhero characters today - Batman and Iron Man - are both handsome tycoons". Indeed. Iron Man is the ultimate carefree capitalist, who shuts down his weapons business not in the spirit of peace and love, but because he wants to fly around in a metal suit that fires, in the deathless words of Doctor Evil, frickin' laser beams. It's just what Ayn Rand would have done, if she'd had the budget.
Of course, it's possible to put too much intellectual weight on those Spandex-clad shoulders. One writer in the Wall Street Journal tried to interpret The Dark Knight as a "paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W Bush in this time of terror and war", noting that the bat symbol looked sort of like a W (or rather, dubya). There's even a book called Batman and Philosophy (subtitle: "The Dark Knight of the Soul") which wrestles with such issues as whether Batman should murder the Joker to save more lives in future, and how closely Alfred the butler embodies Taoist principles. It is perhaps the only work in which Catwoman sits next to "categorical imperative" in the index, and "existentialism" beside "evil, Batman's hatred of".
On the same note, it would be stretching the metaphor to describe the colossally successful Avengers film as a paean to coalition politics - yes, various odd ducks in colourful underwear come together, but only to wreak witty and well-executed violence on a horde of almost deliberately generic alien invaders. And you can make the counter-argument that if Batman was truly the Tory of my dreams, he'd stop intervening in the market completely, on the grounds that he's only encouraging Gotham's foolhardy citizens to become dependent on the superhero safety net. But when I take my seat in the cinema, I'll still be cheering him on, as he continues his age-old fight for truth, justice and the established social order.