The real hero of the recently released Batman v. Superman film is an often overshadowed character, Bruce Wayne. Batman’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne, is the CEO of Wayne Enterprises and the hero that Gotham, and in the case of this film, Metropolis needs too. Bruce Wayne is, in fact, a capitalist superhero.
In an opening scene, we find Wayne landing in the city of Metropolis as Superman and General Zod battle in the skies and skyscrapers above him. As citizens flee the ongoing destruction, Bruce Wayne does the opposite, dodging collapsing buildings and abandoned vehicles. We find that his goal is Wayne Tower, and his mission is to oversee the evacuation of his employees. Upon arriving at the tower Bruce immediately begins helping those around him, pulling a man from the rubble and saving a little girl from falling debris. Wayne does not sit back safely from afar and either mourn the loss of human capital or make mental notes to hire more employees. Neither does he do a cost-benefit analysis of trying to save those who work for him. Instead, he knows the value of human life and risks his own to save it.
Bruce is focused not only on short-term outcomes, but also long-term effects. During the subsequent congressional hearings about Superman, we find that Bruce had created a victims’ fund for those affected by the disaster at Wayne Tower – another example of the value that Bruce Wayne places on those who are working for him. As a free agent in free society, Wayne would have been obligated contractually only to pay the wages and benefits that had been negotiated. In the face of disastrous situations, however, he uses the profits and capital he has acquired to benefit his immediate community: his employees. He goes beyond a mere contractual agreement and instead fulfills what he views is a moral obligation to the victims of the battle.
What we have in Bruce Wayne, CEO, then, is an embodiment of noblesse oblige, the idea that nobility (an elevated position in society) comes with certain responsibilities. The concept has been tainted in the minds of some by its association with hereditary aristocracy and paternalism, but the essential idea is praiseworthy. Those who hold the status of a Bruce Wayne are morally required to fulfill certain responsibilities to those less privileged than they. Wayne is a member of the Gotham nobility and his family has a long history with the city. His parents exemplify this. Thomas Wayne, the deceased patriarch of the family, even performs surgery on the son of a mobster so as to fulfill the Hippocratic Oath of his profession. These lessons are not lost on the son. He is well aware of his position within his city and the legacy that he has inherited. Bruce does not shirk such weight, but instead does his best to fulfill it.
This is not to say that Bruce Wayne is a god without faults. He is a fallen man, whose errors are laid before the audience to dissect. One clear fault is Bruce’s assumption that by simply fulfilling the material needs of the survivors he has done his part. This is most clearly evidenced in the character of Wallace Keefe, the very man that Bruce Wayne pulled from the rubble of the Wayne building in Metropolis. Wallace loses his legs in the aftermath of the battle, however, he refuses and returns all of Bruce Wayne’s checks. This blindsides Wayne. It seems that loathing for Superman may have caused Bruce to overlook the real needs of those around him. This failing also captures the complexity of our social obligations. Bruce had perhaps improperly delegated responsibility for keeping personal contacts with those in need. At least in the case of Wallace Keefe, money was not the assistance that he needed most.
These faults, however, do not diminish the heroism of Bruce Wayne. Instead, they show that he is a human being trying to do the best he can to fulfill his calling. Though he often disguises himself behind the façade of a playboy or the cowl of the bat, Bruce is a virtuous man. Even when opportunities strike that might make him more money, Bruce sees beyond the digits inscribed on the check and looks to the people he does business with. For instance, the villain Lex Luthor invites Wayne to a gala that he is hosting and extends an invitation to collaborate on a venture. Wayne hasn’t done business with Lex, but he knows who Luthor is, and that he is a villain of one kind or another. A mere businessman might see the potential in such a partnership and the wealth that could be gained. Bruce, however, has forgone any sort of business relationship with Lex out of obedience to his moral commitments. Bruce knows that there are more important things than mere cash flow and stock options, for what does it matter to Bruce to gain the world if he loses his soul? He conducts his business and deals with his business associates within the context of a moral measure and an understanding of more permanent things.
The depiction of business leaders in film is often more akin to Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko, or more recently Melissa McCarthy’s character in The Boss. This trope is a greedy, selfish, and callous person who cares only for the bottom line and whatever it takes to reach it. Batman v. Superman offers a different view of corporate leadership. Bruce Wayne is not a base and vain corporate elitist, but instead a good man who does business. He is the head of corporation who rushes in to help and who tends to his employees and their welfare. And he is a virtuous man who knows not to deal with vicious characters like Lex. What we have in Bruce is a model for a businessman. In cape and cowl he is a true hero, the Dark Knight. But in suit and tie, Bruce Wayne is the quintessential capitalist superhero, a shining example of corporate nobility.