This is a draft of part one of a post I long promised to write here. For a variety of reasons, it has been a long-delayed labor, which is already extremely long and broken into several sections. I am posting this draft here because as this has become a piece of writing which is significantly larger than my regular blogging endeavors in both size and ambition, I would greatly, greatly appreciate feedback to let me know how it can be refined for maximum readability and comprehension, and indeed for intrinsic worth (meaning if you think this is stupid, uninteresting bullshit, let me know before I waste any more time and effort). Thank you in advance for your time.
CAUTION: Spoilers, for the films “Watchmen” and “The Dark Knight”, as well as the books Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke, and much of the rest of the Batman canon, abound in this post.
In contrast to the simplistic opposition of good guys and bad guys, spy thrilers with artistic pretensions display all the “realistic psychological complexity” of the characters from “our” side. Far from signaling a balanced view, however, this “honest” acknowledgement of our own “dark side” stands for its very opposite, for the hidden assertion of our supremacy: we are “psychologically complex,” full of doubts, while the opponents are one dimensional fanatical killing machines.
~ Slavoj Zizek, In Defense of Lost Causes
Truth is a well-known pathological liar. It invariably turns out to be Fiction wearing a fancy frock. Self-proclaimed Fiction, on the other hand, is entirely honest. You can tell this, because it comes right out and says, “I’m a Liar,” right there on the dust jacket.
In 1987, two books were published which changed the face of heroism in American culture, although most people didn’t know it yet. In that one year, Frank Miller published his revisionist take on Batman, The Dark Knight Returns, and Alan Moore published his epitaph for the superhero, Watchmen. It took some time for the ideas within those books to find a wide audience, but find the world they did, with the releases this past year of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and the long-awaited film adaptation of Watchmen. Both works deal with many interesting issues, but at the heart is an issue which seems to be highly relevant at present: vigilantism.
Despite the popular myth that the superhero is a recent (and uniquely American) creation, superheroes have been with us since the beginning of fiction. What else describes Achilles, or Hercules, or Beowulf? Yet, in the American comic revival of the superhero, something essential of the archetype was lost. Achilles is clearly a superhero, but he is not by any stretch good or noble. He is sulky, vengeful, and murderous. Being granted invulnerability does not fill Achilles with a drive to noble purpose. Unlike Peter Parker, he does not believe that “with great power comes great responsibility.”
These classical heroes, eschewing the need to wield their powers responsibly, are able to live freely. Achilles is a prince; Beowulf a king. The American versions, however, have always attempted to foist responsibility on their superheroes, which led to what should seem obvious – they are forced to go into hiding. Clark Kent must live a double life, hiding from others his identity as Superman. Bruce Wayne must employ his vast fortune not only in building infinite bat-themed toys and weapons, but in making sure that no one could plausibly believe that he could be Batman. In the X-Men, the “good” mutants must hide themselves at a boarding school in Westchester, their superplanes and mind-reading devices concealed underground. It is Magneto, the mutant who will not grant others the right to rule him, who is the villain.
The daring question which The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen pose to us is does being a superhero have anything in common with being good?
Oh most pernicious woman!
Oh villain, villain, smiling damned villain!
My tables. Meet it is I set it down
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain –
At least I may be sure it may be so in Denmark.
So, uncle, there you are. Now to my word.
It is ‘Adieu, adieu, remember me.’
I have sworn’t.
~Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5
Hamlet is beset with an injustice as great as the loss of Bruce Wayne’s parents in an alleyway murder. And, like Wayne, he swears to his vengeance, casting aside his own life in a supposedly heroic sacrifice of himself for justice. But of what is Hamlet speaking? Is it of his father, who was murdered so Claudius could usurp his throne and spouse? Of the good of the kingdom of Denmark? Of the import of justice being done? It is adieu, adieu, remember me that Hamlet speaks. Hamlet seeks revenge because it glorifies Hamlet.
Superman does not restlessly patrol the skies, seeking out people in danger to save. He walks around, content in his daily life as Clark Kent, and only leaps into the phone booth to save those who he sees are in danger. It is not that there are lives at risk. It is that Kal-El is the kind of person who when he sees someone in trouble, he does something about it. In the The Dark Knight Returns, Miller points us towards this truth. Speaking of the murdered Robin, Jason Todd, Batman says, “I will never forget Jason. He was a good soldier. He honored me.” Even when speaking in the memory of the dead, Batman’s first thought is of himself.
Many commenters have spoken of the deep-rooted entitlement of superhero characters. Bruce Wayne is a multi-billionaire, and it is often pointed out that he is one of the most influential people in the world. That power and unearned, inherited privilege is only being manifested to a greater extent by his incarnation as Batman, a masked vigilante who prowls at night, seeking criminals to wreak justice upon, usually with some combination of his fists and technology. It is not an uncommon urge.
“What gives you the right? What’s the difference between you and me?”
“I’m not wearing hockey pads.”
~The Dark Knight, Christopher and Jonathan Nolan
Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns third volume, “Hunt the Dark Knight”, features Wayne taking up the mantle of Batman after a ten year absence, fighting with a street gang called The Mutants. After Batman battles with their leader, groups of imitators, known as the Sons of Batman, roam the streets of Gotham, attempting to do Batman’s work, albeit without his restraint. At one point, they break up a game of three-card monte will napalm. Like the imitation Batmans in the film who use guns, they are willing to break the only rule which Batman is not in service of their vigilante crusade on crime: they are willing to kill. Unlike the adult gunmen of the film, who are simply dismissed by Batman and forbidden to take part in his quest, the Sons of Batman, who are youths, are forgiven for their murders by Wayne, who takes them under his wing to train them in the use of non-lethal tactics. Miller’s Wayne is forming his own army, justified by his unwillingness to kill. But in service of what ideology?
