Telltale's Batman: Mo Money, Mo Problems

Telltale's new Batman game is focusing on the rich-guy half of Bruce Wayne's two-part personality.

Bruce Wayne has a lot on his mind. He’s backing Harvey Dent -- slippery district attorney -- for mayor. He wants to replace Arkham Asylum with a state-of-the-art rehabilitation facility named for his parents. Business allies, politicians, reporters, and people looking for handouts circle his inheritance like sharks smelling blood.

Oh, and he dresses as a bat sometimes.

Batman: A Telltale Games Series pulls a spectacular trick: it takes the heavily played-out story of Batman and makes it surprising again. Sure, it deals with many of the same questions -- identity, grief, the use of force -- but it centers the narrative around the pressure of being born a Wayne.

This is the first interpretation, outside of the comics, to deal authentically with Bruce Wayne’s wealth.  While it includes crime-fighting escapades, Batman remains a game about Bruce struggling with the expectations and costs of his family legacy.

Mo Money Mo Problems, Master Wayne

The vast majority of Batman media uses the Wayne fortune as a narrative hand-wave. Bruce can obtain advanced gadgets, an underground lair, and custom automobiles because he’s rich, end of story. Being old money means he can disappear at a moment’s notice without requesting time off, and excuses his eccentric behavior. When stories do address his bank account, it’s to show off Bruce’s philanthropy -- usually at a swanky ball for a villain to crash. In these stories, wealth is an enabler rather than a burden. The Wayne trust fund is part of the wish-fulfillment.

But in reality, wealth can be a burden -- particularly inherited wealth.

Look. I know how that sounds. I know. It’s hard to sympathize with trust fund kids. That’s particularly true in a soft recovery, and especially in a campaign season where one candidate looks like a political cartoonist’s vision of a robber baron. But having worked for years at a law firm that primarily served wealthy clients, I can tell you that money really does amplify problems, and bring some unique concerns of its own. I’ve seen it up close. Managing trusts and estates during a recession, is a good way to see what excessive wealth can do to a person.

Funny thing -- the most well adjusted rich kids I knew were the ones that didn’t act like they had money. Their parents might splurge on travel or education, but they didn’t receive cars for Christmas. If their parents died -- and I saw that happen -- each kid’s trust would dole out enough per year to buy food and a basic apartment, but not enough that they didn’t have to work. That was the best-case scenario.

The worst-case scenario could get ugly fast.

Wealth doesn’t create new problems as much as it amplifies normal ones. Every family, no matter their net worth, has a drinker, an addict, a gambler -- or simply someone who makes poor financial or bad relationship choices. Wealth does two things to these vices: it removes barriers to access, and increases the fallout. More money means access to harder drugs, or endless alcohol. It means that someone who might have only lost $10,000 during a bad divorce or gambling bender instead loses hundreds of thousands. It means that when they’re driving drunk, they’re driving a faster car at a greater speed and potentially killing more people. Socially, it means a kid with behavior problems or a personality disorder grows up with people making allowances for him, deepening his alienation and anti-social tendencies. It means the child who doesn’t have his parents’ financial acumen doesn’t notice the wealth managers draining his investment account. Parents put inheritance in a trust partially because they know their kids can’t handle the Bruce Wayne scenario.

And when a rich child makes a mistake -- and they always do, because they’re human -- they do so in front of an audience. Coming from money tends to make you a semi-public figure. If a kid down the street gets a DUI, it’s embarrassing, but if one of the Waltons do, it’s front-page material. This was even truer in the depression era Batman stems from, when millionaires were still a fairly new phenomenon and social circles ran smaller.

Batman gets this. It gives us a young Bruce who still seems unready to take up the mantle of the Wayne family. Sure, he blows his money on body armor rather than flashy watches, but you have to wonder whether Thomas and Martha would’ve wanted this for him. Overall, Bruce is staying upright, but he’s staggering in his parents’ shoes a little. As he deals with party guests or faces news cameras, you can taste the tension. He knows that his family’s image relies entirely on him, and that one slip could ruin their good name.

Which is better than his childhood friend Oz, whose family has fallen from the upper-tier of Gotham’s elite and into the most terrifying state for a rich person -- poverty.

In my experience, wealthy people are constantly afraid of going broke. From the outside it’s almost comical -- of course a millionaire shouldn’t worry about losing all their money -- but they do. The anxiety is real, and it has teeth.

While it’s easy to write this quirk off as people terrified to give up their luxuries -- and it’s true, the higher the horse the longer the fall -- this fear actually has more to do with responsibility and reputation. In contrary to most popular narratives, high-net-worth people really do know the value of the dollar -- and they know it’s easier to lose money than it is to earn it back. And in a capitalist society where money determines so much about our life and self-worth, blowing your family’s finances can be a social disgrace -- particularly with inherited wealth, since it suggests that you couldn’t live up to your parents.

It makes sense, then, that Oz’s pride appears so wounded -- he isn’t only destitute, he’s lost the family legacy. When Bruce looks at him, he sees a warning about what may happen if he plays his cards wrong.

Waynes: The Roosevelts of Gotham

But maintaining capital isn’t the only way to defend a family’s reputation -- there’s also philanthropy. Indeed, especially when a family runs on inherited wealth, it’s become tradition to use part of their funds for the public good both as an altruistic gesture, and to defend the family against perceived idleness or greed. Sure, the Wayne’s are virtually kings, runs the thought, but look at what they do for the community.

