June 24, 2005

Shades of white: fear and justice in Christopher Nolan's Gotham

Batman Begins is, without question, the best Batman film yet.

The competition isn't as fierce as it appears. Batman and Robin and Batman Forever are famously appalling, but Burton's two films do not live up to their vastly over-inflated reputations either. If you doubt that, just remember dweeby Michael Keaton's chin-rubbing Bruce Wayne... Jack Nicholson as the Joker, a performance of stupendous self-indulgence and sneering smugness even by his standards (his every gesture saying, look, folks, I'm way too good for this shit) ... and autistically wooden Kim Basinger as Vikki Vale ....

Danny Baker has rightly observed that 'dark' is now the laziest and most cliched term of approbation in contemporary cultural appreciation. Frank Miller is, as no-one can fail to know, the writer most often credited for turning comics 'dark', and it is Miller's whisky-soured version of Batman, not the Rauschenbergian Pop Art 1960s model, that is now the cliche that must be overcome.


Miller's legacy has been ambivalent at best. Reflect on the fact that his rise, like that of Alan Moore, coincides with the total failure of comics to produce any new characters with mythic resonance. Miller and Moore's 'maturity' corresponds with comics' depressive and introspective adolescence, and for them, as for all adolescents, the worst sin is exuberance. Hence their style is deflationary, taciturn: consider all those portentous pages, stripped of dialogue, in which barely anything happens, and contrast them with the crazed effervescence of the typical Marvel page in the 60s. Miller's pages have all the brooding silence of a moody fifteen-year old boy. Don't be in any doubt, people: the silence signifies.

M and M traded on a lack of confidence that had begun to cloud the medium and on a disingenuous male adolescent desire to both have comics and to feel superior to them. But their demythologization, inevitably, produced only a new mythology, one that poses as more sophisticated than the one it has displaced but is in fact an utterly predictable world of 'moral ambivalence' in which 'there are only shades of grey'. Read all those puff pieces on Sin City and weep. If I have to read ONE MORE Sin City review that starts like this: 'Thought comics were only about square-jawed super-types who wear their underwear outside their tights? Think again...' No, no, no: thanks to Miller and his ilk, when we think of comics now the associations that come to mind are raddled alcoholics, corrupt cops and crack whores. It's about time that Miller stopped being congratulated for bringing into comics a noir-lite cartoon nihilist bleakness that has long been a cliche in films and books. The 'darkness' of this vision is in fact curiously reassuring and comforting, and not only because of the sentimentality it can never extiripate. (Miller's 'hard-bitten' world reminds me not so much of noir, but of the simulation of noir in Potter's Singing Detective, the daydream-fantasies of a cheap hack, thick with misognyny and misanthropy and cooked in intense self-loathing.)

The idea that there is no Good is one of the central assumptions of what we might call Capitalist Realism. Capitalist Realism insists on the irredeemability of human beings, the impossibility of Justice, the inevitability of corruption ... It's hardly surprising that this model of realism came to the fore in comics at the time when Reaganomics and Thatcherism were presenting themselves as the only solutions to America and Britain's ills.

So it is gratifying that Batman Begins is not about 'shades of grey' at all, but rather shades of white. It is a film not about amorality and Evil, but Good. In many ways, it is the film that Zizek wanted Revenge of the Sith to be: a film, that is to say, which dares to hypothesize that Evil might result from an excess of Good.

Nolan has dispensed with Burton's psychotherapeutic Soap Oprahisms (Joker falls in a vat of acid, so immediately wants to take over zeee vooorld) in favour of a modern psychoanalysis that might have come out of the pages of Zupancic's Ethics of the Real.

There's just enough of the American Psycho in Bale's troubled performance as Bruce Wayne to give it a slightly disturbing quality. Wayne is haunted by an superfluity of fathers (and a near absence of mothers: I don't think that his mother says a word). First, there is Thomas Wayne, a rose-tinted, soft focus moral paragon, the very personification of philanthropic Capital, the 'man who built Gotham' (but not without building his own sim-Brit aristocratic pile outside the city limits too). The structural delusion here (and it is a delusion shared by our own glorious leaders) concerns the separating out of rampant crime from Capital, as if there were no causal link between the former and the latter.


In keeping with the Batman myth established in the 30's comics, Wayne Senior is killed in a random street robbery, surviving only as a moral wraith tormenting the conscience of his orphaned son. Second, there is R'as Al Ghul, Wayne's hyperstitional mentor-guru. The young Wayne is convinced that his father's death is his fault, but Al Gool tries to convince him that his parents' death is his father's responsibility, because Wayne Pere did not know how to Act.... Wayne is not acting out a Hamlet-like version of the Oedipus complex, so much as he is tormented by the oscilation between two Oedipus complexes: the first in which the mighty Father is a moral exemplar who must be avenged but who cannot be equalled; the second in which the father is a weak-willed failure, 'the old man at the crossroads'. He is aided in this conflict by Michael Caine's Alfred, the 'maternal' father figure who offers the young Bruce unconditional love.

