23 July 2012

And where is the Batman?

Over the weekend I, like thousands of others around the world, went along to see the new Batman movie. I have a weakness for big screen popcorn movies, my thinking being that if I am going to shell out the price of a good book on a ninety-minute piece of ephemera then it should be something that actually needs to be seen on a giant screen, and would suffer somewhat from being relegated to a tiny box in the corner of your living room. My shelves may be lined with worthy commentaries on the tortured nature of human existence, but my summers belong to lens flares, implausible premises and loud, loud explosions.

It was impossible, however, to view this film as simply another Hollywood blockbuster, events in Aurora made certain of that, and as the opening credits faded and the violence began I couldn't have been the only one in the theatre shifting uncomfortably in my seat, questioning the connection between society's acceptance of cinematic violence and our own culpability in this week's Colorado tragedy.

I am no stranger to these questions, as for most of my life I have been an enthusiastic reader of comics and graphic novels, ever since at the tender age of twelve when I would sacrifice the comfort of the bus and walk home from school once day each week to surreptitiously exchange my bus fair in my local newsagents for that week's 2000AD, the British comic that gave birth to one of the most famous proponents of violent justice, Judge Dredd. Even at that age, however, I understood that the world portrayed in its pages was a satire on the US love of violence, inspired by Bronson's Death Wish and Eastwood's Dirty Harry movies, and a critique of what many of the writers saw was a march towards a totalitarian and fascist police state of the future, whose seeds were being sown under the Hayekian fantasies of Thatcher and Reagan. Like Orwell's dark vision of a future Britain, Judge Dredd reflected the worst of contemporary UK society and stood as a warning to its readership, young and all as they were.

American comics, however, rarely possess these same layers of complexity, reflecting perhaps the less ambiguous sensibilities of a readership raised in a black and white land of moral absolutes. The introduction of subtlety and irony into US comics in the late eighties and early nineties can be traced back almost entirely to the mass migration of British writers and artists, most of whom were alumni of 2000AD, to the US in search of wider audiences and bigger paychecks. The other turning point for the industry at this time was undoubtedly the publication of the four issue series that became The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller in 1986, which featured an old and battered Bruce Wayne coming out of retirement in a dystopian future to restore law and order one fist and cracked skull at a time. Praised for its grittiness and stark storytelling, this was a world away from the camp Ka-Pow and Kerrranng of the Adam West TV shows of the Sixties that the mainstream media would have been more familiar with, and heralded a new era of edgier storytelling and more extreme violence that would dominate the rest of the decade and most of the Nineties, and "Dark Knighting" became a favoured term for rebooting a comic with a new harsher tone.

Growing up with Judge Dredd, I always read The Dark Knight with the same biases, that it was a social commentary exposing dangerous flaws in the character of contemporary society, that as you began to identify with the protagonist and his methodology, a feeling of discomfort and unease should arise that would force you to question your own complicity in the fostering of the dystopia presented within. However revisiting it twenty years later, and in the light of Miller's recent appallingly anti-Islamic Holy Terror, where a thinly-veiled Batman-esque vigilante takes on Al-Qaida, you realise that in fact no critique was intended, that Miller does indeed espouse swift and violent action against enemies of his moral code, and that his vision of Batman really is nothing more than a Tea Party militia man fighting for his libertarian fantasy of a world where the wealthy are unburdened by the government, and the underclass who cannot fend for themselves without disturbing the elite are summarily dispatched with extreme prejudice.

Late last year as Zuccotti Park filled with thousands of people coming together to try and effect positive change on a level not seen in generations, and Occupy movements were emerging around the globe, Miller was moved to respond, writing on his blog that:

"Everybody’s been too damn polite about this nonsense:

The “Occupy” movement, whether displaying itself on Wall Street or in the streets of Oakland (which has, with unspeakable cowardice, embraced it) is anything but an exercise of our blessed First Amendment. “Occupy” is nothing but a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness. These clowns can do nothing but harm America.

“Occupy” is nothing short of a clumsy, poorly-expressed attempt at anarchy, to the extent that the “movement” – HAH! Some “movement”, except if the word “bowel” is attached - is anything more than an ugly fashion statement by a bunch of iPhone, iPad wielding spoiled brats who should stop getting in the way of working people and find jobs for themselves.

