Recently a friend of mine pointed out a Twitter thread wherein yet another galaxy brain thought they’d had some sort of insightful moment about the inherent philosophical conflicts of vigilantism in regards to Batman. I won’t dignify this person by linking to the thread, especially because people like that tend to be hypersensitive and irrational when confronted or called out.
Never mind that I had my own tongue-in-cheek take on the topic years ago. Never mind that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons set the gosh darn gold standard for postmodern examinations of superheroes and masked vigilantes three and a half decades ago as of this writing, concurrently shifting everyone’s attitudes about the genre as Frank Miller was specifically deconstructing both Batman and Superman.
“It’s far from an original thought” is an important first point. It’s key to understanding my frustrations with the topic.
You see, my frustrations stem from who they don’t talk about.
The MCU Gets Some Stupid Pass
I’m no comic book scholar. I don’t have any special knowledge that elevates me. This blog will wind up focusing largely on movies, because those are the most accessible marketing juggernauts that most people accept as the authoritative telling of these heroes. It’s also because the people making these arguments tend to reveal a knowledge of things heavily – if not exclusively – informed by their time watching the movies.
Somehow, these social media pontificators and bloggers with a byline make an effort to sidestep Disney®™©’s Marvel©®™ characters. All of the complaints about “fascist” tendencies and “problematic” tendencies exist for those characters too, it’s just that the overall movie franchise has everyone so busy applauding like trained seals that they don’t pause and see the similarities.
I read effort into this avoidance because characters like Iron Man and Captain America, Spider-Man and the X-Men, have extrajudicial tendencies that are easily as “troubling” as Batman’s if you want to think about them.
Strangely, they never seem to get put through the same ideological ringer.
The treasured moments when the recent arc of movies took the opportunity to examine those issues – Iron Man 3, Captain America: The Winter Soldier – it promptly walked them back. Captain America: Avengers 2.5: Civil War was on the cusp of addressing these issues but walked right past them for punchlines.
Before we get too sidetracked by specific MCU criticism – a favorite pastime of mine – please understand that I liked those movies, too. They’re a lot of fun, and along the way flirt with greatness.
I’m talking about the specific absence of the Marvel©™® characters, which includes their portrayal on film, from this strain of criticism.
Their absence is also curious because all of those characters also have decades of titles that examine a lot of the philosophical issues at play. But to read the exhaustive critiques of Batman and Superman that are laid out, it’s painfully obvious that we’re dealing with people whose understanding of the characters come from the movies.
Why It Bothers Me So Much
It’s insanely irksome because the much-beloved Tony Stark, at least as portrayed by Robert Downey Jr., is never held to account for far greater sins. He is specifically responsible for setting up an NGO of super-powered beings that’s initiated by a secret shadow bureaucracy that operates outside the normal bounds of Congressional oversight.
He’s not the least bit bothered by it. He’s happy to go out and round up a ton of people, and act as the lead enforcer. He develops technology without regard for how it would be used or abused, a situation that frequently gets the whole planet in trouble.
If I go digging into specific moments in the comic history like his struggles with alcoholism, then it just becomes a tit-for-tat about who can pull the most obscure storylines out of their ears.
Batman, by contrast, has spent a lot of screen time wrestling with the nature of his mission and how to resolve them within the context of their fictional worlds. For pete’s sake, Nolan’s Batman trilogy was constructed with the hero wanting to be no more than a temporary fixative to an insanely corrupt city. Gordon – modeled after Frank Miller’s characterization of him in the comics – is a beat detective who knows that snitches get stitches, and it paralyzes him until Batman gives him a reason to hope again.
Superman, as he’s been reinvented, is heavily influenced by the sensibilities in Alan Moore’s Watchmen. He’s tortured by the idea of whether he should get involved at all. His adoptive father basically advises him to hide his powers, and finding the balance between that power and responsibility is his struggle – which, by the way, is the defining struggle of Spider-Man, too.
Iron Man, however, usually just does whatever he wants in the movies. Apparently that puts him above criticism.
Let Me Be Blunt
The people recycling these ideological purity tests for Batman and Superman are exhausting. They beat this same drum repeatedly, too, and they never vary their targets.
When they are challenged, without fail, they simply move the goalposts or insist the counterpoint isn’t relevant to the specific variance of the criticism they were making.
If you’re the type of person who can’t just watch a Batman movie, or a John Wick movie, or a Fast & Furious movie without going on a polemic about the problematic tendencies as exposed by your personal philosophies, all I can say is that I’m glad I don’t spend Thanksgiving with you. You’d wind up wearing gravy.
To borrow a line from a pal of mine, “Does anyone remember fun?” We used to be able to have fun. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes it’s okay just to have a childlike fantasy about beating up the bad guys.