The struggle between Fathers plays out as a conflict between Fear and Justice. Fear, as wielded by the Miller-invented crime boss Falcone and the superbly chilling Scarecrow with his - get this - 'weaponized hallucinogens' (the scenes in which Scarecrow tries these little tricks out are creepily, vertiginously psychotic), and Justice, which, as the young Wayne learns, is something more than revenge. The question R'as Al Ghul poses to Wayne is: are you, with your conscience, your respect for life, too weak-willed, too frightened to do what is Necessary? Can you Act? Wayne is forced to decide: is Al Ghul what he claims to be, the ice cold instrument of impersonal Justice, or its grotesque parody? The ultimate Evil in the film turns out to originate from Ghul's excessive zeal, not from some hoaky diabolism.

Fear and Trembling, indeed. As with Russell T Davies' Dr Who (Rose in the last episode: 'he showed another way to live, a better way'), Batman Begins restores to the hero an existentialist drama that finally puts to flight the niggling, knowing sprites of PoMo that have sucked his blood for way too long. Suddenly, Decision, not citation is central. Katie Holmes (who, it has to be said, has a television rather than a cinema face) might not be wholly convincing as the DA's assistant-cum-Wayne love interest, but she gets the film's best existentialist slogan: 'It's not who you are inside that counts, it's what you DO that makes you what you are.' (A sentiment that couldn't be less in step with US therapy-hegemony.)


From the start, the Batman mythos has been about the switching of Gothic Fear into heroic Justice. As Kim Newman establishes in an informative piece in this month's Sight and Sound, Batman has always been a Gothic hero. Batman is deeply rooted in the pyschogeography of an American Gothic steeped in Expressionist Europe: Wayne Manor is a clear echo of Poe's rambling aristocratic mansions, while Wayne's conviction that he must 'become a creature of the night' is, as Newman says, a reference to both Bela Lugosi's Dracula and to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari ('you must become Caligari!')

Nolan's revisiting of Batman is not a re-invention but a reclaiming of the myth, a grand syncresis that draws upon the whole history of the character. It is serious without being portentous, possessed by a lightness that doesn't come close to flirting with postmodern knowingness (the few, very few, one-line quips are notable for the way they do not fit with the overall tone at all). Even Gary Oldman is - no word of a lie - understated.

All this, and, at the end of the film, the Arkham Asylum inmates are still on the loose...


UPDATE: fascinating email from reader Elizabeth Kaspar added as a comment below. Amongst other things, Elizabeth tries to defend Batman Forever - on grounds of its depiction of class war no less! It's always good to have critical commonplaces questioned, even if you end up reaffirming them.

UPDATE 2: Well-argued piece here completely refuting my view of the BB. Interesting question: 'is anyone ever going to let [Batman] be a detective instead of a kinkier James Bond?'

Posted by mark at June 24, 2005 07:00 PM | TrackBack

Mark? That your name?

Wish it was possible to post on your site, like it is on John's (commonplacebook at LiveJournal) who referred me....

Like your site, by the way, and some of its observations....

"Best Batman film yet" - yes, I agree that that wouldn't be TOO difficult....

Though I think you do "Batman Forever" rather a large injustice. No, it WASN'T "famously appalling" - and the box office didn't think so either. The only people who DO are twitchy Frank Miller fans (and probably some Alan Moore fans) who write pissy rants about how it is "homosexual, disgusting" at Yahoo! Movies (usually, it seems in my experience!)

Frankly, I see NOTHING wrong with a bit of sexual "knowingness" and indeed burlesque in movies.

And superhero movies should surely have as a main purpose to ENTERTAIN. Especially if they contain such absurd villains as The Joker, The Penguin, the Riddler and all....

However, one might make a bit of an exception for "Batman Begins", because it contains the least "humorous" of the Batman canon, namely Rh'as Al Ghul and Professor Jonathan Crane alias the Scarecrow...

(Rh'as Al Ghul as Batman's mentor?? That's a NEW ONE ON ME!! Ie, it's uncanonical....)

I shall definitely go and see it in my British neck of the woods later today, anyway.

So the villains still end up on the loose at the end of the movie, do they? (Ha ha, ha ha ha!) And all the inmates of Arkham Asylum? (Why, how many do escape??)

