Between Batman and Iron Man, a lot of cultural commentary focused on the presentation of wealthy people (invariably straight, white men) as independent arbiters of justice. They use their fabulous wealth to obtain technological advantages over people they perceive to be the ‘enemy’ and then confront this enemy outside the legal framework. Following this analysis, it is argued that audiences never get an insight into how the same social, cultural, and economic processes which has privileged the heroes (to the point where they can afford crime-bashing gadgets) simultaneously disadvantaged the people now getting bashed, beaten, and bruised by the heroes.
Watching the Iron Man trilogy as a group, it’s not entirely clear that this is true. Although the reading is still insightful and thought-provoking, the Iron Man trilogy defies the analysis somewhat. In the first film, the playboy billionaire at the centre of the film, Tony Stark, comes to realise that his industry is the reason why America’s enemies are getting more powerful. He wants his company to shift from weapons manufacturing to energy production in order to address global economic issues.
What we see instead is the internalisation and individualisation of military technology. It’s this theme — the trials and tribulations of the transhuman world — that stitches the trilogy together.
With the release of Dark Knight Rises on DVD, I thought it was a good time to go back and watch all of the live action Batman films. Which film is the best? What do I get as an overall message? That sort of thing. Let’s get cracking! Also: I’m seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark tonight at Dendy. Life rules.
It is difficult to describe the modern Batman as the all-American hero, but the 1966 Batman — starring Adam West before he became Adam West — presents the caped crusader as a moral exemplar for young Americans. Batman is intelligent, self-sacrificing, athletic, and compassionate. He operates by daylight as a fully deputised member of the Gotham Police Force.
This last point causes the largest paradox upon which the rest of the film is established: how could a man whose identity is secret by a fully deputised member of the Gotham Police Force? There is no way to verify that the man behind Batman is the sort of person to whom we should delegate the capacity for State violence. Indeed, in many respects, it is not Bruce Wayne who is deputised but Batman as an entity separate from the man. (As a secondary problem: why is the Gotham Police Force deputising teenagers?)
This divide between the two identities causes the main drama of the film, reminiscent of a Roman comedy. The four most villainous villains of Gotham — Joker, Penguin, Riddler, and the Catwoman — have joined forces in order to turn the United World Organization’s Security Council into piles of colourful dust. This requires kidnapping the inventor of a dehydration laser and keeping him ignorant of his kidnapping (by simulating a ship within Penguin’s submarine). Secondly, Catwoman disguises herself as a Russian journalist, Miss Kitka, in order to lure Bruce Wayne into being the bait in a trap set for Batman.
Batman doesn’t know that Miss Kitka is Catwoman. Catwoman doesn’t know that Bruce Wayne is Batman. And the kidnapped inventor does not know that he is a kidnapped inventor.
As the audience is in a state of knowledge, this situation becomes comical. Bruce Wayne is only attracted to Catwoman when he thinks she’s the morally upstanding Kitka (even if she does have a Soviet streak). The villains capture Bruce Wayne in the hope of capturing Batman, and Bruce Wayne comforts Miss Kitka even though Miss Kitka is one of the people responsible for their predicament. ‘Teehee, I am smart and the people I am watching are dumb,’ thinks the viewer unaware that they have just defined the essence of comedy.
But, ultimately, this is a film about a television show, along the same lines as the Power Rangers movies and The Simpsons movie. The audience comes to it not expecting a film but an extended episode of the television series with higher production values. This reveals two surprising things: first, the value of the film was not inherent to the film at the time of its release. Instead, its value comes in its relation to the television series. Second, this value-externality has persisted: we now see the value of the film not in terms of its content, but in its relation to modern Batman films which are angsty, dark, and anti-heroic.
The tonal shift seen in Batman was already well established in the comics. In 1986, DC published Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns which cracked open the ‘Batman as a brooding anti-hero’ trope. The year before Batman saw DC releasing the controversial A Death in the Family, where DC killed off the second Robin (Jason Todd) after a fan vote, and The Killing Joke, in which the Joker shoots and paralyses Barbara Gordon and forces her father to watch pictures of her brutalisation.
In other words, Batman as a concept had become quite dark by the time Tim Burton’s film debuted.
Similar to the 1966 film, Batman is primarily concerned with the nature of identity. Instead of being played for laughs, identify confusion is used to explore how our identities are used to enforce social norms. Bruce Wayne cannot go and punch up bad guys because he is Bruce Wayne. Batman, on the other hand, can. As a mere henchman with a name, Jack Napier, has to abide by the odd social norms of the criminal underworld. Transformed and disfigured, he transcends those social norms as the Joker. In this sense, it’s an exploration of Oscar Wilde’s quip: ‘Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth’.
This idea of being transcendent repeats, often explored through domination of the air. The Joker’s key moment is to dominate the air with giant parade balloons which gas the public, but it is thwarted by Batman’s use of his Batplane. These are two people who have left the pedestrian world of ordinary citizens and, instead, are duking it out on a higher plane. They are transgressive figures.
What is curious is that the Joker’s acts of rebellion are not degenerative acts but extreme acts of the capitalist state. He kills somebody with a handshake during a board meeting. Where the cosmetics industry promotes a psychological violence against the self, Joker transforms cosmetics into a physical violence against the self. He poisons the air with chemicals. His version of art is tasteless, destroying the old to make way for the new. He lures people into hazardous situations with the promise of money. Joker is not anti-establishment; he is a messianic fulfillment of it.
In response, Batman represents not the corporate business world (you barely see his industry in this film), but the protection of traditional values and inheritance.
Batman Returns (1992)
This idea of Batman representing privileged interests against new contenders is echoed in the beautiful but confusing Batman Returns. The film is more similar to a comic series rather than a movie as we move through the stages of the plot.
