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Batman and Justice: Symbolism over Substance?

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http://www.appliedphilosophyonline.com/batman_and_justice.htm

Batman and Justice

Symbolism over Substance?

Thomas M. Miovas, Jr.

08/11/2012

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]

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This was the exact qualm I had, when trying to say I liked this movie. Although it was very good on a technical level, and the story and characters were enjoyable, it just didn't deliver on an intellectual level. The whole time I kept waiting and waiting for just the smallest counter-argument. I didn't expect Wayne to give a speech, or even for him to be the one to say something. I was hoping may Alfred or the commissioner would be the one to speak out, even if it was just one line in defense, but I got nothing!

To be fair, Bane doesn't exactly lay out philosophically how he is for collectivism, neither does he specifically define what he is for, but he says enough for it to be understood. As for Batman, I'm not really sure what it is that he DOES stand for. Sure we can all guess, and read into his actions, but he doesn't really say. Kind of disappointing.

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This was the exact qualm I had, when trying to say I liked this movie. Although it was very good on a technical level, and the story and characters were enjoyable, it just didn't deliver on an intellectual level. The whole time I kept waiting and waiting for just the smallest counter-argument. I didn't expect Wayne to give a speech, or even for him to be the one to say something. I was hoping may Alfred or the commissioner would be the one to speak out, even if it was just one line in defense, but I got nothing!

To be fair, Bane doesn't exactly lay out philosophically how he is for collectivism, neither does he specifically define what he is for, but he says enough for it to be understood. As for Batman, I'm not really sure what it is that he DOES stand for. Sure we can all guess, and read into his actions, but he doesn't really say. Kind of disappointing.

I don't think the movie was supposed to be intellectual. It's an action film first and foremost. Secondly, what would you want the good guys to say that won't get a negative reaction and jeopardize the bottom line (revenues)?

Edited by Craig24

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I don't think the movie was supposed to be intellectual. It's an action film first and foremost. Secondly, what would you want the good guys to say that won't get a negative reaction and jeopardize the bottom line (revenues)?

Without hearing it from Nolan himself, I am not going to try to second-guess why he didn't have either Bruce Wayne or Batman take a more outspoken stance against the bad guy's ideology. However, when you consider that Atlas Shrugged is one of the most philosophical novels ever written and that it has sold over 1.5 million copies since the Obamanation has taken office, then I think it belies the notion that challenging the Left on ideology will ruin one's bottom line. Of course, Nolan has to deal with the Hollywood Left, who have all but taken over, but if he was really worried about that, then he would not have challenged environmentalism, nihilism, and egalitarianism via Batman in the first place.

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I don't think the movie was supposed to be intellectual. It's an action film first and foremost. Secondly, what would you want the good guys to say that won't get a negative reaction and jeopardize the bottom line (revenues)?

I hear what you're saying, but all it would take is a generic comment to make me happy really. Like Gordon saying something like, "Bane offers equality, but it's far from it." Or "This isn't freedom", or something like that even if it's cheesy.

Again, Bane gave no elaborate speeches, he just makes a few comments here and there about equality, and fairness and such. All it would take is a few "counter-comments".

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I was just thinking to myself "Does the audience want or expect Bruce Wayne to emulate John Galt or just be an action hero." Then I saw this:

Batman is an Atlas Shrugged-loving ass and Superman is a commie pinko

The writer quotes from a Rolling Stone commentary by Matt Taibbi:

[batman]'s a brooding, self-serious douche who lives in a mansion, drives a Lamborghini, and acts like he can't even imagine wanting to get laid unless it somehow helps him fulfill his mission of protecting Gotham from its lurking proletarian community...

What depresses the Batman is us: our decadence, our disobedience, our refusal to appreciate and treasure the gifts of civilization given to us by the noblesse oblige types like his father. We suck so much that when Rises starts, Batman is in the eighth year of a self-imposed Atlas Shrugged-ian strike, refusing to leave his mansion until we stop blaming him for all of our problems.

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Wow...hatred of the good for being the good is all over the place, not only in the articles cited, but also in the article referenced. Just think of the howl there would be had Bruce Wayne stood up for his earned wealth because he knew how to run a business and was proud of it! But it does bring up a relevant point -- is Bruce Wayne permitted to have his wealth morally because he defends the weak during the night from human predators? It is possible, given the original conception of a businessman becoming a masked avenger, that had Bruce stood up for his wealth, the creator of Batman would have seen that as a contradiction to Batman's stance on justice?

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I hear what you're saying, but all it would take is a generic comment to make me happy really. Like Gordon saying something like, "Bane offers equality, but it's far from it." Or "This isn't freedom", or something like that even if it's cheesy.

