There is something inherently fascinating about the dark, about the more morally ambiguous parts of life, of others and of our own selves. It is an attraction that is as organic as the want for a happy ending for we are made of both of the light, the dark and everything in between. It is also true that most of us spend most of our lives trying to reconcile all the different, seemingly disparate fragments that go into shaping us and our identities, including interacting with and making peace with our dark sides. It comes as no surprise therefore than we connect with fictional characters that are undergoing similar journeys.
In this category there are none better than superheroes who embody the hero’s archetype in Joseph Campbell’s famous The Hero with a Thousand Faces. (Princeton University Press, 1949), a journey condensed for writers by Christopher Voegler in ‘The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers’ (2007). It refers to the traditional journey the archetypal hero encounters throughout world mythology in all forms and interpretations before he emerges victorious albeit through considerable trauma, danger and shadows. As viewers, readers and part of the audience we engage with these characters and in turn undergo their cathartic journey which puts us in touch with all parts of our own selves and our societies. And like us and society, superheroes have also grown and changed with the emotional and intellectual needs of the audiences. Like Journalist James Poniewozik has said in Time Magazine (cited in Muir, 2004: 6), ‘every generation needs to remake its screen superheroes in its own image.’
Before I go any further, I have to make it clear that I’m not a comic-book expert. I’ve read comics and watched animated versions, but I’m not an avid reader in this area. However I enjoy superheroes as an entity and have always watched the movies with great interest. This is based on my experiences, thoughts and observations from mainly the films and general reading, limited though my view might seem to others more knowledgeable in the field. There is a focus on Nolan’s trilogy because of the zeitgeist aspect of this article.
Scarcely over 200 years old, America remains a ‘young’ country in terms of world history. According to Muir (2004), this is perhaps the reason why it has been the predominant birthplace of the justice-seeking superhero mythology in the 20th century; a substitute for comforting old-world mythologies present in other cultures. The endearing qualities for a superhero narrative can be traced back to Ancient Greece. Greek Hero Hercules, son of Olympian Zeus and mortal woman Alcmena is probably one of the earliest known, admired and respected ‘representatives’ of the superhero genre. Since then numerous such ‘superheroes’ (not necessarily the ones we see on screens now) have come and gone and society’s fascination with them has remained steady; maybe even increased. Those larger-than-life figures, who rescue the weak, preserve the species and fight evil in all its forms. (Muir, 2004)
There is something inherently fascinating about the dark, about the more morally ambiguous parts of life, of others and of our own selves.
George Slosser, curator of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Collection at the University of California, Riverside (2004) says:
‘They (superheroes) are the embodiment of the American myth of the lone, rugged individual who comes into society and cleans it up. We all want to do it. We live our everyday lives that don’t allow for this kind of simplistic vision. So we cheer for it.’
Post 9-11 we have seen a marked increase in the superhero genre of movies which is telling in increasingly disturbed times when we feel an even stronger need for narratives that restore our faith in good, faith in humanity and give us hope for the future. So it is only a sign of the times that there is a huge market for such narratives.
Batman has been one of my favourite superheroes, maybe because he is so markedly different with his ‘superpowers’ (or lack of them) (Though he couldn’t be more kickass with his impressive strength, extraordinary knowledge about martial arts, considerable intellect and futuristic gadgets). Born from the trauma of being a bystander to his parents’ brutal murder, Bruce Wayne/Batman is a ‘vigilante with a streak of anti-authoritarianism who has suffered implicitly due to governmental and societal failures and finally decided to take the matters into his own hands.’ (Muir, 2004: 2) Even though he occasionally works with Commissioner Gordon, he does it in secret, and his obsession with justice and achieving redemption through the process ensures that more often than not, he ignores the law.
Unlike extremely patriotic and ‘clean-cut’ superheroes like Superman or Captain America, Batman’s obsession with justice has strong roots in his guilt complex, and in spite of being Gotham’s silent protector, his motivations can be argued to be rather selfish and personal rather than a simple ‘save the world because it is the right thing to do’. His motivations run far deeper towards the need to embrace his worst fears and eventually and hopefully find the redemption he is so desperately seeking. And yet in Nolan’s interpretation there is no guarantee that it will happen. Like Campbell and Myer’s (1989: 127) definition, Nolan’s anti-hero willingly accepts the darkness and lets his worst fears in so as to first and foremost protect Gotham at all costs, even if it means sacrificing himself.
Selena Kyle: Come with me. Save yourself. You don't owe these people any more. You've given them everything.
Batman: Not everything. Not yet.
What is not immediately seen is that he is in fact slowly inching towards freeing himself from the anger, guilt and revenge embedded so deep in him. Harvey Dent who wants to appear heroic as Gotham’s White Knight descends into evil and murder (You thought we could be decent men, in indecent times), but Batman has identified himself with the very evil he has vowed to fight and is hence the anti-hero Gotham needs. His ‘bat’ identity is another extension of this, a childhood scar; he draws on the fear he felt as a child when he fell into an old well full of bats before his father rescued him. (Why do we fall? … So we can pick ourselves up)
With regards to publishing history, Batman first appeared in Detective Comic Issue #27 May 1939, his first independent issue came out in April-May 1940, the Columbia film series Batman debuted in 1943 and the TV show started in the 1950’s. It was deliberately camp and over-the-top so as to mock the innocence of that postwar era in a very tongue-in-cheek way but also provide the audience the laughs they needed. This marked a stark change from the exceptionally disturbed superhero that was conceived and debuted in the middle of World War II; a direct antithesis to Superman.
