F vs the Franchises: Superhero Fatigue (Part 4a - In the Shadow of a Man Dressed As a Bat)

No discussion of DC films would be complete without addressing the larger-than-life animal in the room – by which I mean, of course, the bat. Surveying how Batman has been presented across a variety of media, it’s tempting to conclude that the character, as a concept, borders on incoherence – i.e. lacking in consistent characterization and biography. But what would normally be a criticism is, in this case, an asset: the appearance of incoherence means there’s actually a Batman for everyone. Do you like your Batman light-hearted, even campy? Batman ‘66 is for you. Do you see Batman as a psychotic billionaire beating up poor criminals – or at least, acting out his psychological dysfunction through violence and terror? Frank Miller’s interpretation may be more to your liking. Or perhaps Batman from the classic 90s’ animated series is more attuned to your appreciation for noir detective stories. Given film, TV, and comics – especially the Elseworlds stories – if the idea of a man dressing up as a bat to fight crime holds any appeal, you can find a variation that suits your preferences.

What’s curious, though, is how much of a fundamental contradiction there is in how we collectively perceive Batman. We commonly see him as a master strategist and tactician, a physical and intellectual genius, an ever-prepared force able to defeat even the most seemingly undefeatable opponents through wits and technology. Yet, whether explicitly called out or glossed over as implied subtext, he never actually fully resolves his villains’ threat. Nor does he ever save Gotham in the sense of rooting out its criminal corruption to give social institutions the opportunity to function beneficially. Altogether, it would seem that Batman’s brilliance is at maintaining the status quo which, like most comic books, entails an endless cycle of conflict between heroes and villains. Formidable, yet ineffective except in terms of the temporary defeat of villains from his rogue’s gallery.

However, the comic book instinct to avoid definitive resolutions isn’t the only explanation for the paradoxical impression Batman creates. Fundamentally, the contradiction is that while Batman is essentially a vigilante opposed to specific villains, his very existence and actions as a vigilante necessarily requires engagement with a social context.  Commissioner Gordon’s efforts to reform the famously corrupt GCPD offers some. Bruce Wayne’s actions as owner of Wayne Enterprises and a wealthy philanthropist offer another. How criminals are handled by the justice system is yet another. A single Batman story, in isolation from any kind of continuity, can get away with ignoring context, focusing narrowly on the duel between our Dark Knight and an antogonist. But the moment stories are placed within a chronological continuity, context becomes harder to ignore and the status quo invariably gets weird as Batman never positively influences Gotham despite repeatedly saving it from dangerous villains. In a sense, this paradox reflects a common limitation of superhero stories in general, in which the focus is on the impact of individual and conflicting actions rather than the collective (i.e. group) impact of cooperative actions.

It doesn’t help that the most visible Batman stories, notably in film, seem infused with cynicism or, at least, a fixation on tragedy beyond the trauma of murdered parents. Surprisingly, that’s not so much the case in the Snyderverse, which purposefully evolves Batman from a cynical, jaded and brutal anti-heroism to a more hopeful hero. But in The Flash, for example, director Andy Muschetti confessed the “real” reason his Batman retired: “And my idea was, he did something that goes against his code and killed a criminal in front of [the criminal’s] child—not knowingly, but he still did it … So he just couldn’t cope with it, and that’s why he decided to shut off his other side, Batman. And he hasn’t been able to forgive himself.” It's not a bad or illogical characterization, especially for a version of Batman that is decidedly lethal. Yet I’m not really keen on it, preferring instead what we get in the theatrical version of the film, where Bruce Wayne explains his retirement as simply being due to a city that has changed and no longer needs him. While perhaps not as visceral as Muschetti’s intended rationale, there’s something appealing about the idea that Gotham is able to shed its need for a vigilante protector. How terrible is it for a man so fixated on a cause to suddenly lose that cause, seemingly without anything to replace it? It seems to me that being adrift without a purpose is tragedy enough without compounding it with failure.

The Dark Knight Trilogy

Looking back at my reviews of the films in Christopher Nolan’s landmark trilogy, it’s clear that at the time I found a lot to enjoy and engage with, despite some quibbles and misgivings. Yet in all the years that have passed since their theatrical release, I have felt zero compulsion to rewatch them. Zero. The more I’ve thought of them, the less persuasive they’ve become as films with thematic depth and coherence. My change of mind isn’t hard to explain. Nolan is a skilled director working with strong actors and production designers, dependable on the whole to deliver an entertaining cinematic experience. The scripts aren’t stupid either per se, offering viewers plenty of material to drive discussions on topics ranging from crime and terrorism to mass surveillance and class warfare. Nevertheless, the end result to me is much like Titanic was:  an absorbing theatrical experience that comes with the regret of an after-viewing hangover caused by excessive emotional manipulation and/or intellectual sleigh-of-hand.

