Batman and Civil Society

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Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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28 Responses

  1. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    The Batman works outside the rules of society, but with the intent to preserve and protect it.

    In Batman Begins, Gotham is a place where the state has lost its claim to legitimacy and therefore its use of violence is really no better than that of the criminals the Batman neutralizes, and it has lost the strength to fight them anyway. The Batman fills the void of strength, and in the absence of true legitimacy, good intentions will do.

    In The Dark Knight, the state has begun to reclaim its legitimacy, but is weak. The Joker demonstrates its impotency, and once again the Batma must intervene because he is the only source of strength. But his claim to legitimacy must be sacrificed in the end if the state’s claim to legitimacy is to survive.

    The logical progression here is that in the third movie, we will see a state which has gained its strength by sacrificing its claim to legitimacy; the series would resolve, one would hope, with Gotham both a strong and legitimate state, one capable of dispensing justice on its own without the intervention of a vigilante.Report

    • Avatar sonmi451 in reply to Burt Likko says:

      The logical progression here is that in the third movie, we will see a state which has gained its strength by sacrificing its claim to legitimacy; the series would resolve, one would hope, with Gotham both a strong and legitimate state, one capable of dispensing justice on its own without the intervention of a vigilante.

      Judging from the trailer, we’ll probably see a complete breakdown of the state first. Logically, I’d say that a villain like Bane who seems to be aiming for a complete takeover of the city is more dangerous and terrifying than someone like The Joker who mostly aims to incite chaos and uncertainty (“some men just want to watch the world burn”). But emotionally, I find the not knowing and not understanding the villain’s goal more terrifying.

      Also, this sentence from the Taylor Marvin’s post linked to in the Forbes article struck me as shallow pop psychology, sorry to say. Is Nolan’s Bruce Wayne a “deeply damaged individual incapable of dealing with loss and forming a real relationship”? Sure, you could make a convincing argument for that. But to say that THAT”S the only reason Bruce Wayne fights crime is to ignore long sections of Batman Begins. 

      Similarly, unlike previous visions of Batman Nolan’s Bruce Wayne doesn’t fight crime out of civic duty; he does because he a deeply damaged individual incapable of dealing with loss and forming real relationships.

      I’m with him about this though:

      Also, I really hope The Dark Knight Rises finds a way to not have Catwoman look ridiculous. Why does Batman get body armor and she doesn’t? And Hollywood: no one can fight in high heels.

      Report

      • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to sonmi451 says:

        Judging from the trailer, we’ll probably see a complete breakdown of the state first. Logically, I’d say that a villain like Bane who seems to be aiming for a complete takeover of the city is more dangerous and terrifying than someone like The Joker who mostly aims to incite chaos and uncertainty (“some men just want to watch the world burn”). But emotionally, I find the not knowing and not understanding the villain’s goal more terrifying.

        Same here. It’s hard to beat the raw fear of something as unpredictable as the Joker (and of course, Ledger’s Joker in particular.) But I’m willing to believe that Bane could be just as terrifying. And then, too, we will probably see Batman broken.Report

      • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to sonmi451 says:

        Um…

        On the “unlike previous visions of Batman”….

        What visions is he talking about?

        The very DEFINITION of Batman is that he’s defined by the loss of his parents. Even the Tim Burton version was like that (in fact it was even more tightly connected to his parent’s loss Joker killed them in that one)Report

        • Avatar Zach in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

          Similarly, unlike previous visions of Batman Nolan’s Bruce Wayne doesn’t fight crime out of civic duty; he does because he a deeply damaged individual incapable of dealing with loss and forming real relationships.

          I think this is entirely incorrect. Burton’s Batman didn’t fight crime out of civic duty – his most sustained assault on the Joker only came after he realized that Napier was the one who murdered his parents. It’s patently ridiculous – the city’s being poisoned by a mixture of chemicals, and he knows that Napier as the Joker is controlling Axis Chemicals. Yet he waits until dozens of people are dead before he bombs the facility that’s actually responsible.

          Nolan’s Batman series – for whatever other flaws it might possess – invests Batman with a personal sense of civic duty that is informed but not solely driven by his own loss. In the first film, he argued that Gotham was worth saving with Ra’s al Ghul. The entire arc of his quest into Asia was to find some higher purpose besides simple revenge. And in the Dark Knight, he allows his own reputation to be destroyed, in the hope that the city can heal behind the symbol of an unblemished Dent.

