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.


Reif said...

While I enjoy your Dark Knight commentary, I think you are doing a disservice to your lost-centric blog by not writing a post reflecting on Pierre Chang's video. I do not think I am sold on the identity of everyone's consensus regarding the man behind the camera, although it does make perfect sense.

Anthony said...

No offense but some comments on your recent post.

The idea that Batman, in the movie Dark Night, more fully reflects our society than other superhero movies like Superman and is consequently more successful is a bit shortsighted. There are a couple parts to your argument:

A) Batman is not a purely heroic, good figure.
B) This reflects current society’s values that there is no longer a “good,” “bad” or capital T “truth.”
C) Society in the past had a more binary view of morality. Things were either good or bad.
D) Superheroes, who reflect society, are more popular.
E) Therefore, Batman, which reflects society more accurately, is more popular.

First Superheroes evolve. Superman and Batman were a reflection of binary characters in the 30s. Now, they are both conflicted about their roles.

Second, society has never had a completely binary view about anything. To say society viewed a certain thing in this way or that way always leaves out particular views. Remember the 1920s “peak” of the binary view of morality, was when T.S. Elliot was the Wasteland and upending all thoughts about binary view. He and others were pushing a “non-binary” view of morality.

Third, the idea that society today has more “gray” in it seems logical, but in the middle of your post you describe the Joker as a prototypical terrorist. A terrorist, in your view, is one who tries to create chaos. It seems that your “gray” view of our current society does not really match the “prototypical” terrorist you describe. Society then seems to idealize a completely non gray terrorist who is pure evil. So the pitfall of binaries is something that you use in your blog.

A note about the prototypical terrorist: Terrorists usually want to create a society more structured than less. They perform acts of terrorism to try and make society into a structure that in their view has the rules and regulations they want. If you are thinking Muslim terrorists, then they would like to have a society dictated by the Sharia. Environmental terrorists, a very different kind of terrorist, who destroy new homes etc., want a society where production and land is highly regulated. The better term is the fantasized, imagined terrorist. Not prototypical.

Fourth, superheroes who reflect society are more popular than those that don’t. I don’t have a real argument here other than The Dark Night is more popular because it has some appeal because of Heath Ledger’s death, the special effects, better script writing, acting, etc. Also Christian Bale is Batman. Who is Superman? Some dude? More popular actors also help The Dark Night. It may have nothing to do with the characters themselves.

Also, the Joker does not want to revert to a “Hobbesian” universe where the strongest wins. Hobbes actually wanted a strong state or king to prevent the strong from hurting the weak. In other words, somebody super strong to beat down mean people.

I am not trying to be an ass.


Reif said...

Here is me being trying to be an ass: It is spelled The Dark Knight. Like Lancelot and whatnot. Thus, all the points in your post are not valid.