The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion From Bane to the Joker, the Batman villains that best explain Donald Trump

Tom Hardy as Bane and Christian Bale as Batman in “The Dark Knight Rises.” (Ron Phillips/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures Funding LLC)
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I joked the other day that my status as an emotionally and intellectually stunted man-child means I can relate to the world’s various crises only through the medium of comic book films. “Joked,” really. Because I’ve spent a lot of time recently meditating on a very important question.

Which Batman movie villain is Donald Trump, exactly?

There are so many choices! The Penguin (Danny DeVito) as seen in “Batman Returns” makes some sense, given that he was a man with a disturbing hand deformity leveraging his rage into a race for political office. Given his propensity for flip-flopping, a version of Two Face could also be a decent pick. But which? Not “The Dark Knight’s”; Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent was a decent, honorable man whose fall was tragic. Tommy Lee Jones’s iteration from “Batman Forever” makes more sense, given his penchant for pure psychotic rage.

Still, none of those feels right. We need to go deeper. Bane (Tom Hardy), the masked villain from Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012), hews much closer to Trump’s ideology. It’s not just that Bane is the vanguard of a movement designed specifically to destroy the establishment of America’s greatest city — taking out politicians and business leaders alike as he does so. It’s that he’s also a rather naked populist.

Consider his first big move: an assault on Gotham City’s stock exchange, where sneering bankers produce nothing of value and treat blue-collar janitors, shoe shiners and delivery boys like dirt. “This is a stock exchange,” one of the bankers says. “There’s no money you can steal.” “Why else would you people be here?” replies Bane, enemy of the one percent.

Think also of the speech he delivers to the people of Gotham from the steps of Blackgate Prison after he has dispatched Batman (Christian Bale).

“They supplied you a false idol to stop you tearing down this corrupt city,” Bane says. “We take Gotham from the corrupt. The rich! The oppressors of generations who’ve kept you down with the myth of opportunity. And we give it to you … the people. Gotham is yours — none shall interfere. Do as you please.” After that, we see a montage of Gotham’s citizens doing just that: citizens rising up against the moneyed classes and pulling the “decadent” from their homes; doormen shrugging off their caps and jackets and tossing the residents of their buildings into the streets; champagne corks popping as the wealthy cower in fear.

Of course, Bane doesn’t actually care about the people. Hardy’s bulging eyes and exaggerated head movements as he delivers the Blackgate speech reveal that the man behind the mask believes in none of what he says. He’s simply using the resentment that has built up for years — as young men failed to find work and fled to the sewers; as inequality grew while the wealthy cluelessly partied — to consolidate his grip on power.

Still, Trump’s not quite Bane. It often feels more like he’s an agent of chaos — a wild card added to the mix that makes us reconsider everything we thought we knew about the established order. Perhaps Trump is more like Heath Ledger’s Joker from “The Dark Knight” (2008).

“You have all these rules, and you think they’ll save you,” the Joker taunts Batman, a line that calls to mind every Republican who thought that the party’s structures and strictures might rescue them from the Donald. “The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules.” And Trump has done his best to create a political world without rules, one in which debates revolve around the size of his hands (and his manhood), one in which protesters at rallies are shoved and kicked and stripped of their jackets before being sent into the cold night, one in which consistency and principles and purity tests are thrown out the window because one charismatic individual utterly lacking a core philosophy upsets the natural order.

“Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order and everything becomes chaos,” the Joker says at another point. “I’m an agent of chaos.” And the Republican primary has been nothing if not chaotic, as members of the “deepest bench in years” — one filled with governors and senators representing a variety of brands of right-of-center thought — were reduced to gibbering has-beens one at a time as Trump picked them apart and sent them packing.

Still, Ledger’s Joker was never really able to gather the support of the people. The film climaxes with prisoners and citizens alike refusing to pull the trigger on a bomb that would take countless lives despite the fact that the Joker had promised they would die if no one acted. So he doesn’t quite work as a Trump stand-in either. We need an agent of chaos who nevertheless manages to appeal to the people.

Enter Jack Nicholson’s Joker, the heavy in Tim Burton’s “Batman” (1989). Remember Gotham as imagined by Burton in 1989: a metropolis on the brink, one overridden with crime and so deeply in debt that it’s struggling to come up with the cash to celebrate its bicentennial. Jack Napier (Nicholson) is a medium-time hood, paying off politicians and cops to keep them off his back. After falling into a vat of acid — leaving his skin bleached white, his hair tinted green and a grotesque grin stretched across his face — he goes nuts, poisoning the city’s cosmetics and being a general nuisance.

And yet. The people of Gotham don’t seem to understand just how wicked he is. So when he appears before them on the television, makeup covering his deformities, and informs the citizenry that he will be putting on a spectacular parade of his own and distributing $20 million in cash, they flock to him. “Who do you trust?” he asks the assembled as Prince’s “Trust” plays in the background. “Me? I’m giving away free money. And where is the Batman? He’s at home washing his tights!

A promise of something for nothing. A childish insult. And a crowd eating it all up. Sounds familiar. Of course, that scene ends with the crowd being gassed. Let’s just hope the Donald doesn’t gain access to a cache of Smilex before the convention in Cleveland.