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The tools and toys of (the) War (on Terror): Consumer desire, military fetish and regime change in Batman Begins

Justine Toh

"Where does he get those wonderful toys?"
- The Joker, after Batman has foiled his plot with his gadgetry in Batman (1989)


"I gotta [sic] get me one of those"
- Sergeant Gordon, after seeing the Batmobile in action in Batman Begins (2005)


"Does it come in black?"
- Bruce Wayne, after test-driving the vehicle which will become the Batmobile in Batman Begins


The Hollywood adaptations of Batman promote a matrix of consumer desire, military fetish and an ultimate reliance on force, not only feeding a taste for the tools and the toys of war but the desire to see them engaged in action. In the above quote, the Joker, as the villain of the first Batman film, expresses petulant jealousy at the tools (toys?) at Batman’s disposal, which Batman uses to foil the Joker’s plots. In his quote, Sergeant Gordon, representative of Gotham City’s crime-fighting apparatus, sighs his admiration for the Batmobile in Batman Begins. Even though the chance of ‘getting one of those’ remains out of the question for him, by the end of the film he will have been given a chance to test-drive the Batmobile himself. And after experiencing what the Batmobile is capable of, Bruce Wayne bestows his approval upon it by appropriating the buyer’s language of the car yard: it’s a great car, but does it come in the colour I want?

Thus the criminal and the law enforcer of Gotham City are equally courted in this matrix of consumer desire, but both lack the purchasing power of billionaire industrialist Bruce Wayne/Batman. Batman Begins delivers the ultimate lesson of this war culture: those with the best toys/tools of war win. In the film, the misrecognition of tools of war as toys grants military hardware a consumer-friendly fac¸ade, further stoking consumer desire for future development of tools of war that may be consumed as toys. In this arrangement, one’s enemies are a target and one’s own people a target market. Unlike James Bond’s endorsement of Omega and Aston Martin, Batman Begins does not promote desire for a specific brand, but for a philosophy of political vigilantism, where the tools of military technoscience are engaged in ‘righteous’, if not entirely legal, action. This context provides a much greater scope to promote imperial adventures abroad, whether sanctioned by the international community or not, when war culture is more readily accepted at home.

This paper reads Batman Begins as a complex allegory for the conduct of America’s War on Terror through considering the military hardware—the toys and tools of war—that Batman enlists in his quest to save Gotham City from corruption and social deterioration. I proceed in two parts: in the first, I discuss Batman’s Batsuit and the Batmobile as emblems of the military-industrial-entertainment complex, arguing that their transformation into desirable consumer items encapsulates the militarization of popular culture. In the second part, I discuss the ‘microwave emitter’, a weapon used in the film by terrorists to vaporise Gotham’s water supply. This discussion allows us an insight into the real-world practice of exporting democracy abroad at the point of a gun.

Hard bodies and hardware: Batman and his toys

"Nothing speeds up the development of technology like war."
- Jean-Louis DeGay.

War drives technological innovation, claims Jean-Louis DeGay, a U.S. Military project specialist involved with developing high-tech body armour for soldiers (DeGay quoted in Hickley 2007). His comment exemplifies what President Eisenhower cautioned against in 1961, the growth of the “military-industrial complex”, a web of alliances between the military and business that could entrench a state in a permanent war economy (Eisenhower 1961). But what makes such innovation even more attractive for corporate investment is the commercialising of such technology. Indeed, Eisenhower’s original term has expanded to refer to the involvement of the entertainment industry in the ‘military-industrial complex’, given the U.S. Military employs video games for training and recruitment purposes (Der Derian 2001; Lenoir 2003). In the original Batman film, the Joker’s characterisation of Batman’s tools as “wonderful toys” highlights a central aspect of play and consumer desire in the Batman universe, where pleasure is derived from watching Batman’s gadgets in action. The military origins of the tools of Batman Begins, however, reveal a more sinister edge to the otherwise pleasurable pastime of watching his weapons at work, for they expose the interdependence of consumer and military culture that can be glimpsed in Batman’s body armour and his Batmobile.

