By Pablo Lacalle Castillo
There’s an interesting phenomenon that happens every time a new piece of media centred around Batman is released. Pop culture’s most enduring and iconic superhero is not immune to a slew of think-pieces and discussions over whether the character is ‘problematic,’ especially in the modern-age. As a billionaire, fictional or not, Bruce Wayne and his battle against the waves of crime threatening to destroy Gotham have become something of an easy target in recent years, ruffling the feathers of those who view the character not as an archetypal idea of justice but as a dangerous and morally misguided glamorisation of an oppressive class system and a privileged elite exacting violence on the downtrodden. With the recent release of Matthew Reeve’s The Batman this discussion has barely shifted, with articles cropping up deriding the very character as “noxious billionaire propaganda” (via 'The Independent') or “insane wealth propaganda.” But this is a glaringly simple perspective, and one entirely unjustified, if not in itself deeply worrying for what it means regarding our approach as a society to entertainment and culture.
The idea that Batman is a “billionaire aristocrat who beats up poor people” (as put bluntly by comic-book writer Garth Ennings) falls rather flat when analysed through the clear lens of fiction. Batman is, first and foremost, an imagined creation who operates and exists in a highly fantastical world that runs on a significantly different internal logic to our own. Though it retains basic elements of realism, even that is a stretch: Bruce Wayne is ostensibly a human being but is also depicted realising physical feats far beyond any regular human capacity. This means that attempting to subject Batman to intense class-criticism or reconfiguring the bizarre day-to-day life of Gotham city within Marxist parameters is a muddy, risky and somewhat futile task all together.
It’s hard to re-contextualise Batman’s crime fighting around ideas of the true nature of crime when his recurring cast of antagonists are cartoonishly overblown freaks, sociopaths and monsters in lurid costumes wielding science-fiction weapons. That’s not to say Batman stories (or fiction in general) cannot provide societal criticism - they should, and all the best Batman stories do, except such criticism still revolves around a comic-book world of insanity, spectacle and, most importantly, entertainment. Batman isn’t beating up “poor people”, neither is the depiction of his crazed gallery of foes “problematic.” Any reader or viewer with a basic number of comprehensive skills can recognise the inherent suspension of disbelief. Gotham cannot be deconstructed realistically through the lens of privilege and class consciousness, because it is, by design, a narrative vehicle meant to provide conflict, a ridiculously awful city riddled with cartoonishly exaggerated levels of criminality - and criminality which almost exclusively comes in the form of superhuman abilities and gimmicks.
Your average Batman fan is not being indoctrinated into the message that all evildoers deserve the swift boot of justice to the jaw, especially when said evildoers’ actions are so grotesquely sensational and ultra-violent. Batman’s villains aren’t unemployed single mothers shoplifting baby formula or homeless people snatching ten dollars from a cash register. They’re demonic costumed archetypes of evil whose crimes exist on a preposterously barbaric scale of awfulness: torturers, sadists, mass murderers and genocidal maniacs who hang out in amusement parks or villainous sewer lairs. As I have reiterated before, the character of Batman and his conflicts against the denizens of Arkham Asylum exist, first and foremost, for entertainment. They can have something clever to say about human nature, society or even Batman’s own struggle to maintain his code of ethics and question if he is a force for good or evil, but ultimately, they’re easily accessible narratives meant to provide a simple binary narrative of good vs. evil.
And there’s nothing wrong with that - neither should there be. It’s easy to write Batman off as a vigilante but at the end of the day, the character serves as a role model. He’s privileged, yes, but embodies responsibility and selflessness as his own individual person, using his enormous wealth for philanthropic endeavours, to the point of nearly bankrupting himself in service of the city. He’s an elite, but a hero precisely because he recognises his status and does the utmost (to the point of risking his life and sanity) to deploy his time, energy and resources in keeping the innocent and powerless safe, recognising it as his moral obligation as a powerful man to do so. A victim of senseless gun violence dedicated not (as so many critics unjustly claim) to brutalising the desperate poor, but exacting vengeance precisely on those twisted and sick enough to actively and consciously propagate misery and pain through violent crime. Batman’s wealth was never something to act as a damning label, just a convenient story-telling gimmick meant to justify how a regular man could possibly fight crime alone against a small army of Halloween-costumed goons and megalomaniacs. No truly sane person who has ever consumed a piece of Batman media truly and earnestly sees Bruce Wayne’s billionaire status as an accurate reflection of the real world, the same way no one actually thinks being doused in chemicals and struck by lightning gives you super-speed or being bitten by a radioactive spider lets you stick to walls.
At the end of the day what this crusade against the Caped Crusader seems to hint at is an attempt to police entertainment by patronising others, denying them the acknowledgement that they can individually recognise the over-exaggerated fiction of comic-books and their crazed, manic logic, and separate them from the elements of reality they incorporate. It’s a paternalistic and condescending viewpoint, one that denies the power of fiction to entertain and inspire us through larger-than-life worlds and heroes in favour of attempting to erode its magic through the imposition of vague political ideology and agendas. There’s nothing problematic about Batman: he’s a modern myth that has been a source of joy, pleasure and fun for millions both growing up and as adults for more than 8 decades. To claim that such an iconic creation should be disposed of or removed by dismissing it as propaganda is, truly, criminal.