August 2008 Extra
Asking the Big Questions With A Good Left Hook
Batman and The Dark Knight
Are people basically good?
For once I'm serious in this column.
I don't know about you, but I spend a lot of time really wondering whether or not
humankind is worth the hype we give ourselves. I'm never sure if the small acts of
courage really do outweigh the big acts of horror, or whether we're pushing
ourselves into extinction by serving our own desires.
Superhero comics, and their readers, believe that good can triumph over evil. Oh,
sure, there's all the weird questions about why we like godlike figures, unrealistic
body images and power fantasies, but at the core of it, most of us wish that
someone could face the evil and the chaos in the world and give it a good punch in
That's what keeps us reading years and years of recycled stories for the same
characters even when we know Spider-Man will beat the Green Goblin again.
In fact, the morals most of us have ingested from Superman, Wonder Woman,
Batman, Spider-Man and the X-Men inspire us to be good people. How can they
not? You grow up learning that evil doesn't have to win, that truth can be discerned
even in difficult situations, and that a personal moral code will give you strength
when nothing else can.
(This is why, more than anything, comics need to flood our school libraries, for
both the lessons they teach and the fact that kids will actually read them. But I
Comics sometimes show us the dark side of that desire, as in Watchmen.
Sometimes they give us the opposite -- popcorn adventures by heroes with all
their quips in the right place and no substance, like the current Brand New Day run
on Spider-Man. But the morals are always there.
Can't you see it in the movies?
Iron Man is an irresponsible weapons designer forced to confront his actions.
Spider-Man has too much pride, and it hurts him. The X-Men are outcast by the
world they have sworn to protect, sometimes by the world that would kill them if it
got the chance.
And The Dark Knight, more than any other superhero movie, brings into the open
issues of real-life good and evil, hope and despair, and whether or not we can be
better than the evil in the world. It takes it as seriously as Watchmen, and answers
it as powerfully -- in the other direction.
It's fitting, since Batman has long been the character closest to true darkness and
evil within the comic pantheon. He was created by a genuinely horrible incident.
His villains are grotesque sociopaths with no aim other than causing chaos. They
are kept in an asylum rather than a prison, even when they show themselves to be
continually uncurable, and they completely abuse the system that tries to cure
Batman lives in shadows and fear, and his own battered psyche is as nearly a
casualty of it in every story.
Dark Knight is hardly the only Batman story to hit the questions of real goodness.
Batman: Year One, an inspiration for Begins, showed Jim Gordon fighting police
corruption and questioning whether or not Batman should be hauled in, while at
the same time Bruce Wayne questioned how far his methods should go. Batman:
The Dark Knight Returns showed Batman in a hyperviolent world, being swept up
in the chaos as he never had before, forced to question his methods and fight his
former allies. Batman: The Killing Joke is the quintessential Joker story, in which
the Joker's actions become so horrible and so personal that Batman tries to break
his moral code and attempts to kill him. The recent Batman: Broken City has
Batman, in Eduardo Risso's gorgeous art, questioning whether he's responsible for
an act far too close to his parents' death.
Our good movie reviewer Chris Bellamy and our big boss Scott Card have both
raved over the movie already. Most people in America have raved over the movie,
except the guy who hated it just because everyone else liked it. (I think he's at the
New Yorker.) It's been called, several times, "the best superhero movie ever."
That's because, despite capes and tights, this is a movie about the things that
matter. The Joker is a personalization of the same madness that took over crowds
in Nazi Germany, that inspires suicide bombers and pathological hatred of another
culture, and the men and women who, in Alfred's words, "just want to watch the
world burn." The Joker's goal is to prove that the darkness in the human soul
cannot be overcome.
Batman's goal is to show that it can.
A lot of people might come out of the theater agreeing with the Joker. He's
certainly a more attractive figure in his flamboyance than the straight man who is
Batman. There's a lot of convincing arguments for giving up on the human race --
most of them in the news. We're battered with despair every day, even in the
comfort of our homes.
Some of us, like Batman, still believe.
We need superhero stories to represent that collective hope, our desire for morality
and goodness to be our inner guardsmen against despair.
We need Batman to save ourselves.
Read more by Spencer Ellsworth