Wednesday, May 22, 2013

What's Wrong with Batman: Part 2 of 3

I love Batman and I'm not alone. Batman is more beloved by the internet than a Jesus made of bacon. The concept of Batman has changed a lot over the last 75 years, but its core quality is that it adapts to the culture of which it is a part. 

Batman does have some problems though. While some of these are products of their time, many are the result of concepts executed without considering of the implications. I'm no Batmanologist, but I'd like to take a few days to look at these problems.

After Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns came out in 1986 the image of Batman changed. Maybe it was backlash from the 60's camp which abandoned earlier pretenses to realism. But by including a more granular look at the Batman universe, the Dark Age of Batman covered a few of the Robin issues. The Boy Wonder got his own family, some distance from Batman, and even some pants.

During this time, Batman becomes calculating and emotionally detached, because in order to be strong, writers believe you have to be an impersonal dick as some kind of virtue. Only weak people have fundamental social skills, apparently. Common courtesy, smiles, and even trust become incompatible with this Batman, with no exceptions made, not even for the man he raised, the woman who conducts his command and control, his surrogate father figure, or the boy who idolizes him.

This Batman does feel joy and sadness though.  As the violence ramped up, he began enjoying his work. While he couldn't laugh with Robin over a joke or share hot chocolates and intimate moments with Superman anymore, he could sport a grim, toothy smile over breaking the bones of henchmen. He still confronts their bosses, heartbreakingly offers Harvey Dent redemption, promises to help Dr. Freeze's wife, or knocks out The Joker's teeth, which grow back so quickly you'd think he funds his criminal enterprises with trade in human ivory.


At the very least, one would have to note the hypocrisy of permanently crippling faceless mooks while treating the insane, twisted architects of these crimes as actual human beings. Given that the death of his parents changed from a catalyst to an obsession somewhere in this era, it's entirely legitimate to suggest that maybe he's simply giving them preferential treatment because he swaps childhood traumas with them over coffee during their weekly group sessions.

Someone rightly pointed out that dressing up in heavy black material, wearing a mask, enjoying nothing but punching a very select subculture of guys, and suffering massive physical abuse so you can punch a very select subculture of guys is probably the Urban Dictionary definition of sadomasochism.

Oh, right. Sadness. The deaths of people around him occasionally make him sad, so he can grouse around do whatever he was going to do anyway, but with an extra righteous anger.

This Batman is so viscerally violent, the violence almost seems to be for its own sake. Worse, it seems like violence for the sake of Batman's own gratification. Given that this is presented as a positive, a symbol of Batman's power, it's no wonder that it appealed to the type of morons who mistake violence for power, and those morons eventually asked, "Why doesn't Batman just kill this guy?"

There are a lot of answers to that worn, tired, fucking stupid question, but I hate most of them. I'm never happy with the "because he doesn't and that would be wrong" line. It's a reshaped "just because" which doesn't appeal to any higher philosophy. It still condones violence, but stops at an arbitrary marker; you might as well say, "Batman is a world-class fighter, but he doesn't pull hair because Batman is not a hair-puller!" It's not a compelling argument and you'd have to be a self-righteous, hidebound moron yourself to think that it is.

Batman is supposed to be an accessory to the Gotham City justice system. He can get evidence the police can't. He can make connections and get information that law enforcement can't. He can stop crimes and criminals that police can't hope to even slow down. He's a freelance, one man organization that is to SWAT teams what SWAT teams are to regular police and is to forensics labs what forensics labs are to Creationist archaeologists. That makes his role that of a top-level cop, but not a judge to imprison or execute criminals.

Theoretically, this means that Batman enhances Gotham City's ability to reduce crime, but instead of shoving criminals into a sick, inefficient system with no corresponding change, this version of Batman is actively harmful. This era posits that Batman causes supervillains. In The Dark Knight Returns, the titular return is unequivocally the cause of The Joker's reemergence. It makes sense; if Batman becomes a symbol, why not a symbol that others implicitly resent for its pretense? Why would that not inspire others to acts which are similar, but twisted for their own ends?

Gaining a Joker is not balanced out by jailing even a dozen Joe Chills. Crippling Joe Chills in an act of vigilante punishment invites questions about Batman's moral authority. Sadism masquerading as machismo implies that his acts aren't motivated by an impossible war on crime, but by a sick, anti-social obsessive's desire for violent, sexual thrills.

This Batman is the worst.

3 comments:

Jordan Shipp said...

I think the problem you're having with the violence, in part, is the fault of bad writers. Bad writers stylize Batman's violence and makes it seem cool. Good writers, however, (and there have been instances of this) go out of their way to detail that Batman has studied lethal force. He didn't just study fighting styles, but application and control. Good writers have Batman attack a foe, but not cause a fracture that could never heal properly simply for the sake of it. You lose the control aspect, which all martial artists implement, that should be apart of what Batman does.

I can agree with you on that.

However...

While I do think there is some evidence to suggest that Batman inspires people to don costumes and be criminals...and this idea is touched on in Nolan's films...how much of that is the nature of the industry? I hate to be the one to get all "meta," but it makes a sort of sense. The same as Arkham's criminals always breaking out. It is illogical within the comic world, but it's necessary for a writer who wants to use those characters again and again.

What I'm saying is that because Batman's story is one that never ends, and is subject to industry standards that other storytelling mediums do not, that some inconsistencies and down right ridiculous things happen.

If you had to ask me...I think The Animated Series of the nine-teen nineties struck a good balance for Bats. He was grim, dark, gritty, all that good stuff...but he had compassion. He occasionally joked and he did care about people.

Of course...Silver Age Bats is where it's at. I'm very serious.

Jordan Shipp said...

And while I'm thinking about it...I have never been of the mind that Batman creates the criminals he so often fights. I can agree that they are an escalation due to his presence...but saying that he is to blame for Jonathan Crane's existence takes away personal choice.

If we are to say Batman is why we have Scarecrow...then we're saying Scarecrow had no choice but to be Scarecrow.

However, when you look at MOST of the origin stories of his rogues' gallery, many of them had nothing to do with Batman. In fact, one could argue that they may have lashed out and became criminals anyway, but with different names, perhaps.

VanVelding said...

There's a good reason Batman: TAS was thrown out of this from the start. It's seriously too damned fucking good.

As for the comics, realize that even bad writing and industry standard make up what Batman is. When the scaffolding is thrown up without a thought, the end result won't hold up well to scrutiny. It's that very lack of forethought that creates these problems with Batman.

I think there's a difference between being a terrorist who uses fear gas as a weapon of choice and donning a costume and a stylized modus operandi. Batman inspires the latter and instead of becoming another terrorist put on trial and executed, it becomes part of a psychological pathology.

Am I extrapolating? Hell yeah, but it's consistent with the evidence presented. By surpassing regular crime, Batman inspires his rogues gallery to surpass regular crime and law. It creates and elite class of "themed" crime and punishment.

As far as the martial arts thing, while I'm drawing heavily from the DKR Miller Batman, I'm sure that the Batman of that era aped much of Miller's style, including gratuitous injury to mooks.