In Batman Begins, both are military prototypes that emerge from the Applied Sciences division of Wayne Enterprises, the company run by Thomas Wayne, Bruce’s late father. Since Thomas’ death, the company had taken on lucrative military contracts—work that contradicted the idealism of the late Wayne patriarch. In contrast to his father, Bruce/Batman is more pragmatic, employing the military prototypes in his fight to save Gotham, as if the ‘righteous’ ends to which he will direct them redeem their manufacturing. In fact he uses two—the Batsuit and the ‘Tumbler’, later known as the Batmobile—to counteract the threat posed by the third: the microwave emitter manufactured by Wayne Enterprises.

In order to explain to Lucius Fox (Batman Begins’ equivalent of James Bond’s Q) what use Bruce has for the high-tech body armour, Bruce pretends to use it for cave-diving, playing off his image as a thrill-seeking rich kid in order to conceal his emergent identity as Batman. Later, Bruce jokes about using a weaponised hallucinogen, which he discovers is part of a terrorist plot to destroy Gotham City, as a party drug. Through these jokes, along with his “Does it come in black?” quip about the Batmobile, Bruce mocks his persona as a prodigal playboy for whom money presents no obstacle, but the fact that he can do so is based on the double life of high-tech gadgets. That is, military machinery can moonlight as desirable consumer items or emblems of a privileged consumer-driven lifestyle for those who can afford to consume such luxuries as toys. The Humvee, as I will discuss in regards to the Batmobile, global positioning systems (GPS) navigational equipment, even the internet and the humble computer: all have military origins. Caren Kaplan (2006, p. 708) argues that the consumer uptake of GPS, or indeed any other consumer technology of military origin, can represent people ‘volunteering’ themselves as militarized subjects, regardless of whether they serve in the army or not. Desire for such products speaks to the increasing militarization of consumer culture.

That Bruce Wayne can enlist military prototypes in his quest is an important point. Fox mentions that the body armour was never put into production because at US$300,000 a unit, an individual soldier’s life was not considered worth the cost of its manufacture. This brief jab at the apparent disposability of the soldier may give the impression that Batman Begins is criticising the bean counter mentality of military bureaucracy that can put a price on an individual life. Yet any such social comment is diluted by the fact that being a millionaire member of the dominant bourgeois class of Gotham, Bruce can afford state-of-the-art military equipment to aid him in his war on crime. When real soldiers die as a result of being ill-equipped, Bruce’s joke about using body armour for extreme sports seems in poor taste.

And let us not forget that Batman uses military gear for policing and law enforcement purposes; that is, not for war, strictly speaking. This mirrors the employment of military tactics and “pop-up armies”, assemblages of security personnel drawn from military, security and local police forces, to quell public unrest during mass demonstrations like those against the World Trade Organisation in Seattle in 1999 (Wekerle and Jackson 2005, p.44). These measures work to militarize public life and civilian society. In fact, Batman Begins announces the reconstitution of the city as a space for war—more on this later with reference to Stephen Graham’s work on urban warfare.

Batman’s body armour is supplemented by his cape; obtained from Fox by Bruce who pretends to use it for base-jumping. Manufactured out of ‘memory cloth’, as Fox calls it, running an electric current through the fabric allows it to hold any rigid shape. This feature allows Batman to glide through the air. Batman’s ‘memory cloth’ cape and his body armour merge to approximate real military technology, as developed by the Pentagon’s Future Combat System Program (FCSP), where DeGay serves as project specialist. In 2010, the Pentagon’s Future Warrior will be fortified with body armour outfitted with nanotechnology. Here, the ‘smart cloth’ of the body armour will be soft and pliable to wear until it ‘senses’ approaching bullets, upon which it rigidifies to deflect the bullet before softening again.

Along with increasing the defences of a soldier, the armour of the FCSP will provide physiological readings of a soldier’s heart rate and other vital functions to be transferred back to local command, allowing medics to remotely diagnose appropriate treatment in the event of injury during conflict. The Vision 2020 Future Warrior system, to be implemented a decade after the first wave of the FCSP, even envisages the incorporation of “nanomuscle fibres” into body armour, in which nanotechnology embedded in the armour’s fabric will simulate muscles, allowing soldiers to carry heavier loads. DeGay’s vision is that soldiers will be able to improve their lifting ability 300 percent, which will potentially facilitate the mounting of a weapon directly on the uniform system, turning the soldier into “a walking gun platform.” Elsewhere in the same Army press release, he refers to the future soldier as an “F-16 on legs”. An F-16 is an Air Force fighter jet (DeGay quoted in Copeland 2004).

