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Is Batman a Fascist?

Is Batman a Fascist?

Is Batman a Fascist?

Photo by Debs (ò?ó)? Is Batman a Fascist?

Ten years ago, I knew I had just seen a great movie–the superhero film I never knew I had been waiting for, the first time in a century’s worth of pop fiction it seemed like these masked fools had something urgent to say.

I’m not sure I quite comprehended, though, that I was watching a movie I’d be talking about for a decade.

“The Dark Knight,” the second and best of Chris Nolan’s Batman trilogy, opened nationwide on July 18th, 2008. It went on to gross more than a billion dollars, becoming the 4th-highest domestic grossing movie at the time and a critical darling–so highly praised that, when it was snubbed for a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars that year, they changed the rules.

It transformed Hollywood, spawning a generation of high-end superhero epics and setting a template for superhero mythology as battles of ideas and worldviews you can still see in recent hits like “Black Panther” and “Wonder Woman.” The movie also left legacies less beneficial–ever-escalating superhero events and “universe” saturation, as well as a self-serious tone which has sunk other franchises. (The effect I hoped for most–that it would inspire studios to stop replying so much on computer-generated effects to create action and suspense–never really materialized.)

As a political allegory, though–which it undeniably is–“The Dark Knight” leaves a less clear legacy.

At the time, it was both praised and condemned as a right-wing fantasy and an apologia for the then-unpopular Bush administration. Even many who loved it found themselves a bit uncomfortable trying to explain its message.

That “The Dark Knight” leads itself to scores of differing and contradictory interpretations is a bit odd, since Chris Nolan isn’t a filmmaker known for his subtlety–and the movie isn’t particularly subtle. If anything, Nolan can be criticized for laboriously and pedantically spelling his themes out. What confuses people, I think, is that the movie spends more time raising unsettling questions than arriving at satisfactory answers.

But the most confounding point is a pretty simple one–Batman isn’t always supposed to be right.

This seems obvious to me, but I can see how people resist it. After it all, “The Dark Knight” is a superhero movie, and in a superhero movie you normally expect the guy with the tights to be the one you agree with.

But Batman is no normal superhero. Since his creation as a pulpy combination of The Shadow, Zorro and Dracula, he’s always been a bundle of contradictions. (This is even an element of the 60s show, where Adam West played Bats as the straight man in an absurd act.)

Your takeaway from the movie may be that Batman defeats the Joker and saves the city by embracing strong-arm and illegal tactics–and since he’s the good guy, these clear Bush administration parallels are meant to defend its policies as choices by bold men willing to do what is necessary to sustain order.

Maybe this isn’t a wrong interpretation–but I submit that if it’s your only takeaway, you’re missing a lot of what the movie is about.

The most important line for understanding “The Dark Knight’s” moral framework may not even be in the movie itself. It’s in the last scene of “Batman Begins,” the prior entry, as Batman discusses his crusade with then-Captain Gordon.

Gordon asks about escalation, which perplexes Batman.

“We start carrying semi-automatics, they buy automatics. We start wearing Kevlar, they buy armor-piercing rounds. … And you’re wearing a mask. Jumping off rooftops.”

Gordon then shows Batman a Joker card–a telltale for the latest Gotham villain.

Bruce Wayne wanted Batman to be a temporary act to jump-start the city from complacency. But he didn’t quite comprehend the Pandora’s Box he opened.

As much as it seems like it, the Joker didn’t descend onto Gotham from a black hole–all of Gotham, including its savior, played a role in his birth.

“Some men just want to watch the world burn,” Alfred tells Bruce as he tries to comprehend his new adversary.

Everyone remembers that line–but the one that comes right before it isn’t quoted as often.

“You crossed the line first–you hammered them to the point of desperation. And in their desperation, they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.”

In fact, if the movie has a flaw, it’s that the Joker is such a hypnotic and mesmerizing villain, it’s a bit hard to believe he needed any help in his plans to sow chaos. But he does–the Gotham mafia’s connections in the police department allow him to assassinate city officials, and its resources help him stage a coordinated assault on the man he believes to be Batman. A reluctant partnership with the Gotham underworld turns him from an annoying menace into an existential threat.

