Christopher Nolan’s critically acclaimed Dark Knight Trilogy holds up Batman as “the hero Gotham deserves, just not the one it needs.” However, on further investigation, Batman isn’t the hero anybody needs, because he isn’t a hero at all. When we take Batman off of the pedestal he’s been placed on for all these years, we see him in an entirely different light. In the words of Winston Churchill, “History is written by the victors.” #Batman won, he gets to tell his story how he likes it.
Claiming that one of America’s most popular heroes is, in truth, a villain begs the question: Why do we see Batman as a hero, then? To understand how we view Batman, we must first understand the lens through which he is viewed.
Understanding How We See 'Good' And 'Bad'
“Bad” ideologies become the new “good” ideas, but the roles are not simply reversed: What was once seen as “good,” thanks to all of that pent-up resentment, is now evil.
In his work The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche outlines how morality is shaped by society through a process called revaluation. According to Nietzsche, ideas are locked in a constant battle for supremacy. The idea that wins becomes “good,” and all other, different ideas become “bad.” Well, after a while, the “bad” ideas are sick and tired of being “bad” simply because they are different. These “bad” ideologies become the new “good” ideas, but the roles are not simply reversed — what was once seen as “good,” thanks to all of that pent-up resentment, is now evil.
How does this apply to Gotham and Batman? For the mob, beating people senseless around Gotham was “bad.” Pressing people to the point of desperation was “bad.” However, it’s magically “good” to beat people senseless around Gotham (and even as far as Shanghai if you feel like it) if you’re Batman. Heck, if you're Batman, you don't even have to do anything differently! People are just so excited to be under new management, that they'll take what they can get!
When the mob released the Joker’s anarchy on the city of Gotham, Bruce Wayne said to his butler Alfred, “ I knew the mob wouldn't go down without a fight, but this is different. They crossed the line.” Alfred puts things in a more objective lens:
“You crossed the line first, sir. You squeezed them, you hammered them to the point of desperation. And in their desperation, they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.”
It’s not like the mob pressed somebody to the point of desperation, who then turned around and crossed the line by doing something drastic like killing Thomas and Martha Wayne. Oh, wait, they did. But Batman can do it, and it’s OK! We hold him up as a hero because he won. He was more powerful, beat people more mercilessly and pushed people to deeper levels of desperate.
The Argument For Civil Disobedience
Now, I get it, sometimes laws need to be broken. Civil disobedience did breed America, after all (Boston Tea Party, anyone?) However, what Batman did in many instances crossed the line of civil disobedience. Martin Luther King in his "Letter From Birmingham Jail," laid out certain criterion that must be met in order for civil disobedience to be effective:
- One must be trying to change a law or convey a message.
- One must attempt negotiations to change the unjust law.
- One must go through a process of self-purification.
- Engage in direct action.
- Accept fully and lovingly the consequences of your actions.
Batman isn’t trying to change any kind of law with his tirade. He’s a pouty kid who didn’t get his way. Don’t believe me? After the trial for Chill, the man who killed Bruce's parents, Chill gets killed, and doesn’t serve a life in prison, receive the death sentence, etc. Bruce, upset at this, tells Rachel,
Bruce: “My parents deserved justice.”
Rachel: “You're not talking about justice; you're talking about revenge.”
Bruce: “Sometimes they're the same.”
Rachel: “No, they're never the same, Bruce. Justice is about harmony. Revenge is about you making yourself feel better!”
And the moment of truth: Bruce pulls a gun from his pocket. “All these years I wanted to kill him. Now I can't.” Batman doesn’t serve justice, he serves revenge. He’s pouting, not trying to change the laws in place.
That’s not all. He undergoes no negotiations, rather relying on scare tactics and brute force to bring fugitives to “justice.” (Consider him stringing up Falcone and letting him fall to break his ankles, the beating that Lao took while being delivered to the Gotham PD, and the way he left the Joker hanging — quite literally —off of a building). Hanging 70 feet above the ground, a dirty cop answers Batman’s intense questioning: “I never knew; I don’t know! Swear to God!” And Batman’s response? “Swear to ME!” When you put yourself in God’s shoes at the negotiating table, the scales of justice aren’t exactly un-weighted. As a matter of fact, this isn’t any kind of negotiation at all.
With this lofty sense of self, there is no self-purification in Bruce’s life-only blind rage that can never be satisfied. Said Henri Ducard — Batman’s trainer in the League of Shadows — “I know the rage that drives you. That impossible anger.” From Batman Begins to The Dark Knight Rises, the things Batman is willing to do escalate wildly. He goes from innocent enough drug busts to letting people die to maintain his secrecy, then on to torture techniques (again: broken ankles, beatings, shooting micro-blades into The Joker’s face — you get the picture). He actually seems to be regressing in terms of self-purification. He does worse and worse things as he goes on!