Such rhetorical flourishes envisage the soldier as a weapon, encouraging a fetish for hard bodies augmented by military hardware. That these types of developments in military innovation have been foreshadowed in films like Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), RoboCop (1987), Predator (1987) and Universal Soldier (1992) illustrate a cross-pollination of images and ideas between the military, private industry, and entertainment. Colin Milburn demonstrated the extent of the interdependence between military technoscience and comic books in recounting an incident where MIT’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies submitted a tender for research funding to the U.S. Army, accompanying their proposal with a graphic of a soldier in armour strikingly similar to that depicted in the comic book Radix (2005). For Milburn, this instance was one example of a shared cultural landscape between military innovation and entertainment, where “images of [the Predator] alien costume [could] not only serve as aesthetic guides to supersoldier design, but also provide a functioning imaginative context” (2005, p. 90). Such an example opens up the post-human context of military innovation, identified by Chris Hables Gray (1997, 2000) that is primarily concerned with the advances of the human-machine interface, but here I want to place more emphasis on Kenneth Saltman’s critique of bodybuilding, given that Bruce/Batman is a mortal man (2003).

Bodybuilding and the weapon-commodity: Batman, Bale and the Batmobile

"…to dream of becoming a bodybuilder, to dream of becoming a soldier is to dream of being a human weapon."
- Kenneth J. Saltman (2003, p. 50).

In the quote above, Saltman connects the endeavour to hone the body into sculpted muscle and tissue to the desire to not only produce a body for war, but a body that can be deployed as a weapon of war. It is no suprise then, that the ideal person to play the Terminator was Arnold Schwarzenegger, previously a famous bodybuilder. Here we may compare the projected ability of the “nanomuscle fibres” of the FSCP to boost soldier strength to the use of steroids to enhance a bodybuilder’s ability to develop muscle mass.

Unlike other superheroes, Batman is mortal. His physical capabilities have not been enhanced by military nanotechnology: the protagonists of Bloodshot, Xombi and Singularity 7 (Milburn 2005, p.95-7), nor earth’s sun: Superman, exposure to radiation: Spider-Man or genetic mutation: the X-Men. Yet he, enhanced by his superior military equipment, is a human-weapon of war. The physicality of Christian Bale, the actor who portrays Bruce/Batman, is crucial in this context. Though Bale is not a bodybuilder, his film career has repeatedly demonstrated his physical commitment to his work: from shedding extreme weight for his role in The Machinist (2004) and Rescue Dawn (2006) to bulking up to play the physically-demanding role of Batman. And here we find that the controversial adaptation of American Psycho (2000) is instructive in this regard. In that film, Bale plays narcissistic serial killer Patrick Bateman who spends much time caring for his body, treating it as a luxury item as he sculpts it into a weapon to murder people. Bateman consumes his body just as Batman consumes military gear, as a commodity-status symbol, though Bateman pushes this appetite to psychotic ends. Indeed, the film emphasises Bateman’s insanity as exacerbated by his obsession with consumerism.

With that in mind let me return to Saltman, for whom bodybuilding symbolises the purest expression of capitalism, where “the bodybuilder enacts the production process and makes himself the product… one’s own body becomes both the locus for the process and the product.” (p. 50). The body is thus a commodity for sale, available to those able to devote the necessary time and effort to its training; at once its own end and the means to get there. In order to play Batman and Bateman then, Bale brings physicality and martial prowess (where fitness training for his on-screen roles is “the production process”) to his roles as human weapons (“the product”): in Batman Begins as a disciplining weapon deployed against criminals, and in American Psycho as a serial-killing weapon deployed against society. And in constructing his own body and offering it for exhibition in films that become commodities for sale in the Hollywood marketplace, Bale turns his own body into a specific kind of commodity: a weapon. But being an actor in a fictional film, Bale only needs this weaponised body-commodity for purposes of play and make-believe, mirroring Bruce/Batman’s ability to consume tools of war as toys. I will return to the concept of Batman Begins as a commodity later.

