We Need to Talk About Batman

Posted by @ 8:01 am on September 3rd, 2012

I want to argue that the conceit of Batman having a secret identity no longer works.

It once did, back in the 1930s and ’40s, when Batman was essentially a badass moonlighting in tights, socking hoodlums and thugs in their jaws. At that time, the extent of the audience’s suspension of disbelief was that the fellow wouldn’t get shot.

How simple, compared to today. The Batman of 2012 is a one-man paramilitary force capable of investing hundreds of millions of dollars into being the Caped Crusader—a one-man Blackwater USA! Frank Miller was right: there’s no way that the U.S. government would permit this guy to exist:

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, page 84 (detail)

One of fantasy’s enticements is that it can be different from our reality. Superman can just take off and fly; his power doesn’t have to be explained by out physical laws. (Indeed, it can’t be!) And the more folks try to realistically account for how Bruce Wayne does his Batman thing—and pulls it off without anyone figuring it out—the sillier it gets.

After we finished watching The Dark Knight Rises (which I reviewed last week), my companions and I went home and watched Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin. And people can heap all the shit they want on that film, but one way it totally works is that, at the end of the day, it doesn’t strain plausibility the way Nolan’s Dark Knight movies do. (Of course, it manages this by having no plausibility, being camp through and through.)

One of my favorite Batman adaptations is the late 1960s television series (and pursuant movie), mainly because it’s consistent, terrific fun. You don’t have to spend any time whatsoever wondering how Bruce Wayne gets away with being Batman. Indeed, in my reading, the show had nothing at all to do with the comics’ “I must become a symbol to strike fear in the hearts of criminals” orthodoxy. Rather, Adam West’s Bruce Wayne was just a bored millionaire who dressed up as Batman for kicks. And the supervillains he squared off against—Bam!, Pow!—the Riddler, the Joker, the Penguin, Catwoman, King Tut, Mr. Freeze—were Gotham City’s other millionaires. Once a week, they’d knock one another around, then meet up somewhere for drinks. It was their fetish-dress version of a social club. (Better put, it was their version of the Hellfire Club.)

But today, we don’t seem to love fun as much as they did in the 1960s. Instead, we love our current, paramilitary Batman.

The love of that Batman is at least partially a love of gadgets and weaponry. We attend these new movies to gape at the Dark Knight’s awesome toys. Appropriately, each installment features some bitchin’ new vehicle:

Batman Begins—The Tumbler!

The Dark Knight—The Batpod!

And now! The Dark Knight Rises brings you—The Bat!

Overlooked in Nolan’s trilogy is the fact that Bruce Wayne has, out of plausible necessity—become an arms dealer. We’re told offhandedly throughout these movies that Wayne Enterprises does contract work for the military (hence Lucius Fox’s Division of Ingenious Delights). Nolan tries to soften this somewhat—going out of his way, for instance, in Batman Begins, to establish that Bruce Wayne’s dad built hospitals and monorails. Later, in The Dark Knight Rises, Fox states that it was only after Thomas Wayne’s death that “Wayne Enterprises set up fourteen different defense subsidiaries”:

Fox: “For years I’ve been shuttering and consolidating all the different prototypes under one roof. My roof.”
Bruce Wayne: “Why?”
Fox: “To keep them from falling into the wrong hands.”

Bruce Wayne continues this line of thought, after his fortune gets wiped out:

Fox [handing Bruce a newspaper]: “Page three. Seems you made a series of large put options on the futures exchange, verified by thumbprint. Those options expired at midnight last night. Long term, we may be able to prove fraud, but for now, you’re completely broke. And Wayne Enterprises is about to fall into the hands of John Daggett.”
Bruce Wayne: “The weapons. We can’t let Daggett get his hands on Applied Sciences.”
Fox: “No. Applied Sciences is all locked up and off the books.”

Both of these exchanges clearly foreshadow a plot turn later in the film, when the weapons fall (quite literally!) into the hands of the supervillain Bane. But notice that Fox tells Bruce Wayne that the Bat was a “Defense Department project” intended for “tight-geometry urban pacification.”

I know that this Bat is supposed to wow me, but, truthfully, it horrifies me. Because what the hell is that—”tight-geometry urban pacification”? And what third world country is that intended for? Or might the thing have domestic applications? … Might I suggest that the Defense Department is already wrong enough hands? And might I also suggest that street criminals, terrorists, and deranged everyday citizens can get their hands on terrible weapons largely because the United States loves to flood the world with cheap arms? (Or am I overstepping my bounds?)

It’s a fucked-up guy who, in response to his parents having been gunned down by a crook, then uses their fortune to build bigger guns. (He may not personally use them, but he does build them, along with many other weapons for the DOD.)

Mr. Nolan, despite his supposed interest in realism, has nothing to say about this contradiction; note, too that, in his films, the US military stands as nothing but a force for good. (The worst crime in Rises is to not trust Joseph Gordon-Levitt when he wants to ferry orphans across a bridge.) These Bat-movies are as patriotic as Michael Bay films.

Nolan’s not alone here: the entire current Bat-franchise is, as far as I can see, regarding this topic, mum.

What matters instead is that Bruce Wayne’s wonderful toys can fall into your hands.

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