Is Batman a Fascist?

Alex M. Parker

Alex M. Parker

Alex Parker is a policy writer in Washington, D.C. with 15 years of journalism experience.

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32 Responses

  1. I really liked this essay. Thanks for writing it. I’ve seen Dark Knight only once and that was about when it came out,” but your synopsis and analysis rings basically to how I remember interpreting it.

    *I’ve never seen Rises and I’ve seen Batman Begins several times.Report

  2. Avatar Jaybird says:

    “I am using the truth, Master Wayne. Maybe it’s time we all stop trying to outsmart the truth and let it have its day.”

    This is, I think, the core argument. One of the things that I think is interesting about the Joker in the movie (other than the fact that he isn’t crazy) is this:

    Can you name the lines where you’re pretty sure he wasn’t lying?

    Or even “lying” might be the wrong word. The lines where you’re pretty sure that he’s expressing thoughts that he’s having rather than manipulating the person to whom he’s saying them?

    I mean, the movie is full of people having real conversations with each other.

    I don’t know that the Joker had one. (There are arguments that he did, of course… but a lot of the lines he said were contradicted by other lines he said in other scenes.)

    Alfred’s line about letting the truth finally have its day was a great line because the movies were all full of people lying for very important reasons. The good guys, even. And it always made things worse.Report

    • Avatar Pinky in reply to Jaybird says:

      That’s part of why I didn’t find The Joker to be a particularly compelling character. Well-represented by Ledger, to be sure, but actually interesting? I think The Scarecrow was my favorite villain of the three movies, with Two-Face being my second choice. The Joker is kind of like the shark in Jaws: terrifying as a concept, but not fleshed-out because he’s beyond motives.Report

      • Avatar DavidTC in reply to Pinky says:

        Exactly. And in the Nolan movies, they have to have us totally ignore the Joker is being someone he shouldn’t be.

        As was pointed out on the Cracked video about this, the Joker’s plan in that movie is not only completely insane in the amount of detail it would require, but requires knowledge and timing he couldn’t possibly do. The Joker’s plan is, literally, impossibly detailed. But…look, villains can do that in movies.

        What they can’t do is do that and _at the same time_ be a sort of personification of chaos and claim they don’t have a plan! Which the movie also tries to make Joker out of to be…or, at least, I _think_ it does? It might be trying to tell us he’s lying about that? Who even knows?

        Or, to put it bluntly: If he’s actually a nihilist, why does he have a huge and complicated plan to show people the truth about things and change how they think? Why does he care?

        Jaybird is right, there’s a difference between ‘unreliable information about a character’, and ‘literally no information about a character’, and the Joker, not just in the Nolan movies, but everywhere, has never had any real information about him, or his motives, or literally anything, so he doesn’t work particularly well as a solo antagonist. Especially when they don’t give us anyone for him to play off of or that could possibly know his actual plans. (There’s a reason the DCAU gave us Harley for that.) Without that, he’s just a random violent guy who says a bunch of gibberish we can’t possibly believe.Report

        • Avatar Pinky in reply to DavidTC says:

          I remember reading Camus, and noticing how much effort he put into building situational irony. He uses architectural precision. He puts each piece in place, just to put the last piece in the wrong place and declare that life is meaningless. But if you can’t even create a meaningless world without a blueprint, doesn’t that undermine the whole message?Report

        • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to DavidTC says:

          Nolan depicts the Joker as some sort of mythological force, a malacious trickster demon from nowhere. Ledger portrays this well but you still wonder why the hell the Joker is doing what he is doing. As a sort of overly psychopathic criminal with a real sick and twisted sense of humor, the Joker has motivation. He wants to cause chaos and pain, he is manic. Ledger’s joker was a way too in control of his emotions to be a chaos agent. You didn’t get any indication he derived pleasure from his actions like other Jokers.Report

          • Avatar DavidTC in reply to LeeEsq says:

            I really think that movie would have worked better with the Joker as a plot derailer. Like, there was some actual other villain plan going on, perhaps even someone working with the Joker, but the Joker interrupts the plan halfway through and causes chaos.

            Granted, how Two-Face would fit into that is unknown.

