The Failed Democracy of Batman

The Failed Democracy of Batman

There is a line said by white nationalist Greg Johnson, the purveyor of the largest alt-right publishing house in the U.S., that struck a nerve when I was watching The Batman late at night in a crowded theater. “A superhero should be presumed right-wing, until proven otherwise.” He was saying this in a 2014 podcast about The Watchmen, both book and movie, taking a look at the archetype of the superhero.

While there are certain favorites amongst the far-right, Batman is usually top of the list. Superheroes, particularly DC Heroes, walk a particularly modern mythology: they act as titans in a contemporary morality play. These are big characters fighting even bigger challenges where the fate of the world, of both innocent and guilty, hangs in the balance. This requires, on some level, the superheroes to leave petty crime aside. A superhero story is standard not in their “crime fighting,” in fact modern superheroes in film or comics rarely “fight crime” in any recognizable way. If they did then social factors, inequalities, and progress would suddenly make the disparate power dynamic unpalatable to audiences. Not so with Batman.

Instead, Batman does a little bit of both, fighting cosmic forces and street crime, and he does it through sheer strength of will. Batman achieves his level of brawn and authority through a suggested meritocracy: he’s an aristocrat who gains his sense of self through an inheritance of wealth, and he validates that superiority by “wiping away” his status by donning a mask and fighting enemies with only the tools he develops, ostensibly by pulling himself up from the bootstraps. The fact that Batman’s wealth is present in literally every scene where he’s saved by trenchant body armor and Elon Musk style gadgets is less important because his self-image remains the same. A self-made hero without the benefit of kryptonian parents or gamma ray steroids.

There are essentially two traditions of Batman that can be symbolized by two different media artifacts. The first is the comedic, campy, and viscerally funny version, typified by the 1960s Batman TV show and picked up by a range of comic incarnations, movies like Batman Forever, and all of the merchandising opportunities that came with it. When people say things like “a new, grittier Batman” in reference to some emerging property, they are responding to what they assume is the consensus that Batman is a light, if perhaps uncomfortably violent, children’s character.

There is another, more consistent version of Batman, of which the new film The Batman is a part and is typified by Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Published as a four-issue miniseries in 1986 (around the same time as The Watchmen), The Dark Knight Returns poses Batman in a city centered on crisis, where his own failures in morality become his only strength: he has to break the rules to protect the city. This is how he defeats a Superman who has been taken over by malevolent forces, because Superman is inherently good and his morality makes him a liability. Batman doesn’t have pesky hangups like goodness, so he has the ability to claim victory. This is the underlying premise of a Batman story: you have to shatter your moral expectations if you are ever to set things in accordance with a bigger structure of ethical order. In doing so, Batman murders the Joker (who in The Dark Knight Returns reads almost explicitly as a queer character) and creates marauding bands of militias that exact extreme violence on anyone breaking with his newly established martial law.

This darker tradition of Batman goes back to the 1970s, where writers like Neal Adams wrote Batman as a person responding to particularly volatile and homicidally maniacal characters. The Joker was no longer a person flipping cards and setting up practical jokes: he was a savagely broken psychopath using our childlike instincts as a way to exploit the internal kindness of his victims. Batman is particularly useful in this dynamic because, as mentioned, he doesn’t have kindness to spare. We then put a lot of faith not just in Batman, but in vengeance as an operative concept, that violence wielded without accountability is what the real world actually demands.

Johnson’s reference to superheroes is built on what he saw as a concept from Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, who believed that liberal democracies required a “state of exception” to stay afloat. Democracy was inherently fallible because people who did not believe in such a fragile system could use its own organs to destroy it. What was required to defend it was someone to step out of the accountability of the system to act with exception, thereby protecting the structures of power and, in doing so, stripping them of philosophic legitimacy. All power was about the “friend/enemy distinction,” but our modern political performances simply deceive us to believe that it is about bigger concepts like truth, goodness, and self-actualization. "Someday, when all your civilization and science are likewise swept away,” said Conan the Barbarian as written by Robert E. Howard, “your kind will pray for a man with a sword."

This tradition of Batman was carried up at the edges of DC comics, particularly the “mature readers” version that eventually gave way to the Vertigo imprint. Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum graphic novel took us to the idea that mental illness was an unchangeable and pernicious threat in society that had to be managed, not through liberalisms like “treatment” but through concrete and steel bars, and unremitting violence when that fails. Alan Moore’s book The Killing Joke saw what was at stake when Batman failed to act: murder and sexual assault.

