Wed
Jul 18 2012 11:00am

Batman: Plutocrat

Batman: Plutocrat by Steven Padnick

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.

Batman: Plutocrat by Steven PadnickConsider 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.


Steven Padnick is a freelance writer and editor. By day. You can find more of his writing and funny pictures at padnick.tumblr.com.

22 comments
Pragmatist
1. Pragmatist
Class Warfare much?

"... 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."

"... Batman must take Gotham back from a rising underclass"

This is a petty and broad interpretation. Shame on you for painting criminals (and super villians) as "a rising lower class".

"Batman fights those who would unbalance the order Batman himself imposes on Gotham."


Batman is a vigilate that places himself above the law, but this article paints the story as a privilleged brat that holds down others to stay on top. What is your agenda? Occupy Comic-Con? Not worth the republish from Batweek.
Pragmatist
2. Jeff R.
Absolutely. It's not the poor Batman spends most of his time pummelling; it's the mentally ill.
Pragmatist
3. James Davis Nicoll
I think at least in the old comics, Oswald was genuinely upper crust; he was shown as rather desperate to keep his snooty (aunt? mother?) from discovering he had become a criminal. Even in the rather horrible Keaton film, he's upper crust; he's this >some therapy for poor Floyd.
Eli Bishop
6. EliBishop
I'm sure this piece is partly tongue-in-cheek, but I find it just as irritating as I did the first time around-- and the last half-dozen times before that, since "Batman is rich and conservative" is one of those things people really love figuring out for the first time over and over again, much like "If Superman were real, he'd be scary." It's mildly interesting the first time, much like David Brin's endless refrain of "Star Trek is democratic/Star Wars is fascist" or "The Lord of the Rings is a pro-monarchist tract." It's also something writers of Batman have deliberately played up on many occasions, so looking for ironic class commentary in the character isn't so much shooting fish in a barrel as it is shooting pre-shot fish.

To the degree that Batman is a pro-establishment character, so is every single crime-fighting pulp character created prior to the 1950s. Batman— and the early Superman— came out of a tradition in which intergalactic dictators and dark gods didn't exist; the villains were muggers, bank robbers, mob bosses, foreign spies and mad geniuses. To say that those guys were challenging "the status quo" is cute, but that's not the way they were written until the 1970s, when Bronze Age writers got interested in social issues. The early Superman's occasional forays into populism were unusual in the genre— and weren't really typical of Superman either, since most of the time he fought a mix of regular criminals and totally goofy threats, but still, Superman was innovative in a way that Batman was not.

And that's my main beef with this piece: Batman being an aristocrat is the least distinctive part of the character, and you don't seem aware of that. He's a straight-up ripoff of Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel with extra gadgetry. For the last hundred years or so, every pulp character who runs his own complicated crime-fighting operation without having any supernatural powers has been a rich guy, for the basic reasons that 1. they have the time and money to do that, and 2. 20th-century pulp came out of 19th-century genre fiction in which nearly all of the characters were rich guys, so people were already used to that. Dissecting the significance of Batman on that basis is a little like saying that what makes James Bond so much creepier than other spies is that he has a gun and works for the government.

I think also some people would take offense at your crack about "the mentally ill and environmentalists," which makes it sound like the Joker and Poison Ivy are suitable representatives of those groups. I don't take it as seriously as that, I just think it's not particularly clever.
Eli Bishop
7. EliBishop
Ha... I just looked up the original posting of this article from 2011, and I had missed this comment by "JNasty" that pretty much says it all:

"Congratulations on a pale imitation of concepts first considered by comic book writers such as Alan Moore and Frank Miller about 25 years ago. Scratch that, concepts first considered by Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams in Green Lantern/Green Arrow more than 40 years ago."

