- October 17, 2021
Batman: The Liberation Theology Behind the Caped Crusader
Liberation Theology is, and I quote, “a movement in Christian theology that emphasizes liberation from social, political, and economic oppression as an anticipation of ultimate salvation.” I took a class about this in college, a strange thing to say I’m done with. But in that class, I was able to write a paper about any person or character who best exemplifies the ideas behind liberation theology from any of the factors I just stated. The character I chose was Batman–not because he’s one of my favorites, or because there are so many quality comics and adaptions about him that I can prove almost any point about him that I want–but because to his core, the best and most true-to-character depictions of him are about liberation from the pressures that keep people downtrodden. That may not make sense for a good reason on the surface, so please let me explain.
Batman: A Relatable Superhero?
Batman is an icon even among superheroes for being able to overcome anything while being a mortal man. He’s one of the few superheroes who consistently overcomes without powers, and even his advanced technology is usually a last resort. His ability to stand as one of the greatest superheroes stems from the one thing that separates him from other mortals, he’s absurdly rich. As reported by SL Made’s July 15, 2017 video, “Top 10 Richest Characters in the World (In a Bad Way)”, Batman has a net worth of nearly 98 billion dollars.
On paper, he shouldn’t be so popular. He’s the establishment, the one percent of the one percent, yet he is objectively more successful than all of his peers. Batman’s wealth in actuality endears us to him, because of how he uses it. Where the rich today abandon and oppress, all Batman does is use his wealth to help regular people. Batman illuminates the upper class’s ability to educate and empower those under them and maintain their wealth at the same time. He is the hero we want to be real because the real people with his kind of power don’t help us like he shows they can.
There are misconceptions about Batman that need to be corrected; first, the idea that he is loved for being relatable, and that he works alone. Glen Whedon, in his book The Caped Crusader and the Rise of Nerd Culture, spoke of Batman’s ‘relatability’ best. “‘Batman’s my guy,’ a friend and lifelong comics fan told me… ‘No powers, just grit. He’s human. He’s relatable.’… ‘You or I, … could be Batman.’” (Whedon 2) The problem with this statement is that “we really could not.” (Whedon 2) We could never be as skilled, as rich, or as smart as Batman, especially not all at once. Just because he is mortal does not make him relatable. Everyone in a classroom is mortal, but they do not all relate to each other. This means that Batman is not necessarily popular because he is relatable.
Batman is popular for being a stupidly rich man who helps people alongside other superheroes, a fact confused by the misconception that Batman works alone. Everyone says this, yet everyone also knows the most well-known sidekick in comics is one of his, Robin. Robin can’t be called an outlier created to sell toys, because Batman has had more kids as Robin than people do fingers on their hand. There is Dick Grayson, the first Robin who became Nightwing; Jason Todd, the second who became the Red Hood; Tim Drake, the third who is now called Red Robin; Stephanie Brown, the fourth who became Batgirl; Damian Wayne, the actual blood son of Batman; and Duke Thomas, who shared the mantel with Damian and bunch of other kids before becoming the Signal. These aren’t all the Robins Batman has even had, they’re simply the ones who aren’t one-offs or from alternate canons.
Outside of the Robins, Batman has more sidekicks and partners than any other superhero. From what had to be nicknamed the Bat-family, there are several Batgirls, several Batwomen, Batwing, Azrael, Black Bat, Spoiler, Oracle, Huntress, Batman Beyond, Ace the Batdog, and of course, the loyal butler Alfred. Batman does not work alone, the fact that he doesn’t, that he comes to work with so many others, is why people love him. People love that he has helped every one of the Bat-family become better people, he literally empowers other characters.
