This weekend my husband and I did some very important preparation for the week to come: we rewatched 2017’s Justice League. I can happily report that we are now ready for Thursday night.
I am forever a sucker for superheroes. Give me some DC. I’ll never say no to Marvel. Yes, I’m down for some Doom Patrol. Wandvision? Yes, please! The Boys? I mean… yes, of course, but I’ll have feelings about it. If I’m not working or baking or reorganizing the pantry or turning wine bottles into candles, you can probably find me streaming superheroes.
All of which is context for the revelation I had while watching Justice League, which can be summarized as, “Batman should maybe f*ck off.”
For any of you dear readers who have not recently seen the movie, a quick summary (spoilers, obviously): Superman has sacrificed himself to save the planet, and the world has gone to hell because its citizens have lost all hope in the wake of his death. The powerful prey on the weak. Hatred and fear are the driving forces in Gotham and Metropolis (and, one presumes, beyond.) Batman is a one-man vigilante crime fighter putting his immense wealth, brooding good looks, raspy voice, and willingness to take a beating to work, one small-time evildoer at a time. When he realizes some of these small-time evildoers are in fact harbingers of a Big Bad (Steppenwolf, End of Worlds) he teams up with Wonder Woman to put a band together, bring Superman back to life, and bankroll the team to save the planet and everyone on it.
Here’s the part I’m cursing about: In the early part of the movie, we learn that Superman’s family’s farm has been foreclosed on and watch his mom load up her worldly possessions and drive away, forlorn, towing a tiny UHaul trailer.
Toward the end of the movie, we see Superman, his mom, and a gloriously tressed Lois Lane moving back into the house. Batman has saved the day again! By BUYING THE BANK that had foreclosed on the house.
This whole time Batman had the wherewithal to not only outfit his underground lair with badass flying/driving/boating machines, extreme weaponry, a multi-million dollar security system (he mentions the cost), and a staff of… well, a staff of just one… but also buy a whole ass bank, and he chose instead to address the world’s misery exclusively by dressing up as a well-armored bat and beating up apartment thieves?
Instead of actually making life easier for the good people of the world through, say, paying for housing or medical care or community services or, heck, first responders, instead, he gave them the gift of watching him drive a tricked out Mercedes, landing a plane that’s also a submarine that can crawl up walls like a bug (I admit that’s pretty cool), and his willingness to suffer lots of bruises on his ribcage. All while he grumbled about how what the world really needed was Superman.
It’s all a pretty on-the-nose allegory for one of the more troubling realities of our real world. Over the last year, while millions of people lost their jobs, fell months behind on rent, depended on increasingly sparse food and diaper banks, wrestled with the devastating impacts of school closures and a decimated set of child-care options, and more than half a million Americans lost their lives to COVID… America’s 660 billionaires added more than a trillion dollars to their collective wealth.
And they weren’t even Batman-level philanthropic or public-minded about it. The Washington Post reported that Jeff Bezos, contributed just .26% — there’s a “point” in front of that 26 — of the $58 billion he added to his fortune last year to help address the crisis.
Elon Musk, he of “the coronavirus panic is dumb” and “I’m going to open my factory in defiance of public health rules” fame added $118 billion to his accounts, and gave $5M — .004% of his gains. He did that as he moved out of California to avoid paying taxes on his fortune — despite having California regulatory policy to thank for at least some of his newly-added wealth. Musk didn’t miss the opportunity to shout out some advice for us Californians as he left for pastures that asked even less of him (Texas.)
The rest of the billionaires who round out the list of obscenely wealthy people who amassed even more wealth this last year didn’t do much better. Bill Gates stands out as an exception.
So that’s where my head’s at as we mark a full year of this pandemic: the politics of extreme wealth as we look to the light at the end of this very long tunnel of extreme suffering and extreme insecurity.
Maybe in our politics moving forward, as we continue to answer critical questions about the kind of society we want to live in, we can recognize our own Batmen (Batmans?) for what they are: flawed dudes with questionable instincts about how they can help and what their roles and responsibilities are to the people and systems that made their great fortune possible. If we can manage that, maybe we can look to some extremely hopeful transformations by way of answering the big political questions in more resilient, equitable, healthy ways.
I write a free weekly-ish newsletter. Sign up here.