Other commenters also pointed out Padnick's total misreading of the nature of Batman villains. He didn't respond to any comments and, I presume, doesn't really care. I don't even like Batman comics very much but come on, if you're going to write about this stuff from a purportedly serious angle, don't be so careless.
Pamela Adams
8. Pam Adams
I did think that the ads for the latest Batman movie resembled 'Occupy: Gotham City.'
William Carter
9. wcarter
Tongue in cheek or not, I think this write up missed a point. Batman (it's mentioned in several comics, the DCAU and even a movie or two) thinks of himself in his own head as Batman. Not Bruce Wayne.

As far as Batman is concerned, Bruce Wayne died at age 8 right next to his parents.

He is himself a mentally ill individual, and like the psychos in his rouges gallery what he really wants is control. Someone whose motivation is entitlement and keeping the status quo already has that control.

The billionaire playboy facade and all the money that comes with it are nothing more than a means to an end to him--and sometimes a chore.

If he wanted to rule Gotham there is nothing and no one in the DCU's fictional governments that would have bothered to stop him from hiring his own personal army and outfitting them with the latest in Waynetech armaments. He could have a carved out a territory the size of a small state and wiped out anyone he deemed a threat in a matter of months if that's what he wanted.

So why does he instead risk life and limb? Because it isn't entitlement that drives him, it's the rage of a child that had his world shattered in front of his very eyes. One wonders why Alfred didn't hire the kid a shrink.
Sanctume Spiritstone
10. Sanctume
This article originally appeared during Tor.com’s Batweek of 2011.

A Dark Post Rises!
Pragmatist
11. SF
Here is a good discussion of the character, as presented in the Nolan films:
http://blogs.suntimes.com/scanners/2012/07/superheroes_good_vs_evil_isnt_.html

Also talks about Spidey. The comments are worth reading as well.
Sam Brougher
12. Azuaron
Batman vs. The Punisher, tonight at 11
Sean Vivier
13. SeanVivier
Once again, Steven Padnick clearly has no idea what the word authoritarian means.
Pragmatist
14. Patrick M.
Hurrah for the 1%.
Mordicai Knode
15. mordicai
This is why Grant Morrison took The Bat off the street. Batman beating up people in bad economic circumstances? Apalling.

By the way, know any paragons of ethics with god-like power who grew up on a Depression Era farm, who struggled to educate themselves & get a job in journalism? Now that sounds like a real hero!
Ashe Armstrong
16. AsheSaoirse
I still find the callout towards Superman being the TRUE hero here just plain odd. I like Superman. I do. At his core, he represents the ability to be perfectly an idealist. He is the Big Blue Boy Scout (minus all that homophobia). But Superman has always been probably the worst offender at maintaining the status quo in concept (not always in practice, plus, All-Star Superman makes an amazing point of how he views the world through Luthor).

And rogues match the hero. So of course Bruce is going to be fighting the mentally ill and whatnot. He's mentally ill.
Amy Palmer
17. wayfaringpanda
Oh man, so much of this article makes me angry I don't even know what to say.

It starts off okay, an interesting look at a man's idea of how things are supposed to be and imposing that ideal on the city and everyone in it. But accusing him of classism because he "fights those who would overthrow the status quo" is just ABSURD. He fights those who would cause violence to others, usually violence with a fatal note - hence why his relationship with Catwoman is so interesting because she DOESN'T kill and that means something to him. He fights muggers, and mobsters, and environmentalists (and really, just because Poison Ivy and R'as al Ghul are environmentalists doesn't have anything to do with Batman's reactions to them), because they all plan on killing people who get in their way. The capacity and likelihood for murder is what sets Batman off.

This article would have been VASTLY more interesting, and even partially true, if it didn't try and paint Batman as the bad guy for fighting against people who are actual villains. You want examples of classism by Bruce Wayne? How about the current storyline that protests his massive construction plans that involve knocking down decrepit yet historical buildings that house the poor? That is the Occupy shit you're talking about, not his fight against people like the Joker or Two-Face or the others who want to "disrupt the status quo".

