Batman: Court of Owls

Batman: The Court of Owls is the first few issues of Batman in the New 52. It concerns a shadowy conspiracy referenced in a child’s nursery rhyme apparently common knowledge in Gotham City. The story itself does have a few things to discuss, but this time we’re going to talk about shadowy conspiracies generally. How realistic is it, legally speaking, for a group of people trying to control Gotham City (or the world for that matter) to pull off something like this?

I. Conspiracies generally

Shadowy cabals are bog standard in fiction generally, not just comic books. The X-Files. The Da Vinci Code. Whatever gives S.H.I.E.L.D. its marching orders in The Avengers might well qualify. How likely is it for conspiracies like this to exist in real life?

Well. . . it depends on precisely which kind of conspiracy we’re talking about. And for starters, we should make it clear that we’re not talking about the crime of conspiracy, i.e., an agreement between two or more persons to commit a crime. Indeed, many of the most famous conspiracy theories don’t have anything illegal at their end. The alleged conspirators may be thought to commit crimes as a means of accomplishing their ultimate targets—usually something along the lines of “take over the world“—but the crimes which are cited as in furtherance of the conspiracy are rarely of central importance. Take, for example, the assassination of JFK, perhaps one of the most popular subjects of conspiracy theorists. Tons of people think that JFK was taken out by a shadowy group who thought he was going to interfere with their plans for something else (about which theories diverge wildly), but very few people think that any alleged conspirators just had it out for JFK personally and went home afterwards, mission accomplished.

This is important, because it actually makes a lot of fictional (and, let’s be honest, alleged real-world) conspiracies somewhat implausible. Why? Because if the ultimate goal of the conspirators is something legal, and there are legal means to accomplish that goal, why go through all the trouble? When someone like, say, Karl Rove, George Soros, the Koch brothers, or any number of Hollywood celebrities, decides they want to influence American politics, they don’t need to go around meeting in secret boardrooms wearing masks or using voice-scrambled teleconferences. They just start a PAC or 501(c)(4) entity and do it all openly. Open Secrets does some really good work tracking down the sources and recipients of money in politics. Much of this money is legal and mostly a matter of public record, to say nothing of contributions that are not required to be reported. There is such a thing as an illegal campaign contribution, but there are so many legal ways of accomplishing the same thing that the incentives are pretty low. Rich guys that want to “control” a particular city don’t form or join shadowy cabals, they run for mayor. Worked for Bloomberg anyway.

But it’s more than just that. A lot of these fictional conspiracies involve shadowy billionaires who are largely unknown to the public. Thing is, it’s basically impossible to be a billionaire without someone knowing about it. Crime doesn’t pay (at least not that well), and if you’re really that rich, you can probably find a way of making what you want to do legal. Like, one might argue, hedge funds and investment banks have done. Regardless, rich people are the constant subject of journalistic investigations and tabloids. Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, etc. Even rich people who stay out of the spotlight–and there are quite a few–are still known to members of the public who care about these things.

Of course, there are plenty of actual criminal conspiracies out there, but the general goal of these sorts of outfits is usually pretty simple: money. Sometimes personal prestige and social perks as well. This is the province of your standard organized crime outfit. And one might well be reminded of nineteenth- and twentieth-century political machines, especially the Daley dynasty in Chicago, and the Boss Tweed era in New York City. But again, everybody knew who these people were, what they were doing, and how they were doing it. Political corruption is real, but it’s generally an open secret. People make movies about it.

Conspiracy theorists are the masters of special pleading, so none of this is likely to be terribly persuasive to people that believe them. But the mainstream view is that the only kinds of conspiracies that are actually out there are limited to organized crime, or not actually secret at all.

II. The Court of Owls

So what are we supposed to make of the Court of Owls? This is supposed to be a group of ridiculously wealthy Gotham City families that either no one has heard of, or that are engaged in a decades—if not centuries—long project to control Gotham City without seeming to reap many of the benefits of this alleged control. The most plausible part of it is the inclusion of secret chambers in old buildings. Even including them on the official blueprints filed with the county wouldn’t necessarily tip anyone off who didn’t already know what they were looking for. But a multi-generational cadre of secret assassins who willingly kill on demand for. . . what purpose, exactly? The Court is not portrayed as simply a group of bored, sadistic idle-rich types, a la Eyes Wide Shut. That’s actually a fairly plausible idea, as rich people engaging in secret, private vice is far more realistic than engaging in secret control of public affairs. So the Court isn’t running the Talons for sport. They’re running it as part of their plan to continue their rule of Gotham City.

