Thinking Batman

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[See also my review of Christopher Nolan’s Inception.]

This May will mark seventy years since The Batman made his first appearance in Detective Comics #27, and he’s looking pretty good for his age. By the time he got his own comic book in Spring 1940, notes Bill Boichel, he was already “both a resonant signifier and a valuable property.” Here’s how he looked on his first outing, back when he was young and hyphenated:

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I once picked up a giant compendium of Batman comics in a school jumble sale for 10 pence. I seem to remember it being as thick as a brick and packed with reprints of every story from his first ten years, but I was seven years old and I might be hazy on the details. I was already a huge fan of the camp, day-glo Adam West version of the franchise, but this book showed a different side to my hero. He was stern, relentless, brutal and sollipsistic. I probably would have just said “a bit scary” at the time – this was my surreptitious, under-the-duvet-with-a-torch reading material of choice for a long time.

Batman is back on my cultural radar thanks to Christopher Nolan‘s steroidal franchise revival with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. The appeal of Tim Burton’s 1989 film didn’t extend me, not even with it’s party-popper scares and Prince songs (did people really get so excited about the Batdance?!). I liked Batman Returns for its full on weirdness and old-school modelwork and matte paintings. But both Batman Forever and Batman and Robin are notable only for the previously untapped reserves of crap they seem to have brought to our screens. My interest in the Batman adaptations has never been measured against expectations of  “fidelity” to the comic books – I have no personal investment in the franchise, and the character has changed with the fluctuating tastes of its readership (at least as they were perceived by DC) so dramatically over the years – but I could probably say that they have grabbed my attention whenever they’ve show a self-reflexive bent or taken seriously the task of creating a cohesive alternative world where  allegorical dramas of heroism and villainy can be played out. What do heros have to offer us if not treatises on heroism and critiques of popular mythology? It is customary in “these troubled times™” to claim that this is no time for binaries of good and evil, or simplistic notions of heroism. But when has it ever been? Unless you’re a stranger to any literary heroes since the time of Homer and Virgil, you’ve probably noticed that heroes who don’t question, doubt or compromise themselves are the exceptions rather than the rule. So, let’s not injure ourselves in the rush to praise The Dark Knight for catching up with the game, but I’d like to pick out a few aspects of Nolan’s two Bat-films that build up to a striking and cohesive approach to the character. They work really well together, and the progression from Begins to Knight is elegantly handled, but a comparison can illuminate much about how they work.

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If Begins concerns itself with the origins of the character, ascribing his drive to fight crime to a perfect storm of influences (the murder of his parents, a childhood trauma in a cave of bats, an injunction by his father to master his fear, mentoring from a group of mystical vigilantes in China), then Knight moves on to exploring the consequences of the Bat’s symbolic stance against crime. Tying the two films together is an ongoing discourse on theatricality that defines the character and opens him up for analysis.  Here lies the self-reflexivity of the Nolan films – in examining the means by which Batman constructs and controls his own mythology, they draw attention to the constructedness of broader notions of justice and heroism.

Between the two films, Nolan has stripped away much of the digital augmentation of Gotham City to give it a more palpable sense of closeness not just to the real world, but to contemporary crime dramas. When Batman is forced to destroy the futuristic overhead railway at the climax of Begins, it’s not just the passing of his father’s legacy to the Gotham architecture, but also the clearing aside of the fantastic to make way for the down-to-earth, General Motors traffic of Knight.

