Even in the real War of the Roses, upon which the series is loosely based, the houses of Lancaster and York didn’t commit genocide. Much of Britain was left untouched during the feud, because in the real world perpetual violence doesn’t exist. Too much is at stake, and real people just aren’t that stupid, unlike the butchers who inhabit Martin’s world.
So why don’t the characters in Game of Thrones care if they murder each other? Why are the oaths they swear basically meaningless? Nobody wants to be a cheerleader for the divine right of kings, but it’s the right answer. The “Old Gods and the New” of Westeros are invoked like Puma and Adidas, and the only monotheistic religion is a human-sacrifice cult; nobody has a reason to expect others to keep their promises because there’s no divine guarantor underwriting the system. Nor can there be any consensus-based values – Westeros is very much a feudal world. Like Gormenghast, what system of governance does exist is brittle, but at least Mervyn Peake’s characters exhibit the very human trait of respecting things that are meaningless. Martin’s world is inhabited by beautiful fascists in breastplates. [Source: Brereton, ‘The Game of Thrones: Nobody wins, everybody dies’, ABC Religion & Ethics]
If we use a different set of lenses — the philosophical goggles of jurisprudence and political theory — it’s possible to construct a different interpretation of the fantasy world depicted, and an interesting critique of virtue ethics. As I don’t think much of the books, I’m limiting discussion to consider only the show. If you dislike spoilers, you should read this.
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.
Feminist Frequency was the subject of a disappointing Kickstarter drama last year. Wanting to produce a series of analytical videos about gender issues in video games, Anita Sarkeesian began a Kickstarter campaign to bankroll it. Of course, a large fraction of the gaming community can’t handle the thought of women expressing views about gender, so the Kickstarter drama was more about the influx of trolls rather than the subject of women in gaming.
Fortunately, the drama might draw attention to her videos which (despite some tiny quibbles about presentation) are first class. Here’s the first episode:
The reaction from the gaming community was predictable. ‘Silly girl with your HARDCORE feminist friends, you have completely ignored all the examples of positive role models for girls in video games!’ Indeed, so common was the response that a friend of mine (an avid gamer) even threw down this magic card, using the word ‘balance’ to justify the position.
The view seems to be that the only way to tell if women are objectified by video games is to list all the games which objectify women and all the games which don’t — if the Good List is longer than the Bad List, then there’s no problem in the gaming community.
This is a rubbish view for two reasons.
The first is obvious: we shouldn’t be ‘balancing’ the two lists to determine the extent of the problem. The problem is that the ‘Bad List’ exists at all. As a straight white guy, I can’t think of a single game where my character analogue is anything less than a triumphant hero. If we’re balancing the lists for single white guys, the Bad List is practically non-existent. Yet when we discuss women in video games, we can’t criticise the Bad List without doffing our caps to the Good List?
The second is less obvious and something to which Sarkeesian alludes but doesn’t hit squarely on the head: guys are really bad at spotting gender issues. The idea of comparing two lists of female representation assumes that we can objectively identify which representations go on which list. Thus, one internet blowhard (who even went on to argue that Sarkeesian was censoring guys’ responses by disallowing comments to her posts…) listed Ms Pac-Man, Super Princess Peach, and Borderlands as examples of games Sarkeesian should have mentioned if only she’d done more research and wasn’t such a HARDCORE feminazi.
Ms Pac-Man, as we are all aware, is a complicated and multi-layered story about a young woman who eats giant dots and bits of fruit. Women identify with Ms Pac-Man because, like them, they wear a red bow in their hair, have beauty spots, and wear red lipstick. Here she is standing up against the objectification and sexualisation of women on the original arcade machine:
Snark aside, ‘female Pac-Man’ in the gaming community meant ‘sexy Pac-Man’. Further, the ‘Ms’ element is what we call in Aristotelean terms an ‘accidental attribute’ rather than an ‘essential attribute’. This essential vs accidental issue is a complicated problem at the heart of representation issues in culture. We see straight white guys as the norm, with each step away from that norm being a quirky twist. Captain Smith is a hard-edged, no-nonsense leader of a group of space pirates… oh, and she’s a woman! That’s what makes this series different to the others! Woman! President Jones is a kindly, gentle leader of the Free World… oh, and she’s a woman! How will she cope with all of her women’s periods?
In the case of Ms Pac-Man, this was literally the case. They needed a character who was different enough from Pac-Man to avoid a lawsuit but similar enough to be part of the franchise: thus, Pac-Man got some lipstick and high heels.
This might be dismissed as a trivial issue, but it has ‘real world’ implications (beyond telling the non-male gaming community that their identity is a quirky deviation from male greatness). There are court cases where people have tried to argue that the judge was biased because they were not a white male. White males are default neutral, anything else looks like bias. Does popular culture have a responsibility to change attitudes? Yes.
Super Princess Peach follows a similar argument but, this time, we’re talking about the story rather than the character. Here, Princess Peach is the protagonist and must save Mario. What reveals the gender issue lurking beneath the surface is that this is treated as a novelty. ‘Hey, guys. I’ve got this crazy idea for a new game!’ said one of the game developers, no doubt. ‘What if it were Princess Peach doing the rescuing instead of Mario?! Wouldn’t that be hilarious?!’
