The Symbolism of Batman and Where We Put Our Faith

Ethan Gach

I write about comics, video games and American politics. I fear death above all things. Just below that is waking up in the morning to go to work. You can follow me on Twitter at @ethangach or at my blog, And though my opinions aren’t for hire, my virtue is.

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54 Responses

  1. North says:

    Man this is awesome, well done dude! I think you may have improved my opinion of #3 by a significant increment. I want to watch the first one then rewatch #3 again now.Report

  2. Chris says:

    I wish it felt that deep to me. What I see in the series is this: Batman, by virtue of what? childhood trauma combined with a unique and semi-mystical training high in the Himalayas? is incorruptible, despite his claims otherwise. When he’s not dressed as Batman, he’s still human, as his self-absorbed whining in the most recent movie suggests, but he’s not corruptible as Batman. Everyone else? Corruptible, but when the time comes, the good people will step forward. I don’t find this all that deep, nor do I think it’s a particularly interesting or insightful exploration of the super hero dynamic. It’s really kind of trite.

    That said, elevated trains get blown up, people get killed with pencils, and Bane has an amplifier in a strange device that prevents him from feeling constant pain, so the movies are kinda cool.Report

    • Ryan Noonan in reply to Chris says:

      I’d say Nolan presents us with a number of people who aren’t corruptible: Thomas Wayne, Jim Gordon, John Blake, Lucius Fox, Alfred, Rachel Dawes, Pat Leahy.Report

      • Chris in reply to Ryan Noonan says:

        But Gordon is corrupted. Alfred, Fox, and Dawes maybe, but Fox is basically a caricature, Alfred is something like Bruce Wayne’s conscience (not Batman’s), and Dawes is a fairly one-dimensional gratuitous female character who’s really just there to suck Bruce into the world and doesn’t really have any agency of her own (super hero movies don’t do women all that well in general). They’re either hackneyed or Rand-like almost no-dimensional characters.Report

        • Ryan Noonan in reply to Chris says:

          Gordon isn’t corrupted. He has a bad idea. I’m not sure why the movie plays it the way it does. If you want an actual weakness, it’s that.

          Anyway, this isn’t really an argument, as your position is totally unfalsifiable. I’ll pass.Report

          • Chris in reply to Ryan Noonan says:

            I’m not sure what falsifiable means in this context. If the movies are the data, I think my view of it fits the data, and if it didn’t, it would be possible to show how, wouldn’t it?

            I think Gordon was clearly corrupted by power. He may have done it for the good of the city, instead of for the good of himself, but then, how does the C.S. Lewis quote about tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims go?Report

            • DavidTC in reply to Chris says:

              I see Gordon as someone who legitimately has nowhere to go. That’s the entire point of his speech to Blake.

              His lie turned Dent into a hero, which wasn’t his intent. Remember, Dent tried to kill his son, so is hardly someone he’d purposefully make a hero. But there was just Dent and Batman, and one had to be the hero and one the villain, and making Dent the villain would let the Joker win.

              This lie was used to make a law, but that almost certainly wasn’t his intent, and the guilt of that eventually lead him to the point that he was ready to reveal the lie.

              Gordon seem to have no actual problem with the Dent Act itself, and does not want it repealed. As police commissoner, he certainly could stand up and say ‘We no longer need the Dent Act’ without exposing the lie. According to the mayor at the state of the movie, other people are saying it’s not needed anymore, so Gordon could join them. He hasn’t done that, so he’s fine with the law.

              I.e., he’s not planning on tearing down Dent to take down the (in his mind bad) law, he’s stopping himself from tearing down Dent _because_ that might also take down the (in his mind good) law.

              Incidentally, I see some people here have apparently taken Bane’s word that the Dent Act is some sort of unfair fascist law. I should remind people that Bane is a lunatic and we have no real evidence of how the Dent Act works. When I was watching, I assume it is akin to a local version of RICO, not some sort of Gitmo where people are locked up without a trial.

              Bane actually says they didn’t have _hearings_, which, even if it’s not a lie, doesn’t mean they don’t have trials. Maybe the judges at the preliminary hearings were corrupt, so the Dent Act basically just constantly keeps grand juries on hand to indict people instead. A strange and unwieldy system, but entirely constitutional. Or maybe he meant they didn’t have parole hearings. Or maybe they also use that prison to hold people before trial. (That’s what they do with Selina.)

