Monday, July 28, 2008

Is Batman a conservative?

Rush Limbaugh thinks so. (Warning: link will take you to Rush Limbaugh's web site.)

Of course, the comparison is more than a little strained.

As Gary Oldman's Commissioner Gordon says of the hated and hunted Batman, 'He has to run away -- because we have to chase him.' That's real moral complexity. And when our artistic community is ready to show that sometimes men must kill in order to preserve life; that sometimes they must violate their values in order to maintain those values; and that while movie stars may strut in the bright light of our adulation for pretending to be heroes, true heroes often must slink in the shadows, slump-shouldered and despised -- then and only then will we be able to pay President Bush his due and make good and true films about the war on terror. Perhaps that's when Hollywood conservatives will be able to take off their masks and speak plainly in the light of day.

Once again, Frank Miller is really good for a take on Batman as something of a right-winger, but it has nothing in common with what Limbaugh describes. Batman never kills. Batman struggles constantly with his conscience, but he never "violates his values." The Batman identity is not a compromise. It is an end in itself. Bruce Wayne never had any interest in becoming a cop, and he has no desire to "take off [his] mask and speak plainly in the light of day."

The Batman is not a good man driven underground. In many ways, he is a bad man, but he is the best of bad men. Most importantly, Batman is not the justice system, and does not desire its sanction. Batman is not an argument for legalizing torture. If you want to make that argument, you need to examine Jim Gordon. Batman does not tell you how to run a society or how to deal with other people. In fact, the dysfunction of the Bat-family/society is a common theme of the comic books. Batman is not and cannot be an argument for any government, right or left. Superman is your man for that. He's the one interested in the effect that his actions have on society. Batman just wants to knock out the punk taking the old lady's handbag. (Every once in a while you get hints in the comics books that demonstrable involvement by the Batman in a criminal case is enough to get charges thrown out of court. This idea, the logical opposite of the ridiculous image of a masked man testifying in court, is underexplored.)

I'm not really interested in arguing politics here. In fact, I would be deeply interested in a conservative reading or re-imagining of the Batman. It just has to be better than Limbaugh's.

Any takers?


PoN said...

hmmm, off the top of my head, conservative inclinations of Batman:
- impatience for large government projects, a preference for individual action
- strict moral code
- crime-fighting strategy is definitely more concerned with vengeance and punishment than prevention, rehabilitation, or education
- drives a gas-guzzler
- supports making the Bush tax cuts permanent

For the story itself, I think the obvious point of difference between the liberal and conservative viewpoints is the place and function of criminal justice. Do the guilty deserve mercy? Can people change for the better? Apparently, not even Batman can change (else there would be no more sequels).

I don't think Batman is so explicitly concerned with the liberal-conservative viewpoint in America, although of course you can read it that way. But Bruce Wayne does strick me as the Rockefeller Republican type.

BTW, I was disappointed during the movie to recognize several shots of Chicago, but none of New York. Let them have Metropolis & the "Super-Man", Gotham & the Bat belong to us!

Tim said...

Do you know how much Bruce Wayne stands to gain permanently from the Bush tax cuts? Not to mention McCain's proposals to let small businesses deduct more of their material expenses. This isn't about ideology, it's simple self-interest.

However, Batman should be happy that Obama supports government reimbursement for superhero-based community initiatives. I doubt he'll fill out the grant applications, but it's always there if he needs it.

PoN said...

It seems pretty clear from the Dark Knight that Batman is a monopolist. He doesn't tolerate aspirational imitators nor other crazy badass freaks. Potential entrants to the market are deterred by multiple blows to the head.

Gavin said...

Fantatstic, PoN. Especially the observation that the Batmobile is a gas-guzzler. I would love for someone to do a speculative assessment of the Batman's carbon footprint. (Even though there's a hydroelectric or fusion-generator in the Btcave to keep it off the grid, heating Wayne Manor must cost a fortune, not to mention jet fuel.)

Gavin said...

Oh, and I have to admit that I've always thought of Gotham as Chicago. Metropolis was New York, and Gotham was too far away to be on the East Coast. Designs of the city from the No Man's Land storyline don't really support my mental image, but it always seemed right to me that the movies were so obviously Chicago, including the fabulous Wacker drive.

