Matt Reeves and Robert Pattinson’s latest incarnation makes eighteen “Batmen” to appear on the big screen, continuing the character’s 80+ year legacy, which began in Detective Comics in 1939. Over that span of time, the Batman canon has featured many stories, some of them interesting, but none of them ever straying too far from it’s god-awful foundation. While I’m sure most people are quite familiar with the character, it’s worth laying out the premise, just to see its folly in print.
Bruce Wayne, the son of a wealthy family, is traumatized as a child when his parents, Martha and Thomas Wayne, are killed by a random burglar. The specific circumstances have been revised a little throughout the years, with different writers trying to make it about revenge (as with Nicholson’s Joker), or part of a larger conspiracy (as in TV’s Gotham). However, in all cases, it is this formative event which sets Batman on his vigilante trajectory, expressing his vengeance not just against his parents’ murderer, but against any and all instances of crime.
This premise is absurd on its face, for a number of reasons. First is that the Waynes were a wealthy family, and so the likelihood is vanishingly small that they would’ve ever walked through a dark alley after a night at the theater, when they could’ve just as easily summoned a private car. Where was Alfred? The Waynes’ butler, often reimagined as a former intelligence or military officer, would’ve been on call at the first sign of trouble.
In the mythology of Batman, Gotham City seems to be a place of perpetual darkness and nearly ubiquitous violence, such that only the theater itself, Wayne manor, Wayne Enterprises corporate headquarters, and a few other locations are even safe to occupy. Even though Gotham is based on New York City, the inspiration is practically unrecognizable, except through the lens of white supremacy and elitism. New York is a huge city — five boroughs and hundreds of neighborhoods — with various levels and frequencies of crime, these corresponding directly to yawning disparities in health and wealth, precipitated by long histories of disinvestment, deeply racist city planning, and the geographic concentration of trauma.
One man — Robert Moses — bears a disproportionate amount of responsibility for these conditions, and yet there is no equivalent or analogue in the DC imaginary. Instead, Gotham is a shallow, racist, classist caricature of New York’s disinvested neighborhoods — and usually populated Black and Brown people and/or immigrants, which racist writers like Frank Miller make more explicit.
The caricature doesn’t grapple with the underlying reasons for its condition, and even more importantly, it reduces the real neighborhoods of New York to pathology, instead of recognizing the immense social and cultural richness and complexity that flourishes in resistance to these conditions. Gotham is devoid of culture, and there are only three classes — the wealthy, the poor, and the buffer class occupied by the police and other officers of the criminal punishment system.
Where Gotham is presumably situated within the United States, it shares that country’s original sins of dispossession, genocide, and slavery and so its conditions necessarily sprout from that rotten foundation. As in the real world, the dynamics of power and concentrated wealth are mediated by capital. Inherent to the logic of capitalism is that billionaires like the Waynes are created by conditions of labor exploitation and environmental extraction, leaving people and the natural world as the wreckage, or waste product, of their ascent.
To be more clear, the only way for billionaires exist, is through parasitic relationships — harm to one for the benefit of another. What this means is that people like the Waynes are complicit in the conditions that ultimately lead to their demise. It need not be so contrived as the Waynes causing direct harm to someone, and then that person getting revenge, because where wealth is concentrated, the human and environmental harms and consequences of capitalism are widely, if still disproportionately, distributed. There is no shortage of victims who might consciously or randomly rise up in retribution against the Waynes.
Unlike the countless victims of Capital, Bruce Wayne is able to take it upon himself, by virtue of his inherited wealth — and through that access to near infinite resources — to get his own perverse form of justice. The comics, TV shows, and films seldom discuss what Bruce gets up to in the daytime, or what sort of industries comprise Wayne Enterprises, but one can reasonably assume that he carries on his family’s legacy of exploitation and extraction. Is Wayne enterprises directly complicit in the suffering of Gotham’s majorities, through the dumping of toxic wastes in poor communities, busting unions to prevent workers from achieving a reasonable standard of living, or divesting people of their homes through predatory lending and aggressive development?
Perhaps Thomas or Martha Wayne themselves are the missing analog to New York’s Robert Moses. Or perhaps they’re only indirectly complicit, through the funding the police that surveil, abuse, and murder average citizens, investments in fossil fuels or military weaponry, or the gross speculation of finance capitalism — ultimately leading to the same egregious conditions that make Gotham a terrible place to live.
Professional asshole Jeff Bezos may be Bruce Wayne’s real-world analogue, in spite of his physical resemblance to Superman’s Lex Luthor. Perhaps like Bezos, Bruce Wayne’s extraordinary wealth is begotten from the exploitation of his workforce, and extraction of the natural world to produce and sell an endless supply of cheap junk. While, to my knowledge, Bezos does not go out at night dressed up in tights, cape, and a silly mask, to beat up people, he does provide the carceral state with the digital infrastructure and technology (e.g. Amazon Web Services, Ring cameras, Rekognition software) it needs for mass surveillance, under the false pretext that such things are necessary to protect us from crime. And like Batman, Bezos is prone to spectacle, whether it be built around leaked images of his penis, or the conceit of flying a penis-shaped rocket into outer space.
Dickman, as it were.
Is it because corporate proxies allow Bruce Wayne some degree of deniability, that he is able to be simultaneously complicit in Gotham’s misery on the back end, and compound that suffering through the deployment of military grade munitions against the people who erupt from such conditions? Or is he simply the worst person in the world, fully aware of the harm his enterprises cause, and under the false pretext of vengeance, uses the power of the State and his own wealth to punish, dominate, incarcerate and kill the people of Gotham?
Only at the peak of white supremacist capitalist mythology, and a deep ignorance of history and social dynamics, can a person like Bruce Wayne — as Batman — be conceived as a hero. So perhaps instead of constantly reimagining Batman for the page and the screen for each new — and ever shorter — generation, DC should cast this villain back into the abyss of the imagination.