So here’s the question: if no one knows that you’re in control. . . are you? If the Court had been portrayed as a political machine, operating in the open, or even a notorious crime family with deep political connections, that’d be one thing. But now we’re talking about a group of people who the public believes don’t even exist. How is such a group supposed to be able to influence events? By killing people? Okay, but unless they’ve got people on the outside willingly serving their interests, it’s hard to see how this might work. What’s the point in killing a mayoral candidate unless you’re running your own? And once again, running for mayor is legal. Hell, running for mayor while openly declaring your allegiance to private parties is legal. Grover Norquist got the vast majority of Republican congressmen to publicly sign on to his (anti-)tax agenda. Congressional candidates frequently make no bones about their attempts to win political favors for constituents. There’s just no reason to run a secret society, and because the point of the Court is to exert public power, it’s really hard to see how one can exert public power secretly.

III. Conclusion

So perhaps we want to draw a distinction between fictional conspiratorial organizations. On one hand, we’ve got groups like political machines and organized crime rings who try to stay out of the spotlight somewhat, but definitely want people other than their membership to know what the deal is. Groups that want, in some sense, their names to ring out on the street (warning: language). Such semi-public knowledge is an inherent part of their raison d’etre . On the other hand, we’ve got fictional groups like Dan Brown’s Priory of Sion (the group allegedly supposed to be guarding Jesus’ bloodline) and the Syndicate in the X-Files, i.e., groups that don’t want anyone to know that they exist, and whose mission would indeed be compromised if the public were even suspicious about their goals. In other words, groups whose missions would fail if known to anyone outside their membership.

But the Court of Owls, like many other kinds of fictional (and real-world) conspiracies and secret societies, seems to be splitting the difference. They’re trying to keep secret a goal which cannot succeed unless at least partially known to the public. It just doesn’t make any sense. Particularly as a lot of their goals are, in fact legal, so there’s no real reason to keep them secret anyway. It’s legal to run for mayor. It’s legal to drive competitors out of business (to an extent, anyway). It’s legal to use money to influence the political process. It’s not legal to assassinate people, but there are far easier, cheaper, and more legal methods of accomplishing whatever ends might be accomplished by assassination in most cases. All of which makes the premise of the Court of Owls story somewhat hard to swallow.

53 responses to “Batman: Court of Owls

  1. The plot point of killing the mayoral (or other political) candidate is to leave your candidate the only, or at least apparently best, viable option. In a two-party system, this is a valid game move, albeit illegal and immoral. A smarter one is probably to expose (or frame) the opposite candidate for crimes or social-moral transgressions, which can lead to conspiratorial crimes, but leaves the annoying possibility of a comeback.

    • “The plot point of killing the mayoral (or other political) candidate is to leave your candidate the only, or at least apparently best, viable option.”

      He doesn’t even have to be “your” candidate… just one whose plan doesn’t get in the way of yours. If there are ten candidates, and only one wants to take a closer look at how development zoning works down in “old town”, taking that one out protects your interest in keeping your secret chambers in old buildings hidden.

  2. Terry Washington

    Seems improbable I agree- but what’s the point of a secret conspiracy(Trilateral Commission et al) if it isn’t SECRET to begin with???


  3. I notice you left out coverage of actual secret societies which exist to advance the goals of the membership but do not publicly disclose either the goals or the membership. (i.e., Skull and Bones). Not to suggest that S&B uses assassination in its policy toolbox, but the point is that we don’t know.

    Secret business deals exist, too, where they only work if they’re kept secret… despite the fact that business deals can be conducted openly. Buying up property for a project, for example, is often cheaper if nobody knows you’re assembling parcels, because you reduce the likelihood of a holdout and eliminate the possibility of a competitor buying in to break up your plan.

    There’s a different reason to pooh-pooh conspiracy theories… the difficulty in keeping everyone’s interests aligned… but “secret contol” conspiracy shows up a lot in fiction because it IS plausible to assume that a group of people with similar interests might secretly join forces.

