For a guy whose business card could read “Guardian of Gotham City,” Batman sure spends lot of time hanging around Camelot. Twice in the last four decades, an outpouring of Batmania has reflected the public’s desire for political renewal; the first time, as that dream collapsed, and now as its latter-day incarnation teeters on the precipice between victory and disillusionment.
The 1966 Batman TV series, like most artifacts of its era, is commonly construed as a reaction to the JFK assassination. Depicting the Caped Crusader as a hopeless square, cultural historians believe, was a way to chastise ourselves for having ever believed in the indomitability of all-American fair play. It was self-punishment for our own naiveté. That thumbnail remembrance, though, ignores one seemingly obvious but crucial detail: Batman always won. Week after week, he triumphed over his enemies in ways that made them look both craven and stupid, despite their patently superior hipness. Factor in the higher ratings that were always afforded the show’s concluding Thursday-night segment, and it’s clear that more Americans saw interventionism ascendant than stuck in cliffhanger peril. Idealism landed a haymaker on cynicism’s jaw, without fail.
Almost. A lone note of ambivalence was struck in the feature film that was released between the show’s first and second seasons. In this outlandish opus, four of Batman’s archest enemies were shown kidnapping a United Nations–like assemblage of international dignitaries – by draining their bodies of moisture and depositing the dustlike remains in glass vials. In the film’s melodramatic climax, the particles become catastrophically jumbled, and Batman the master scientist is the only one who can set things right. An encouraging phone call even comes in from a Lyndon Johnson sound-alike who wishes our hero luck on behalf of “the whole free world.” History’s humble stand-in thus cedes agency to the only Kennedy we still have.
Yet when Batman “succeeds” in resuscitating the ambassadors, the latter’s brains have clearly ended up in each other’s bodies. The crime fighter and his sidekick, Robin, beat a sheepish retreat out the window of the mammoth United World building, not knowing if they’ve unintentionally furthered international understanding or made a fine mess of it. The question lingers as the end credits roll, the real world’s Bat-fad begins its precipitous decline, and an unsettled nation shifts both eyes toward Vietnam.
Not just cynicism but nihilism is the charge that’s being leveled at the current big-screen Bat-affair, The Dark Knight, and once again, the assessment is substantially off the mark. A product of these troubled times, the Christopher Nolan–directed sequel to 2005’s Batman Begins includes nods to terrorism, domestic surveillance and even sanctioned torture. But one of its greatest feats is to capture our collective anxiety over the resurgent politics of hope. Shot largely on location in Chicago – the home, remember, of the “new” Democratic party – the movie apportions progressive activism between two mirror-image protagonists, Batman (Christian Bale) and crusading District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). The two of them, semiotically speaking, add up to one Obama: Batman is the (literally) black half, respected but feared by a citizenry that worries about his true allegiances and motivations. Meanwhile, Dent is lauded as the “white knight” of Gotham, his bid to clean up organized crime a campaign swathed in respectability and charm.
Readers of the comics will find it no spoiler that Dent’s zeal earns him a world of hurt. What’s particularly pertinent is how the film roots his eventual undoing in naked ambition. In the midst of a murder spree perpetrated by the sociopathic Joker (Heath Ledger), an angry Dent trains a gun on a potential informant, causing Batman to admonish the DA for his recklessness. What, our title hero asks, will become of the public trust if it’s known that Dent, too, can cave in to the basest of emotions? You can hear echoes of the daily game of “gotcha” the media plays with self-styled reformers, and with their supporters’ fears that “moving to the center” will expose them as politicians after all.
Like the already drawn-out presidential campaign, the 152-minute Dark Knight is an exercise in watching and waiting for hope to die. It doesn’t, though the point has eluded even some of the most complimentary reviewers. The timely rub is that none of our protagonists – not Batman, not Dent and not virtuous policeman Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) – can leverage his public image into the utopia they all seek. Each one suffers more than a little for his dreams. Instead, the film movingly illustrates that only Gotham can save Gotham – that, as Patti Smith once observed, “People Have the Power.” (Or as somebody else has averred, “Yes, we can.”) When it comes to mass-market messages, that’s real audacity – and something to remember as we get ready to cast our votes, both at the box office and email@example.com
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