This version of Batman has continued as DC abandoned the Vertigo imprint and went with the new DC Black Label branding, which wanted to bring the “mature readers” format back to classic DC characters. While adult readership was brought into the DC world, and was especially present as The Dark Knight Returns helped age up the readership, they steadily left adult books to “creator owned” properties rather than their own staple. That kind of choice, however, was built to leave these characters to stagnation as tight censorship and arcane continuities do little to push the creative envelope. So now DC Black Label can drop the requirements of a shared DC universe and simply tell stories that the writers and artists feel inspired by. Batman was the lead on this, with books like Jeff Lemire’s The Killer Smile playing up the themes of consuming madness that is shared between Batman and his targets.

With the movie The Batman heading into theaters they released a slate of new adult-oriented Batman miniseries, all of which came from celebrity comics creators who are able to find something deeper in the Batman mythos. In Batman: Reptilian, Preacher creator Garth Ennis builds a lush painted world where Batman’s implicit cruelty is on display: he has disdain for the rogues gallery of broken people, and his treatment of them is laced with resentment, contempt, and an attitude of eradication. Batman: Imposter is a logical conclusion to what we expect from Batman, where his own unaccountable nature has allowed many criminals to go free. Court cases have been overturned and now a murderous vigilante is on the loose, dressing as Batman, and leading Gotham (and the rest of us) to parse out who is who. “Last week Gotham had its first night with zero violent crimes in 54 years,” says Bruce Wayne to a psychologist who has threatened him with exposure as a way to force him into therapy. “That didn’t happen because of the cops. It’s not because of the mayor. Or the D.A. It’s not because Gotham city suddenly grew a conscience. It’s because of me.” Another recent, though less successful entry, is Batman: One Dark Knight, a book written and drawn by Jock where Batman has transport, by himself, a particularly volatile prisoner since the system itself is unable to handle them. In a heavy handed plot device, that supervillain is powered by light, so Batman has to embed them most thoroughly in his native darkness. (I couldn’t help but remember the much memed line from The Dark Knight Rises where Bane informs Bruce Wayne that he was born in the darkness.)

The limits of Batman’s violence is illusory, an entirely arbitrary distinction that he admits is largely fabricated. What places boundaries on power is accountability, without that, only the violent ones determine what boundaries are upheld. This is Batman’s cult of martyrdom, whereby justice can only be real when some kind of blood is spilled.

The Batman is a better movie than most DC fare, particularly amongst those released since the attempted implementation of the DC Shared Universe, which tried to do what the Marvel Cinematic Universe has done so well. Instead, few of the filmmakers involved struck the right tone of the darker DC characters, until The Batman understood what balance was necessary: you had to acknowledge Batman’s reliance on unaccountable violence and simply allow for it. The film is most compared to the other best example of the Batman franchise, The Dark Knight, where Batman’s reliance on violence beyond reason is something so pure and noble that society is not even ready for it. In the era of the Patriot Act and “enhanced interrogation techniques,” this is the “hero we deserve.”

The Riddler plays an almost perfect villain for the new film, one that plays on the disaffection that has become so ferocious in our political world. He is frightening in the fact that we assume someone like him is hiding behind every social media sock account, ready to lash out with the kind of rage that reason and money has no effect on. While The Joker is the most iconic of the Batman villains, himself an archetype of a nihilistic chaos, The Riddler continues the same model with only slight variations. The humor of the world and its failings draw us into a great cosmic joke, and Batman is successful simply in his unwillingness to give into society’s abstractions. Instead, violence has a sort of purity to it: unlike the snooty intellectual work of The Riddler, Batman works with his hands to restore order to a seemingly chivalric code of justice. Batman starts with violence and then tries to provide limits, mostly in the form of tone policing Selena Gomez, but this is the film’s stalemate because his violence remains the implicit factor that defines his character. He will have to be cruel to be kind.

There are a lot of reasons that Batman books remain the biggest sellers in the industry, why they are the films that sell out the quickest, why no matter how dark they get they always feel pitch perfect. While people enjoy a high flying Superman and the celebration of mythic strength with Wonder Woman, that has to be anchored in the self-loathing, exculpatory rage of the third member of the trinity. If superheroes are about a “state of exception,” Batman tells the story as close to the way that we have seen exceptions throughout history, what we are told implicitly in the class and power structures of our increasingly globalized world. Batman is the character we get when the rest of the world fails to protect us, he breaks the rules before they break us.

The appeal of Batman is in the belief that when we wipe away our democratic experiment reality will simply reveal what needed all along: a man with a sword. Whether or not this is true is an entirely different story, but superheroes are less about social vision and commentary. Instead, they pull at unacknowledged ideologies, the stories about power, masculinity, and justice that we absorb from around us. Batman has remained popular because he is an incarnation of an almost archetypal myth, one that draws out our distinct lack of faith in our own moral accountability. In a world of failed diplomacy, economies, and abstractions, violence seems like a real answer to a real world in crisis.