Okay, I have to confess this is a slightly clickbaity title, but hear me out. Ever since the last Christopher Nolan Batman movie, with its authoritarian and anti-Occupy subtext, the age-old debate about superheroes either being all about jingoistic fascist propaganda or righteous, moral individualism has been reignited.
<Let's have some fun. Don't get super heated and defensive about your favorite superheroes, this is just some fun and food for thought.>
In my opinion, things are a bit more nuanced than that. You don't have to be a hardcore comic-book fan to understand that the actual comics, written as they are by a great many authors with a great variety of different talents and opinions, can't be so easily pigeonholed. On the other hand, I feel that defence ignores the more simplistic nature of superheroes as understood by the majority in the cultural zeitgeist, a view informed by many decades of, yes, jingoistic, tightly controlled material, as well as oversimplification, with complex characters being mercilessly pared down for Hollywood. People don't know the Batman of the comics, they know the Batman of the Nolan films, a few ideas repeated over and over in cinema, or from comics of their youth, or simple cultural osmosis.
Still, as Mr. Wayne himself likes to say, Batman is an idea. So I'm going to look at the ideas these superheroes embody to the vast majority of society, and the minutia of the untold milliards of comic books I'm not going to read - and, frankly, neither will most people - doesn't really change anything. Most people's understanding of these mainstream superheroes, like mine had been, is based on these rendered-down simplistic conceptions. People see Christopher Nolan's movies or remember old comics, they don't know of or understand the sophistication of modern comics. Indeed, entire comic arcs HAVE dealt with some of the things I bring up here, coming to various conclusions.
< To make it perfectly clear (skip this paragraph if you get it already). When I say this below: "The systemic causes of crime, desperation, poverty, drug addiction, and helplessness are ignored for an extremely conservative, deflectory philosophy of crime simply being a moral failing of individuals." It's probable the comics, written by passionate writers over the years, address this in some manner, perhaps Batman directly funds effective programs. But to the average person lining up to watch The Dark Knight Returns, Batman is not known for doing this, and it's not emphasized in any way in the movies. More critically, EARLY Batman and Superman DEFINITELY didn't talk about this, and a generation grew up when Superman was calling America the greatest nation on Earth and going around wrapped in the Spar Stangled Bunner punching Nazis. This Golden Era established much of the zeitgeist's understanding of these characters and their nature. I'm talking about what Batman and others are as cultural icons, NOT a study of them as characters in the vastly more sophisticated and nuanced comics, which might conclude something very, very different. Why, oh why, do movies and mainstream culture constantly push these messages, and ignore the grand subtlety of the last 30 decades of comics? >
Another thing to clarify; perhaps "authoritarian" is more easily understood than "fascist." There's a belief that "lefties call everything they don't like fascist" but that's not entirely accurate -- they understand the term better than most. People tend to get caught up in the trappings of fascism, or conclude that the end-game of fascism (a totalitarian, hypernationalistic/racialistic state) is the be-all of fascism. In actuality, fascism is an idea, or set of ideas, that inform actions and organisation. There are steps you take along the way to becoming Mussolini's Italy, and fascism is the underpinning ideology that spurs people to take these steps, and it's subtler than "I want a totalitarian hypernationalistic state." Capiche?
Before I touch on Batman himself. If you've followed me awhile, you know I don't like "police procedurals." In fact, I think they're fucked up authoritarian garbage. These shows have been criticised in the past for a number of troublesome attitudes, including the normalization of police brutality or violating suspects rights -- approximately 0.9 of a serious violation per episode of Law & Order which is on the low end of the spectrum -- and showing the violators to be lightly reprimanded at best. They inculcate an us-vs-them understanding of crime, failing to acknowledge or address the systemic factors that cause crime and instead presenting all perpetrators as immoral reprobates, and outsider threat instead of fellow people within our society, and whenever discussion of someone's legal rights occurs, it's in a dismissive fashion or in a fashion where it's implied they're a hindrance to justice. Furthermore, they never truly provide insight or explanation OF legal or judicial procedures, so they fail to even educate the public about their rights or options when accused of a crime! The idea that the police are enforcing, or even could potentially enforce, an immoral law, or that their authority is undeserved or misused and protects an immoral status quo, just doesn't come up.