            I know they really wanted the Joker to try his ‘Everyone can go crazy if they have a bad enough day’ plan, which is indeed ripped from ‘A Death in the Family’, except the movie targetted it at Dent instead of Gordon. But the thing is…that’s not really Two Face’s origin. It’s not a particular _bad_ origin for him (He sorta _did_ have a bad day and go crazy.), but he doesn’t need it, Harvey Dent already had disassociative identity disorder, and ‘Big Bad Harv’ was already inside him waiting to become Two-Face.

            If I had to rewrite the movie, I’d flip it around. Instead of making Joker part of Two-Face’s origin, I’d make Two-Face part of Joker’s origin. Not Joker’s actual ‘origin story’, we don’t need to see that again and I’m glad the movie didn’t bother, but I’d start with a slightly-mentally-ill Joker who is a mostly reasonable criminal. Rather like he’s _pretending_ to be at the start of the movie. (Right? I haven’t seen it in a bit.) Give him actual amnesia or something, with some faint memories of a normal life, a family he might have had, before he was fished out of a pool of chemicals by the police. But no one can ever identify him, he’s not even sure if he was actually a criminal or just someone Batman _said_ was breaking into Ace Chemicals.

            And have him as the strategist for some big underworld plan to basically seize control of the city, for one of the major players in Gotham. (A realistic crime-boss Penguin, or Falcone, or someone.) At least they think so, he’s actually going to stab them in the back and take over himself. This plot includes exposing Batman’s identity as act one. And Dent steps forward as Batman, they try to kill him, they maim him instead, and we get Two-Face for act two.

            Joker looks at Harvey Dent snapping, and figures, hey, maybe that’s what happened to him. Maybe it can happen to anyone. And at that point, he totally derails the previous conspiracy plot, and we get mayhem for act three. His plan stops being ‘Seize control of the city for someone else and then stab them in the back and take it for myself’, it’s ‘Show people this is all is pointless and anyone can break if they have One Bad Day, and kill a lot of people’.

            We can have thinking intricate-plan Joker _and_ agent-of-chaos nihilist Joker, if we start with the first and show his descent into the second. The second, of course, would still knows all the plans of the first, still have his hands on all the strings. So, for example, instead of holding the passengers on the boat’s hostage for monetary demands or to tie up the police or free a prisoner or whatever, like the plan was supposed to be, he’s giving them each other’s detonators and giving them morality questions. Etc, etc.

            I’m not sure who he tries to make snap in act three. I guess they could introduce Barbara Gordon (Without her being Batgirl), and make it basically A Death in the Family. Although I think it might be interesting to have Joker figure out who Batman is when he realizes it couldn’t be Dent, and go after _him_.Report

  3. Avatar atomickristin says:

    Great piece. I really liked it and I think you’ve made me understand The Dark Knight a little better than I did before. It suddenly dawns on me that the Joker dressing up the innocent hostages as bad guys and setting them up as cannon fodder was subtextual and has a lot of meaning for me here in 2018. (probably obvious, just never put all that together before)

    I wrote a little bit about these same themes in my Daredevil piece here.

  4. Avatar North says:

    Yeah batman is a tough one. He has no overt super powers so he has to use fear and violence to accomplish what other DC heroes do simply by being able to juggle tanks. His actual super powers lie in being mostly infallible which is pretty much necessary for his schtick to work. Imagine if Batman beats some person within an inch of their life only to realize he fished up and they were actually innocent? His entire MO has no mechanism for dealing with that. It’d either be the end of Batman or the beginning of Batvillain.Report

    • Avatar Pinky in reply to North says:

      You could make a strong argument that Batman is the anti-fascist opposing Superman in some stories. Even sometimes where Superman isn’t fascist, but Batman thinks he is.