              Or maybe, as I pointed out, he was just crazy and making things up.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

          Dawes is a fairly one-dimensional gratuitous female character who’s really just there to suck Bruce into the world and doesn’t really have any agency of her own

          She broke up with Bruce in order to marry Dent.Report

          • Chris in reply to Jaybird says:

            True, and yet her function as a character remained the same.Report

            • Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

              I don’t know. She was one of the uncorrupt DAs, she had her own internal life, she had her own moral compass, and was more loyal to it than to, say, her childhood friend whose parents (whom she loved) were murdered.Report

              • Chris in reply to Jaybird says:

                Right. I should add that she also served to connect Harvey Dent to Batman.

                Her own moral compass said “Follow the law.” She couldn’t be with Bruce because he couldn’t be all with her, since he was also Batman. I don’t think any of this adds any depth. She’s a string.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

                I’m going through the entire cast from all of the various movies and I’m not seeing that many characters, male or female, that aren’t merely “strings”, as you say.

                Falcone, maybe. Joker, maybe. Talia, maybe. Selina, maybe.

                This is one of those places where good guys, by virtue of being good guys, tend to be boring. It’s the baddies that have the illusion of dimensionality.Report

              • Chris in reply to Jaybird says:

                I was talking about Dawes because someone else brought her up.

                The characters who are really characters at all, in the movie, are Alfred, Gordon, the three arch-villains, Talia, Selina, Robin (I forget what they call him through most of the movie; I kept thinking during his scenes that Third Rock from the Sun was hilarious), and of course Wayne/Batman.Report

              • Chris in reply to Chris says:

                And Dent, sorry.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

                By virtue of what? Internal lives? Their ability to choose one thing over another following an internal conflict involving one of the other characters?

                (And, seriously, I don’t see why Wayne/Batman would make the list other than his protagonism. He’s a reaction who belongs in Arkham but merely happens to be useful.)Report

              • Chris in reply to Chris says:

                I actually think the first movie is as much about Bruce, Batman, and duality. This plays a role in both of the subsequent movies as well: he wants to not be Batman so he can be with the girl, and then he’s done being Batman because the girl is dead.

                And I mean those are the characters who have agency, who affect the world. Rachel affects it, if at all, by affecting Batman and Dent. She’s a feature of the world that they interact with. So she doesn’t really count. I think this is a shame, of course. It would have made much more sense, from the narrative that doesn’t have to do with Bruce/Batman’s internal conflicts, to have her, not Dent, be the symbol. This is only part of why I thought the whole Dent becomes Two Face thing was pretty stupid.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

                Had Nolan known just a bit more about the future than he did, he would have killed the Joker and saved Harvey and had Two-Face been the villain in the missing third movie.

                Woulda coulda shoulda.Report

              • Chris in reply to Chris says:

                Not being a fan of the comic books, or of comic books in general, I can’t speak to the necessity of including Two Face in the series from that perspective. Looking at the movies alone, though, I thought it was superfluous at best. It felt a lot like someone saying, “We could have a female character [Dawes] play an integral roll in the larger narrative here, but why pick a woman when we can force another male character into the story to do the job?”Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

                It’s not like there’s not some *HISTORY* with Harvey Dent being associated with the DA’s office…Report

  3. Ryan Noonan says:

    Batman is ridiculous, dresses in a cape and cowl, and swears an oath that only a comic book character could hope to maintain: to never shoot a gun or kill his adversaries.

    The thing that maybe bothers me the most about this movie is the way Bane’s ending undermines this idea.Report

  4. Ryan Noonan says:

    Also, just because I think there hasn’t been enough commentary about it, I think it’s downright fascinating that Chris Nolan made a movie about Batman in which Batman doesn’t even really have a central role. The way the trilogy moves from man (Batman Begins) to symbol (The Dark Knight) to myth (The Dark Knight Rises) is totally excellent.Report

  5. Jaybird says:

    The weird thing is that while the possibility of Ra’s al Ghul’s plan might have worked (they’ve destroyed plenty of cities before, after all, “restored balance” and whatnot), I don’t know that Bane’s plan would have worked to accomplish the same end.

    Sure, it would have destroyed the city… but it feels like “the day after” would have been significantly different in the two cases to the point where The Demon’s plan would have worked while The Devil’s plan wouldn’t have.

