Midway through The Batman, the latest adaptation of the DC Comics superhero, we see the character in a familiar scene: Orphaned tycoon Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) attends a social event populated by the rich and powerful of Gotham City. It’s an eclectic bunch; in attendance is everyone from politicians and business leaders to mafia dons.
But as the camera follows Wayne sifting through the crowd, looking for signs of the next attack from the murderous Riddler (Paul Dano), the camera pans to something rarely shown in Batman movies: poor people. Some of them have come to protest the city’s rampant inequality, while others simply want to take part in the spectacle. Whatever their interest, all members of the hoi polloi are pushed aside by police barricades, keeping the way clear for the VIPs.
When Wayne leans against a barricade to watch the attendees, a voice over the loudspeaker praises Gotham’s social safety net programs. Someone behind the barricade mutters a rebuke: “What good is a safety net that doesn’t catch everybody?”
Wayne doesn’t answer, but he clearly heard the man’s complaint, as did the audience. This attention to the voice and dignity of the lower classes is something very new for Batman movies.
While Superman made his debut disrupting state executions and punishing abusive husbands, Batman began as a champion for the upper class. His first adventure in 1939’s Detective Comics #27 found Batman stopping an impoverished social climber from murdering his well-off partners. 1940’s Batman #1 reveals Batman’s origin as the victim of a street thug who killed his rich parents.
Such class distinctions are hallmarks of Batman’s adventures. Throughout the character\’s eighty-three-year history, the majority of his cases have involved theft or property damage. Even his colorful arch-nemeses the Joker and the Penguin are robbers more than they are murderers or terrorists. Even worse, Batman is almost always aligned with the police force, acting as an extra-legal agent called upon to do the cops’ dirty work whenever they flick on the Bat-Signal.
To be sure, creators over the years have tried to finesse Batman’s social vision. Later stories have framed the Caped Crusader as a friend of the oppressed, fighting a Reaganite Superman or using his wealth to rebuild ravished urban areas. But no matter how hard they tried, these stories still focused on a rich man who maintains the social order rather than challenging it, either by himself or with a small band of sidekicks.
That issue has been particularly clear in the various film adaptations of Batman. The movies sometimes acknowledge Bruce Wayne’s privilege and economic obliviousness, as when Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) admits in 2005’s Batman Begins that he “lost many assumptions about right and wrong” when he had to steal to prevent starvation. Similarly, the sympathetic Bruce Wayne of the animated movie Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993) sees his vigilantism as reconstructive, the only way to remake a broken system.