The United States of Batman

Dissecting American Politics at the Cineplex

with Italy’s leading cultural critic

Giuseppe Sacco

 

Foto senza Occhialithe dark knight

Emanuel Pastreich

November 7, 2015

 

Emanuel Pastreich: 

How was it that a Political Scientist like you became so interested in the Batman series of movies?

Guiseppe Sacco:

I’m of course no movie critic, but I am a moviegoer. And I became interested in the Batman franchise when I accidentally discovered that it raises very important political issues. I had seldom seen in a movie such deep political meaning.

Those Batman’s adventures which appear to be escapist movies actually deal with the main points of the very serious debate that has been going on in contemporary America between Liberals and Conservatives: a debate about justice and punishment, about “law and order” and about social concerns. And the seven movies that have been released since 1989 – the year of the collapse of European communism – also show the evolution of what is known as Conservatism and how it gained ground in the U.S. body politic, while Liberalism has been apparently incapable – until very recently, of providing a winning response to the uninterrupted rise of economic inequality and social discrepancies. There is an exception though: Hollywood, where the two sides seem to be in a more balanced relationship, is where the liberals still occupying the high ground that has for decades been theirs.

Batman, as it is well known, is a kind of self-appointed “Lord Protector” of an imaginary metropolis, Gotham City, which is frequently identified with New York. But it is not New York. Gotham City is not an American metropolis either. It is a “global” metropolis, the metaphor of a “global” society; the society of an age when more than half of the planet’s population lives in urban and suburban areas, and is everywhere confronted with problems such as poor governance and corruption, air pollution and street prostitution, petty as well as organized crime, and where the brute force of the crowd bumps up against the rights and aspirations of the individual.

The political issues raised in each Batman movie go beyond the borders of America, in the same way that not only the US political scene, but the politics of the Western world were affected by the rise of political Conservatism. Everywhere, indeed, various forms of fundamentalism seem at the point of winning what the Americans call the “culture war” (and the Europeans call the “battle of ideas”). That’s why the Batman movies are of great interest to Europeans as well, they are aimed at a world audience.

Emanuel Pastreich: 

What do these movies represent about American culture and about America’s role in the world?

 

Guiseppe Sacco:

Over an arch of twenty-five years, starting in 1989, the Batman franchise has been the screen on which America’s political evolution has been faithfully mirrored. There are now seven movies, whose contents, metaphors and narrative cover the evoltution of Western nations. And the franchise is continuing, as in the spring of 2016 another Batman film – a strange story about his struggle with the unrealistic character Superman – will be released in the movie theatres of the entire world.

It is indeed worth pointing out that, unlike Superman, Batman is a character without superpowers, and has nothing in common with the unrealistic “super heroes” of which there is an entire Pantheon in American pop culture. He might in fact not even be considered a “hero,” as he is a normal human being, by the name of Bruce Wayne, who disguises himself as a bat just to overcome his personal problems and traumas, and who has given himself the task to help confront the enemies of society, one or more, in each movie.

The enemies he faces take fantastic incarnations, but they always are metaphors of very real threats. They are serious societal problems, and very visible ones: organized crime, political and judicial corruption, social inequality and the revolt of the underdogs, the detachment of science from social responsibility, the pervasiveness of media control, nihilist radicalism, terrorism, and the use of fear as a tool to rule and prey on the fearful.

That’s why, as a political scientist with a strong interest in mass culture, I am drawn to deciphering the ideological messages – sometimes hidden, but most of the time fairly open – conveyed by the Batman franchise. It is indeed not a stretch to estimate that around two hundred million people have seen each of the two last Batman movies. Some of these viewers, especially young people, are so fascinated, so taken, that they have seen the movie up to thirty or forty times. And a few of them end up identifying with the most powerful characters of the franchise: not Batman, but the Joker: Batman’s tragic, negative equivalent.

I would like to stress again that because the Batman franchise has a global audience, and spreads its political message far beyond the borders of the US, the movies are part of a larger debate. The debate, the “culture war,” presently bitterly dividing the US into partisan factions, is not just a domestic quarrel.  This confrontation has deep philosophical roots, and has therefore implications for the world. Liberalism starts from the assumption that man is, by nature, fundamentally good: a typical socialist (and ultimately Christian) idea. And if man goes astray from the right path, it is society that has to be deemed responsible for having perverted and twisted him. Thus – in the Liberals’ view – a criminal is a criminal because the contingencies of his life have pushed him, almost forced him, to be that way.

The other side, the Conservative perspective, starts instead from the pessimistic assumption that all men are evil by nature and that it is naïve, even dangerous, to assume they can be reasoned with, and reformed, through good acts. This assumption, supported by various fundamentalisms, holds that man is inherently sinful and depraved and that harsh measures must be taken to maintain order and prevent dangerous men from upsetting the “normal” order of society.