'This immoral evil person accused of a serious crime is taking the fifth? He's refusing to talk without a lawyer? (In the worst case: 'Police aren't allowed to threaten, torture, etc, people they "know" are guilty!?') That stupid civil rights crap is an obstruction to the work of the good police, who never do anything wrong and if they did their own buddies would totally punish them for it, and just lets evil people get away with whatever they want to do! So it's okay if police break the rules, act outside of the system that stops the good guys from stopping the bad guys!' This message is, simply, fascist. It's advocating unrestrained power for a state-derived Protector Class with (falsely claimed) unimpeachable integrity that knows what's best.
Fascism is a political philosophy, and one facet of it can colloquially be summed up as: all this talk of rights, of due process, of democracy, it's all stupid, because our society is facing some sort of threat, and we need a strong man, with strong unquestioning men working under his absolute control, to discard all of that nonsense and just do what has to be done, dammit! Is that threat illegal immigrants? Criminals? Super-predators? Commies? Animal rights groups? Social Justice Warriors? ... Jews? The concept of a scapegoat that we need an absolute authority to deal with is endemic to fascism. Again, steps you take along the way to a totalitarian hypernationalistic nation with a strongman leader, or things you convince others of believing if you want that outcome. Police are enforcers of the Law, of the State, and if you believe that the State or Law has never been abused, ignored, or directly used to protect the powerful, you're beyond naive.
Not only does it happen, everywhere, all around the world, you're likely hiding behind the childlike ignorance that it even happens in your home-country. Of course these restrictions on law enforcers and such are absolutely necessary! That's why they're there! They're a key component of what makes liberal democracy, liberal and democratic. (It's a testament to the power of propaganda that people tend to think these things just don't happen in their countries; hint, it's probably not visibly happening to you, but a less privileged minority or people who challenge the system, and when the government kicks a vast public spying mechanism into gear in violation of your foundational civil rights and claims it's to stop 'terrists', it's happening to you less-visibly.)
As for shows like 24 -- written and directed by actual conservative (rather, authoritarian) dildos who truly believe the crap they say with their show -- the less said the better. It's not subtext there. It's basically fear-mongering propaganda for the idea that we need to let the State torture and murder at will to protect us from the Other.
Which brings us to Batman, and, to some extent, all other mainstream superheroes.
Does this character need any introduction? One that doesn't go beyond the realm of "common knowledge"? Batman is an exceedingly rich individual who saw his parents murdered one day, and decided to use his vast wealth and power to dress up like a terrifying bat-man to fight crime in his city. He's effectively an ubermensch, a tactical genius with peak physical abilities, using a combination of preparedness, physical prowess, high-tech equipment, stealth and tactics to "fight crime." Which actually means fighting people, that he then hands over to the police. He does have one rule, though: no killing.
This might be the first point of contention so let's get it out of the way. "How can Batman be bad in any way, when he refuses to kill out of principle?" It's certainly good that Batman doesn't kill, it's a decision I'd probably make if I was in his position too. But, in an amusing metanarrative sense, the reason Batman doesn't kill is the same in text as without: the people of Gotham would truly despise his vigilante actions if he started playing the judge, jury and executioner. Likewise, most readers would object to him as well! In the same way that they're happy to hand power to a police-force to protect them against the Immigrant Terrorists Justice Jews, they probably would hesitate if they realized it would lead to gas-chambers.
Nobody likes the idea of this Protector Class murdering others at will, but it's a reality of giving that class the authority to do so; in reality, Batman would've accidentally killed or crippled dozens by knocking their heads on the floor, overdoing it with his torture, or even indirectly; busting a drug dealer leads to his addicted clientele committing suicide, for example. Or he might get the wrong person entirely, with those same fatal consequences. Why doesn't this happen in text? Well, because the writers can control the universe, and they do it because people generally would object to these realistic consequences, it's why cryptofascism seeks to lead people along the fascist path, rather than speak plainly about its inevitable results. What's the result of this message?
It says, first and foremost, that our powerful, unimpeachable protector class - unbound by rules of engagement, of outside scrutiny, and of pesky civil rights and procedures - is irreproachable, extremely moral, self policing, and would never harm or kill. Even accidentally. Even systemically, indirectly. They'd never fuck up, and even if they did, it'd be worth it... That's not reality. This message is dangerous.