America has a long history of old-money philanthropy, ranging from the century-old Carnegie Corporation -- an educational organization with a $3 billion endowment -- to Vanderbilt University and the ruthless, yet generous, oil baron John D. Rockefeller. However, given Batman debuted in 1939, I’m going to use the Roosevelts as my primary example.

I won’t claim the Roosevelt family was a direct inspiration for Batman creator Bob Kane, but the Nolan brothers did base their Batman partially on Theodore Roosevelt. The parallels are obvious once you look for them: T.R.’s father, Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., was one of the early old money philanthropists, devoting 20 hours of each week to New York charities. Though growing up in privilege, Theodore -- and later his cousin, Franklin Delano -- took an unusually hands-on approach toward public service, entering politics with a populist platform of fighting crime, reforming the police, and breaking up corporate monopolies. Teddy’s stint as New York Police Commissioner -- where he’d make nighttime foot patrols around the city -- were shocking to New York’s wealthy elite, who considered politics dirty and beneath them. In fact, the Roosevelts were so successful as public servants we no longer remember them as old money. They’ve transcended their affluence to become a national symbol.

That’s the power of philanthropy and public service done right -- that people think about what you’ve done with that money rather than what you did (and who you stepped on) to get it.

But as Telltale’s Batman points out, philanthropy and public service can also be risky for families hoping to improve communities while burnishing their reputation. Putting your name behind an institution or candidate means you also get caught in the blast when things go wrong.

In the game, we find out that Bruce is bankrolling District Attorney Harvey Dent’s mayoral campaign. Even putting aside the audience’s foreknowledge of Dent’s fall, there are already cracks showing. Bruce is convinced that Harvey can help fix Gotham as a reform candidate, but he’s under no illusions that he’s picked a volatile horse. Harvey has a tendency to be misled, is comfortable cutting deals with shady elements, and feels (please forgive me) a little two-faced. Should Dent get implicated in a scandal, it’ll drag the Wayne name down with him -- and Harvey doesn’t seem to appreciate that danger.

This is a very real concern for political donors, and one of the reasons (other than the obvious, policy-based ones) donors try to keep a leash on candidates. When politicians get embarrassed, that shame reflects on their financial backers, which is why so many usual GOP donors -- including the ultra-conservative Koch brothers -- haven’t embraced Trump. Also consider the case of Joe Kennedy, Sr., whose isolationist appeasement of Nazi Germany ruined his family’s political career so thoroughly that it took Jack Kennedy becoming a war hero to bring them back to power.

And while endowing hospitals and universities might appear to be uncontroversial, charitable giving can create stress as well. Saying “yes” to a new pediatric hospital means saying “no” to an AIDS foundation, and those decisions can turn into political bridge-burners in the nonprofit community. Founding institutions -- like the mental health facility Bruce hopes will replace Arkham -- can prove particularly messy, since any administrative crisis or wrongdoing damages the family dynasty. After all, even if it wasn’t your fault, your name’s on the goddamn building.

So while Bruce leverages the family legacy in order to make Gotham a better place, he not only risks his family’s reputation but also politicizes his parents’ tragic murder as part of the campaign. Though it’s hard to say this early on, there are hints that some of his family friends are not particularly happy with this move.

And of course, there’s the possibility that the Wayne name isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Old Money, Old Secrets

I’ve tried to remain vague throughout this article, since Telltale built some genuinely surprising twists into Batman, and I don’t want to spoil them. But for now, let’s say this -- all families have things they want hidden, but the rich usually have more to hide.

Sometimes it’s a little secret, like hush money delivered to a pregnant girlfriend, gothic tragedies, or disreputable contacts. In the case of the Kennedys, it was a long-rumored (but still unproven) links to bootlegging and organized crime. The Roosevelts had Theodore Roosevelt’s alcoholic brother (Eleanor Roosevelt’s father) who committed suicide at 34, after years of exile from society.

And sometimes they’re bigger -- much bigger.

In 1879, a consortium of Pittsburgh industrialists purchased a Pennsylvania reservoir to turn into their private lake. Members of the South Fork Fishing & Hunting Club -- which included Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Fick, and Andrew Mellon -- set up a 47-room clubhouse and 16 cabins as a private retreat. They also modified the dam with fish screens to keep their introduced catch from escaping.

The aftermath of the Johnstown, Pennsylvania flood, June 1889 (Wikimedia Commons).

But those modifications clogged the spillways, and the dam broke on May 31st, 1889. Floodwaters surged down the mountain, tearing through the nearby town of Johnstown, killing 2,209 people and sweeping bodies as far as Cincinnati, Ohio. It would remain America’s largest loss of civilian life until 9/11.

The club members assisted with the relief effort, but were never found criminally liable. Their defense attorneys in the case were club members, and successfully argued that the dam break was an Act of God. Indications that members had decided against reinforcing the dam were buried. Carnegie gave Johnstown $10,000 and rebuilt their library.

When you look at that gift, you have to ask yourself -- exactly what are the Waynes trying to bandage over with their gifts to Gotham?

So as Batman builds up, and cuts down, the legacy of the Wayne clan, they do so on solid historical ground. It’s entirely possible for a noble family -- one that comes from money with a record of public service -- to build their good name on the foundation of a deep, dark cave full of secrets.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in Zam, Vice, The Escapist, Playboy and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp