Fascism in Tim Burton’s Batman

BatmanOver the weekend, I watched the original Tim Burton Batman. As a film, it still works pretty well. But while watching it, I couldn’t get past just how fascist the whole thing was. This is true of all superhero films to some extent. But it is unrelenting here. Normal functioning of the society just doesn’t exist. So we are expected to wait around for our Übermensch to come and save us. And the film ends with the city installing a special light where it can call Batman if things go badly, which of course they will, because things are just as bad as they ever were except that the Joker’s gang is now gone.

There is an irony there too. Batman was responsible for making the Joker. That’s what made the city get so much worse. If he had never existed, then Gotham City would have remained like Chicago in 1920s. Instead, it was turned into a place where you couldn’t even wear makeup. Speaking of which, the Joker’s poisoning of products is perhaps the worst aspect of the fascism implicit in the film. All the police and scientists and hobbyists in the town could not figure it out, but Batman — in his spare time between being a rich playboy and frightening local hoodlums — manages to figure out the key. So it isn’t just that the government is corrupt — all the people are stupid too.

That brings us to Vicki Vale. She first appeared in the comics in 1948. But this film was made in 1989 — well into the women’s liberation movement. Yet the character was more liberated in 1948. Here she is a great career woman — in reputation only. She takes a couple of photos toward the beginning of the film, but mostly she just throws herself at Bruce Wayne. And then, she’s used as a prop for the Joker to lead around. Other than jumping out of the way of some acid, she does nothing but wait around for Batman to save her.

Other than the fact that Bruce Wayne is rich, it isn’t clear what’s so attractive about him (not that that isn’t enough). But especially after she finds out that he is Batman, she ought to run away. And that’s true of the city too. Batman is a deeply disturbed person. He might be fighting the Joker today, but he is very likely to be poisoning the city tomorrow. He generally seems more interested in saving Vicki Vale than the city itself. In fact, there is an interesting scene that starts the film where a family is robbed at gun point. Batman eventually shows up to abuse the robbers, but doesn’t help the family at all.

There are ways to tell stories of collective action. But as a society, we are stuck in Roman times. It’s all about the hero archetype. And that is a fundamentally fascist idea. We need to get past that. There is no one hero who is going to save us. And if there were, we should be worried about it. Because we wouldn’t be in control. And then it really doesn’t matter if it is Batman or the Joker who is our Übermensch. He creates his own moral universe — one that we don’t want to live in.

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