Again, Bane gave no elaborate speeches, he just makes a few comments here and there about equality, and fairness and such. All it would take is a few "counter-comments".

I think the movie did a good job of adhering to show-don't-tell in that area. It doesn't need to be stated to be clear that all of Bane's statements about giving Gotham back to the people were just a thin smokescreen for his revenge plot.

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I found that in terms of concretes, the movie was pretty good about substance of beliefs, leaving aside all the flaws I saw in pacing, maintaining a theme, and plot flow. No elaborate speeches were needed, especially given how Batman is such an introverted person anyway. Bane was essentially a nihilist through-and-through, so he didn't have much to say other than for purposes of manipulation, or admiring the destruction he caused in any form. He was really all about denying that anyone deserved justice, in reaction to how he and Natalia were treated in the Pit. One great line was "Which do you think came first?" when blowing up the roof of the sewer to get to the equipment above ground. This might not be the exact words, but it implied hating any notion of value creation because life depends on the grotesque like the trash left in a sewer. Batman had nothing to respond to anyway - what could he have said to a person like Bane?

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I think these types of films have a fairly simple formula to them: bad guy hatches plan to destroy [some part of] civilisation, owing to some 'fundamentalist' belief. The fundamentalism make the character more interesting, as they're not just randomly mischievous but driven by some ideology (which they usually abandon towards the end, as the film seeks to morally bankrupt them). I suspect this all stems from public awareness of Al Queda. Fundamentalists are the movie-threat *du jour* since the Cold War ended, and mafia types became cool.

In other words, fundamentalism as a choice for villainry in movies isn't worth dwelling on too much. Whether it's Eco-terrorism or anti-capitalism or rogue patriotism or religious fanaticism it doesn't really matter, it's just a formula. Bad guys have to be more than just bank robbers these days. It's not symbolism over substance, it's formula over substance.

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I think these types of films have a fairly simple formula to them: bad guy hatches plan to destroy [some part of] civilisation, owing to some 'fundamentalist' belief.

What fundamentalist beliefs did Bane have? He seemed to have no ideology.

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Well he was linked to the villains from Batman Begins and was promising to fulfil their objectives. They seemed to be driven by a sort of anti-Western, anti-materialism dogma, which in reality we usually associate with Sayyid Qutb and his disciples.

The storyline also mixed in a sort of Occupy-Wallstreet-inspired anti-capitalism, making good on the otherwise empty threats to put the wealthy on trial for their 'crimes' and tear down the 'system' for a new start. People throw those ideas about but everyone realises that only a bloody revolution would achieve them, so they reside in the territory of fundamentalist coups.

Bane is just a mix of anti-Western and anti-Capitalist fundamentalism, two things which are hot-topics these last few years. The point is not to explore these ideologies in any detail, it's just a little bit of shading to make the villains more believable.

Edited by Tyco

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I think it was rather clear that Bane and the Rabble represented egalitarianism and how can anyone dare to rise above another? That's why Bane wanted to destroy Gotham and why the Rabble put the businessmen on trial. But it wasn't an ideological movie, sad to say, and so much more could have been done with the set-up than was done with just a few sharp words from Bruce Wayne or Batman at the appropriate times. Not that he would have had to address Bane or the Rabble, but there were times he could have taken a clear position with his own team and especially Alfred who wanted him to give up the battle.

Edited by Thomas M. Miovas Jr.

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By the way, there is a principle that I mentioned on FaceBook before writing my more thorough essay, and that is that implicit good cannot win over explicit evil. That is, if the enemy of man has a clear ideology for motivation, and the good guys don't, then the good guys are not going to win the battle and may very well lose the war. As Miss Rand clearly demonstrated in Part Two of Atlas Shrugged, a man's moral premises / his ideology is his motive power, and in any given battle, he who has the most motive power based on ideology will win. So, because neither Bruce Wayne nor Batman made their intentions clear and didn't have a clearly defined ideology to promote justice, then I didn't fully believe the rise of Batman as presented in the movie. The scenes were set up well, but Batman gave no response aside from overcoming obstacles, which isn't enough to have a moral crusade.

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But Batman's not ultimately on a moral crusade, he's just cleaning up the streets. On a bigger scale this time, with bad guys who have a fundamentalist tint to make them slightly more interesting, but in the end it's just a physical struggle. On a slightly deeper level it's about how much Bruce Wayne values the lives of ordinary, decent people and how this motivates him to pursue the, uh, vigilante lifestyle. But high level philosophical debate... Just doesn't come into it IMO.

