The backlash against The Dark Knight Rises has begun.
And it’s not because the conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy is a disappointing and often-disjointed mess that skips from one plot point to the next like a tweaker reading the CliffsNotes to War and Peace out loud to room full of kindergarteners hopped up on Adderall juice boxes and crystal meth Go-Gurt. Nope.
Evidently the problem with The Dark Knight Rises is that Batman is an Ayn Randian douche bag, or at least that’s what Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi has to say. Taibbi writes:
The film doesn’t disappoint, despite its “message,” which one could almost describe as a Hitlerian whack-off fantasy about an unfairly maligned billionaire who sneaks out at night in bondage masks and Kevlar underpants and uses secret military technology to beat the living shit out of the Occupy movement. Most of the “messaging” in this direction is so idiotic that it goes way over the edge into unintentional comedy — like when Bruce Wayne loses his money and discovers the true meaning of poverty (he answers his own doorbell), or when Batman Begins villan Cillan Murphy appears in a cameo to run the neo-Soviet show trials that naturally begin as soon as our billionaire protector is expelled from Gotham.
[Batman]’s a brooding, self-serious douche who lives in a mansion, drives a Lamborghini, and acts like he can’t even imagine wanting to get laid unless it somehow helps him fulfill his mission of protecting Gotham from its lurking proletarian community…
What depresses the Batman is us: our decadence, our disobedience, our refusal to appreciate and treasure the gifts of civilization given to us by the noblesse oblige types like his father. We suck so much that when Rises starts, Batman is in the eighth year of a self-imposed Atlas Shrugged-ian strike, refusing to leave his mansion until we stop blaming him for all of our problems.
Now, there’s little use in ignoring the most obvious gripe Taibbi has with the character of Batman: Bruce Wayne is one rich motherfucker.
Of course, Wayne is not the first fictional vigilante who lives in a stately mansion, has a team of servants at his beck and call, and bounces from one lavish party to the next. Truth be told, Batman is simply a well-established hero type: the rakish rich bastard who is actually the virtuous champion of the poor. You know the kind — Robin Hood, the Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro.
The vast resources of money and property at Wayne’s expense highlight what is the most significant characteristic of Batman’s brand of heroics. Unlike his plebeian comic book counterparts, Superman and Spider-Man, the Dark Knight is human. Neither the Man of Steel nor Spidey require wealth to fight the good fight. They are armies of one. They are walking, talking weapons of mass destruction, capable of lifting cars with ease and dodging anything that an average Joe Chill might fire their way — and in the case of Superman, he doesn’t even have to budge an inch. When it comes to Batman, his wealth is simply a way for the implausible to be plausible.
Of course, Taibbi isn’t the only writer of note decrying Batman’s more patrician tendencies. Grant Morrison, the author of such celebrated comics as Arkham Asylum, The Invisibles, and the revamped Justice League of America, has also bashed the Bat for Bruce Wayne’s upper-class background, in part as a way to argue that Superman is a comic-book Woody Guthrie. In Supergods, Morrison writes:
Superman made his position plain: He was a hero of the people. The original Superman was a bold humanist response to Depression-era fears of runaway scientific advances and soulless industrialism. We would see this early incarnation wrestling giant trains to a standstill, overturning tanks, or bench-pressing construction cranes. Superman rewrote folk hero John Henry’s brave, futile battle with the steam hammer to have a happy ending. He made explicit the fantasies of power and agency that kept the little fellow trudging along toward another sunset fade-out. He was Charlie’s tramp character, with the same burning hatred of injustice and bullies, but instead of guile and charm, Superman had the strength of 50 men, and nothing could hurt him. If the dystopian nightmare visions of the age foresaw a dehumanized, mechanical world, Superman offered another possibility: an image of a fiercely human tomorrow that delivered the spectacle of triumphant individualism exercising its sovereignty over the implacable forces of industrial oppression. It’s not a surprise that he was a big hit with the oppressed. He was as resolutely lowbrow, as pro-poor, as any savior born in a pigsty.
Superman began as a socialist, but Batman was the ultimate capitalist here, which may help explain his current popularity and Superman’s relative loss of significance. Batman was a wish-fulfillment figure as both filthy-rich Bruce Wayne and his swashbuckling alter ego. He was a millionaire who vented his childlike fury on the criminal classes of the lower orders. He was the defender of privilege and hierarchy. In a world where wealth and celebrity are the measures of accomplishment, it’s no surprise that the most popular superhero characters today — Batman and Iron Man — are both handsome tycoons. The socialist and socialite, the only thing Superman and Batman could agree on was that killing was wrong.
While it would have been sufficient for Morrison to argue his case that Batman is a Randian dill weed if he had simply presented the above information, that was not enough for the comic book author. Instead, he attacks the very creation of Batman, proclaiming that the Dark Knight himself was birthed out of a ruthless capitalistic cash grab while Superman emerged from the ether as pure and unsullied as the Bibical savior Morrison compares him to.
[Batman creator Bob] Kane’s cold, commercial intelligence was all over Batman from the start. Whereas Superman felt like the happy result of trial, error, and patient refinement, Batman was clearly the product of applied craft, cleverly but rapidly assembled from an assortment of pop culture debris that together transcended the sum of its parts. His appearance was based on a number of sources, including the lead character from a 1930 silent film entitled The Bat Whispers (the resemblence is slight, but the idea of the bestial alter ego is there); Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches for an “ornithopter” flying machine, its design based on the wings of a bat; and 1920’s The Mark of Zorro, starring Douglas Fairbanks [Note: The Bat Whispers was not a silent film, but 1926’s The Bat was. Both films tell the same story.] … The strip also showed the undeniable influence of the 1934 pulp character the Bat, a hooded crime fighter who paralyzed villains with a gas gun — like Batman, he was motivated to choose his particular crime-fighting guise when a bat flew in his window during one particularly intense and pivotal brooding session. Another bat character, the Black Bat — a district attorney scarred in an acid attack — appeared almost simultaneously in his own scalloped cape and black mask. The two co-existed until the early 1950s: the Black Bat in the fading pulps, and Batman in the comics. There was very little about Batman that could not be traced directly back to some recent predecessor….”
