Ever since Roland Barthes wrote a popular column in a French newspaper that assessed all sorts of contemporary activities in a relatively academic matter, every single text (and texts include just about every human activity) can be analysed as a myth. For Barthes, myths are the stories that make arbitrary values appear to be natural, and they articulate (or perform, if I am still interested in theatricality and dramaturgy) the qualities that a particular society finds either admirable or deplorable.
Batman is an easy example. For the dark knight, positive behaviours are associated with Bruce Wayne/Batman. So, beating up people with mental illness, creating a public personality that is either intended to install fear into criminals or celebrate the shallow pleasures of wealth and status, being rich and dedicating a life to the pursuit of a revenge that can never be satiated are all indicators of moral virtue. Meanwhile, the Joker expresses negative values and vices: mass-murder, laughing inappropriately, having a weird obsession with a guy who dresses up as a bat and doing crime for a laugh are all naughty.
Yeah, so that is interesting. By picking up critiques of Batman, most of which have been voiced by fans and critics, the social values that this hero represents are pretty toxic. That might seem to undermine Barthes’ assertion, but that assumes that Batman’s behaviour isn’t transformed by its presence within a myth. It is kind of Barthes’ point: through the myth, Batman’s neurotic crusade against crime becomes normalised. It is the desire to defeat crime and defend people and personal property. A myth can dress up toxic antics as social justice.
Like Hamlet says (Act II, scene ii): ‘Why, then, ’tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ Or rather, there is nothing good or evil, but writing it into a defining cultural narrative makes it so.
The idea that Batman is little more than a designated hero (that is, the narrative calls him the hero but his actions suggest otherwise) who legitimises anti-social violence probably would not have been so obvious before Frank Miller wrote All Star Batman and Robin. Whether he was trying to expose the underlying horror in the Batman mythos, or thought filtering superheroism through the mentality of a 1970s’ Millwall football hooligan was really cool, he wrenched Batman fully into the gritty modern age (a process he had begun with Dark Knight Returns but with more nuance, political nous and better scripting). If Barthes is right, however, the excavation of myth to identify the noxious elements is an important way for a society to self-critique. Whatever Miller’s reasons for All Star, he was providing a service.
But the first critique of Batman came from Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. When they created Spider-Man. There are important parallels between the characters, even beyond those that connect most comic book superheroes. They are ‘street level’ vigilantes – their earliest adventures involve bank robbers and the like – with a complex relationship with the police. They dress up in animal-inspired outfits and are driven by the death of a relative. But while Batman turned increasingly brutal over time, Spider-Man has retained his ‘friendly neighbourhood’ heroism. His secret identity is either a reporter or a school teacher. It is a bit more socially conscious than Bruce Wayne’s socialite/captain of industry schtick. Spider-Man struggles to make the rent: his virtue to poverty. He is a revolutionary hero, a true progressive, but the battle of the working person to manage becomes, through myth, legitimate and heroic.
Batman is ripe for a bit of Barthesian beating: he was invented in WWII, so has a bunch of Boomer traits. He doesn’t quite understand that good and evil can be nuanced, that right doesn’t make right and not every villain is a Nazi.