A core problem is that the trilogy’s vaunted “realism” is more aesthetic than narrative, with the prosaic production design giving a deceptive credibility to the films’ storytelling. The masking is most obvious with specific plot devices and scenes. The Joker’s plan, for example, with elements ranging from implanting a bomb in a sacrificial victim to blowing up a hospital complex, relies too much on luck and coincidence to be believable using the “realism” standard. In The Dark Knight Rises, it’s even harder to suspend disbelief when we’re asked to accept multiple implausibilities: Bruce Wayne resuming his role as Batman after 8 years hors-de-combat and his miraculous recovery to fighting form after Bane breaks his back, to point out the most glaring. And this isn’t even getting to how the films rely on elements of extra fictional science fiction, such as the cell phone surveillance machine, to advance their plots. Still, without artistic exuberance all this is presented with a grittiness that makes it all look believable, and the fantastical is therefore easy to overlook within the overall experience of watching the films.

Yet perception of the trilogy as serious and intellectual comic book cinema persists, exemplified by the so-called “theory of escalation” expressed at the end of Batman Begins:

Gordon: And what about escalation?
Batman: Escalation?
Gordon: We get semi-automatic weapons, they get automatics. We get Kevlar body armor, they get armor-piercing rounds. And *you're* wearing a mask and jumping off rooftops. Take this guy: armed robbery, double homicide. Has a taste for theatrics, like you. Leaves a calling card. [Gordon presents Batman with a clear plastic evidence bag containing what appears to be a single playing card; Batman turns it over in his hand to reveal a Joker]
Bruce Wayne: I'll look into it.

The idea that Batman’s presence actually makes things worse in Gotham rather than better has a superficial appeal, rather like pointing out that if you eliminate one criminal gang another, far more brutal, can take its place. Yet the limit to this “theory” is that there’s a difference between escalation and adaptation, and the reality of crime is more aligned with the latter. It’s not so much that criminals escalate their weaponry or brutality, but change their tactics to evade detection and capture. Criminals use phones, police use wiretaps. Criminals talk in code, police use codebreakers. Criminals switch to burner cell phones, police use more sophisticated call intercept technologies. Criminals bribe police or judges, internal watchdogs identify and weed out the corrupt. And so on. More fundamentally, though, the escalation theory as proposed by the Dark Knight trilogy ignores the root causes of crime – it’s sociology and economics. The deterrence offered by law enforcement, or a vigilante, is only one factor. In any case, the theory itself is rendered moot in Nolan’s films because we’re never actually shown an escalation. In the trilogy’s first installment, Batman Begins, the partnership of Dr. Jonathan Crane, aka The Scarecrow, and Ra’s Al Ghul, is committed to poisoning Gotham’s population and destroying the city. How do you escalate from that? The Dark Knight Rises revisits the notion of destroying the city, albeit this time with a bomb, while in between The Dark Knight has the Joker – whose presence was hinted at the end of Batman Begins – attempting to destroy Gotham’s social fabric by inciting chaos.

The so-called theory of escalation isn’t the only example of veneer mistaken for insight. The commentary on terrorism, for example, isn’t based on an actual analogue to real-world terrorist activity but rather on the cartoonish premise that a group of assassins in Asia conclude that a city they don’t live in, across the globe, isn’t only corrupt but that total destruction is the only cure. If the League of Shadows was pulled from headlines rather than comic books (e.g. Al Qaeda or Timothy McVeigh), it would be much easier to take seriously the moral questions surrounding things like Batman’s mass surveillance machine. Similarly, The Dark Knight Rises huffs and puffs a bit about economic inequality and class warfare, through the characters of Catwoman and faux-populist Bane, but that’s not what the film is about. The story is ultimately about the League’s desire to avenge the death of Ra’s Al Ghul and fulfill his vision of destroying Gotham. For all that there are references to topical issues, these are really little more than narrative gestures – ornaments, really – that don’t add up to a distinct point of view. In the end, Batman saves Gotham from nuclear destruction and rides off into the sunset with an ideologically de-clawed Catwoman. The systemic legal and economic problems glibly referenced throughout the film prove irrelevant.

With such superficial and confused sociological thinking, it’s no surprise that even interpretations striving to categorize the trilogy’s core ideological stance – e.g. right vs left leaning – end up in a muddle. Personally, I’m not sure it’s necessary or even desirable to politicize Batman, since fundamentally he is a lone vigilante who acts outside the law – the question is how far outside and under which self-imposed constraints. Unfortunately, the trilogy muddles this too. We have a Batman who doesn’t purposefully kill, but pointedly refuses to save Ra’s Al Ghul’s life and causes Harvey Dent’s death. He won’t use guns, but he is saved from Bane by Catwoman’s gun shot (who takes the opportunity to mockingly question the value of his “no guns” approach). When it comes to interrogations, such as the Joker’s, he doesn’t act with cold calculation and psychological insight, but as a brutish thug who does the police’s dirty work for them. And the mass surveillance machine? What does that represent if not a failure for Batman as a detective? Yet despite the trilogy undermining any sort of principle guiding Batman’s actions, it nevertheless has him succeed at saving Gotham from destruction – twice – and ultimately apprehending the Joker. He even gets a statue erected in his honor. Rather than questioning how the means justify, and even achieve, the desired end, the trilogy is little more than a rehash of the usual argument that the ends justify the means.