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The Dark Knight removes a lot of the quasi-mystical bullshit of the first film, aiming to demythologise the character, showing myth to be a mechanical construct devised for public relations and manipulated to meet the changing needs of the status quo. In both films, we get countless shots of gadgetry being devised, tested, prepared for use and finally put into practice. It’s like a behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of Batman’s public performances as an insuperable figure. We, the films’ spectators get to see the cuts and bruises he sustains beneath the impermeable exterior, and we get backstage access to the spectacles he creates: Batman “flies” on wires, takes high falls and death-defying leaps, can disappear in a puff of smoke (though Liam Neeson teaches him how to use smoke bombs for distraction or vanishing, I can’t recall a scene where he actually uses them – instead he simply vanishes between shots) or intimidate through sheer force of symbolism and superstitious dread. A lot of this theatricality is played down a little in The Dark Knight, since the manufacture of imagistic power is repositioned as a facet of government and law enforcement. Batman becomes one component of a broader system of public display, a circuitry where public fear can be regulated and stage-managed. It might seem like an obvious case of the Joker being a twisted mirror image of Batman; the opening scene is that most lo-tech of set-pieces, the bank robbery, with the Joker eliminating his clown-masked accomplices one by one, followed by a mirroring sequence in which Batman eliminates a group of bat-masked imitators to assert his dominion over a criminal transaction. But it’s not always that simple. Instead of a Batman/Joker binary, The Dark Knight sets up a circuit of characters whose interrelationships will be repeatedly rebalanced. The Joker might equally be seen as the polar opposite of stable, unconflicted Commissoner Gordon (Gary Oldman; although Gordon himself indulges in a bit of public spectacle by staging his own death), with Batman closer in principle to Harvey Dent/Two Face. Nolan literalises this network of interdependence visually:

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It has become a truism of the superhero genre that the hero is defined in relation to the villains he fights. Batman’s blackness, blending into the mise-en-scène and subsuming his personality and his biography behind an armoured cloak of depersonalised signification, provides a blank canvas onto which his flamboyant foes will paint themselves. Scarecrow, played in Begins by Cillian Murphy is not  a physically powerful foe, but a psychologist who, like Batman, conducts experiments in fear, manifesting himself as an embodiment of his victim’s deepest fears.

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While Scarecrow has to use chemical agents (I remember when Batman comics were all about nerve gas, acid and nasty chemicals) to induce a traumatic vision, with his cloth-bag mask a screen onto which his victims project their deepest fear, Batman has to engineer his fearful image from scratch with a few symbols and gadgets. Batman’s scare tactics are marked as purer than this drug-induced hallucination, not just because he doesn’t use it as a weapon against the innocent, but because his resources are mechanical, homemade (albeit with massive funding) and therefore fairer. Given more space and time, I might extrapolate from this a broader argument about the discourses of authenticity that cohere around the films’ use of special effects. Christopher Nolan has expressed a wish to cut back on the CGI, as if digital effects contain the toxic side effect of inauthenticity, bringing with them the baggage of easy simulation and intangibilty. Here’s an extract from Wired magazine’s discussion of the film:

Nolan has a cogent Theory of Applied Batmatics: Insist on reality — no effects, no tricks — up to the point where insisting on reality becomes unrealistic. Then, in postproduction, make what is necessarily unreal as real as possible. “Anything you notice as technology reminds you that you’re in a movie theater,” Nolan explains. “Even if you’re trying to portray something fantastical and otherworldly, it’s always about trying to achieve invisible manipulation.” Especially, he adds, with Batman, “the most real of all the superheroes, who has no superpowers.”

The cutbacks in GGI and the grounding of these fantastic characters in a sense of reality borrowed from urban crime dramas transfers to the subtext of Batman’s own efforts to construct convincing imagery of himself as a public spectacle within the limits of the human body and contemporary engineering. When, at the end of The Dark Knight, he finally “goes digital” by enhancing his human senses with the agglomerated data from the city’s mobile phones, it is judged to be a step too far, an unfair advantage: “too much power for one man“.

The real challenge to Batman, on his own terms, comes from The Joker. The character was originally inspired by Conrad Veidt‘s performance as the disfigured clown Gwynplaine in the film adaptation of Victor Hugo‘s 1869 novel The Man Who Laughs (1928).