Saltman continues: while the image of the bodybuilder sells the fantasy of security and safety, the bodybuilder is at war with his or her own body. This body must be increasingly disciplined or supplemented with drugs in order to achieve its maximum potential (p. 52). This inner conflict is encapsulated by Bruce/Batman’s war with his own fear. He says he seeks “the means to fight injustice. To turn fear against those who prey on the fearful.” And later, when his butler Alfred inquires why Bruce has nominated a bat as his totem, he replies simply, “Bats frighten me. It's time my enemies share my dread”. Batman’s defensive armour evoking the sign of the bat thus betrays an edge of hysteria. Not only does the armour protect Batman’s body but it uses his own fear to frighten others. The psychologically complex Batman Begins thus holds its protagonist hostage to fear that he is not able to master. Indeed Bruce/Batman’s fear is generative as it spawns new threats to Gotham the more Batman endeavours to contain them—of which more soon.

Jacques Derrida describes such a conundrum an “autoimmunity complex”: suicidal logic where a system attacks itself and ends up reproducing the ills it tries to forestall (Derrida quoted in Borradori 2003, p.99). This autoimmune disorder also underwrites the sports utility vehicle (SUV) or the Humvee, commercially available vehicles of military origin. Stephen Graham writes that after the first Iraq War the U.S. Army’s ‘Humvee’ assault vehicle was customised into the status-symbol civilian ‘Hummer’, with the first vehicle being sold to Arnold Schwarzenegger (2004, p. 186-7). Graham argues that these combative vehicles—with names like ‘Stealth’ or ‘Warrior’—enforce a militaristic view of life for individuals desiring an armoured car to traverse their neighbourhoods, resignified as suburban combat zones. In the Humvee, domestic desire for comfort and safety relies on a consumer-friendly military solution, but one that enforces greater insecurity, not least because these vehicles are more than capable of terrorising the streets upon which they are driven. While SUVs promise safety for the occupant of the vehicle, it is safety at the expense of other drivers on the road in less fortified cars, who are implicitly constituted as potential enemies.

The real-world context of the Humvee is evoked by the Batmobile in Batman Begins. In the film, Fox explains the Tumbler was designed for military use as an all-terrain bridging vehicle with both defensive and offensive capabilities. The heavily armoured exterior of the vehicle deflects radar tracking and infrared thermal imaging (its defensive features) but it also features missile-firing cannons (its offensive qualities). In short, the Tumbler is a weapon. Once converted into Batman’s Batmobile, when a policeman searches for a word to describe its screaming rampage across Gotham, “tank” is the most appropriate label at hand. But this weapon is constantly referred to as a status symbol within the film. When a valet compliments Bruce’s luxury car Bruce retorts in an undertone, “You should see my other one”, referring to his own personal Hummer: the Batmobile. Significantly, on the DVD’s special features the co-writer of Batman Begins described the Batmobile as a cross between a Lambourghini and a Humvee, further attaching luxurious connotations to military might. In fact, the Hummer can be seen in a similar light to the bodybuilder: the Hummer is to a regular car what the bodybuilder’s physique is to a non-body-built human body. Both are luxury items which parade martial strength and dominance, yet both are icons of insecurity.

Weapons for which we kept the receipts: The inextricability of the West from enemies of freedom

Figure 1. Ron Tandberg’s WMD cartoon.
Courtesy of Ron Tandberg, The Age

For Graham, consumer predilection for the SUV exposes the geopolitics of oil (2004, p. 187; Wekerle and Jackson 2005, p. 40-4). Symbolic of consumption habits in the industrial West, the purchase and use of the SUV has profound implications for the rest of the world inasmuch as it affects the security, military and foreign policy of the United States. The SUV not only exposes the consumer’s reliance on oil to sustain a comfortable existence; its military origins (in the Humvee) signify how much that existence will be defended. Batman Begins reframes this real world debate by attaching a moral urgency to the use of the Batmobile as a tool of war. Once Ra’s Al Ghul, the film’s villain, has implemented his plan to destroy Gotham with the weaponised hallucinogen, the city’s authorities send riot police to the island but they are overcome by the chaos. At Gordon’s request for more help, Commissioner Loeb declares there is no one left to send in, at which point the Batmobile appears, driven by the hero who will save the day. This hero acts outside the law, yet his virtue is beyond question since he only breaks the law to restore the law. And he is the only one who can sufficiently intervene to reinstate order. Who would deny him his military strength, or his use of resources to sustain it?

