I’ve been on a recent Batman kick rewatching the old Michael Keaton movies, replaying Arkham Knight and Telltale’s excellent ‘Batman’ video game series. As I revisited Batman and his origins in 2016, new, troubling themes started to emerge. This was the story of billionaire reshaping the world to match his own imagine of justice. I couldn’t help asking, what does Batman mean in the age of Donald Trump?
The internet is about 90% ‘What does Donald Trump mean?’ think pieces right now, so I can understand if you groaned a little at that question, but super heroes aren’t as trivial as we like to think. They are modern-day myths and like all myths they tell us about who we are, what we think is heroic or villainous and what values are worth fighting for.
There are many themes within Batman’s mythos and that help explain Trump’s appeal. But the one that I think is the most important is their shared super power. Both Batman and Donald Trump are billionaires (maybe). On the campaign trial, there were plenty of interviews with Trump supporters who were decent, rational people who when asked why they were supporting Donald Trump said ‘He’s a successful businessman, he’ll be good for the economy, he’ll fix things.’
We tend to think billionaires are not like us. How can they be? They have billions, they must be the smartest, most dedicated people alive to earn that type of money. They know things that we don’t, because if we knew the things they did or were capable of the feats of will, self-discipline and risk taking that they are, then we’d be billionaires too. They’re just something ‘special’ about them, like super heroes.
In the comics billionaires are super heroes. Next to scientists, and maybe reporters, billionaires are the most common alter ego for super heroes (side note, I also can’t think of a single super hero billionaire who is ‘self-made’, they all inherit their fortune). But no comic book billionaire is quite like Bruce Wayne.
Tony Stark might be a brilliant engineer, but he’s also cocky alcoholic. His vices are so bad that he’s had to give up being iron man because of them and has lost his company through his hubris on multiple occasions. Also in the comics, and now in the movies, whenever Tony is given anything close to federal power he royally messes up. He’s locked up his friends or put them on lists and accidentally given military power over to super villains. Tony Stark would not make a good President.
Bruce Wayne on the other hand is perfect. He’s a genius with super human will which allows him to become the best at everything he does: the world’s greatest detective, master martial artist; a guy that’s able to beat up superman repeatedly as well as outsmart and defeat the likes of Darkseid, an intergalactic tyrant and space god. He’s got a tool for every job, knows everything, and is prepared for any possible outcome.
Can you think of better poster child for ideal of meritocracy than Batman? He’s the most American superhero out there that doesn’t start his name with ‘Captain’, because say what you will about other rich people, Bruce Wayne deserves his money. Deserves it, because like Trump, he didn’t earn it, he inherited it. And as Trump supporters felt America desperately needed a man like Donald, Gotham desperately needs Batman.
In Batman comics Gotham is a city overrun by criminals, with a dismal economy and a corrupt political climate that can only be described as ‘swampish’. In every origin when Batman arrives all that changes. Wayne industries comes in and creates jobs fixing the economy. Batman takes out the mob leaders and exposes politicians, wiping away corruption and decreasing crime (at least initially; there always must be crime or there would be no Batman). Gotham is safer, richer and better with Batman in charge.
And make no mistake, Batman is in charge. Super hero comics by no means represent realistic politics. Shield, for instance, is an international police agency which has authority everywhere and yet it’s never clear who they answer to or how they get their funding. But even by comic’s standards Gotham is some bizarre libertarian city-state, with Batman/Bruce Wayne as it’s Soldier-CEO.
In the comics, games, and movies Wayne Enterprises controls just about every major function in Gotham. All utilities are run through Wayne tower. The Wayne’s built the public monorail transportation for the city. Wayne tech systems act as the communication providers for the police, the banks, and city hall. As CEO Bruce Wayne has access to every communication and record that goes through that system. I can’t imagine that would be legal anywhere else in the U.S.
