“But if you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can’t stop you, then you become something else entirely.”
Bruce Wayne, Batman Begins (2005)
Christopher Nolan’s recent Dark Knight Trilogy (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises) takes a darker, more grounded approach to the concept of a modern superhero, giving a realistic treatment of what would really happen if a young multi-billionaire philanthropist decided that he wanted to make the world a better place by dressing up in bat-themed armour and fighting crime. The implied issue here is that we, the audience, have a difficult time accepting the rationale for dressing up in a strange costume in order to get the plot moving. Every superhero has to deal with this at some point in the origin story. Traditionally these superheroes assume another identity to fight crime in order to protect their loved ones from possible recrimination from their archenemies. These superheroes, though powerful, cannot be everywhere at once, and by confronting very powerful foes, the revelation of their identity could well lead to the murder of Peter Parkers Aunt May, or Bruce Waynes butler, Alfred. This rationale is referenced early on in Batman Begins, and is a constant throughout both Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, and the recent franchise reboot, which will be The Amazing Spider-Man series. So far, so usual superhero schtick. The difference between the Dark Knight trilogy and most other superhero movies is what Bruce Wayne actually uses his creation for, apart from simply fighting crime and saving the world.
A theme in Spider-Man, Superman, Batman, The Incredible Hulk, Ironman and other superhero stories is the public opinion generated by the media towards them. Peter Parker in Spider-Man is constantly at odds with his media portrayal in the tabloids, and the misunderstanding of some citizens who see him as nothing but one of the criminals he fights. In The Dark Knight Trilogy however, Bruce Wayne adopts the Batman alter-ego specifically in order to become a symbol which is above the scrutiny of the police, politicians and the media. The end scene of The Dark Knight takes this idea to its zenith, where Batman agrees to take the public blame for a crime committed by a prominent and seemingly incorruptible member of the Gotham City’s political elite. The truth, if revealed in public, would do grievous damage to the efforts of any future politicians attempts to clean up the city, so therefore the official blame is thrust onto the anonymous, shadowy figure of Batman, who disappears into the night, a fugitive. A few years later, while researching the rationale for supranational institutions, I realised that organisations such as the United Nations, the European Union and even the International Monetary Fund are the closest things we have to such a selfless, symbolic superhero as Batman.
“People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy. I can’t do this as Bruce Wayne. A man is just flesh and blood and can be ignored or destroyed. But as a symbol… as a symbol, I can be incorruptible, everlasting.”
Bruce Wayne, Batman Begins (2005)
Institutions such as these get a lot of bad press around the world. All are faceless, non-transparent organisations that are not specifically accountable to the region or territory that their decisions affect. The reputation of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Ireland and Greece, for example, is similar to the kind of abuse reserved for an invading army during wartime. No one in Ireland voted for any member of the IMF delegation that spent a few weeks dictating the future of the nation back in winter 2010. Irish journalists discovered the names of the delegates, followed them around the streets, wrote critical articles about whatever marital misdemeanours they conducted in the past, just as if these delegates could be hounded out of office like has been done to every other prominent public figure who endures this level of scrutiny and public hatred. This was different however. Once the negotiations were completed, the delegation flew off from Dublin Airport and disappeared back into the vague, mysterious entity that is the IMF. In the study of history, we are taught to memorise dates and key names involved in big decisions. While people with good memories may well remember the names of key members of that delegation, it is without question that that delegation was the IMF. The incumbent Irish government was negotiating with the IMF, and not the members of the delegation, nor the leadership of the IMF itself, but simply the International Monetary Fund.
“I’m whatever Gotham needs me to be”
Batman, The Dark Knight (2008)
This is an extreme example of the symbolic, unaccountable nature of international organisations. The main point is the unaccountability, what freedom advocates would refer to as the “democratic deficit”. Citizens in democracies understandably get very upset when unelected individuals make decisions which affect their lives. This has been a key criticism of the European Commission in many European countries. However, one of the rationales for the existence of supranational and international organisations is that citizens of democracies also generally get very upset when elected individuals make decisions which affect their lives. Elected officials are accountable to voters, however, and every perceived wrong move could lead to removal from office once the electoral cycle comes around. Elected officials fearing for their jobs is not a bad thing, however sometimes it does lead to politicians becoming reluctant to implement painful but necessary structural changes simply because they fear losing their jobs come election time.
Supranational and international organisations offer help in this respect. Governments in developing nations which receive assistance from the IMF and the UN often speak out publically against these organisations, and the hardships they have caused to the people in these nations. The same is true whenever the Irish government speaks of austerity and ‘commitments’ when they are referring to the dark spectre of the anonymous, unaccountable IMF, and not decisions taken by the current administration. This is because the IMF can take the heat, it can act as a buffer to absorb criticism of the government while reform can still be implementd. In the event of a successful policy, the incmumbant government will always take the credit, however. This is one of the functions of international organisations, they take the blame and criticism, but may not accept the credit. Just like Batman, they may save the day, but must remain the villain in order to maintain stability.
“Because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A dark knight.”
Commissioner Jim Gordon, The Dark Knight (2008)
So in essence what international institutions do is remove human agency and blame from decisions which affect millions of people, and the accountability of such decisions rests at the door of these faceless, often Swiss-based organisations. Of course within these organisations there may be an internal agenda at work, as has been laid at the door of the IMF and the EU, for example. All have very bad reputations amongst citizens of any country they operate in, which I have hopefully implied is part of their job description. The United Nations should not mind that it is not respected, nor recognised very often. It is a symbol, a magnet for criticism and blame for every problem the world has. Without it, this blame would go elsewhere and probably to somewhere that could/would not accept it so gladly. These institutions are whatever we need them to be. Like Batman, with their limitless resources and faceless symbolic value, they dream of saving the world by fighting injustice. Like Batman, they accept that their status as a symbol leads to certain undesirable responsibilities, and they, like Batman, sometimes get sidetracked by personal vendettas against people who have wronged them in the past. After all, behind their masks they all are just petty, damaged billionaires in the end.