And this is no minor disagreement: such a pessimistic perspective justifies, for instance, the use of many forms of repression and punishment, which otherwise – if men who have gone against society can be brought back to the right path – would make no sense in terms of policy.

Emanuel Pastreich: 

How did the Batman series evolve?

Guiseppe Sacco:

When confronted with issues and threats like these, to which liberals and socialists on one side, and conservatives and fundamentalist on the other, offer different responses and different degrees of importance and priority, Bruce Wayne (and his masked alias: Batman) reacts with no preconceived prescription; he rather tends to ponder different options.

But this does not mean that he sits undecided in the middle; he is deeply divided exactly as contemporary society is. And Bruce Wayne has strong personal reasons to be psychologically and ideologically divided. Batman represents the clash of conflicting moral principles. Bruce’s parents were assassinated under his eyes in a hold-up when he was a child, leaving him deeply traumatized and he never recovered from this experience—even as the hero Batman. As a young man, Bruce Wayne is tempted by the idea of taking revenge against the man who perpetrated the crime. Later, he goes beyond his personal perspective and becomes aware of the necessity of maintaining law and order in society. That’s why, as an adult, he becomes a sort of vigilante, disguised as a scary creature, the bat. He works outside the system to help the few non-corrupt policeman in Gotham in their fight against those who menace society.

But instinctively Bruce Wayne still leans towards understanding and curing the social causes of crime, rather than simply repressing it. Even the idea of revenge goes against all that Bruce has learned from his family; namely that criminals are frequently desperate people, pushed to crime by the conditions in which they happen to find themselves. So not only he gives up very early the idea of making his own justice, but he also becomes, in his everyday life as Bruce Wayne strongly engaged as a philanthropist, trying to help orphans like himself.

In his struggle to protect society, he is confronted with the fact that Western society itself has no universally shared concept of justice. At times, Batman appears as a liberal, on other occasions as a conservative. But the alternation is not incoherent, as it reflects the dialectic relationship between these two political visions in American society. And these internal conflicts and dynamics make this “global” hero a metaphor for America itself, as well as for the other Western societies, many of which look at the US as the laboratory where not only the future of the American people, but their own future as well, is being invented and tested.

Emanuel Pastreich:

What exactly does the viewer learn from these films?

Guiseppe Sacco:

The viewer is first of all exposed to the idea, drawn on the ideological underpinnings of socialism, that all men are born equal and fundamentally good, and that it is social inequalities and conditioning that creates malevolent behavior. The fact that much of explicit socialist thinking has been dismissed in the American media and public discourse does not make the point any less relevant. Actually it makes it more relevant. Also because the same debate rages among religious figures, as to whether the answer to our woes is for us to be more understanding of the weak and the downtrodden, or more steely in our determination to set our society right through the imposition of the strict rules of an established order.

As European, I do not decipher the political debate in the Batman franchise (and write about it) from the outside. The European are strongly concerned with the same issues, because the manner in which such political issues are treated in the American mass media has a direct impact on how all of us conceive of politics.

America continues indeed to be the cultural leader of the Western world.  Although other countries have come to rival America in economics and technology, and even in some discrete realms of culture, the United States is the only nation endowed with a communication machine – Hollywood – that enables it to disseminate in the entire western world a narrative of society in which culture and ideology are combined into a universal and authoritative discourse on the political.

And I don’t think this is going to change any time soon. There was a moment, in the eighties, when Japan came close to posing a challenge to the U.S. not only in the realm of economics and management, but also in the field of popular culture.  But Japan never had a political message that resonated with the entire world.  Perhaps the Japanese themselves – trapped in their idea of diversity and superiority – always knew that they didn’t have a powerful culture, that their practices and policies would not be an example for the entire world.

We Europeans are aware of the political and intellectual impoverishment the US have suffered in the last fifty years or so. But this does not diminish the cultural power of America overseas, and of American movies first of all. We are indeed also aware of how its powerful cultural machine still enables America to function as a cultural laboratory for us.

Emanuel Pastreich:

These movies reveal an odd blend of rational, practical and even cynical impulses for dealing with humanity’s shortcomings with an idealistic, or even utopian, desire for a better society.

 

Guiseppe Sacco:

That is exactly the point. But we should note that to believe that it is possible to organize human society in a rational manner – the belief that inspired the French revolutionaries of the late 18th century – is in its essence a utopian view. So at some level there is an element of the utopian that invigorates both sides of the political divide, granted that the utopian is the primary imperative only in the socialist and liberal tradition.

Emanuel Pastreich: 

But of course conservatives readily employ a concept of “scientific governance” as a means to justify their transformation of society, contrasting rational policy with their own utopian, or idealistic, policy.   

Guiseppe Sacco:

Human progress and the evolution of human society are at best tangential to any rational behavior or rational policy. And in any case, more often than not, we decide what the rational significance of the policy is only after it has been adopted.