And yet in Batman comics this clearly corrupt system is for the collective good. There is no conflict of interest between Bruce Wayne’s monopoly on every industry in Gotham and Batman’s extra-legal actives in policing the city, because they both serve the same interests, that of Gotham’s. The fact that Gotham’s interests are indeterminable from Bruce Wayne’s, doesn’t matter. Gotham is after all Batman’s city, he says so himself.
And Batman’s city is Batman’s, not the mob’s, not the dangerous ‘others’ that threaten the power of the status quo. While Batman main adversaries don’t come from the minority groups that Trump targeted on the campaign trail, his rouge’s gallery is still full of people labeled as freaks, the insane, and the other. People on the fringes of society not in the mainstream.
Killer Croc has a fatal skin condition not a trust fund. The Joker is dangerous, but he’s anarchist who will burn money rather than horde it. Even the Penguin who dresses like an early twentieth century aristocrat only turns to crime after the elite of Gotham kick him out.
Batman enforces Penguin’s place on the outside by repeatedly beating the crap out of him. And yet there’s no way the pudgy penguin can physically match him. In fact Batman spends most of his time punching down; how exactly are the likes of Scarecrow, Riddler or the Ventriloquist going to fight Batman on equal footing? At times it can seem like he’s bully, a charge also labeled at Trump.
The parallels between Trump and Wayne are there. A billionaire who says he’s the best at everything, bends the law, using fear and violence against the poor to protect the majority. A political force whose best interests are also the best interest of his fellow citizens. They share that collective myth.
But myths are both inherently political and infinitely interpretable. The best ones can change and shift with the time and find new ways to grow. Batman himself has been everything from a brooding, mostly silent vigilante, to a campy, colorful detective, to an arrogant, silly Lego cartoon. All of those interpretations are equally Batman.
And writes have picked up on Batman’s generally pro-rich and pro-establishment themes before and twisted them. Frank Millar famously has Batman terrorize rich mobsters and business elites of Gotham during a dinner party telling them their time has ended. Scott Synder and Greg Capullo created ‘the Court of Owls’. A network of oligarchs who controlled Gotham from the shadows before Batman showed up. He then works to overthrow them and restore Gotham to the people.
Bruce Wayne himself is presented as being a businessman in name only. He’s never interested in wealth for himself, but rather as a tool to help the disenfranchised. Multiple Batman stories show him either ignoring his family’s business altogether or creating international charities, building orphanages or schools. He’s presented as the type of billionaire we all hope the wealthy really are.
And yet to me the answer to what should be down with Batman post-2016 has already been answered. In nearly every retelling of Batman’s origins there’s always one clear fact: Batman’s parents Maratha and Thomas Wayne are saints. In Batman Begins for example, they are the only good people with power in the whole city. Their charity even goes so far as to thwart Ra’s al Ghul’s plans to destroy the city.
This always struck me as odd. How do the Waynes become so central to Gotham while at the same time keeping themselves clean from the corruption that seeps into every part of the city? In telltale’s retelling they don’t.
In the Telltale’s ‘Batman’ game, Bruce is forced to revisit his past and realizes that hero worship of his father blinded him to his dad’s connection to organized crime. Thomas Wayne is a ruthless businessman who gains his fortune by working with the mob and corrupt politicians; even going so far as use his medical credentials to get sane people committed to Arkham against their will. He does this to both his enemies and anyone who refuses to sell him their property.
This completely changes Batman’s struggle, rather than avenging his murdered parents he’s now trying to undo the damage that his family inflicted on the city he loves. There is guilt and confusion and the world is full of more greys than simply a fight against crime. This new moral ambiguity puts Batman’s billion dollar super power in the forefront.
As Alfred says of Batman’s parents in Episode Two of Tellatle’s game, “The truth is they were billionaires, Bruce. You don’t amass that kind of wealth without making certain moral compromises. It’s just not possible, that kind of money taints you.” Post 2016 Batman’s super power is as much a curse as it is a gift.