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Article by Kari Maaren
Not long after The Dark Knight hit theatres this summer, people began speculating as to its Oscar chances. Here was an intelligent, thematically rich film that appealed to audiences and critics alike. Heath Ledger’s performance was both creepy and heartbreaking; the other major actors were nearly as strong in their roles. The editing was sometimes a bit frenetic, but otherwise, there was very little that could be said against the film…
…except, of course, that it was about Batman.
The Dark Knight does not have much of a chance at a Best Picture Oscar. There is a high probability that the simple fact of its protagonist’s identity made up the minds of the Academy before the film ever hit theatres. The name “Batman” evokes the superhero genre, which in turn calls up visions of bright costumes, men in tights, villains with silly names, ridiculous plots, bad writing, heavy-handed symbolism, and completely unnecessary alliteration. This “popular” genre, couched in the “popular” form of comics, strikes many as not weighty or serious enough to produce anything worthy of an award. The mere fact of the hero’s identity immediately dooms a film that would be a major Oscar contender if it were just not about Batman.
This odd little quirk of popular reception extends beyond this film to envelop all comics and movies involving superheroes. It may be a serious graphic novel dealing with themes of sexual abuse and familial identity, but it has “Spider-Man” in the title. It may be a more eloquent exploration of personal responsibility in a world gone mad than any number of mainstream novels, but its heroine dresses in a purple body-suit and shoots lightning bolts from her fingertips. Our preconceptions about superhero comics and films tell us that a man with batarangs clipped to his utility belt is good for a bit of light entertainment but certainly doesn’t mean as much as, say, a Jean Valjean or a Victor Frankenstein.
Yet Batman, perceived by many as a stupid piece of fluff, is one version of a character who has shown up in literature since its beginnings. This character has appeared in works that are considered great by any measure. He has fought a dragon and stood alone, unarmed, against a murderous troll that attacks a mead hall in the night; he has worn a lion skin as a trophy and killed his family in a fit of madness; he has been engendered by gods and monsters, beasts and showers of rain. Deep in the past, he roamed the world with a wild man for a companion; just over a decade ago, he was born again as a boy with unruly hair, a lightning-bolt scar, and a talent for magic. We write about him again and again, and even when we think our edginess and our irony have caused us to leave him behind forever, he creeps back into our stories.
In other words, Batman is a hero. By tacking the “super-“ onto the beginning of his title, we trivialise him, shunting him into a new (and apparently inherently silly) category when he actually belongs to an extremely old one. Exploring Batman in the light of the story of the hero puts him in a context rather different from the one in which we are used to seeing him and perhaps argues that we should stop dismissing “superhero” works simply because they are tainted by “superhero” names.
Batman’s history has gone through many different permutations throughout its comic-book, television, and filmic history, but the general facts are these: orphaned as a young boy when a robber shoots his parents, Bruce Wayne grows up rich but damaged, haunted by the memory of his mother and father lying dead on the pavement. He swears that he will avenge their deaths by cleaning up Gotham City, rooting out the criminal element that has taken it over. In the interests of the project, he dresses as a giant bat—identified in some of the Batman comics as the creature of which Bruce was most terrified as a child—and takes down criminals swiftly and violently but without fatalities. The corrupt police force at first regards him as an enemy, but as the good cops become more prominent, they begin to treat him as an ally: someone outside the law who can go where they can’t go and do what they don’t dare. The rise of Batman is often, especially in stories that follow Frank Miller’s version of the Batman universe, echoed by the rise of a new criminal class characterised by monstrous appearances and actions. Members of this new class are, along with Batman himself, labelled “freaks” by the more mundane criminals of Gotham.
