Batman, the Progressive Superhero

By Donald McCarthy

Batman has been the most popular of superheroes despite not having any superhuman abilities (except, perhaps, impossibly large biceps). He has been popular for quite some time but the recent series of Batman films starring Christian Bale have skyrocketed Batman’s popularity.

For those of you who have not seen the trailer to The Dark Knight Rises, I highly suggest that you do, even if you are not a Batman fan. The trailer hints that the film will be dealing with the issue of income inequality. At one point the character played by Anne Hathaway tells Bruce Wayne, “You will wonder how you could get so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” It’s a timely issue and I am not surprised that Christopher Nolan, always an intelligent director, decided to address it as income inequality has always been a large part of the Batman mythos, both in comics and film.

You can see the issue in Nolan’s two previous Batman films, The Dark Knight and Batman Begins. In The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne, Batman’s alter ego, shows little interest, if not outright contempt, for the business that he inherited and only keeps it so he can gain money to fund his endeavors as Batman. The money that is left over he gives away, which has given Bruce Wayne the label of “philanthropist,” something Nolan’s films have mentioned time and again.

Of course, this begs the question of why Bruce Wayne is spending so much money and time to be Batman when he is already giving back so much to the community. The answer is simple: guilt. As a child, Bruce saw his parents were gunned down by a criminal outside of an opera house. While no one can blame a young boy for freezing in such a situation, Bruce went on to blame himself for not stepping in and became Batman in order to make sure that the citizens of Gotham are protected from violent acts such as the one he witnessed. This image of a rich man dedicating his life to fighting against crime and corruption is almost laughable in our current climate. The closest we have to a Batman is Warren Buffet and, while likeable and generous, he is certainly not as proactive as Batman.

Batman usually operates by himself, sometimes with a little assistance from a fellow vigilante but even in those cases he is withdrawn. The way he lives his life is almost a punishment he’s given to himself not just because he was unable to save his parents, but because he rarely sees himself deserving the wealthy life he inherited. If he did believe he deserved it he would not be spending so much time risking his own life for others.

Even more curious is Batman’s strict self-regulations. He operates outside of the law and takes actions law officials cannot, yet he also has stricter regulations. For example, he refuses to kill no matter the situation and will often risk his life to prevent even the nastiest of criminals from dying, including his most famous antagonist, the Joker. In many respects Batman is the type of person that progressives have been calling for for years. He is a wealthy man whose life is about giving back to his fellow citizens while living with a strong ethical code. This is perhaps best seen in the final moments of Nolan’s Batman Begins during which Commissioner Gordon says to Batman that he just realized he never thanked him. Batman replies, “And you’ll never have to.” I find it remarkable that this has often gone unnoticed when it comes to discussions on Batman. The character has become so ingrained in this country that academic articles have been written on him time and again yet few have tackled how the Batman stories reflect the economy. Likely this comes from this country’s ridiculous refusal to admit that it has a large problem with income inequality. With this issue gaining traction it is time to see what our fiction has been telling us about it for years.

Batman, in both the films and comics, is shown as far from a perfect person yet after the rampant corruption that has been exposed during our recent recession (and well before for those paying attention) he stands as an incredibly progressive figure, one for whom those of us that are lucky to have extra money could stand to learn a lesson from. I would certainly not mind if younger viewers of the Batman films took from them that they should have high expectations for the wealthy in our society.

Donald McCarthy is a freelance writer. Email

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2012

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