From my viewpoint, however, the important issue is not the rationality or logic of American domestic politics, but rather how the American heroes and moral narratives circulate around the world as the embodiment of a greater discourse on governance and the role of the individual, even if the viewer are not aware of the films as anything more than simple entertainment. These American-born heroes – including Batman, of course –, even if they come from a culture that is quite alien to the viewer, still are able to touch him personally and to suggest a universality of experience that other films cannot.

We do not see a rival to this level of cultural and ideological articulation. As I have already said, Japan never had that sort of a universal recognized cultural message. I would guess the last rival that the United States had was China in the 1960s, when the idea of a Cultural Revolution put forth a radically original vision of an equal society that questioned the very foundations of Western culture and seemed to offer an alternative.  Of course, Westerners knew next to nothing about what was going on in China, but Maoism, for many of the Left in the West, became a powerful symbol and there was great sympathy for the call for a radical renewal of society.  For a brief moment, China was rivaled the US as the leader of the world, intellectually and culturally. But, starting in the 1980s, Westerners gradually became aware of the human cost China had paid, and elaborated a more balanced view of utopian nature of that ideological discourse.

Emanuel Pastreich: 

There were American economists and political scientists who were profoundly influenced by Mao Zedong at the time.

 

Guiseppe Sacco:

Absolutely! Not only American economists and political scientists, but many European intellectuals and an entire generation of young people believed that Mao was somehow in point of creating a truly egalitarian society in China.  But even more important was the appeal among the masses of young people in the 1960s and 1970s.

Something of that mentality remains still today, by the way. We still can encounter Westerners who go around China obsessed with finding the traces of a China that would be more just and more equal then their own societies.  Somehow they still believe that China offers some sort of an alternative for a society that is organized in a more rational manner. Often such Western thinking is linked to the search for a more spiritual “Asia” as well.

Emanuel Pastreich:

So how might Chinese, including those raised in a socialist ideology, perceive the Batman movies?

 

Guiseppe Sacco:

This is difficult to ascertain, but it is a fact that the Batman movies, mainly the most recent ones, have been very successful in China. In a way, it seems obvious that the Chinese should find the Batman franchise as fascinating as it is to European viewers, or even more so. I imagine, however that beneath the surface there are subtle differences in perception. The fact that Batman franchise is not aimed at pushing the viewer to escape reality; the fact that, on the contrary, Batman itself is a metaphor of America, and that his adventures raise extremely controversial issues, cannot escape a sophisticated Chinese viewer.

For about three decades, up to the crisis of 2006-08, many Chinese have looked at the United States as a model for development and international success, and have been tempted by the idea of beating the United States at its own game, to become the number one economic power by Americanizing their society and economy. All interest in establishing an alternative system seemed lost. Now, however, recent weaknesses and fault lines that have become manifest in American economy, society and foreign policy have led to a serious rethinking of America’s cultural stature. There are growing doubts concerning the American model.

I would recommend that moviegoers in Asia view the Batman franchise as a powerful critique – coming from inside the West itself – of contemporary trends and social formations produced by the American system. If you watch carefully, in the Batman franchise you can identify the tensions that drive American domestic discourse. Here we see Americans, at one remove, debating their own weaknesses, but not only from a leftist, alternative prospective, rather within the mainstream discourse.

Emanuel Pastreich:

Is the critique of Western society expressed within the Batman series consistent?

Guiseppe Sacco:

Oh, yes! The moral and political issues and the way they are dealt with are remarkably consistent, in spite of the fact that three different directors have worked at the seven movies of the franchise.  In fact, Batman can be considered the protagonist of an American saga, and this applies not only to the movies, but also to the graphic novels that preceded it. The two things are closely connected, as the movies draw enormously from the extremely large number of comics that have been published since 1939—over three quarters of a century. And the comics are a collective creation as well, with perhaps eighty different authors having contributed in a more or less significant way. Inevitably, there are lots of variants in the way the story is told, but the same ethic and political issues are recurrent all the time.

The interpretation given by each generation of readers and viewers does evolve and the nature of the threats to the “world city” of Gotham in each movie change.  We have in the Batman comics and movies  a “corpus” of great artistic value, incomparably more interesting than most comics and movies, heroes and superheroes. Batman is art. It has a message that does not fade with time, and is not specific to the culture of a section of the public. Batman speaks to every intelligent and sensitive reader, independently of his nationality, of his cultural background, of his language, of the time he lives in, of the specific experience of his generation.

I don’t want to exaggerate, but in order to explain how I see the entire set of popular culture products that revolve around Batman’s adventures I have employed a comparison with the Homeric poems. Those authors related the history of a great war to each Greek town and tribe whose warriors had taken part in it, and those stories were later told and retold, sang and re-sang, by poets and story tellers. Those songs were not written down and there were many changes, but the legends remained consistent in political and moral content.

