Acton Commentary

Business and Virtue in Batman Begins


Batman Begins

Bruce Wayne, the Dark Knight's alter ego, makes an unlikely Hollywood hero.

Like a hideous gargoyle believed to protect ancient institutions from evil, the motionless silhouette of Batman stands out against Gotham's dark cityscape. This arresting image from Batman Begins suggests that the bad guys are in for another hard time from the Dark Knight. But what is peculiar about this latest foray into comic book film noir is that Batman's alter ego, Bruce Wayne, represents what would usually be an inviting object of attack by film writers and producers: Bruce is fabulously rich, the “prince of Gotham,” and his wealth was inherited. Instead, the unlikely hero uses all his resources — virtue, physical prowess, and capital — to fight injustice, even to the point of engaging in a hostile takeover of a publicly traded company.

Although the central theme of Batman Begins is how Bruce controls his own phobia (bats) and redirects it to fight fear (personified in the villain Scarecrow), the film also presents a picture of a businessman — an extraordinarily wealthy businessman — that overcomes stereotypes about such people as almost inevitably corrupt, unethical, and heartless.

Thomas Wayne, Bruce's father, founded Wayne Industries with a philanthropic vision, essentially coupling capitalism with genuine concern for the needy. Advocates of central planning trumpet the “success” of public transportation and the New Deal, but there are no government intrusions to be found in Batman Begins . Thomas Wayne used Wayne Industries to build the city's rail system and nearly bankrupted the company during the Depression to alleviate Gotham's suffering. Alfred, the family confidant and manservant, explains to Bruce that his father had intended these efforts as an inspiration to his peers. Thomas Wayne and his wife are depicted not as corrupt and exploitive, but as the city's moral core; after they are murdered, Gotham spirals into corruption.

The film seems to present the view that the wealthy Wayne family can be highbrow, have and enjoy their status symbols — essentially live the bourgeois lifestyle — and still be virtuous people. Karl Marx must be rolling in his grave.

Yet one of the most gratifying aspects of this film is its affirmation of the value of traditional institutions more generally, such as the family, rule of law, and private ownership of the means of production.

When Bruce returns from Princeton to Wayne Manor, he dismisses his home and inheritance and intimates that he'll soon be gone again. Alfred Pennyworth, the Waynes' faithful but stodgy butler who raised Bruce to be a gentleman, tells him to be respectful of the “six generations” who lived there and who bore his name before him. In another instance, Alfred reminds him of his duties as a host. Bruce responds, “I don't care about my name,” and Alfred replies, “It's not just your name, it's your father's name. And it's all that's left of him. Don't destroy it.” The emphasis on familial dignity and adherence to social convention flies in the face of contemporary celebrations of individual expression and flight from responsibility.

The principle of rule of law plays out against the idea of vigilante justice. The bad guys turn out to be members of the League of Shadows, from whom Wayne learned to fight. They credit themselves with bringing down Rome and Constantinople, and even London, by loading cargo holds with plague-infected rats. This time, Henri Ducard, the group's ringleader, claims to employ economics and fear to destroy Gotham, lamenting that the only thing that kept him from achieving victory was Thomas Wayne's example of virtue. Ultimately, Bruce's tenacious belief in societal institutions as the proper avenues for justice becomes the key breaking point between him and the League.

What about private property? Even as a fighting technique is merely a tool, something neither good nor evil itself but subject to its user's purpose, so director and screenwriter Christopher Nolan portrays capital and the means of production: “We felt that... Bruce should have a conduit into Wayne Enterprises,” Nolan notes, “that would allow him through the back door to utilize his own great wealth from the corporation founded by his father.” From the Tumbler (Nolan's revamp of the Batmobile) to the ten thousand defective Batman masks (manufactured in Asia) to his own personally designed “batarangs,” Bruce gives his father's philanthropic vision a real entrepreneurial touch as he actively seeks to root out corruption and serve as a paragon of virtue for Gotham.

Is Batman himself a microcosm for the corporate entity? Probably not purposely, but as he lays out his idea for fighting injustice as Batman, he explains to Alfred, “A man is just flesh-and-blood, and can be ignored or destroyed. But a symbol... as a symbol I can be... everlasting.” Corporations, too, are symbolic. Their names represent legally distinct entities that exist indefinitely and operate independently of human conventions. This is at once a strength and weakness, primarily the former, as long as the human persons who comprise them are committed to solidarity with their neighbors, as Thomas Wayne believed.

Granted that a business mogul who by night wears a cape and fights crime is far-fetched and meant to be fantastic, such films nonetheless exert a powerful influence over the popular imagination. The depiction of a morally responsible citizen who is devoted to the common good serves not only to challenge entrenched stereotypes with respect to business; it challenges us all to pursue virtue--even heroically.