Robin: The Empathy Behind the Boy Wonder
Everyone knows Robin but not as many know that most of the Robins, starting with the first, were orphans who were adopted by Batman’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne. Batman gave this boy, Dick Grayson, along with many after him, the ability to rise and live a fulfilled life. [As explained by WatchMojo’s October 11, 2011 video, “Superhero Origins: Robin”,] Dick Grayson would have been left parentless, filled with anger and a need for revenge after seeing his parents murdered and himself abandoned by the world. Batman trained him in everything he knows and helped him bring his parents’ killer to justice. He made sure not that Robin would be like Batman, but as stated by the Dark Knight himself, [in episode 22 of Young Justice, Agendas,] “so that he wouldn’t.”
Batman did what we wish billionaires in real life would do, care for the abandoned youth, not leave them to ruin and crime. When Batman took on Robin, when he helped one of the oppressed, comic sales increased for Batman as people wanted to see a story reflect their desire for change. (Watchmojo) From the beginning, even in 1940, Batman was the upper class that people deserved.
Batman: The Liberating Implications
Furthermore, for a man who wears mostly black and a permanent scowl on his face, he’s more than happy to care for anyone he comes across asides from only orphans. The impoverished, the mentally ill, and the criminally insane, he is willing and capable to help them all. The problem with getting help for these kinds of people today is that those who are willing and those who can are rarely the same.
Across America alone, “more than 500,000 people – a quarter of them children – were homeless,” as reported by Reuters’s November 19, 2015 report by Eric Johnson, and since 2015 it has increased to “nearly 554,000 people across the country,” as reported by Mother Jones’s December 21, 2017 report by Eli Day. In 2020, as reported by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, homelessness numbers raised to 580,466 people. Of course, this has been affected by COVID-19, but considering how many were homeless before, it’s not a huge number that can be handwaved away.
This seems like the easiest problem to fix compared to the mentally ill and criminally insane, because the rich can fix it for some people with only money. The other two need professionals to be found and paid for by the rich, homelessness simply needs the rich to dump some of their excess money back into the system. There are already programs and organizations working to end homelessness but lack any of the funding to do so. There are systems in place in other countries, such as Finland, where non-profits have been providing housing for the homeless until they can get back on their feet. They were able to do this with funding, that the rich could provide and still be rich afterward.
The top one percent could pay for temporary housing, raise pay wages for those who work for them, or directly donate money to those down on their luck. They could decrease poverty, but the able are not willing, so they are not helpful. Batman is a character written as being helpful. His character is written with the idea, of what if the 1% cared. He pours billions of dollars into Gotham, rebuilding the city’s infrastructure and providing for the people living there. It’s to the point that Gotham’s biggest problem during the prime of Batman’s life, isn’t poverty, but supervillains. But Batman works against this too, because it isn’t just about the big picture, you have to take into account the small picture too.
Jason Todd: The Street Kid
Jason Todd, Batman’s second Robin and currently the Red Hood, wasn’t just an orphan when Batman first met him in his current origin. He was homeless and he was stealing tires off the Batmobile. In Red Hood & the Outlaws Rebirth #1, written by Scott Lobdell and drawn by Dexter Soy, Jason Todd felt no remorse or guilt when Batman asked him, “You do realize that’s the Batmobile, right?” All Jason had to say was, “You do realize you parked your car in Crime Alley, right?” Jason didn’t feel guilty because Crime Alley was not only a place home to all kinds of criminal activity, it was where he lived. That means that thieving and hiding were all he knew, all he understood. For him stealing was survival and it was worth doing even from the Batman.
Most people would lock this kid away and blame Jason for the circumstances he was born into, but not Batman. Batman buys the kid a hamburger, talks to him. He learns about his predicament like so many others wouldn’t. When Batman sees Jason stuffing down his hamburger, he tells him to slow down, and Jason responds with, “Sorry. This is the closest thing to a home-cooked meal I’ve had since I had a home.” (Lobdell)
In today’s world, most of the upper class wouldn’t have even fed Jason. Batman adopted him, educated him, and empowered him to defend others like so many failed to do for him. Batman in one act, shows himself to be richer than most of the one percent in both his wallet and his character. When a man whose supposed ‘hobby’ is breaking bones and taking names, has a better sense of character than the ‘elite’ of today, they don’t seem so elite.
