Batman in the Real World
by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First, a disclaimer: I like Batman. He is my favorite superhero. He’s not true blue and loyal like Superman, but then he’s not in love with the dumbest reporter on the planet, either. He’s also not a young kid given incredible powers (by a radioactive spider, no less) who learns to properly use those powers while whining about it.
Batman doesn’t whine. He never whined—not when his parents were murdered in front of him, not when he realized he was the only one who could save Gotham City from itself, not when he had to sacrifice love and a personal life to do his real job.
Unlike Superman, Batman never professes to be doing what he does for truth, justice, and the American Way. I’m not sure Batman believes in any of those things—except his truth and his justice.
And, oddly enough, that makes him the most American of all the superheroes. And the most terrifying.
Yeah, yeah, I know. When Superman is influenced by red (or is it black?) Kryptonite, he gets really mean. We learn what a Kryptonian villain could be like. But meanness is not part of Superman’s core personality, so we understand that eventually he will return to his very good self.
When Spider-Man becomes Venom, we realize that we’re better off when Peter Parker whines. Venom forgets about the great responsibility that comes with great power. He simply uses that power the way all supervillains do—for evil.
Batman already straddles the line between good and evil. He uses the darkness in service of the light. That’s why Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns did so well in the mid-1980s, because Miller went back to Batman’s roots. Miller found Batman’s essential nature.
And at his core, Batman is—like most iconic American heroes—a mean, violent son of a bitch.
Heroism, American Style
Let’s talk a little bit about the ideal American. Let’s look at the traits (good and bad) that our collective past has given us.
Trait #1: Americans Rebel Against Authority
It’s bred into our bones. From the Boston Tea Party to the Declaration of Independence to the Revolutionary War, Americans have fought against the established order from the moment we identified ourselves as Not-British.
Trait #2: Americans Have Our Own Way of Doing Things
Also bone-deep. A different way to state this is that once we’ve overthrown the establishment, we take charge. The Founding Fathers led the country that they created. They wrote a great document delineating rules for governance (so that the country wouldn’t fall back on its evil Old World roots)—and then they proceeded to change, break, ignore, and refine those rules just because they could.
Trait #3: The American Way of Doing Things Is Often Violent
Our nation was born in war. We slaughtered our way across this continent, conquering natives as we went. We created frontier justice—which was essentially the rule of the strongest.
We cling to our guns, not because we’re all homicidal maniacs but because we know in our cowboy roots that those guns might come in handy some day. To defend our home. To defend our land. To get rid of the bad guys, whoever they might be.
Trait #4: Americans Believe in the Power of the Individual
It’s built into our Bill of Rights, which protects individual rights, sometimes at the detriment of the state. No other nation protects its individual citizens as much as we do. Individuals moved West, sometimes establishing homes on a barren prairie with no one else around. Individuals established towns and counties and states.
Individuals created this great nation and, by gum, we’re going to make sure we can continue on our individual ways—or America just wouldn’t be America anymore.
Trait #5: Americans Believe We Are Always Right
We know we were right to break away from the Old World. We claimed the moral high ground then, and we’ve never let go of it. The Old World is tired; we’re still a young, strong, and vibrant nation. The Old World happened; we were created. Our creation, by men of intellect and men of strength (sorry, ladies, historians don’t give us a lot of credit in the nation’s founding), makes us unique. And better than everyone else.
We learn that in school. And because we’re surrounded by oceans on two sides and a permeable border with a country that has modeled itself more on us than its mother country (sorry, Canada) and a country that can’t seem to govern itself effectively (you know who you are, Mexico), we rarely have citizens of other nations pouring across our borders to contradict us. We’re right. We know it because no one argues with us.
And really, who can?
Traits the Other
There are tons of minor and major corollaries that I could list for pages and pages. For example, Americans don’t trust inherited wealth (too Old World) but love the self-made man (very New World); Americans are inventive (from Benjamin Franklin to Thomas Edison, from Henry Ford to Bill Gates, American inventors have changed the world in ways that no other inventors have); Americans have a can-do attitude, which probably comes from all our natural wealth (which we stole and slaughtered for, but we don’t discuss that).
In short, America’s national character is self-righteous, violent, and powerful. On the surface, we seem to be frivolous and fun-loving (we invented the movies and video games and baseball), but only if everyone else stays out of our face.
When someone pushes us, we get mean.
And behind that meanness is an incredible national darkness—a tolerance for all sorts of nastiness so long as the ultimate goal is noble.
Or maybe, so long as we believe the ultimate goal is noble.
What does this history lesson have to do with Batman?
Superman might stand for truth, justice, and the American Way, but he’s an alien—an illegal one at that. Superman works hard at maintaining all the best traits of Americans—a can-do attitude, the kindness we all believe ourselves capable of, a deep loyalty. But he’s not us and he never has been.
Batman is a self-made man. No radioactive spider gave him superpowers. He’s not a mutant, nor is he an alien conveniently dropped into a Kansas field.
He chose to become Batman.
This is an important—and American—distinction.
