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The Caped Social Crusader: The Dark Knight Rises and Batman’s History of Class Warfare…

With the leaked second trailer for The Dark Knight Rises, showing in theatres in front of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, it seems like we have a theme for the movie, something to connect Nolan’s final Batman film to the terrorism and liberty metaphor that underscored The Dark Knight. Giving our first real look at Selina Kyle, who I sense might be far more important to the film than Bane himself, despite her relative lack of exposure, it seems that the film will play into the sort of resentment and class divide forming in global society – the type of movement spawning the “Occupy Wall Street” and the “We are the 99%” campaigns. “You think this’ll last,” Selina taunts Bruce, in a scene that conjures Tim Burton’s underrated Batman Returns. “There’s a storm coming Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches. Cause when it hits the city you are all gonna wonder how you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”

It seems like a fascinating avenue for Nolan to explore, especially given that Batman is one of the “1%”himself. Still, it’s an angle rich for exploitation and with considerable history behind it.

The Bane of the upper classes?

Heroes like Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark are the exception, rather than the rule. It seems that most superheroes tend to stand in for the weaker aspects of society. Captain America was just a poor kid from the Bronx. Green Lantern was a test pilot on the verge of being fired. Thor was humbled as a doctor. Peter Parker barely scrapes enough money to pay rent. Daredevil lives and works in a run-down neighbourhood in Hell’s Kitchen, using his legal prowess to help those who can’t help themselves. The Flash is a scientist. Bruce Banner is a fugitive with nothing but the purple pants he wears. Clark Kent works as a reporter.

Indeed, it’s interesting to contrast Bruce Wayne, billionaire playboy, with the hard-working farmboy Clark Kent. An author who has worked quite a bit on both, Grant Morrison, finds the contrast in these two pioneering superheroes absolutely fascinating:

Bruce Wayne is a rich man. He’s an aristocrat. Superman grew up as Clark Kent on a farm bailing hay, and he’s got a boss that shouts at him if he’s late to work. He’s actually more human; Batman is the fetish fantasy psyche of the aristocrat overlord who can do anything he wants, and that’s fascinating. The class difference between the two of them is important.

Will Bruce be left in the cold?

In an interview with Wizard, Morrison pointed out that some of the class connotations can be a bit surreal, if we think too much about them:

Batman is a billionaire and he beats the hell out junkies. Batman’s mission becomes very different when you think, “Why is the billionaire going and beating crap out of poor people who can’t afford to pay the rent, or can’t afford their next fix?”

Hell, the only other well-known billionaire superhero, Tony Stark, was actively created by Stan Lee to subvert expectations. He was designed to be the most “uncool” character ever – a rich and privileged aristocrat who had been born into money, rather than earning it. As he explains:

I think I gave myself a dare. It was the height of the Cold War. The readers, the young readers, if there was one thing they hated, it was war, it was the military….So I got a hero who represented that to the hundredth degree. He was a weapons manufacturer, he was providing weapons for the Army, he was rich, he was an industrialist….I thought it would be fun to take the kind of character that nobody would like, none of our readers would like, and shove him down their throats and make them like him….And he became very popular.

You could make the case that comic books, as a medium, found a way of expressing almost counter-cultural feelings, resonating with youths. As such, Bruce Wayne seems a very surreal figure. He’s created as this entitled and wealthy individual who lives a life of absolute luxury, safe to pursue his vigilante activities without ever needing to worry about mundane things like paying the bills or keeping a roof over his head. As Morrison argued, “Clark has a boss, Bruce has a butler.”

The contrast is Stark...

Bruce just screams establishment, in a medium and genre that felt decidedly anti-establishment at the time of his creation and for a great deal of his history. Indeed, much of the camp humour of the sixties Batman! television show was built around the idea of how ridiculously “square” Batman was, surrounded by all these bright and colourful characters. The case has been made that Batman is a “plutocrat”:

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.

If you need a contrast, it’s worth comparing the early Batman to the early Superman. Indeed, the early Batman seemed like a bored idiot with too much spare time and little understanding of the world around him. While most modern readers associate Superman with a sort of staid and conservative attitude, the original character as created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster was something of a crusader for social justice. He was as likely to tackle war profiteers and corrupt politicians and bureaucrats as petty muggers and purse-snatchers. Here’s a summary of the character’s very first appearance:

The story of Superman is introduced in the first story in the comic book. In those 13 pages Superman breaks into the governor’s mansion, fights his way through the governor’s security and yanks the sleeping governor out of bed in order to stops an execution. Then he shows up at the scene of domestic violence and thumps the bejeezus out of a “wife-beater.” Finally, Superman uncovers a plot between a corrupt politician and a corporate CEO to steal millions of tax dollars and brings them both to justice.

Super Man of the People?

Like Batman, Superman has also evolved over time, and he has moved away from the more radical characterisation:

Superman is reinvented to meet the needs of each generation: in the 1930s, when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created him, he was a “working-class warrior”; in the 40s, he personified the fighting spirit of Americans; and in the atomic age, he gained more super powers but became an “honorary policeman”, a defender of the status quo.

Although it is worth noting that Grant Morrison is trying to bring that characterisation back in his recent run on Action Comics. Still, Superman can probably be said to stand for a principle of equality and freedom that Batman really doesn’t. Batman is about darkness and vengeance. He’s a man acting out a fantasy that he can only afford due to his extreme privilege.