    If you know what I mean.Report

    • North in reply to Jaybird says:

      Yes. FEMA, hordes of contractors swarming the site, politicians declaring that they will erase this wound from the nation. Gotham would have risen over the blast crater like Hiroshima or Nagasaki.Report

    • Jason M. in reply to Jaybird says:

      The “League of Shadows” is the weakest aspect of both #1 and #3. The Joker succeeds as a symbol precisely because we know there really are “people who just want to watch the world burn”. Assuming Ra’s Super Ninja Club supposed to represent something more profound than a secret society from a Dan Brown novel, I don’t know what the analogue is.Report

    • Chris in reply to Jaybird says:

      I do think one of the saving graces of the 3rd movie (I’m obviously not as much of a fan as some people here) is that, in the end, it wasn’t about the League of Shadows it all, but about a psychopathic villain (not Bane, but the one who controls Bane) just wanting to blow up a city and hurt a lot of people, not simply, but at least partly, to hurt Batman. In the end, Batman becomes the worst thing for the city: the reason the League of Shadows, which is now just Bane and his controller, cares about it at all anymore.Report

  6. James Hanley says:

    I haven’t seen the movie yet, but if I read you right, the message is “put your faith in humans or symbols, but not institutions?”

    Intriguingly, that’s as un-Madisonian as a message can get.Report

    • I’d say that’s almost exactly the wrong message. Setting up Harvey Dent as the thing to put one’s faith into misfires spectacularly.

      People have a really hard time disentangling ideas about what individuals can do/should do/are for and the fact that superhero stories talk about ideas using archetypes. It leads to a lot of people who fundamentally misunderstood what this movie was about.Report

    • Ethan Gach in reply to James Hanley says:

      It probably got muddled in the hundreds of words too many that I used.

      I take the movie as saying that you need all of those things working in concert, and for anyone or two of them to rise up when the other falthers.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Ethan Gach says:


        Sorry, I was posting below when you wrote this. Please ignore my redacted version of your post therein. You’ve clarified your thoughts for me quite well with this comment. Thanks.Report

  7. James Hanley says:

    A redacted selection from Ethan’s post:

    In Batman Begins, Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne notes that as a symbol he will be incorruptible…. The power struggles which envelop Gotham result from an intricate mixture of symbols and individuals; structures and institutions… Batman convinces Gordon that the Dark Knight must take the fall, and be blamed for Dent’s murders, so that the former DA can remain the unblemished White Knight that Gotham supposedly “needs.”…Yet this proves to be a mistake. Because ultimately, people are corruptible, as are the institutions and social structures that we put in place. … Institutions cannot save Gotham; they are inadequate and easily perverted. Neither can virtuously rich and powerful individuals; for every Bruce Wayne there is a vulture capitalist like Roland Daggett waiting in the wings. And though the symbol of Batman remains one of hope, it has power only equal to those who choose to put their faith in it…

    That reads a lot to me like symbols are our only hope, albeit only for those who choose to have faith in the symbol. Have I read Ethan wrong, or do you and he interpret the movie different?

    Either way’s ok, and I’m not criticizing anyone’s interpretation (not having seen the movie). I was just struck by what seemed–at least superficially–to be a very anti-Madisonian message. As a spin-off, it makes me wonder how much of our pop culture is implicitly anti-Madisonian (even if TDKR isn’t), in that it often emphasized placing our hope in individuals, perhaps even mere symbols, rather than in institutions. Doesn’t almost every superhero movie do so?Report

    • It’s possible Ethan and I interpret the movie differently. I’m sure that we do on any number of dimensions.

      My take on the movie – and the entire series – is that what we need is for good men (and women) to create institutions that can withstand the external forces that would tear them down. In the first movie, Gotham is failing because its institutions are corrupt. The League wants to tear it down and start over, but Bruce Wayne believes he can inspire Gotham to fix itself (note that at no point does he ever claim that he can fix Gotham). In the second movie, he attempts to hand off the mantle of “symbol of hope” to a citizen (Dent), and it doesn’t work. Dent is an individual, and individuals can fail. But, in an effort to make this loss not be for nothing, he takes the fall for Dent and lets the city use Dent’s symbol to save itself. This works for a time, but it’s unsustainable, because the thing that matters isn’t individuals or symbols, it’s institutions. Good people may have to create and defend those, but then they have to walk away and let them stand on their own.

      That last sentence, in particular, seems pretty Madisonian to me.

      Also, that last question you ask is what I was getting at with my bit about “disentangling”. Superheroes are symbols, in a sense, but they symbolize things about us. Superman, for instance, isn’t really an all-powerful alien here to save us from disasters. He’s an all-powerful alien whose fervent desire to be one of us makes him better at it than we are. To the extent that he’s a symbol, he’s a symbol of what humanity must try to be. He operationalizes our institutions and our values to show us how important they are.