This is no popular uprising. This is garbage. And goodness knows they’re spewing their garbage – both politically and physically – every which way they can find.

Wake up, pond scum. America is at war against a ruthless enemy.

Maybe, between bouts of self-pity and all the other tasty tidbits of narcissism you’ve been served up in your sheltered, comfy little worlds, you’ve heard terms like al-Qaeda and Islamicism.

And this enemy of mine — not of yours, apparently - must be getting a dark chuckle, if not an outright horselaugh - out of your vain, childish, self-destructive spectacle.

In the name of decency, go home to your parents, you losers. Go back to your mommas’ basements and play with your Lords Of Warcraft.

Or better yet, enlist for the real thing. Maybe our military could whip some of you into shape.

They might not let you babies keep your iPhones, though. Try to soldier on.

Christopher Nolan's current movie trilogy claims Miller's vision as its parentage, rather than The Caped Crusader of the sixties and seventies, and nowhere is this lineage more obvious than in this week's concluding chapter, The Dark Knight Rises, which wears its colours on its sleeve with more than just its adoration of violence as the solution to all of society's woes.

We are introduced to one of the genre's few strong female characters, the morally ambiguous Catwoman, who justifies her acts of larceny against Gotham's wealthy elite as an act of class war, a strike against those born into a life of privilege. Her rhetoric of struggle is quickly exposed by Wayne as a smokescreen to hide her own material desires, she steals not to restore the scales of economic justice but to better her own circumstances, and as the film closes her reward for siding with The Dark Knight is a life of relaxed luxury in the bosom of the 1%.

This theme continues with the film's central protagonist, an avenger darker even than Batman on a quest to cleanse a Gotham he sees without any redeeming features, the towering muscleman known as Bane. He takes over the city and hands control to the citizenry, freeing them from civil authorities and the police, and in a number of set-pieces he calls out to them, urging them to rise up against the privileged and wealthy elite who have long oppressed them, using the language of Occupy as he frees the city's most dangerous criminals to run Stalinist show trials where the rich are terrorized and the poor howl for blood, the embodiment of the 'Roaring Abysmal Beast' that rampages against Jack London's Iron Heel. The city descends into mob-rule, which was Bane's plan all along, to show that the citizenry of Gotham are corrupt from the ground up and not fit to live, and the clock counts down as he prepares to wipe the slate clean with the destruction of the city and all who call it home.

The citizenry cannot rule themselves without turning into savage animals, the language of liberation is only a callous trick used by evil manipulators bent on the destruction of liberty and the only hope for salvation lies in the brutal violence of the champion of the 1%, a lone voice cast out by his city because his tough love methodology offended their liberal sensibilities.

Nolan's trilogy is true to Miller's vision right to its very core and it is this, and not the guns, the explosions or all the physical brutality, that is the true violence at the heart of these films.

Comic-book archetypes are wide and varied, from the bullied adolescent Spiderman undergoing strange transformations within his body that any teenage comic reader can immediately relate to, to the outsider forced to assimilate into an alien culture and hide his true background that reflected the traumas of Superman's Jewish creators in 1930's America. In this decade of vast wealth disparity where a tiny minority has reaped the rewards of neo-liberal ultra-capitalism at the expense of the world at large, the new celluloid gods raised high on a platform for the adoration of the masses reflect not the fantasies of these outsiders or adolescents but serve instead to reenforce the hegemony of the elites.

Batman, like his golden-clad reflection Iron Man who fronted The Avengers earlier this year, is a paragon of our ruling kleptocrarcy, born into wealth and privilege and using all the toys that such a position brings to enforce his vision of society on the world around, bypassing civil structures he disagrees with and acting on behalf of a people he believes incapable of looking after themselves. The Dark Knight tells us that our government is lazy or corrupt, that we are incapable of managing our own lives and that the tough love of the 1% is for our own good, that austerity is the price we pay for their protection and that the voices of civil opposition are the forked tongues of an evil incarnate who will betray us as they plot our downfall.

There is an insidious philosophical violence at the heart of this film, and it is one that does not need a deranged and damaged mind to take root in and foster destruction.



At 6:09 pm, Blogger 2BiT said...

Howard Chaykins 'American Flagg' (1983) is probably worth a mention as one of the early semi-satirical, dystopian US soopah-hero type comics. Still quite a crazy read...


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