Pat Gunn (dachte) wrote,
Pat Gunn

Batmanian Justice

I've read a lot of reviews, both from the various shades of socialist press (anarcho- and state-) and from general liberal sources, on the most recent Batman movie; there's a general impression that it jabs at the Occupy movement. Not having seen it, I only have a very fuzzy notion of the plot (and it doesn't seem to really make sense given the established features of the characters involved, but the Batman series has not been known for a anything but a dilute canon).

Aside from the film, what do we know about the ideas of justice in the (modern) Batman franchise? The basic idea of Batman is that a rich, abnormally fit, mentally-ill man uses gadgets to fight a mix of petty crime and other mentally-ill villains, set in a grittier version of New York called Gotham (in the same continuity that also has a cleaner version of New York called Metropolis; don't ask how that works). In that continuity, Gotham has too much corruption, too little competence and firepower, and the criminals and mentally-ill too much strength for law enforcement to function (making it a little like CamdenNJ, perhaps), causing it to range from a no-mans-land to a struggling city. He does this while also running a very large business inherited from his parents, using his income to fund those gadgets.

As a vigilante, he performs a kind of law enforcement, often delivering the people he fights to police (or at least apprehending and binding them for later discovery). He often breaks laws in the course of this, threatening and torturing people for information, trespassing, breaking privacy laws, hacking computers, and so on. However, while he breaks the letter of the law (and operates without a lot of the constraints that most western nations put in place to keep things civilised, little of what he does could be considered revolutionary; his actions are not at cross-ends with the existing social order so much as a mostly-congruent independent push. A modern functional state would not permit such acts because states (try to) function as monopolies on (legitimate) use of force. It is rare that his actions are not aimed at ends that are substantially the same as what Gotham's institutions, were they functioning as intended, would produce.

I would not be surprised, for both in-universe and out-of-universe reasons, to see Batman not portrayed as a hero of the people. First, as a rich man whose status is primarily inherited, his ethics are suitable for his role in society, meaning they affirm and support people like him and protect his unearned power. It is rare that the very wealthy consider deep fixes to the ills of the system that provides them the throne; their contribution to society most easily takes the form of showy largesse that emphasises their status (charity auctions, etc) rather than quiet fulfillment of duty to one's fellow humans. Second, as a character, he's written for a broad audience, including particularly suburban parts of the US, home to those who are already pretty well off and dream of being very well off. A disappointingly limited notion of justice comes with the territory.

The idea of heroes is itself fairly limited; while one person can occasionally make a big difference alone, most of the advancement in society has happened through either political leaders or through changing mores of masses of people. Heroes are escapism because real progress is difficult; difficult to do, difficult to think about. Rather than real investigation of societal issues, causes of crime, social development, and questioning of economic order, we're given a simplified world where brute force is all that's needed to fix things. I contend that Batman's justice is inferiour, both within its own logic (refusing to kill people who have repeatedly killed others and instead knowingly delivering them to institutions that will let them escape again) and in its shortsightedness (applying band-aid fixes to a social order so badly broken rather than fixing it).

Tags: philosophy

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