Sunday, July 27, 2008

Is Batman's middle initial W?

The popularity of a superhero is directly proportional to how well they reflect the contemporary political-social dynamic. The late 1930s and early 1940s demanded an impenetrable fighting force – both in reality and through our pop culture. Superman dutifully responded to the call and the Man of Steel's popularity grew accordingly. But more recently, ambiguity has riddled the concepts of truth, justice and the American way. Superman's resonance now echoes hollow as culture explores the grayer areas of a previously black-and-white society – and standing firmly at the intersection of darkness and light is Batman. To say that Batman better reflects 21st century America than any other superhero is to suggest a hierarchy where none exists; and the themes within The Dark Knight make Batman relevant to his time – meaning our own. He does not transcend the abysmal society in which he's born from. He becomes part of it. While the spectacle of surreal threats in the Spider-man films entertains us, it is energizing - and dually unsettling - when a film in this genre takes us someplace unexpected, namely the world in which we live.

While not mentioned explicitly in the film, Joker is the prototypical terrorist – a chaos-inducing agent, who acts not because he doesn't know better but because he relishes in the resulting bedlam. He is decidedly Hobbesian, wishing for a return to the state of nature because, in that context, no one will be able to stand him down.

And Batman is a one-man Department of Homeland Security, complete with his own Patriot Act – a "Batriot Act", if you will. He is a creature that, to the public, looks and operates like evil, but who is in creed and deed a fully virtuous man. Despite straddling the line between hero and outlaw, Batman applies his power and influence judiciously. He does not kill – or run the Joker over with the Bat-Pod after being taunted to do otherwise; nor does he unnecessarily trample upon the civic liberties of Gotham's citizens beyond when an imminent threat has passed.

The connection between the film's subtext and the current political environment is not difficult to see. And on the surface, the film seems to subtly nod its head in agreement with the path set by the Bush administration. A July 25 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal details these parallels between Batman and Bush.

While that initially seems to be true, the issues are as nuanced and two-sided as Harvey Dent's coin. Batman swears his foes crossed the line, but Alfred counters, validly illustrating the slippery slope of escalation by saying, "You crossed the line first...And in their desperation they turned to a man they didn't fully understand." Such is the nature of telling adversaries to bring it on. Batman also created an enormously powerful wire-tapping system and then immediately relinquished control, for its power was too great for a single individual to possess. While Batman can be certain that he will re-establish civil boundaries when the emergency has receded, one thinks that such a promise from the current administration would ring hallow.

Another point where the parallel falls apart is the simple fact that there is a reason Batman needs to wear a mask and hide his identity - because he course of action is not one that can be taken by elected officials. There cannot be relative disregard by figures towards the public they are in theory serving by trampling on both civil liberties and mores. We expect our leaders to reflect Batman's morals and virtues, but not necessarily embrace his methods.

Regardless of political leanings or whether one thinks Dent serves as a warning about the folly of placing all their eggs in a basket held by a single white knight, what can be mutually agreed upon is that the film derives much of its success by serving as a mirror of the culture it is serving.

I swear, this is the last Dark Knight related post and after almost a month of seriousness, I will come up with something more light-hearted for next week.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Partons of the Artist of the Beautiful

While I would love to give a review of The Dark Knight, I feel like too much has already been said towards the film’s quality. I can hardly add to it. It was a rich morality tale with a firm footing in both the arenas of crime drama and adventure cinema, but one where the action never eclipsed its intelligence. The subtext of the film – one spun tightly of terrorists, a one-man Department of Homeland Security and the danger of putting all of one’s eggs in the basket of a (delusional?) white knight. When more of my friends have seen it, I may post a review/explanation of the themes as I see it and try to tease out more of the subtext. For example, any doubt that Bruce Wayne is the alter ego to Batman is erased in a single decision made halfway through the film. Let there be no more debate on that front.

What I do want to touch briefly upon though is one’s capacity for awe and excitement as we age. There is a scene halfway through Knocked Up when Seth Rogen’s character is at the park with Pete (the fantasy-baseball-draft-sneaker husband) and Pete’s daughter. Pete is bemoaning the doldrums of aging, how life grows mundane and lacks joy. He tells Rogen, “I wish I liked anything as much as I like bubbles,” a defeated man who has watched all the promise and joy evaporate from his life. Bills, suits and responsibility ravage any enjoyment he may have. He lives in the real world equivalent of post-Mufasa Pride Rock. Promise and hope, joy and genuine excitement are such rare things. And I refuse to turn into Pete. The months of anticipation for The Dark Knight served as a nice reminder to me of what fun truly enjoying something can be – that even though the days of superhero lunch boxes and Trapper Keepers have long since been, we can still be childishly awed and impishly impatient. I found it relieving that I could be so excited by something so utterly inconsequential. As I made thank you notes out of pages from a Dark Knight coloring book for each of my friends who joined me for the movie or as I thought through the logistics of taking a three foot wide Batman balloon on the El to dinner and then to Navy Pier, it occurred to me how few of these moments there still are.