          Nolan’s Batman is a darker shade of Deny O’Neil’s Batman – a true vigilante hero with a higher purpose, and a genuine desire to make Gotham better.

           Report

          • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to Zach says:

            Yep.

            I’d also say that Nolan’s Batman is essentially every incarnation of Batman in the comic books since the late 80s, with a sense of duty for “the mission” created by trauma, but sustained by the incredible will of one man. (Even Dick Grayson as Batman had similar patterns to Bruce Wayne, though he was obviously a better adjusted individual. In many ways that makes his dedication even more important)Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to sonmi451 says:

        she looks like she’s got limited body armor (something like kevlar, I assume — armored t-shirt).

        Looks one hell of a lot better than wonderwoman, who just looked “OWW” (large breasts without support HURT. A Lot. When you exercise).

        I now suddenly want telescoping stilettos. one mode on, for psychological intimidation, one mode off, for fighting.Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to Burt Likko says:

      The logical progression here is that in the third movie, we will see a state which has gained its strength by sacrificing its claim to legitimacy; the series would resolve, one would hope, with Gotham both a strong and legitimate state, one capable of dispensing justice on its own without the intervention of a vigilante.

      This sounds pretty much spot on. Or it could end on a more cynical note.Report

  2. Avatar Jaybird says:

    I see the Christopher Nolan Batman movies through the lens of 9/11. We’re trying to process not only the attacks but how we responded to them… we like to imagine that we have the moral fortitude of Tiny Lister on the boat, for example, when faced with a monstrous choice given us like the one Joker gave him (them).Report

  3. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    I’m not sure how much we can learn from Nolan’s “Batman” movies.  Nolan’s Joker pretty much has superpowers–we’re talking about a man who has access to apparently-infinite amounts of military explosives, has as many fanatically-loyal gang members as he needs who don’t seem to mind when their boss kills them, can plant undetectable bombs wherever he wants, can be anywhere the plot needs him to be and always has exactly the right gadget in exactly the right place to defeat whatever the authorities want to do.

    I mean, we’re talking about a movie where Batman digs a shattered bullet out of a wall, reconstructs the bullet fragments, lifts a fingerprint off that reconstructed bullet, tracks down the apartment of that person, and the Joker knew he was going to do this and set a trap for him there.Report

  4. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    I once carried on a long term relationship with a Batman fan.  Well, more than a mere fan, she was a scholar of Batman.

    Her general thesis ran along these lines:

    Batman, unique among the Superheroes, lacks super powers.   Wayne Enterprises funds his technological marvels.   Gotham is a broken world and ordinary people are powerless.   Batman and Joker have evolved as characters to become a Shakespearean duality.

    Villain, thou know’st no law of God nor man;
    No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity.

    But both Joker and Bruce Wayne are broken men in a darkened world. Batman is summoned with a great searchlight.  We see so little of Gotham in the daylight, unless it’s Bruce Wayne in a spiffy suit, lording it over his vast corporation.

    I pass’d, methought, the melancholy flood,
    With that grim ferryman which poets write of,
    Unto the kingdom of perpetual night.

    Batman says he has no limits. Alfred knows he does. The Joker knows Batman has his limits, too:

    Don’t talk like one of them. You’re not! Even if you’d like to be. To them, you’re just a freak, like me! They need you right now, but when they don’t, they’ll cast you out, like a leper! You see, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these… these civilized people, they’ll eat each other. See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.

    Ahead of the curve.  Burt observes the state has lost its legitimacy.  I wouldn’t go that far:  The Batman opus is a dark parable of power, dispensing with the polite fictions about the use of power or its users, be they ever so well-meaning.   If Batman operates as a force for good, it’s never perceived that way by the willfully stupid citizens of Gotham.   At least Superman gets the credit for saving the world every few weeks.  Batman never will.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to BlaiseP says:

      Depends on whose books you read.  The Gothamites in Miller’s “Dark Knight Returns” seem pretty happy to have Batman running around; and, in that book, the failure of authority is presented as the result of liberalism gone berserk (i.e. “it’s wrong to beat people up, no matter what your reasons are or what they’re doing!  Evil cannibalistic street criminals are really just misunderstood, and if we appeal to their better nature they’ll stop eating people!”Report

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