The Batmobile and the Batsuit are thus two military prototypes that Batman uses for ‘good’: to neutralise the menace posed by the microwave emitter, a third military prototype manufactured by Wayne Enterprises. If the Batmobile and the Batsuit function as emblems of the military-industrial-entertainment complex, the microwave emitter, in its constitution as a ‘weapon of mass destruction’ (WMD) opens up the most fertile debate over how the film functions as an allegory for the ‘War on Terror’. In this frame Batman’s righteous task is to clean up Gotham by removing its corrupt elements, a fictional parallel for the righteousness of the United States’ campaign to promote democracy in the Middle East. Most associated with the presidency of George W. Bush (2001-2009), key features of this ‘War on Terror’ involved the removal of Middle Eastern tyrants: the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

But really, Batman must save Gotham from a technology created by his own company, and one now exploited by Gotham’s enemies. The real threat emerges from within, rather than without. The Ron Tandberg cartoon (see Figure 1) appeared in Australia’s Fairfax newspapers in September 2002, during the debate in Washington, D.C. and London over Hussein’s alleged possession of WMDs. The cartoon highlights the inextricability of the West from its so-called enemies by suggesting the hypocrisy of Western leaders who demonise political enemies while stocking their arsenals. In Batman Begins, though the microwave emitter was stolen by Ra’s Al Ghul and thus may represent a hijacking of Western technology by ‘terrorists’, this plot development opens up the points of contact between the West and its ‘terrorist’ other. It seems no coincidence that Ra’s Al Ghul and his League of Shadows bear more than a passing resemblance to Osama bin Laden and the shadowy Al-Qaeda network—a network that also used Western technology to deliver a strike to the hub of Gotham/New York City on September 11, 2001.

This ambiguity is also reflected in Bruce/Batman’s very formation: Batman Begins depicts Bruce/Batman as learning his trade at what is essentially a terrorist training camp, presided over by a fanatic (Ra’s Al Ghul) whose plan is to raze Gotham City to the ground as punishment for its decadence. Bruce/Batman’s techniques thus straddle the divide between those of the terrorist and the freedom fighter. This connection is emphasised in the Batsuit as Bruce/Batman adds brass forearm gauntlets, modelled after the armour worn by the members of the League of Shadows, to the arms of his suit. Thus he combines the technology of the West with those of its terrorist menace. Bruce’s emergence as Batman via a training camp also reverses the real-life example of the Central Intelligence Agency having trained Osama bin Laden in the U.S. campaign against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Bin Laden is thus not an unknowable enemy representing an ‘evil other’ wholly distinct from the ‘civilised West’, but one whose genesis is entangled with the West.

Political Vigilantism & Regime Change: Batman’s new covenant for the post-September 11 era

Fox explains that the microwave emitter is a weapon of infrastructural warfare that seeks the enemy’s submission by vaporising their water supply through emitting microwaves. In the context of 21st century asymmetric warfare that is predominantly waged in urban environments, Graham argues that the easiest way for forces to confront technologically-superior enemies is to attack their networks (2005). Modern networked societies may enable the on-demand delivery of a range of services (water, electricity, transport) to residents, but as Graham has identified the networked nature of urban infrastructure makes it particularly vulnerable to attack (2004, p. 191). The September 11, 2001 attackers exploited aeroplanes, while the Madrid 2004 and the London 2005 bombers delivered their attacks via trains. The destruction of infrastructure is only one outcome of such attack; another result is the spreading of panic and fear throughout the populace (Graham 2004, p. 172). This is literalised in Batman Begins where Ra’s has added a chemical agent—the weaponised hallucinogen referred to earlier—to Gotham’s water supply. He plans to vaporise it in order to release the panic-inducing gas into Gotham’s atmosphere, causing its citizens to destroy themselves through fear. This is a cinematic equivalent, perhaps, to the panic caused by the anthrax attacks that targeted the US Postal System in 2001. Batman Begins thus depicts how a city’s social life may potentially be crippled through attacks on its urban infrastructure.

Ra’s plants the microwave emitter on a train and sends it hurtling towards Wayne Tower—the same building that houses Gotham’s central water utility. Wayne Tower literally shines in the darkness of the cityscape at night, the film’s symbol of economic prosperity in the service of social liberalism. These values are given concrete form in the train, Thomas Wayne’s urban regeneration project to encourage rich and poor to mingle in the same social space. Batman Begins’ establishment of these symbols is an interesting gloss on the real-world context of the September 11 attacks. The World Trade Centre was a monument to corporate capitalism. While its name suggested a global economic system, the building’s placement in New York City and the dominance of the American greenback in tempering the international market revealed its Western allegiances, which meant incredible disparities of wealth distribution throughout the rest of the world.

