The United States of Batman: Dissecting American Politics at the Cineplex

I have always been a moviegoer and nothing has caught my attention quite like Batman. And I have seldom seen movies that raise so many crucial political issues as the Batman series.

These apparently escapist movies actually deal with the main issues that separate liberals and conservatives in a more substantial manner than you will find anywhere else. The issues of justice and punishment, "law and order" and concerns about the decay of social norms are treated in detail. Moreover, the seven movies released since 1989 also reflect the so-called "asymmetric polarization" in American society wherein radical Conservatism has gained ground in the U.S. and beyond its borders, while Liberalism has been incapable of responding, in spite of the continuing rise in economic inequality.

Batman, as it is well known, is a self-appointed protector of an imaginary metropolis, Gotham City, frequently associated with New York. But that is not exactly right. Gotham City is not an American metropolis either. It is a "global" metropolis, a metaphor for "global" society in an age when more than half of the planet's population lives in urban spaces, and the world's citizens are confronted daily with problems such as poor governance and corruption, air pollution and street prostitution, petty as well as organized crime. Gotham City is the space where the brute force of the crowd bumps up against the rights and the aspirations of the individual.

Over the last twenty-five years, starting in 1989, the seven Batman movies have served as a faithful mirror of America's political evolution, presenting a narrative, and a system of metaphors, that identify the cultural changes that underlie tectonic shifts. The first metaphor is Batman himself, who might not in fact be considered a "hero." He is a normal human being who disguises himself as a bat in order to frighten the enemies of society, one or more, that he confronts in each movie. His actions have a tragic nobility to them, but they are often ambiguous in their implications.

The enemies in Batman are metaphors for the major threats that Western societies face: organized crime, political and judicial corruption, social inequality and the revolt of the underdogs. But deeper trends are also treated in depth such as the detachment of technology from social responsibly, the pervasiveness of media control, the appeal of nihilist radicalism, terrorism, and the use of fear as a tool for ruling over and victimizing the poorly educated and easily frightened.

That's why, as a political scientist with a strong interest in mass culture, I feel that I can decipher the ideological messages (sometimes hidden, but most of the time fairly open) within the Batman franchise that are being spread worldwide. It is indeed not a stretch to estimate that around two hundred million people have seen each of the two last Batman movies.

Batman's global audience reads the American "Culture wars" limned in Batman as they spread beyond the U.S. borders their global discourse on human nature, politics and society. That discourse has deep philosophical roots.

Liberalism starts from the assumption that man is, by nature, fundamentally good. And if he goes astray from the right path, it is society that is responsible for having perverted and twisted him. The Conservative perspective starts instead from the pessimistic assumption that all men are evil by nature and that it is naïve, even dangerous, to assume they can be reasoned with, and reformed. This assumption implies that harsh measures must be taken in order to maintain order and to prevent the chaos in society.

When Bruce Wayne (Batman's non-masked alias) confronts with issues and threats to which liberals and conservatives offer different responses, and priority, he reacts without any preconceived prescription for a solution. He is fumbling around for a direction and ponders different options with all seriousness.

Batman therefore contains within himself a clash of conflicting moral principles; but this does not mean that he sits undecided in the middle; rather he is deeply divided exactly as contemporary society is. And he remains divided even as he tries decisive action.

Bruce Wayne has strong personal reasons to be psychologically and ideologically divided. His parents were shot to death in front of his eyes in a hold-up when he was a child, leaving him deeply traumatized. He feels almost instinctively that there is a necessity to maintain law and order in society. That's why, as an adult, he takes on the role of a vigilante, disguising himself as a scary creature, the bat. His identity is obscure and his means secret. And he frequently violates the law in order to help the few non-corrupt policemen in Gotham in their fight against those who menace society.

But ideologically Bruce leans towards understanding and curing the social causes of crime, rather than simply crushing perceived threats and repressing human behavior. Bruce learned from his family that criminals are frequently desperate people, who are pushed to crime by the conditions in which they happen to find themselves. So not only does he give up early on the idea that he can somehow make his own justice, he also becomes, in his everyday life as Bruce Wayne, strongly engaged as a philanthropist who wants to help orphans like himself.

At times, Batman looks like a liberal, and on other occasions, like a conservative. But the alternation that tears him apart is incoherent; it reflects the dialectic relationship between these two political visions in American society -- divisions that can be found within liberalism and conservatism as well.

These internal conflicts and dynamics make this "global" hero into a metaphor for America itself, as well as for Western society in general. Many countries look at the US as a laboratory wherein not only the future of the American people, but their own future as well, is being invented and being tested.

The viewer of Batman is exposed to the battle of ideas that is going on in the American body politic in a concrete and visceral manner. That debate is only made more relevant by the fact that it is also raging among religious leaders. Americans are torn. Is the answer to our woes understanding better the weak and the downtrodden, or should we be more steely in our determination to set our society right through the imposition of the strict rules and enforcement of an established order. As a European, I am strongly concerned with these political issues because the manner in which they are treated in the American mass media has a direct impact on how Europeans, people around the world, conceive of politics.

In a sense politics is fought out not at the ballot box but in the movie theater. The tropes introduced can determine the terms for the argument.

America continues to be the cultural leader of the Western world. Although other countries have rivaled the United States in economics and in technology, and even in some discrete realms of culture, the United States is the only nation endowed with a massive communication machine -- Hollywood - that enables it to disseminate to the entire world a narrative of society. American can combine culture and ideology into a universal and authoritative discourse on the political that sets a global standard. This process is not going to change any time soon.

I am, of course, aware of the political and intellectual impoverishment that the US has suffered from over the last fifty years or so. But the domestic shifts do not diminish the cultural power of America overseas, and the power of American movies above everything else. That powerful media machine still enables America to function as a global cultural laboratory and popular culture sets the agenda for global politics as much as any pundit.

For an extended interview with Professor Sacco click here.