Alfred: “With respect, Master Wayne, perhaps this is a man that you don’t fully understand either. A long time ago, I was in Burma. My friends and I were working for the local government. They were trying to buy the loyalty of tribal leaders by bribing them with precious stones. But their caravans were being raided in a forest north of Rangoon by a bandit. So we went looking for the stones. But in six months, we never met anyone who had traded with him. One day I saw a child playing with a ruby the size of a tangerine. The bandit had been throwing the stones away.”
Bruce Wayne: “So why steal them?”
Alfred: “Well, because he thought it was good sport. Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
~The Dark Knight
This passage from the film is extremely telling. The clearly British Alfred was once in Burma, a former colony of Britain and then a Commonwealth nation until the military coup of 1962. While there as some sort of representative of British power, Alfred was buying the loyalty of the locals not with any meaningful assistance, but with jewels. And defiance of the attempts of the more powerful to buy the loyalty of the locals, a lack of interest in the baubles and riches that the powerful can hand out, simply isn’t perceived as logical. They have no right to resist, to rule themselves, to resent the commands of their betters. To defy the authority that comes with power and wealth is to wish to see the world burn. And Bruce is incapable of even understanding the existence of such a person.
“Ladies and Gentlemen! You’ve read about it in the papers! Now witness, before your very eyes, that most rare and tragic of nature’s mistakes! I give you: the average man. Physically unremarkable, it instead possesses a deformed set of values. Notice the hideously bloated sense of humanity’s importance. Also note the club-footed social conscience and the withered optimism. It’s certainly not for the squeamish, is it? Most repulsive of all, are its frail and useless notions of order and sanity. If too much weight is placed upon them… they snap. How does it live, I hear you ask? How does this poor pathetic specimen survive in today’s harsh and irrational environment? I’m afraid the sad answer is, ‘Not very well’. Faced with the inescapable fact that human existence is mad, random, and pointless, one in eight of them crack up and go stark slavering buggo! Who can blame them? In a world as psychotic as this… any other response would be crazy!”
~The Joker, Batman: The Killing Joke, Alan Moore
The Joker is the most enduring villain in the history of comics, making his debut in 1940 in Batman #1. In that issue, the essence of this character is established: the Joker announces, via the radio, that he will murder a millionaire, Henry Claridge, and proceeds to do so while the wealthy man is at home, surrounded by the police who are summoned to protect him. In the process, the Joker alienates the existing criminal underworld, establishing a relationship which will stretch out for over six decades. The Joker is the enemy of Batman, but is not a friend of Batman’s enemies. He is something else.
One by One, they’ll hear my call. Then this wicked town, will follow my fall.
~Graffiti found on the wall of an empty cell in Arkham Asylum, Batman: The Man Who Laughs, Ed Brubaker
In the continuity of the Batman story, Batman’s original enemies are organized crime lords, most notably Carmine Falcone. But in a transition shortly after the first year of Batman’s activities, the period known as the Long Halloween begins, where the villains shift from Falcone and organized crime to the Joker, the Riddler, Two-Face, Catwoman, and others of what will become the rogues gallery. They do not have “rational” aims such as those of Falcone and his criminal world. They do not exist as what they become until Bruce Wayne has claimed the mantle of Batman. Batman cannot save them and cannot defeat them; the Joker, Two-Face, and Catwoman all are still his antagonists decades later when the final tale of Batman, The Dark Knight Returns, is told.
What begins, instead, is a cycle. Batman attempts to bring order and an end to criminality in Gotham. The progress that he makes in fighting organized, ordinary crime is constantly thwarted by the emergence and reemergence of his costumed foes, who create chaos, panic, and anarchy in place of the order which Batman fights so hard to preserve. The Joker is chief among these, announcing his murders, choosing to kill those who he makes certain will be most well-protected, the most powerful, those with the most stake in the order Batman aspires to.
You have nothing – nothing to threaten me with! Nothing to do, with all your strength!
~The Joker, The Dark Knight
So what happens? Gotham never gets better. There is never order in Gotham, there is no end to the crime which Bruce Wayne dedicates his life and his fortune to preventing and avenging. The Joker exists to be Batman’s negation; in The Dark Knight Returns, he emerges from catatonia in Arkham when the news reports that Batman’s retirement has ended, and the work that Wayne has reemerged to do is once again thwarted. Over the decades that the two have been antagonists, Batman appears to have thwarted countless of the Joker’s schemes. Yet throughout their history, in the end of every tale, it is not the Joker but Batman whose ambitions come to naught. Batman has created infinite devices to help him clean out Gotham’s underworld, formed multiple alliances, sacrificed his most loved and valued companions to his mission. The Joker has defeated them all.
Why does this happen? Batman is America’s second-oldest superhero, and has been written about in greater quantity and depicted more often than any other single American character. Over nearly seven decades, scores of writers have addressed his story; the particulars have all seen multiple versions, but the outcome never changes: Batman fails to achieve true victory, and the Joker always rises to battle him once more to at worst a draw. What is being said about the meaning of heroism and villainy within the American psyche, over such a long stretch of our history with such constancy?