Bruce Wayne, Adam Smith, Rousseau, & the Joker Stuck Together

Devin already posted on the two new Batman films here.  She raises many interesting points concerning the history of cinema and the contrast the films, as superhero movies specifically, make against similar titles.  However, while revisiting them recently, I was struck by a few points on why, to put it bluntly, I am so pleased and a bit disappointed with them.

First, they present a sophisticated take on the great battle of the grand, old philosophical debate: does society make man good or bad? (My use of “man” is intentional here and becomes clear in a moment.)

Adam Smith and Jean-Jacques Rousseau can, at a basic level stand in for each argument.  Smith has it, as do pretty much all classical economists, that it makes man good: as homo economicus we benefit our fellows by striving hard for what we want.  Jean-Jacques on the other hand sees it differently.  Man, left in his “natural” state as he sees it, is good in a sort of pure sense.  It is only with the development of society that we are corrupted, that private property is created, that we get reasons to kill each other.

But, how does this relate back to the Nolan Batman films.  The tensions of this classical philosophical debate (for economics is philosophical) become apparent even in Bruce Wayne’s back-story: his father and mother are gunned down before his eyes by a man (the aptly named Joe Chill) driven, presumably, to crime by the larger economic-societal forces engulfing him.  Batman though makes us ponder, as citizens in our capitalist democracy, not only, “Was what this man did wrong?”  It also makes us ask, “To what degree?”

Bruce’s parents are of the generous elite.  They give generously, even for billionaires it seems, to charity and civic organizations in an attempt to alleviate the crushing poverty brought upon by the system that has benefited them so much.  Thus, on the one had, it seems the point may be that the capitalist system is worth the effort.  In the hands of the responsible, all may benefit.  Point: Adam Smith.

Yet, I hesitate to agree that this is the conclusion the viewer is meant to reach.  These two do-gooders are shot and killed by the same class they attempted to help as we know.  Charity is not something the vast majority of people naturally set out to get into a position to receive.  Nor is it able to make up for the harms already inflicted on Gotham.

Further, the shooters earns an early release from prison due to three reasons: his stated repentance, his deal with the DA to testify against a crime lord, and, most importantly here, his position as an under-class victim of the economic depression that lead him to rob the Wayne family.  The question then becomes, “Would Chill have picked up a gun, resorted to violent coercion to obtain material necessities (food, shelter) without the forces of society?”  Point: Jean-Jacques.

Alternatively, the Joker (which Devin has already analyzed well for us in the previous post) is a man not constrained, apparently by choice or nature, by society’s limits.  And what is he?  Well, he comes off as nothing less than the direct incarnation of chaos and evil.  Point for Smith or Jean-Jacques?  Well, neither of the above, that’s for sure.  Society, perhaps, is not the only the only point in this equation.

In the end, these questions cannot be said to have been completely sorted for the viewer.  After all, great minds throughout the past have yet to come to an agreement.  Moreover, multiple layers are found in the film besides the above single question, complicating it in ways I’m sure I haven’t fully conceived of: the limits and conditions of anarchism, capitalism, and democracy; the relations of the Joker, Batman, and Jim Gordon in relation to each other; the (in)ability of an individual, of either good or evil, to change society; history as either cyclical, linear, or both; the tensions between individual responsibility and societal coercion (for good or ill).   (This is to say nothing of the absolutely fascinating, endlessly complex meaning of Alfred’s story concerning his days serving the British Empire in Burma.)

The films already have me interrogating some of the more contemporary questions we are faced with concerning societal values and reactions to violence . . . but that will come in another post another day.

But, what of the disappointing aspect mentioned quickly above?  Ultimately, and in a move which can only really lend credence to the point I’ve made, the film also collapses under its own patriarchy.  For example, the only female character of the film, Rachel Dawes, is at first fought over by two of the most powerful men in Gotham, then saved by one of them, and finally, when she cannot be saved due to the deviousness of the Joker, is bound and dies at the hands of another man.  In essence, the film fails to comprehend the gendered position of half of society, just as much (most?) classical philosophy has.