First, the prologue: the deformed child of wealthy parents is dumped into a river and floats downstream. Although it is Christmas, we are seeing the story of Moses rather than the messianic tale told in Batman. We are also seeing part of the Romulus-Remus story as the child is adopted by a flock of sewer penguins. Similar to Moses, this child will have to learn how to find his voice in order to fulfill leadership aspirations. Similar to the Romulus-Remus story, this is going to be a story of savagery. Flash forward to Max Schreck hosting a meeting with the political elite of Gotham. Schreck is a self-made man and, despite being extremely powerful, seeks more power. As a powerful man, he feels it is appropriate to ridicule and humiliate people who are in weaker positions, represented by Selina Kyle.
In the next chapter, Penguin determines that Schreck could help him find a position within civilised society, the real nature of Schreck’s plan is uncovered, and Selina Kyle is pushed out of a window. In the next chapter, Penguin discovers his identity, Schreck tries to obscure his, and Selina Kyle awakens as the Catwoman…
And so on and so forth. The film breaks down into several 10-15 minute acts. Like a cup and pea game, the role of each person within the drama spins round and round — often with very little motivation. Selina Kyle’s character — although iconic — has very little in the way of direction. As Catwoman, she is both an heroic figure (saving a woman from a mugging, and then giving her a lecture on not being a victim, or something) and a villain (robbing businesses and blowing up businesses). She later sides with Penguin because… For some reason. Vendetta against Batman? Who knows.
In a further exploration of the idea that a person can be themselves when their identity is suppressed, Batman and Catwoman are overtly sexual and flirtatious. Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle are awkwardly repressed. Penguin discovers his real identity as Oswald Cobblepot, but finds the civilised identity to be too restrictive, reverting back to his Penguin persona.
But it is Schreck who is the real mystery of identity throughout the film: a man who is villainous in plain sight and yet uses the trappings of power and influence to escape retribution. There are no identity struggles within Schreck; he just absolutely refuses to be part of Gotham’s moral community.
Batman Forever (1995)
Joel Schumaker directed this film while Tim Burton produced. The film is both stylistically different to the Tim Burton films and — more importantly — less interested in character. Despite having a psychologist in the film (or maybe perhaps due to it), the characters have very little depth. There’s no struggle in the film: it’s hotshot cannons striking out in different directions.
The film follows several interlapping dramas. Edward Nygma is an impotent white guy who thinks that his genius is unfairly unrecognised, so he kills his supervisor and builds a superweapon which also acts as a thinly veiled metaphor for television. Harvey Dent is an impotent white guy (despite being portrayed by the freaking awesome Billy Dee Williams in Tim Burton’s films) who… really hates Batman or something. Meanwhile, Dick Grayson is, despite his name, an impotent white guy who doesn’t seem to realise that his parents are dead. Like, it never seems to freaking occur to the guy that there’s something called the mourning process.
Some scenes even feel like they’re in the wrong order. Batman meets Nicole Kidman. Then Nicole Kidman gets friendly with Bruce Wayne. Then Bruce Wayne tries his smooth moves on Kidman, only to discover that Kidman has met Batman.
At no point could anybody seriously think that Jim Carrey is Batman’s intellectual equal, but that’s what drives the film. Harvey Dent is chaotic rather than split — almost as if he is trying to reprise Jack Nicholson’s performance from Batman.
It’s just such a terrible film. Perhaps the worst part is Dick Grayson (Robin) portrayed by Chris O’Donnell. I once had to take a ridiculously high amount of Phenergan in order to deal with a weird onset of my allergies. I was so doped out that my boss sent me poems about riding Phenergan’s Wake, and I was permitted to take naps in the sick bay. A friend kindly took a photograph of me in my doped up state. Every single one of Chris O’Donnell’s reactions in this film looks like my Phenergan Face.
‘Your parents are dead.’
‘You’ve acrobaticked your way into the Batcave. Bruce Wayne is the Batman!’
‘You’ve stolen the Batmobile and now you’re using it to cruise for poon tang [Actual phrase used by Max Schreck in Batman Returns].’
Dude looks like he is always just waking up.
As a result, the film is extremely empty. There’s nothing cognitively interesting going on in the film, especially when the subtext is so overt: ‘This film is about how television makes you stupid. I’m Joel Schumaker: film philosopher.’
Batman & Robin (1997)
It is an unusual strategy for a film to list everything that’s wrong with it right there in the title.
The eponymous characters in this film are extremely substandard. The film follows their Freudian father complex. Batman is cockblocking Robin. Robin, seeking to be a man in his own right, feels emasculated by Batman. As Robin has reached sexual maturity — briefly explored in Batman Forever when Robin steals the Batmobile — Robin feels the need to rebel against the authority of his father figure, Batman, and claim Batman’s women as his own.
Meanwhile, Alfred, the butler and father figure to Bruce Wayne, is dying. Unlike Robin, who seemed pathologically incapable of giving a flying fuck (that’s funny on so many levels: he’s a sexually frustrated acrobat) when his parent’s died, Bruce is really miserable about Alfred’s illness… up until the moment the smoking hot Poison Ivy comes on the scene. Alfred — seeking to protect his legacy, perhaps — invites his niece Barbara to the Wayne mansion and, unbeknownst to Bruce, indoctrinates her as Batgirl. Alfred here reveals something about the way he understands his role: in the hypermasculine environment of Bruce and Dick’s penis fencing, Alfred’s role can only be replaced by somebody with feminine attributes. Alfred has been both mother and father to Bruce Wayne: an asexual functionary who is there when everything else falls apart. Although more overtly feminine (and her costume is sexualised), she is functionally asexual to Bruce and Dick.
Uma Thurman and Arnold Schwarzenegger are absolutely fantastic in this film. Without a word of ironic lie, they are exactly what the film needs. Their script, however, is terrible but we can’t blame them for that. We can, on the other hand, praise them for what they do with their terrible material. Thurman vamps it up as an eco-terrorist, Poison Ivy. Schwarzeneggar is a brutal sociopath, Mr Freeze, who gives expression to his will to power. Combined, they are the opposite forces of nature. Ivy represents the interests of the non-human world; Freeze represents the cosmic inhospitability of the universe. Batman — despite his animal avatar — represents the dominant white male perspective of the world and must defend it against these two forces.
