Without Batman, there'd be no … Bush?

Troubling as it is, Boomer mystery author Andrew Klavan, writing in July the Wall Street Journal, has a somewhat convincing argument, comparing the Batman of this summer’s The Dark Knight with President George W. Bush.

There seems to me no question that the Batman film “The Dark Knight,” currently breaking every box office record in history, is at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war. Like W, Batman is vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand. Like W, Batman sometimes has to push the boundaries of civil rights to deal with an emergency, certain that he will re-establish those boundaries when the emergency is past.

But while Mr. Klavan sees this as a heroic yet unappreciated connection between the Dark Knight and our 43rd President, the author conveniently overlooks one major point, which I think would actually strengthen his argument (though surely not in a way he intended) — the Joker, as the ultimate terrorist, comes to power as a backlash and in reaction to Batman and his extreme measures — “you complete me,” Heath Ledger’s Joker says (the line gets laughs, but there’s sincerity behind it on the Joker’s part).

Part of the modern Batman backstory is that the strange and extreme criminals the Dark Knight fights in Gotham City are part of an escalation; they’re a reaction to and creation of the Batman himself and his strange and extreme measures. Most (if not all) of the arch-villians like the Joker and Scarecrow (the “freaks” as they’re derided and as they sometimes call themselves and Batman) gradually thrive and replace the more traditional criminals such as mobsters precisely because of Batman — it’s a circular cycle that essentially traps Bruce Wayne into his Batman persona forever.

This theme is present in Christopher Nolan’s two Batman films (with credit due to himself, his brother, Jonathan, and David S. Goyer as writers), and it is also present in the 1996 graphic novel The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, which the Nolans and Goyer draw from in their two films. I’m not as well-versed in the Batman legend as I would like to be, but this may or may not go back to Frank Miller’s take on Batman (there’s definitely some of this in his Batman: Year One from 1986, which Batman Begins also draws upon), or if it goes all the way back to Bob Kane for that matter.

So, let’s see: we have a leader who responds to a terrible problem with extreme measures, with the unintended consequence of creating an extreme response that traps the “hero” into forever fighting a situation that he largely bears responsibility for creating. Yep, never heard that before in real life.

“We could do this forever,” the Joker tells Christian Bale’s Batman (in an ironically poignant line spoken by Heath Ledger, who died tragically earlier this year).

(An aside: I’m surprised Klavan didn’t also pick up on another similarities of Batman/Bruce Wayne and GWB — that of the moneyed rich kid who’s used to getting his way.)

Nevermind that Klavan misrepresents progressive values throughout his piece, as if liberals don’t understand that sometimes you must kill (as in a justified war) to protect our own freedoms, as if progressives didn’t appreciate, understand, fight, and die in America’s Just Wars from the Revolution through the Civil War through World War II, as if only Conservatives fought those wars.

And for an award-winning fiction writer, I am shocked by his lack of nuanced understanding about the recent fantasy and action films he cites (as if any political side of the spectrum has a right to claim them). A large reason this generation of adventure films are breaking box office records is because they are not painted in solely black and white, as past comic book films have rightly been criticized, and as Klavan still seems to see them.

In fact, Klavan goes on to link a slew of recent successful box-office fantasy films and claim them as paeans to the conservative movement, citing their black-and-white terms of battle, and missing entirely the grey depiction of their battles and their inner struggles, a depiction that makes them so popular.

From movies to TV, we no longer want our heroes shown in black-and-white terms, because we realize how grey our world is. Hollywood and the TV industry have finally gotten wise to the profitable confluence of brains and pop culture, and we viewers are reaping the rewards. (How’s that for this progressive crediting some good produced by market forces? But I digress.)

Batman as a character is enjoyable not because he’s a symbol of political values (and in Batman Begins Bruce Wayne intends his alter ego to be a symbol of righteousness and of the common man standing up to oppression, and how dare Klavan claim that as a mission solely fought by the Right). We enjoy Batman because there’s a nuance, an edge, an internal conflict. It’s why the recent Superman Returns bombed with the public — because as a character, Superman is hardly conflicted, complicated or nuanced at all.