    • But the person/group secretly buying up property isn’t going to stay secret indefinitely, like the Court of Owls appears to be doing. They are simply exercising discretion trying to get all the parts of a specific deal worked out before going public. That’s not really the same as a long-term, shadowy cabal pulling the strings from behind the curtain. Land purchasers (to use your example) still have to record deeds and fulfill whatever other legal regulations are in place in their state, etc to purchase real estate. They’re just not calling attention to themselves until they’re ready to move on to the next stage of the project. The Folger family didn’t announce to people that they were buying up a whole block of real estate in Washington, DC while they were doing it to prevent hold outs, but once they had the land, they came out and said that they were building the Folger Shakespeare Library on that land.

      • James Pollock

        “But the person/group secretly buying up property isn’t going to stay secret indefinitely, like the Court of Owls appears to be doing.”

        But it COULD, or it could have a very long (multi-generational) timeframe.

        “Land purchasers (to use your example) still have to record deeds and fulfill whatever other legal regulations are in place in their state, etc to purchase real estate.”
        Sure they do. So “Land acquisition LLC” buys up parcel #1. “Real Estate Investments, LLC” buys up parcel #2. “Shadowy Cabal, LLC”, buys parcel #3. Try to follow up one who owns/registered all these different LLCs, and you find corporations registered in island nations are responsible, and each of those has different officers/agents, assuming you can even get that.
        Even non-shadowy-cabal ownership interests can get tricky to track down, so what’s it going to be like when a real shadowy cabal gets to work on trying to stay hidden/inobtrusive.

      • Terry Washington

        It all seems improbable to me- how many billionaires are there anyway- even in real life?- basically about three or four- Bill Gates, George Soros, Warren Buffett and maybe someone else like Oprah Winfrey. Surely it would make more sense for millionaires to pool their resources( as do the tobacco companies do in John Grisham’s “The Runaway Jury”). Who pays attention to the 25th or 30th richest man or woman in America as opposed to the richest person . Also the conspirators would have to be white- there simply AREN’T that many rich black people in the US? And this cabal has been around for centuries? And just wants to control Gotham. Why not think big and settle for the entire US???


      • James Pollock

        Terry, there are several thousand billionaires in real life. (And that’s counting people who have billions on their own, not families that have billions cumulatively but not individually).

    • James, the number of billionaires isn’t “several thousand” but it is more than three or four. Forbes counted 1,426 billionaires in the world this year, with a combined net worth of $5.4 trillion.

  4. With the Court of Owls, the Court itself was semi-public (it was spoken of in whispers…) what was concealed was who members were, and they did have non-Talon agents. The way I figure it, the Talons are the “wet works” side of things, and the Court of Owls conceals their faces to avoid being personally linked to the Court’s work.

    • From what I remember of the story, Batman says that he could find no evidence that the Court was real and that he had looked into off an on over the years. To me that would suggest that no one was talking about them.

      • That should suggest that people WERE talking about them. If he had investigated them on and off over the years, obviously he had heard about them.

  5. This is a bit unrealted but I just saw Superman/Batman public enemies and I was curious about something.

    *Spoiler warning*

    Amanda Waller calls for President Luthor’s arrest, after he admits that he wants the meteorite to hit, and kill millions.

    The problem is, what is she actually arresting him on charges of? Not doing everything in his power to save the world? There isn’t a law that forces you to try and save people is there? And it’s not like he’s firing a missile strike on the world or something-the meteorite is probably classified as a natural disaster. He’s not killing anyone personally, and he’s already shown an attempt to stop it with his missile strike.

    Is she arresting him because he’s injecting steroids and kryptonite into his system? I’m not sure drug use is a severe enough charge to arrest the president in the middle of a crisis. The only other thing I can think of is sexual assault for the un-reciprocated kiss, but I doubt the general would have gathered all those soldiers for that.

    Also, she doesn’t appear to know about Major Force killing Metallo, so we can rule out ordering a hit on a government employee.

    So is there anything Lex did that he could be arrested for? Starting a fight in Japan maybe?

    Help me L&TM, your my only hope!

    • Has it ever been established that the President of the United States has a duty of care to the citizens of the United States?

      • Maybe not established in law, but it’s been an assumption in practice to one degree or another since the Union’s founding. No?

      • No. In my opinion this would instantly fall flat on a Warren v DC theory – there’s no way any court would rule that the President has a particular duty to any individual citizen, so nobody would have standing to do anything about it.