I think it’s perfectly reasonable to examine that privilege, particularly with today’s society, one where many people find themselves questioning the status quo, and the actions of those who hold moral authority and the economic power to back that authority – sometimes with without even earning it themselves. I’m actually quite looking forward to Nolan examining this facet of the character, because it’s really a perfectly relevent perspective in the current economic climate, and I think Batman has generally found a way to make himself relevent for each generation. I think it’s great that the movie was reported to be shooting at the “Occupy Wall Street” protests, because part of what makes Batman fascinating is the strange way he tends to reflect modern society. Much like Superman, each generation gets a version of Batman they deserve.

Look at the rich man beating the poor clown...

It’s interesting that class has always been a part of the character, even when it never really explicitly existed in America in the same way that it existed in Europe. After all, in a country that takes pride in “the American Dream” of reinvention and the individual capacity to accomplish great things, it’s particularly strange that Bruce should be born into money, rather than making a profit himself at a young age as an entrepreneur. After all, even Tony Stark, the other superhero billionaire, tends to at least justify his wealth with occasional demonstrations of genius. Batman doesn’t really invent his own tech, he just employs an R&D department to do it for him.

I suspect that this touch of class is connected to the rather strong European ties to the character. After all, apparently Bruce Wayne was named for Scottish patriot Robert Bruce. The character draws from English authors like Lewis Carroll for villains like The Mad Hatter. The Joker was designed modelled on German expressionist cinema. The character’s geography recalls the very British leanings of the New England “aristocracy”,  with “Arkham Asylum” serving as an allusion to New England author H.P. Lovecraft.

Underground movement?

Indeed, while perhaps Batman’s most noted authors were Americans like Denny O’Neil and Frank Miller, he was also a character who has done quite well from the “British Invasion” in comics during the eighties, with Grant Morrison writing the most successful graphic novel of all time featuring the character (Arkham Asylum) and Alan Moore writing the most iconic take on the Joker (The Killing Joke). Hell, when Detective Comics was on the brink of cancellation at the end of the eighties, Denny O’Neil turned to two unproven British authors to save the title, with Alan Grant going on to write for the character well into the nineties.

As Grant himself explains, they were chosen particularly because they were British:

John and I were working on Judge Dredd one day when we got a call from Denny O’Neil. Denny was saying that basically Detective Comics was selling below its break even point, they were making a loss on it as opposed to a profit, and there was talk of closing it down unless he could turn it around. He had the bright idea of giving it to a couple of Brits and seeing if we could come up with different stuff.

The eighties were a time of economic hardship, much like today. And I think that you can look back and see an element of class commentary sort of slipping into the book even then.

Stepping up to bat...

In Frank Miller’s iconic reimagining of Batman during the eighties, he firmly established the character as an anti-establishment figure. This was a character who didn’t work with the police, but instead operated on his own moral authority. He ignored the media in The Dark Knight Returns, refusing to buy into their pop psychology, and Batman: Year One saw that hero actively fighting a corrupt and ineffective establishment.

Rather than acting as a billionaire playboy beating up poor people, Batman actually took on institutional problems. One of the most memorable sequences sees Batman gate-crashing a party held by the wealthy in Gotham (“the 1%”), and addressing them with the same sort of condemnation many protestors today might feel. “You have eaten well,” he observes, grimly. “You’ve eaten Gotham’s wealth. Its spirit. Your feast is nearly over.” This was a Batman that Grant Morrison has described as “blue collar.”

Cutting commentary...

Alan Grant himself played up this idea of Batman as a wealthy individual, but introducing his own character “Anarky”, heavily influenced by V for Vendetta. The character was a kid who stood to challenge that notion that Batman was the champion of the status quo and a champion for an unequal system. Anarky himself has been controversial, praised and criticised in equal measure. However, there was serious discussion towards having the character become the next Robin following the death of Jason Todd, with his own political beliefs serving to contrast against those of Bruce.

However, I think that the character of Catwoman herself plays off these themes in the mythos remarkably well. Initially introduced as a jewelry thief, her more recent characterisation has established the character as coming from a much poorer background than Bruce. She doesn’t have the luxuries that he had growing up, and has a very different outlook on the system to Bruce. She robs, but she exists in a category distinct from most of Batman’s psychotic foes. She’s more of an anti-hero, but one who operates with Batman’s tacit consent.

In League with one another...

I think that consent represents a fairly important part of Bruce’s character, and one that adds a great deal of nuance. It represents an acknowledgement that the system isn’t necessarily fairly, and that his own moral authority isn’t absolute. Just because he would never need to steal to eat doesn’t mean he’ll condemn everyone who does. Nolan seems aware of this facet of Batman, and there’s an interesting line in Batman Begins after Bruce lives briefly as a criminal.

“The first time I stole so that I wouldn’t starve, I lost many assumptions about the simple nature of right and wrong,” he tells Ra’s Al Ghul. “And when I traveled, I learned the fear before a crime and the thrill of success. But I never became one of them.”I think that this is a hint at the complexity of the situation Bruce finds himself in. He lives in an ivory tower, so it’s easy for him to condemn those less fortunate. I think Catwoman, at her best, challenges those assumptions – and I suspect that we’ll see quite a bit of that developed in The Dark Knight Rises. After all, The Dark Knight dared to question the character’s moral integrity in fighting terrorism, so I think Nolan works well with the more conflicted aspects of the character.

Setting the cat amongst the pigeons...

It’s a complexity that allows for some interesting developments, and which has lent the character considerable lasting appeal. After all, who would have thought The Guardian might suggest a billionaire playboy could be a champion of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement?

Batman, on the other hand, is a hero rooted in our reality – one set in a fictional city beset by economic deprivation and grotesque greed. His main animus, if not his methods, is defined by the ideals of philanthropy and a simplistic sense of justice: a selfless billionaire by day who strives to protect the defenceless people of Gotham by night – the 1% fighting for the 99%.

There’s a lot to think about, and we’ve only seen the second trailer.

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