The only way for Batman to defend his world is to revert to an inhuman abstinence. Where earlier films allowed Bruce to explore his sexuality through the Batman persona, Batman & Robin views sexuality as a corruption of the ideal white male environment. When they are seduced, men do not act rationally and are prone to excesses. Ivy’s power subverts this rational world: where Gotham’s wealthy elite objectify a group of women by referring to them as flowers to be auctioned, Ivy disrupts this world by adopting the name of a plant and then controlling the men through their base desires.
For Freeze, the human world around him is trying to curtail his ability to resource his desires: he wants to revive his wife. His response to the restrictions of the world is to oppose them with violence. Viewing his right to protect the life of his wife as a natural and irreproachable right, he sees his fight against the world around him as perfectly natural. The structures of society are infringing his absolute right, therefore he is permitted to tear them down.
Batman is therefore the natural enemy of both Freeze and Ivy, and both have something to gain from his destruction. Where the collaboration of Penguin and Catwoman seemed forced, this team up feels more natural and obvious.
But Ivy creates a problem for the plot resolution. Ivy has sexually aroused both Batman and Robin, and used her sexuality to emasculate the protagonists. Once Batman and Robin overcome this hurdle, it seems odd for them to just beat her into submission as they do with all of their other enemies. It would be distressing to see the morally perfect Batman resort to bashing the woman just because she transgressed his view of the role of a woman. Batman is not Chris Brown.
Fortunately, the erratic subplot of Batgirl is used to resolve the erotic subplot of Batman. As a woman, Batgirl is able to force Ivy back into the appropriate role for a woman. Batgirl here demonstrates how influential and pervasive patriarchal oppression can be: it can even coerce women into enforcing the dominant standards upon each other to their detriment.
Batman Begins (2005)
In the season of reboots, Christopher Nolan’s film hoped to reconnect us to the central thematic issues of Batman: identity and justice. Batman Begins is the story of two fathers: Thomas Wayne, the father of Bruce Wayne, and Ra’s al Ghul, the father of Batman. Both Bruce Wayne and Batman have to internalise the guidance of their fathers, rebel against that guidance, and then reach maturity as a fully actualised person distinct from their fathers. Both Bruce Wayne and Batman have to understand the flawed reality of their idealised and idolised fathers. Both Bruce Wayne and Batman have to destroy what their fathers have created: a train network and a league of ninja assassins.
In this world, the formation of Batman is a Nachtraglichkeit: a retroactive discovery of meaning within a traumatic experience in childhood. This is explicit within the narrative of the film during one of the more candid moments. The identity of Batman will not only be an alter-ego (quite an amusing idea given that Tim Burton’s Batmen have been an alter-Id for Bruce Wayne) but will be the weapon itself. Bruce Wayne wants the Batman symbol to inspire fear in people who do the wrong thing and hope in people who are victims.
This Batman, similar to the 1966 Batman, adopts the mantle of State violence. Where the 1966 version was almost bureaucratic (he’s fully deputised), this Batman is a Machiavellian vigilante who understands that he needs to be feared in order to rule Gotham by proxy. Batman Begins is an exploration of the nature of this fear. One of the key antagonists is a psychiatrist who has a morbid fascination with fear — both its induction and its utilisation. Scarecrow, directed by his shadowy puppet master, is inducing fear in order to inspire a political, social, and economic revolution in Gotham. Batman is doing the same thing but, where Scarecrow is targeting the indulgent and lazy elite of Gotham, Batman has the underbelly of Gotham in his sights.
This is also the film where the scope of Gotham changes: Gotham is not merely a city somewhere in America with a mayor, a commissioner of police, and a district attorney; Gotham is the whole English-speaking world. Ra’s al Ghul’s attack on Gotham is a substitute for left wing revolutionaries destroying the foundations of Anglophone society as a whole. Batman is the counter-revolutionary force.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Batman Begins is the nature of Ra’s al Ghul’s attack on Gotham. With so much time and effort spent building the characters of Batman, Bruce Wayne, Ra’s al Ghul, and Scarecrow, the film struggles to find room for a coherent battle between Ra’s al Ghul and Batman. Thus, we get the strange nonsense about some kind of bomb on a train. It makes a mockery of the intellectual core of Ra’s al Ghul’s character. He claims that Batman needs to side with the League of Shadows because Gotham is so terribly corruptly terrible and filled with crime. At the same time, Ra’s al Ghul is financially backing most of the terribly corruptly terrible crime in Gotham. If he were really so worried about Gotham’s moral character, he should just stop orchestrating the majority of the crimes.
What is more interesting is Ra’s al Ghul’s earlier comment about why Thomas Wayne was such a terrible person. The political, social, and economic structures of Gotham had become extremely rigid. The League of Shadows had determined to bring Gotham crashing down using some kind of economic terrorism. Instead, Thomas Wayne had thwarted their plan by donating more of his wealth to charity. Ra’s al Ghul’s complaint is similar to that expressed by Oscar Wilde in The Soul of Man Under Socialism.
The majority of people spoil their lives by an unhealthy and exaggerated altruism – are forced, indeed, so to spoil them. They find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this. The emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence; and, as I pointed out some time ago in an article on the function of criticism, it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought. Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.
They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor.
But this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible. And the altruistic virtues have really prevented the carrying out of this aim. Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of things in England, the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good; and at last we have had the spectacle of men who have really studied the problem and know the life – educated men who live in the East End – coming forward and imploring the community to restrain its altruistic impulses of charity, benevolence, and the like. They do so on the ground that such charity degrades and demoralises. They are perfectly right. Charity creates a multitude of sins.
There is also this to be said. It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property. It is both immoral and unfair.
Both Ra’s al Ghul and Oscar Wilde are incorrect, of course, but the film doesn’t explore why they are incorrect. Instead, it uses the audience’s natural (conservative) intuition to prefer the status quo in order to marginalise Ra’s al Ghul’s perspective. To do otherwise would be to entertain the possibility that terrorists might have a point, and I’m fairly sure there’s a law against Hollywood films being nearly that philosophically interesting.
