Thursday, June 8, 2017
The true story of Batman
There is an Internet motif I think of as "The dream and the reality". It is generally presented as two pictures. The first is the idealized form, let's say a great warrior, exquisitely muscled, covered in becoming and authentic armors, and wielding a mighty and gleaming sword. The second picture is reality, the punchline. It will feature an unshaven, overweight man with crude cardboard facsimiles of armor absurdly strapped to his body with duct tape, wielding a foil sword in what appears to be a badly lit basement trying awkwardly to hold that same heroic pose.
I am not very fond of this motif. I too have dreamed, and it's not like one has never run away with itself on me.
Nevertheless, I have been thinking of this motif. And I have been thinking of Batman.
Certainly Batman is an ideal. A billionaire with amazing gadgets, glamorously fit, stoic and clever, possessing everything he could possibly want, and yet despite that he is a restless fighter for good, a rogue knight of justice in the night, standing outside of the law but ever on its side. So taking that Batman as an ideal, or our first image, I have wondered what might be our appropriate and telling second image. Who is our punchline dreamer?
Think of it. Rich. Wielding his special tweeting phone. Dreaming he is a hero to the oppressed, an unshakeable fighter, but posing ridiculously before an army of cheering toads. Bloated, absurd in self satisfied conviction of his own heroism, he is a delusional joke tearing apart the world in a fever dream.
No one thinks they're the villain.
This is not about Donald Trump.
This is about Batman.
Be careful what you dream of.
Batman is deep in me. I loved Batman and I don't regret it. But the story of my love is not how these comic book hero stories usually go. Comics were nothing to me. It was all, from the earliest possible time, the TV show that spoke to me. It was said in my family that the first word I ever said was "Batman". This checks out if the first word I spoke was at a slightly late 15 months, which is about when the show and its catchy song started.
I may have said plenty of things earlier than that, but if I know my family, they weren't listening.
So Batman. It would have been repeats of the short lived show starring Adam West as Batman that made its later, deeper impressions on me. And despite my early love for him it would never have occurred to me to read a comic of it. I would have been disappointed anyway. That TV sensibility was unique. Indeed, all these hundreds of Batmans later, in comics, TV, games, and god knows how many movies, and still that first instance of Batman's mass media triumph, that silly show with Adam West, was the only piece of art I credit. It was the only one that ever understood, the only one able to apply Batman to what he was properly suited to: Satire.
The colorful and cartoon villains interested less in power and more in anarchy, the endless company men henchmen, the hero's impossible invincibility, the glorification of tech, and the absolute, tortured righteousness of the good guy were all so divorced from how the world really is that they were silly. Batman the TV show didn't try desperately to patch over that dissonance. It didn't try to lie to us about evil and good and power. Instead it opened those gaps wider and reveled in their nonsense; villains making absurd, slow acting destruction devices for the dynamic duo and then leaving them alone to escape, utility gadgets of hilariously convenient specificity ("Quick, Robin, these BatEarPlugs will turn the maddening sound to gentle music!"), and a goodness code so relentlessly observed that it leaves Batman unable to dispose of a ticking bomb because not only does he keep running into nuns as he tries to save the day, but also baby ducks!
This was a show teaching lessons, but not the banal ones about good and evil so much, rather about image and narrative and ideology. Suddenly in the light of a show like that the President of the time, going on TV and talking about how good he was and how righteous we were as a nation, had to take on his share of cartoon silliness. We saw these speeches on Batman! The Viet Cong were not the Joker, ridiculously just wanting to cause mindless trouble. After laughing at it, this simplicity wasn't something we were so well trained to believe anymore. Batman the TV show, deconstructing, exaggerating, and emphasizing for fun the structural flaws in heroism narrative suggested that we might want to open our eyes and look.
All of modern Batman, and most of the modern, bloated, popular superhero oeuvre dates from this fun and silly TV show. But not in kind. Rather against. Now that the absurdity and comedy of Batman had been laid bare Batman was compelled to react and to face reality.
Batman doubled down.