It was finally in 1986 that the intense side of Batman was revived by Frank Miller’s graphic novel mini-series with Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley – The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Returns. The mini-series was the inspiration to Tim Burton’s gothic Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) where Burton portrayed Batman as flawed and a bizarre reflection of the twisted Joker. But Joel Schumacher’s garish, pantomimic Batman Forever (1995) and Batman and Robin (1997) were reminiscent of the camp TV 1950’s series. However Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) revert to the gothic undertones, succeeding more than Burton in bringing back the lost mythology of Batman.
‘Every generation needs to remake its screen superheroes in its own image.’
There is a visible pattern in this timeline with cycles of light-hearted camp humour followed by eerie, dark adaptations. In one of the best texts I’ve read about superheroes, Superman On The Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us About Ourselves And Our Society), Danny Fingeroth agrees with this sentiment by stating that superheroes always reflect and are reflected by the world that creates them; both the positive and the negative, the dreams and the nightmares, the myths, attitudes and fears of the times that produced them. This is why Nolan and his daring leap back into the ‘evilness of evil’ (Cocksworth, 2009) resonates so much with today’s audiences where good and evil and right and wrong are more complex than ever before, where ambiguity has become the norm and discussing complex issues where there is no one right answer only throws up more questions. We are in a postmodern and revisionist age where the tidy lines separating binaries are being questioned while at the same time the same straightforward dualities are being reinforced. (Lucas, 2009: 31).
The trilogy provides a less idealising portrait of Batman and calls the status of his heroic exception into question instead of simply affirming our need for it. Nolan’s superhero is an entity more at odds with both parts of his identity, fraught with duality and struggling with uniting the two - being a vigilante working for the people and a privileged billionaire. What is his true persona, Bruce or Batman? Is there a clear physical demarcation separating the two? He is fragile, human, broken, an anti-hero who isn’t always ‘good’ to achieve good. A symbol of justice whether he is loved or misunderstood by the very people he protects. He hopes for the arrival of a hero like Dent (before he becomes Two-Face) so that Gotham would no longer need its silent guardian, its watchful protector, its Dark Knight, and when that doesn’t go according to plan, he does what he must because nobody else can.
Alfred: Endure it, take it, they’ll hate you for it but that’s the point of Batman … he can be the outcast; he can make the choice no one else can make, the right choice. (The Dark Knight, 2008)
There is a postmodernist schizophrenia associated with the character Christian Bale so aptly portrays on the screen. (Let’s not get into the drawbacks of which I am well aware, this piece isn’t about that)
This fragmentation becomes worse when he realises that his villains, especially the Joker and to a large extent Bane, embody his own dark side. The Joker created by Burton and Nicholson back in 1989 has a maniacal craziness to him that was scary but not truly evil, not really disturbing. He never seemed as real as the recreation in The Dark Knight, where the late Heath Ledger brilliantly portrayed a psychotic, deeply disturbed madman with no other agenda than to cause chaos for the sake of it. He is a representation of our postmodern times, a world where the rules are not clear, where there is huge potential for instability and panic; things that he revels in. The character is more haunting simply because we don’t know his motivations or his past, and Nolan doesn’t link him to the murder of the Waynes like Burton. We don’t know the reason behind his scars because he comes up with different versions, each as deeply twisted as the next. We don’t even know his name (Nicholson’s was Jack Napier and his scars a result of a chemical factory accident). This searing intensity makes it very hard for us to hold on to the belief of something good.
Joker to Harvey Dent: I’m like a dog chasing cars; I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it … (The Dark Knight, 2008)
Alfred: Some men aren’t looking for anything logical like money. They cannot be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn. (The Dark Knight, 2008)
Like Batman, we are forced by him to look deep within us, confront our worst fears and face doubts we’d rather keep buried. We are forced to question our morals, our beliefs, the limits to which we can be pushed and what we will do when we are tested, when we fall. What is it that we’re living for? It is this journey started in The Dark Knight that forms a large and important part of Bruce’s journey in The Dark Knight Rises and we cannot help but cheer when he finds that light in the end. We cheer for him and ourselves. We cheer that there is some good left in this world that is worth fighting for. John Blake is the film’s symbol for the kind of simple purity that completely contrasts that of Batman and yet like him, we are also inspired by Batman, not as a person but as an idea that can linger on, a legend that leaves us with hope.
We are inspired by Batman, not as a person but as an idea that can linger on, a legend that leaves us with hope.
I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss. I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy. I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known. (A Tale of Two Cities as quoted in The Dark Knight Rises, 2012)
This is why I put Nolan’s trilogy (with all its faults) into a genre far beyond that of superheroes. Through a conflicted and flawed hero, his interaction with equally tortured villains, his choices and his journey through the disturbing and shadowy years into the light, Christopher Nolan has not only successfully entertained us, but also crafted an epic that presents a view of our disturbed times and makes us face it and ourselves with the hope that it’ll all work out however hard it is and however long it will take. It makes us believe that we can all be heroes in our own ways, that it is in fact our duty. Is there better wish-fulfillment?
Jim Gordon: ...but shouldn't the people of Gotham know who the hero was that saved their city?
Batman: A hero can be anyone. Even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a little boy's shoulders to let him know that the world hadn't ended.
(As a parting shot I must also say that as much as we need such zeitgeist superhero narratives that challenge us and put us through a wringer, we equally need ones like The Avengers that will comfort us with witty well-made familiarity, make us laugh out loud, and remind us that superheroes, their struggles, journeys and eventual successes are also meant to be a lot of fun)
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