Andrew said...

I agree with Gavin's Gotham=Chicago sentiment. (And notice all the Gotham license plates in Dark Knight: they're totally Illinois plates.)

I have some comments re: conservative interpretation of Batman in relation to the current film, But I want to be sure that everyone here has seen The Dark Knight before I post even tangential spoilers.

Tim said...

I disagree w/ Gavin and Andy here. I've often said that Gotham is lower (i.e. old) Manhattan, and Metropolis is Midtown.

But I think you can actually make a better case for Metropolis being Chicago: it's the city of broad shoulders, the city with the fewest ties to the past, gateway to the heartland and all of the Smallvilles in America. It's more utopian than NY, less jaded.

Also, people are open and friendly in Chicago in a Superman-esque way. People might be more brusque, cynical, and paranoid in NY, but they've got your back.

Although given its corruption, gloom, homicide rate, and general state of decay, Philly seems more like Gotham than present-day NYC.

Brandon said...

Perhaps a The Dark Knight spoiler: Batman's endorsement, via his cell-phone grid, of the Patriot Act near the end of The Dark Knight seems to support his conservativeness. Without intentionally drawing a race connection, Lucius Fox then kind of falls into a Colin Powell role whereby he "plays along", however disgruntled he might be.

I thought The Dark Knight was a little overt with it's allusions to our current political state. The Joker was referred to as a "terrorist" in countless scenes. Nonetheless, the movie was still as nuanced as any other recent film I've seen on the war on terror.

Andrew said...

I agree that the cell-phone grid supports his conservativeness. But Batman does give Lucius the power to destroy the system at any time. True, the system is in the hands of one person, but Batman realizes that because of his single-mindedness, etc. that one person should not be him.

In Nolan's films Batman essentially has a system of checks and balances on his power provided by Alfred and Lucius... he may act on his own, but he actually listens to these differing view points.

Which certainly sets him apart from our current executive branch.

Andrew said...


Your division of New York into Gotham and Metropolis sections makes a lot of sense.

And it seems to me the original intent of the comics was to set them in the largest city possible: of course they're both New York.

My equation of Chicago and Gotham is something that's grown out of the movies and some of the more recent comics that I've read. And maybe the strong visuals of The Dark Knight are causing me to retcon any earlier thoughts on the matter.

Your point about Metropolis as a Midwestern city is well taken. A truly coastal city would be a long, long way from the Heartland where Clark grew up, and it seems out of character for Kal-El as Clark to go that far afield when he first leaves Smallville.

Gavin said...

Actually, I think that Metropolis as an East Coast city is central to Clark Kent/Superman's character. Clark's displacement, his alien-ness as a Midwesterner in Metropolis/New York is a parallel to his displacement and literal alien-ness as a Krytonian on Earth. It's not out of character, it is his character.

Tim said...

In the original Superman comics, Metropolis is actually (and I'll have to check if it's explicitly identified with) Cleveland, which is where Shuster and Siegel lived. Chicago seems like a good in-between.

In the first run of Superman movies with Christopher Reeve, Metropolis always seems like my boyhood vision of Los Angeles. I think it's the wide streets and glass office buildings.

PoN said...

Gotham is a once proud city now full of vacant homes and storefronts, where the government is powerless to stop the decay. God-fearing citizens flee to the suburbs if they have the money, or barricade themselves at night if they don't.

I think the best candidate for a modern Gotham is Detroit.

Tim said...

Gotham = Detroit is no good -- even if Gary Oldman as Gordon looks like my Dad in the 80s. Gotham actually has working mass transit. And it seems like the trash is picked up semi-regularly.

I say this as a proud native son: even the Joker wouldn't bother with Detroit.

Gavin said...

Wikipedia, by way of "The Canadian Encyclopedia," makes it sound like Metropolis is based as much on Shuster's old hometown of Toronto as his then-current Cleveland.

Which I could see. The CN tower (which is admittedly post-Superman) is totally Metropolis.