The next issue is how Batman "fights crime." He does not, he fights people, and I'll get to the supervillains in a second. Batman targets individual criminals and batters them senseless, before handing them over to the police (who, by the way, are so incompetent, corrupt, and overworked that Batman's work is necessary in the first place). While there are throwaway lines and insinuations that Mr. Wayne is a philanthropist, there's nothing to differentiate his philanthropy from the cynical "philanthrocapitalism" of real life billionaires (token donations that are often claimed back on tax, when actually paying tax to fund social-democratic welfare programs would be more effective in combating whatever they're donating to help with). Not only do we not imagine Wayne fighting assiduously for social or economic policies on the national stage to help assuage crime, his apparent philanthropy is unseen, non-specific, and doesn't appear to be working; Batman punches people, he doesn't "philanthropy" crime away. It's an "informed trait."
Indeed, the next issue is Batman's status as a billionaire. We've all heard this, even if just jokingly. A male Paris Hilton who inherited his wealth, lived in obscene luxury and security his whole life (the idea of him living a vagabond's life and meeting al-Ghu'ul was added later), who cosplays a rodent and goes around punching poor people after they personally affected him by killing his obscenely rich parents -- and again, we'll get to the "people" in a moment. But there are many ways Batman could use his status and money to help the community in ways more significant than some token philanthropy. He could expand WayneCorp to employ more people with comfortable wages, and persuade his board to take less personal wealth to compensate; if some leave, someone else will happily fill the void, it's not like these fucking people have any idea what they're doing and actually deserve 300 times the wage of their secretaries. He could convert WayneCorp into a massive worker's cooperative a la Mondragon, Indian Coffee House, or Kantega. He could infuse immense wealth into the people of Gotham itself. It's critical to note that all of these measures I'm talking here would be more effective in fighting crime, poverty, and misery than dressing as a bat and punching people.
Indeed, he could take his estimated 11.6 billion dollars of net-worth, his $32 million dollar mansion, his fancy cars, his untold amount of jaw-droppingly expensive assets, sell them and live like a normal person and rely on his undoubtedly large income from some advisory position at WayneCorp to build his net-worth back up again. Assuming he comes to a total of 13 billion, that's 433,333 of the poorest or sickest people he could just give $30,000 to. He could even keep a billion, retain that as shares in WayneCorp and make a very comfortable living off that as well as a side-gig giving speeches to bankers. "But he needs all that wealth and privilege to be Batman!" ... what message does that send?
Anyway, he just needs to pay his damn taxes -- if he does, then the next step is for him to make sure the other privileged billionaires do. Not punch poor mentally ill people. Though if he did that by force, is that breaking the law? Yes, but he does that all the time -- but only in one direction. He punches purse-pinchers, but won't bash a morally-bankrupt banker-boss? Who's actions are really causing the biggest damage?
... What message does that send? Also, this is why the comics aren't a defence for any of this, because even they usually skate over or completely ignore these possibilities, they're ejected or abstracted away from the framework of the discussion. Batman combating systemic white-collar crime or unfair legislation keeping the vast majority of society's wealth from the majority of people, the cause of so much crime, with the same direct action he takes against someone robbing a Walmart? Unspeakable. In this manner, Batman is complicit in the poverty he claims to be fighting, and Superman complicit in the misery of the human condition he seeks to outshine. Now consider that Nolan's third film doesn't have good things to say about social movements like Occupy.
Now onto the criminals themselves. In the Batman/DC universe, almost all criminals are presented as vicious scum who do directly personal crimes. They're dealing drugs, committing crimes, they're rapists, and some, I assume, are good people. Amusingly, some of them are presented as victims of mental health issues, and Mr. Wayne's solution to that is to punch it out of them, then send them to an Asylum he knows neither treats nor contains them (maybe he should be pushing for better government mental health programs, lobbying politicians with his immense wealth and access.) Again, author's fiat is used to try and explain these things away: They're ALL bad and irredeemable people, and the only way to handle them is this unrestrained strongman who violently subjugates them. Don't think too much about alternatives or first causes; in fact, don't think about them at all, people.
Criminals who target people are treated the same as those who rob banks or immensely wealthy corporations. There's zero difference. The fact that corporations can - and do, in real life - crush local economies and subjugate them to their monopoly (Walmart), smashing competition then donating unbelievable amounts of money to keep politicians from addressing their predatory and destabalizing tactics while dodging taxes and paying starvation wages? That doesn't happen in Gotham. Sidenote, another thing Bats could do: start-up fund small businesses after removing gigantic monopolies from the equation. Liberate the economy a bit. Anyway.