Ra’s al Ghul’s second attempt to topple the stagnated Gotham was, in comparison, dumb. It was an unworthy dumbness which seemed out of character (especially considering Liam Neeson’s pitch-perfect portrayal). I continue to believe that a better battle would have arisen if Ra’s al Ghul had used the League of Shadows to infiltrate the political and economic structures of Gotham, like white-ants in rotting mahogany. Batman would then have had to wage war on the institutions which had de jure legal authority as a man claiming de facto (even de natura) moral authority. Holy crap, that would have been an awesome film.
I also really liked all the Senate scenes in the Star Wars prequels.
And by ‘liked’, I mean ‘sat there trying to analyse them’.
Instead, we had Batman and Bruce Wayne destroy their respective father’s magnum opus: Bruce destroys his father’s train system; Batman foils Ra’s al Ghul’s bomb. Philosophically interesting, but not as interesting as de jure v de facto.
The Dark Knight (2008)
There’s a point in every franchise when the creators decide to be a little bit too clever. Batman Begins is an extremely intelligent film (as we saw above) but it’s subtle. Like a lasagne of cognitive deliciousness, there are layers and layers of Freudian pasta between layers of chunky Burkean political philosophy with a libertarian sauce and the cheese of Batman. The Dark Knight is the mashed potato of philosophical film making. It’s all potato. It’s potato all the way down.
Where Batman Begins was the story of revolutionaries against counter-revolutionaries (perhaps even progressives against counter-progressives), The Dark Knight asserts its conceit is chaos against order. For a film that promises to do all of the thinking on behalf of the audience, the answer served up by the film is wildly unsatisfying. If it really is anarchy v structure, what role does Harvey Dent have in this drama? Perhaps the film is trying to suggest that structure is illusory, but it never succeeds in showing that the structure represented by Batman is illusory. Perhaps the film is trying to suggest that nihilism is corruptive and that even the most morally upright idol has feet of clay, but the most morally upright character is not Harvey Dent — it’s Batman.
Harvey Dent suffers the Anakin Character Development Syndrome. Something terrible happens, so he loses all sense of perspective and becomes evil. In Star Wars, Anakin reacts to Mace Windu in the process of committing an extrajudicial killing. Thus, Anakin responds by obediently accepting a commission to go and kill children. In The Dark Knight, Harvey loses his fiancee. Thus, Harvey responds by going on a semi-random rampage against Jim Gordon’s family.
The contrivance appears to exist in order for the film to end on a low point for Batman. This is the second act of a three-act trilogy: at the end of the film, we must feel like the protagonist is in a dark place emotionally. Unfortunately, it feels really, really contrived. Batman decides to take the wrap for killing Harvey because Harvey’s legacy is extremely important… or something? From where did this come? Why should we believe this is the case? Why shouldn’t the public know the truth? Why does Batman present himself as the paragon of virtue and ethical standards, only to commit whole scale fraud upon the Gotham public?
But the real scene-chewing is done by the Joker, who is easily the most overrated character in the Nolan trilogy. The Joker is an excuse in making people realise that the moral edicts of society are self-imposed and conditioned. When we challenge those moral norms, their authority disappears. The Joker challenges these moral norms by subverting our expectations: hostages are actually captors; the public is asked to kill one person in order to save a hospital full of patients; a boat full of prisoners and a boat full of whiny white people are asked to decide each other’s fate; &c., &c. But there’s nothing particularly interesting in any of this. Nash equilibria, maybe.
Where I think the film is a success is in its relation to Batman Begins. People who drink with me at pubs know how eager I am to rant about the theory of trilogies. Far from looking at them as a meta three act structure, I think sequels should be a response to the unintended consequences of the original film. The Dark Knight does this well. Batman raised the stakes in order to resolve the conflict of Batman Begins — his success relied on being able to extend the reach of the State. The unintended consequence of this is a criminal underworld going to increasingly extreme means in order to conduct their illegal trade: the Joker.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
This is an undercooked film. Although we’ve got the return to subtlety of Batman Begins, we have none of its intelligence. In my ideal trilogy, the third installment causes us to revisit the first two films and question whether or assumptions were valid. For that reason, I was hoping for a villain that made us question the nature of Batman. Harley Quinn, for example, is an antagonist of Batman’s arising from her relationship with the Joker. If Batman didn’t exist, neither would Harley. Hush and White Knight make us question if Batman is a creation of chance and circumstance, rather than personal moral virtue. Hush (Thomas Elliot) had a similar upbringing to Bruce, but became a sociopath rather than a moral exemplar. White Knight is on a very similar mission to Batman’s, but his goal is to kill the rogue’s gallery rather than imprison/institutionalise them. And so on and so forth.
Instead we get a character called ‘Bane’ who has no connexion to his comic namesake. Where Bane in the comics is a Mexican wrestler, this Bane is a… um… something… I’m not entirely sure. Some sort of pretend mercenary?
Red Letter Media has a painfully accurate demonstration of why the characters in the Star Wars prequels are second rate. They ask people to describe in a few words what the characters from the original trilogy are like. They then ask people to do the same for the characters in the prequels.
We get a similar problem with The Dark Knight Rises. I don’t know how to describe Bane. The film keeps calling him a mercenary, but he doesn’t act like one. I never get to understand what motivates Bane, beyond attachment to the real mastermind behind the attack on Gotham. Similarly, I don’t get to understand what motivates Talia al-Ghul. Revenge for her father? But Batman was defending the city. To finish her father’s work? But nuking Gotham city isn’t a destruction of the socio-political structures, but a destruction of the people inside Gotham. Nothing about these characters makes sense.
All of the characters are made to seem like morons. Bruce Wayne goes to see Lucius Fox to complain that his company isn’t making any money. Fox reminds Wayne that the reason it’s not making money is because of decisions made by Wayne. Bruce Wayne tries to form an alliance with Catwoman on the basis of nothing but she’s a skilled cat burglar and looks smoking hot in tight clothes. Bruce Wayne tries to form an alliance with Miranda Tate on the basis of nothing but she’s got money and wealthy people can’t be morally evil, can they?