Cassandra Cain: Daughter of the Bat
Let’s talk about another of Batman’s sidekicks. “Her name is Cassandra Cain. She was engineered by her father to be a human weapon. Her first language was violence,” as said by Batman, in Batman: Detective Comics Rebirth Vol 1, written by James Tynion IV. By engineered, Batman means trained, drilled, and tortured into becoming one of, if not the best martial artist in the DC Universe. This childhood left her mute, her father never teaching her how to speak. This part of her origin story is consistent across the character’s history.
Cassandra Cain now goes by Batgirl. She has friends, she can speak words, and she has a new family in the Bat-family. Batman didn’t care who or what she came from, she was a soul who seemed born broken, and he took her in to help her. He adopted her as his daughter as he did the Robins. He treated her as his own by being an actual father, being her rock, and getting her help. Then he not only paid for therapy, he took an active part in it to help her overcome her PTSD and her inability to speak. Because of Batman, this girl’s life changed for the better, changing from a living weapon to a hero of Gotham City, one of the best. Cassandra would have never overcome though if Batman had turned his back like so many others do.
Batman: The Villains of Gotham
Everyone knows the Joker, Batman’s arch-nemesis, the Clown Prince of Crime. Ask anyone who Batman hates the most, and most would say the Joker. It’s easy to think that Batman hates the Joker, he killed one of Batman’s sons, paralyzed his protege, cut off the hand of his adopted father, and has personally tortured Batman on many occasions. Batman should hate the Joker more than Steve Jobs hated Bill Gates, but he doesn’t.
Not only the upper class, but everyone ignores the ill; to most they belong in a cell where they can only get worse. Batman doesn’t do that, he tries to find his villains specialists, therapists, and doctors to treat their insanity and mutations, something fans and writers forget about during the high-octane action of being Batman.
Remember, Batman found a cure for Clayface, a therapy home for Poison Ivy, and volunteered to treat the Joker’s fractured mind. The upper class should learn how to empower and educate from Batman, but so can the other 99%. We can all learn what it means to help someone by how Batman offers to help the Joker in Batman: The Killing Joke, by Alan More.
“I don’t want to hurt you, I don’t want either of us to end up killing the other… but we’re both running out of alternatives and we both know it. Maybe it all hinges on tonight, maybe this is our last chance to sort this bloody mess out… It doesn’t have to end like that. I don’t know what it was that bent your life out of shape but who knows? Maybe I’ve been there too. Maybe I can help. We could work together. I could rehabilitate you. You needn’t be out there on the edge anymore. You needn’t be alone. We don’t have to kill each other. What do you say?” – DC published Batman: The Killing Joke, by Alan Moore.
Imagine having such a conversation with your own worst enemy, and finding that making them a better person is what everyone needs. So few people, from any class, could even consider doing that, but Batman did, and he has done it more than once.
Supervillains: Villainy as a Metaphor
“The enemies in Batman are metaphors for the major threats that Western societies face,” an important point made by Giuseppe Sacco in The Huffington Post’s November 19, 2016 review, “The United States of Batman: Dissecting American Politics at the Cineplex.”
Batman has both quantity and quality in his gallery of supervillains, and the best of them each stand for something specific that amplifies the importance of Batman’s fight while he is a part of the upper class. Batman’s enemies can stand for issues like, and I quote, “organized crime, political and judicial corruption, social inequality, and the revolt of the underdogs.” These issues are all caused by oppressors doing what they do best and are typically committed by the upper class. Because someone with Batman’s background would normally be partaking in these crimes, any moral justification or ambiguity is destroyed by his denouncing of them.
