Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Holy Vigilante, Batman! (Part One)

Sanctifying Civilian Justice

Parents watching superhero films or reading comics may note that many brightly colored superheroes perform acts they specifically forbid their children to mimic.  Superheroes think their fists can solve problems.  Superheroes hit back.  Superheroes even hit first.  Yet somehow the Spandex costumes and brightly colored symbols exonerate them from their behavior.  And no superhero gets broader latitude than Batman.

Batman, like his peer Superman, arose in the late Depression, when rampant corruption caused Americans to feel desperate over their perceived personal powerlessness.  During and after Prohibition, cops were often on the take, elected officials could be bought and sold by union officials and capital interests, and America’s perceived power structures teetered on the verge of collapse.  Unlike other periods of mass corruption, like Teapot Dome or Tammany Hall, this was not a time when upper echelons appeared corrupt; everyone, it seemed, was tainted.

Therefore artists created someone who could enforce a vision of justice.  Where Jerry Seigel (may have) invented a bulletproof man in answer to his father’s death Bob Kane and Bill Finger invented an avenging angel.  Unlike Superman, who stands above corruption in patriotic colors, with chin upthrust, Batman’s depiction often resembles the full armor in which Renaissance artists depicted the Archangel Michael casting out Satan.

As a figure without official standing, Batman remains incorruptible, a psychological alternative to ordinary authority.  Swooping from on high, his well-placed creative violence “fills the hungry, and sends the rich away empty.”  His displays of righteous force in the interest of protecting the poor and downtrodden, tacitly supported across many media, resemble two of his peers: the Green Hornet and—no kidding—Fleischer Studios’ Popeye cartoons.

But to maintain his role, Batman needs a constant supply of enemies.  Even as crime declines nationwide, and cities like New York and Los Angeles, formerly synonymous with crime, have become safe and family-friendly, mythic Gotham requires constant renewal in its grotesque grittiness.  It is never free to improve.  Whether in comics, Tim Burton’s opera bouffe exaggerations, or Christopher Nolan’s urban nihilism, Gotham never seems to get better.

Under a near-constant pall of night, Gotham’s criminals fester, even as the Bat and the rump force of good cops struggle constantly.  Notice, in Nolan’s Batman Begins, that virtuous Sergeant Gordan lives in a shoddy tenement, while the Brooks Brother-clad commissioner wants to arrest the Bat, and Gordon’s slickly garbed partner Fless is on the take.

If Batman’s raison d’etre is to root out crime and corruption, he needs these to exist.  He relies on criminals as much as law-abiding citizens depend on him.  In Nolan’s The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne ruminates on the opportunity to shed his Bat persona and resume ordinary life; yet he suits up, because as a symbol, he has become his city’s patron saint.  If anything ever recovers, his purposepeters out.

This limitation is not unique to the movie environment.  Over the last twenty years, the Batman of the comics has struggled to cope with age, and even death.  Bruce Wayne comes and goes, suffering through crippling injury and the limitations of encroaching age.  But retirement never comes, because Batman—not the criminals he resists, nor the civilians he defends—shapes his city’s ethos.

In such an environment, violence becomes a righteous act.  Neither reason nor law can keep Gotham safe, rendering only force effective.  The city, and Batman himself, rely on his nearly constant righteous anger.  But, as anybody who has ever faced someone trumpeting “righteous anger” can attest, this usually means my anger.  Clearly my cause is righteous.  Clearly I fight on the side of the angels.  Therefore, if I put pain on those who transgress, I become heroic.

But this advances another significant problem.  When violence is sanctified in pursuit of justice, justice often gets compromised.  This is further complicated because we lack a meaningful definition of justice.  Philosophers going back to Plato have failed to define justice usefully.  In Batman Begins, Rachel Dawes differentiates vengeance, a self-gratifying act, from justice, which restores harmony.  Yet that glittering generality is too broad to be useful.

Batman’s ethic obtains because he does not appear to enrich himself.  He appears heroic because he stands aloof from the atmosphere of hunger and desperation that spawn organized criminals.  But this sanctimony is only possible because of Bruce Wayne’s apparently inexhaustible wealth.  Nolan briefly addresses, then discards, the question of how Wayne would deal with true hunger and desperation.

Next week I want to reconsider: is Carmine Falcone perhaps the more heroic character in this universe?

Part Two: Defining Justice in a Nihilistic Universe
Part Three: Bane's Dichotomy Between Servitude and Chaos

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