The collective nature of the Batman “corpus” of pop culture products is comparable. Not only has this story been told and retold in the format of comics, of TV movies, of blockbuster films, over the last fifteen years videogames suggest  new variants of the Batman adventures wherein the player must to take into account some ethical feature typical of the character (for instance, that Batman will not kill). Thousands of fans have started discussing on line the Batman stories, their characters, the issues they raise, and they started giving vent to their questions, their emotions. Thus a kind of choir emerged, making the saga more of a collective creation in which everybody participates in his own manner. This tragedy reached the point that a young man by the name of James Holmes ended up believing he was part of the story, and – identifying with the Joker – killed and wounded a hundred people in a movie theater of Aurora, Colorado.

Emanuel Pastreich:

 

Do you mean that is spite of having been around for so long, there aren’t in what you call “the Batman saga,” any major shifts and contradictions?  

Guiseppe Sacco:

There are shifts due to the fact that the world changes, and so do the threats menacing Gotham City, which is the setting for all the movies—and the symbol of what the ancient Greeks would call the polis: a civilized society with a political organization. The changes in the menaces Batman has to face reflect the transformation of the political discourse in America in the post-Cold War period. After all, the first Batman movie was produced precisely at the end of the Cold War, which brought about very serious structural, political, cultural and ideological changes in both the former Soviet Union and the United States.

The Batman franchise draws attention to a weakening of the ideological skeleton that undergirded US government in the Cold War. The different social and political menaces Batman has to defend Gotham from represent the primary unsolved political problems of the last quarter century. Batman described the desperate search by an extremely complex modern society for an enemy that would make it coalesce into something that behaves as a Nation.

In first Batman movie, released in 1989, the enemy he has to fight against is similar to the very classical menace of the US “noir” movies of the ‘50s (such as Humphrey Bogart’s The Enforcer), namely organized crime. Organized crime tends to acquire so much power and become so organized that it can play the role of the government, become a surrogate state. Not an unrealistic menace, by the way. This phenomenon is precisely what we see happening today in places such Mexico. Ideology has come to an end in politics and money – however acquired – grants the access to power.

Batman opposes and destroys the organized crime boss who openly declares his ambition to found a new order, to put his own face on every dollar bill, replacing George Washington. But, in the second movie we see Batman engaged in something which could be deemed opposite, and certainly very different, although again aimed at preserving the existing political order. Batman tries to tame revolt of an underdog, who – refused as a child for no other reason but being physically “monstrous” – has grown up in the sewers of Gotham and, at the age of thirty three, rises to claim recognition as a human being.

The third Batman film is even more political, and prophetic for the time the story was conceived and shot (1993-95). It describes a society menaced by an unhealthy convergence of big money and all-powerful media. A “videocracy” based on a tool much more powerful than the TV set that each family had in its living room. In the movie, information is no longer “offered” to families at dinner time, but rather “imposed” round the clock on every and each individual. The targeted person can’t escape it, as the device  follows and tracks him, getting directly inside his brain. The movie has a tremendous prophetic quality in light of the subsequent universal diffusion of smartphones, of the rise of infotainment and of the birth of the “permanently wired” individual, which seems to be less common in the U.S. than is some very advanced Asian countries, such as South Korea.

Comparatively, the menace in the fourth movie is, in a way, more classical. Gotham City faces two menaces, both coming from scientists who a distorted the concept of their social responsibility. On one side, there is Mother Nature, a botanist – a specialist in flora – sets out to protect nature from human-made damage by becoming an eco-terrorist, an actor in the revolt of nature against humans. On the other side is medical researcher who has betrayed his mission to society as a whole and concentrated only on the search for a drug that can save his own terminally ill wife. He becomes a criminal in the process. Batman cannot bring both to the right path and he has to make a hard choice. He must chose, quite the way everyone must everyday life, between the needs of nature and of the society of humans.

The time this film was made, the Clinton years, was a time of little conflict. So the main concerns in American culture was focused on environment and the revolt of nature, which had long been “raped” by industry, and the misuses of technology. Batman chooses to save and recover Dr. Freeze, the scientist gone mad, by providing a cure for his wife. But Batman is implacable against the eco-terrorist, Mother Nature (a fictional character clearly inspired by a very real scientist gone terrorist, Taddeus Kaczynski, the Unabomber), Batman embraces the belief that a “technological fix” will solve the environmental problems created by the industrial society.

As it is quite easy to notice, the choices Batman has to make in order to protect Gotham City, from the primary threats perceived in the last part of the twentieth century. He deals with them with the optimistic ideological approach that was prevalent at the time.

But then comes 9/11, and a new narrative of the world, becomes dominant in the US.

The fifth movie was shot by a new director, an Englishman by the name of Christopher Nolan. It was clearly a child of this new political climate that had spread from the US to the entire Western world. Nolan retells the Batman story from the outset, with a new perspective that reflects the fears and obsession of the new century. This time, although Gotham City suffers from organized crime, the real evil come from the outside, from a foreign and incompatible cultures Thus, all previous ambiguities about the man who has killed Bruce Wayne’s parents disappear: he is clearly neither a criminal nor a sadist, but a desperate person, thrown in the streets by the Great Depression. He has paid his price to society, has repented, and from jail he has even cooperated with justice against organized crime.