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Jack Nicholson’s Joker, in Tim Burton’s 1989 film, was a pantomime figure. He committed some atrocities, for sure, but the actor was always winking at you from behind the facade, letting you know it was all OK. He was still Jack. Heath Ledger’s death authenticates the sense of a troubled soul underneath the make-up. Ledger is undoubtedly the main attraction of The Dark Knight; it’s hard to say anything novel about his performance, and perhaps redundant to praise it, except to add that it gains power from a subtlety that need not be demanded by such a nihilistic figure. A mess of tics, skips, shrugs and darting eyes, with a voice that  fluctuates unpredictably between Tom Waits and Tigger, he is primarily a catalyst for the main battle for iconographic primacy between Batman and Dent/Two-Face.

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Like Batman, the Joker meticulously plans his spectacles, in the service of what he describes as chaos, but what might also be interpreted as an alternative kind of order where he commands fearful obediance to his terror campaign. He uses the apparatus of municipality against Gotham’s citizens: he appropriates police uniforms, corrupt cops, a garbage truck, a school bus, a fire engine, TV news and an entire hospital. It’s never made clear what sort of world he wants to create: he is, in his own words, “a dog chasing cars”, and wouldn’t know what to do if he caught one. The ending of Batman Begins implied that Batman’s dramatic (in every sense of that word) stance against criminality would escalate the criminal response. It might deter the part-timers, but would bring the truly committed agents of vice into the open. The Joker is painted as Batman’s bi-product, a symbol divorced from context or motivation. We get no backstory – there is “nothing in his pockets”. While Batman needs both of his personae, one to buy political influence and fund his night job, and the other to punch people in the head without besmirching that public profile, the Joker has no alter-ego, no ambitions which can be thwarted; to fight him is to make him exist. How is this kind of threat to be countered, and is it possible to remain heroic in the process?

This accretion of conflicting symbols can’t help but attract politicised interpretations, and Batman generates a range of views. Gotham City might be an eloquent articulation of a world where tough choices face anyone wishing to bring peace and stability by force. Or, as Andrew Klavan wrote in The Wall Street Journal, there may be a very different reading up for grabs:

There seems to me no question that the Batman film The Dark Knight is at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war. Like W, Batman is vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand. Like W, Batman sometimes has to push the boundaries of civil rights to deal with an emergency, certain that he will re-establish those boundaries when the emergency is past. And like W, Batman understands that there is no moral equivalence between a free society – in which people sometimes make the wrong choices – and a criminal sect bent on destruction. The former must be cherished even in its moments of folly; the latter must be hounded to the gates of Hell. The Dark Knight, then, is a conservative movie about the war on terror. And like another such film, last year’s 300, The Dark Knight is making a fortune depicting the values and necessities that the Bush administration cannot seem to articulate for beans.

Klavan’s article attracted criticism, derision and a few astute rebuttals. But it reveals the troubling malleability of mainstream film texts, which are rarely given the wriggle-room to espouse a fixed ideological stance, at least not one without space for counter-readings: it doesn’t make commercial sense to alienate a large portion of the audience and besides, to put a more positive spin on it, ambivalence and dilemma are much more dramatically compelling than the affirmation of any particular values, whatever your political persuasion. The Bush/Batman comparison is a bit ridiculous, but there is a troubling conclusion to The Dark Knight. As my colleague Joe Kember pointed out to me, the final message of the film might be that “you don’t need to know the truth”, whether it’s the concealment of Harvey Dent’s killing spree, the identity of Batman, or the content of Rachael’s letter. Batman is only able to save the day by giving himself a bat-like sonar capacity through mass surveillance, as if monitoring the city is a natural, quasi-biological extension of his superpowers.

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The public persona of Batman takes on another layer of facade. Even those who seek to judge him and reconcile the  spectre of vigilantism with the benefits he brings don’t know the full story of how he achieves his effects. More theatrics, more sleight of hand. And watching the films again, I noticed that their signature image is a shot/reverse-shot sequence of Batman gripping someone by the throat to extract information. Torture and intimidation are his main weapons against crime.