Bruce Wayne started as a victim—a child who witnessed his parents’ murders. He becomes a powerful crime fighter, both feared and trusted by those he helps.
Bruce Wayne built his alter ego from nothing—less than nothing, despite his inherited wealth. He lacked the very thing that Clark Kent got by landing in Kansas—a loving, supportive family.
From that frightened, grieving child, Bruce Wayne pulled the most formidable of emotions.
A desire for vengeance.
Batman is not about serving the greater good. Truthfully, he doesn’t care that great power brings great responsibility. Bruce Wayne understands responsibility. He nods at it. But he swore vengeance as a child, and a creature of vengeance is what he has become.
Bruce Wayne could have used that incredible brain of his to improve his investments. He could have put all his money into various trusts-trusts that would help the homeless, try to eradicate poverty, educate underprivileged children.
Instead, he only put some of his money there. Wayne, despite his playboy image, is Gotham City’s most important philanthropist—and, we’re led to believe, its most generous.
Yet he spends about 3.5 million dollars every year on his Batman alter ego, at least according to a Forbes article published just before Batman Begins premiered (Forbes.com).1 Three and a half million dollars that could heal the sick or improve lighting in Gotham City. (Street lights alone would probably eradicate half the petty thefts in that dark place.)
But Bruce Wayne is not, as those lovely commentators on FOX News would say, a namby-pamby liberal who believes that social programs will change the truly evil among us. He believes that some criminals are just bad. Some are evil. And some are truly monstrous.
Social programs won’t change the evil or the truly monstrous. Social programs will only stop the average criminal. Give that average criminal good health care, enough to eat, a good education, maybe someone to love him, and he’ll grow up to be a model citizen.
But the Penguins, the Two-Faces, the Jokers of the world, they’ll never be reformed by a full belly and a comfortable place to sleep. They’ll want more—and someone will have to stop them from taking it.
Someone good, like Batman.
In this, Bruce Wayne is quintessentially American. We give more money to impoverished nations than any other nation in the world. Yet we’re quick to judge a less advantaged nation “evil” and, at least in recent years, even quicker to take military action against it.
Or, let’s take this out of the international arena and into the national. These days, no one advocates a strictly social solution to the nation’s ills like some politicians (and sociologists) did in the 1960s. Now even namby-pamby liberals won’t propose providing our poorest citizens’ basic needs without also recognizing the need to beef up police presence and to have enough jails.
Americans still believe that people should be held responsible for their actions and that no one should get a free pass just because of extreme poverty or a terrible upbringing. We do what we can to alleviate both, but we also expect people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps (what an American expression) and conquer the challenges of their youth.
After all, we can all cite examples of someone who grew up poor and has become a scion of society, or someone who was horribly abused and has gone on to become a great humanitarian.
So Batman’s roots make him a traditional American. But does he have the traits listed above, the ones historically tied to Americans?
1. Batman Rebels Against Authority
He believes that the government of Gotham City has broken down. Indeed, in the early Batman comics, Gotham City has no real government. It’s a chaotic, lawless place where the people who try to maintain the rules are a laughingstock or worse, as corrupt as the people who break them.2
Because the government has broken down, Batman has no use for its services. He doesn’t call the police when something goes wrong. He solves it himself.
And that is pure rebellion—dissing authority and doing something that authority disapproves of.
2. Batman Does Things His Way
After he grew up, Bruce Wayne saw a problem in Gotham City. Crime was just as bad as it had been when he was a child. And what did he do?
Better to ask what he didn’t do. He didn’t run for election—which he could easily have done with all his millions. He didn’t join the police academy or the FBI. He didn’t go into law enforcement.
He became something other. That something other was also quintessentially American—and I’ll get to it in a moment.
For now, let’s continue down our checklist.
3. Batman’s Way of Doing Things Is Often Violent
4. Batman Believes in the Power of the Individual
Another “well, duh.”
5. Batman Believes He’s Right
Because he almost always is. And that’s the fiction part, which we will get to shortly.
All these elements combine to create a superhero who is different from the other superheroes (at least in the Golden Age pantheon).
Because of his lack of extraordinary powers, Batman isn’t really a “super” hero. He is something else.
Something as American as apple pie.
Batman is a vigilante.
Vigilantes, Superheroes, and the American Way of Justice
The word “vigilante” is Spanish, and it means watchful.3 When used to describe a man or a woman, it means watchman or guard.4 My handy-dandy Encarta World English Dictionary, thoughtfully provided by my software company, describes “vigilante” as used in English thusly: “Someone who punishes lawbreakers personally and illegally rather than relying on legal authorities.”
This definition implies but doesn’t expressly state an important part of being a vigilante: vigilantes punish lawbreakers using whatever means necessary.
And that’s where it gets ugly.
Vigilantes or vigilante groups in American history run the gamut from bounty hunters to the Ku Klux Klan. The word itself, in its English usage, comes from the American South. In the 1830s, “vigilance committees” formed to silence (read: arrest or kill) blacks and abolitionists. The people who composed those committees were referred to as vigilantes (Barnhart and Metcalf 157).