To cap it all off, he dodges the responsibility for his actions, because nobody even knows who he really is. Consider Batman’s conversation with Jim Gordon. Gordon asks, “What about escalation? We start carrying semi-automatics, they buy automatics. We start wearing Kevlar, they buy armor piercing rounds.” Batman, unsure of the point (as if it wasn’t obvious!) asks, “And?” Jim Gordon retorts, “And, you're wearing a mask. Jumping off rooftops.”
If Batman was really proud of what he was doing, he wouldn’t need to wear a mask and jump off rooftops. Why wait until the room is empty to steal from the proverbial cookie jar if you can do it in front of everybody, and nobody will even know it’s you?
The Dichotomy Of Bruce Wayne And Batman
However, there is a man behind that mask. The problem is, the man and the mask are pulling in two very different directions. Starting from a basic psychological standpoint, the needs each is trying to fulfill are quite different. The effects of two personas in one body take a serious toll on Batman, and that toll unjustly spreads itself to the people of Gotham.
According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, human beings have different levels of need. These are — from most basic to most advanced — physiological (food, water, etc.); safety; social (having friends, being loved, etc.); esteem (learning to love oneself); and self-actualism (devotion to higher ideals). Also stated in this theory is the supposition that lower needs must be met before focusing on higher ideals. For example: If you have not eaten for two days, you will not be very worried about making new friends; rather, you will attempt to meet your need for food first.
Bruce Wayne and Batman are trying to meet different needs. Bruce Wayne is trying to meet his social needs while Batman is aiming for self-actualization.
One of the greatest illustrations of Bruce Wayne’s social needs being unfulfilled is seen in the second movie of the trilogy, The Dark Knight. In one of his lowest moments after Rachel’s death, Bruce laments his loss to Alfred,
Bruce: “There's nothing out there for me.”
Alfred: “And that's the problem. You hung up your cape and your cowl, but you didn't move on. You never went to find a life, to find someone...that's all part of living, sir. But you're not living. You're just waiting, hoping for things to go bad again.”
Bruce: “Rachel died believing that we would be together; that was my life beyond the cape. I can't just move on. She didn't; she couldn't.”
Bruce’s social needs are never met because Rachel dies before they can be satisfied.
Batman’s needs are much simpler and much higher up on Maslow’s hierarchy than those of Bruce Wayne. The whole idea of Batman is to be a symbol to the people of Gotham. Bruce explains the Batman persona and the reasoning behind adopting it:
“As Bruce Wayne — as a man — I'm flesh and blood: I can be ignored, I can be destroyed. But as a symbol, as a symbol I can be incorruptible. I can be everlasting.”
Clearly, Batman’s basic needs are met. Batman is striving to fulfill the highest of all needs in Maslow’s hierarchy: self-actualization. A man concerned with immortalizing himself through devotion to a higher ideal is not going to be worrying about where his next meal will come from, if he has a roof over his head, or whether people like him or not. These more basic needs have been fulfilled for Batman.
Throughout the series, the personas of Bruce Wayne and Batman are on parallel tracks. However, because Batman and Bruce Wayne are the same being, these two parallel sets of morals, needs and motives come crashing into each other, often violently. One striking example of this comes after the death of Rachel Dawes. Faced with a difficult personal decision, Batman chooses to rescue Harvey Dent over Rachel because he is “the symbol of hope that [Batman] could never be,” and “the first legitimate ray of light in Gotham for decades.”
Despite Batman’s best efforts, Harvey sustains injuries that leave him horribly scarred, and Rachel Dawes is killed. Bruce’s feelings of personal responsibility for the shortcomings of Batman and accountability for Harvey’s injuries weigh heavily on him. Alfred tries to reassure him, but Bruce (actually playing the sage here) rebuffs him: “No. Gotham needs its true hero, and I let that murdering psychopath blow him half to hell.” The fact that Batman doesn’t even see himself as Gotham’s true hero is telling.
If Gotham’s true hero isn’t actually Batman — and he himself admits it — then why do we hold him up as just such a hero? It’s pretty simple: He won. He is not a role model for children. He is not a "hero" you would want watching over your city. With an understanding of why we see him the way we do, and how his actions are objectively bad (or, at the very least, detrimental to Gotham’s citizens), we can clearly see that Batman is a glorified villain.
History is, indeed, written by the victors.
Is Batman a hero or a villain? Discuss.