To Bruce Wayne, revenge against this man, who has made him an orphan, would make little sense; and in any case the problem is solved by his assassination at the end. And we thus see the young Bruce looking for a cure to his terrible psychological wounds, for a way of giving a meaning to his life, and for a cause that would satisfy his burning need for justice. He is no longer the boy on his knees, desperately crying next to the bodies of his dead parents.

That’s how he ends up in the Himalayas as a young Western recruit of a mysterious “League of the shadows,” the cult of a nebulous Asian fundamentalist ideology that pretends to carry out an absolute from of justice for the world. A good trainee in martial arts, Bruce’s inner morality and humanity lead him fail the final test, when he is ordered to behead a prisoner in cold blood. Once again the movie has prophetic element, foreshadowing something that will happen in the real world about ten years after the movie was shot.

Bruce Wayne refuses, and has to fight with all his power to save his life and make it back to Gotham City. The young man who went to the East to find some Asian philosophy that would bring justice to the world, discovers that the Asian philosophy is an enemy. Now he knows what his goal is: justice and compassion. And he knows what is his purpose in life: to fight against fanaticism and those who use fear as a weapon for political and power aims. Thus, the young Bruce, as Batman, stands on the front line of defense when the “League of the shadows” attacks Gotham City in a kind of 9/11, spreading terror through a drug that makes people see their worst fears and nightmares as reality.

One can’t help being reminded of the anthrax scare at the time. And, the political vision Batman embraces in his fight against this brutal attack on the West is particularly resonant. In order to fight the terrorists, he addresses the population with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unmistakably liberal battle cry, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” He thus harks back to the American liberal tradition and its attempt to address the contradictions of capitalism while keeping at bay foreign ideologies, such as Socialism, and foreign fanaticisms, such as Fascism.

Emanuel Pastreich:

What exactly was that philosophy and why was it a threat?

 

Guiseppe Sacco: :

The Asian philosophy to which the young Bruce Wayne is attracted makes an indirect reference to radical Islam, and the “League of Shadows” can be easily perceived as a kind of al-Qaeda by the viewer of “Batman Begins” released in 2005, and the first directed by Christopher Nolan, With two provisos, though: first, the “League of the Shadows” already appeared in a comic book of 1971, long before al-Qaeda was existed; second, at the end the movie Batman discovers that the leader of the League of the Shadows,” Ra’s an Gul, isn’t an Asian guru at all, but a Frenchman in disguise. Thus, in the end, the movie hints that this “Asian” philosophy might actually be a menace that has originated from inside the West itself, as a product of its cultural and spiritual crisis.

The contemporary political morale of the story told in “Batman Begins” could be that Bruce Wayne’s interest in the “League of the Shadows” comes from his torment about the possibility – or rather the impossibility – of establishing a just society in Gotham City. He has sympathies for the Islamic fundamentalism one finds in the countries such as Britain, France, and to a lesser extent in the US itself. One can detect the same  attraction we find in some conservative quarters for the supposed purity of Islam, and of fundamentalism.

Emanuel Pastreich: 

So this threat in the Batman movie of an alternative religion is linked to a profound crisis within Western Christianity itself?

Guiseppe Sacco:

There is no doubt that the Christian perspective, although it remains enshrined in the West, has decayed and ceased to be compelling to a vast number of people. Especially as far as Protestantism is concerned, one could say that it has been too successful; so successful that it has not only created the contemporary modern world, but Christianity has dissolved into it. It is easy to see that the population of the most advanced countries such as the US and Germany are deeply protestant-minded, even though actual protestants are just a minority. A large section of the Western world has lost its spiritual enchantment and religious pronouncements ring hollow.

But I would not say that all Western Christianity is in crisis. On the contrary, there is a religious revival in the Orthodox world as a consequence of the collapse of European Communism. The Catholic Church, after a brief interval of time following  the death of Jean Paul II, an extremely popular incarnation of Catholic values, is now displaying an intellectual flexibility and passion with which no secular government can compare concerning the most crucial issue of our time: the destruction of the environment.

Emanuel Pastreich: 

Islam has its appeal, as does Buddhism among many Westerners. In many nations Buddhist spiritualism seems more convincing than Christian spiritualism these days.

 

Guiseppe Sacco:

There is no doubt that Islam has an appeal. But it also has serious problems responding to “modernity.”