While the growing freedom we earn as we grow is appreciated, it takes some of the special/mysterious quality away from the outside world. We can go get a Happy Meal any time we want. R-rated movies aren’t all that special. Neither are most bars. The internet is flooded with top-heavy shirtless clownettes. Our capacity for amazement has been shrunk to a narrow, fleeting band and our desire for “amazement” is not always driven by the best of impulses. But having a few things that unmistakably remind us of our youth can be powerful in a way that escapes nostalgia and captures our dormant imagination. It is that much more special when the occurrences are beyond our purchase. That is, we can’t pay for a new Batman film anytime we want. We can’t demand with our Benjamin’s a new U2 album or book by Klosterman. It is almost entirely out of our control. And perhaps that is what is most subtly childlike about the experience.

Regardless of the reason, I was simply thrilled that I could enjoy both the anticipation of the film and the actual 152 minutes of footage on a 6 story high screen like I was – at least temporarily – a six-year old and know that the ability to be awed does not totally disappear as we leave a once seemingly endless Neverland.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Favre Just Can't Quit You

To me, underlying motivations of fandom are inherently different sport-to-sport. Fans of baseball root for the game's traditional and urban/rural past as much as they do for the hometown team. Just look at the stadiums we build and revere. Basketball fans marvel at the individual accomplishments of the sport's stars as much as they revel of the achievement of individual teams. And in football, fans root for the logo on the helmet regardless of who hides themselves behind the anonymous mask and beneath the hulking pads. The sport is a byproduct of a society emphasizing structural functionalism, where the position being occupied is elevated about the individual occupying the position. It is a cold view of the surrounding world, but one that is entirely accurate for American football. Only the collective, synchronized action of the men in the Honolulu blue jerseys or star-emblazoned helmets matter, not who is executing them one year to the next.

And that is what makes this Brett Favre debacle all that more interesting. For the first time in recent league history, the identity of a single player has eclipsed the importance of the larger team - and thereby the logo on the helmet. Emmitt Smith nor Joe Montana, Jerry Rice nor Kurt Warner and Joey Harrington (OK, OK, I kid with the last one...) had the same identity larger than their individual team when they moved on to a finish their accomplished careers in an all-together foreign helmet. But one gets the feeling that a move by Brett Favre would ripple across both the league and Packer Nation in a way that none of the above moves could muster collectively.

(As an aside, I just want to posit my theory on Joey Harrington. He will continue to be an asshat until he starts to go by Joe. Joey just doesn't cut it in the NFL. You think Joey Montana would have won 4 Super Bowls? Or would Tommy Brady have 3 rings and a smoking hot girlfriend? What In-N-Out burger location might Stevie Young and Jimmy Kelly be working at? Mr. Unitas is the only one to get a pass because his last name is so absolutely perfect).

Favre could cause a total identity crisis for Pack fans. Would the anger and frustration over the front office's egos be enough to - at least temporarily - drive long-time Packer fans away from the team? And really, is there anyone under age of 23 that is actually a Packers fan or is everyone born after 1985 just Brett Favre fans? I honestly think this is the quintessential question that will be answered in the coming months. He is the only thing twenty-something Packer fans have known and I can empathize with that. If Steve Yzerman had pseudo-retired and then gone to play with a different team, I would seriously have to examine my fan-lationship with the Red Wings.

I have long thought that the most egotistical drama queen in sports was Roger Clemens. His act was tired and old. And now he is reaping what he has long sowed. But I would put Favre right behind Mr. Mindy McCready. The annual indulgence with his inner-Hamlet, the unending speculation about his future, the now melodramatic good-bye on Thursday night in the 2006 season finale at Lambeau and the New Year's Eve tears on the Soldier Field turf ten days later, then his emotional press conference in March and his continual dominance of the Lions all wore on me. I just wished (and despite the Phoenician rise last season, I still do) that he would just go away. But don't you dare tell that to a Packers fan. And their insistence and loyalty to Favre will be uniquely tested in the coming season. The Packers organization has long be held as an example of David consistently competing with Goliaths and connecting in a unique and lasting way with their fan-base - from the inherited ticket policy to the community ownership structure of the front office. These nuanced issues and flawed characters make the current situation ripe for the Shakespearian pen, but the lead role in the "Merchant of Menace" has yet to the cast. Does Favre truly mean more than the oblong G so long hailed and worshiped in America's dairyland? If you are a fan of the NFL, it is a fascinating question to ponder and to see how it is played out.

It's Bat-Week. A review of The Dark Knight will be posted next weekend. The forecast is 57 levels of awesomeness.