July 28, 2008

Why so colossally stupid?


Mystery writer Andrew Klavan has a jaw-dropping Wall Street Journal Op-Ed arguing that Batman is a metaphor for our real life superhero, George W. Bush.

Like W, Batman is vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand. Like W, Batman sometimes has to push the boundaries of civil rights to deal with an emergency, certain that he will re-establish those boundaries when the emergency is past.

The article is a nonstop string of "he didn't really say that" moments, so let's just stick the two major flaws in Klavan's thesis. The first is that he seems to think that Batman is some kind of, I dunno, superhero. The whole point of The Dark Knight is that the very concept of superheroes is questionable at best. As Harvey Dent says, "You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain." Ironically, Klavan chastises realistic antiwar movies in which "the good guys become indistinguishable from the bad guys, and we end up denigrating the very heroes who defend us," which is pretty much what Christopher Nolan intends with Dark Knight. OK, I won't go so far as to say Nolan denigrates Batman, but surely perceptive viewers will not come away from the movie cheering him unambiguously. Frank Miller's breakthrough was to perceive the fascist undercurrents of the superhero genre. Or will Klavan see next year's Watchmen film as another celebration of Bushism?

To the extent that Batman does remains a hero despite his actions, the reason provides an answer to Klavan's central question, even if Klavan himself can't see it (his second major flaw).

Why is it then that left-wingers feel free to make their films direct and realistic, whereas Hollywood conservatives have to put on a mask in order to speak what they know to be the truth? Why is it, indeed, that the conservative values that power our defense -- values like morality, faith, self-sacrifice and the nobility of fighting for the right -- only appear in fantasy or comic-inspired films like "300," "Lord of the Rings," "Narnia," "Spiderman 3" and now "The Dark Knight"?

Klavan believes the answer is that Hollywood is too afraid to "speak plainly in the light of day," when clearly it is because fantasy is the only context in which the "heroics" of Batman and George W. Bush even remotely make sense. Spencer Ackerman explains why in a much more perceptive column on the Bush-Batman analogy (though Ackerman too confuses the depiction of a cryptofascist worldview with its endorsement).

One problem with Walzer's argument, as its many critics have noted, is that the results are still horrific -- torture, indefinite detention, assassination and other such practices incompatible with civilization. Another is that it presumes that once unlimited authorities are handed to an individual, that person can be trusted to relinquish them -- or even to determine, contrary to his or her interest, that the emergency has passed.

In the world of comic, that's easy. Batman is Batman -- he's conflicted, sure, but he's a hero. That's why in both movies, little children -- fellow incorruptibles -- are the only ones who neither fear nor hate him: they can see him as he sees himself.

But in the real world, this concept is ludicrous and anti-American.

Exactly. As Jane Mayer reminds us in The Dark Side, Seton Hall Law School analyzed the accusations made against detainees at Guantanamo Bay, the ones Donald Rumsfeld described as "the worst of the worst."

After reviewing 517 of the Guantánamo detainees’ cases in depth they concluded that only 8 percent were alleged to have associated with Al Qaeda. Fifty-five percent were not alleged to have engaged in any hostile act against the United States at all, and the remainder were charged with dubious wrongdoing, including having tried to flee U.S. bombs. The overwhelming majority — all but 5 percent — had been captured by non-U.S. players, many of whom were bounty hunters.

Try to imagine a version of The Dark Knight in which 92 percent of the people who Batman beats the shit out of in his effort to get at the Joker are either demonstrably innocent or accused of vague crimes by unreliable sources (while the remaining 8 percent are not caught red-handed either). Very different movie. Also, in that hypothetical movie, Batman doesn't draw the line at killing bad guys in cold blood.

The nature of the hero is one problematic factor in Klavan's plea for a "realistic" version of the heroic terrorist-fighter movie. The nature of the villain is the other, as Thomas Garvey notes in his dismantling of The Dark Knight (I liked the film a whole lot better than he did, but his review did give me some things to think about).

Ledger's (and Nolan's) Joker has little to do with Osama bin Laden or al Qaeda, or really anything but the hermetically sealed world of adolescent angst. The terrorists America faces are not in love with "chaos" per se - they are trying to harm us for rather obvious political reasons. You may think those reasons are illegitimate, and that the murder of innocent civilians is evil - and you may feel at the same time that we have the perfect right to prop up some dictatorships in the Middle East, while overturning others; fine. But you can't pretend our terrorists appeared from nowhere, like the Joker, with no back story or history, and no formal grievances, and are simply maniacally bent on destroying "our way of life."