Even though this is stated in dialogue several times, it’s easy to forget as the movie’s plot speeds along like a bullet train. But’s crucial to understanding the philosophical underpinning of the conflict.

The Joker was enabled by Gotham’s wickedness and corruption, but also by the Batman’s disruption in order. It’s a scenario which easily recalls debates about blowback from the Iraq War in the early aughts–a comeupance some claim we’ve met with ISIS.

But however he came to be, the Joker represents a nihilistic threat that sends everyone’s moral compasses spinning.

Batman, already flexible in his standards, finds his sensibility stretched to the limit. He roughs up whoever he can find to get to the Joker, dropping one mob boss of a rooftop. While the Joker is in custody, he beats him within an inch of his life to reveal his deadly plan.

And when all of those techniques prove ineffective, he uses Wayne Enterprises to violate the Gotham citizenry’s privacy, arming every cell phone in the city with a sonar wiretap.

But, crucially, Batman is aware of the path he’s headed down. Awash in self-loathing from lingering guilt over his parents’ deaths, he views himself as irredeemable–but not Gotham. As the city’s dark collective id it’s his duty to probe the darker corners of reaction, to protect others from having to do the same.

When Dent, also fed up with the chaos, tries to muscle information from a Joker henchman, Batman stops him. And he agrees to give control of his wiretapping program to Lucius Fox, the man who threatened to resign over it, swearing it will be a one-time intrusion. (I bet he wishes he had kept it intact when Bane took over the city eight years later.)

The Joker uses deadly blackmail to try to get to Batman, publicly promising to kill more people every night until he reveals himself. Batman at first demurs, but as the bodies pile up and his methods run dry, he decides to give in–only saved by Harvey Dent’s last-minute decision to take the fall for him.

This arc could be seen as a simple parable about appeasing terrorism. But it takes on another dimension if one considers Batman responsible for this chaotic situation. He knew what he was getting into, but never asked the city if it wanted to come along.

“I have blood on my hands,” Bruce says while explaining his decision.

Batman clings to his code–he will not use a gun or kill–to ensure he hasn’t gone over the final edge. But this also doesn’t provide the moral grounding it should. When the Joker offers himself up to be sacrificed, Batman wavers, and leaves further deaths on his conscience.

The parallels to the debates of the Bush years, on warrantless wiretapping and torture, are too obvious to belabor here. But the movie doesn’t come to any reassuring conclusions. As we share the character’s rising frustration with the Joker’s chaotic reign of terror, we understand and often agree with their decisions.

And yet, those actions aren’t very productive. Most of the potential sources Batman roughs up provide empty answers. His wiretapping program locates the Joker, but it doesn’t appear he was really trying to stay hidden. It helps him save the Joker’s hostages in an unfinished high rise (the Trump Tower in Chicago, BTW), but leaves him blinded for a crucial moment which lets the Joker overpower him.

Maybe we’ve moved to the point where even acknowledging a debate over the lines we’re willing to cross to protect ourselves from apocalyptic terrorism is too much–although it certainly didn’t feel so then. (And it doesn’t really feel so now, with a president who promised to “bomb the shit out of” ISIS and to bring out interrogation methods “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”)

Nolan takes the central dilemma posed by “The Killing Joke”–but, thankfully, not its problematic gender dynamic–and refashions it as high-stakes, hyper-realistic allegory which is a perfect expression of its source material yet also comments on our modern challenges, and feels as relevant in 2018 as in 2008.

Are our morals, convictions, and ideals really worth a damn? Are they just illusions, and if they are, maybe they’re still worth fighting for? What are we willing to do to protect ourselves from terrifying, existential nihilism–and what does our decision say about us?

It’s been said that the superhero genre is inherently fascist, and it’s hard to argue that this is entirely untrue. Almost by definition, it distrusts civilian institutions and worships pure displays of power.

Is Batman a Fascist?Batman may be the greatest offender in this regard, using his wealth as a shield against the consequences of his actions and mocking the notions of citizen rights.