      At least that’s my take.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Ryan Noonan says:

        Not only the sentence you note, but the first two sentences of your second paragraph are very Madisonian.

        I guess I’m going to have to go see the movie now, so I can settle this vicious debate between you and Ethan.Report

      • Chris in reply to Ryan Noonan says:

        I don’t see this either. In the first movie, the city is caving in on itself as a result of the decay of its moral foundation, and Batman becomes a symbol for the city to rally around, but who saves the city from immediate danger himself. This is somewhat nonsensical, but it’s the message of the first movie. In the second movie, Batman feels like there is a person who can replace him as a symbol, Gotham’s white knight, but that person turns out to be fallible (unlike Batman), and so he only works as myth, not as reality: so in the end, Batman passes on the city to an institution (the government, the police), with the myth of Dent as its symbol. Again, this doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s the message. In the third movie, the institution is the problem, and Gotham another perfect symbol (particularly when Dent’s myth is busted). So Batman rises. And he becomes the enduring symbol, in the wake of the failure of individual, institution, and symbols built on individuals (Dent), when he “dies” in the explosion and they build a statue to him. This is also kind of nonsensical, but it’s the message.

        Anyway, I think I’ve heard all of this before, in a slightly (but only slightly) less nonsensical form.Report

        • Chris in reply to Chris says:

          I suppose we could append to the 3rd movie’s message that the people will get by even when the symbols, individuals, and institutions fail (all at once). They can’t stop an evil villain bent on mindless destruction who happens to be in possession of a nuclear bomb on their own, but they can at least survive the everyday, even without much infrastructure. It helps, however, if you keep the police trapped underground. Also, the French Revolution and the Terror, or something.Report

        • Ryan Noonan in reply to Chris says:

          Oy. In the first movie, Batman doesn’t save the city; Jim Gordon does. In the second movie, Batman’s fallibility is firmly established. He accretes too much power in the form of one person, and he has to walk away because of the corruption inherent in that.

          I can’t make you see what the movies are about if you’re determined not to, but you at least aren’t the first person who’s made the observation that Batman is a Jesus figure. I do that regularly, as does Grant Morrison.Report

          • Chris in reply to Ryan Noonan says:

            Gordon saves the city? By doing what Batman told him to do, using Batman’s equipment, while Batman does the fighting? Yeah, that’s a stretch.

            I would think it’s ironic that Batman walks away to avoid corruption, only to induce corruption in the institution that he chooses to replace him (in the person of Gordon and his purged police force), if I thought that’s really what happened. However, since Batman shows that he has the ability to avoid corruption under the most extreme conditions imaginable, that is, the trials the Joker puts him through, I find that interpretation to be silly. Or rather, if that really is what happened, I find the conclusion to the second film to be silly (and to be honest, I do, but because of Dent, not because of Batman’s choice). The dude is going to reveal himself to save people, but realizes he doesn’t have to when Dent steps in for him, then doesn’t kill Joker when he could easily have compromised his principles for pragmatic reasons (and no one would have faulted him for doing so), but doesn’t, and then he sacrifices himself for the city. It’s hard to imagine a more sinless individual outside of Jerusalem circa 32 CE.

            I do find it interesting that in this incarnation, Jesus not only has to wear an outrageous suit, but he also has to pretend to be really (if benignly) sinful for anyone to believe that he’s sinless when he puts on the mask. “Look! He dates models and drives $500,000 cars. He can’t be Batman!”

            By the way, I like that your counter is, “You’re determined not to see that I’m right, therefore I’m right.” How does that work for you in other contexts?Report

            • Ryan Noonan in reply to Chris says:

              You change the terms of the debate – “All the characters are corruptible!” “Here’s a list of ones that aren’t.” “Those aren’t real characters!” – and freely alter the plot to suit your argument. I’m not saying I’m right because you’re determined not to see it; I’m just saying you’re determined not to see the movie you actually saw.

              Also, it’s Lucius Fox’s equipment. But he’s not a real character, right?Report

              • Chris in reply to Ryan Noonan says:

                Actually, I said they were all corruptible. The only one I will concede is Dawes, and I do argue that she wasn’t really a character, and that there was therefore nothing to corrupt, but yeah, she wasn’t corruptible. I’d argue that this is because if she were, Bruce/Batman would have no reason to engage with the world, but you’re determined not to see that I’m right (see how that works?).

                The others, as I pointed out with Gordon, were corrupted.