The systemic causes of crime, desperation, poverty, drug addiction, and helplessness are ignored for an extremely conservative, frankly reality denying philosophy of crime simply being a moral failing of individuals... regardless of the nature of the crime. If you go outside the law, except to enforce the law, there's no excuse and you're immoral, end of discussion. It pushes the idea that fighting crime means fighting criminals, and obviates social programs, compassion, reform, meaningful change, etc, things that tackle the problem at its root, from the discussion. You COULD be punching lobbyists and lawyers and billionaires seeking to defund public healthcare so they can make a few extra millions, but instead you're punching the guy robbing a store to pay for his mother's medication after he lost his job to a profit-increasing layoff spree. Oops, don't think of it like that, he's a bad guy and just doing it because gosh-darn it he's bad. No other reason!
These superheroes operate outside of the system, that's basically their appeal. A cop can't take down Lex Luthor, but Supes can. They cut through the red tape and do what cannot be done by normal people, but they only do it in one direction: they only do it for authority and the status quo. If they went that other direction, then there'd be no argument for them being fascistic, authoritarian, or anything of the like. There is, as I hinted earlier, no meaningful reason for Batman to punch the robber into submission instead of punching Jeff Bezos until he stops being a c**t. Hell, the guy even looks like Dr. Evil! And what'll happen to him? They gonna arrest Batman?
Is that what they're gonna do? Knock on the batcave and arrest him?
Finally, we have the supervillains themselves. This is usually the Hail Mary of the Superhero Defence Team; they're not rich people punching poor criminals, they're punching a dude with a mech-suit who can freeze buildings with his ice-ray! They're fighting crazy psycho clowns who want to poison entire cities! Don't be silly, this is fantasy!
< Amusingly, people who otherwise feel cultivation theory has merit, switch to this very narrow text-only interpretation of superheroes when you question their favorite spandex-clad vigilante. Isn't it a problem to you that many of these superhero icons (at least, at the surface level understanding of the majority of people, that gets propagated year after year of dumbass superhero movies constantly retelling the same story and revisiting origins like they have narrative alzheimers or something) seem to promote this idea of a world where the status quo is perfect? Unless it needs someone to act extra-legally without oversight to defend us good people from Others? Who are dehumanized and the socio-cultural causes of their actions removed from the conversation? You can either excuse away troublesome messages with specific in-text justification and ignore the overarching trend, or you can't.
I suppose, if we consider it like that, the fact is that mainstream super heros are fascistic. Even if, on close inspection, in the texts, Batman himself is not. In the exact same way as a specific helpless woman in a movie isn't necessarily sexist, because her helplessness can in theory be explained or justified by the text, but if every damn movie under the sun shows women as helpless, we have a problem. I mean, superheroes don't generally go the other way, you've got The Punisher who is just Batman but he WILL kill; don't see The Income Equalizer, who punches CEOs until they pay a living wage, coming out of Marvel anytime soon. >
So, yes, superheroes do sometimes stand against "outside context problems" like your General Zod, your Joker, your Venom, etc, and they're better equipped to fight these threats than the people or the police. They sometimes fight these guys, although it's generally understood that Batman spends his time punching people until Joker does something and he rushes off to punch HIM instead. Supervillains serve as foils for the superheroes, throwing their qualities into sharp contrast, and being challenges around which the superhero can grow, or just do their thing around; they're narrative devices, as all characters are. We can't imagine The Dark Knight without the Joker, and as many people have noted, the villains are usually far more interesting than the heroes themselves.
The problem is, whether you admit that Batman punches mooks a lot more than Joker, or fails to ask how Joker keeps getting people willing to follow him (how desperate must these people be to follow this LUNATIC?), or not, then we're still faced with the fact that the implication is that we need... an extra-legal, unscrutinized, Protector to ignore established civil rights, processes, protections, etc, to protect the People from the Other. While ignoring all of the other things they could ever do to save people from misery, poverty, starvation, military invasion for profit or geopolitical advantage, and all of the other ills in the world that kill, maim, and immiserate people far more than crime; specifically, superheroes ignore the sickness of the system itself at best, and the immoral actions of the powerful, and choose instead to violently punish those without institutional power when they rebel against the system, sending the message that "these are our enemies, our Other, and you need ME to break these foolish rules, discard your silly civil rights, to save you from them. Give up your liberty, for my security."
So is Batman a fascist?
Given his priorities, his beliefs, and his actions, analyzed without intratextual excuses and justifications by way of authorial fiat. Yes. Batman is a fascist. That's the message he sends. That's the message almost all mainstream superheroes iconify.