Dark Knight of liberty

I think I’ll use Jeffrey Tucker’s blog post about Batman: The Dark Knight as an excuse to repost my review of Batman Begins from 3 years ago:

der Fledermaus Mann fängt an

Joe Salerno must be feeling a void after his great summer seminar, June 6-10 [2005] at LvMI.

(I’ve listened to 9 of the 10 lectures, so far. I’d better finish #10 tonight so I can focus on Tom Woods’s summer seminar starting tomorrow.)

Salerno seems to have turned to film reviews, starting with this critique of Batman Begins.

I’ve just returned from a sold-out matinee.

Salerno says, “This is the best Batman movie yet.” I agree.

He says, “Bale’s Batman is dark, dangerous, disturbed, dehumanized and vengeful — as he was meant to be.” Right on.

He says, “The new menacing-looking, tank-like, car-crunching, building-smashing Batmobile is a better reflection of Batman’s spiritual being than the sleek Batmobile of earlier movies.” I agree enthusiastically, and I add that it’s clearly based on Frank Miller’s vision of the revamped Batmobile in the great 1985 graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns. (My impression is that this movie began as a film adaptation of Miller’s follow-up series, Batman: Year One. If so, little of the original remains, but I certainly think Batman Begins is the most “Milleresque” of Hollywood’s attempts to tell Bruce Wayne’s story. To whatever extent modern audiences can imagine Batman as “dark, dangerous, disturbed, dehumanized and vengeful” instead of the high-camp grinning idiocy of Adam West, we have Frank Miller to thank for it.)

Salerno says, “The slow-paced and meandering build-up in the first half hour or so ultimately pays off handsomely in the movie’s climactic scenes, with plenty of action and suspense along the way.” While we both enjoyed the movie, my review is the opposite of his: my favorite part of the movie is the “slow-paced and meandering build-up” — the best superhero origin back story I’ve yet seen on film. Was it only half an hour? Felt more like an hour to me, and I was enjoying all of it. Felt like we didn’t even get to see the hero costume for the first half of the film, and for my tastes, the story deteriorated from that point on. Not much. It would still have been the best Batman movie ever, even if they’d started at what I’m calling the downturn. But I definitely preferred the character of Bruce Wayne to the character of Batman.

So why is an Austrian School economist reviewing a superhero movie?

I’ll say that before I read Salerno’s review (which I saved for after the movie), I was already thinking that this was the most self-consciously economically minded comic book movie I’ve seen. Some of this economic mindedness is revealed in the standard myths and misunderstandings of economic illiteracy, but there were two points I thought Austrians could readily embrace.

Point #1:

The first one turns out to be something Salerno did not at all embrace, but put into the economically illiterate column of the tally:

The notion that a conspiracy of bad guys can “use economics as a weapon” to cause a depression in Gotham City is ridiculous — unless they have somehow infiltrated the Federal Reserve System.

Well, yes, exactly. Why shouldn’t we believe that this is precisely what the bad guys have done?

No, it’s not specifically explained that way, but what is both explained and demonstrated is that the bad guys have infiltrated every level of every aspect of Gotham City government. How much sense would it make for them to have kept their hands out of the federal government’s mechanisms?

Do I assume that the screenwriters understand that government monetary inflation is responsible for the business cycle? No, I don’t assume that. (But if they did understand, they’d be wise to keep the details of their insight out of the script. After all, they’re trying to turn a tidy profit, and therefore want the overwhelming population of young Marxoids to buy film tickets and recommend the movie to their young Marxoid friends.)

What I embrace in this detail is the perception that depressions are created! They are not natural, not just an inevitable symptom of market economies. They are artifacts of intervention, and this is what I take to be the point.

The film posits a criminal conspiracy behind a devastating economic depression. That’s only half the story — Austrians know that the criminal intervention is a conspiracy of bankers and politicians — but that’s already more than I ever expected to get from Hollywood film writers. As Murray Rothbard would say: their suspicions are right, even if they don’t have all the details (although when Rothbard said it, he was referring to people’s suspicions of bankers — not of criminal secret societies).

Point #2:

“Where does he get those wonderful toys?”