But he also provides a template to expose this archetype, and to examine these difficult human impulses. Frank Miller was clearly fascinated by Batman’s totalitarian side and probed it perfectly in “The Dark Knight Returns”–“the world only makes sense when you force it to,” Batman growls to Superman as they fight–before he slid into psychotic self-parody. Batman’s motives aren’t necessarily noble, and his results aren’t necessarily ideal–and this characteristic allows him to cut to the point in a way other superheroes can’t.

If “The Dark Knight” was accused of having a right-wing subtext, the critics of “The Dark Knight Rises” didn’t find its politics to be very subtle.

A re-telling of “A Tale of Two Cities” with masks and spandex, it recast the previously apolitical supervillain Bane as a modern-day Robespierre. The film was accused of being “fascistic” and anti-liberal, or in the words of Matthew Yglesias a “balls-out insanely rightwing movie.”

If only it was–it might have been coherent.

“Rises” was too muddled to have a clear political message–left, right, or iconoclastic. True, the villain disguises himself as a left-wing radical, promising Gotham freedom from its capitalistic oppressors. But since he’s making it all up–he’s actually an apocalyptic madman planning on destroying the city, and stretching the destruction out for unconvincing plot-related reasons–it’s hard to draw much of a message from his rhetoric. Nolan clearly believes the seeds of discontent which Bane reaps are legitimate, and the movie once again comes to the conclusion that Batman, alone, isn’t enough to save this city. While TDK focused your attention with a mesmerizing philosophical conflict, “Rises” gets too distracted by its own plot to get to much of a point. (And yet it’s still a pretty decent movie.)

“Rises” mostly serves to wrap up the Nolan franchise, yet the ending that will matter most to me is the ending of “The Dark Knight,”–ostensibly a cliff-hanger, but it seems more like a stake through the heart of the superhero conception.

Powerful, unsatisfying, challenging–it’s still, I contend, the most striking conclusion of a movie in this genre yet. Batman’s decision to assume blame for Harvey Dent’s crime, to ensure his campaign against corruption continues after his death, is made not just out of necessity, but as an admission that his crusade on crime has failed.

“Sometimes the truth isn’t good enough. Sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded,” Batman tells Gordon.

It’s an approach “Rises” explicitly rejects–“Maybe it’s time we all stopped trying to outsmart the truth, and let it have its day,” Alfred tearfully pleads to Bruce. But the movie ends in a similar way, with Bruce faking his death–and the death of Batman–to move onto a next chapter in his life.

It’s a familiar theme for Nolan. Virtually all of his movies end with a main character indulging or perpetuating a lie–often a self-deception–to make life manageable.

In “Memento,” Leonard lets himself forget his discovery that the supposed murderer of his wife, “John G.,” has long been dead, and that he is actually the likely killer. In “Inception,” Cobb ignores the spinning top which would tell him if he were still dreaming or not. In “Dunkirk,” a character’s senseless death is re-imagined as a heroic sacrifice for his hometown newspaper.

Interestingly, “Insomnia” ends on an opposite note. Hilary Swank’s character tries to throw away evidence incriminating Al Pacino’s hero cop, her idol–but Pacino uses his dying breath to stop her.

Nolan is obsessed with how reality is a chaotic jumble of facts and circumstances which never quite fit, and maintaining ideals and convictions requires not just determination but willful ignorance–which doesn’t make it any less necessary.

And as much as we might like to turn to a heroic strongman to make sense of it all, that choice may bring us destruction, not peace.

Alex Parker

Guest Author
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Alex Parker is a policy writer in Washington, D.C. with 15 years of journalism experience.

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29 thoughts on “Is Batman a Fascist?

  1. I really liked this essay. Thanks for writing it. I’ve seen Dark Knight only once and that was about when it came out,” but your synopsis and analysis rings basically to how I remember interpreting it.

    *I’ve never seen Rises and I’ve seen Batman Begins several times.

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  2. “I am using the truth, Master Wayne. Maybe it’s time we all stop trying to outsmart the truth and let it have its day.”

    This is, I think, the core argument. One of the things that I think is interesting about the Joker in the movie (other than the fact that he isn’t crazy) is this:

    Can you name the lines where you’re pretty sure he wasn’t lying?

    Or even “lying” might be the wrong word. The lines where you’re pretty sure that he’s expressing thoughts that he’s having rather than manipulating the person to whom he’s saying them?