Thus, the societal philosophical questions the films raise are of the classical variety: “Does society make man good or bad?”  “What is man’s individual responsibility in society?”  Other very different questions with their own nuances such as, “What position does woman or human occupy in society?” are left alone without so much as a lazy pondering.

Point: Patriarchy.

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2 thoughts on “Bruce Wayne, Adam Smith, Rousseau, & the Joker Stuck Together

  1. Thought provoking piece!

    I think that looking at films within their historical context is a great way of looking into how a society operates. For instance, looking at how “bad guys” are portrayed in American cinema, the bad guys of any particular time period tend to reflect the worries of real-life Americans during that time period. The 1943 serial had a Japanese villain. In the 1960s show, the Penguin attacked via submarine in the midst of Cold War fears. The 1989 and 1992 Batman movies focused on urban crime in the midst of actual rising crime. The Dark Knight featured an incarnation of the Joker who resembles an existential terrorist, in an age of heightened American sensitivity to terrorism.

    Great. With that in mind, your point that the horribly blatant sexism is very well-taken. Especially given the discussion on the previous thread–what does the lack of substantiative female characters say about American society? Females can publicly cry if their husbands die in battle, but they will probably be killed if the foolishly enter the public sphere? Well. Christopher Nolan I’m a bit let down.

    That said, I think you could make that argument a bit stronger without the strawmen of Smith and Rousseau. I see your point that the patriarchal views run through all three, and that they exist in their own male-friendly philosophical views of the world. However, I think both of them lose out. Perhaps I’m mis-taking your points, but when you say “point: Smith” and “point: Rousseau”, the closest I would be willing to go is that perhaps Nolan is endorsing one or the other of their views. However, your short but accurate take on Smith–that society is best served by each pursuing her own interest–is undercut by your example that the philanthropy of the Waynes demonstrates a desire to save capitalism and that therefore capitalism is good. If anything, it shows that capitalism is insufficient and that exceptional (and un-selfinterested) measures must be taken to support society.

    I’m less versed in Rousseau, and I see what you’re getting at, but even then–I am not certain that I think the answer to your rhetorical question is “Clearly, Chill would not have resorted to violence without society’s influence.” Thus Rousseau’s premise is not clearly supported by the film either–although, again, there is evidence.

    None of this is strictly germane, if your point is that “Like many philosophers, Nolan systematically ignores gender.” Which is true, and I love your post from the moment you transition to discussing this. I also think that you could explore what Batman says about the natural state of humanity, and society’s role in shaping that in an interesting way.

    Here, though, I think you roughly sketch their views as a jumping off point, from which your point about patriarchy is a slam dunk. While the twist slam dunk (point: patriarchy!) is nice, I think the discussion would stand on its own–and indeed would benefit from a more detailed, nuanced, and extended exploration. Same goes for the discussion of what Batman says about humanity’s intrinsic nature, and the ways that society shapes us.

  2. Excellent critiques and fair ones. I’ll address them in order.

    I’m all about the context and subjectivity. It’s what I (can) do.

    Next, the conclusion with sexism was meant more as an addendum of sorts to the separate points on Smith and Jean-Jacques (who holds a special little place in my heart). It occurred to me while writing the piece. Overall, I am not versed well-enough to know the feminist critiques of male-centric classical philosophy, but I know a bit of them. (Note: if one is disappointed by Nolan’s Batman films, prepare for more in Inception.)

    And thus, with that in mind, the Smith-Rousseau discussion isn’t so much of a straw man. It wasn’t necessarily meant to get me to point X at the end; it was meant to be able to stand on it own as a point for departure. Rather, to go along with my title, that the films complexly address these questions in various ways is one reason I love the two films. Batman as a comic has that potential at its best. (Though we should also point out the worst.) Ultimately, any one point the films can said be making (i.e. “Point: Smith”, etc.) is almost immediately complicated (“Point: Rousseau”) leaving the discussion open and thus engaging. Oh, and that “Clearly” was more of rhetorical flourish, which, as I can now see, did not come off.

    As is hopefully clear though, I have simplified versions of any of the theories I touch on here for the sake of the larger picture. But, who doesn’t like a twisty, off the backboard, under the legs, in your face slam dunk?

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