“There’s No Such Thing as an Anti-War Film”: Power Fantasies, Gritty Superheroes, and The Batman


Yeah, this post is full of spoilers for The Batman. The good kind, but still.

It’s probably not the case that Francois Truffaut explicitly said that it was impossible to make an anti-war film, although the sentiment is often attributed to him. He did said that he decided not to make a movie about Algiers because “to show something is to ennoble it”. He also said, in an interview published in the Chicago Tribune, “Every film about war ends up being pro-war”.

Because it just isn’t possible to make an audience, sitting in a comfortable theater with a bag of popcorn balanced on one knee, feel the same horror and despair that soldiers feel in battle. It’s the difference between skidding off an icy road then bouncing down a steep mountain slope with your kids in the back seat, and riding a roller coaster with them. One is a moment of terror in which an uncaring universe might take from you everything you care about, and one is a noisy thrill ride that might upset your tummy if it goes too fast. The latter simply can’t represent the feeling you get from former.

THE BATMAN has a similar problem, but instead of trying to be a war movie about the horrors of war, it’s a power fantasy about the dangers of misusing power.

Bruce Wayne starts off the film believing that he can make Gotham City a better place by terrorizing criminals. With the deaths of his parents giving him an excuse to do whatever he wants, he’s ruthless and pitiless, holding onto his personal rule against guns and killing as though that’s enough to make him one of the good guys.

Except he isn’t making things better, and he’s probably making them worse. Bruce admits to himself pretty early in the film that things have only gotten worse in the two years since he put on the suit, but his only solution (here at the beginning of the film) is to “push himself.” To double-down.

To exercise more power, and to be more ruthless about it.

Then the whole rest of the movie calls bullshit on every tactic, attitude, and assumption that Bruce Wayne has brought to his vigilante crusade.

Some examples:

* He has no interest in Wayne Enterprises or any aspect of the family business that has made him rich. Then he discovers that the Renewal program his saintly father created has become, after his father’s death, a slush fund that keeps mobsters and corrupt officials in power. Gotham is more corrupt because Bruce is not paying attention to the Wayne finances.

* He has no pity for the people who are caught up in Gotham’s criminal underworld. Then he discovers that his saintly father wasn’t so saintly after all. He made a mistake in a desperate moment and got involved with a mobster. But he still remained, basically, a good person and Bruce has to accept that people aren’t all good or all bad.

* He is driven by capital vee Vengeance for the sort of people who made an orphan of him, then he has to hear what it was like to be an orphan in one of the Wayne-funded orphanages, and it is a horror show. All of Bruce’s pain and rage at growing up without his mom and dad is a very small thing indeed beside the suffering Edward Nashton endured.

* He is convinced that the tool that will win the fight against crime is terror. If only he could frighten more people, make them afraid of every shadow, they might finally go straight. Never mind that the criminals who are afraid of him still rob bodegas and firebomb banks…

Also, never mind that Bruce’s terror campaign is indiscriminate. After he stops the clown gang from beating up a random subway rider, he doesn’t ask the guy if he’s okay. He doesn’t help the guy up off the ground. He just glowers at him, while the victim pleads, “Please don’t hurt me.”

At the end of the film, when Batman is reaching out to the people trapped beneath the scaffolding, everyone is too afraid to reach back. Except for the mayor’s son. He was the only person Batman has shown any empathy and that moment, early in the film was not something Bruce planned, and it’s definitely not something he thought would make Gotham a better place.

But it does. Because once the mayor’s son trusts Batman enough to let himself be rescued, others do, too. Without that moment of empathy in the middle of a crime scene, Gotham’s new mayor and all her staff would have rejected Bruce’s help. He couldn’t have led them to safety, and he couldn’t have helped coordinate rescue efforts. He couldn’t have comforted those who were frightened and in pain.

It’s a big pivot from the Please Don’t Hurt Me guy to the woman in the stretcher who holds his hand. Because what good is all of Bruce Wayne’s pain if it doesn’t make him empathize with other people’s pain?

But I want to return to that capital vee Vengeance scene. When I first saw Batman knock out that gang leader, then say, “I’m Vengeance,” I felt the tiniest twist of disappointment. I really didn’t want another gritty superhero, willing to do whatever it takes to out-violence and out-terrorize the worst of society. Someone willing to be the one guy who can give back to the bad guys what they’ve been dishing out.

To me, that’s an asshole’s way of being good, and it wasn’t until I realized the whole movie was designed to interrogate the idea of asshole-Batman that I could put aside that disappointment. I mean, Penguin and Cat Woman both make fun of Bruce for it, calling him, “Mr. Vengeance” or just plain “Vengeance”.

Then one of Riddler’s snipers delivers the “I’m Vengeance” line and Bruce hears it from the other side. He finally hears it the way I heard it, while I was sitting in my comfy seat in the theater. That changes him, and at the same moment, I realize this is the best Batman movie I’ve seen in a long time, if not ever.

Unfortunately, judging by the social media I’ve seen and the YouTube reviews of the film, a whole lot of people thrilled to that early “I’m Vengeance” moment. It’s The Batman! He’s a badass who beats people unconscious and then says badass things!

It’s a power fantasy that’s curdled like old milk, because it’s mixed with viciousness and contempt. But people love power, and they love to be vicious when they can convince themselves that viciousness is justified. It thrills them.

And even though the movie clearly repudiates that moment, they can’t help but smile as they think about it. The power fantasy just feels so good.

So how are we supposed to show a toxic hero’s power in a way that doesn’t make him unsympathetic or a villain, and that also doesn’t also thrill people? I’ve been thinking about this question quite a bit, and I’m not sure how to find the answer.