Batman and His Problems

July 28, 2008

Everyone just loves the new Batman movie. After only two weekends in theaters, The Dark Knight is the #1 movie of all time according to imdb members. Critics have been gushing with glowing reviews (though the New Yorker or A.O. Scott beg to differ). The movie’s success is evident, it is the fastest to gross over $300 million domestically. Heath Ledger is even generating Oscar buzz… but with all the hype aside, the best I can say of The Dark Knight is that it’s a “superior superhero movie”, which is pretentious-filmspeak for “the hype’s total bullshit”.

The “superior superhero movie” qualifier should be elaborated. The Dark Knight features a very competent cast with a remarkable Heath Ledger to go along with a cool chase, some neat cat-and-mouse scenes, and some Stygian Gotham atmospherics. Seeing it on an IMAX screen is definitely and all-encompassing (and loud) experience. What’s interesting about Dark Knight (and what everyone fawns over) is how it questions the superhero genre itself within a “post 9/11” context. But that’s all it does. It questions and questions and questions as loudly and succinctly at every possible moment. Writers Cristopher and Jonathan Nolan bring up just about every liberal post 9/11 talking point: Torture! Wiretapping! Due Process! Just let the Joker make a phone call! All of this makes for a story that’s richer than usual. Only all these hot-button topics dissipate as Batman does what the genre invariably tells him to do.

The dissipation problem is more than thematic. The movie frantically weaves in and out of scene without giving each a sense of cohesion or closure. As a result, scenes with dramatic potential get the same slap and dash treatment as unnecessary exposition. There’s an entirely absurd Hong-Kong mission where Batman comes off like some glorified American James Bond. In spite of all the razzle dazzle, the final confrontation between Batman and Joker reminded me of a time I went flaccid during intercourse. You’d imagine that a $185 million dollar budget would afford some script editors… But no… Even Two-Face’s little coin flipping trick is a pallid replica of Anton Chiguhr’s.

I have always had issues with superhero movies. I just can’t accept a superhero world and the myth of exceptionalism that the genre bases itself on. In the proud American tradition, the superhero world presupposes a simple good versus evil polarity, which The Dark Knight questions without betraying the assumption. The superhero itself is equally problematic. A superhero is the sublimation of the human entity into a weapon, into an instrument of order and security. The apotheosis of the superhero requires that the individual leave behind his real identity in order to become an abstracted citizen, a symbol of a man, an image (The Dark Knight uses all the batman imitators to briefly toy with this idea). As a symbol, the superhero is essentially a fetishism. In the case of Bruce Wayne, whose “superpower” is his wealth, he spins amazing technologies out of thin air, a batmobile here, a wire-tapping infrastructure there… as if Batman and Lucius Fox built it all themselves. No one expects a superhero movie to discuss labor. After all, the superhero must be divorced from his material reality to be super. Such distinction is clearly only allotted to the exceptional, while all other hard-working citizens must depend on this symbolic exception.

Just as Batman is a symbol, so is the Joker. They mirror each other (another idea that the movie brings up to little consequence). That the Joker is the most compelling character in The Dark Knight attests both to an incredible performance by Heath Ledger and to the staleness of the other “human” characters. The Joker is a non-entity. Unlike Batman, he has no human context, no mask, only a grotesquely painted facade, making his unmotivated acts of destruction all the more palatable for its symbolism. The Dark Knight becomes the Joker’s movie. He gives the best lines, diabolically catalyzes most of the action, and brings Batman’s entire moral universe into question. Is Batman doing more harm than good? Has he brought Gotham down a road of no return? Perhaps this will be answered in the third installment. But by the end of The Dark Knight, even the Joker becomes problematic.

The problem is not that the Joker’s acts of destruction are a symbolic challenge, but that the movie insists that the Joker is a terrorist… After the movie, I remembered Baudrillard’s “The Spirit of Terrorism”:

This is the spirit of terrorism. Never is it to attack the system through power relations. This belongs to the revolutionary imaginary imposed by the system itself, which survives by ceaselessly bringing those who oppose it to fight in the domain of the real, which is always its own. But (it) moves the fight into the symbolic domain, where the rule is the rule of challenge, of reversal, of escalation. Thus, death can be answered only though an equal or superior death. Terrorism challenges the system by a gift that the latter can reciprocate only through its own death and its own collapse.

As exceptional symbols, both Batman and the Joker enjoy a quasi-omnipresence and an unlimited supply of resources. Although Batman has everything money can build at his disposal, the Joker uses real, functional structures (the domain of labor). In using these structures, the Joker becomes a truck driver, a nurse, a soldier -and always a terrorist. Therefore the Joker, the symbol of unmotivated chaos, the non-entity, is also the symbol of terrorism. And as such a symbol, terrorism becomes depoliticized, it is no longer a reaction against the dominant order or calculated political violence. It is reduced to being evil, to being the unreasonable and unmotivated desire “to watch the world burn”, and to being only vincible with weapons or superheroes.

This new batman movie posits fundamental questions about itself, and for a second, the entire superhero framework appears absurd. But that’s only for a second. Maybe these limitations are placed by the genre. How much of Batman would the studio’s allow to be deconstructed, torn from its roots and set on fire?If I ever decide to make my own superhero movie, I want to create a dashing hero experiencing all sorts of superhero adventures, blowing all sorts of shit up… there’ll be chaos and destruction… but at the end, the superhero confronts an angry mass… guerrillas? workers? students? only to be swarmed and killed, dismembered, torn apart. The antithesis of the American-brand exceptionalism: the “super power” of the collective.

– s