Batman: billionaire plutocrat vigilante

On, comics editor Steve Padnick has some trenchant perspective on Batman as a plutocrat vigilante who inherited half of Gotham, is the town's major employer, and who unilaterally overrides temporal and elected authorities to expel and defeat underclass villains who aspire to his wealth and privilege.
True, it's a very American version of aristocracy, based on wealth rather than divine right, but in practice it's basically the same. The myth of aristocracy is that class is genetic, that some people are just born good enough to rule, and that this inherent goodness can be passed down from generation to generation. It's long been established, and Grant Morrison's recent "Return of Bruce Wayne" miniseries reaffirmed, that there has always been a Wayne in Gotham City, and that the state of the city reflects the status of the Waynes at the time. The implied message of Batman: Year One, and Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight Returns, Batman Beyond, and so on is... if the Waynes are absent from Gotham, the entire city falls apart.

This gives Batman's origin an Arthurian "king-in-exile" element. "Banished" from Gotham by the death of his parents, Bruce Wayne returns to reclaim his throne and redeem his land. But instead of reclaiming it from usurping uncle or foreign invader, Batman must take Gotham back from a rising underclass.

Batman: Plutocrat


  1. Batman is just so tediously privileged. I always preferred Spider-Man for this reason. Hardworking, smart kid gets superpowers and uses them for good.

  2. I’ve always thought of Bruce Wayne as kind of a Jay Gatsby figure. Incredibly wealthy, shady past, provoker of rumors, simplistic and egotistical view of right/wrong and superior/inferior, and both are orphans.

  3. The comedian Reginald D white put this point forward quite succinctly; his closing statement being, ‘You know what? Fuck Batman’.

  4. I always appreciated that DC treated wealth and genetics as a superpower. It’s what I find charming about Batman. A mentally unstable, eccentric billionaire turns a downtrodden city into a militaristic paradise through physical domination of mentally unstable, eccentric villains. In the mean time he beats down a lot of blue-collar thugs while establishing far reaching governmental control.

  5. So if the rising underclass keeps messing everything up (putting venom in the water (joker), taking destructive drugs (Bane), running mob activities, etc, what’s wrong with dispensing justice?

    The cops aren’t doing it.

    Cobblepot, Riddler, and Dent aren’t underclass, BTW.

    Environmentalists are underclass now?

  6. All the superheroes are just privileged white men (usually), privileged financially, genetically, or by circumstances (like the bite of a radioactive spider.) They are Randian, Nietzschian superman who get to lord it over the rest of the people in their stories. They are special. They are so special what do they do? They do what the police do, but without rules and regulations and pay checks to restrain them. They don’t work to make the world a better place. They just have fun attacking criminals and playing firefighter or EMT.

    I know it’s a guy thing. And you can be a hero but superheroes in comics and movies are the plutocracy’s way of distracting people from really trying to change the world, one person at a time. One person who saves a kid, or even a kitten, in the real world is more worthy than a thousand fantasy superheroes.

      1. Calling Kane’s studio plutocratic might be stretching the truth a tad too much, but I’ll go ahead and make the claim.

  7. Sounds like a comix oriented version of Michael Moorcocks ‘Starship Stormtroopers’ which is an essay concerning fascist ideology hidden in sci-fi plots and a must read for sci-fi fans.

    1. Wow, thanks for the reference. I just read the essay and thought it was brilliant. Must find some Edgar Rice Burroughs.

    2. Man, I remember reading that in Cienfuegos Press’s ‘Anarchist Review’.
      ‘May the Force never come knocking on YOUR door at 4 o’clock in the morning’.

  8. This discussion is so reminiscent of the talking heads portrayed in Frank Miller’s “Batman Returns” that it is hard to participate without a sense of deja vu.

  9. Give the guy a break, it’s not easy being the only member of Justice League who doesn’t have any superpowers.

  10. Interesting take, but I always saw Batman as the (capital “L”) liberal cape, while Superman was the (capital “C”) conservative. Superman defends Metropolis (or Earth) from assaults to the status quo: Metropolis begins as a shining, clean utopia (with more than a touch of ’50’s nostalgia imagery), and Supes keeps it that way. Batman, on the other hand, sees Gotham as a city in need of improvement. One might even see Batman’s wealth as a nod to the idea that social improvement is in fact expensive.

    Padnick’s analysis hinges on the notion that “Batman” is a costume that Bruce Wayne puts on, not the other way around; which might be out of step with the way most Bat-writers characterize him.