This basic outline could, in its broadest details, be applied to many older heroes as well. We tend to have an idea of the hero as a “good guy” who stops the “bad guys” by dint of being, well, good; he fights for what is right with a might powered by virtue, and of course he wins the day. This Disney-fed perception is relatively new. Much older is the concept of the hero as necessarily caught between light and darkness. He has more in common with the monsters he fights than the people he protects and, in fact, often springs from those monsters; one of his parents is frequently a monster, a god, or a beast. If he doesn’t have this ancestral connection, he derives his affinity for darkness from some other element of his life: he may be raised in the wilderness, he may have access to wilderness powers, or he may simply wander into the forest and find a magic sword made by giants. The hero can’t overcome monsters simply by virtue of being “good”; in fact, “goodness” as we think of it cripples him, as it puts him at a moral disadvantage against an opponent that scorns human rules. One of my favourite medieval examples of this character, a fictionalised version of Richard the Lionheart, demonstrates his heroism through axe-wielding brutality, callousness, a seeming resemblance to the devil, and cannibalism (all gleefully celebrated by the poet). In order to defeat monsters, the hero needs to be nearly a monster himself.
While this motif fits some superheroes perfectly—Spider-Man, for instance, derives his heroic/monstrous powers from the bite of a radioactive spider—it applies to Batman too, though with a psychological twist. Batman uses the emotional power of the bat (his childhood fear), as well as the money he gains through the death of his parents (another childhood fear, this one entirely justified), to fight criminals, here often painted as physically and morally monstrous. The criminals play on their society’s fears and bypass their society’s rules; so does Batman. The moral ambiguity of the Dark Knight, who breaks the law relatively freely to get what he wants, is not a strange mutation of the hero story but a return to its roots, an acknowledgement that the hero has darkness inside.
The connection of Batman to his “monsters” is also relevant here. In Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Harvey Dent, a scarred former District Attorney driven to madness and transformed into one of the monsters he used to fight, challenges Batman to look at his newly reconstructed face and tell him what he sees. Batman says, “I see…a reflection, Harvey.” As the graphics show Harvey’s true face—a decaying death-mask—they juxtapose it with Batman’s own true face—that of a monstrous bat. The hero is often more than a little bit of a monster himself; he has to be able to understand and overcome that which he is fighting. Only a “freak” can defeat another freak, though it is also arguable that the hero’s presence actually attracts the monsters.
In the end, the hero’s real struggle is against himself: against the darkness inside, which often threatens to overwhelm him entirely. The campier Batman texts ignore this element, but many others don’t, portraying him as a man who struggles with his own freedom from rules and often comes dangerously close to breaking the one rule he does impose on himself: no killing allowed. The story of the hero has a tendency to end tragically because of this element. If the hero is in danger of becoming a monster and turning his powers on his society, he must be contained. Many stories bring about this containment through treachery, allowing the hero to avoid defeat by a monster while at the same time shunting the responsibility for his fall to a traitor, an insider who stabs the hero in the back. In Batman’s universe are many potential traitors, though they generally remain relatively untapped, as their final deployment would mean the end of a very long, very complex hero story. Instead, Batman continues to wrestle with himself internally while the possibility of his own monstrosity lurks in the wings.
The Batman story has, admittedly, led to the creation of some rather silly stuff. However, Hercules has appeared in bad cartoons; Beowulf was rendered idiotically grandiose in a recent ill-conceived film; there are reams of forgotten works celebrating well-known heroes badly, earnestly, and at length. As not every story about Odysseus is as brilliant as The Odyssey, so not every superhero tale is worth reading. However, to dismiss a work because it is about Batman is as unfair as to embrace a work because it is about Theseus. When we dress our heroes up in tights and capes and give them mysterious powers, we are doing little more than the British did when they handed King Arthur Excalibur and pointed his knights towards the nearest magical damsel.
We should give Batman a chance. He sees his reflection in the tortured features of Harvey Dent; we can perhaps see ours in his, as we do with any hero we have ever created to protect us, monstrously, against our monsters.
Kari Maaren’s article is one of a short Batman series here on Vulpes. To read last week’s article by Kirsty about the Joker, click here. Next week, Lesley Gallacher writes about DC comic books.