In saving the tower yet crashing the train, Bruce/Batman establishes a fresh covenant for the post-September 11 era. His actions place more faith in political force (his vigilante identity as Batman) and sound economic management (in regaining control of his father’s company) than he does in the shared social space of rich and poor, represented by the well-meaning but weak-willed social liberalism of Thomas Wayne. That is, Bruce/Batman desires to continue his father’s legacy of social responsibility inasmuch as that involves the business of cleaning up Gotham City, but he improves on the rhetoric by backing it up with unilateral force. This is an analogy—and apologia—for forced regime change in the Middle East after September 11.

That Batman’s vigilante actions ultimately rely on force and by extension, violence, situates Batman Begins within Richard Slotkin’s “regeneration through violence” thesis (1992). For Slotkin, recourse to violence in the American imaginary expresses a fundamental discontent with democracy as an instrument of progress, preferring instead to place faith in “a gun in the hands of the right man” (p. 396). For Ra’s Al Ghul, Thomas Wayne’s inability to use force to defend his family (resulting in the orphaning of young Bruce) or stir Gotham’s regeneration betrays a weakness of character that underwrites the deterioration of Gotham. Though by the end of Batman Begins Bruce/Batman commits himself to restoring his father’s name through rebuilding Wayne Manor (destroyed after the League of Shadows’ incursion into Gotham), philosophically he aligns himself with his ‘other’ father, Ra’s. While Batman values justice and liberty, he bypasses the law by unilaterally enforcing them at the point of a gun. He could be considered to be a consensus builder as he establishes an alliance with Gordon, the only honest cop in Gotham, and the district attorney Rachel Dawes (also his love interest), but Batman is looking for minor partners in a ‘coalition of the willing’ to grant legitimacy to his illegitimate use of force.

With the partnership of Gordon, who demolishes the struts of the train tracks courtesy of the weapons systems on the Batmobile, Bruce/Batman defeats Ra’s and crashes the train. Thus one military prototype, the Batmobile, is used to defeat another, the microwave emitter. The development of future weapons to counteract existing ones is circular logic designed to perpetuate the system. It offers a strange spin on the phenomenon of “disaster capitalism” that Naomi Klein (2005) described as the George W. Bush Administration’s practice of awarding reconstruction contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan to private contractors with ties to the Bush regime. Of course, this is after crucial infrastructure has been destroyed by the coalition’s bombing campaigns. In this case, however, money is made by creating one weapon and then another to offset the initial threat. The underlying rationale of such an arrangement is that as long as such military technology remains in the ‘right’ hands, all will be well.

But whose ‘right’ hands? It is significant that the Batsuit and the Batmobile are both represented in defensive, rather than offensive terms. Even the microwave emitter could be conceived of as a defensive rather than offensive weapon, for vaporising an enemy's water supply could force them to capitulate before widespread loss of life. The argument goes that body armour offers greater protection to the soldier, or the armoured vehicle the car’s occupant, when the hard bodies of their very existence testify to the expectation of assault. That is, little attention is paid to the aggressive, combative connotations of heavily fortified cars or body armour. A similar doublethink accompanies the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) or the ‘Star Wars’ program. Carl Boggs writes that this “misnamed” initiative is “primarily an offensive weapons scheme… central to a full-spectrum strategy that would enable the United States to counter Russian and Chinese military power” (original emphasis, 2006). Speaking of the Initiative in 1985, President Reagan said:

The Strategic Defence Initiative has been labelled Star Wars, but it isn’t about war; it’s about peace. It isn't about retaliation; it's about prevention. It isn't about fear; it's about hope. And in that struggle, if you’ll pardon my stealing a film line: The force is with us (paragraph 10).

Reagan’s rhetoric promoted the Initiative as invested in protecting freedom-loving people everywhere (read: the United States of America and its allies) but his oratory revealed the centrality of force to this desired constellation of security arrangements in the 21st century. The allusion backfired too. Reagan attempted to associate himself with the ‘good’ side of the force by rephrasing the famous film line that the Jedis use to wish each other well. However, the SDI most resembles the ‘Death Star’ of Star Wars, the principle weapon of the evil galactic empire.