Super Princess Peach doesn’t mitigate the problem of gender in video games; it exists because of it. If gender issues didn’t exist in gaming, nobody would have thought to make this game where the object of the series transgresses against conventions to become the subject of a game.
Finally, Borderlands. My brother plays this game. Here’s a woman from it.
Time to call it a day, Feminists. Borderlands has clearly demonstrated that women are represented accurately and in a non-sexualised manner in video games. If those breasts don’t scream ‘progressive’, well…
Although Batman allows guys like me to play out their power fantasies of being Batman (plus, Batman is the world’s greatest conservative hero, so I’m totally on board with playing as him), he’s put into a world where there are lots of opportunities for female characters to be on a near-equal ground with our hero.
Instead, the script — written by Paul Dini — turns Batman into more than a bit of a pig. When receiving advice from Oracle, Batman acts like a jerk and rather unkindly reminds her which of the two is the Batman. Catwoman, on the other hand, does little but make vaguely raunchy remarks. Talia al Ghul, a woman who is presented to the viewer as a person Batman turns to for advice and guidance, is also presented to the viewer as a sexualised object. The game takes on an aggressively hostile attitude towards women, with inmates (who, admittedly, are bad guys) frequently commenting on how various female characters are sexually desirable or bitches.
Nowhere was this attitude towards women more notable than in the transformation of Harley Quinn between Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City.
Here she is in Ayslum:
Sure, she’s probably not going to win The Germaine Greer Award for Feminism, but it’s still a garden mile ‘better’ than her appearance in City:
The new Harley had even fewer clothed on than before. This, by the way, was the original appearance of Harley Quinn in the cartoons:
That’s from the original Batman: The Animated Series. The more recent Batman had her looking like this:
Unless you count the face paint, neither version reveals any flesh at all. Yet in order to be acceptable to the gaming community (and, fair’s fair, the comics community) she had to bare skin.
What we see is game designers pandering to what they think the market wants: scantily clad women. In the case of Harley Quinn, Catwoman, Talia al Ghul, &c., I still recognise powerful women, but I’m encouraged to look at the characters as objects of titillation first. This is the problem we face when we ask guys to identify the good female role models for women: we have normalised the sexual component — fictional women are of course created for our visceral pleasure — so we can say with a straight face that these women are powerful, liberated role-models for women.
This, by the way, is but one of many reasons why I don’t think men can be feminists. Admittedly, as a straight, white, conservative male, I’m not sure why anybody would care about my definition of ‘feminist’.
So let’s wind this back up to the start. When we hear the complaint that Sarkeesian doesn’t acknowledge all the great female role models in video games, what we are actually hearing is the complaint that Sarkeesian isn’t viewing video games as a guy. When she is confronted by images of women being objectified, we claim that her reaction is misplaced and that she should instead think of all the women guys claim aren’t objectified (like Ms Pac-Man). What we are also hearing is that people like Sarkeesian have no right criticising males unless she acknowledges all the good things that guys do, like create novelty games for women such as Super Princess Peach. In short, if Sarkeesian doesn’t play by our rules when she discusses video games (the rules which make guys feel better about themselves), then we simply aren’t going to enter into a discussion about her point.
The balance argument is particularly noxious when we consider Sarkeesian as something of a pathologist. Here she is diagnosing a problem at the heart of gaming, yet her critics argue that she’s ignoring a perfectly healthy appendix. Her patient (the gaming community) says, ‘I refuse to accept your diagnosis of my diseased heart, Dr Sarkeesian, unless you praise me for what a healthy appendix I have.’
I, for one, am looking forward to further episodes of her webseries. I just wish she’d stop using French phrases followed by their literal English translation. Seriously, it’s my one quibble. If you need to translate the phrase immediately, then you don’t need to use the phrase.
Can a film explore a philosophical issue in sufficient depth to consider it a contribution to philosophy?
This isn’t a new question by any stretch of the imagination: philosophy and the arts is Routledge’s philosophy theme of the month and has been a topic of interest to philosophers since, at least, Plato.
The fun part about philosophy and art is that it’s not a one-way street. A significant amount of academic attention has been given to the philosophical underpinnings of art. What is art? How can we distinguish art from not-art? How do we value art? Is art good?
But there’s a second question which has, until comparatively recently, been shafted to literature studies: how can art discuss (and inform) philosophical questions?
I am probably a huge snob, but I think that there’s something missing from popular culture’s treatment of philosophically interesting questions. First, ‘philosophical’ films are almost universally pretentious and pander to a particular kind of undergraduate male. I can think of a handful of comic books which have done interesting, nuanced, and meaningful explorations of philosophical themes which were quickly canned because they don’t sell. Similarly, philosophical nuance is thrown under a bus whenever it threatens sales. When the focus of popular culture is pecuniary (even mercenary), how can it present challenging philosophical ideas that don’t just regurgitate the prejudices of the audience?
There is a danger that the previous paragraph will be read as ‘Boohoo, films aren’t 15,000 word theses on Kantianism.’ I’m not denigrating films for not being able to explore philosophical themes in significant depth; on the contrary, I think popular culture is supposed to be popular and entertain audiences (and make vast amounts of money for the studios).
While people can use their reactions to films to explore philosophical ideas, I’m not sure the films themselves are capable of capturing them.