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Even if the films problematise the use of force in this way (the Joker gives up misleading information under duress), we are never encouraged to doubt that his victims are deserving, and as long as it stays hidden from the public, it’s not shown as a serious transgression. And it usually gets results. There’s even a scene in The Dark Knight that cuts from Batman throwing Eric Roberts off a balcony to the next scene, where he upbraids Dent for doing the same to one of the Joker’s followers. Ultimately, the theatricality metaphor pays off with a conclusion that appearance is all-important, and Batman the empty signifier can be scape-goated and burdened with the sins of others. It doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not.

More info:

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  • For a detailed list of characters from the Batman comics, go here. Or, if you want an incredible summary of who drew what in the Batman comics, visit the same site here.
  • Want to see what the Japanese Batman comics looked like in the 1960s? Sorry, trick question – everybody wants to see that. It’s been scientifically proven, with sums and everything, that Batmanga! is the coolest thing ever. Well, maybe.
  • Take a look at brand new pages from Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert’s two-part Batman story Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?

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20 thoughts on “Thinking Batman

  1. Nolan & co’s decision to play down the digital manipulation between the two films really was a relief. I couldn’t believe how boring Gotham city looked in Begins (a shiny, bland, amorphous mass of stuff), and was very pleased when The Dark Knight opened with a sequence akin to a Michael Mann film (well, not quite, but at least it was something worth looking at).

    Heath was good and everything, but much better in I’m Not There

  2. I think in Begins they wanted to “design” a new Gotham City, while for the follow-up I suspect they noticed that if they wanted to bring it down to Earth they should just use Chicago and modify it very slightly. Wayne Towers is modelled on the John Hancock building, and you get to see Batman on top of Sears Tower (apparently that’s really Christian Bale up there), so it’s grounded in actual places without actually feeling it has a real world setting (except when they go to Hong Kong). I think someone even mentions Lake Michigan. The monorail in the first film just made it a bit futuristic, and Chicago’s own overhead railway is a far more believable prop.

    I’m interested in the trend for downplaying or avoiding CGI. The de-escalation of simulation is a positive development, I reckon. Except when you get stuff like the new Indiana Jones, which claims to be old school but still sneaks in some heavy duty CGI whenever it feels like it.

    Haven’t seen I’m Not There yet, but got the DVD for this weekend by odd coincidence. Looking forward to it.

  3. I’m all for old school! Although I mentioned Mann, the film which The Dark Knight reminded me the most of in terms of impersonal contemporary cityscapes (and Hong Kong, no less) was Assayas’ Boarding Gate, also a bit of a mess but well worth a look…

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  8. Just a few points about the “political” part of your article.
    Yes Batman tortured Joker, but you can’t say that it worked since the Joker was going to give him the info anyway. As he said “that’s the point, you have to choose”. And even the best he got out of the Maroni was some friendly advice “you know what you need to do… just take of that mask”. Hell later Maroni gave up the Joker almost out of the goodness of his heart or his sense of self-preservation, whichever.
    Best Batman did was through detective work and surveillance. And he destroyed the machine at the end, which should count for something.

    Anyway just wanted to bring up these few points, and liked the article a lot.

    • Hi, Sohaib – Sorry I missed your post earlier. I have no idea why, but it happens sometimes.

      You’re right, Batman gets bad results from torture, so it’s not an unambiguous endorsement of it as a method of interrogation, but I’m worried about how such depictions of torture work allegorically as an engagement with current debates around “interrogation” methods. My point is that there is never any ambiguity about the torture. Batman always has the right person, and we’re never in any doubt about the evil and danger of the person being tortured, so we’re encouraged to conclude that yes, Batman has been put in a difficult decision, but this is just the price of being a superhero – you have to do bad stuff to keep the peace, maintain order and prevent a deluge of crime and chaos. It panders to the party-line that torture is necessary in “ticking bomb” scenarios, while in the real world there has never been any such scenario, and torture is not a time-pressured, urgent thing, but a long-term, institutionalised, repetitive, suffocating, soul-destroying process. That’s my issue, though I wouldn’t want to lay it all on Batman too heavily, because it is at least engaged in the mucky problems of the debate in some way.

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