Good. I'm always tired when they end up there all the time, at the end of all the modern Batman cartoons, etc. (Though I prefer that to them getting killed, like in the first Burton movies, which were totally uncanonical...) It's too predictable when they're always overpowered though. Let them wander around Gotham, creepy, unsettling or not. I like villains. I especially like Batman villains. (Only certainly NOT the "M&M" intepretation of them - yes, I thought of that acronym too, my son, don't think YOU'RE the only one! Only I found yet another "M" - Grant Morrison - making modern comics an "M&M&M"!)

Yes, I like the way in which you compare the "dark" cliche of modern comics (and YES, of COURSE, it HAS become nothing but a cliche; only not enough people say it!) to the over-seriousness of (modern-day, you must emphasize) teenage boys! "Teacher, teacher, take me SERIOUSLY!!!")

.."consider all those portentous pages, stripped of dialogue, in which barely anything happens"... TELL FRICKIN' ME!!!

"contrast them with the crazed effervescence of the typical Marvel page in the 60s. Miller's pages have all the brooding silence of a moody fifteen-year old boy. Don't be in any doubt, people: the silence signifies."


Comics lost their confidence - you can say that again, too! Miller a symptom of Thatcherism and Reaganism? Say THAT again too!!

(BUT WHY was Miller, that rather boring writer, so - well, at least RELATIVELY successful, AT THE TIME, Mark?? At least, successful enough for DC Comics execs to rub their hands and say: "We've got something here"! I'd so like to know that!! Now I thought it was because Miller played upon the Cold War paranoia that was STILL very prevalent in the US in 1986 - look at those Rambo and Rocky movies! But then, just a few short years after, that all vanished, and yet Frank Miller was still feted...

I was forever waiting for the "peace dividend" in comics to appear!!)

..."It's about time that Miller stopped being congratulated for bringing into comics a noir-lite cartoon nihilist bleakness that has long been a cliche in films and books. The 'darkness' of this vision is in fact curiously reassuring and comforting, and not only because of the sentimentality it can never extiripate."

SAY IT, my man!!

Though I thought Dennis Potter's "Singing Detective" was a lot better. Watchable, at least.

About the "drive to be taken seriously" - But - do you think teenage boys in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s thought in the same way?

I don't think they did. I think THEY still had a sense of humour. PLUS a sense of idealism, which you say this movie attempts to recapture, and succeeds, probably better than does The Revenge of the Sith.

I may not be inclined to doubt you on that.

Let me try not to leave any of my main thoughts to you out....

Yes. You're RIGHT that Action is powerful and that just all this endless PostModern sitting around rabbiting and over-analyzing is not.

HOWEVER - I would not be inclined to concur with your implication that Frank Miller (or his ilk) promotes the modern "priesthood" of psychiatry, nor that he is for "Oprahism", namely pop psychology.

He in fact hates BOTH, you know, kiddo - (I'm assuming that you're more of John's age group than you are mine, correct me if I'm wrong... but you're a fellow Brit (like me), yeah?) sloppy of you not to pick up on that; you perceive lots of other stuff!!

Both DKR and Sin City display that in spades. (No un-PC pun intended!) Frank Miller HATES analysis of people's motives, any idea that crime might be socially caused, caused by people's hardships, etc.... And in DKR, he oh-so gladly annihilates the shrinks: I think he views them in the same way that Hitler viewed Freud et al; ie, as "Jewish experts".... and in the comic, surprise surprise, Miller's psychiatrists ARE Jewish....

And yes, you're right again that the entire idea of Batman is linked to German Expressionism. I spotted that years ago. Though I wouldn't go as far, maybe, as to say that it's the ultimate expression of "American Gothic", Poe, etc! I don't go for meta-theories! Or should that be mega-theories.

"The structural delusion here (and it is a delusion shared by our own glorious leaders) concerns the separating out of rampant crime from Capital, as if there were no causal link between the former and the latter."

This is true, too!! You and John seem to agree, here!

I think the first comics to directly address this, mention it indeed - will be the first GREAT twenty-first-century comics!!

Freud in comics - WELL, I've read all his books, but they mean nothing to me as far as LITERATURE is concerned - there, I'm a very instinctive Jungian!

Discussions of "Oedipus complexes" in books and popular culture - pretty much bore me. SHOW ME THAT THERE IS SUCH A THING, AND I WILL BELIEVE YOU!!

Whereas - I can show you an archetype! And so can Campbell; archetypes aplenty.

I think, now, that it's a case of balancing out the archetypes. IF there were a strong female (mother-like, not whore-like) character in "Batman" - then that would finally balance out the archetypes - and Gotham could progress.

Failing that, it never shall!

And a pox on all the comics companies' houses!

As for "Batman Forever"... well, it WAS an ULTIMATELY unsatisfactory movie, in several ways... (as are all superhero movies, I think that Roger Ebert says, not that you always want to take his word for it!)

But it was a VALIANT effort! Script-wise, performance-wise, everything wise! Lee Batchler and Akiva Goldsman made a good stab at it.