    • In the comics, Amanda Waller is a doctor of political science but they may have ignored that and decided she was a doctor of psychiatry. If the President is unfit to serve then she would inform the cabinet who would then sign off to the effect that the vice president needs to take over. At least that’s what I gather from watching Air Force One: if the cabinet decides that the President is unfit to command then the Vice President takes over. Of course, Air Force One may be complete BS but if Amanda Waller thinks the cabinet would go along with her diagnosis of the president’s mental state then I could see her telling him that he is no longer (going to be) in command.

      Besides, I’m pretty sure he did try to kill Superman to stop him from saving the world. I think the military code of justice here applies: Amanda Waller is obliged to obey her commanding officer unless she knows that the order is illegal and the president ordering her to help him kill Superman might qualify.

      • Is killing Superman an illegal order? He is a potentially dangerous alien who came uninvited.

      • “Is killing Superman an illegal order? He is a potentially dangerous alien who came uninvited.”

        He’s been in the US for 30+ years. Pretty sure he could legally become a citizen, if the fake adoption papers weren’t sufficient. Also, married to Lois Lane, so I think he has a green card if nothing else.

        And if you are right about killing immigrants being considered a legal order, then couldn’t the president give a bunch of rifles to Boarder patrol, and turn keeping out Mexicans into a game of duck hunt? (Hopefully without that damn sniggering dog)

      • Philo Pharynx

        As L&tM has covered before, Superman has zero legal rights until somebody authorizes aliens to have the rights of humans.

      • James Pollock

        Superman has the same problem Dred Scot (and the Sea World cetaceans) had… does he have standing to sue anybody in federal court?

      • I don’t know if this was covered in the post about Superman/Clark Kent being a citizen, but the new voter suppression laws made me think of it. Superman is clearly an alien – he comes out and says it – so he’s not a citizen. But Clark is put forth by the Kents as a human that they adopted (or gave birth to in their isolation on the farm, depending). What happens to Clark’s citizenship if/when he is found to be the same person as Superman, and therefore an alien? Does he lose his citizenship? Has he committed immigration fraud, since he was a baby when the Kents took him in as their son? Have the Kents committed some sort of immigration fraud? Is the Daily Planet now liable for having hired an undocumented immigrant?

    • I think the implication is that Lex is actively sabotaging any attempts to stop that meteor, and that is something else entirely. Its one thing to sit back and watch someone else drown; its quite another to try and stop anybody rescuing them, especially with attempted murder as Luthor did. The missile strike was only for show, so it doesn’t count if he only ordered it to look good.

      Also the President actually does have a duty to protect the citizens of the United States, just like a fire chief is in pretty serious trouble if he refuses to let his men continue putting out fires. Putting on a power suit and going out to murder a couple of people (to prevent them stopping a disaster) is something I’m pretty sure he couldn’t get away with.

      And even if he could, Waller could probably dig up one of the other hundreds of criminal actions Luthor is guilty of, both pre- and post- Presidency. Albeit because she is involved in half of them, but she could probably find ways around that if she must.

  6. Of course conspiracies exist. And there is plenty of reason for them to be hiding in secret, without anyone else knowing about it. Even as far back as the assassination of Julius Caesar they are documented – maybe well known after the fact, but secret until then. And if the conspiracies to assassinate JFK are true, they could easily accomplish their goals by simply getting rid of him even if they didn’t have their own pawns in place, simply by stopping him from doing whatever it was they didn’t like and trusting that whoever takes over is unlikely to do the same thing. And after the deed is done, there is certainly no reason to expose themselves – they can simply go on their separate ways.

    Businessmen can collude in secret to control markets just as easily – if not more so – than to assassinate someone or control politics. It would have a direct affect on the world even if no one outside their room knew about it. As far as being able to form a PAC to affect politics, they still have to get the money from somewhere – who says they can’t conspire to get that money and then use it legally afterward?

    As for “if the ultimate goal of the conspirators is something legal, and there are legal means to accomplish that goal, why go through all the trouble?” you could ask any random mugger why he goes through the trouble when he could earn money by working at McDonald’s instead.

    Frankly, I think it’s crazy to think that conspiracies don’t exist. Maybe not ones to cover up that aliens assassinated JFK to prevent the Tri-Lateral Commission from awakening Cthulhu, but there are plenty of incentives for businessmen or politicians to work in secret to accomplish their goals.