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But Batman's not ultimately on a moral crusade, he's just cleaning up the streets. On a bigger scale this time, with bad guys who have a fundamentalist tint to make them slightly more interesting, but in the end it's just a physical struggle. On a slightly deeper level it's about how much Bruce Wayne values the lives of ordinary, decent people and how this motivates him to pursue the, uh, vigilante lifestyle. But high level philosophical debate... Just doesn't come into it IMO.

I still don't quite see how Bane was a fundamentalist. Yes, he used people who are some flavor of egalitarian in public, but that's only because he knew it would bring destruction. Bane wanted to see Gotham burn for no other reason than to see it burn. Who better to use to destroy a city than those an anti-capitalist mob? Bane recognized this, but didn't try to destroy Gotham so that a utopia can be built from the ashes - he merely wanted to destroy it. There isn't any rhyme or reason, fundamentally, for what he did. Though highly capable of logical thought for planning long-range, he never chose his actions in the name of a "good". Can you honestly say Bane wanted equality? Why did he want to nuke Gotham? Why did Bane attack the stock exchange? Unfortunately, philosophical debate can't go much deeper, Bane's nihilism wasn't nearly explored enough, plus it's very vague why Batman suddenly started caring again. I found the movie cool, but I really wanted to see what level of evil that only a nihilist like Bane could reach.

Edited by Eiuol

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I think it was rather clear that Bane and the Rabble represented egalitarianism and how can anyone dare to rise above another? That's why Bane wanted to destroy Gotham and why the Rabble put the businessmen on trial. But it wasn't an ideological movie, sad to say, and so much more could have been done with the set-up than was done with just a few sharp words from Bruce Wayne or Batman at the appropriate times. Not that he would have had to address Bane or the Rabble, but there were times he could have taken a clear position with his own team and especially Alfred who wanted him to give up the battle.

No, the plot makes it very clear that Bane is being manipulative of Gotham's feelings by using populist rhetoric about the rich. His true disdain is not for the rich of Gotham, it's for ALL of Gotham. He says he is there to fulfill Ra's Al Ghul's destiny, and the end twist solidifies that.

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I think we are arguing over not much of a difference. When you come right down to it, egalitarianism is a type of nihilism -- the destruction of the better man by reducing everyone down to the lowest common denominator. Look at the Soviet Union and look at Starnesville in Atlas Shrugged. Symbolically, the thorough application of egalitarianism -- from each according to his ability to each according to his need -- is like an atom bomb going off in the economy: It destroys everything. But the Rabble putting their betters on trial is definitely egalitarianism, even if Bane himself might be a nihilist. But someone on FaceBook reminded me that it was The Joker who was the real nihilist -- someone who wanted to destroy for the sake of destruction. Bane did not want Batman to rise, which is why he threw him into the unescapable pit prison; and remember, his cellmates asked him why bother to build yourself up? Why bother to rise when it won't get you anywhere? So, I do think the bad guys represented egalitarianism in this story.

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I think Bane paid lip-service to anti-capitalism with his trials etc, but like someone else pointed out ultimately he planned to nuke the place so that could not be his end goal. However he did explicitly state that he was fulfilling the goals of [the Batman Begins villain], which was to destroy Gotham city because it had become amoral and corrupt. And that's a leaf straight out of the Islamic fundamentalists' book - their hatred of the Western way of life and its materialism, greed etc. Also with a tinge of those eco-nutcases who think mankind is an aberration and a threat to the rest of nature.

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I've seen the movie. Don't understand why everybody on Objectivists sites become so exited about it. Just because it shows a gang of mindless anarcho-socialists with whom the alleged capitalists even cannot properly argue and if only as a last statement before execution? I don't like Superhero movies in general and Batman in particular. They all about a selfless service to society and total sacrifice. One of the movie's characters says to Batman : " Why you have to do all this? You already gave everything." " Not everything"-replies Batman and commits the ultimate sacrifice. This makes me sick.BTW, the 4 megaton nuclear bomb exploded few kilometers off shore would devastate the city as utterly as if it exploded in the city's center.

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I've seen the movie. Don't understand why everybody on Objectivists sites become so exited about it. Just because it shows a gang of mindless anarcho-socialists with whom the alleged capitalists even cannot properly argue and if only as a last statement before execution? I don't like Superhero movies in general and Batman in particular. They all about a selfless service to society and total sacrifice. One of the movie's characters says to Batman : " Why you have to do all this? You already gave everything." " Not everything"-replies Batman and commits the ultimate sacrifice. This makes me sick.BTW, the 4 megaton nuclear bomb exploded few kilometers off shore would devastate the city as utterly as if it exploded in the city's center.

What a downer your post was!

This movie wasn't about sacrifice, it was about good guys vs. bad guys, and fighting till death. That it was executed so skillfully and that it even touches on some of the bigger ideas is probably what explains the excitement Objectivists -- or anyone -- have toward it.

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