      ETA: Heh. He dresses in black and bullies people he thinks are fascists. You could make an argument he’s antifa.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Pinky says:

        He’s too bright to be antifa. Also I don’t think I’ve ever seen Batman bellow “fuck capitalism” and throw a garbage can through a poor persons car window.Report

        • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to North says:

          I think Pinky meant that Batman is anti-fascist in a more 1930s sense of the word, an opponent of real actual fascism.Report

          • Avatar Pinky in reply to LeeEsq says:

            No, I was poking fun at modern antifa.Report

          • Avatar Pinky in reply to LeeEsq says:

            More than that, I guess I was questioning the premise of this article. Not everything bad is fascist. Not every use of force is necessarily bad or fascist. For that matter, not every depiction of fascism is fascist. Magneto wanted the genetically superior to dominate – would you call X-Men fascist?

            The recent Inhumans show was fascist. The innately superior had the right to rule, and those without powers had to work in the mines, and this was clearly depicted favorably. The good guys were the royalty. The bad guy had no powers, and he was explicitly the bad guy because he was trying to overthrow the ruling family and liberate the powerless. There may have been some introspection planned in the future, but we never got there.Report

            • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to Pinky says:

              You touch on something I’ve been thinking for a while.

              Our political dialogue is made up terms and ideas that are mostly particular to the 20th century struggles. “Fascism” didn’t really exist as a popular term before the 1920s. “Socialism” didn’t exist before the 1850s.

              But the ideas of rule by strongmen, and republican power sharing have been around since the ancient times.
              I don’t think it works to shoehorn all contemporary events and actions into the 20th century terms.

              Like we see with contemporary Russia and China, tyranny can exist wholly independent of whatever economic structure exists.Report

              • Avatar Pinky in reply to Chip Daniels says:

                Yes. It’s my theory that there wasn’t a word for “fascism” before the early 20th century for the same reason that fish don’t have a word for “water”. Everyone expects to be ruled by powerful people who seek to increase their power and manipulate the system to help their own group. About a hundred years ago, when everyone was feeling sciency, they tried to build a theory to promote it. (It’s telling that no one can agree which governments should bear the label.) But except for a few rare instances, everyone from the Han to the House of York played according to the same rulebook.Report

            • Avatar DavidTC in reply to Pinky says:

              The innately superior had the right to rule, and those without powers had to work in the mines, and this was clearly depicted favorably.

              I’m pretty certain that _everyone_ in that society had powers. I’m not entirely sure whether it was a ‘regular’ hereditary monarchy or a ‘the stronger powers got to rule’ monarchy (And it was just a coincidence the child of the current monarchies had the strongest power.), but it wasn’t just the royal family that had powers. Everyone in that society was an Inhuman, everyone went through terrigenesis.

              Or, technically speaking, everyone was _born_ an Inhuman. The bad guy was born an Inhuman but the ‘power’ he got via terrigenesis was ‘stop being an Inhuman and turn into a normal human’. (Which is, as a concept, a really weird ‘superpower’.)Report

  5. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    I do think it’s a bit thick that right at the end Lucius Fox develops scruples. Like, this makes it seem as though all along he’s just been idly indulging Bruce Wayne’s heroic fantasies, only stopping when it seems like there might be uses for these gadgets that extend beyond one rich boy’s cosplay.

    Also, I get that they had to do the “heel turn” for Batman to make the cops hate him, because that’s always seemed to be a part of the better Batman stories–the idea that the cops aren’t on his side, that they consider him just as much of a problem as the weirdoes he drags into Arkham. That tension was both enabling and dangerous–if Batman isn’t just a cop in a funny outfit then he can do more, he can do all the bad things that cops aren’t supposed to do, and so he continually has to struggle with the need (or the desire) to do those things.Report

    • I think I agree, especially about your first paragraph. While I didn’t have the exact same thoughts about Lucius’s decision (I think I just accepted it as part of the film), I did think the film itself and its ending was preachy and, as you suggest, laid out everything a bit “thick.” In my opinion, Batman begins ends with the same (or very similar) message, but much more subtly and (in my opinion) more palatably.Report

  6. Avatar Chip Daniels says:

    Superhero myths have to have multiple conflicting meanings, just by their very nature.

    On one level, the childlike surface level, they are aspirational hero stories of good vanquishing evil.

    But on more reflection, the characters are actually not so admirable. The hero, whether it is Superman, Batman, or Spiderman, are passive object of fate. They didn’t build their powers or create them through hard work and sacrifice.