    I mean, the movie is full of people having real conversations with each other.

    I don’t know that the Joker had one. (There are arguments that he did, of course… but a lot of the lines he said were contradicted by other lines he said in other scenes.)

    Alfred’s line about letting the truth finally have its day was a great line because the movies were all full of people lying for very important reasons. The good guys, even. And it always made things worse.

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    • That’s part of why I didn’t find The Joker to be a particularly compelling character. Well-represented by Ledger, to be sure, but actually interesting? I think The Scarecrow was my favorite villain of the three movies, with Two-Face being my second choice. The Joker is kind of like the shark in Jaws: terrifying as a concept, but not fleshed-out because he’s beyond motives.

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      • Exactly. And in the Nolan movies, they have to have us totally ignore the Joker is being someone he shouldn’t be.

        As was pointed out on the Cracked video about this, the Joker’s plan in that movie is not only completely insane in the amount of detail it would require, but requires knowledge and timing he couldn’t possibly do. The Joker’s plan is, literally, impossibly detailed. But…look, villains can do that in movies.

        What they can’t do is do that and _at the same time_ be a sort of personification of chaos and claim they don’t have a plan! Which the movie also tries to make Joker out of to be…or, at least, I _think_ it does? It might be trying to tell us he’s lying about that? Who even knows?

        Or, to put it bluntly: If he’s actually a nihilist, why does he have a huge and complicated plan to show people the truth about things and change how they think? Why does he care?

        Jaybird is right, there’s a difference between ‘unreliable information about a character’, and ‘literally no information about a character’, and the Joker, not just in the Nolan movies, but everywhere, has never had any real information about him, or his motives, or literally anything, so he doesn’t work particularly well as a solo antagonist. Especially when they don’t give us anyone for him to play off of or that could possibly know his actual plans. (There’s a reason the DCAU gave us Harley for that.) Without that, he’s just a random violent guy who says a bunch of gibberish we can’t possibly believe.

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        • I remember reading Camus, and noticing how much effort he put into building situational irony. He uses architectural precision. He puts each piece in place, just to put the last piece in the wrong place and declare that life is meaningless. But if you can’t even create a meaningless world without a blueprint, doesn’t that undermine the whole message?

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        • Nolan depicts the Joker as some sort of mythological force, a malacious trickster demon from nowhere. Ledger portrays this well but you still wonder why the hell the Joker is doing what he is doing. As a sort of overly psychopathic criminal with a real sick and twisted sense of humor, the Joker has motivation. He wants to cause chaos and pain, he is manic. Ledger’s joker was a way too in control of his emotions to be a chaos agent. You didn’t get any indication he derived pleasure from his actions like other Jokers.

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          • I really think that movie would have worked better with the Joker as a plot derailer. Like, there was some actual other villain plan going on, perhaps even someone working with the Joker, but the Joker interrupts the plan halfway through and causes chaos.

            Granted, how Two-Face would fit into that is unknown.

            I know they really wanted the Joker to try his ‘Everyone can go crazy if they have a bad enough day’ plan, which is indeed ripped from ‘A Death in the Family’, except the movie targetted it at Dent instead of Gordon. But the thing is…that’s not really Two Face’s origin. It’s not a particular _bad_ origin for him (He sorta _did_ have a bad day and go crazy.), but he doesn’t need it, Harvey Dent already had disassociative identity disorder, and ‘Big Bad Harv’ was already inside him waiting to become Two-Face.

            If I had to rewrite the movie, I’d flip it around. Instead of making Joker part of Two-Face’s origin, I’d make Two-Face part of Joker’s origin. Not Joker’s actual ‘origin story’, we don’t need to see that again and I’m glad the movie didn’t bother, but I’d start with a slightly-mentally-ill Joker who is a mostly reasonable criminal. Rather like he’s _pretending_ to be at the start of the movie. (Right? I haven’t seen it in a bit.) Give him actual amnesia or something, with some faint memories of a normal life, a family he might have had, before he was fished out of a pool of chemicals by the police. But no one can ever identify him, he’s not even sure if he was actually a criminal or just someone Batman _said_ was breaking into Ace Chemicals.

