by Anthony Painter
Robert Colville argues zestfully that Batman is a conservative in this morning’s Telegraph. My first reaction was that it’s a strange type of conservative that so flagrantly disregards the rule of law. The whole point of the vigilante, Batman, is that the law cannot protect itself. Therefore, it needs shadowy figures who operate outside of it to save society from itself. It trashes the whole notion of rule of law – it’s difficult to think of anything less conservative than that.
It might well be that Batman seeks conservative ends – order, hierarchy, defined social relations, rule by status. But the means are distinctly non-conservative.
In the Dark Knight he establishes a private panopticon in order to defeat the terrorist, the Joker. Sure, he hands over the access to this system to Lucius Fox, his wise and principled technologist. Access is given not to prevent its use but to facilitate its use – he just doesn’t entirely trust himself. Fox ultimately destroys the system but that’s not at Batman’s instruction.
There are definite signs in the same film that Batman aspires to conservative means as well as ends – he just can’t quite trust them. He wishes to get out of the game and hand over safeguarding of the city’s welfare to Harvey Dent, Gotham’s energetic District Attorney. We are not sure whether he’s thinking straight as this has the advantage of clearing the way to him re-opening his pursuit of Rachel Dawes (who refuses to countenance a marriage to Bruce Wayne while he is still playing at Batman.) Nonetheless, he enthusiastically embraces Dent as a figure who can restore the rule of law.
It all goes terribly wrong as Dent is turned by the Joker into the gruesome Two-Face. In a Michael Corleone fashion, just when he hoped he might be out, Batman is pulled back in. Dent is the greatest hope for the law being able to take care of itself. It fails and so the vigilante is needed once again. Upon, Dent’s death, Batman conspires with Commissioner Gordon to take the blame for murders perpetrated by Two-Face (Dent) as the people of Gotham would not be able to cope with the crimes of their latest saviour, Dent. Propaganda is not beyond our conservative super-hero.
So our Batman is a conservative who doesn’t believe in the rule of law. He is a protector of liberty who wants to turn every mobile phone into a recording, imaging and tracking device. He upholds a people’s values by manufacturing reality. If he is a conservative then it would appear that he’s a conservative in the George W Bush mould.
The Dark Knight Rises – the third in the Christopher Nolan series of Batman films – opens later this week. The basic plotline seems to be that there is an uprising in Gotham in reaction to a financial collapse caused by a self-serving plutocratic elite. Bane is the drug-dependent leader of the malcontents and the physically strongest opponent that Batman has faced.
Much of the initial commentary has placed Bane as a monstrous leader of an Occupy-style movement. It’s not at all clear that the read across works (NB I’ve not yet seen the film so I have to reserve judgement). Occupy is a slightly sad sideshow rather than a terrifying existential threat. It would be very surprising if Batman emerged as a kind of Republican free-marketeer defender of business elites in this film so I’m guessing that the themes are rather more around law and beyond law and weight of personal responsibility for one man as the previous films were rather than a narrative about capitalism. We’re likely to be the same territory as the last film but with a different context (Rush Limbaugh even sees a liberal conspiracy in the film on the basis that the baddie ‘Bane’ is rather similar to ‘Bain’ – that’s Rush for you!)
Bruce Wayne is a billionaire playboy. But again, this hardly suggests conservatism – libertarianism seems rather more accurate. Besides, as time went by Wayne became a cover for Batman rather than his inner-ego so I’m not sure Wayne’s lifestyle is really that relevant to the core message of the super-hero. Indeed, Rachel rejects Wayne on the basis that Batman is his inner core; one that can’t be separated from the hero in unclad form.
So the Batman films leave us with the distinct impression that we are dealing with a very strange sort of conservative. Actually though, the Batman as conservative – philosophical conservative – argument does hold up in three respects.
There is little doubt he is a sceptic. His one embrace of hope (part-blinded by love) ends in disaster. He is a paternalist – sees himself as a defender of the common good. Moreover, he is a restorationist. He wants to return Gotham to a more innocent, tranquil time – before his parents were shot in a nihilistic act following a mugging. In Lucius Freud and Alfred Pennyworth he is surrounded by conservative father-figures. His biological father embodied noblesse oblige. It did all rub off.
It would appear that Batman is a ‘conservative’ in the sense that the American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, is – a very ambiguous one. Here is a quote from Niebuhr that would appear to sum up Batman quite well:
“We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization. We must exercise our power.”
And yet, this theologian has been claimed – with just cause – by conservatives, neo-conservative, pragmatic centrists, social democrats and democratic socialists alike. So it is with Batman – a rule of law doubting conservative, a socially-minded narcissist, an authoritarian liberal.
As a political figure, he is contradictory, complex and challenging. Ultimately, he serves no cause but his own. Just when we feel we have grasped him, he struggles from our grip. And that is why he is the most brilliant dramatic creation to have emerged from any comic book.
Anthony Painter is an author and a critic