As far as Buddhism is concerned, I have to tell you frankly that I am not an expert, although I have been sometimes “accused” of being a Buddhist more than once. For instance, I once posed a (falsely) naïve question to an author who, in a novel of his, had described a man and a women so deeply engaged in a conversation at a café table “that they had not noticed that next to them a little tragedy was taking place: a bee was drowning in a cup of tea.”  Why, I asked, would a bee drowning in a cup of tea would be a smaller tragedy that an elephant drowning in the Zambezi, or a man drowning in his bathtub?  I was hypothetically taking into consideration the viewpoint of the bee, and putting it on the same footing as a man’s (or an elephant’s). Such an approach was considered alien to the cultures derived from the Jewish books.

In reality I know next to nothing about Buddhism, but sometimes I try to use bits and piece of the Buddhist narrative to formulate contemporary philosophical problems. For instance: in the Buddhist perception of the world, there are Heaven and the Earth, and human beings stand in between.  But nowadays we have developed artificial intelligence to such a level that it is creating a new reality of its own, an artificial mind which threatens to leave us humans far behind our machines, and then to make man irrelevant. So, one might ask to a Buddhist, as these artificial minds expand and become more powerful, are we pushed more towards Heaven, or alternatively more towards the Earth?

Emanuel Pastreich:

Now, let’s go back to the Batman franchise. What is the most striking correspondence between the themes in Batman movies and American politics?

Guiseppe Sacco:

Strangely enough, the most striking correspondence between issues in the Batman movies and the American political problems can be found in the two films directed by Joel Schumacher. This fact is odd because Schumacher was brought in to replace Tim Burton as a director not only because Burton himself was reluctant to produce any sequel after the first “Batman” of 1989, but also because the second Burton movie had been deemed too gory for a young audience. Warner Bros wanted the franchise to continue with politically “lighter” movies.

It was not a good decision from the perspective of profits. The two Schumacher movies were the least successful at the box office.  They are, however the ones that most clearly address social and environmental issues.

The second movie directed by Joel Schumacher, Batman Forever, (1995) presents the most striking social critique.  The movie foresees the dark alliance of money and technology to control the mind, to limit the imagination and the creativity of the people. His linkage of big money with information technology as the core issue behind the corruption of a free society is striking.

 

The other Batman movie directed by Joel Schumacher deals with extremely serious political issues as well. Mother Nature, the botanist turned environmental terrorist who strikes out in defense of the ecosystem against pollution and destruction of flora brought on by industrialization is a striking figure. As she moves from the realm of common sense defense of nature to disturbing acts of terrorism, she embodies nature repressed by industry that revolts against man and against modern society.  She is the Unabomber unleashed. The movie describes scientists with no sense of service to society who blindly pursue personal benefits through the destruction of the environment.

Emanuel Pastreich:

What about the two most recent movies of the Batman franchise?

Guiseppe Sacco:

We have seen that, after 9/11, Christopher Nolan, an Englishman, came along to direct three political movies, the first one being the already mentioned Batman Begins. He then made two more Batman films that portray a complete disillusionment with institutions of democracy and justice. The Dark Knight is perhaps the greatest masterpiece, and it had a deep political impact. In this movie, Nolan raises suggests that an anarchic wave could rise from the bottom of American society. The impending chaos results not from some enemy coming from overseas but from the structural flaws of the system.

The most remarkable character in The Dark Knight is the villain of the story, the Joker who is transformed from a gangster with political ambitions into a thoughtful and logical antagonist who challenges Gotham City’s aspirations to a decent government with his extremist critique of the entirety of society. He demands of the audience a degree of sympathy for his arguments. Although his criminal behavior is framed as evil within the primary narrative, he jumps out as a personality who offers a “desperate  hope” in nihilism.

The movie was shot in 2007, at the very moment when the Obama phenomenon created great expectations in US politics, and even more so in Europe, which was ecstatic. This process is reflected in the movie where the Gothamites hope to elect an honest magistrate capable of cracking down on corruption and crime. And the possibility looks so feasible that Batman himself considers his role as vigilante and a protector of the city to have become redundant, and consider retiring.

As it happens in cases like this, when a community is presented with a historical opportunity to reform itself, the main obstacle is are weight of previous disappointments, and the resulting extremist views.

Both obstacles are represented by the Joker, who no only is unconvinced that the honest magistrate can suceed against the establishment and its corrupt ways, but actually sets in motion various events aiming at proving that he is bound to fail. In the end, when one of these traps actually derails him from the right path, and creates panic and chaos among the Gothamites, the Joker suggests that his ambition to bring anarchy and chaos to Western society has noble purpose:

“You were a schemer….. You had plans…..

Now, look where I got you ……

I just did what I do best: I took your plan and I turned it on itself..…

Look what I did to this city with a few drums of gas and a couple of bullets. ……

I am an agent of chaos. And you know this thing about chaos?……

Chaos is fair…..”

Young people who saw this Batman movie were attracted to and fascinated by the Joker as a romantic and heroic character, a development that posed a serious political problem.