Combined with Punching Backs as Spinal Surgery, the film makes little rational sense. Whatever deeper points the film might be trying to make about Hobbes, &c., are lost in the sheer irrationality of every character in this film.
The truly great character of this film is Jonathan Crane, the Scarecrow. Freed by Bane, Crane has assumed the role of judge in the new kakistocracy of Gotham. His is the new judicial power, handing down sentences on those who were elite in the previous society. Crane is the Robespierre of the Gotham revolution. Although this was hinted in his early experiments with a reign of terror, it is this scene which reveals his real-world analogue.
People have claimed that Crane is overseeing show trials, but those people either don’t know what show trials are or just lack insight into the situation. Show trials were designed to give the public the feeling of justice being done. They were a process for determining the already determined outcome. But Crane explicitly states that this is not what is occurring. Crane is not interested in determining the outcome: the guilt of these people is already known. The court’s sole remaining function is to hand down a sentence (death or exile).
Where Ra’s al-Ghul was socialist, where Joker was a nihilist, and where Bane was a mumbler, Crane is a Jacobin revolutionary. Here’s Robespierre in an oration he gave to the Convention on 3 December, 1792:
Louis was king and the Republic is founded; the great question which occupies you is decided by these words alone. Louis has been dethroned for his crimes; Louis denounced the French people as rebels; to chastise them he has invoked the arms of his brother tyrants. Victory and the people have decided that he was the rebel: hence Louis can not be judged; he is judged already. He is condemned, or the Republic is not absolved. To propose a trial for Louis XVI. in any way whatever is to retrograde toward royal and constitutional despotism; it is a counter-revolutionary idea, for it is putting the revolution itself on trial.
Indeed, if Louis can still be the object of a trial, Louis can be absolved; he can be innocent. What do I say? He is presumed to be so until he is judged. But if Louis is absolved, if Louis can be presumed to be innocent, what does the Revolution become? If Louis is innocent, all the defenders of liberty become calumniators.
Crane is saying the selfsame thing. The guilt is certain else the revolution is illegitimate. They are guilty of being the former oppressors; if they were not former oppressors, then the uprising of the oppressed was illegitimate. And round in circles it goes.
The other give away was the nature of the punishment: death. Although Robespierre thought the death penalty itself was a crime, he thought that it was justified in some circumstances, particularly in the case of dealing with the former oppressors.
Michael Keaton’s. Keaton’s Batman is introverted and inquisitive rather than, say, Bale’s extroverted inquisitor.
Best Bruce Wayne
Bale’s. Sure, it was hamfisted, but Bale’s Bruce Wayne in many respects is the affectation, rather than the Batman.
Tim Burton’s Gotham is easily the best of the bunch. The films have this faux-noir feel to them which is completely absent in other renditions. The result is the belief that Gotham is really under economic and social stress. Nolan’s Gotham feels a little bit too much like Coruscant in the Star Wars prequels. Even though there’s a war going on, the city is pristine. Similarly, Nolan’s Gotham looks like a gem of a city, except in the pseudo-undergroundy parts.
Max Schreck. Easily the most complicated and complex villain of the series, Christopher Walken’s performance is sublime.
Clooney’s. I still don’t know what he was trying to do.
Bane. I began to wonder if his incomprehensibility was a deliberate act, mocking the incomprehensibility of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Nicholson’s… narrowly out performing Caesar Romero’s. Everybody knows that the best Joker was Mark Hamill, but I’m restricting myself to live action. Two things show why Nicholson’s is the best. First, his reading of the character is perfectly controlled and expertly executed. It would have been really easy for Nicholson to just let the beast off the chain and chew scenery for an hour. Instead, Nicholson presents somebody who is frighteningly psychotic. He is pure malice. Second, Tommy Lee Jones tried to copy Nicholson’s performance and tanked it. It shows how difficult it was to do what Nicholson did.
Scarecrow. Check this guy out.
I think this is almost an impossible question. When you’re comparing the films, they fall into three incomparable groups which are entirely different families. The 1966 movie is in an entirely different category of film to the 1989 film. The best replay value is in the 1989 film. The most enjoyable is the 1966 film. The most intelligent is Batman Begins. The most fascinating is Batman Returns.
Batman Forever. There is nothing going on in that film. If it didn’t have ‘blockbuster’ stars, it would be direct to video.
No idea. Cars aren’t my thing.
Val Kilmer’s. It looks like a go-kart.
Worst Supporting Character
Chris O’Donnell’s Robin. There is no excuse for him to be in these films.
Character Who Makes the Least Sense from the Perspective of the Plot Rather than from the Perspective of Audibility, as That Would Be Bane
Barbara Wilson (Batgirl) in Batman & Robin. Why is she here? What is she doing? Why does she also have Bat Nipples?
Most Degrading Moment for an Actor
Michelle Pfiefer licking herself clean in Batman Returns. When criticising Schumaker’s films for being too campy, a lot of people forget how campy Batman Returns could be. Catwoman eats Penguin’s pet bird and then sits on Penguin’s bed and licks herself clean.
The Biggest Disappointment
Not being able to see Billy Dee Williams as Two-Face. Damn you, Tommy Lee Jones.
Fantasy Cast a Batman Film for Us, Won’t You?
Plot: Bruce Wayne is too old to rock, no more rocking for you. We’re taking you to a home, but we will sing a song about you. And we will make sure that you’re very well taken care of… No, wait.
Plot: It turns out that Dark Knight Rises was a result of Lucius Fox ingesting a modified version of the Scarecrow’s fear gas. It never happened (similarly, X-Men 3: The Last Stand was merely a Danger Room simulation and never happened). Harvey Dent is dead and Batman continues to fight the underprivileged of Gotham. Batman works without the implied support of Gotham Police, but does have the secret support of Jim Gordon who is illegally leaking information to Batman. A family of violent criminals (a couple and their kid) is about to take hostage of an audience at the Monarch Theatre (which happens to be the same theatre that Bruce Wayne attended on the night his parents died). Batman intervenes, but an accident happens resulting in the death of the criminal parents. The kid, who is helpless to do anything as he watches his parents die, flees the scene. Meanwhile, in Arkham Asylum, Harleen Quinzel has been treating the Joker but, instead, has fallen in love with him. Adopting his vendetta against the Batman as her own, she adopts the visage of Harley Quinn in order to hunt down the Batman in order to gain the affection of the Joker. She’s nuts.