  7. This is why I had a problem with the Manchurian Candidate remake. I can see why the Communists in the original would want a puppet in the White House, but what agenda did Manchurian Global have in the original that they couldn’t have gotten by legitimate politics.
    Are you sure that nobody knew the families existed? My memory was that they were all prominent families, just that their ties to the Court were unknown.
    Of course it’s since been revealed this is a much bigger conspiracy, stretching across the country or the world. I actually preferred the idea of a decadent cabal restricted to Gotham City.

  8. What about Watergate? Wasn’t that a real life conspiracy? It turned out that the Committee for the Re-Election of the President was responsible for financing a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. I think that incident was the template for all real life conspiracy theories that followed as well as fictional cabals.

    • Criminal conspiracies in popular culture fiction pre-date Watergate by some centuries.

      • Martin Phipps

        I thought we were specifically talking about TV, movies and comics. The X-Files shadowy conspiracy was clearly inspired by Watergate: they even had a character who called himself Deep Throat. There was also a Captain America storyline in the 70s that was inspired by the Watergate scandal: Captain America found out that the President (presumably Nixon) was the Supreme Hydra. Anyway, conspiracies in fiction have probably always been inspired by real life corruption so that’s nothing new.

      • From what I recall, Marvel has always wobbled on whether SHIELD was some kind of international group or a US one.
        As far as Stan’s theory on Tony Stark, IIRC his version in Origins of Marvel Comics was that he wanted to create someone who was rich, handsome, had everything going for him and then tragedy struck. Not much about the military industrial complex (not that he couldn’t have both concepts in mind,but memory isn’t always reliable either).
        I certainly don’t think his concept for Iron Man had anything to do with the use of Commie villains in the series–as noted upthread, they were rife in Spider-Man, Avengers, Hulk and pretty much everywhere but Dr. Strange. So presumably Stan either believed in the Red Menace or thought it worked as a villain. Certainly debuting Iron Man in ’63 as a supporter of Vietnam would hardly have been controversial–the war wasn’t the issue it would be a few years later.

    • Martin, Watergate was a real-life conspiracy, but it was also a short-lived one. (Especially by comparison to the seemingly endless duration of fictional ones!) The big problem is the secrecy — as a species, we *suck* at keeping secrets over the long haul. And once the first leak comes, it doesn’t take long for the whole structure to come down.

      • If people rather believe the lies a conspiracy can lay hidden in plain sight for ages…ever heard of this thing called “organized religion”?

  9. We assumed that the “security council” in the Avengers was a secret organization but, in retrospect, that can’t be because (as implausible as it may seem) they had access to nuclear weapons. Seriously, the SHIELD helicarrier could presumably go anywhere in the world (because they sent Captain America and the Black Widow to Germany) and they (the helicarrier) were carrying nuclear weapons all this time. Presumably the German authorities were okay with this. Perhaps the “security council” was the “NATO security council”. We had been thinking that it was associated with the UN but the UN is not a military organization and wouldn’t have the authority to order any sort of airstrike.

    • No, but in the Marvel Universe, the stakes are established as being somewhat higher and the UN has been seen as a logical venue through which “planetary security” ventures might be undertaken. There is – in the source comics – a treaty establishing rules of conduct, chain of command, etc. for SHIELD’s operations. That treaty is part of the structure of Earth-616’s international law. Similar treaties probably exist for SWORD and ARMOR as well.

      Also, one might assume that “World Security Council” in the Avengers movie is code for “UN Security Council”, designed to satisfy the UN’s lawyers that the organization’s intellectual property assets aren’t being abused. You’ll remember that the UN became increasingly irritated over BBC’s “UNIT” in Doctor Who, eventually requiring a change in what that acronym stood for, right?

      • Martin Phipps

        Historically, think it would make more sense if SHIELD were associated with NATO rather than the UN, not unless the cold war did not even happen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Captain America: The Winter Soldier may clarify things. I think in the comics the idea of the avengers or SHIELD being a UN organization was retroactive continuity. This can be seen in particular from the Iron Man series. Iron Man first appeared in Tales of Suspense #39 (March 1963). Stan Lee was interviewed for the documentary With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story and he claimed that Iron Man was inspired by President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s January 17, 1961 about the “military industrial complex”. “Everyone was scared of the military industrial complex back then” Stan said, “soI decided to create a hero who represented the military industrial complex and make people love him.” Sure enough, Iron Man originally came to be in Vietnam (not Afghanistan) and he faced Russian villains like the Black Widow and the Crimson Dynamo. I think if SHIELD and the Avengers were always UN organizations in the comics then there would have been more limits placed on their activities.

