In the most recent Batman film, Justice League, he is teamed up with demigods, cyborgs, and mutants to save the world.  When asked what his super-power is, what entitles him to be special enough to play in this league, he responds simply “I’m rich.”  It is played as a laugh line, but is the serious answer.  Or rather, half of it.

Batman is a hero for this new Gilded Age because he is rich and responsible.

About the time that Batman Begins (the first of the “Dark Knight” trilogy) came out in 2005, the wealth of the top 1% in the United States surpassed the wealth of the bottom 90%.  By the time The Dark Knight Rises appeared in 2015, the top 1% had as much wealth as the bottom 99% in the whole world.

In this new gilded age, the hugely wealthy have more resources than most governments.  Whether they use that power to serve themselves or serve the common good has become an increasingly important political question.  Since the Citizens United Supreme Court decision in 2010, some billionaires have invested more and more money, openly and secretly, in supporting candidates – even becoming candidates themselves.  Some of that investment has been used to cut their taxes and deregulate their businesses.  Some other billionaires, though, have invested in solving public problems, promoting an open society, and even limiting the power of sheer money.

The villains that the new Batman faces are not ordinary criminals, nor enemy governments.  The enemies that the dark knight faces promote a worldview that justifies brutal solutions.  They use fear itself as a weapon, then anarchy, which in turn justifies vigilante violence by the state, and finally a French Revolution-like rising against the 1%.  What makes the Dark Knight dark is that he is torn between responding with fear and brutality of his own.  Equally tempting – and equally dangerous for the forces of light – he keeps trying to retire, disappear, even die into selfish irresponsibility.

The renewal of the Batman story at this moment is part of a wave of responsible rich heroes – Professor X of the X-men, Iron Man, Green Arrow, Iron Fist, and now Black Panther. They represent a hope that by accepting the massive increase in inequality of our current society and world, we have not doomed ourselves to domination by a selfish uber-class.

As a popular meme of a few years ago put it, “492 billionaires in the United States, and not one of those losers has decided to become Batman.” Now that there are more than 540 billionaires in this country, one of whom is president, our hope for a responsible super-rich person to fight the mere robber barons is greater than ever.

William (Beau) Weston,  Ph.D.

Dept. of Sociology

Yale University

Beau Weston joined the faculty at Centre College in 1990 and was named Van Winkle Professor of Sociology in 2008. He is an energetic and active teacher, known for getting involved in the lives and activities of his students on campus.

Born in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, Weston earned a B.A. with high honors from Swarthmore College and subsequently completed an M.A.R. from Yale Divinity School and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees at Yale University. Prior to coming to Centre, Weston served for three years as a research associate in the Office of Research of the U.S. Department of Education.

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