The kid returns a few years later as the menacing Prometheus: as skilled in physical ability as Batman and as decked out in cool gadgets. When Prometheus confronts Batman, they both recognise each other’s fighting style and Prometheus comments: ‘So Ra’s al-Ghul taught you as well?’ Yeah, it’s a deviation from the comics there, but whatever. The point is that Ra’s al-Ghul is still alive.
Ra’s al-Ghul arranged for Harleen to become Joker’s psychiatrist and trained Prometheus in order to keep Batman distracted on the physicality of law enforcement. His League of Shadows are infiltrating — through entirely lawful (though perhaps not ethical) means — all the major positions of authority in Gotham. This time, they are going to collapse the rigid and stagnant social structures from the inside.
The question of the film is whether or not the cost of being Batman outweighs the benefits. The Batman identity is now creating new forms of criminal activity. While the amount of criminal activity is reducing (Batman terrifies ordinary thugs), the impact of individual criminals is increasing (catastrophic terrorist acts, &c.). Further, Batman — as a lone vigilante — has to fight against the system which has the formal legitimacy.
Batman: Idris Elba
Alfred: Ben Kingsley
Lucius Fox: Morgan Freeman
Jim Gordon: Willem Dafoe
Ra’s al-Ghul: Liam Neeson. Else, Jeremy Irons
Prometheus: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Harley Quinn: Rosamund Pike, Jessica Pare, or Natalie Dormer.
On the one hand, it rounds out the trilogy’s exploration of authority, chaos, and ugliness. In the first, Ra’s al Ghul has an ancient order of economic ninjas who attempt to euthanise decadent cities through destabilisation. In the second, a lunatic anarchist attacks Gotham with economic games and Harvey Dent becomes a supervillian because he is no longer pretty. And now we’ve go the third: the ancient order of economic ninjas are back lead by a guy who is evil because he’s ugly.
On the other hand, not a single thing in this film makes a lick of sense. What follows is a spoilertastic review of the film which should have been called Dark Knight Grows Beards. If you haven’t seen it, go see it. It is fun. But it’s not good.
In Batman Begins, we saw a long and complicated plot build up to Ra’s al Ghul’s attempt (somewhat successful attempt) to destabilise Gotham City. It’s testament to Liam Neeson’s complete ownership of that role (seriously, the guy was superb) that you were so engrossed with his cause that you never stopped to think: ‘Wait… Your big target is Gotham City…? Why not take out the whole of the US?’
To an extent, that’s because Gotham in these films represents the whole Anglophone world. Ra’s thinks the English tradition of capitalism is corrupt and needs something to trigger it into a new phase. Because capitalism encourages complacency and normalises inequality (freak me, Foucault), it would require an abandonment of reason through fear in order to create a new society. Thus, he teams up with Scarecrow (who is also awesome) to induce the revolution chemically. Then a wealthy industrialist maintains order with his fists. Because capitalism is awesome.
It shouldn’t be a shock that the first of the trilogy was my favourite. It was rich and philosophically interesting, and also managed to have enough action and Bat-POWS! to make the whole affair exciting. The weak spot was Batman: Christian Bale struggled to show any kind of development. He just pouts. Look at him in any film, pouting away. He’s the male version of that Twilight/Snow White lass whose name I keep forgetting. The difference, of course, is that people seem to think that he’s a serious actor.
Then we had the second film, The Dark Knight. Because Heath Ledger had died, everybody felt the need to treat this film with kid gloves. Again the whole world, Gotham City, is held hostage and made to reflect on what it thinks about order and chaos. In this space, Batman puzzles through which side of the ledger he’s on: is he part of the chaos side with the Joker or is he on the law and authority side with Harvey Dent? Blah, blah human nature and rational choice.
This was also the weak point for characters. Why does Harvey Dent go evil? He loses a girlfriend, so he kidnaps Jim Gordon’s kids…. Okay. It’s sort of the Anakin Skywalker mode of going evil: ‘You’ve just stopped Mace Windu from killing me. Now you’re completely evil so go kill some children for me.’ Christian Bale, once again, found that character development was for minor characters, because he’s the goddamn Batman. And then there was Heath Ledger… It’s hard to know to what extent the problems with the character were a result of rubbish scripting or whether Ledger was just incapable of anything other than lunacy. There’s one tiny moment, right at the start of the film, where Ledger conveys some depth — the ‘I’m not crazy. I’m not’ line — but you can fast forward through every bit of his dialogue and not miss a thing. (Also: Mark Hamill and Jack Nicholson were the best Jokers)
So where do you go from here? You’ve had somebody try to destroy the world for extremely noble and rational reasons: misguided ideology. You’ve had somebody try to destroy the world for nihilistic anti-reasons: we are selfish, fearful animals.
Now how can a villain try to destroy the world?
Nobody’s tried nuclear bombs yet; let’s do that!
And that’s pretty much the entire plot of Dark Knight Rises. For reasons that make absolutely zero sense, Bruce Wayne has invented a futuristic energy source which is simultaneously a nuclear bomb, and somebody related to Ra’s al Ghul has decided to set it off.
Bruce Wayne, on the other hand, has become a bearded cripple. He no longer has any cartilage in his knees so he’s hobbling around his mansion, growing a beard and moaning about the death of Rachel (whom he forgot to mourn in the last film). It’s eight years later, so putting away the Batman cape has resulted in a zero percent increase in super-crime… apparently. But it’s okay! Instead of beating up the poor and mentally insufficient with a masked vigilante, the leaders of the Gotham City have enacted the ‘Harvey Dent Act’ which seems to deny criminals some sort of procedural justice… Or something. It’s not quite clear.