            And have him as the strategist for some big underworld plan to basically seize control of the city, for one of the major players in Gotham. (A realistic crime-boss Penguin, or Falcone, or someone.) At least they think so, he’s actually going to stab them in the back and take over himself. This plot includes exposing Batman’s identity as act one. And Dent steps forward as Batman, they try to kill him, they maim him instead, and we get Two-Face for act two.

            Joker looks at Harvey Dent snapping, and figures, hey, maybe that’s what happened to him. Maybe it can happen to anyone. And at that point, he totally derails the previous conspiracy plot, and we get mayhem for act three. His plan stops being ‘Seize control of the city for someone else and then stab them in the back and take it for myself’, it’s ‘Show people this is all is pointless and anyone can break if they have One Bad Day, and kill a lot of people’.

            We can have thinking intricate-plan Joker _and_ agent-of-chaos nihilist Joker, if we start with the first and show his descent into the second. The second, of course, would still knows all the plans of the first, still have his hands on all the strings. So, for example, instead of holding the passengers on the boat’s hostage for monetary demands or to tie up the police or free a prisoner or whatever, like the plan was supposed to be, he’s giving them each other’s detonators and giving them morality questions. Etc, etc.

            I’m not sure who he tries to make snap in act three. I guess they could introduce Barbara Gordon (Without her being Batgirl), and make it basically A Death in the Family. Although I think it might be interesting to have Joker figure out who Batman is when he realizes it couldn’t be Dent, and go after _him_.

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  3. Great piece. I really liked it and I think you’ve made me understand The Dark Knight a little better than I did before. It suddenly dawns on me that the Joker dressing up the innocent hostages as bad guys and setting them up as cannon fodder was subtextual and has a lot of meaning for me here in 2018. (probably obvious, just never put all that together before)

    I wrote a little bit about these same themes in my Daredevil piece here. https://ordinary-times.com/2018/11/05/good-evil-and-daredevil/

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  4. Yeah batman is a tough one. He has no overt super powers so he has to use fear and violence to accomplish what other DC heroes do simply by being able to juggle tanks. His actual super powers lie in being mostly infallible which is pretty much necessary for his schtick to work. Imagine if Batman beats some person within an inch of their life only to realize he fished up and they were actually innocent? His entire MO has no mechanism for dealing with that. It’d either be the end of Batman or the beginning of Batvillain.

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    • You could make a strong argument that Batman is the anti-fascist opposing Superman in some stories. Even sometimes where Superman isn’t fascist, but Batman thinks he is.

      ETA: Heh. He dresses in black and bullies people he thinks are fascists. You could make an argument he’s antifa.

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          • More than that, I guess I was questioning the premise of this article. Not everything bad is fascist. Not every use of force is necessarily bad or fascist. For that matter, not every depiction of fascism is fascist. Magneto wanted the genetically superior to dominate – would you call X-Men fascist?

            The recent Inhumans show was fascist. The innately superior had the right to rule, and those without powers had to work in the mines, and this was clearly depicted favorably. The good guys were the royalty. The bad guy had no powers, and he was explicitly the bad guy because he was trying to overthrow the ruling family and liberate the powerless. There may have been some introspection planned in the future, but we never got there.

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            • You touch on something I’ve been thinking for a while.

              Our political dialogue is made up terms and ideas that are mostly particular to the 20th century struggles. “Fascism” didn’t really exist as a popular term before the 1920s. “Socialism” didn’t exist before the 1850s.

              But the ideas of rule by strongmen, and republican power sharing have been around since the ancient times.
              I don’t think it works to shoehorn all contemporary events and actions into the 20th century terms.

              Like we see with contemporary Russia and China, tyranny can exist wholly independent of whatever economic structure exists.

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              • Yes. It’s my theory that there wasn’t a word for “fascism” before the early 20th century for the same reason that fish don’t have a word for “water”. Everyone expects to be ruled by powerful people who seek to increase their power and manipulate the system to help their own group. About a hundred years ago, when everyone was feeling sciency, they tried to build a theory to promote it. (It’s telling that no one can agree which governments should bear the label.) But except for a few rare instances, everyone from the Han to the House of York played according to the same rulebook.

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            • The innately superior had the right to rule, and those without powers had to work in the mines, and this was clearly depicted favorably.