— Jack Nicholson as The Joker, Batman (1989)

When I was a smart-alec kid, watching James Bond marathons, my smart-alec friends and I would question the logistics of the bad guys’ lairs. How did Dr. No arrange for the construction of a secret volcano fortress? Fine, the bad guys had plenty of money from past bad-guy activities, but how did they turn it into so much advanced infrastructure and technology.

What we never questioned was how MI6 managed to do the same. We grew up in an era when most people took for granted that governments had technology more advanced than we had on the private market — and feared that the Soviets’ infrastructure and technology were just that much better than MI6 and the CIA’s. That was the Cold War mentality, and even those of us who opposed the Cold War often failed to question its most basic assumptions — like the idea that command economies could out-compete free economies.

After the fall of the Soviet Union and the discovery that we’d been lied to for decades by both Left and Right (each for their own reasons) about the strength of the Soviet economy and military, and after finally learning some of the economics behind the reality behind the lies, I now find every adventure movie to come out of the 1960s, 1970s, and even 1980s to be based in the economic misunderstandings of Cold-War thinking. (Even the supposedly somewhat libertarian The Incredibles suffers from this ignorance — though I suppose we can forgive a movie that is consciously playing with an already established superhero tradition. PoMo, donchaknow.)

But how can Batman have such an elaborately constructed Batcave? Well, in this movie, he doesn’t. The cave looks like a cave, not like an underground military installation. There are no hydraulic lifts, no supercomputer, absolutely nothing it would take negotiations with teamsters to construct. We even see Bruce Wayne himself rappelling down from the cave ceiling where he’s been putting in the lighting. Faithful butler Alfred stands by the small gas-powered generator that provides the electricity.

And how can Batman have such high-tech crime-fighting gadgetry unavailable on the market?

The old answer was the Bruce Wayne is a billionaire — same answer for James Bond’s supervillains.

But Batman Begins offers no such pretense. We see Alfred and Bruce Wayne planning how to buy which parts of the costume from which foreign manufacturers, without attracting attention. We learn that the department of the Wayne Corporation originally funded to develop defense technology has been all but shut down, as the new WayneCorp management focuses on government weapons contracts.

Of course Bruce Wayne didn’t build the Batmobile! What were you thinking?

Batman’s high-tech costume, vehicles, gadgetry — they are products of the market, abandoned with changes in demand. (Though the demand comes from government, not consumers.)

Batman’s gadgets are what economists call “sunk costs”. They already exist and have already been paid for, whether or not anyone wants or can afford to buy them. They’re too expensive to mass-produce, given the lack of demand, but they’ve already been produced as prototypes.

Batman Begins is not Austrian, not even as much as “The Berlin Batman” (1, 2, 3), but it is by far the most market-oriented superhero movie I’m aware of. Many libertarians celebrated The Incredibles for its Randian individualism and bourgeois family values, and I can join them in much of that, but The Incredibles also showed the private insurance corporation as criminally malicious while giving a complete pass to the secret government agency that enforces the ban on private security (a.k.a. superheroes). I guess libertarians have to take what we can get. But for my money, the more interesting questions are asked by Batman Begins — even if the answers it hints at are sometimes less than satisfactory.


2 Responses to Dark Knight of liberty

  1. Black Bloke says:

    In what way does The Incredibles suffer from economic misunderstandings or ignorance? The character who was Syndrome was a brilliant inventor who sold his inventions to governments for 10s or 100s of billions of dollars. He built an open air experimental lab on an island that he bought himself. If you think it’s unbelievable that he was able to build the island environment (and perhaps by extension all of his weapons?) because he was a “villain”, you have to keep in mind the fact that he was not an official villain until he launched his attack on the mainland United States. Before then he was an eccentric billionaire inventor who had the protection and support of governments around the world.

    Even his database of superheroes probably came from the governments who tracked them and banned them.

  2. Jeff Molby says:

    What I embrace in this detail is the perception that depressions are created! They are not natural, not just an inevitable symptom of market economies.

    I haven’t seen either movie, so I’m going completely off your description, but it seems you made a subtle, yet important logical error.

    The movie stated that depressions can be manufactured. It said nothing about whether or not depressions can happen naturally.

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