      • James Pollock

        Even better… in one of the earliest Spider-Man stories (possibly as early as ASM #1), Spider-Man faces off with the Chameleon, who is, of course, a Commie spy. And the origin stories for both the Hulk and the FF are tied to competition with the Soviet Union… the Hulk’s came from trying to beat them to the Gamma Bomb, and the FF to trying to beat them into space.
        It’s still unclear why Alan Shepard didn’t come back with superpowers…

  10. Even when a conspiracy is pursuing legal ends, it can still have reason to keep itself secret, if there is an opposing criminal conspiracy.

    Take the situation, pretty common in urban fantasy, where there’s a secret society of wizard/demon-fighters/monster-slayers. There aims are probably legal, but public disclosure of the threat may not be possible, and even if it is, could cause immense public harm (literal witch-hunts, a rash of amateur necromancers, people selling their souls for power, etc).

    Assume the secret society’s enemies, who are definitely an illegal conspiracy, are trying to control the world. Then any group that appears to have influence will be a target for the society’s enemies – take them over, using their influence for the enemy’s benefit – so the secret society needs to keep its influence well hidden, and preferably its very existence. All the conspiracy paraphernalia then becomes relatively sensible

    As long as the society has stayed true to its mission (and about half of them seem to have grown corrupt) the courts would probably rule that everything they did was legal, perceived self-defence and defence of others, even if much of it would normally be legally dubious.

    • That reminds me: George W. Bush did admit that there existed a “shadow government” that would take over if Washington DC were attacked and destroyed. This was supposed to reassure people. It presumably consists of 100 senior civil servants who live and work outside of Washington. So that would be a real life conspiracy, albeit not a completely secret one.

      The US also has the United States National Security Council, the National Security Agency and the CIA. While the existence of the organizations is public there actions are top secret and could be described as conspiracies: the NSC was responsible for the Iran-Contra Affair and on July 10, 2009, House Intelligence subcommittee Chairwoman Representative Jan Schakowsky (D, IL) announced the termination of an unnamed CIA covert program described as “very serious” in nature which had been kept secret from Congress for eight years. Meanwhile the NSA was so secret for so many years it was referred to as “No Such Agency”.

    • The conspiracy which the vampire hunter/daywalker “Blade” belongs to is a pretty good example of this – while Blade arguably commits a lot of criminal acts, he is responding to a vast criminal conspiracy which has infiltrated every level of society. (“They own the police.”) At one point he refers to an “organization” (“This isn’t exactly the March of Dimes.”) and obviously has several people who provide him intelligence, resources, and assistance. He may not even be particularly high up in it – he didn’t know about the existence of the group in the third movie, but they knew quite a bit about him. It’s just as logical to assume that “higher ups” in the anti-vampire conspiracy provided the info as to assume that in addition to all their other activities they had him under close surveillance and never got noticed.

  11. Conspiracies can also be formed to pursue ends that are legal but unpopular. The conspiracy is a way for the backers to forward their agenda without being obviously tied to this.

  12. I think people are missing that secret conspiracies that have existed did so for very short term goals, such as killing a specific person they really didn’t like (the conspiracy to kill Lincoln for example). Indeed, if they were active for a long time it would suggest that they were absolutely horrible at their work.
    The closest I can think to a long term conspiracy would be “deep states”, or cabals of soldiers, politicians, spies and bureaucrats in some nations (Turkey and Pakistan are two which have been suggested to have them) which follow their own opinions and not that of the official leader’s, but those have far less secrecy, competence and unity than is usually presumed (consider how Erdogan was able to increase his control of the country over the military and the political instability common to Pakistan).

    In this case, if this Court really wanted to control the city they could have just as easily had candidates run for mayor, insert themselves into the city’s commissioners (if it has them), be part of the police force and head local civic associations. No law against politicians and public servants being part of private organization. And frankly it seems the height of insanity to spend all this time and money just to create a deep state in a single city. Have these people never heard of the nation that the city is part of?