              I’m pretty certain that _everyone_ in that society had powers. I’m not entirely sure whether it was a ‘regular’ hereditary monarchy or a ‘the stronger powers got to rule’ monarchy (And it was just a coincidence the child of the current monarchies had the strongest power.), but it wasn’t just the royal family that had powers. Everyone in that society was an Inhuman, everyone went through terrigenesis.

              Or, technically speaking, everyone was _born_ an Inhuman. The bad guy was born an Inhuman but the ‘power’ he got via terrigenesis was ‘stop being an Inhuman and turn into a normal human’. (Which is, as a concept, a really weird ‘superpower’.)

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  5. I do think it’s a bit thick that right at the end Lucius Fox develops scruples. Like, this makes it seem as though all along he’s just been idly indulging Bruce Wayne’s heroic fantasies, only stopping when it seems like there might be uses for these gadgets that extend beyond one rich boy’s cosplay.

    Also, I get that they had to do the “heel turn” for Batman to make the cops hate him, because that’s always seemed to be a part of the better Batman stories–the idea that the cops aren’t on his side, that they consider him just as much of a problem as the weirdoes he drags into Arkham. That tension was both enabling and dangerous–if Batman isn’t just a cop in a funny outfit then he can do more, he can do all the bad things that cops aren’t supposed to do, and so he continually has to struggle with the need (or the desire) to do those things.

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    • I think I agree, especially about your first paragraph. While I didn’t have the exact same thoughts about Lucius’s decision (I think I just accepted it as part of the film), I did think the film itself and its ending was preachy and, as you suggest, laid out everything a bit “thick.” In my opinion, Batman begins ends with the same (or very similar) message, but much more subtly and (in my opinion) more palatably.

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  6. Superhero myths have to have multiple conflicting meanings, just by their very nature.

    On one level, the childlike surface level, they are aspirational hero stories of good vanquishing evil.

    But on more reflection, the characters are actually not so admirable. The hero, whether it is Superman, Batman, or Spiderman, are passive object of fate. They didn’t build their powers or create them through hard work and sacrifice.

    The gods, or radioactive spiders, just gift them with power through no special acts of themselves.

    The Batman and Marvel stories hint at the underlying problem, which is, how would an ordinary flawed mortal react, when given godlike powers?

    But they can only hint, never follow all the way through. Imagine if Batman’s toys fail to stop a Bane or Joker from actually destroying an entire city, or worse, imagine if his vigilante actions touch off a Rwandan scale genocide.

    The Greeks at least had a tale of Phaeton who was given the opportunity to drive the sun chariot across the sky, with tragic results for both the mortals and himself.

    As for the question of the OP, they spring from the same soil as fascism, where the people are like the peasants in Greek mythology, just helpless pawns in the grand game of great men and gods.

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    • What’s interesting to me is that there seems to be a distinct contrast between rich heroes and rich villains, in that the former always inherited their wealth (Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark, Oliver Queen) and the latter are always self-made men (Lex Luthor, Wilson Fisk, Victor von Doom). Superhero comics (among other things) always seem to have a bit of a yearning for the old aristocracy.

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  7. Gal Gidot, Henry Cavill, Jason Mamoa need to work together to convince Ben Affleck that the voice he apparently worked up for anti-smoking throat-cancer commercials is perhaps very distracting in the Batman role. If that doesn’t have an effect, they should talk about how much better Matt Damon would do.

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    • Gal Gidot, Henry Cavill, Jason Mamoa need to work together to convince Ben Affleck that the voice he apparently worked up for anti-smoking throat-cancer commercials is perhaps very distracting in the Batman role.

      Or they can tell him that the Batman voice is only needed when intimidating other people (Or when it’s someone who often talks to Bruce Wayne socially, like Gordon.), and he doesn’t need to do it at other times, duh.

      Seriously, that’s so goofy.

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  8. Batman or even super hero-ism would require a social construct that lends authority to it. If no other person lends authority to the construct, then the entity is just acting on individual claims of social objectivity.

    If the social objectivity wasn’t parsed and apparent, there would be little difference between the actions of the joker, and the actions of batman.

    While that may provide food for thought, the other question i have is which tribes claims batman, and why?

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