By making us sympathize with billionaire Batman, the superhero genre does a marvellous job in legitimizing powerful neoliberal politicians and American hegemony. This is how the soft power of Hollywood superhero movies unfolds.
Batman and the patriarchal capitalist Bruce Wayne
Superhero Bruce Wayne was born in an elite family. His father was CEO of the billion dollar company Wayne Enterprises. This is the environment in which Wayne has grown up. This environment is a patriarchal capitalist environment, which means that male figures dominate the scene, in this case a capitalist economic one. We can see this in several parts of the film franchise, but the movie we will focus on is Batman Begins (2005).
First, all the main characters in the movie are males. Most of them are high up in the hierarchy, since they are on the board of Wayne Enterprises or close to the board. The only woman, thank you Hollywood, is Rachel. It is this elite group of people who control the city with their decision making, quite simply because they have the money to be in this position.
Opposite to these elite characters there are the normal citizens. They act in a very passive manner throughout the movie. The citizens are poor and live the lives the elite wants them to. We can see Gotham city as a kind of panopticon. In the middle of the city, the office of Wayne Enterprises is located. From here, one can oversee the whole city. This is emphasizes by the board having their meetings in the top of the building, in a meeting room surrounded by glass. The citizens can only see this building, but not what decisions are made for them, if they are being checked upon and what these people are doing at the moment.
In between these two parties there is Batman, the Superhero figure. This superhero takes advantage of the elite life he lives as Bruce Wayne, as this is what gives him access to the tools that help him to be the superhero he is. Technology and high end militarized weapons are constitutive of the patriarchal superhero. Some even say that he is dependent upon his billionaire status to maintains his alternate crime-fighting persona, which ultimately explains his interest throughout the movie in sustaining the status quo of patriarchal capitalism.
Beware of Bush's "Axis of Evil"
The trauma that Wayne experienced as a child is shown at the very beginning of Batman Begins, and this helps the audience to understand that because of these experiences, he feels a disconnect to Gotham and decides to leave. The more psychologically rounded characters are characteristic of the post 9/11 superhero genre (Hassler-Forrest, 2012). Struggling Wayne is taken in by Ra's Al Ghul's League of Shadows, where he is easily convinced that the emotions he is feeling can be used to fight for justice. In this post 9/11 context, the idea of trauma having the potential to lead to ideological radicalization is presented through Wayne. This idea is often affiliated with Islamic terrorism.
His training takes place in the East, and the League of Shadows is clearly depicted as "the other". The use of drugs and violence can be looked at in terms of the Clash of Civilizations. The League of Shadows is portrayed as irrational, mysterious; these are all ways in which the West distinguish them as "the other" (Hassler-Forrest 2012). This training in the Far East is an aspect which is different in Batman Begins (2005) when compared to previous comics of the story. They are depicted as irrational thinkers, who contaminate Wayne. The 'other' is clearly shown as evil, rather than in previous comics where the issues at hand were considered in a local sense. Instead, not only is there a fear inside the city, but now a fear of 'the other' is also introduced.
“I’ll be standing where I belong, between you and the people of Gotham”
Batman Begins (2005) uses this Oriental stereotyping, showing this ‘common-sense’ way of thinking, which simplifies the issues and places the blame on ‘the other’ as the evil. It positions them as irrational thinkers who are attempting to remove others' freedom. Through reaffirming these assumptions, the blockbuster movie “supports the mythical narratives of neoliberal capitalism.” (Hasser-Forrest 2012).
Capitalizing on 9/11 anxieties
Of course, American neoliberal values of freedom and democracy will triumph over the bad global terrorist foreign threat… as long as entrepreneurial capitalism exists to produce unique superheroes that will save the West. In a highly confusing geopolitical context, at least one message is clear: anxieties can be pushed aside because super heroic neoliberal politics exist to restore American values.
Gotham City has encapsulated the 9/11 fears and anxieties within the urban jungle.
A proper reading of the city implies looking at the urban space as literal political allegory. Gotham City seems to be projecting a fantasy of overpowering the structural impossibility posed by "capitalist realism". Here’s a guide on how to read Gotham city on a neoliberal grid, that can help untangle the complexity of the urban political metaphor.
First, it is necessary to read between the lines. Gotham city may be atemporal, unhistorical and apolitical, and generally speaking superhero movies are anchored in environments largely removed from socio-economic contexts. Despite the important messages woven into the narrative, superhero movies do not raise political questions. This may seem rather counter-intuitive. However, the political-realist perspective used, is not inherently detached from a contentious geopolitical reality or political framework at the very least. Gotham city carries out a binary rhetoric - that is reducing, yes, even oversimplifying - but that still gives a glimpse of how politically-driven actions operate. As we have shown : either along the “Axis of Evil” or along the American protector’s benevolent rescue.
Second, there is no reading of Gotham outside of its dystopian intentions. And this is an attempt to be as realistic as an American blockbuster Superhero movie can get. The construction of the metropolis cannot be departed from the assumption that the urban jungle is a pure product of neoliberal politics, and so is global terrorism: "soaring crime, social crises, and countless municipal strikes were causing a precipitous decline in the quality of life". The dark noir dystopian metropolis offers an accurate depiction of neoliberal deregulation. Claustrophobia, smoke, and dark buildings show the urban maze as a desperate call for a heroic patriarchal savior. The movie ultimately suggests that the metropolis would be a safer place, a utopia even, if there were a force or rather a man (not a woman) that could operate underground ''outside the bureaucracies'' that have failed in properly enforcing the law.
Third, capital capital capital…. The metropolis embodies the “abstractions of modern capital”: increasing the role of the private sector, the Wayne Enterprises conglomerate is a Panopticon brought to life, economic laissez-faire, imposing class stratification (clearly visible poor social policies and rising poverty in Gotham City). The saviour superhero figure operating underground is in fact not detached from the neoliberal government, as he himself embodies capital in its quintessential capitalist nature.
Bruce Wayne brings back the individualist flavour with a 21st century twist, celebrating wealth and the position of high status citizens, which is constitutive of his heroic capacities as a superhero. As the Fordist corporate empire of Wayne Enterprises is threatened - oddly similar to the geopolitical situation at the dawn of the 21st century: a hostile economic take over that strongly echoes the threat of non-state actors on the global stage: terrorist groups - Bruce Wayne attempts a rewind of good old entrepreneurial capitalism. Of course the rationale being that crime, social disintegration and global terrorism to a larger extent are exclusively the results of postmodern capitalist failure rather than the side-effects of neoliberal politics.
Fourth, the alternative solution to a problem which lies exclusively within postmodern capitalism is... rebuilding the Wayne Manor, safeguard of patriarchal capital, apex of capitalism with a deep interest for private property and corporate control over the metropolis; what Dan Hassler-Forest brilliantly coins as ''the older, European traditions of the aristocracy and its pre-modern forms of power''.
Useful resource: Hassler-Forest, Dan. Capitalist Superheroes: Caped Crusaders in the Neoliberal Age. Zero, 2012.