Thursday, July 19, 2012

Prep for Dark Knight Rises: I May Love Batman, But It's a Complicated Thing

I love Batman.  I do.  Most importantly, Batman has always been with me, and Batman will be around in some form long after I'm worm food.  Whether the idea will endure like Arthurian legend or disappear like so many other pulp characters, I can't say.  I do occasionally imagine a future in which it's a bit of trivia where people find out that the stories of Batman and Superman originated in comic books, their roots in the pages of comics long since lost the way, say, Paul Bunyan's legend spread as part of an ad campaign.

But as I grow older, I move further and further from a place where the repetition of the stories in the comics has appeal and find myself in a place where the character works better for me in movies or in the occasional graphic novel or some such.  While the comics kind of make a joke about it and ask the reader to engage in willing suspension of disbelief, after reading Batman comics since the mid-80's, it's hard not to notice that whatever state Gotham is located in has done a simply terrible job of managing its prisons and mental health care, and that the people of the state seem to have an incredibly low bar for what they expect their politicians to do about the fact that a clown-faced killer routinely exits a supposedly high-security mental institution under his own recognizance.

somehow this movie did not feed my need for believability in my superhero franchise movie
There's the small matter of child endangerment that's hard enough to ignore on the first go-round, but by Robin #5 (2 of whom have been "killed"), one would expect Superman would take Batman aside and suggest he give the kid sidekick idea a rest for a while.

There's the whole "how has nobody figured out that Bruce Wayne is Batman" thing, especially once you add in the "youthful wards" that keep rotating through Wayne Manor, placing Man-Bat on the things that feel more likely to happen than Bruce to not be considered the Michael Jackson of the DC Universe.

And we must never, ever point out that despite the fact that Batman is often cited as "believable" compared to, say Wonder Woman, it's hard to see how a man would last two days in what's shown in the comics.

All of these are the sorts of things that make a concept that was intended to appear as cartoons on paper for readers under the age of 14 (and with an expected readership of 2-5 years), push the limits of imagination and credibility, I guess.  Once you insist that Batman is for an adult audience, as with the Nolan-helmed movies, you need to findamentally change the character in some ways.

Of course, in the comics of the past two decades, Batman has spent his time cleaning up messes he more or less started (anything with the Joker) or wouldn't simply deal with in a permanent fashion.

1.  You can't really have a Robin in the movies unless Robin is 18 years old
2.  Villains better have a darn good reason why/ how they show up again
3.  The Batman of the Nolan universe didn't ever really define if he was doing nightly patrols, etc... but with just two movies, the question of "how has nobody figured this out" seems less pointed.   There's really very little to tie Batman to Bruce Wayne.
4.  You have to basically create a lot of challenges in the movies that Batman can solve from his car or not obviously weighed down by the armor and accouterments of his gear.

While I appreciate the idea that "one man can make a difference" and other ideas attributed to make us feel better about making a hero out of a grown man in a cape and spooky mask, as an adult, I'm pretty much sure I'd find the idea of Batman in real life to be absolutely infuriating.

If I were watching the news and kept hearing stories about someone constantly interrupting police procedures or taking it upon themself to beat up, incapacitate and imprison people, I'd be darn well freaked out.  It takes a pretty crazy, borderline-narcissistic personality to decide that you're going to be the law in a place with the law already ostensibly in place and operating in a way that's been put in place by a democratically elected government.

It's not entirely pleasant to think that, in a way, the Batman of comics and cartoons, is a wealthy man who spends his nights (all his nights) looking to beat up the mentally ill and any person upon whom he can flex adequate tactical superiority - something he was able to buy - in order to deal with a childhood trauma.  And he's routinely recruiting impressionable children into his madcap scheme.

But it's not just about circumventing the law and police procedure.  The idea that someone is running around with no badge, no court system, no chain of command also means a healthy distrust and disrespect for whatever laws you happen to have.  So, while our Batman might not ever decide he was going to violently abuse jaywalkers or high schoolers selling pot to each other, some other Batman just might decide that's how you keep folks in line.  Or, you know, decide they think some particular brand of person is a "bad element" and he's going to get to them before they even have a chance to cause trouble.

If you're looking for a website to come out strong and hard on the foregone conclusions about the problems with vigilantism, congrats, because you're visiting that site today!

For good or ill, I have to now mentally separate myself from many, many questions when it comes to Batman.*  And, in general, I think I can.  Especially when it comes to the movies.