By the end of Batman Begins, Batman has initiated a judicial regime change and installed himself as the unofficial law of Gotham City. His ally Sergeant Gordon has been promoted to Lieutenant and Rachel’s boss has died, paving the way for her elevation up the judiciary. He has also regained control of his father’s company; thus he is in a position to steer Gotham’s judicial and economic fortunes. Where Thomas Wayne may have seen fit to cancel the company’s military research, it is patently obvious that Bruce will not, since the Batsuit and the Batmobile have proved so useful to him as Batman. The destruction of the train and yet the preservation of Wayne Enterprises places less emphasis on government regeneration in the form of public programs and social welfare and more on private industry to stimulate regrowth.

Yet Graham warns that decreasing government investment in public infrastructure, paired with privatisation of formerly public services, entails a loss of accountability to the wider community (2005, 172-3). Future Batman films will undoubtedly add more military hardware to Bruce/Batman’s arsenal for his vigilante quest for justice. It is less certain, however, that Bruce’s plan to save Gotham will involve more legitimate avenues of social reform. Saltman writes:

The militarized body aims at ever greater control over the physical world and results only in ever-greater estrangement from it... The built body promises safety, security, and freedom while contributing to the militarization of civil society—a process at odds with democratisation (2003, p.50).

Saltman’s critique of bodybuilding essentially argues that the (over)built body is a trope for a body at war against itself. If we apply such critique to a post-September 11, security-conscious context we find that a perpetually expanding defence budget diverts public money and government attention away from endemic and entrenched inequality. The resultant systematic poverty engenders challenges to the state, encouraging criminality at home and terrorism abroad, an autoimmune disorder of Derridean variety. Victor Archibong and Paul Leslie argue that with civic services sapped of funds, disadvantaged citizens seek employment in the army, where they are called upon to fight to protect elite privilege. They conclude: “the conditions produced by the military-industrial complex foster a tacit conspiracy which both leads us to armed conflict and maintains the system itself” (1997, p. 39).

Bruce/Batman is keen to save Gotham, which bodes well for the city, yet it sits somewhat uneasily that this benevolent tyrant betrays similarities to Ra’s Al Ghul. Bruce/Batman’s totalising plan to revitalise Gotham and save it is not, fundamentally, that different from the film’s ‘terrorist’, for both ultimately rely on force as the impetus of social change. Bruce/Batman is in a unique position to enable this to happen as Bruce Wayne is the “apotheosis of the New Right.” (Cranny-Francis 1991, p. 19, 26). He represents a political regime that regards its body politic as the ‘great unwashed’, where citizens are incapable of governing their own affairs and need a strong, conservative leader. Batman fights to preserve the status quo, in effect protecting the structural inequality of the system that upholds his privilege. Under Batman’s tenure, democracy transmutes into authoritarianism, as Tim Blackmore recognised in Frank Miller’s comic Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1991).

But embedded in the reactionary politics of Batman Begins is a liberal recognition that Batman is part of the problem he attempts to eradicate in Gotham City. In the final moments of the film, Gordon raises the question of escalation:

GORDON: And what about escalation?
BATMAN: Escalation?
GORDON: We get semi-automatic weapons, they get automatics. We get Kevlar body armour, they get armour-piercing rounds. And you're wearing a mask and jumping off rooftops. Take this guy... armed robbery, double homicide... has a taste for theatrics, like you... he leaves a calling card. (GORDON hands BATMAN a clear plastic evidence bag with a playing card inside it)
BATMAN: (BATMAN turns the card over to reveal a Joker card) I'll look into it.
GORDON: (BATMAM turns to leave) I never got to say thank you.
BATMAN: And you'll never have to.

There are two aspects of escalation identified in this sequence. Firstly, Batman’s theatricality in using fear as a weapon against evil in turn unleashes it anew on a civilian population as his nemeses develop psychoses and personas to match him. Secondly, Gordon speculates that criminals will attempt to match the purchasing power of Bruce/Batman in order to even the playing field between Gotham’s law enforcement and its outlaws. Remember, those with the best tools and toys of war win. In this scene Batman is forced to acknowledge the indefinite nature of his quest to restore justice to Gotham. His preoccupation with fear, combined with the vast resources available to him to fortify himself against that fear in his Batsuit and Batmobile, lock him into Derrida’s autoimmune contract that reproduces ills in the effort to abolish them. The film displays a self-critical awareness that far from solving Gotham’s problems, Batman instead recreates the conditions for their reproduction.

