The politics of Batman
Right-wing US shock-jocks are not celebrated for their capacity for logic, but even on the lowest of expectations Rush Limbaugh's attack on The Dark Knight Rises was really weird. The conservative has decided that the villain of the piece – a drug-taking bruiser called Bane – was constructed to help Barack Obama's campaign. His name, apparently, seems awfully similar to 'Bain', the Mitt Romney venture capital firm the incumbent has been attacking in recent weeks.
"Do you think it is accidental that the name of the really vicious fire-breathing, four-eyed whatever-it-is villain in this movie is named Bane?" he barked during his last show. "So this evil villain in the new Batman movie is named Bane. And there's discussion out there as to whether or not this was purposeful and whether or not it will influence voters. The audience is going to be huge. A lot of people are going to see the movie. And it's a lot of brain-dead people, entertainment, the pop-culture crowd, and they're going to hear Bane in the movie and they're going to associate Bain."
Limbaugh was unconcerned by the fact Bane was created in the 1990s (by conservative comics writer Chuck Dixon) or that the film started shooting a couple of years before the current stage of the US election cycle.
While it may be on the more loony end of the spectrum, the shock-jock's comments are not the only examples of political commentators finding material in Batman's movie adventure. To some extent, the films themselves demand it. Bane seems to lead a group of Occupy-style urban protestors. In the trailer, Selina Kyle – Catwoman's alter-ego – can be heard whispering in Bruce Wayne's ear: "You and your friends better batten down the hatches because when it hits, you're all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us."
The previous films have not shied away from political ethics either. It was hard to avoid comparisons to the post-September 11th debate about torture when Batman assaulted Joker in a prison cell in The Dark Knight. Later in the film, he organises a city-wide surveillance system, prompting friend and moral arbiter Lucias Fox to condemn it as "too much power" for one man. In the end, Batman allows him to destroy it.
Director Christopher Nolan's subtle, unspoken projection of political ideas onto the caped crusader is not a new development. Superheroes have always been particularly open to a political interpretation. Superman is often described as a power fantasy, but he is far more cogent as the ultimate immigrant patriot. The creation of Jewish Americans Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1932, the character's destruction of his homeworld and love of his adopted country seemed to be a projection of the writers' own feelings about their country and the desire of the immigrant to fit in. With a cruel irony which seems to summarise the American Dream in a microcosm, DC comics – now owned by media giant Time Warner – bought the character for $130. For decades afterwards, the pair and their estates would struggle to be suitably paid for Superman's success. The legal battles still go on today.
Over at DC's competitor Marvel, heroes like Spiderman and the X-Men offered a more left-wing image of adventure. They didn't live in manors or spacestations, but in New York. Peter Parker especially struggled to make ends meet, while the mutants were outsiders, lacking any of the social connections to the establishment which DC characters would revel in. They functioned as all-purpose metaphors for whichever minority groups you chose to mention, from homosexuals to the civil rights movement.
Under any political assessment, Batman appears like a right-winger's wet dream. He is a billionaire who beats poor people in the street.
Grant Morrison is a Scottish comics writer who has handled the character for the last six years, winning himself a place in the Queen's Birthday Honours list in the process. He described the character in plain tones: "Batman was the ultimate capitalist hero… a millionaire who vented his childlike fury on the criminal classes of the lower orders." He would "punch crime into extinction, one bastard at a time".
After all, Batman's fight against crime does not extend to corporate wrongdoing or tax evasion. It applies only to street gangs, pickpockets, drug dealers and the poor. Morrison argues that the relative popularity of heroes says something about society. Superman represented the optimism and socialism of the mid-20th century. Now, in an era that values wealth and celebrity, we turn to dashing, violent Bruce Wayne and Iron Man's arms-dealing playboy alter ego Tony Stark.
But the right has not always been so in love with the dark knight. One question, above all, seemed to bother conservatives about the caped crusader: what exactly did Batman, Robin and their loyal butler Alfred get up to in that mansion of theirs? In the 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent, German-American psychiatrist Fredric Wertham warned that the character may be corrupting children's minds. "The Batman type of story may stimulate children to homosexual fantasies, of the nature of which they may be unconscious," he wrote. "Only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and of the psychopathology of sex can fail to realise a subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism which pervades the adventures of the mature 'Batman' and his young friend Robin."
It was devastating. The book triggered a moral outcry about comics that led to Senate committee hearings, the demonisation of horror titles and the creation of the Comics Code Authority (CCA). From then until quite recently, comics needed that stamp of censored approval – complete with moral assertions that good must prevail by the end of the story – for them to be sold in shops.
In an ironic twist, the effect of the CCA stamp drove comics in an altogether weirder direction. Writers were unable to deal with dark, gritty subject matter so they allowed their stories to drift into strange, magical directions, embracing alternate realities and superdogs and little cities trapped in glass bottles. It was this dreamlike, hallucinogenic quality which led them to resonate so profoundly with the drug-induced movements of the 60s. All because Batman seemed a little gay.
That's the strange contradiction of the Batman figure. He fights to preserve the status quo, but he is inevitably magical, weird and hallucinatory. It's why figures from across the political and social spectrum can project ideas onto him. And why he is one of the defining cultural phenomena of our time.
The Dark Knight Rises is released this Friday.