December Comic Book Post: No, Batman is not Fascist.

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.

However, Superman remains Superman: ultimately altruistic and guided by a spirit of kindness. As such, however loyal he is too the true spirit of communism (whatever that might be), this devotion does not create a fatal blindness. He will change anything about it the moment he perceives that harm will result thereby.
However, I wonder if the story does not suffer from a common fallacy about the nature of communism: that it failed only in the nature of the men who ran it. There seems almost the hope that utopia could result if only we had men of sufficient intelligence to lead us there. So the book seems to conclude.
This is wrong for a number of reasons. In the first place, intelligence is not a synonym for virtue. Stalin was not a clumsy gangster (even if we accepted that gangsters are unintelligent, which is an assumption without warrant); he was a gifted poet.
In the second place, what denies us utopia is not the way we trade or the way we express our innumerable ideas. It is not the vote, or the lack of it. The problem is us. Just us. We have no perfect order because we are not perfect, because we are not gods.
Utopia (a secular-rationalist’s imitation of heaven) dies within us. We cannot build a tower to there without throwing the world into confusion.
But what about regular Superman? Isn’t the whole concept of Superman a Nietzschean bastardization that gives the game away? Isn’t all that Truth, Justice, and the American Way just fascist swill? 
Well, yes. If by “fascist” you mean “something which expresses patriotism without irony in a way that makes me think of the right-wing strawmen I imagine in my head.” If you mean, “something expressing the values of fascism,” then, no. No, he isn’t. Quoth Yogerst:
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.
Non-communist Superman has no thought, or even desire, to rule us (and in fairness to Red Son, communist superman really doesn’t want to take over the USSR when Stalin dies, either But the Politburo forces it on him). He conceives of himself not as a unique crux of historical destiny but as person who has received a gift, and must use that gift to help others. Superman does not care about the structure of society, or the economic arguments that plague the rest of us. He doesn’t even seem to see these things. Instead of “society” and “economics”, Superman sees people.
Okay, fine, so Superman’s a square-egg. What about Batman? I found Yogerst’s article from Instapundit, and commenter Supergenius argues that Batman’s a bit soft on the fascism front:
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.”

The Dark Knight Returns has political accusations galore, but I don’t think it authoritative as to Batman’s nature. Expecially because I don’t see, despite all the Batman comics I’ve read, any evidence that Batman has any “vision” of a “just society” as distinct from anyone else. Nor can I see any action Batman has taken to implement said society (although TDKR hints at such at the very end). What does Batman actually do?
  1. Finds out what Joker/Penguin/Riddler/Villain X are up to
  2. Stops them, catches them, hands them over to the authorities
  3. 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.

When any superhero (or anyone else) starts actively pursuing a New Order, it is fair to compare them with other Revolutionary creeds, of which fascism was one. Until then, the guys wearing capes, with personal insignia on their chest, who rescue the commoners from dragons are probably not that.
Why so serious?


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