By their nature as vigilantes, acting outside or above the law, most superheroes have a troubling undercurrent of aristocratic, undemocratic, authoritarian values. Only the hero, not the police, judges, lawmakers, and average citizen, can effectively protect and improve the city they patrol, and god help anyone who gets in their way.
No one exemplifies these tendencies more than Batman, the ultimate aristocratic hero.
Batman acts with an enormous sense of entitlement. Batman just assumes he’s right in every situation. It’s his city. If he doesn’t like you, he’ll make you leave. If Batman thinks you’re guilty of a crime, he’ll put on his pointed black mask and beat the crap out of you. Laws? Civil rights? Due process? Those are for other people. Yes, the people may have elected a mayor, and may pay taxes to employ the police. Batman could work with them, but they’re all corrupt, weak, and not as good as him. (Except Gordon. Batman has generously determined that Gordon is worthy to be contacted, though he always disappears before Gordon’s done talking, just to remind Gordon who’s the bitch in this relationship.)
Batman isn’t just “the man,” Bruce Wayne is also The Man. He’s a rich, white, handsome man who comes from an old money family and is the main employer in Gotham. He owns half the property in the city. In a very real sense, Gotham belongs to him, and he inherited all of it.
True, it’s a very American version of aristocracy, based on wealth rather than divine right, but in practice it’s basically the same. The myth of aristocracy is that class is genetic, that some people are just born good enough to rule, and that this inherent goodness can be passed down from generation to generation. It’s long been established, and Grant Morrison’s recent “Return of Bruce Wayne” miniseries reaffirmed, that there has always been a Wayne in Gotham City, and that the state of the city reflects the status of the Waynes at the time. The implied message of Batman: Year One, and Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight Returns, Batman Beyond, and so on is… if the Waynes are absent from Gotham, the entire city falls apart.
This gives Batman’s origin an Arthurian “king-in-exile” element. “Banished” from Gotham by the death of his parents, Bruce Wayne returns to reclaim his throne and redeem his land. But instead of reclaiming it from usurping uncle or foreign invader, Batman must take Gotham back from a rising underclass.
Just look at who he fights. Superman (for example) fights intergalactic dictators, evil monopolists, angry generals, and dark gods, i.e. symbols of abusive authority. Batman fights psychotics, anarchists, mob bosses, the mentally ill, and environmentalists, i.e. those who would overthrow the status quo. Superman fights those who would impose their version of order on the world. Batman fights those who would unbalance the order Batman himself imposes on Gotham.
Consider the Penguin. He’s a criminal, a thug. But what really distinguishes him from other villains is his pretensions to being upper class. The tux, the monocle, the fine wine and fine women, running for mayor.... He tries to insinuate himself with actual socialites, some of whom are attracted to his air of danger, but most of whom are repulsed by his “classless” manners. And when his envy and resentment of his “betters” turns to violence, Bruce steps in to teach him his place.
And it’s not just Mr. Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot. Hugo Strange, Black Mask, Bane, and Catwoman are all villains from lower class, dirt poor backgrounds who want to be upper class, who want to be one of the rich and famous at one of Bruce’s fabulous fetes, but just can’t pull it off. (Well, Catwoman can, but Selina’s in a class all by herself.)
Even Harvey Dent, before he became Two-Face, envied and resented his friend Bruce Wayne, because Wayne had money and Harvey had to work for everything he got. And then there are the villains who have a vendetta against C.E.O.’s of powerful corporations, either for revenge (Mr. Freeze, Clayface) or out of principle (Ra’s al Ghul, Poison Ivy). There’s a class war going on in Gotham, and Batman has taken the side of the rich.
Of course, Batman doesn’t like the upper class he belongs to, either! Shallow, petty, boring, and vain, they know nothing of the pain and suffering he sees every night when he hunts killers through the slums of Gotham, every day when he closes his eyes. But does he dislike his wealthy peers because they don’t appreciate how wealthy they are? Or is it because they aren’t wealthy enough to appreciate how much responsibility he has?
But even if he thinks they’re upper class twits, he really doesn’t do anything about it. He leaves them in place, protects them from harm, flirts with and beds them. They’re not the bad guys, after all. It’s all those poor evil people. The one’s who keep crashing the gate, the ones who happened to be hurt in the hunt for profits. If it comes to a clash between the twit and the poor schlub they screwed over and disfigured, Batman tends to side with the twit. (To his disgust, yes, but he’ll do it.)
And with Batman Inc., Bruce Wayne’s plutocracy only grows. Before, he was content to rule only Gotham, aided by specifically appointed allies. Now, he spreads his influence to Tokyo, Paris, and other cities all over the world by funding stand-ins to fight in his name, but only if these people act and dress exactly like him. Once again, it’s up to the rich, white man to go to other places around the world and solve their problems for them.
Because Batman, and only Batman, knows best.
This article originally appeared during Tor.com’s Batweek of 2011.