    1. It seems you are playing into the simple Frank Miller logic that hinges mainly on who owns the rights to the characters he is writing about. I mean, remove all ownership restrains from characters and even universes and there could be a very interesting series put together: DC’s WASPy ideals versus Marvel’s more working-class ideals.

      Which is all to say in the battle between Batman and Superman, they are both privileged children of wealth: I mean everyone else on Krypton dies, but Kal-El escapes, right?

      Screw them both if you ask me.

      1. I don’t follow. Regardless of where the character decisions come from- writers or publishers- the text remains as it is.

        There’s no point in critiquing a character as we imagine the writer might have written him/her if restraint X or Y hadn’t existed.

      2. I have to take issue with the idea of Superman as a product of wealth.

        While he may be the only person (or, depending on how tolerant you are of nonsensical comic book continuity, one of several people, a dog, a cat and a horse) who escapes Krypton, he arrives on Earth as a baby and is given a straightforward, Midwestern upbringing by a farmer and his wife, hardly upper class. Further, in his secret identity, he works as a crusading reporter who ceaselessly strives to uncover the corruption of an arrogant, corporate genius. So I would say Superman is might even be called a champion of the underclass. In fact, the person Batman has the most in common with in Metropolis is probably Lex Luthor…

        1. Well, Superman is more or beyond wealth. Yes, it’s kinda nice that he has a blue.collar salt-of-the-Earth-farm-boy upringing, but if we look closer, he’s far attached from the woes of the underclass. He’s even far removed from the woes of the upper class.

          The basics? Superman doesn’t need to drink, to eat, not even sleep (in many incarnations). He’s immune to hurt, he doesn’t get sick. He doesn’t have to pay attention to the weather.

          Material possessions? Yeah, some. If he wanted, he could collect treasure from the oceans. But what for? A nice supersonic jet? He’s faster than light. Cinema and Opera? He sees and hears everything.

  11. The only reason Batman or Superman are any good is because over the years they’ve had some VERY talented writers who worked on them.


    I will say that you can also say there is an anti-plutocrat sentiment to the Bruce Wayne/Batman theme. Yes, he’s the fabulously wealthy/ business owner/ publically prominent person. But that’s the unimportant part of his life. The important part is that he helps people.

    1. Plutocracy and capitalism are two different things.

      “Plutocracy” means having disproportionate power and influence through wealth. “Capitalism” is an economic system based on doing business for private profit. As far as I can tell Bruce Wayne’s fortune didn’t come from his own business practices so I’m not sure why you feel calling him a “plutocrat” is either inaccurate or an attack on capitalism.

      1. “plutocracy”= a polity under the rule of the wealthy
        “aristocracy’ = a polity under the rule of the noble, or aristocratic, class
        “democracy” = a polity under the rule of the people
        “meritocracy” = a polity under the rule of the most skilled
        “autocracy’ = a polity under the rule of an autocrat, or “strong man”

  13. I call Bullshit. I grew up with The Batman. I remember when he wore two holstered pistols and killed with impunity — just look at some of the early covers. He started his murderous spree because a cheap crook robbed and killed his parents as they were walking home from a movie in a bad neighborhood.

    When I say I grew up with The Batman I’m not kidding. My uncle Austin paid a dime for “Detective Comics no. 27” when I was 8 years old and gave it to me. I didn’t miss an issue for the next three years. I know his early history as well as I remember mine, and let me be clear about this: the Waynes were not rich!
    Do multimillionaires walk to the goddamn movies? My parents and I walked to the movies because we were poor. I’m not saying the Waynes’ asses were hanging out but they sure weren’t rich. Do you think Bill and Melissa Gates walk to the goddamn movies?

    So I don’t know where Bruce Wayne got all his money, but I suspect he stole it on the streets. The story as it’s told today stinks! Bob Kane made up all that shit, I suspect, to cover up the fact that The Batman was a great thief who by night stole Gotham City blind. He was a class traitor and a mass murderer.

    And Robin? Puh-leeze!

      1. I did write it — but it came to naught. My proffered doctoral dissertation, “Batman of Gotham City: A Marxist interpretation”, was rejected by the American Studies department at Berkeley 50 years ago, with the flimsy excuse that Berkeley didn’t have an American Studies department 50 years ago. One professor went so far as to call it ”typical Trotskyist revisionism.”

        That still hurts.

  14. Where does he get those wonderful toys?

    He buys them. Wealth is his superpower.

