Holy Politics Batman!

Today’s Globe and Mail ran a rather interesting article using the latest Batman film to comment on the politics of civil society and particularly the urbanite as political creature— from this I can only assume Toronto is getting more Gotham-like. The writer argues that Batman: The Dark Knight is a refreshing Aristotelean kick in our apathetic political gut. “Wayne realizes that, as a billionaire, he has the option of secluding himself from a society run amok. But he believes that as someone who has reaped the benefits of good society, he also has to stick it out with bad society,” he writes.

As Wayne enters into this social contract to fight for the good guys of the city he is demonstrating the capacity of the hero to act outside of the violent individualism represented by the main villain the Joker. Amid his battle are myriad hints of the crises currently plaguing civil society—torture, surveillance and a general post-911 cynicism that even the most moderate reforms of capitalism are impossible. But, as the author argues, “when the good guys laud each other in the film, they do so not based on wealth or strength, but on their qualities as citizens.” Here I disagree.

The elites of Gotham pat each other on the back because outside of the screen, these characters are part of a self-benefiting network—Bruce Wayne (Batman CEO), Mayor, Chief of Police and District Attorney. While the film revolves around the typical hero worshiping that charecterizes almost every super-hero film (particularly the fascist-tinged Iron Man), this Batman reinforces the concept that society cannot be changed or made better by leaving it to Orwell’s stolid unmoving masses. It is only through the corridors of power that crime can be fought, hospitals saved and general sanity be restored. A perfect example of this is the scene on the ferries, where prisoners on one and civilians on the other are burdened with explosives and hold the detonator to the each other’s ship. A perfect philosophical quandary, but played out by hot-headed civilians too ill-equipped and distraught to control their own circumstances. Better to let the DA or Batman sort this one out.

Batman, who is loved for his crime fighting ways, is integrally tied to what the state sees as acceptable and unacceptable—also films about a bat catching white-collar criminals would be dull. But it does make me wonder where Batman’s moral compass lies. As the G&E author writes, “Whereas a protagonist in another action film might be motivated solely by a love interest, Batman sacrifices love to uphold the state.” A state that protects but doesn’t go to the root of the crime problem.

Chinese businessman enter as villains in this film, but it is another sort of businessman/modern-politician that is portrayed as hero. Bruce Wayne has always been a slick-suited businessman, and it is clear that his company builds weapons and surveillance equipment, but his status as Saviour of Gotham makes him immune to any crimes he may commit in the corporate world. In my own socialist version of Batman, he’d perhaps admit that his vast accumulation of wealth and the power held by those around him are responsible for the city’s poverty and unemployment which spurns such underground crime and violence. But this is perhaps a little too hopeful.

Bruce Wayne is meant to represent the friendly and protective face of modern capitalism. Perhaps he also designs eco-friendly cell-phones, that’s good right? Maybe he has some corporate codes of responsibility? But maybe he has a sweatshop in Gotham centre where his surveillance equipment is put to good use. So he’s really just an Al Gore type elite, looking out for our best interest while making a buck on the side. Poor Bruce, if only he could see the structural cause of poverty and crime.

Chris Webb

Chris Webb is a journalist and activist living in Toronto. He is currently the Publishing Assistant at Canadian Dimension magazine and a Communications Officer with SEIU-Local 1 Canada. Read more by Chris Webb.


  • Thanks! Really amazing. I wish i could spend my time on writing articles…just have no time for it.

    #1. Posted by John Reed on August 11th 2008 at 2:17am

  • Thanks! Really interesting. Big ups!

    #2. Posted by Noon on August 11th 2008 at 10:31am

  • [...] Webb on the latest Batman movie [...]

    #3. Posted by Superheroes and supervillians | Toban Black on August 15th 2008 at 6:10am

  • ... and here I was thinking it was a popcorn flick. Well done, sir. Well done. I was particularly enamored with the part of that G&M article that discusses Batman’s stance against torture, regardless of positive outcome. Could it be a message to the White House circa 2006, come too late?

    #4. Posted by Doug McArthur on August 19th 2008 at 10:31am

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