Let us consider that, starting from around the year 2000, the discourse with the movie shifted in a very meaningful manner. No longer was there the movie on the one side and the critics and the public on the other side.  A third actor appeared and the fans discussed the movies openly on their specialized chat lines. Starting with Batman Begins, the first film for which on-line discussions were significant, there was a space for young viewers to discuss the movies online.  And this gives enormous waves of interpretation and responses that go far beyond the scope of the source material, and the generation of new content. The online discussion in cyberspace became a major force in determining the meaning of the film, and a force that pays little attention to established wisdom and political correctness. Politically, the response of the youths on the social media was unambiguous. The Joker became to them an iconic representation of the rebel fighting against the system, like Lucifer in Paradise Lost grasping his own twisted freedom.

Warner Bros was frightened by this development and engaged in damage control. It first produced a 45 minutes TV program in which experts argued, rather unconvincingly, that the Joker was just a mad man and there was no political morale to be drawn from the story. Then went as far as to pressure Christopher Nolan to produce another Batman movie with an antagonist less twisted than the Joker. The contradictory request was to produce an enemy who was less charismatic than the Joker, but would replace the Joker in the imaginations of the audience.

Emanuel Pastreich: 

What specifically made the Joker a heroic figure for the audience? 

 

Guiseppe Sacco:

For example, the Joker goes out and robs banks in the movie. But all the banks he robs are mafia banks, banks run by organized crime to handle their illegally acquired money. Thus one element of Joker’s popularity can be seen in the light of what a large share of the public opinion, at least since 2006, considers the massive, unpunished, criminal activity of bankers in the United States. Moreover, when the Joker gets the money out of the banks, he burns it. Suggesting that he considers the value of money, the production of money as being itself part of a flawed system.

Emanuel Pastreich:

But the director must have known from the beginning that the Joker figure would have a certain ambiguity as a villain, and a certain appeal. 

 

Guiseppe Sacco:

Yes, of course, the character of the Joker included intentional ambiguity.  The director did not foresee the fascination that Americans would have with this character as an anti-system folk hero. The Joker evolved into a role model, an ideological reference point, for young men in the West seeking an alternative stance.

Emanuel Pastreich: 

And what about the most recent movie of the franchise, The Dark Knight Rises?

Guiseppe Sacco:

Nolan had not planned to make a sequel of The Dark Knight. But Warner Bros was so shocked of the wave of political discontent that had been revealed by that movie, that they wanted to get out an alternative Batman movie out soon with a less controversial villain. The death of the actor Heath Andrew Ledger whose performance had made Joker an extremely convincing character also provided a favorable opportunity.

This is the origin of The Dark Knight Rises, wherein some elements that the young public have been kept, such as showing Wall Street occupied by a group of revolutionary leftists, but Batman’s political role becomes conservative, even reactionary. The movie included plenty of references to the French revolution of 1789 and to the Commune de Paris, the first, short-lived communist “state” on history. The movie stresses the crimes committed on both occasions.

Emanuel Pastreich: 

What are we to make of the character of the Penguin?

 

Guiseppe Sacco:

The Penguin draws his power from his personal history. He was rejected as a child by his parents and cast into the river that flows through Gotham City. But contrary to expectations, not only did he not die, but he grew stronger, and more beastly. Like Moses again, his cradle floats down the river that takes him to pool of the penguins in the Gotham Zoo. That’s where he grows and becomesinfluential, so that he eventually leads an army of penguins to attack the corrupt human society that had rejected him.

But this is not another variant of Moses’ tale. The poor baby who suffers the most terrible injustice, does not obtain wisdom from the experience, but he grows more cruel and more twisted as a result.  There is no redemption and the morale flies in face of the fundamental assumption that suffering will make for a better, wiser person. The movie is polemic and colored by gore, revealing the distinct vision of Tim Burton, the Director of the first two movies of the Batman franchise.

Emanuel Pastreich: 

What might you say about the butler Alfred?

 

Guiseppe Sacco: :

The butler Alfred is significant above all because his character is not American. He is actually “un-American”. He’s an Englishman who, in his young years, has served as a military officer in the British colony of Burma.  This past experience has shaped his personality and his view of the world. Whenever there is a discussion about how to respond to a new threat, Alfred presents a vision for fighting that draws on the experience of colonial wars.

There is a crucial moment when Alfred clashes with Batman.  Batman is puzzled by the Joker. The Joker is a sincere and idealistic anarchist who cannot be corrupted, seduced, bought or persuaded by anyone. He does not act for personal benefit and beneath the surface lie the best of intentions. It is rather the tragedy of his personal life that drives him to the extremes of terrorism.

That is the terrible threat of the Joker. Bruce Wayne struggles with himself as to how the campaign against the Joker can be justified.  But Alfred does not share his concerns and scruples; he states bluntly that reform and democracy simply cannot work.  He argues that Batman not waste time trying to bring men to justice or to reform them.  He dismisses the Kennedy-like honest magistrate that heads Gotham City and criticizes Batman who thinks that elimination the Joker will create the conditions for fairness and good government.