But surely the Joker is a highlight, right? While I agree Heath Ledger is terrific, and terrifying, in my view he’s made to offer a performance without a character. The inscrutability of his motivations, their lack of roots in a tangible biography may appeal to many as the source of his terror – we don’t know who or why he is, so oooo, scary – but to me it just makes him uninteresting. It’s bad enough that, like his comic book counterpart, Ledger’s Joker is somewhat of a fantastical character who’s made to fit the needs of the plot even if that means confusing or compromising his characterization. He’s meant to be unpredictable, even “crazy,” yet he’s capable of conceiving and executing complex plans that by definition are orderly and methodical. He’s a psychological genius in the mold of Hannibal Lecter, seemingly effortless in his ability to manipulate people … but in his actions proves so unreliable and untrustworthy that it’s hard to believe anyone would fall for his mind games or even trust him in an organized criminal scheme. Given that Batman can be rather fantastical too, I can overlook Joker’s overinflated abilities more easily than the lack of psychological depth that comes from refusing to reveal a biography, a life story. Given the lack of political motivations, interpreting the Joker as an anarchist is a dead end. Wealth is also not a motive, as Joker burns the money he extracts from Gotham’s crime bosses. So we’re left with Alfred’s observation that “some men just want to watch the world burn,” which is clearly the film’s concept for the character. Yet I think that too is some hand-waving, part of the usual trend of giving us psychologically unassailable psychopaths who are just evil because, well, they just are. In that sense, the Joker isn’t any different than the average monster from the average horror movie. But this reductionist view, essentially a refusal to view the Joker as a whole human being, means he gets no character development, no change (whether redemptive or tragic).

Fundamentally, the Joker is simply a cynic who doesn’t believe in people’s capacity for good, as demonstrated in the climax of The Dark Knight, when the Joker concedes that Batman is incorruptible but triumphantly points out that Dent wasn’t – the so-called White Knight’s corruption into Two-Face is just the “ace in the hole” that will let the Joker show Gotham how futile their belief in good is. With a clear inspiration from Alan Moore’s sadly influential The Killing Joke, Ledger’s Joker views people as fundamentally corrupt, and this corruption can be exposed through encounters with absurd and arbitrary “bad days” that the Joker is only too happy to orchestrate. Understanding why he believes this would not only make him more interesting, but more frightening – humanity’s capacity for evil is far more chilling than magical, supernatural, force-of-nature evil precisely because it is plausible and relatable.

Still, even without a biography a cynical Joker can work well enough as a philosophical expression of terrorism to drive the plot, but here The Dark Knight fails in presenting Batman as an effective ideological counterargument. The only refutation to the Joker’s cynicism comes from the people of Gotham themselves, the ferry passengers who refuse to blow each other up. Beyond that, Batman is a reactionary who doesn’t act out of principle, as demonstrated by the aforementioned interrogation room beating and the use of a privacy-violating machine to track down the Joker. The biggest failing, however, comes in how Harvey Dent is treated, a problem stemming from the need to shoe-horn characters into their comic book personas. It’s not just that Batman, and Commissioner Gordon’s solution to the Joker’s victimization of Dent is to conceal it and let Batman take the blame. The moral weakness of their response to the Joker’s challenge fails as a perspective on trauma and victims of trauma. If anything, the corruption in Gotham that the film fails to address is this: that people are alone in their suffering and, without the strength of community, have no support in dealing with their trauma. Nolan’s films have no interest in serious sociological commentary, however, so the idea that Dent could be understood as a victim whose tragedy needs compassion, despite the deaths he caused, rather than fiction isn’t a perspective to be considered. And so, with Batman and allies resorting to deception, brutality, and vigilantism, there is nothing with which to refute the Joker’s cynicism. Maybe that’s the point, though. Though I don’t like it, the comics insist on mythologizing the Joker and his endless conflict with Batman, which makes any kind of decisive victory on Batman’s part, moral or otherwise, antithetical.

So with neither the substance of meaningful sociological commentary nor a Batman who particularly excels at being Batman (unlike Batman from the Animated Series), I simply don’t find the Nolan trilogy to be satisfying either as popcorn entertainment or cinematic drama.

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