    He kinda reminds me of Syndrome in The Incredibles. Syndrome tries to overturn the power of the superheroes by inventing, building devices that can match them, defeat them. Batman just buys his devices. Syndrome even promises to share those devices with the world, eventually, so everyone can be a super. Syndrome is the villain because he tries to displace those that are naturally superior, better. As likable as the Incredibles were, Syndrome still has a place in my heart. He’s Batman, but with brains. Well, and also murderous.

  15. :-p I don’t see the big deal.
    Batman has no superpowers. If he’s going to travel to Apokolips to trade hay makers with Darkseid, stave off alien invasions side-by-side with Green Lantern, and charm the golden bracers off of Wonder Woman, he’d better be a step above the average Joe.

    The personal wealth explains why Batman had the opportunity train with Tibetan monks in his youth, picking up an Ivy League education, and have an entire cave loaded with high tech gadgets without holding down a day job. I think you’ve got it backwards. Batman couldn’t exist without being a plutocrat. Simply being a plutocrat produces Rupert Thorpes and Edward Nigmas just as easily as Bruce Waynes.

    The Waynes are exceptional because they are the only plutocrats who give a shit about Gotham.

  16. :-p I don’t see the big deal.
    Batman has no superpowers. If he’s going to travel to Apokolips to trade hay makers with Darkseid, stave off alien invasions side-by-side with Green Lantern, and charm the golden bracers off of Wonder Woman, he’d better be a step above the average Joe.

    The personal wealth explains why Batman had the opportunity train with Tibetan monks in his youth, picking up an Ivy League education, and have an entire cave loaded with high tech gadgets without holding down a day job. I think you’ve got it backwards. Batman couldn’t exist without being a plutocrat. Simply being a plutocrat produces Rupert Thorpes and Edward Nigmas just as easily as Bruce Waynes.

    The Waynes are exceptional because they are the only plutocrats who give a shit about Gotham.

  17. First off, the author needs to get their head around whether they want Batman to be a plutocrat or an aristocrat. If Batman was a plutocrat, then Penguin – being rich – would have nothing to worry about.

    He certainly cares little for his role in the aristocracy, except as it serves as a disguise. Witness his actions in Batman Begins.

    I honestly don’t see him trampling too many civil rights. He makes citizen’s arrests when personally witnessing crimes occurring. He defends himself when attacked, often escalating far slower than his assailants (never, for instance, using firearms). These are actions that we would applaud of a member of a neighborhood watch. That’s what Batman is. Gotham’s neighborhood watch.

    Painting Ra’s Al Goul or Poison Evy as downtrodden environmentalists is just disingenuous – they are terrorists who would gladly commit autogenocide to ‘save the planet’.

    Batman is as much an aristocratic repressor of the poor as Sir Robin of Loxley.

  18. I think the assumption of the Batman universe is that Gotham is so corrupt that its government cannot be considered legitimate, and thus Batman’s behavior is an acceptable response.

    But I do wonder why Batman doesn’t use his vast fortune to promote good government rather than nifty gadgets.

    1. But I do wonder why Batman doesn’t use his vast fortune to promote good government rather than nifty gadgets.

      Well he did contribute to Harvey Dent’s campaign but then Dent went two-faced on him (as is wont to happen with most elected officials).

    2. “But I do wonder why Batman doesn’t use his vast fortune to promote good government rather than nifty gadgets.”

      This is an example of a problem common to pretty much all superhero stories, and many other supernatural or sci fi stories as well. It arises from the need for beings with fantastic powers/resources/minds at their disposal, but also for a world with all the same problems as ours.

      The good people at tvtropes have noticed this, and called the phenomenon the “Reed Richards is Useless,” and summarized as “the observation that in some genres, characters can have fantastic technology far beyond our own, yet this technology only gets used to solve equally fantastic problems.”

        1. I’m a well-respected professor of mathematics who has never been accused of any crime, and I don’t like your tone, good sir.

    3. Actually, he’s done several of those. Aside from his charities and social programs, he’s been known to give jobs to former criminals at his company.

