Batman and Justice
Symbolism over Substance?
Thomas M. Miovas, Jr.
It was with a great deal of interest that I went to see the new Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises,” after some of my online friends, including Objectivists, highly praised it. I do think the characters were well drawn out and clearly defined insofar as Nolan presented them, especially the bad guys – Bane and the Rabble he roused from the prisons of Gotham City. The struggle of Bruce Wayne / Batman was well worth seeing, since he starts off as a man who has given up on everything, including his business and his campaign for justice, and doesn’t even have the strength to catch a jewel thief who walks into his bedroom to steal a pearl necklace. It is from this beginning that we see Batman having to rebuild his love of justice to combat the strongest villain he has been up against, Bane, who not only has great physical strength, but the motivation to destroy Gotham City based upon the egalitarian principle that no man ought to be permitted to rise above another. Consequently, Bane releases the violent criminals to tear down the societal hierarchy of Gotham, including putting political leaders and businessmen on trial for taking their positions and their wealth from the people. Bane and the Rabble make this exceedingly clear in several open statements as to their motivation. My disappointment with the movie (and in fact the whole Batman Trilogy) is that neither Bruce Wayne nor Batman give any type of counter statements to the Rabble. This makes the movie and interesting case of symbolism versus substance.
I fully acknowledge that throughout the history of Batman that he represents a man of justice – a masked avenger against evil as it attempts to take over Gotham City and become too much for the police to handle. In the Batman Trilogy, Batman takes on environmentalism, nihilism, and egalitarianism, insofar as these ideologies – if taken to the extreme – will lead to the total destruction of Gotham. Certainly, the symbolism of a man dedicated to justice fighting off these evil ideologies ought to be appreciated – the very fact that a Hollywood writer considers these ideologies to be evil (in the extreme) and seeks to present their battle with justice is encouraging. And one can take the attitude that it is about time *someone* saw these as evil and against proper justice. However, these are ideologies and have been presented to the world as ideologies, with scores of books written in their favor and having a long history of philosophical grounding all the way back to Plato and Kant, who put justice and the concerns of man into some other dimension having nothing to do with reality. In fact, it is precisely because they have little or nothing to do with reality that makes them so appealing to some, who would rather not think about real life and who fantasize that in a better world plants and animals would be superior to man, or that everything is nothing and ought to be destroyed, or that the man of talent and skills ought not be permitted to earn his better life. But Batman has nothing to say against these ideologies! He’s willing to fight their progeny to the death, if necessary, but he has no words against their intellectual positions. If taking an intellectual stance is a form of substance, then Batman did not present any substance against the evils confronting him and Gotham City.
One reason these ideologies are spreading throughout the world – destroying capitalism and America in the process – is that no one has risen to challenge them intellectually: To show with logic and facts that the position of those fighting against man’s happiness on earth is evil and to offer a better alternative. The Objectivists, those following Ayn Rand, certainly do this, and can ground their ideology firmly to the facts and back it up with reason; but very few others can. And Objectivists also know that the primary battle against the man-haters does not require physical combat, but rather a counter-ideology that will put evil on the defensive once again. It is because these evil ideologies have not been confronted intellectually that they are so virulent and come across as unstoppable. In this regard, it is good that a symbol of justice was shown to be combating them in the Batman Trilogy, but it is going to take a great deal more than the Batmobile and the BatCopter to lock up those ideologies hell-bent on ruining everything for the rational man. And I sincerely doubt that any marginal environmentalist, nihilist, or egalitarian would be swayed by the Batman Trilogy to check their premises and to find a better ideology, or be cowarded into not taking their explicit positions because Batman is against them. So, while I can say that the Batman Trilogy was good – insofar as even symbolic justice can be encouraging to those of us on the right side of the issues – it is not good enough to change the trends – not without an explicit pro-man, pro-reason presentation of justice.
“Justice is the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake the character of men as you cannot fake the character of nature, that you must judge all men as conscientiously as you judge inanimate objects, with the same respect for truth, with the same incorruptible vision, by as pure and as rational a process of identification—that every man must be judged for what he is and treated accordingly, that just as you do not pay a higher price for a rusty chunk of scrap than for a piece of shining metal, so you do not value a rotter above a hero—that your moral appraisal is the coin paying men for their virtues or vices, and this payment demands of you as scrupulous an honor as you bring to financial transactions—that to withhold your contempt from men’s vices is an act of moral counterfeiting, and to withhold your admiration from their virtues is an act of moral embezzlement—that to place any other concern higher than justice is to devaluate your moral currency and defraud the good in favor of the evil, since only the good can lose by a default of justice and only the evil can profit—and that the bottom of the pit at the end of that road, the act of moral bankruptcy, is to punish men for their virtues and reward them for their vices, that that is the collapse to full depravity, the Black Mass of the worship of death, the dedication of your consciousness to the destruction of existence.” [from Galt’s Speech, Atlas Shrugged, a novel by Ayn Rand]
Sometimes, when it comes to modern movies, I cannot thoroughly enjoy them without re-writing them in my own mind, using the same presented elements, but stressing them better by making them more explicit. It's as if the original version was only a sketch (and maybe even a good one), but it lacks details I would need to consider it to be great art. Nolan's Batman series was like this for me, especially TDKR (Batman Rises).
There are two codes of justice at conflict in TDKR: Bane, who represents Marxist justice (wealth is stolen and the rich had to steal from the people, so justice is restoring the balance) versus Batman (the idea that wealth is created, is owned by the producer, and should be protected from criminals). In this context Catwoman is a transitionary figure, not quite having decided to go fully with Bane, but resisting Batman due to her not being able to be successful and concluding the only way to get ahead is to steal from the rich. The story is how these elements play out.
And I don't think it would have taken much to make the conflict much more intellectual versus physical warfare, thus making TDKR a great movie, rather than a good movie that was a sketch of a major conflict going on today in our culture. I'm glad Nolan sided with Batman, so the sketch is there; but filling in more details explicitly makes it possible for me to have a better grasp of what was achieved in only symbolism in TDKR.