For example, take another superhero and his fight against his arch-nemesis, Daredevil, and the Kingpin, the latter aptly named for being a corrupt businessman and politician. Kingpin believes that by controlling and profiting from crime, he can make New York City a better place in the long run. The Kingpin has made the argument that Daredevil, because he is not of the Kingpin’s ilk, cannot understand how the villain’s antics may actually help New York City.
Now take Batman when he is combatting the villain, Two-face, also known as Harvey Dent, the once proud and respected District Attorney for Gotham City. Two-face uses crime to suit his beliefs on justice, fairness, and how to control the criminal underworld of Gotham. He commonly cites that the people, the police, and the judicial system can’t do the job of protecting anyone. From his experience as the DA he could state that he knows better than Daredevil, but against Batman, someone with a superior education to Two-face, with more political and financial power than Two-face, and as much experience with the law as Two-face, Two-face can claim no such thing.
Most of Batman’s villains bring about such empowerment to his stories. Because Batman is a rich, upper-class man telling these villains that acts such as white-collar crime, political espionage, racism, and sexism are wrong, he empowers the common people that much more. By combatting and arguing with his villains, Batman tells the upper class of today to be better.
Batman: A Not-So Dark Knight
By defending the common people with all of his wealth and privilege, Batman illuminates not only what the upper class doesn’t do, but what they can do. Calhoun Kerston, in his August 12, 2011 review and comparison of the films Batman and Batman Begins, states how the hero’s tales are “more abstract in [the films’] portrayal of corruption, greed, and evil.” This comes from the actual evil, corruption, and greed of real-world oppressors. Their control and power over people are abstract and difficult for us to see and defend against. The world needs those in the upper class who can see the strings controlling people to be like Batman, though they won’t.
The Dark Knight is not attempting to show the rich how to dress up and fight criminals. He is showing those with everything can help everyone else at least have something. I believe this is why we like Batman. The way ideas like liberation fit his character should endear us to him. Someone of his power and values together is what could make a difference in a world full of people who only have one or the other.
So maybe I’m not entirely joking when I say I wish more billionaires had decided to become Batman.
“Agendas.” Young Justice, DC Animation, 2012.
Day, Eli. “The Number of Homeless People in America Increased for the First Time in Seven Years.” Mother Jones, 21 Dec. 2017, www.motherjones.com/politics/2017/12/the-number-of-homeless-people-in-america-increased-for-the-first-time-in-7-years/.
Johnson, Eric M. “More than 500,000 People Homeless in the United States: Report.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 20 Nov. 2015, www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-homelessness/more-than-500000-people-homeless-in-the-united-states-report-idUSKCN0T908720151120.
Kersten, Calhoun. “A Tale of Two Batmans: A Visual Dissection of ‘Batman’ and ‘Batman Begins’.” Confessions Of A Self Proclaimed Megalomaniac, Word Press, 9 Aug. 2011, selfproclaimedmegalomaniac.wordpress.com/2011/08/12/a-tale-of-two-batmans-a-visual-dissection-of-batman-and-batman-begins/.
Lobdell, Scott, and Dexter Soy. “Red Hood & the Outlaws Rebirth #1.” DC, 2016.
Moore, Alan, and Brian Bolland. Batman: The Killing Joke. DC Comics, 2012.
Sacco, Giuseppe. “The United States of Batman: Dissecting American Politics at the Cineplex.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 19 Nov. 2016, www.huffingtonpost.com/giuseppe-sacco/the-united-states-of-batm_b_8600900.html.
“Superhero Origins: Robin.” Youtube, WatchMojo, 22 Oct. 2011.
“Top 10 Richest Characters in the World (in a Bad Way).” Youtube, SL Made, 15 July 2017, youtu.be/2oPdSIhod88.
Tynion, James, et al. Batman: Detective Comics Vol. 1: Rise of the Batmen. DC Comics, 2017.
Weldon, Glen. Caped Crusade – Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture. Simon & Schuster, 2017.