Thursday, July 26, 2012

Batman, Superman, and Political Philosophy

My Owner took me to see Dark Knight Rises a couple of days ago.  It’s a fantastic movie.  And, since I have had a Catwoman fetish since I was 13 I have to say up-front that Ann Hathaway rocked!  Woof!!!  (But Michael Phiffer is still my favorite.)

Chris Nolan is one hell of a writer/director.  I love his take on the Batman character… even if it’s not a character I, personally can entirely get behind.  He definitely draws a lot from the Frank Miller Batman.  In the mid 1980s, during the middle of the Reagan-Thatcher era, Miller re-created Batman as a violent, gritty, neoconservative super-hero.  The elements were always there, but Miller brought them more to the foreground.  Miller overtly drew attention to the difference between Superman and Batman.  Superman was created in the Depression and spent his early years fighting against slum lords, greedy industrialists, and corrupt politicians.  Michael Chabon called him “FDR in a cape.”  What’s more, Superman was created by a couple of first generation Jewish-Americans as an allegory of the immigrant experience.  This was and era when you had lots of different European minorities (Jews, Poles, Irish…) arriving in America and living in urban ghettos.  Superman is an immigrant w/ a Jewish name (Kal’el is Hebrew) who comes to America… and assimilates, wrapping himself in the flag, the American dream, and mom, and apple pie.

Comics artist Dave McKean has said that he never liked Batman b/c of this whole idea of, “a billionaire who uses his wealth and power to beat-up on the urban underclass and the mentally ill.”  (And it could be noted that most of the crime victims Batman protects are upper-middle or upper-class socialites.)  Batman and Superman represent very different social philosophies… those of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke respectively.  Hobbes, who endured the English Civil War of 1642-1651, had a bleak view of how human beings would act if they were unrestrained by society and civilization.  He’s famous for his summation of the quality of life men would lead in an anarchist “state of nature” (i.e. without the constraints of civilization): “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  (Think of Lord of the Flies here.)  He developed the notion that we sacrifice individual freedoms in order to guarantee the wellbeing of the whole community.  Now, Hobbes believed that human nature was so base, so greedy, and so vicious that only a totalitarian state ruled over by an iron-fisted monarch could keep us out of bedlam.  John Locke took a more sanguine view of human beings, and he made it the responsibility of the government to legislate for an uplifting environment for the improvement of its subjects… so his social contract was a two-way street, and he argues for the right of the governed to revolt if the government is not upholding its end of the deal (and we know what Thomas Jefferson and his buddies did with that notion).

In Chris Nolan’s second Batman film, he really introduced this neoconservative subtext by having Batman build a machine to illegally spy on every cell phone in Gotham.  This was an obvious parallel to the Patriot Act’s warrant-less wiretapping and domestic spying.  The film presents an authoritarian Batman trampling on people’s rights b/c it’s the only way he can protect them from the terrorist Joker.  Even the end w/ Batman slinking away hated and hunted by the people of Gotham (in favor of the hope-inspiring, change you can believe in, Harvey Dent), I thought it was a deliberate analogy of George W. Bush leaving office w/ the lower approval ratings than Nixon had when he was forced to resign… and smugly saying, “You might not like me, you might hate me and love Dent/Obama, but I protected your asses from terrorist by any means necessary.”

In Dark Knight Rises Chris Nolan continued to (I think correctly) portray Batman largely as a Hobbesian, authoritarian, neo-con.  The movie does an excellent job of drawing on imagery from the French Revolution – which was history’s classic example of liberalism run-amok… pushed too far the 99% rose up and overthrew the 1%... and then degraded into a tyrannical bloodbath.  (It’s interesting to note that one of the first masked superheroes was the Scarlet Pimpernel, an English aristocrat who helped protect French aristocrats from the murderous thugs of the French Revolution and reign of terror.)  It was in reaction against the French Revolution that Edmund Burke outlined the theory of conservatism Reflections on the War in France.  In the new film, Bruce Wayne even looses his house, and I feel like we’re supposed to feel bad for all those multi-billionaires who lost some of their vast wealth in the financial crisis.

One of the most troublesome questions raised in this film (particularly in light of the Colorado mass-shooting) is the question of guns.  Batman is famous for his hatred of guns.  Dennis O’Neil even did a well known pro-gun-control Batman story in the comics called “Seduction of the Gun.”  In Nolan’s film, Batman is still depicted as anti-gun but Catwoman is not, and there’s a little debate between them about “the no guns thing.”  Well, (w/o giving much away) at a climactic moment in film, Catwoman saves Batman’s life by using a gun, and she even says, “I’m not so sure about your whole no guns thing.”  (I couldn’t help but wonder if the line was specifically inserted to make NRA enthusiasts cheer.)  The film seems to want to say that Batman is wrong in his stand and w/o using guns then he would have failed to save the city.  Needless to say, I prefer my Catwoman with a whip...  ;)

Neil Gaiman said about Frank Miller’s neoconservative, authoritarian super-hero, “I don’t agree w/ those beliefs, and I don’t even know if Frank holds those beliefs, but it made for an interesting story.”  I don’t know about Chris Nolan’s political beliefs… but I do think he correctly captured the political/philosophical subtext behind the Dark Knight… and he told a damn good story!  I give his films an A+.  But I’m worried about the upcoming Superman film written and produced by Nolan and directed by Zach Snyder (300, and Watchmen).  It’s not the team I would have chosen for a Superman film.  I just don’t want to see a dark and gritty Superman.  I don’t want to see a bloody, violent Superman.  I don’t want to see a realistic Superman.  Superman isn’t realistic – he’s idealistic!  Superman is the stuff of fantasy.  And, while it worked appropriately for the Dark Knight, I certainly don’t want to see a neoconservative Superman.  Please, no!

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