Batman, Like Real-Life Billionaires, Cares More About Heroic Vanity Projects Than Charity

As we rev up for Robert Pattison's trip under the cowl in The Batman, social media is abuzz with the usual Bat-controversy. Namely, why on earth would a do-gooding billionaire want to dress up as a Bat and hit evil clowns? Wouldn’t he do more good by contributing to charity, or investing in cleantech, or paying to develop a covid vaccine? Or really by doing anything that didn’t involve dressing up like a bat and punching evil clowns?

The argument has raged for eons (or at least for a few years.) Pro-charity Bat-skeptics point out that in real life evil clowns are not actually much of a threat, and the whole Bat-mythology is silly. Bat-fans say that Bruce Wayne does contribute to charity through the Wayne Foundation. But in the comics, evil clowns are a real problem and you can’t solve them with cleantech Sometimes you need to pull on a bat suit and bust some heads. Why are you trying to harsh our Bat-high?

Good points all! But what both pro and anti-Bat kids are missing is that Bruce Wayne is in many ways a believable, true-to-life billionaire. Batman isn’t just a hard-hitting vigilante weirdo. He’s a hard-hitting, sober critique of self-vaunting billionaires and their self-indulgent heroism fantasies.

Wait, you say. Real billionaires don’t dress up as vigilantes and fight crime on the streets (at least as far as we know.)

And that’s true. But real billionaires also hardly give any money to charity. If you don’t count their own foundations—where they still control the money and get lots of tax breaks—billionaires are notoriously stingy. Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk give away less than 1% of their wealth over their lifetime. Of 400 billionaires surveyed by Forbes, only 19 gave away 10% of their wealth.

So what do Musk and Bezos do with their dollars besides bathe in them? Well, they like to put massive cash outlays on self-aggrandizing high-profile science-fiction projects. Both are investing heavily in rockets and space technology, with the ultimate goal of putting cities on Mars or creating colonies in earth's orbit.

Musk and Bezos both claim that they’re burning money on space for the good of humanity, so we can dream big dreams and abandon the planet when we fill the ocean with plastic and the sky with carbon dioxide like a bunch of maniacal evil clowns. But there are obviously better ways to spend money if you want to save humanity. You could invest in cleantech for example—and you could do it without union-busting or segregating your factory floor, a la Musk.  You could vaccinate the world for about $50 billion—less than half of the fortune of a Musk, Bezos, or Wayne.

Billionaire space explorers don’t want to explore space for the greater glory of humanity, though. They want recognition and the thrill of feeling like they’re pulp genre heroes. Which seems like it describes Bruce Wayne pretty well.

Batman isn’t rushing off to space. But he builds lots of awesome tech toys, from Batarangs to Batmobiles to, yes, sometimes Bat spaceships.  And then he uses those tech toys not to create clean energy or improve everyday life, but to make himself the hero of a pulp story.

Why would a billionaire run around in a batsuit beating the crap out of mentally ill antagonists and policing marginalized communities? For the same reason that people read about a billionaire in a batsuit beating the crap out of people—because it’s pulpy fun.

Sitting in board rooms and giving someone else your money is boring; there’s no adrenaline rush and little glory. Using your billions to make yourself a hero though; that’s awesome. You can easily imagine Bruce Wayne reading those Bat-headlines with a smug chuckle familiar to Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos when they think about ruling over their space colonies.

Billionaires like empowerment fantasies too. And because they’re billionaires, they can make those fantasies come true, no matter how silly or selfish or counterproductive. So, yes, it’s kind of ridiculous that a billionaire would choose to use his massive resources to wander around fighting street crime and punching mentally ill people until they fall unconscious. But being a billionaire means you can do whatever ridiculous thing you want, and people will celebrate you for it.

Batman stories accurately portray a world in which super-rich people can buy heroism and accolades. The grim and gritty truth is that Batman sucks, but he can pay you to cheer him on anyway.

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This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Image Credit: Warner Bros.


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Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.