Conclusion: Buying Ideology – Batman Begins as Commodity

Without super villains there would be no Batman, or at any rate, no meaningful existence for Batman.
- Richard Reynolds (1992, p. 103).


Have we already been drafted?
- Colin Milburn (2005, p. 99).

If we turn our attention beyond the film’s diegesis and consider the film as a commodity for sale it becomes clear that Batman’s makers have a vested interest in making sure Gotham is never entirely cleaned up. The enduring popularity of the comic book and the previous franchise of four Batman films already testified to the Caped Crusader’s ability to spin a profit. Batman Begins’ numerous merchandising tie-ins marketed to children, the obligatory computer game and special edition DVD crammed with special features herald the film as the first instalment of what may prove to be a very profitable franchise. Through buying these items audiences vicariously take part in the purchasing power of Bruce Wayne who can afford to enlist military equipment in his fight to save Gotham City. Eileen R. Meehan writes, “as we… approach Batman, Bat-mania, and Bat-audiences, our discussion of economics reminds us that text, inter-text, and audiences are simultaneously commodity, product line, and consumer” (1991, p. 61). This extra-diegetic context of Hollywood as a business dictates that at the level of the film’s diegetic reality Batman needs to keep doling out justice to Gotham’s criminals. Even though this will further condemn Gotham’s criminals to madness, it will ultimately prove profitable for the film franchise.

A safe Gotham City—its criminal elements eradicated—is bad for Hollywood’s business because it consigns a franchise about the Dark Knight’s agitations for justice to obsolescence. This should make clear that inbuilt in the very structure of this film as a commodity are the conditions that perpetuate the current system. Just as Batman’s toys and tools of war merge to become talismans of consumer desire, Batman Begins is itself a commodity selling a product: not only the merchandising attached to the film but a political ideology that pairs the righteous use of force with a fetish for the hard body of military culture.

Milburn’s question above echoes Kaplan’s concern raised earlier: is the consumer mobilised into militarized modes of being through the purchase of particular products? For Milburn, the most mundane activity such as his purchase of “Gap nanopants”—trousers made with ‘smart’ fabric not unlike a primitive version of Batman’s ‘memory cloth’—symbolise an everyday existence marked by the increasing confluence of militarised, consumer and civilian identities (2005, p. 99). This confluence is encouraged by key players of the military-industrial-entertainment complex: alluding to the U.S. Military’s practice of training and enlisting soldiers through electronic gaming, Ed Halter wrote of a web advertisement for the army, which courted potential recruits with the invitation: “If you’re ready to stop playing games, we’re ready for you” (2006, p. xvi).

If we understand the Batman franchise as a commodity that in order to remain profitable must throw up new challenges to Batman’s rule, when we transfer the terms of this debate to the real world, it should make us question the viability of a ‘War on Terror’ in actually stamping out the threat of terror. Does it instead produce it, or, to rephrase again, have a vested interest in producing it? It has often been identified that such a nebulous label heralds both an unending war and one that can never be decisively lost or won. Following Richard Reynolds (1992, p. 103), we may argue that without super villains (like Osama bin Laden) in the ‘real’ world, there would be no meaningful existence for a regime that devotes itself to his capture and the eradication of something as imprecise as ‘terror’. There would neither be a ‘meaningful existence’ for an inflated defence budget either. Yet as Batman Begins demonstrates, the effort to fight crime from a bastion of social privilege, and one that promotes the development of future weapons, effectively props up existing power structures. In doing so, it reproduces the ills of the system instead of offering a real alternative for the liberation of all.

Given the psychological complexity of Batman Begins, with Bruce constantly at war with his own fear, it is no surprise that the Joker and Two-Face were chosen to star in The Dark Knight (2008), sequel to Batman Begins. Both reflect crucial aspects of Bruce/Batman’s internal conflict:

The Joker epitomises the dark and negative side of the personal obsessions which fuel Batman’s crimefighting career: the Joker is a constant reminder that strength which derives from traumatic experience can be turned towards evil as easily as good. Two-Face redoubles the force of this assertion, the more so because his split personality (itself mirroring the Bruce Wayne/Batman duality) belongs to an individual who was once an officer of the law (Reynolds 1992, p. 68).

The war machine grinds on. In purchasing a ticket to Batman Begins and any ensuing sequels, we may do well to reflect on exactly what political ideology we are drafted (or courted?) into buying.


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