    • “I think people are missing that secret conspiracies that have existed did so for very short term goals”

      I think you are missing the secret conspiracies that existed for a very long period. There are quite a few around the national espionage axis… Soviet deep-cover agents, for example, and real life spies Kim Philby and Robert Hansson, who operated over terms of decades. Of course, they had the resources of a nation-state supporting their actions, but there’s no reason a private group COULDN’T have secret operatives operating on similar timelines. Organized crime, for example, has been playing cat-and-mouse with the FBI for decades. There could well be a conspiracy to infiltrate the FBI to keep tabs on what the FBI knows and how they know it. That would be an ongoing mission.

      • I think you’re pushing the use of “conspiracy” in a direction clearly not intended to be used in this context. Here we are discussing the plausibility of private individuals organizing into a secret political faction to control the state for an indefinite (but to the conspirators preferably as long as possible) period of time. There is a world of difference between that and the real life examples of states (and on occasion private organizations) organizing an intelligence wing to infiltrate a government in order to gain information.
        Here’s the thing. When groups organize to try to control the state, they don’t seem to stay secret for very long. Even so-called secret societies organized for the purpose of revolution reveal their existence (in the rare instance when people didn’t already know they existed).
        And elites? As this article points out, they openly contribute to campaigns, hire lobbyists, suggest the wording of laws, organize themselves into private groups (usually called in the U.S. chambers of commerce) and the like. In fact my own personal studies of elites across the world suggests that they rarely, if ever, see a need to create a secret group to control a state.

        As for the suggestion from Philo that they might secretly organize to do something legal but unpopular, that makes very little sense. I’ve met more than a few people who have criticized Walmart for its tendency to fire entire groups that work for it when a few attempt to unionize. I’ve yet to see any evidence that Walmart’s leaders have created a secret cabal alongside the leaders of Exxon Mobil and those of Microsoft to control the U.S. government. Even in nations where the ability of elites to lobby and donate to campaigns is legally and socially limited there still is little evidence of a long-term cabal.

        Lastly, your suggestion of criminal organizations and the like misses that they do not exist to secretly control the government (which is the main point that Davidson was criticizing). They exist to make wealth through illegal activities. Even in nations where organized crime exercises strong control of the government they still have little interest in governing beyond perhaps some local handouts to keep themselves popular with the people around them. The case of Scientologists attempting to infiltrate the U.S. government and destroy documents embarrassing to their organization? That was not an effort of a secret organization to control the government. That was an effort of a public (albeit secretive) organization to destroy government documents that embarrassed them. Very little long term or contr0l-oriented about it.

      • James Pollock

        “your suggestion of criminal organizations and the like misses that they do not exist to secretly control the government”

        What difference does it make if they control the government as their primary purpose vs. a secondary purpose to protect their profits? (Besides the fact that pretty much any attempt to control the government or otherwise exercise power is about accumulating wealth.)

        The point is plausibility. Is it plausible that a conspiracy that held together has remained undetected? Pointing to conspiracies that didn’t hold being detected doesn’t necessarily answer that question. The U.S. spent the 1950’s obsessed with the idea that our government and military were being secretly infiltrated. Heck, as I recall it was one of Marvel’s major summer events not that long ago.
        It is at least as plausible as the idea that a billionaire runs around the city fighting crime. My suspension of disbelief lies in the fact that I would have expected the Wayne family, with its long history of being both wealthy and powerful in Gotham, was not hip-deep in this group.

      • The audience suspends disbelief only as far as is required for the basic premise to work. That’s how you can get away with a story where ships can travel across the galaxy, but you’ll stumble on trying to convince the audience that leaving a species to die of a disease is somehow moral because of some kind of evolutionary destiny*.

        *This isn’t saying that the conspiracy premise is as bad as that, simply that the idea of Batman existing at all is something the audience will accept while the Court idea is not guaranteed the same courtesy.

      • James Pollock

        “The audience suspends disbelief only as far as is required for the basic premise to work.”

        I think it’s fairly well-established that readers of comics are prepared to suspend rather a substantial amount of disbelief when called on. Batman’s limits are reached around the point that the 37th villain sets up a horribly complicated way to kill the Batman, which he’s somehow able to escape through clever gadgetry… and none of them just puts a gun to his head and pulls the trigger (I mean, if Freddie Mercury could figure out this recipe, then dressing funny obviously does NOT keep people from using this simple plan for dispatching caped superheroes.)

