Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Holy Vigilante, Batman! (Part Two)

Defining Justice in a Nihilistic Universe

Note: this essay was intended to appear last Wednesday, but got pushed back because I felt the need to answer the outcry surrounding the Casey Anthony verdict. I have amended a few points here to reflect what I said last week.

In Plato’s Republic, Thrasymachus, a notorious sophist, claims that “justice is the advantage of the stronger” and laws primarily exist to enforce social hierarchy.  Philosophers debate whether Thrasymachus, an actual historical figure whose writings survive only in fragments, really meant this claim, or if he was Plato’s straw man.  We can say with confidence, though, that many unjust people create ad hoc justice around themselves to fend off a world that remains appallingly heartless.

Comic book writer/artist Frank Miller created Gotham gangster Carmine “The Roman” Falcone as Batman’s first nemesis in Batman: Year One.  He has appeared occasionally since then, evolving as comic book characters do—comics’ ongoing, soap-operatic format lends characters to shifting interpretations.  Altogether more interesting, from a social mythology standpoint, is Falcone’s appearance, played by British actor Tom Wilkinson, in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins.

In Nolan’s interpretation (which differs significantly from Miller’s), Bruce Wayne is spurred to venture into the world and cultivate his Batman persona after confronting Falcone in his private tavern.  Though the subterranean street outside his door is squalid and littered with detritus of urban collapse, Falcone’s tavern is softly lit, subdued, and marked by the customers’ posh dress.  Just walking through the door, Wayne sees that Falcone has built a fortress of order amid Gotham’s rapid entropy.

Wayne and Falcone have an brief exchange, culminating in a storytelling device sometimes derided as “The Reason You Suck” speech.  In this wheezy trope, one character, usually a villain, trumpets another beaten character’s supposed shortcomings to emphasize innate superiority.  Brandishing a gun, Falcone says:

Look around you: you'll see two councilmen, a union official, a couple off-duty cops, and a judge.  Now, I wouldn't have a second's hesitation of blowing your head off right here and right now in front of 'em.  Now, that's power you can't buy!  That's the power of fear.

Though distinctly stereotypical in its sentiments, Falcone’s speech makes a significant point: for all Falcone’s disregard for law, order, or human life, he is no mere evil plaguing the world as indifferently as the weather.  He wants something from humanity.  He wants their fear.

As business guru Jack Trytten says in his book The G Point (previously reviewed here), people never buy a product because they want that product.  People buy products because they want what the products can provide: ease, economy, prestige, or whatever they lack.  Falcone does not want people to fear him because he wants fear, nor does he run a massive crime enterprise because he wants lawlessness.  Carmine Falcone wants power—presumably because he feels powerless.

In other words, like Batman, Falcone sees Gotham falling to ruin and wants to do something about it.  Unlike Batman, who turns his desire for justice outward, Falcone presents a self-centered world, but one no less geared to fighting urban decay.  Those loyal to Falcone enjoy the perks of his world, emblematized by his posh, comfortably tavern.  Those outside, like the homeless man warming his hands over a burning trash barrel, live in fear.  Falcone becomes a law unto himself.

Compare Falcone to Depression-era bank robber Willie Sutton.  Though he denied saying he robbed banks “because that’s where the money is,” he admitted another reason.  In his memoir, Where the Money Was, Sutton said: “Why did I rob banks? Because I enjoyed it. I loved it. I was more alive when I was inside a bank, robbing it, than at any other time in my life.”  At a time of economic collapse, when countless Americans despaired of constant bread lines, Sutton took control.  He made his life mean something, even if that meaning was counterproductive.

Comic books and movies regard Batman as heroic because he turns his efforts to punishing those he considers lawbreakers, those who victimize the powerless.  But consider the history of organized crime.  Al Capone was born to immigrant parents in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and fought his way out of poverty.  Jesse James backed the losing side in the Civil War and was branded an outlaw because he rode with Quantrill’s Raiders.  John Gotti grew up in a poor ghetto and took up crime to offset his dissolute father’s gambling losses.

Born rich, Batman has the luxury of turning his attention to others.  Born in the belly of a decaying city, Carmine Falcone can’t build justice for anyone else until he builds it for himself.  Sure, he’s a criminal; but the justice system failed him, so he had to build one of his own.  While this does not excuse his crimes, it certainly suggests that, like Batman, Falcone only wants to protect the powerless, especially himself, and not let strangers run roughshod over the people.

We can debate whether justice is the advantage of the strong.  But we know justice is certainly the prerogative of the strong.  So, to some, Carmine Falcone is the better hero than Batman.

Part One: Sanctifying Civilian Justice
Part Three: Bane's Dichotomy Between Servitude and Chaos

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