Jim Gordon is wracked with guilt over this deception of the public… but not because it results in less procedural justice for criminals, but because he has to publicly venerate the name of the guy who tried to kill his kids. He’d be okay with the Act if only it weren’t called the Harvey Dent Act.
Oh, and for some reason, Wayne Enterprises is no longer turning a profit. At first, this confuses Bruce. He asks Lucius Fox about it, whose response is: ‘Don’t you remember? You decided to invest a huge amount in a project you decided to mothball.’ Bruce thinks, ‘That’s right. Now I remember why we’re not making a profit.’
There are lots of these events. Neither Gary Oldman nor Christian Bale have the ability to bring you along with them for the ride. Comic book films demand a suspension of disbelief. Caucasians are gods if they come from Krypton. A mutated gene can give you the ability to shoot laser beams from your eyes. Skin-tight, cleavage-revealing attire is pragmatic for kung fu fighting. To get around this, writers give us rich characters who give us plausible reactions to the implausible world around them. When the characters fail to make sense on the non-supernatural level, it makes it harder to get into the swing of the film.
Evil manifests itself in Bane, a deformed but charismatic evangelist. A lot of comments have been made about his indecipherable dialogue which, true, is a problem. But all of the dialogue — with the exception of Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine — in this film is difficult to understand. On the other hand, none of the dialogue is particularly memorable so it’s no great loss.
Bane is somehow connected to Ra’s al Ghul, having escaped some sort of desert prison deep underground in Saudi Arabia.
And here’s where we get into a major problem with comic book movies. I come to the film already knowing who Bane is. Bane is a Latin American wrestler who derives his freakish strength from a nefarious chemical called ‘Venom’. Bane sits at that fun intersection between the brute and the brain: he is highly intelligent and yet sorts out his problems by smashing them.
The character in the film isn’t that Bane. That’s fine: re-imagining comic book characters is what made Tony Stark so wonderful in the Iron Man films. But there was a link between the character in the comics and the character in the film: Iron Man is a tycoon genius who makes a robotic suit to shoot baddies. If Robert Downey Jr had portrayed Tony Stark as a lovable street urchin who finds a magic lamp which grants him a wish to be made entirely of iron, we would no longer have a film about Iron Man the comic book character.
I don’t get why they didn’t just create a new character: the Mumbler. It’s not like something like this hasn’t been done before. In the animated series, Paul Dini created a new character, Harley Quinn, to occupy an interesting (if worryingly misogynistic) space in the rogue’s gallery. Now, everybody loves Harley Quinn (mostly).
Instead, it creates a problem for those of us who knew the background story. There’s an ongoing mystery about the identity of Ra’s al Ghul’s child (revealed in a dream…?). In the comics, Ra’s al Ghul has a very well-known daughter, Talia, but not a kid called ‘Bane’. Why? Because Ra’s al Ghul is a centuries-old, vaguely Middle Eastern guy and Bane is, as noted earlier, Latin American. Fortunately, there’s a hitherto unknown female character who happens to have a mysterious background living in Gotham…
Character problems aside, Bane (and the mysterious puppet master behind Bane) has an evil plan: he’s going to steal the nuclear bomb and take Gotham hostage. He’s going to tear down the symbols of authority and release all the prisoners, giving Gotham back to the people… somehow. He’s cut Gotham off from the rest of America by blowing up the bridges, and threatens to blow up the nuke if anybody leaves or enters Gotham. Gotham better get good at primary industry fairly quickly.
In this sense, he fulfills Ra’s al Ghul’s glorious plan. Destabilise the evil economic systems which oppress murderers and rapists… Hang on… That can’t be right. Oh, wait. It is. By magic, the former criminals have set up a new legal regime enforced by their access to weapons provided by Bane, with Bane declaring it to be a new, egalitarian society where the poor rip down the rich. Or something. This bit doesn’t make a lot of sense and it’s difficult to see this as the culmination of Ra’s al Ghul’s plan, despite Bane’s constant assertions that it is.
Having achieved chaos (by releasing the murderers and rapists and giving them weapons), Bane gloats at how chaotic it’s all become… and then plans to let the bomb go off in five months time anyway.
So what’s the point? Why destabilise Gotham? What does that prove? Murderers and rapists are terrible people and shouldn’t be given any power? I’m pretty sure we already knew that. I think there’s supposed to be some sort of reflexion of the old system in the new: disempowered people don’t get fair trials. But it’s clumsily enacted. And, besides, it’s all going to be blown into radioactive dust in a few months anyway.
As a result, this baffling trainwreck of a film has nothing in the way of character development. There are far too many characters and far too few people asking questions like: ‘Hang on… How does the random copper know that Bruce Wayne is Batman but Jim Gordon doesn’t? How did nobody realise the concrete was explosive? How did one concreting company monopolise all of the essential capital works in Gotham? Why did Batman save Fox and Gordon, but completely forget about the woman he fancies? Speaking of whom, why didn’t the world’s greatest detective run a background check on her? How did Bruce’s cartilage grow back when he was in the prison? How does punching somebody in the back fix their vertebrate? Who the hell is running this prison? Why does it have HD TV? Is the prison within walking distance of Gotham? How did Bruce get back into Gotham when Bane threatened to blow the place up if anybody came into Gotham from outside? Why is the nuclear bomb being driven around Gotham instead of being hidden? Why does Bane keep one bridge unbroken? Why don’t any of the rich people use the helicopters that we’ve seen used in other films? Why are any of the bad guys doing what they’re doing?’
When all is said and done, the film is fun. It is baddie-punching giggly fun. There are awesome scenes with the various Bat-weapons which inspire the classic thought: ‘This would be amazing in a video game!’
And then there’s Anne Hathaway. I didn’t understand a single thing about this Catwoman. Her stock standard line was ‘You don’t understand anything about me!’ Which, to be fair, is true. She’s poor but she’s super wealthy…? She’s working with Bane and with Batman? Is she also flipping a coin like Harvey Dent was?
On the other hand, she’s this movie’s Liam Neeson. She’s one of the few people in the film capable of giving any sort of depth to their character. This results in an awkward scene of Hathaway dancing with Bale. It looks a lot like she’s practicing with a cardboard cutout. Did Bale want to be somewhere else? Did he forget why he showed up to work that day?
