Batman Begins: Market-Oriented Superhero Movie?

So argues BK Marcus:

"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.

Jeffrey Tucker also had an interesting take on the economics and ethics of the recent sequel:

The Joker, however, is not manageable. He is the killer virus unwittingly unleashed by the cure. People like him will always be with us, but they can usually be contained — unless the state is involved to make such people more powerful than they would otherwise be. The implied lesson becomes clear. The Joker is the product of mistaken public policy, the end result of the prohibition of peaceful trade.

The contrast between the peaceful cooperation that people are capable of when they are on their own, even under extreme circumstances, and the evil unleashed by misguided state management of society could not be more palpable.

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Unintended Consequences

...the killer virus unwittingly unleashed by the cure...

Serenity did the ultimate version of the this theme.

I watched it again last week for the first time since the DVD was released, and was particularly aware of the "Nanny State" angle: the extreme evil in the movie was an unintended consequence of a benevolent desire to improve society--at least as explained by the public school teacher in the opening schoolroom scene.

Micha, send me an email...

...if you're interested in the goings on in Boston.

Market Oriented? Surely you jest

The fact that the DoD paid for the stuff is glossed over. They aren't just sunk costs; they are private profits from public expense. And I'd venture a guess that the rest of the Wayne empire is much the same way: incorporation, intellectual property, etc. The public train? All of the public works just happen to run through the Wayne building? What do we surmise from a tortoise on a fencepost?

This post (and its inspiration) could stand a strong dose of Ariel Dorfman.

Monopsony

That's a good objection, but I wouldn't say it was completely glossed over - BK did concede that "the demand comes from government, not consumers." Granted, monopsony conditions would put a damper on what should be considered "market-oriented", but what if a private weapons manufacturer is allowed to sell to foreign governments as well? Wouldn't competition on an international level make it more "markety"?

:)