The author of Arkham Asylum adds:
His villainous opponents, who would proliferate during the life of the strip, were, if anything, even less original; introduced in the first issue of Batman’s own title in spring 1940, the Joker’s appearance was a straight lift from Conrad Veidt’s 1928 silent film The Man Who Laughs — to see the famous pictures of Veidt in the role is to wonder how they got away with it … Nineteen forty-two’s Two-Face, his features half-erased by an acid attack (sound familiar?), literalized the symbolic image of warring personalities on the movie poster for Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in which Spenser Tracy’s 1941 Oscar-winning mug was split in two halves — one handsome, the other demonic and deformed.
Compelling, yes. Unfortunately, Morrison is only telling half the story, and in doing lets his political bias discredit his argument. According to Larry Tye, the author of Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero, the Man of Steel’s origin is equally a product of piecemeal plagiarism. Tye writes:
There was no question that Superman built on what came before. He was as strong as Samson, as fast as Hermes, and as brain-bendingly smart as Micromegas. Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and Rudolph Valentino were his model swashbucklers. Popeye and Tarzan showed him how to be a strongman. Whom better to look to for guidance on foppish dual identities than the Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro? The Shadow offered up an alter ego named Kent and a female sidekick named Lane. [Superman’s creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster] made no secret of any of their inspirations…
When does influence become borrowing and borrowing become plagiarism? Doc Savage lent Superman some of his best stuff. In less heroic settings, Doc used his formal first name, Clark, a nod to film star Clark Gable. Superman picked the same name with the same nod to the King of Hollywood. Doc had superhuman strength and a moral compass that compelled him never to kill an enemy unless there was no other way; so would Superman. Doc’s nickname was the Man of Bronze; Superman’s the Man of Steel. [Note: Both Doc Savage and Superman often retreated to their respective Arctic hideouts which they both called The Fortress of Solitude.]
However, Doc Savage wasn’t the only pulp hero that Siegel and Shuster apparently lifted heavily from. Hugo Danner, the protagonist of the 1930 novel Gladiator, was also a major inspiration. Tye writes:
The case for a connection with Philip Wyle’s Hugo Danner was even stronger. Hugo hurdled across rivers, bounded into the air, raised a cannon skyward with one hand, and lifted an automobile by its bumper … How did Hugo get to be so strong? “Did you ever watch an ant carry many times its weight? Or see a grasshopper jump 50 times its length? Professor Danner asked his son [Hugo], invoking the precise natural principles — even the very same insects — Jerry would to explain Superman’s prowess…
But was superhuman Hugo Danner actually Superman? Wylie thought so. In their first two years of writing and drawing the character, Jerry and Joe “used dialogue and scenes from Gladiator,” its author wrote a colleague in 1970. “I even consulted my lawyer to see if I ought not to sue for plagiarism. He agreed I’d possibly win but found the ‘the creators’ of Superman were two young kids getting $25 a week apiece, only, and that a corporation owned the strip so recovery of damages would be costly, long, difficult, and maybe fail owing to the legal set-up.”
Now, we have to ask ourselves, exactly how did Tye apparently come across this information and Morrison didn’t? Is it because Tye was simply a better researcher, with a better grasp of the pulp heroes of the day and the very origins of the comic world’s two most important characters? That’s doubtful considering the amount of research that Morrison put into Batman and his origins. The most likely scenario is that Morrison hid Superman’s equally calculated birth in order to prove his point: Batman is a capitalist pig and the Man of Steel is a socialist hero of the working class. Rubbish.
Of course, the tragedy here is that Morrison never had to be deceitful in order to make this point. In many ways, his argument is irrefutable. The silver-spoon-fed Bruce Wayne is a proud member of the 1 percent while Clark Kent is a Kansas farm boy Tom Joad with X-ray vision and super-strength. Kent is one of us, and Wayne is one of our overlords.
However, when it all comes down to it, no superhero is truly a man of the people, as Morrison proclaims and Taibbi hints at later in his essay. (That essay is not currently online.) Their creators surely envisioned them as our protectors, but exactly how effective is perching on top of a skyscrapper waiting for a mugger to pounce on his prey or battling a super-powered supervillan in the heart of the city? Truth be told, the former case is a sadistic fetish and the latter an act of terrorism.
Batman may be a Wall Street fat cat and Superman may be a hero of the working class, but more importantly, they are manifestations of our false perception of the dangers that humans face on a daily basis. As frightening as an armed robbery or a mugging may be, the traditional criminal, the very individual that nearly all superheroes put on the mask and tights to fight, rarely plays a role in our lives. But the fear of being mugged or robbed so frightens us that we have created an entire genre of pop culture dedicated to it.
If Batman and Superman were truly heroes, they’d dedicate themselves to thwarting the crimes that go on behind closed doors — crimes like spousal abuse and child molestation — and the true dangers out on the streets — drunk drivers, texters, and reckless assholes. More importantly, they’d make sure that the hungry are fed, the homeless have shelter, and the downtrodden are given a helping hand. They have the resources and power to do these things, but they don’t. Instead, they sit and wait for a random act of violence to occur down some darkened alley, and then they strike. That may make for more exciting reading, but it certainly isn’t heroic.