  19. I read an interesting essay over at h+ magazine a while back. It uses Batman, Iron Man, Superman, and Spiderman to illustrate the difference between human, transhuman, and posthuman. Bruce Wayne and Batman represent the ultimate limits of possibility for humanity:

    “Naked in an empty room, Bruce Wayne is one of the most formidable fictional beings ever described. But he isn’t naked. As Bruce Wayne he is wealthy, admired, trusted and respected. His cultural and social power is immense. Before he ever becomes Batman, Bruce Wayne is as close to a fully self-actualized person a human being can be…He is the sum total of the best of humanity — its intelligence, power, and creativity. And yet, Batman is only as strong as a human can be, as intelligent as a human can be, as fast and as limber. Even if he is in the 99th percentile of every possible measure of aptitude, he is still slower than a horse, weaker than a gorilla: he still gets sick, has indigestion, heals slowly and imperfectly, ages, and will die…He represents the human condition, maxed out to its perfect form. He is a superhero and a transhumanist, but he is unable to become transhuman. He is super in his impossible maxing out of human potential, and transhumanist in his self-made effort to move beyond any limits he can. Batman thus represents humanity’s current stage.”

  20. You know, this is a theme that was actually explored quite a bit in the Batman comic itself in the 1990’s by writer Alan Grant, especially in his creation of the blue collar villain Anarky.

    Grant even brought the idea to it’s logical conclution in the story “The Tyrant” where Wayne/Batman crosses all the lines and starts putting mind-altering drugs in Gothams water supply to make the proletat less inclined to commit crimes.
    Alas, that was written in one of those “alternate universes”, but it´s still an actual Batman story published by DC comics.

  21. fuck! I gave this exact lecture to my english class senior year of high school for my final. I should have published it somewhere. The only difference is that my argument was that Batman is an arms dealer who invests his money into industrial military research in order to sell his devices and simultaneously maintain order in the midst of an untenable level of poverty and social unrest, rather than invest his money into more progressive social works programs that could attack the problem at the source. All of this was part of a greater effort to maintain his position at the top of a social hierarchy and support his dynasty. I don’t think the villains in the batman universe are trying to further themselves in any way, they are definitely villains, but many of them became villains as a result of social forces sand not some inherent unnatural malignancy or forces of evil.

  22. I’m with TSE, this is just tripe.

    Bruce Wayne is rich, I get that part, but where is the authors evidence for this so called “blue collar underclass” with their “lower class, dirt poor backgrounds” that Batman is keeping down? I must have missed the episode where Batman fights the Teamsters, because I was always under the impression that Batman’s enemies were all pretty much wealthy and megalomaniacal, not to mention dirty thieves and murderers.

    Ra’s al Ghul for example is obviously more elitist than Wayne. He literally wants to kill the world’s population off just to tidy things up. Poison Ivy, she’s a research botanist born into a wealthy family (yawn). Mr. Freeze was sent to a boarding school as a child, so I think it’s safe to assume his family wasn’t on food stamps. The Penguin dresses like the dude from the New Yorker for, but Padnick explains that he’s not really an elitist because Batman thinks he has no manners. Batman despises him, not because he kills people, but because he does not know witch fork to use for the salad. We know this because somehow Padnick and only Padnick is privy to Batman’s private thoughts. Thoughts witch Batman is obviously too elitist to share with the decidedly underclass readers of his comic books.

    Only Padnick, for example knows that Wayne’s real motivations for fighting crime are to consolidate his own power despite the fact that Wayne references the murder of his parents as his reason for turning vigilante in virtualy any version of the Batman story one cares to look at. But then one would have to care enough to look.

  23. I’m wondering what the latest superman movie, due out in 2012, will tell us about our hero.

    I already know what to expect from the third dark knight film, but I’m curious how they’ll handle uber mensch.

  24. “And then there are the villains who have a vendetta against C.E.O.’s of powerful corporations, either for revenge (Mr. Freeze, Clayface) or out of principle (Ra’s al Ghul, Poison Ivy). There’s a class war going on in Gotham, and Batman has taken the side of the rich.”

    So the author is suggesting that Ra’s al Ghul, enormously wealthy and virtually immortal founder of the League of Assassins (a world-wide organization that answers to no one save whomever their autocratic leader is at the time), a character who believes that all but 5% of humanity must be ruthlessly destroyed (and the survivors preferably ruled by him), is:

    a) Taking part in a class war, and he’s not taking the side of the upper class. (No. R’as does not care about class when it comes to his struggles. Upper, lower, and anywhere in between are, as the saying goes, “all equally worthless in his eyes”.)

    b) Someone whose goals and methods we should be sympathizing with. (Again, no. Goals: Environmental balance. Fine. Some will argue with what he claims to be environmental balance, but there’s nothing inherently offensive in the idea of a world that’s not choking on pollution and environmental toxins. Methods: Mass genocide and potentially despotic state afterwards. Not so fine.)