Take this summer’s Iron Man. It was a helluva ride and a fun flick, and layered Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark as an industrialist who sees the terror he’s caused and tries to make good. Dana Stevens in Slate wryly noted: “This is what we’d like our wars to be: a clearly defined moral crusade against a bald, glowering meanie who proclaims his Genghis Khan-like ambition to ‘dominate all of Asia.'” I think she’s being a little too harsh on the film, but I do agree with her take on one scene that rang false, or maybe director Jon Favreau was trying to be too clever.

Stevens writes:

In one scene, the Iron Man confronts a group of Afghan villagers, unable to distinguish the civilians from the combatants. At once a Terminator-style readout appears on the inside of his mask, clearly labeling each civilian, and with surgical precision, he takes out all the bad guys, leaving the grateful good guys standing. It’s a clever and viscerally satisfying gag that got a round of applause at the screening I attended—but it left me with a bitter aftertaste that lasted for the rest of the movie. How much collateral damage have we inflicted by trusting just such “smart” weapons to make moral decisions for their users?

Yet this one false note is precisely the type of hook Klavan hangs his entire shallow argument on.

To twist the deeper themes embedded into these great and enjoyable films — making them so much better than “comic book” movies of even the past two or three decades — and assign them as triumphs of conservative values is as twisted as trying to equate them with the Triumph of Will.

Klavan seems to miss and dismiss the moral dilemmas films like The Dark Knight, Iron Man, and Spiderman present their heroes — deeper, philosophical arguments about the nature of conflict and the consequence of action and inaction. It seems Klavan mistakes these films as popcorn flicks and assigns a popcorn thesis to them.

Klavan writes: “Leftists frequently complain that right-wing morality is simplistic. Morality is relative, they say; nuanced, complex. They’re wrong, of course, even on their own terms.” As if we don’t all agree that “love is better than hate,” as he notes, but what the hell do I know?

Klavan has either forgot how to have fun and dig deeper, or his worldview is so one-dimensional, with no room for debate or criticism, that he seems to be espousing dictatorial government, rather than democracy.

Putting that superhero power in the hands of not a superhero, but of one man running a government — particularly one with as stunning a mixture of impulsiveness and a lack of contemplation as our President — is dangerous. Remember the line from Spiderman: with great power, comes great responsibility.

Anyone who saw the final episiode of Generation Kill on HBO last month understands this, and understands exactly what happens when you go to war without a plan.

Alfred is incredulous that an inwardly tortured Bruce Wayne didn’t consider that there would be consequences for his extreme measures — apparently Bat-W had no advisers as wise as Batman’s kindly butler.

And as for the need to suspend civil liberties that Klavan cites, Bat-George was hardly as self-restrained as the Dark Knight is when he needs to violate such liberties, nor was he as confident in the voice of reason on the other side of the aisle to hand over the power to restore these liberties as Bruce Wayne is with Morgan Freeman’s Lucious Fox.

(Spoiler alert):

Of course, the tragedy of The Dark Knight is the fate of Harvey Dent, the lawfully following District Attorney and the real hero of the first two-thirds of the movie, who tragically falls to become Two-Face because of the macchinations of a strange criminal that, yes, Batman helped to create — and is later unleashed by the same criminal, the Joker, to threaten the family of the other law-and-order character, the tough yet trusting cop, Jim Gordon.

This too, Batman understands in his closing lines, something Klavan misses completely. While Commissioner Gordon notes that Batman runs “because we have to chase him … He’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him, because he can take it, because he’s not a hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector, a dark knight.” Batman is running because he’s willing to do what’s right by claiming to do wrong, to preserve for Gotham’s citizens the memory of Harvey Dent as the white knight he thinks the city needs, a nuance the President hardly seems capable of contemplating, making the Dark Knight far more heroic than Klavan seems to realize in his neat little argument.

Or maybe the President actually is the Joker, who at one point quips, “Do I look like a guy with a plan?”


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