Do some damn research.
Pragmatist
18. S.M. Stirling
Criminals come from the lumpenproletariat and mainly victimize the poor.

They don't 'fight the rich'; the rich don't even notice them. Being rich means you can buy immunity from social dysfunction. Criminals prey on ordinary people.

Only a sheltered middle-class intello could write something like this.
Pragmatist
19. Sanagi
I have problems with Batman when he's portrayed very realistically, for many of the reasons listed here. The Christopher Nolan movies are a good example - I like them, but I have to consciously ignore the fact that Bruce Wayne could do far more good with his wealth than Batman could ever do with his fists.

I like Batman more as a character in the animated series, where he seems to be as much a troubled lunatic as his villains, and tragically fails to help them to channel their madness in more constructive ways, or in the Adam West TV show, where he's the perfect image of what a boy thinks a man should be.
Pragmatist
20. seth e.
There's a fundamental problem with addressing a seventy-year-old character who's been written by multiple authors over the years, and trying to describe what that character is "actually" like. He's actually like whatever the current writer says he's like. The character himself is just a set of tropes and mannerisms, some of which may be foregrounded at any one time, but some of which won't be.


The most accurate thing you can say about Batman is that he's a very handy focus for writers who are afraid of poor people. The whole Batman-as-plutocrat thing is based mostly on a combination of the very early "'criminals are a cowardly, superstitious lot" line and Frank Miller's stories, which I remember as essentially "watch out, here comes the rabble!" That doesn't have a lot to do with Silver Age Batman's color-coded batarangs. Superheroes being extra-legal reinforcers of the status quo is a whole other, much larger idea, and some writers have also addressed that using Batman (Miller again, for example) but hanging it all on the one character is too much weight for it to bear.
Mordicai Knode
21. mordicai
20. seth e.

Well, that is true except...there is a core to the character? There IS a legacy of old money behind Batman. The history of the Waynes is pretty much a constant, barring Elseworlds. There IS fighting "crime," which again, that element of vigilantism is core, & the class warfare (rich dude beating up "thugs," who are you'll note blue collar) is typical, if not always emphisized.

You are right though; the best solution (besides liking Superman more, because Superman is better) is for a writer to write it while AWARE of the greater picture. Aware that having a rich guy who assaults people & shouts "GOTHAM IS MINE!" is problematic. Go into it with eyes wide open & make a story of it.
Pragmatist
22. seth e.
mordicai @21 - I agree, and this doesn't really effect this particular conversation at all, but there are two ways of thinking about this kind of character, I think--the essential-story way, and the modular-trope way. In the first, there's a Joseph Campbell-like central narrative that underwrites and informs everything else; in the second, there are a bunch of different elements that make up a story, some of which are optional, and some of which aren't. But the fact that they're mandatory is conceptually different from them being essential. I think the modular approach is more accurate to the way stories actually come about and change over time.

You can't get rid of the Wayne family money, but if a Batman story just didn't really mention his life as Bruce Wayne, and concentrated on the high-tech detective angle, the story would still work, and people who were first introduced to that version would have a different set of associations.
Mordicai Knode
23. mordicai
22. seth e.

I agree-- I'm very much on team "I don't need a reboot, I don't need canon, I understand that the appeal of comics is that they are myth cycles"-- but even with the high-tech angle...where is he funding it? I think you end up telling a truncated story. You lose depth. Like, Bruce Wayne = Billionaire Playboy. That is a pillar, & that is something to compare & contrast to Batman = Dark Knight. They are-- to sound like Two-Face-- two sides of the same coin.
Pragmatist
24. poordeadned
When I first read this article a few days ago, it greatly annoyed me. Then I saw the latest Batman movie.

Good god. What dogmatic right-wing PoS. The bad guys are the Occupy movement. Batman is sacrificing his reputation so as to prevent prisoners being released when their prison term is up.

I was half-surprise Paul Krugman wasn't the evil mastermind puling Bane's strings.

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