"Batman & Robin", on the other hand, wasn't, because it had only one screenwriter (Goldsman) who is USUALLY reliable... but he was coasting here, and relying on bad puns, ie "give me your rocks" or some stupid thing like that!!

Comics (old ones) would never have stooped so low!

But anyway, the reason "Batman Forever" never QUITE got there, was, I in the end found out, from a guy using the alias "thebatsignal50" or similar, posting on Yahoo! Movies, was because they cut out half an hour from the movie. Basically! It WASN'T the director's cut; no, it was not. It needed to be as long as "Batman Begins" - 2 1/2 hours - because it was a very complex and "busy" plot - I mean, all that about Bruce's backstory piled in with the Riddler and Two-Face stuff? Blimey! That's like three novels in one!

You have to read the paperback novelization of the movie to see what the plot was meant to be precisely. The movie has too many gaps in it - truly!! (Like it, for example - well, it doesn't even establish where Two-Face's hideout is meant to be. Inside the columns of a bridge, is the answer.)

BUT - LIKE NO OTHER BATMAN/SUPERHERO movie I've yet seen - it explored the "class war" between Bruce Wayne and Edward Nygma!

(I LOVED the bit where he pushes his supervising boss out of the window - WHERE have you ever seen a totally unsatisfying Carrey movie, ANYWAY? Even that bit of fluff where he played God for a day without anything to offend the Christian Right was watchable!)

Which Bruce Wayne, all too predictably, and yet not at all unrealistically - wins!

And yet - there's a terrible dichotomy here, and it's a factor which I am NEVER sure to describe as the movie's biggest flaw or its biggest realism - Val Kilmer's Batman is a decent fellow, yeah?? The most decent I've seen yet. (And the most Sixties/Adam West-like, it is true... But the Sixties version WAS in fact based on those of the Golden Age comics, something which later writers have tried to fudge over, and say that Miller's version is closer - it isn't!!)

So, Kilmer's Batman was a decent guy.

But his Bruce Wayne seems self-absorbed, vain, a very high-handed businessman... WHO IS NOT BRIGHT ENOUGH, certainly, not perceptive, enough to realise that a guy whose idea he turns down because of some moral whim of his own: "oh, it'll rot people's brains" - as the novelization very rightly points out in the voice of another character, Lucius Fox, I think, who didn't make it into the movie, "they said the same about television"! Will, inevitably, turn against him and seek revenge!

Yes, I think Nygma was TRULY presented as a genius, (he was; he was a genius inventor, which they managed to link very neatly into his riddling/pop culture obsession, both of which he has in the old comics) a misunderstood man who therefore turns CRIMINAL GENIUS here, which was the point of ALL the old villains of the original comics (hope they managed to get Crane right in Batman Begins or I won't give it any quarter!)...

That was the entire point of the old comics! When I was younger, I linked their theories about crime to those of Alfred Adler, never mind Jung or Freud. (Adler was a man who understood both the significance of SOCIETY/the social-antisocial urge, and the POWER/POWERLESSNESS nexus.)

And at the end of the movie, Wayne REFUSES to come to terms with what he has done, with the resentment and the criminal HE has spawned; he just glosses over it; sends his shrink girlfriend over to Arkham to do a bit of spying for him, just to check that the electric shock has scrambled Edward Nygma's brains properly, and that he doesn't remember the connection between Batman's two identities... that's all he's REALLY concerned about...


And, in a way, it is.

I don't think it synchronizes with the idealism of the EARLIER Batman, 1940s or 1960s. I don't think Thomas Wayne would like it....

BUT, WITH REGARD TO MODERN BUSINESSMEN/"LIBERALS"/BIGSHOT PHILANTHROPISTS, I think it rings all too true! Bruce Wayne's behaviour in this movie, I mean.

Funnily enough, someone in the coffee table book to accompany the movie of "Batman Forever" (you know, the one with all the stills in it!), compares Batman to Ralph Nader. (THINK ABOUT IT - IT'S NOT A BAD COMPARISON, NOT AT ALL!!!)

And I think that Nader would behave equally appallingly to someone of a lower social class that he wronged.


It's all absolutely true. And I know! Because I've been observing both Batman and American affairs... for longer than you've had hot dinners, I bet.

There is a LOT more to Batman Forever than you think there is. I shall not rest until you and others admit it!!

Anyway, I like Schumacher. His use of symbolism is very good. I'm like that guy in the Da Vinci Code - I could just look at symbols all day!!!

See my own livejournal.com comments on "Batman Forever" - when I finally put them up there! Soon! You'll find links to my page from John's. (Commonplacebook.) I take the rather neutral pseudonym of "lizfrombritain".

Liz K.

Posted by: Elizabeth Kaspar at June 27, 2005 12:31 AM