    It just leaves me thinking that the author shows a distinct lack of knowledge of the source material.

  25. I’m reluctantly forced to accept the apostrophe in CEO’s, but with the periods already splitting the letters, does it have to happen in C.E.O.s?

  26. Superman is just as much an elitist as Batman is. Remember, his father Jor-El was Krypton’s leading scientist (and being able to afford to build the only spaceship on the planet kind of suggests that he was Krypton’s equivalent of Thomas Wayne). He may have grown up on a farm in the mid-west but he still has his Fortress of Solitude on the side.

    It seems strange that Superman’s archenemy is Lex Luthor who comes across as the anti-Bruce Wayne.

    1. Oh for cryin’ out loud, how could super-heroes NOT be ‘elitist’?

      There are the exceptionally few and rare super-heroes, a handful, and then there’s everybody else, in their teeming billions.

      They simply are not like every body else by definition.

      OTOH, I’d guess they’d share their burger with anyone who asked them to, eh?

  27. Oh, come on, it’s a superhero story!!!
    Of COURSE Batman is rich; how else could he afford all the training and equipment?
    You simply cannot write a powerless superhero without giving him SOME advantages to compensate. Even Green Arrow, the poster boy for a leftist superhero, was rich once.

  28. Having gone back and read the entire thing, I stand by what I first said.

    Bruce Wayne is The Dark Knight. He might just belong in Arkham, if he weren’t busy filling it up with people who are more sociopathic than him.

    By the time I got to the end of it, I half-expected the author’s reveal as a new super-villain bent on Destruction of Batman And All That He Stands For.

  29. I see his point but we might be over thinking this. Originally, Bruce Wayne is rich for a much simpler reason. How can a person with a job find the time to also be a superhero? There’s the detective work, patrolling the city, training in hand-to-hand combat, gadget use and piloting, recuperation from injuries and so on. Where does a middle-class person get the money for the development and construction of all of Batman’s “wonderful toys”? For example, I know how to build a GPS tracking device that would radio its location and display it on Google maps, but I can’t afford one for myself, let alone one for every crook in the city I was interested in tracking.

  30. I’m very sympathetic to this interpretation. The “Batman Begins” somewhat more realistic interpretation of the character was a revelation to me. I finally had to step back and ask, “If a billionaire really wanted to fight crime in his city, is dressing up in an armored costume and beating up muggers a reasonable way to do it?”

    Of course not. A billionaire industrialist could probably manipulate city politics through campaign donations, pushing out corrupt politicians. A billionaire could organize a small-business loan system that would combat poverty, the root of crime. At worst, a billionaire could probably set up his own private security force to make up for a lax police force. And those are just the stupid, obvious ideas.

    In other words, Bruce Wayne has no real interest in fighting crime — he just has a sado-masochist/fetishist hobby that involves brutalizing the poor.

    1. You can blame this on Frank Miller, who went over the top. For many decades Bruce Wayne was and is a noted philanthropis, steering Waynecorp away from unethical businesses and using Wayne Foundation to help the poor, undereducated and so on. However, he’s just one billionaire.

      From what I read, Mr. Padnick is the new Ariel Dorfman.

  31. I suppose the solution is to remove all super hero stories and replace them with something more in line with our hopes for a post class society, action packed stories about real crime fighters, like forensics experts and bureaucrats. I would actually be kind of excited to see all superheroes forcibly replaced with their real life equivalents, who go about their jobs in the comics as realistically as possible. I don’t want to see some detective always catching the crook, or doing the right thing every time, I want a comic where he does paper work all day and sometimes doesn’t give a shit about what happens, because it’s real and superheroes are insulting to our intelligence.

  32. But he does do that in many comics with Wayne Enterprises. The problem being of course that throwing money at corruption doesn’t clear out corruption AND that money isn’t all powerful as shown with the whole No Man’s Land debacle. Despite Bruce’s active lobbying for Gotham to not be cut off, there were people who were richer and/or had more influence than him. Again a lot of the comments show a lack of knowledge of Batman history or cherry-picking.

    Padnick gets the theory he wants by creating the character as he sees it and ignoring anything in the canon that doesn’t align with his theory.

    I have to agree with anon2 in that if what one really wants isn’t super heroes remove the current super heroes and replace them with more realistic characters, though to some extent this is already happening in hero comics, with the move towards the “dark”, the “gritty”, the “realistic”. But my question would be why are you reading super hero comics in the first place?

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