During my review of Batman Begins I failed to mention that I think Nolan tried to tackle one of the primary issues I've started having with Batman as concept, and that may be the thing that supposedly makes him so relatable.  It's that Batman can be read as a rich kid's outrage that the privilege he expected, the fairy tale life, was diminished, and he's dedicated his life to lashing out at anyone who even looks like Joe Chill in order to make the world pay.  It's not that Bruce Wayne wants to protect the world from what he experienced, which is the usual line, but you can also see it that he simply wants to hurt somebody like he's been hurt.

Frankly, Batman Begins tackles this issue very, very well.   The Bruce that wants vengeance gets his opportunity denied, and has to find something else to do with himself, and in that, finds a path toward a way he thinks he can help.  But he sees how wrong that can go with the option put on the table before him by Ra's al Ghul, in the proposed razing of Gotham.  Returning to Gotham is the first time he's not so blinded by rage he comes to understand his father's legacy within the city through charitable works, public service and infrastructure - all things that can probably help a city a bit more than hopping around on rooftops and pummeling shady psychologists.  Unless, of course, you have a diabolical scheme that needs unfurling and the police are in no position to stop that madman.

It may not be an entirely honest look at what Bruce's options could be in a more realistic world, but it's a darn sight closer than Michael Keaton in a gimp suit very slowly beating up criminals.

Dark Knight provided us with the city itself, and what sort of choices it would make in the face of the fear Bruce spends Batman Begins fighting.  I am uncertain what Dark Knight Rises holds for us, but I look forward to seeing what Nolan and company can do to close the loop on what it means to build a world that isn't cowed by fear and trauma.

I sincerely wish the writers of the Batman comics, folks who seem to want to write for an adult audience, would be able to take on the same sort of challenges in their writing, but it happens all too infrequently.  I can take mad ideas like Batman Inc. in the context of the DCU, but with the New 52 relaunch, any chance to see Batman work through the early years, something Morrison is doing quite well with Superman over in Action Comics, has intentionally been avoided, leaving a condensed mess of sidekicks and danglng storylines from pre-Flashpoint.

Batman can be a simple four-color superhero, socking criminals in the jaw.  And, fair enough.  But the challenge of translating Batman for the adult crowd for anyone coming along on Nolan's heels (and expect a reboot by 2016), is going to be creating a Batman that isn't the voice of our own personal sense of outrage at misfortune crying out for retribution.  The uphill battle may be for a Batman that can move past all that and make sense as how we can push past the personal humiliation and grief and use our Batskills to make a better tomorrow.

*for the record, every time someone tells me to read Wolverine and the X-Men these days, because Logan is now head of Xavier's, I cringe.  It's a man who has killed hundreds with knives, up close and personal, supposedly educating a whole bunch of children.  At least the Punisher uses guns so as not t get blood all over himself.  I can't separate what I know about Wolverine, whose abstraction I consider to be "am I an honorable warrior or marauding beast?", from whatever Marvel is currently asking of me.


Jake Shore said...

Good insights. I'll comment on the two that stood out to me.

"Batman can be read as a rich kid's outrage that the privilege he expected, the fairy tale life, was diminished, and he's dedicated his life to lashing out at anyone who even looks like Joe Chill in order to make the world pay."

I'm not so sure about this one. I think Bruce Wayne's pain and anger stems not from being denied privilege, but like anyone else, from being denied a mother and father. I agree about his character arc turning away from vengeance and toward justice and that was handled, but I don't think his status as a rich kid is all that relevant to that.

"I sincerely wish the writers of the Batman comics, folks who seem to want to write for an adult audience, would be able to take on the same sort of challenges in their writing, but it happens all too infrequently."

No freakin' kidding, man. I can't understand why there aren't more Kingdome Comes, Dark Knight Returns, or Kraven's Last Hunt. Is is that difficult to write a thoughtful, mature story minus the overt sexuality or shameless politics?

And one more thing: Why would Batman ever be in the Justice League? The only plausible way of fitting him in the story, given his nature, would be as an advisory role, not duking it out with Darkseid or Martians.

The League said...

Yeah, it's more of a musing than a solid foundation in how Bruce has been presented. I meant it more in a way "you could construe it this way" than that's how it's been presented. Usually I think they handle it in the "all this wealth means nothing if I lost the people I love" model, and the cash becomes a means to an end.

I think if you watch the early episodes of the cartoon of Justice League, the writers were in agreement. Batman was there to finance the operation, but the bigger the JL got, the more he needed to be involved. It's an interesting question - but thanks to DC's dependence on Bats, he's in JL and founded JLI and who knows where else...