Vigilantes aren’t by definition criminals. In fact, criminologists have had a hard time figuring out exactly what vigilantes are. One of the first real attempts to define vigilantism came in 1975, and the conclusion sounds quite familiar to the loyal Batman reader: Vigilantism represented “‘morally sanctimonious’ behavior aimed at rectifying or remedying a ‘structural flaw’ in society,” usually in a place where the law was ineffectual or completely unenforced (Brown).
The difference between acting like a vigilante and acting in self-defense is that acting like a vigilante is premeditated. If Bruce Wayne had somehow taken the gun from that robber who murdered his parents and shot the man, Wayne would have been acting in self-defense. Instead, a few nights later, Wayne made a vow-“I swear by the spirits of my parents to avenge their deaths by spending the rest of my life warring on all criminals” (quoted in Jones 154).
And one more thing about vigilantes, at least according to those criminologists (who are just starting to figure out that they’d better study this phenomenon)—vigilantes do not care about the law. They care about justice—as they define justice.
Which is where the entire idea breaks down.
You see, what places Batman in the same category as the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan is that personal definition of justice—and the fact that the justice must be meted out quickly. There are no courts, no real investigation, and no room for error.
The person being punished is wrong, at least in the eyes of the vigilante. And if the vigilante is wrong, well then, the person he punished has already suffered.
Fortunately, Batman is always right.
Batman for President
By now, some of you are thinking, “What the heck is with this woman? I thought she said she liked Batman.”
And I do. He is my favorite superhero, which is why I had the disclaimer up front.
But in the real world, Batman and his ilk are often not just on the wrong side of the law, but on the wrong side of justice—and, equally bad, the wrong side of history.
If you go to Google’s Advance Search and type in “Batman,” “vigilante,” and “George W. Bush,” you will get several hundred hits. And that’s no accident.
President George Walker Bush is the closest thing we’ve had to Batman in a long time.
Think about it. Bush comes from money. He was, once upon a time, a millionaire playboy. He had to redefine himself in the face of his own past. He rebels against authority. He has no respect for the law-often taking it into his own hands to the chagrin (and now anger) of Congress, the Supreme Court, and a vast majority of the American people.5
Writers—from the odd blogger to reporters, from the magazine The Progressive to Reason Online—have taken this analogy farther. They point out that Bush, in his response to 9/11, repeated the essential flaw in the Batman origin story.
That flaw is this: When Bruce Wayne’s parents are murdered, he doesn’t seek revenge on his parents’ killer. He seeks revenge on all criminals for all time.
After 9/11, Bush didn’t go after the terrorists that attacked the World Trade Center. Instead he went after all terrorists, and plans to continue until they’re gone.6
I could go on. The bloggers and the writers and the comic geeks do.7 But that’s somewhat beside the point.
Because Bush, as the world acknowledges, is practicing cowboy diplomacy. He’s acting in a quintessentially American fashion—one anyone who consumes American media understands.
He’s mining our stories to conduct his foreign policy and his presidency. I think he truly believes he’s right in everything that he does.
And early on, Americans supported him in this behavior.
We believe in the lone wolf. We believe in the man who, for moral reasons, reacts in a solitary and often violent manner.
We believe in him—if he’s always right.
And therein lies the rub.
Batman is a fictional character. He’s on the side of good.
“We should remember that this is a comic book,” writes Kristian Williams in a very political review of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again. “Superhero stories, however politicized, are still superhero stories. In them, unusually gifted and virtuous people (superheroes) fly around in ridiculous outfits saving the world from unusually gifted and vicious people (supervillains)” (Williams 39).
The problem comes when we start believing our own press. When we—as Americans—believe that we are always on the side of good and other people (who some of our politicians now call “the bad guys”) are on the side of evil.
In the real world, such things aren’t that simple.
If they were, George W. Bush wouldn’t be president. He’d be living in a gothic mansion in one of our nation’s largest cities. He’d have an older manservant who keeps him on the straight and narrow. He’d have a secret bunker in the basement. He’d have one of the coolest cars on the face of the Earth… .
Scratch that. Some in the left-wing blogosphere could and do argue that Bush isn’t president (by popular vote anyway), that he does live in a mansion in one of the nation’s largest cities, a mansion with a secret bunker in the basement, and has access to some of the coolest cars on Earth. We’re only stretching the analogy when we call Dick Cheney a manservant… .
And when we assume that Bush-or any other American-is always right.
Batman is the stuff of fiction.
And maybe that’s why I like him when it should be pretty obvious to you, dear reader, that I don’t like George W. Bush.
Batman is understandable. He comes from a dark place. He lives to avenge his past. He has created his superhero self from nothing. In other words, he was an ordinary boy until he turned himself into an extraordinary man.
And yes, I have to admit, I like the fact that he’s always right. In the end (unless we’re dealing with some of the nihilistic and dystopian comics), he always stops the worst criminals. He saves the world, just by being himself.
It’s a fantasy I like.
Except when it creeps into the real world.