Sunday, July 20, 2008

Where Batman Fails

As a long time dedicated fan of comic book superheroes, the recent transition of my beloved characters from cheap newsprint paper to multi-million dollar movie productions has been a bonanza. Some fans have missed out on appreciating this bonanza because of demands that the cinema portrayals of their heroes meet their preconceived set of rules and expectations. A few Spider-Man fans refused to see the movies because he had organic and not mechanical webshooters. Some Superman fans didn't bother to see his latest movie because the costume was "too dark." Other fans have been less extreme, but nonetheless bothered by elements that didn't even enter into the casual moviegoer's perceptions.

For me, I'm largely undiscriminating. As long as a movie gets the core concept of the character right (and I think by and large superhero movies have) I'm thrilled. Yet I find myself in the curious position of tempering the overwhelming praise heaped upon what has been called "The Godfather 2 of comic book movies"-- The Dark Knight. (Spoilers ahead).

To be sure, there is much I loved about that film. I honestly can't remember watching a movie that had more wall to wall suspense, with the sense that anything big (good or bad) could happen at any moment. I particularly loved the scene where Batman goes to Hong Kong and abducts a white collar criminal. I would describe it as the most "comic book" scene I've ever seen in a comic book movie. It's the type of scene relatively easy to write and draw, but to actually have it work in the internal logic of a noirish live action film that emphasizes verisimilitude was nothing short of masterful.

Heath Ledger deserves all the accolades he's received, but that credit should also be shared with Chris Nolan and his co-writers and producers. It's remarkable that a villain without any powers other than a tactical mind could become the most terrifying comic book villain to ever grace the big screen. I was especially impressed with his "temptation" scene in which he causes Harvey to give himself up to his dark side. In particular, I was taken with the way that his lies seemed to be truth. His approach was straight out of the Garden of Eden, the way that he minimized his own culpability in the death of Rachel, the way he convinced Harvey he was nothing more than a "dog chasing a car," and his ability to deflect suspicion onto others. He almost has the audience believing that he's just a clown, without any ability to actually manipulate events (when the exact opposite is true of course). Given such a reading to this scene, the movie actually succeeds in positing Batman as a Christ figure, redeeming Harvey at the end of the film with his own sacrifice.

However, it is the very nature of Batman's sacrifice that undermines much of my good will for the film. The reason that Gotham needs a Batman in the first place is not because there are criminals running around, but because the law enforcement system in place is broken. The reason that it is so hard for the "good guy" like Gordon and Dent to deal with the underlying problem is because information in Gotham is at a premium. You don't know who you can trust because there is so much duplicity and deception, so much hoarding of information by powerful criminal elements. One of the motifs in the film is the "good guys" efforts to extract information from the "bad guys." This can be scene in brutal interrogation methods, and even in the way that Batman is continually asking questions of the bad guys he encounters. Indeed, the original rift between Dent and Gordon, which eventually causes much pain and suffering to many people, is caused by distrust over information sharing.

So how does Batman choose to deal with the ultimate dilemma of Gotham's "White Knight" becoming corrupt? By continuing to perpetuate a culture of deception, and by entering the province of the "bad guys" in hoarding information. Keeping information from the public "for their own good" is in line with totalitarian regimes, and even in the process of putting a target on his back, Batman diverts public attention from the "real problems." Furthermore, in hoisting a false Harvey Dent into the public gaze, Batman not only disrespects a public that proved its worthiness during the Joker's "social experiment," he continues to perpetuate a mistake that he made through the whole narrative--he refused to see Harvey as a human being, but rather a symbol. Whereas he can reconcile his dual identity as subject and symbol with literally two personas, Harvey couldn't--at least until tragedy struck and his psychic split was manifested physically.

So in the end, I have to agree with Jim Gordon's statement that Batman is "not a hero." Which makes me think that the next installment of the franchise could see him learning a bit more about concepts such as "truth". I wonder who could help him out with that?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Truth, justice, and the American way!

9:52 AM  
Anonymous Spencer h. said...

I see what you are saying about how keeping information from the public is in line with totalitarian regimes, but I would submit that all governments do that to an extent. I'm quite sure there are certain things that our government keeps from the public as to not incite widespread panic or fear.

3:47 PM  
Blogger Teecycle Tim said...

right about the 20 minute mark

5:06 PM  

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