Finally, I can't resist pointing out my favorite of Klavan's incidental idiocies: "Doing what's right is hard, and speaking the truth is dangerous. Many have been abhorred for it, some killed, one crucified."

Funny, I can't recall the section of the Gospels where Jesus says "we must be intolerant in order to defend tolerance, or unkind in order to defend kindness, or hateful in order to defend what we love." It must be somewhere in there next to all that "love your enemies" and "turn the other cheek" crap. Truly, it takes a special kind of chutzpah to enlist a man who was tortured to death in defense of torture.

Update: Of course that would make Harvey Dent Obama

Posted by Daniel Radosh


I can't wait for the future Journal Op-Ed's about Hellboy (Dick Cheney), Step-Brothers (John McCain and Joe Lieberman) and the new X-Files movie featuring Matt Drudge and Arianna Huffington as Mulder & Scully.


Plus, the op-ed made zero mention of Iron Man, a very successful more-blatant War on Terror movie... with a very different outlook on terror.

Frank Miller's breakthrough was to perceive the fascist undercurrents of the superhero genre. [...]

Ackerman too confuses the depiction of a cryptofascist worldview with its endorsement

Frank Miller endorses the views of his version of Batman, and doesn't intend it as any kind of ironic or subversive commentary. The quintessential Frank Miller Batman scenes are Batman beating up that awful liberal Superman.

That doesn't mean you can't read Miller's Batman differently than he intends, of course. But if there are people confusing depiction with endorsement, it begins with the author in this case.

Scraps - Yeah, I'm aware that I read Miller's DKR differently than he himself does, but really I make a distinction (perhaps not clear enough in this post) between Miller's Batman and Nolan's. I don't think Nolan endorses the same cryptofascist worldview as Miller. I read him as trying to portray the seductive nature of fascism while also underscoring its dangers (c.f., the "burn the jungle" speech and Morgan Freeman's unease about mass surveillance). I'd say Nolan is interested less in condemning Batman's methods then in getting us to think about them, which is why he's an entertaining filmmaker rather than a blowhard op-ed writer.

Miller's unproduced Batman Year One screenplay provides an opportunity to compare his vision of Batman to Nolan's. Thrill as a bald, toothless Batman spray-paints his steel bat-dentures white!

"Leftists frequently complain that right-wing morality is simplistic. Morality is relative, they say; nuanced, complex. They're wrong, of course, even on their own terms..."

"As Gary Oldman's Commissioner Gordon says of the hated and hunted Batman, 'He has to run away -- because we have to chase him.' That's real moral complexity."

So, is complexity good or bad?

Also, saying it is indeed tragic that we must sometimes prosecute those who most effectively defend us in order to preserve the essence of the thing we and they seek to protect is not to say that we should stop prosecuting those heroes. It is merely saying it is a tragic state of affairs. If Batman (or W) is Colonel Kurtz we must slaughter him like an ox even if he gets the job done because some things are more important than being correct. Like civilization. The point, as I always understood it, of tragedy and irony is not to provide a plan for avoiding tragedy and irony but merely to demonstrate that these things may be necessary and it requires strength for us to deal with the sadness and confusion that often come along with them.

Hey, if only children see Batman as he sees himself what does that make Kavan? A child. A child _in comparison to George W. Bush_. Yowch.

Try to not to make Klavan think too hard. After all, he's convinced himself that Batman and 300 were huge hits and Rendition and Redacted bombs because of their war on terror politics, not because the first two were well executed action movies while the second were poorly executed downbeat dramas.

Guess he's never seen the box office figures for the Jason Bourne movies.

True Story:

I was posting a comment on WSJ.com wondering if Batman would continue to read "My Pet Goat" to school kids while Gotham was under attack, but before I could finish an earthquake hit here in L.A!! Everything swayed for a few seconds and it scared the shit out of everyone in my office.

Was it God's doing?

I report. You decide.

Is Klavan saying that W secretly supports Obama?

Al - It was indeed God, warning you to stop calling it "My Pet Goat."

I really think this movie is great. I was annoyed by Morgan Freeman's character refusing to take part in the "spying" but then saying "I'll do it this one time" because it sounded to me a lot like current justifications for nefarious doings. But then it hit me: Batman is a fictional hero, not a government official. It is an incredible movie, and not unimportant to our mental lives, but to praise or damn any real-life political decision because of what Batman would do is just insane. Bush isn't Batman, because Batman is a character living in a fake world with different consequences than ours. Now, if Batman were president, I might be okay with him spying on me.

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