Does Nolan’s Batman make people crazy?

Go look in your copy of Miller's Dark Knight.

Arnold Crimp

Not long after I heard about the so-called ‘Batman Shooting’ at the Century Theater in Aurora, Colorado, I remembered a similar incident from Frank Miller’s seminal Batman comic, The Dark Knight Returns.  A single page depicts Arnold Crimp, an obvious schizophrenic, opening fire on the audience at a porn movie.  I am hardly the only person to notice this odd coincidence.  A number of people on-line and in traditional media have offered their views, many of them radically misinterpreting that single page.  Miller’s intent seems pretty clear to me.  Crimp’s interior monolog cites ‘Father Don’ and backward-masking on Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” as motives for the shooting, but says nothing about Batman.  In fact, the shooting is only linked to Batman by a newscaster shown in the final panel of the page.  Miller seems to be saying that the media is eager to blame Batman for violence he did not inspire.

With an introduction like that, you might reasonably expect me to spend the rest of this post defending Batman and his most recent cinematic incarnation.  I wish I could.  I support free expression, and I’ve enjoyed Nolan’s Batman trilogy, both as entertainment and as social commentary.  But there is something about Batman, particularly Nolan’s Batman, that seems to bring out the crazies.

First, there were the well publicized death threats against Marshall Fine, whose largely negative review of The Dark Knight Rises led Rotten Tomatoes to unplug its comments feature for the first time ever.  Next came the shooting itself, about which a great deal has already been written, none of it very enlightening.

If that had been all, I would be left with little more than an uneasy feeling in the back of my skull and very little to add to the conversation.  But three or four days before either of these incidents, I read an unusual article in Film Comment, one that adds a new dimension to argument over Batman as a public touchstone.  J. Hoberman’s “Cine Obamarama” deals mainly with black Presidents in film, but devotes a small section to the Caped Crusader.  Specifically, he describes how various political candidates have responded to Nolan’s movies.  To quote from Hoberman’s article:

Those teeth!  That flag!  Aagghh!

John McCain, Batman Fan

“The summer of 2008 also belonged to the being that Senator McCain was eager to identify as his favorite superhero: Batman…  The Dark Knight was rich with 9/11 references but even more insistent was the movie’s ongoing meditation on civic responsibility, due process, and the legitimacy of torture.  The Joker was Bin Laden in greasepaint.  Batman, not coincidentally the richest man in Gotham City, was understood as our leader against the master terrorist–and Batman recognized no limits.  Right-wing pundits gratefully embraced the movie as a glorification of their fantasy.”

The idea that any presidential candidate would so eagerly identify himself with Batman, a vigilante law-breaker and (in some versions) borderline fascist is frankly disturbing.  It would be like admitting to an admiration for Richard Nixon.  As if that weren’t bad enough, Hoberman closes his discussion of The Dark Knight with this horrid little factoid:

“A poster applying Heath Ledger’s Joker makeup to President Obama began appearing at Tea Party rallies during the summer of 2009.”

Trust me, you probably don't want to see this anyway.

And then there’s Christopher Nolan himself.  In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Nolan had this to say about Bruce Wayne:

“I find him a very aspirational figure… the ways he tries to push himself, physically and mentally, and dedicate himself ruthlessly to a cause… there’s something obsessive about that.  Even disturbing.  But there’s something admirable about it, too.”

Or is there?  Is it right to admire a figure, even a fictional one, that arouses so much bizarre public behavior?  I enjoy Batman as a character, but the more popular he becomes, the more I begin to fear what he stands for, what people might decide is acceptable because of his example.

Frankly, I’m not sure what I’m trying to say with all of the above, except that I’m worried.  I’m worried as a citizen and as a father.  I’m worried about a world where Batman is the best hero we’ve got.  For a few minutes in a theater in Colorado, I’m sure there were people who devoutly wished that Batman was real.  But on the whole, I think we’d be better off without him.

Dave Hurwitz

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2 Responses to “Does Nolan’s Batman make people crazy?”

  1. It is an on-going struggle for our society to control the vast death and misery due to tobacco smoking. Some tobacco companies have gone as far as to systematically search for ways to optimize nicotine addiction, just to boost their profits. Similarly, some companies have developed impressive expertise for the marketing of violence. It seems inevitable that we will continue to be subjected to increasingly horrific depictions of violence, in ever larger quantities, churned out by the “entertainment” industry. My guess is that we must endure another three or four decades of escalating “fantasy violence” before the science comes together that will motivate government regulation of violence in the “entertainment industry.

  2. Any Tea Partiers who identify w/ Batman because of his willingness to use extralegal methods in his battle against the Joker (whom I agree is a Bin Laden-esque figure, at least in the way the general public perceived Bin Laden’s motivations for 9/11) willfully forget that Batman *does* have limits. There are lines the Joker will cross that Batman can’t. This was one of the central themes of The Dark Knight, and a post-9/11 conundrum that neocons would have done well to wrestle longer with their consciences about. (What does it say about America when we reduce ourselves to the level of a common terrorist to combat the terrorists?)

    The character of Batman is theoretically about serving justice in a city where the system fails to do so, but he’s also rooted in revenge over his parents’ deaths. Not to mention that he’s a self-appointed rich dude who has no more or less right to fight crime than you or I (but “gets away with it” in large part because of his wealth — gadgets, free time to spend finding himself in Asian prisons and training in every martial art, etc). He’s both easy and hard to root for.

    I hope Batman isn’t just successful because he kicks ass and plays out a fascist fantasy (although putting aside all of our philosophical qualms about the character, he does kick ass). I would like to think he’s successful because of the complexity of the character, and the moral tug-of-war he represents — one between revenge and justice, necessary vs excessive force, due process vs vigilantism, etc. If nothing else, Nolan’s movies do a good job of raising those questions about the meaning of Batman.

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