At one moment, Alfred the butler remarks: “There are enemies you cannot buy.  Enemies you cannot find agreement with or intimidate. You cannot negotiate with them.  We had somebody like that in Burma.  We called him the Thief.  We couldn’t defeat him, so we just burned down the entire forest where he was hiding.”

Alfred presents the colonial idea of governance, as practiced by the British and the French in the colonies, and later by the Nazis in occupied Europe. There is no need for rationalization or idealism in Alfred’s world. The only language to be spoken to the “natives” is the language of brutal collective punishment. If there is an enemy in the village, just kill everyone in the village. But this is an argument that Batman, as an American cannot accept.  We see here a clear clash between the colonial thinking of the British and the anti-colonial thinking of the Americans.

Emanuel Pastreich: 

Well, it may be that Americans could not accept the colonial mentality, but they managed to figure out ways to do the same thing any way. Look at the case of Vietnam. The Americans came in to offer a new vision of what was possible. Americans presented democracy and freedom in the place of the colonial legacy. But in a few years they were burning villages and dropping napalm in a form of collective punishment that was more brutal than the French. As Graham Greene describes in his novel The Quiet American, the idealism was a blank slate that could justify just about anything.

 

Guiseppe Sacco:

 

No, I would not put it that way. Of course, in war, there are grave injustices. And even with the best intentions, the control through the use violence becomes impossible to control entirely through law. But fundamentally, whereas the English went into the world to pursue the aggrandizement of their country and for personal and collective profit, to expel from Britain into the colonies individuals and social classes that were political dangerous, the Americans went into the world thinking that they could change it, that they could make it a better place.  We do see something of this impulse in the case of France as well.  After the French Revolution, when the French started to rebuild a colonial empire, they had to invent the idea of France as a  “civilizing nation,” because otherwise they couldn’t have explained why the country of liberty and equality was trying to enslave people in Africa or Indochina.

Because of this anti-colonial strand, it is not possible for the United States to become a pure imperial power. And a very heavy price has been paid when it breaks not only the rules of war, but also its own rules, and contradicts the very narrative of itself it uses to enlist the consensus of its own population.

In the case of Vietnam, the price to be paid took the form of a revolt of American young people against the draft. For a variety of reasons, although not all of them very idealistic, the US public opinion turned against war and would not tolerate the actions taken. The Vietnam War was lost, as it is well known, neither because of a military defeat, nor because of the rather heavy human losses, but because of the collapse of the domestic front. In a way, Batman’s anti-colonialist stand attitude has won against Alfred’s imperialistic attitude.

Emanuel Pastreich:

What do you make of the upcoming movie “Batman Versus Superman?”  

 

Guiseppe Sacco:

Batman and Superman structurally belong to two different universes.  Batman is a metaphor for human experience, and the use of such metaphors can be extremely useful to perceive aspects of reality otherwise imperceptible.  But Superman is entirely different. He is a produce of war propaganda, or of pure escapism. Superman certainly offers us insights into American culture, but he does not himself address the contradictions and tensions within that culture. So, what sense does it make to invent an improbable clash between characters that have always, and logically, lived on two parallel lines that could never converge?

 

I cannot give an answer, before seeing the movie. But, having only seen a trailer for it, I can only hypothesize why such a mix-up has been undertaken.

Let me start by suggesting that in recent years America encountered an economic and ideological crisis no less serious than that of the 1930s, if perhaps better controlled in its most visible aspects. Moreover, American domestic politics have become partisan and radicalized to a degree not seen since the civil war. Add to that that the clash between rich and poor is becoming more systemic, suggesting a literal class struggle. The evolution of media has blunted the impact of such critical social dislocation, but it has not stopped the process.

The movie industry is also evolving in response to this economic, political and ideological crisis. As it is well know, history repeats itself, first as a tragedy, then as a farce.

Perhaps someone thought that by offering to the masses on the big screen a farcical version of the present, a simplistic version of the much more serious looming social horror, they could diminish perception of the tragic reality, perhaps in the way that a lunch offered at 8AM can prevent you feeling hungry for the rest of the day.

Producing a fantastic movie that features super-human saviors, supernatural events and epic conflicts offers an alternative to the world of daily struggle for survival in which we live, to the world of real, but banal, horror stories. People would come out of the movie theatres with the feeling that, justice in the end always wins, by the hand of a super-hero, however. If somehow we can portray that horror in a fantastic way, and treat it in a fantastic way, then perhaps we can exorcise it.

But the Batman franchise has never served this purpose. The debate on self and society in the Batman movies had been judged to have become too serious—too closely tied to real problems. Introducing into the Batman franchise, a movie in which he has to deal with an unrealistic superhero endowed with ridiculous supernatural powers, downgraded the franchise as well as the character, putting him in the realm of the two dimensional defenders of the earth against alien forces. I wonder if this critical inquiry into the nation’s culture is being subverted.

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