I picked up the new Three and The Star Wars yesterday. They’re pretty awesome, but I’m saving my discussion of them for a later post.
Today I’m going to pick up a gauntlet cast down last month, and talk about Superman: Red Son, which will dovetail nicely into this piece by Chris Yogerst in the Atlantic, “Stop Calling Superheroes Fascist”.
What if baby Superman’s spaceship had landed in Ukraine in the 1930’s, rather than Kansas? What if Superman, instead of the champion of Truth, Justice, and the American Way, were the titan of International Communism? The premise cannot fail to intrigue: making Superman a Soviet Champion allows us to critique the nature of the character in a new way. He becomes like Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen – too alien to be completely benign. A being with Superman’s abilities would become either a crutch or a God-Emperor, and possibly both.
Indeed, superhero tales are full of subplots about how heroes limit their own power: hibernating once the big bad guy has been defeated, wearing disguises to live ordinary lives, choosing not to give into the temptation to ally with the villain or use their powers for profit or even civilizational progress. That’s because the creators of some of the most foundational superhero tales weren’t writing solely out of a power fantasy. They were writing out of a fantasy that a truly good people who find themselves with power might use that power only for good—and only in the face of extreme evil.
The Batman is somewhat more problematic though. He has none of the optimism of Superman. He has none of the faith in the Enlightenment values of the American system. Which is why he is so often at odds against it. He relentlessly pursues his vision of a “just” world. His vision, and his alone. He has no patience for an imperfect system with imperfect outcomes. He will use every resource at his command, his immense fortune, his genius intellect, but most important, his sheer force of WILL – in order to achieve that social vision. In this fashion, he is far more a superman than Superman (in the Nietzchean sense). The Batman is a very Romantic or Counter-Enlightenment character. He is above normal human beings. He does not concern himself with them. All that matters to him is the pursuit of his vision of the just society.As Bruce says during his EPIC battle with Clark during the climax of “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns”:
“You sold us out Clark. You gave them the power that should have been ours. Just like your parents taught you to. My parents taught me a different lesson… lying on this street – shaking in deep shock. Dying for no reason at all. They showed me that the world only makes sense when you FORCE it to.”
- Finds out what Joker/Penguin/Riddler/Villain X are up to
- Stops them, catches them, hands them over to the authorities
- Repeat ad infinitum
Among other things, fascists believe in taking direct action to seize power and destroy the enemies of the people. They despise the persistent rhythms of justice and law as corrupt. Batman’s life is that rhythm. If he were truly a fascist, he would have killed the Joker the first time they met (as he does in TDKR). However cynical the Bat is about human nature, he would never take it upon himself to tell other people how to live or the state how to administer justice. His job is to catch the people who otherwise get away. He is justice’s safety net.
We have this tendency, especially in America, to call anything fascist that seems remotely authoritarian or combative. But Batman’s other moniker “The Dark Knight” speaks to his true nature. Bruce Wayne, wealthy and powerful, the son of Gotham’s most famous family, is an aristocrat. He believes himself both empowered and obligated by his status in society to act on behalf of the innocent. He protects the common citizens from rampaging monsters. He has far more in common with Zorro, St. George, and Beowulf than with Mussolini or Heydrich.
At a crucial moment in The Dark Knight Returns, Batman rides into town to save the day on a horse. He tells the startled citizens of Gotham, including dangerous street gangs, “Tonight, I am the law.” Any Count who had to lead his household guard against Vikings would have understood.