                And no, Fox isn’t a character at all. He gets very little screen time, and his purpose is essentially Q’s: “Hey, look at this new gadget. Don’t break it you reckless guy, you.” That they gave him some role in the company, particularly in the first movie, was the only thing saving them from copyright infringement.Report

              • Ethan Gach in reply to Ryan Noonan says:

                I’ll say that just because they don’t get corrupted in the movies doesn’t mean they aren’t corruptible.

                You can throw the ring into Mt. Doom once, doesn’t mean you’ll do it again. So for instance, Fox using the sonar only once (in The Dark Knight) doesn’t mean that he wouldn’t be lured into making other mistakes (like perhaps, turning on the fusion reactor).Report

              • Chris in reply to Ethan Gach says:

                I’d forgotten about the sonar, but that’s a good point. I think Fox might have been uncorruptible, but how would we know? I mean, in what situations was he put for us to see whether he would be, other than the sonar? I mean, it’s not as if he wasn’t the point man for the company’s secret military projects. That may not be corruption, but it’s shadiness.Report

            • Ryan Noonan in reply to Chris says:

              Also also, your third paragraph makes it clear that your actual problem is with the character of Batman, not the movie Chris Nolan made. If your response to a superhero movie includes the phrase “outrageous suit”, I think it’s safe to say you’re not really arguing in good faith.Report

        • Johanna in reply to Chris says:


          in the end, Batman passes on the city to an institution (the government, the police), with the myth of Dent as its symbol. Again, this doesn’t make a lot of sense

          Actually, I think it does. Think of the symbolic myths we Americans have about our founders. Many other cultures/ countris, too. They may be tapping into a pretty powerful archetype with that approach.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Ryan Noonan says:

        Superman, for instance, isn’t really an all-powerful alien here to save us from disasters. He’s an all-powerful alien whose fervent desire to be one of us makes him better at it than we are. To the extent that he’s a symbol, he’s a symbol of what humanity must try to be. He operationalizes our institutions and our values to show us how important they are.

        When Clark starts calling himself “Kal-El”, you know that the itshay will be hitting the anfay very ortlyshay.

        The idea that Clark Kent is the dominant personality… a good Methodist from Kansas… and putting this everyman in a situation where he’s faster than a tall building, etc, is what makes for the most compelling Superman stories. If we’re just talking about the most powerful person on the planet, he’s a supporting character for everyone else to resent *AT BEST*.Report

  8. Chris says:

    By the way, one thing I think Nolan did well in this movie was to minimize Batman, not only by not giving him a hell of a lot of screen time, but also by making him much more human when he was on the screen: he was smaller than Bane, he wasn’t disappearing and reappearing from the shadows like some quasi-supernatural being, and he was getting his ass royally kicked and even defeated. Every time I saw him in this film, I thought, “Wow, he looks small.” That was a nice touch.Report

  9. Erik Kain says:

    This is terrific stuff, Ethan.Report

  10. Katherine says:

    I didn’t get the same message from the film at all, and to some degree am wondering whether you have taken more from the movie than Chris Nolan put into it.

    To me its politics and ideology were fairly unsubtle and unpleasant. The people of Gotham buy into Bane’s “revolution”. The trial scenes, and the takeover of rich people’s homes, are clearly intended to evoke the French Revolution and communist redistribution. We are told that the non-rich of Gotham are suffering, but we are never shown it meaningfully aside from a couple scenes at the orphanage. The “regular people” turn out to be the villain’s minions, or inactive bystanders; the heroes are the wealthy and the police. The scene with the cops out en masse in their uniforms, like some non-violent resistance march, felt ridiculous; this is an institution whose people are, in reality, cowardly enough to see non-violent resistance as a cause or excuse to use pepper spray and tasters, not as a tactic to be respected.

    I didn’t wholly dislike the movie; I actually enjoyed the characterization of Bruce/Batman, and was very pleased with how it showed his psychological journey and how it resolved his story. But I disliked its politics, and I disliked its pessimistic (or even hostile) view of regular people.Report

  11. tristan eldritch says:

    “The people of Gotham buy into Bane’s “revolution”. The trial scenes, and the takeover of rich people’s homes, are clearly intended to evoke the French Revolution and communist redistribution. We are told that the non-rich of Gotham are suffering, but we are never shown it meaningfully aside from a couple scenes at the orphanage. The “regular people” turn out to be the villain’s minions, or inactive bystanders; the heroes are the wealthy and the police.”

    Can’t see how you can interpret it any other way. Very disappointing message to be putting out in 2012, the year of the LIBOR scandal, and so on, and on.Report