Or, according to TvTropes: Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass/Rich Idiot with no Day Job
I actually kind of adore this trope, even though it usually involves a lot of silliness and suspension of disbelief. There are three VERY popular examples of this trope: The Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, and Batman.
You have a rich, useless, ne’er-do-well on the surface who is actually an honorable hero when no one’s looking. Many people have pointed out the myriad absurdities involved in this trope, particularly as it pertains to the most modern iteration (Batman), but that doesn’t keep people from loving it.
The main elements are as follows:
-Hero pretends to be stupid/foppish/idiotic
-Hero is a member of the aristocracy/upper class/super-rich what-have-you
-Hero uses his public identity and wealth to obscure the fact that…
-He is secretly saving lives and…
-NO ONE CAN EVER KNOW
There is a divergence, however, and an irony. In the case of Zorro, Don Diego De La Vega is a nobleman, but the people towards whom he directs his heroics are the oppressed underclass. In the case of the Scarlet Pimpernel, Percy’s objects of heroism are the endangered aristocrats of France during the point where the Revolution was about to completely lose its mind and start killing everybody off.
And Batman, that strange creature, is a standard crime-fighter BUT, depending on which version of him you follow, he also kind of lands in Scarlet Pimpernel territory. In the Dark Knight trilogy he is often found rescuing the wealthy and “the establishment” from an angry “underclass” mob, albeit an angry “underclass” that is being motivated and manipulated by sundry villains with aims entirely unrelated to economic inequalities. Or he is fighting a chaos-loving clown who tries to pit various groups of citizens against each other for fun. Either way, there’s a lot of social division and social analysis going on and Batman’s role in it all is…peculiar. So. Make of that what you will. Gotham is super weird.
For these Everlasting Trope posts, I usually do a “what works/what doesn’t” division but since, as I mentioned, this trope inherently requires us to accept some nonsense at the outset, I’m just going to go with WHY this trope is beloved, using these three iconic characters.
The Scarlet Pimpernel:
First off, this is the movie version you want to watch. The main actor clearly takes cues from the 1934 version, but he improves on it, in my humble opinion.
For those unfamiliar with the story (for shame! Go forth and either read or watch!) Sir Percivel Blakeney is a wealthy English aristocrat married to a French actress, named Marguerite, who kinda accidentally got an French aristocrat sent to the guillotine whilst she was seeking her vengeance. Percival is a foolish fop and secretly disdains his wife for this somewhat unintended action. Also secretly, he is The Scarlet Pimpernel, who goes about rescuing French aristocrats from the guillotine by using myriad disguises.
What makes this story so fun is that Percy is such a comical idiot when he’s not being a dashing hero. He obsesses over his clothes to the point of absurdity, laughs at his own very stupid jokes, and is generally both dainty and dim-witted. This protects him from suspicion.
On one hand, this is just good comedy. On the other, there is certainly some genuine heroism in sacrificing your own reputation in order to afford yourself the opportunity to do something more important. People like Percy, but they think he is silly and worthless.
So you get this “Let them think me a fool! Let them mock and disdain! I’ll fulfill their every low expectation. And I’ll get away with everything. No one will ever even know of my heroics, and I’ll receive no public accolades. Indeed, I’ll actually make very bad company to anyone intelligent.”
Which leads me to:
At the end of the Dark Knight, Batman gives that voiceover speech where he talks about how he’ll be the villain the people need so that hope can stay alive. He’s already sacrificed his public reputation (like Percy) to be that of a aimless playboy, but now he has even sacrificed his secret identity’s reputation, just because he believes it will help the city improve.
But what is the broad appeal of Batman in a world of superheroes? I mean, isn’t he just a rich guy with a lot of toys and a strong vigilante streak born out of childhood trauma. Why is he such an enduring character?
I’m not 100% sure, actually, but I have a couple of ideas.
One: he’s not super-powered. Despite his wealth, and tools, and gadgets, he is a regular human being who decided to use his status and money to save his city. (Does he succeed? Gotham never seems to get any better. But he tries.)
Two: Gotham is messed up. It is desperately corrupt and crime-ridden, seemingly beyond repair. The system isn’t working. At all. Like Percy, Like Zorro, Batman isn’t fighting criminals–at least, not all the time, though he does that too. He’s fighting to get the right thing done in a city where entrenched corruption makes the right thing almost impossible to even attempt. That’s why sacrificing his reputation to Harvey Dent (yes I’m using the Dark Knight trilogy almost exclusively for this analysis) was so important to him. It was about restoring faith in the system so that people could have a little breathing room to so much as try and do the right thing, instead of giving up. If any city could endure a vigilante, it’s Gotham, ’cause nobody else is even trying. They’re all on the take.
Last, but not least,
This one’s easy.
The swashing of buckles!
Come on, this one’s just plain fun. And just like with Percy, the adversaries are the officials in charge. They’re just no good, and Zorro must thwart the Alcalde’s (or the Captain’s or the Don’s or the Governor’s) vicious will.
The big excitement here, and the reason I love Zorro so much, are those moments when his secret identity is most threatened. If Batman’s identity were known, he’d be able to make it work, I bet. Either way, a lot of people know about it already. If Percy were discovered, well, he’s not French anyway. They have no authority over him.
But if Zorro is discovered, he goes to jail, and being a Don doesn’t get him out of it. The Alcalde or evil Captain or whoever really does have absolute authority over him in a way that the super-corrupt Gotham legal system and the hyper-bloody French revolutionary government DON’T have authority over our other heroes.
Zorro is usually set in a specific community and he seems to be an intimate part of that community in most iterations of the character. He’s not just saving “people” broadly, as the others are, he’s taking care of his people, his personal community. Whereas Gotham is millions, and French aristocrats are simply ‘peers’ by station, Zorro always seemed to be more deeply connected to either Mexican California or Spanish California (depending on the version) and to the land and to the regular people. It makes the stakes feel higher, should he be revealed.
Zorro is easily my favorite of the three and I think that is because he embodies the best elements of the trope.
-He plays the foolish fop and sacrifices his public reputation.
-He never gets praised for what he does, and can’t even win over his lady love because she loves his alter-ego, not him.
-The setting and premise lend plenty of room for both gravity and comedy
-He’s an otherwise regular guy who uses his wealth, status, and skills to help those who are being oppressed
-He defies corrupt officials, though he usually settles for mocking them rather than harming them
-Swash-buckling good fun!
-Connected to the community
That last one is purely my analysis, but it’s something I love in any story. It’s all very well to be saving humankind and what-not, but can you help your next-door neighbor? Or the people in your immediate vicinity that you do and don’t like? The fools and geniuses that annoy and charm you on a daily basis? Now we’re talking.