    The gods, or radioactive spiders, just gift them with power through no special acts of themselves.

    The Batman and Marvel stories hint at the underlying problem, which is, how would an ordinary flawed mortal react, when given godlike powers?

    But they can only hint, never follow all the way through. Imagine if Batman’s toys fail to stop a Bane or Joker from actually destroying an entire city, or worse, imagine if his vigilante actions touch off a Rwandan scale genocide.

    The Greeks at least had a tale of Phaeton who was given the opportunity to drive the sun chariot across the sky, with tragic results for both the mortals and himself.

    As for the question of the OP, they spring from the same soil as fascism, where the people are like the peasants in Greek mythology, just helpless pawns in the grand game of great men and gods.Report

    • Avatar Zac Schwartz in reply to Chip Daniels says:

      What’s interesting to me is that there seems to be a distinct contrast between rich heroes and rich villains, in that the former always inherited their wealth (Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark, Oliver Queen) and the latter are always self-made men (Lex Luthor, Wilson Fisk, Victor von Doom). Superhero comics (among other things) always seem to have a bit of a yearning for the old aristocracy.Report

      • Avatar Pinky in reply to Zac Schwartz says:

        Interesting. The only exception I can think of is Harry Osborn, but that’s complicated. Were there any good scientists in Spiderman other than Peter Parker?Report

        • Avatar North in reply to Pinky says:

          Reed Richards, Tony Stark (mostly) .Report

        • Avatar Kristin Devine in reply to Pinky says:

          Not Spiderman per se but same universe, Reed Richards, Hank McCoy are good scientists. Dr. Connors is good much of the time. Alastair Smythe is an evil scientist but inherits at least his father’s interest in science, not sure about money.

          But even though there are some exceptions this is a really interesting take. A lot of DC superheroes are even princes and princesses.Report

        • Avatar Zac Black in reply to Pinky says:

          Worth pointing out, however, that Norman Osborn, Harry’s father, is also an example of this trend: despite having been born to a wealthy industrialist, his father lost control of both his business and his fortune, and deteriorated into an abusive alcoholic. Harry went to college for chemistry and business administration, and co-founded the chemical company Oscorp with one of his professors after college, eventually re-establishing his fortune.Report

  7. Avatar George Turner says:

    Gal Gidot, Henry Cavill, Jason Mamoa need to work together to convince Ben Affleck that the voice he apparently worked up for anti-smoking throat-cancer commercials is perhaps very distracting in the Batman role. If that doesn’t have an effect, they should talk about how much better Matt Damon would do.


    • Avatar DavidTC in reply to George Turner says:

      Gal Gidot, Henry Cavill, Jason Mamoa need to work together to convince Ben Affleck that the voice he apparently worked up for anti-smoking throat-cancer commercials is perhaps very distracting in the Batman role.

      Or they can tell him that the Batman voice is only needed when intimidating other people (Or when it’s someone who often talks to Bruce Wayne socially, like Gordon.), and he doesn’t need to do it at other times, duh.

      Seriously, that’s so goofy.Report

  8. Avatar JoeSal says:

    Batman or even super hero-ism would require a social construct that lends authority to it. If no other person lends authority to the construct, then the entity is just acting on individual claims of social objectivity.

    If the social objectivity wasn’t parsed and apparent, there would be little difference between the actions of the joker, and the actions of batman.

    While that may provide food for thought, the other question i have is which tribes claims batman, and why?Report

  1. October 31, 2019

    […] underbelly of any community would loom large. But Bruce Wayne is also a libertarian at best and a fascist at worst throughout a bevy of Bat-media. Damien Walter wrote for the Guardian that in Frank Miller’s The […]Report

  2. October 31, 2019

    […] underbelly of any community would loom large. But Bruce Wayne is also a libertarian at best and a fascist at worst throughout a bevy of Bat-media. Damien Walter wrote for the Guardian that in Frank Miller’s The […]Report

  3. October 31, 2019

    […] underbelly of any community would loom large. But Bruce Wayne is also a libertarian at best and a fascist at worst throughout a bevy of Bat-media. Damien Walter wrote for the Guardian that in Frank Miller’s The […]Report