        People are prepared to accept shadowy organizations with undisclosed goals and membership because there are LOTS of organizations with poorly disclosed membership and possibly hidden goals. All you have to believe is that:
        1) people with money might do shady things to keep it and get more
        2) powerful forces are arrayed against the average, common man.
        3) if you’re doing shady things, you probably want to keep that fact a secret
        The neat thing about fictional shadowy cabals is that you really only need a couple of pieces of evidence, and you can chalk up the rest to “and, of course, they cover everything up.”

  13. Oh, the White House villain in Captain America was actually head of the Secret Empire, not Hydra (which doesn’t change any of the points made about conspiracies, of course)

  14. Not existing gives you extreme amounts of freedom. You can get away with way more if people don’t believe you have the most the most basic requirement for being accused of something, being real.

  15. The Court of Owls is part criminal conspiracy, part mutual interest group, part cult. Its leaders want power, but nobody wants power just for the sake of power, even if they believe otherwise. The Court wants power because they want freedom- the freedom to do whatever they want, whenever they want. Individual leaders run slave rings or go on murder sprees and get away with it, and that is what is in it for them and what they can’t achieve though legal means. They really are a hedonistic, sadistic Eyes Wide Shut-style group, but ramped up to Batman-level supervillainy. The Talons are all brainwashed kids abducted and trained from a young age, and I imagine the leaders- if they are all members of the same wealthy families whose origins go back generations-, were similarly conditioned, albeit to perpetuate the system.

    Also- SPOILER- they don’t target the mayoral candidate for assassination because they want another guy to win. They target him because he is in fact a rogue member of their group.

  16. I always thought (though I may be wrong) that the Court of Owls was sort of a “shadow government” of the most powerful business families (and crime families) in Gotham, kind of like Marvel’s Hellfire Club. Whenever, say, the Cobblepots and the Falcones are having a dispute over bids for a government contract, the Court will convene and decide which one should get it. The Court makes its decision based both on what will help maintain the status quo and on services done for the Court. Members stay because loyalty to the Court is rewarded and they can profit from Court-based deals, and because anyone who betrays the Court or refuses to accept a settlement gets a Talon sent to their house. The Court stays secret because while its members are publicly known, it’s basically one giant insider-trading ring. The Court also decides if, say, that new businessman who has just come to Gotham should be allowed into the Court or chased out of the city using the various member’s influence (and Talons). Batman is at first left alone by the Court, as they believe he improves public morale while only taking out low-level crooks. As he becomes more effective, the Court declares him to be a threat and target him. Of course, the big problem with this should be that Bruce Wayne should be a member. It’s possible that Thomas Wayne might have gotten the Wayne family thrown out, but still…

  17. Batman has been a threat to such people since the start of his career. The Falcone crime family was demolished within 3-4 years of his first appearance- mostly due to them all being murdered, but Batman put a lot of pressure on; Oswald is the only member of the Cobblepot family still around and Batman has been a thorn in his side since forever. Neither of them are members, and if they were then they have been royally screwed over. The Court is more like the old, old money that doesn’t advertise itself and is more about ensuring its members have the freedom to do whatever the hell they want; they don’t need to worry about business interests because most of their money is off the books.

    That is to say, the storyline behind the Court is one of those that doesn’t care all that much about continuity. Logically they should have crossed paths with Batman a long time ago (or they have been trying really, really hard to avoid him)- even considering this is a reboot story-; but, well, comics haven’t been great respecters of continuity in the first place anyway.

  18. This reminds me of Michael Flynn’s “Country of the Blind” which deals with a problem that long standing conspiracies face – what do you do when factions disagree about the goals of the conspiracy… It’s not like they can sue each other to resolve the issue of who will control the conspiracy, after all.

  19. Terry Washington

    I dunno- maybe kill each other- but given that they want to remain not only anonymous but unsuspected that would defeat their own purpose-and few things attract as much attention as a high profile murder (even with a “fall guy/patsy” a la Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray or Sirhan B.Sirhan waiting in the wings) or even a mysterious disappearance( pace Judge Crater or Jimmy Hoffa)!

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