Not with more reality. All the holes were left more or less as they were, but rather with everything looking and feeling and sounding more real. A newly darker, more troubled hero for the gravity and authenticity of it. Scarier, wilder villains. Perfect costumes (no cardboard and duct tape here!), amazingly authentic feeling contemporary gadgets, stunts, actors, cars, and explosions. All with a real world earthiness, in a complicated world that seems like our own.
Yes, there is all the same nonsense; those bespoke gadgets saving the day, good triumphing over evil, miracle after miracle to preserve heroic invincibility, a cartoon pretending to be Shakespeare. It is still a rich gentleman, harnessing the powers of night, virtue, and his station in life to be a savior to us all.
Close your eyes.
I know my small readership is hardly likely to include anyone looking up at President Trump and seeing Batman. My vernacular is even harder to read with eyes closed than it is with eyes open. And I know that one small facet of mass culture, meant mostly for fun and entertainment and profit, can only be a thin slice of who we become as a people on the grand scale of the world. But there are tens of millions of people out there who do not see Donald Trump as a kind of dim-witted Joker, or Penguin, but rather despite everything screaming the contrary, they see Batman.
I think seeing the world clearly comes naturally.
Being stupid takes practice.
Here. I have a Batman for you:
Gotham is owned by a few small families. They've leveraged their inherited wealth to take more and more and carve every law and thought and practice and philosophy of the city to favor them. They own all the TV Stations and ISPs. They own the newspapers and businesses that employ people. They even pay the scholars in the universities. You hear some stories a lot. And you hear some stories not so much at all.
And except for these small families, the Waynes and the like, life is getting worse. The poor grow more hopeless. The working peoples' place erodes and they become hungrier, paying their taxes not to the betterment of their community, but to heedless profiting businesses. The city crumbles except for its glamorous and perfectly kept enclaves.
But wonderfully, as people get poorer, and life on the streets of Gotham gets more desperate, a band of strange and brave heroes arises. Hiding their identities to protect their families they become The Joker, Catwoman, The Penguin, Two-face, and Mr. Freeze. If you live in Gotham you might know them. They might have slipped you a couple hundred dollars when you were at your lowest. You saw them deliver bags of food to your hungry neighbor that, you, working two jobs, could not yourself help. They are Robin Hoods. Stealing in myriad brave and clever ways from the wealthy and helping the poor, they are reviled and demonized on Television as ruthless terrorists. Their crimes, mainly humane ones of theft, are magnified, manufactured, and twisted into ones of chaos and wanton destruction. They are presented as agents of meaningless evil.
On the streets people whisper of them. Too many people know them and they are too good and too colorful for the news reports to destroy. So the smartest man in Gotham's hierarchy, no doubt one of the rare few who is at least somewhat self-made, comes up with a counter narrative. The city needs a colorful hero of its own to compete with these all too colorful heroes. A hero to make the real heroes into villains.
Batman is born.
They dress up one of their popular, millionaire playboys. He can't really fight or solve crimes, but while the police crack down and slaughter and wantonly arrest in the streets, they march him in carefully, and they and their papers and movies and news shows construct stories where he saves the day.
In real Gotham they can't catch these beloved figures of crime, The Joker and the like remain too wily, and too protected by their slummy homes, but no matter. Batman can always fake catch them until the time that the villains reappear mysteriously again. Some people will know the truth, but they won't be very important people, and some people will fully believe the papers and endless news stories about this striking new hero, Batman. But either way, enough people will be scared enough and uncertain enough to create a stasis in the city, which for the powerful of Gotham, is enough to go on with.
Outside of Gotham? Batman is a great hero. How would we know different? And the real heroes, Riddler, Catwoman, sneaking starving old ladies a month of food and some nice medical marijuana, are merely mad, frightening, and entertaining villains as they play out through the rest of the country and the world.
But still they fight on. Penguin, Joker, Poison Ivy, and so on, invading mansions, cracking safes, looting warehouses, and robbing banks, spreading money and goods and hope to a struggling city. Yes, to most of the world they are the worst of villains, or maybe not even real. But only justice matters to them, and empathy, and truth, always truth.
For they know that the truth of the thing is far more important than the image can ever be.