Friday, July 25, 2008

Conversation Piece: Batman = George W. Bush?

I've been seeing a bunch of articles positing a possible political undercurrent in the latest Batman movie.  Those on one side of the ensuing debate are claiming the film is a sort of thinly veiled neo-Conservative allegory.

And there are definitely elements of the film that facilitate this interpretation, particularly the moral dilemmas revolving around the use of surveillance and torture in combating a terror-inducing villain (a clear stand-in for conscience-less "evil-doers"?) and the caped (moral) crusader's steadfast war on crime/terror despite his low public approval rating.     

But here is my issue with this analysis: couldn't any classic comic book narrative (and, moreover, most action movies) make for a neo-Con's wet dream? I mean, the classic comic book trope has always been good vs. evil, and the trope is inevitably simplified even further when the arc is limited to 2 and a half hours. That reductionist worldview—always a hallmark of allegory and fable, didactic forms often simplified for children's comprehension—is enough on its own to present parallels between any superhero's moral conflict and neoconservative ideologies.

One of the central tenets of neoconservatism is, after all, the noble lie: the need to unite the polis by presenting a clear enemy, a moral opposition to guide the society away from what Leo Strauss considered the dangerous moral relativism and ultimate nihilism of liberal thinking...

Of course, I realize that comics and graphic novels have evolved a great deal, and frequently focus on extremely complex ethical and philosophical issues. Even The Dark Knight blurs many of the traditional, polemic extremes of superhero-vs-villain antagonisms. And it is maybe exactly that presentation of moral grey areas that would seem to lend support to a Cheney-esque ideology, in which civil liberties could justifiably be sacrificed for the perceived good of the people...


Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and TM & © DC Comics

However, a key component of these interpretations is the assumed affinity between Batman's nemesis (the Joker) and Bush's villain (the Islamic extremists). And it is here that I think the parallel crumbles. The Joker is portrayed as an nihilist with no goal but chaos (he's not an anarchist as some have said, because anarchists have a goal—a society without government). He is half existentialist; half psychopath. Bin Laden, in contrast, is a fundamentalist, and therefore his real-world villainy is linked very much to an ideology and a goal. The Joker provides that great moral fiction: evil. In the real world, evil is the misnomer for a perspective vastly antithetical/antagonistic to our own, or for an extremely deficient or degraded pathology and associated depravities of conscience.

So if Batman appears to approach moral conundrums in line with the policies of Rumsfeld and Cheney, it is only because he lives in a world that is not our own.  If the film contains any commentary on real-world politics, it should be that the neoconservative agenda of the current administration is suited more for the fantasy world of comic books and action movies than for a reality as complex and multi-faceted as our own.  The neoconservative worldview is a mythological one—one that sells a simplified fantasy to the masses and insults our intelligence.  It is our task to recognize the difference between fantasy and reality, in and out of the movie theater.

And anyhow, it's just an action movie!

(What do you think?)

3 comments:

No Radio said...

The thing to keep in mind though is that your concept of "the terrorists" as having real, obtainable political goals is not always the line coming out of the neocon camp. In fact, that rhetoric puts them even closer to the Joker in the film. "They want to destroy our way of life" or "The goal of terrorism is terror".

I mean, Batman's habit of taking on street-level crime is just adding to the oppression of the already economically disadvantaged who are forced to resort to criminal activity to survive in a jobless urban environment anyway. Why doesn't Bats go after the REAL criminals?

You know when Superman started out, he fought almost exlusively aliens and corporate criminals?

Just sayin.

t.a.b. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
t.a.b. said...

That's exactly what bugged me about the film. The kind of black and white, good vs. evil dichotomy that organizes the action in the superhero story archetype simply does not apply to real life (I agree with you, bjk). So, when the dialogue in the movie kept slipping into not-so-veiled (okay, downright talking points-y) contemporary neocon political rhetoric (sometimes a true leader has to do what he thinks is right regardless of public sentiment, it's okay to spy on people if it's for their own good, etc.—--holy moly, they may as well have thrown out a few "stay the course"s or "the surge is working"s) I found it seriously distracting/irritating rather than particularly insightful or even necessary for the story.

We already know going into the movie that Batman is out for the greater good and sometimes he's got to hurt some people to get there; that's, like, the whole point of Batman (and a lot of other superheroes). And we are okay with that; we are okay with Batman and how he does his thing. But we are okay with it because he is fighting (like you said, bjk) a kind of uncharted, superlative evil that does not really exist. OR, even if it does exist somewhere, Joker Evil is NOT what the U.S. is currently battling the the real world. It's just not. The neocons may try to spin it that way to make everyone think they deserve Batman-like vigilante authority, but it's just not the case.

Importing what amounts to current neocon political rhetoric--—rhetoric that has, for the last 5 years, been specifically and pretty much exclusively used to discuss the "war on terror"--—into the Batman dialogue just seemed confusing and weird to me. It didn't add anything to the story, it just rang bells in my head. Yes, duh, Batman should stay the course, because Batman is battling the Joker in GOTHAM FRIGGING CITY. We don't care if Batman spies on people, we don't particularly care if he beats a bad guy to a pulp in an interrogation. He's BATMAN.

And Batman has no bearing on or relevance to the current U.S. political scene. Trying to make him seem relevant by putting war-on-terror jargon in his mouth is ludicrous and maybe could have been funny in a satirical kind of way, except the movie was not satirical. Batman (and Harvey Dent) spouting neocon war-on-terror rhetoric kind of seems like the people making the movie were trying to say something like, "See?? You're okay with Batman beating people up in interrogations and spying on people's personal phone calls and going against public sentiment! Soo... You should be okay with the war on terror too! Woo!" More likely, though, they were just trying to make their movie seem culturally/politically/contemporarily relevant by tossing in some charged rhetoric. But because that rhetoric is so specifically tied to the current war-on-terror situation, it just seemed inappropriate in the Batman context.