In conclusion, the film is not a masterpiece but it is enjoyable.
LEGO Star Wars: The Clone Wars will probably be a few hours of childish entertainment. I really enjoyed LEGO Star Wars: Complete Series even if a few levels were frustratingly riddled with glitches. LEGO Batman was a massive disappointment (fortunately, I got it for free). In fairness to LEGO Batman, I played it while playing Batman: Arkham Asylum. Nothing was going to look good next to Batman: Arkham Asylum.
Speaking of which, Batman: Arkham City is due out in 2011. This will either be the highlight for video games in 2011 or the most crushing disappointment.
We can imagine a number of things which might slow Batman down. He is not impervious to, say, bullets shot from a gun. But it’s never a one-shot fatality with Batman. Why? Because Batman is hyper-aware of his vulnerabilities and never allows anybody to come close to them.
Superman, however, has only one vulnerability and it seems that everybody in the DC Universe knows what it is. I was watching The Batman this morning which — coincidentally enough — involved a fight between Batman and Superman. Superman had gone evil, so Batman loaded him up with Kryptonite. After Superman crashed to the ground with the Kryptonite, a few teenagers passing by noticed Superman and the Kryptonite. ‘Kick the Kryptonite away!’ says one kid to the other.
Yup. Even adolescents know all about Superman’s one-shot kill vulnerability.
So unless Superman can somehow take Batman out first shot and completely by surprise (which, as we noted earlier, is impossible), Superman’s stuffed and cannot possibly win.
Indeed, the only time he’s a good character is when he’s starring in one of those ‘What if…?’ tales. For the best example to date, check out Red Son: instead of landing in the Bible Belt, Superman’s infant pod is knocked off course and he lands in Soviet Russia. Instead of protecting America from supervillians, he protects the proletariat from the evils of American capitalism (headed by none other than Lex Luthor).
So when it’s reported that Chris Nolan might be rebooting the Superman movie line, I die a little bit more inside. Superman is inextricably woven into the idea of the Ideal American. For three generations, he’s been the ideation of the white, Protestant, American male: he’s always good, he’s always right, he always wins, and he always brings hope.
While Batman has strong links with the capitalist fantasy of dominating the underprivileged who threaten their power structure (he’s a wealthy industrialist who dresses up in fetish wear to punch up escapees from a psychward — Arkham Asylum — who threaten their power structure), Batman’s become a lot more interesting since the ’80s turned him into an antihero.
You can’t have a canonical antihero Superman. That might not be a bad thing: we’ve become a little bit too absorbed with antiheroes over the past two decades and it gets a bit tiresome. Oh look at you, you edgy outsider who doesn’t care for the rules but is determined to seek justice. P.S. Your featureless mask is terrifying, Rorschach. (more…)
So it turns out that Batman: Arkham Asylum was exceedingly excellent. I’ve finished the story mode (I’m finding it difficult to be interested in the ‘challenge’ mode) and enjoyed absolutely every moment of it.
I don’t play many plot-driven games, truth be told. The plot is usually an excuse for huge amounts of fun (see: ‘Bowser stole the princess’, ‘Ganondorf stole the princess’, &c.). The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess was about as plot-heavy as I’d ever been (and even that story was only an excuse to go explore insanely awesome dungeons). It was like playing your way through a movie. Apart from a few awful moments (including The Riddler asserting that you must be cheating when you solve his puzzles, even though he left a map solving his puzzles right next to the entrance), this was a beautiful plot, with a variety of interesting characters and all the good things that people like.
Which makes it a shame to point out its faults.
I often got stuck because Batman can not jump. And I don’t mean superhuman jumping ability. I mean: ‘Why! There is a small amount of rubble on the floor. I will have to walk around it.’
The other problem is linked to one of its biggest strengths. Because it’s story-heavy, there are a huge number of cut scenes to progress the tale. You open a door? Cut scene. You fall over? Cut scene. You die? Cut scene.
Oh, and Batman also has a weird habit of getting on the radio to Oracle (thus cutting out all of your abilities save walking) when you’re leaping from on high. That kind of got annoying.
The very worst thing has to do less with the game and more with the game’s awesomeness. It’s massively time-draining and it encourages a very specific set of reasoning patterns for problem solving. After playing hours of the same sorts of problem solving, you unleash yourself on a world filled with problems which do not match those reasoning patterns… Thus, when I was stuck in a crowd of bogans at the local Westfield, I noticed a ledge to which Batman could have jumped…
You also can’t kick the bogans in the back of the head.
There’s a bit of a backstory to this. Bear with me.
I am completely rubbish at making decisions. I much prefer waiting until the last possible moment before settling my plans.
This year, I’ve decided that I need to be better at making decisions, even if this means making a couple of silly decisions along the way. For Christmas, I bought my younger brother a copy of Batman: Arkham Asylum. It was an absolutely stunning game. It was so good that even Yahtzee gave it a good review. After seeing the sibling play it and Yahtzee giving it a favourable review, I decided that this was a game I should play.
At the same time, I’d decided that I needed a new DVD player for my room. For a few extra quid, I ended up with an XBox. Look at me in my swanky decision-making pants. Amn’t I Lord of Decisiveness?
Anyhoo, it was a good decision. I’m having far too much fun playing it.
In other news, I check out the statistics of this blog every so often. 30 of you don’t seem to understand how RSS feeds work and, for that, my self esteem thanks you.
Apart from the vanity benefit, it’s showing me who is linking to my mostly incoherent ramblings. This has resulted in more than a few flamewars with people who think the new internet filter is totally just like Nazi Germany all over again.
It’s also resulted in the discovery that I’m Googlable. If you type “freak me sideway” (with quotation makrs) into Google, I appear a few after Shaun Micallef. Hooray, hoorah. My parents must be so proud.
Today’s discovery was that the phrase “you ask me to enter and then you make me crawl” (with quotation marks) lists me as the second hit. In your face, Bono. In your face.