Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Batman Begins: A Vigilante for Grown Ups

Saw Batman Begins today with my 12 year old son Andrew. This review is in his honor.

The only comic books I really liked as a kid in the 60's were Batman and Silver Surfer.

Silver Surfer was an amped up myth penned especially for those of us messing around on California beaches where I spent so much time growing up.

But he was also a space traveler, which was just as cool in the 60's.

The basic SS creation myth begins with an immoral and ultra-powerful force that destroys worlds. That force shows up at a small planet prepared to do its worst.

The clever leaders of the planet keep the celestial predator at bay by offering up one of their young men, who turns out to be the Silver Surfer.

SS saves his planet from destruction by offering himself as an indentured servant to the evil power.

So he starts his superhero career with powers given to him by the wicked planet muncher. His main new skill is surfing at warp speed throughout the universe. Could there be a cooler superhero for a 12 year old in the California of 1969?

He's really just a scout, though, who finds planets that the hungry power can destroy. But that kind of immoral job description serves to keep his planet (and family?) out of harm's way. Adult moral tension in a comic book? Yes, it's possible.

Eventually SS scopes out the earth where a wise earthling--we used to call the people of the earth "earthlings" back in the Sci Fi day--convinces him that compassion is the true way for the superhero.

So SS ends up battling his evil and supernaturally powerful CEO and forces him to abandon any plans to destroy the earth. The evil, planet eating CEO accepts partial defeat but condemns SS to hang around the earth permanently though he allows him to keep his superpowers.

Basically, SS gets assigned to the Bakersfield office of the universe as a punishment for not sticking with the domination program. SS learns a lot more about using power wisely and for good during his imprisonment in the sticks among the Yoda-like earthling hicks.

For reasons that I can't remember, the evil galactic power eventually allows SS to surf free throughout the galaxy again where he uses his inter-galactic surfboard and superpowers to do good to every kind of wierd and exotic world.

Looking back, it was a pretty nice myth for its time. Surfboards, youth culture, space travel and self-sacrifice. Pretty potent stuff at that time. Pretty potent now, I guess. I understand now why I liked it so much though it obviously had some plot problems. But what myth or religion doesn't?

OK, on to Batman Begins. Most all of you know the Batman mythology by now.

Batman Begins looks at some of the adult meanings of an adolescent male myth while still throwing in all the pyrotechnics and violence and special effects that junior highers and adults with strong junior high sympathies love.

Chris Nolan directed the movie. He did Momento, a really interesting flick, a few years back. He's the first person to do a Batman take on either tv or on film that isn't fundamentally a cartoon.

Basically, BB is about the spiritual damage that violence inflicts on even the most favored people and how some people deal with that damage.

Bruce Wayne is paralyzed by fear and self-condemnation and a desire for vengeance after watching his billionaire father and mother killed by a common thug.

He runs away and loses himself for years, but then is "rescued" by a group of sophisticated vigilantes who want to cleanse the world of immorality and criminals. They want to save the world by destroying it.

They give him the requisite "martial arts" training which releases him from his deep inner fears--apparently the only way movies for the past 30 years can depict the passage into manhood, yawn--and expect him to take his place in their ranks as they seek an apocalypse of redemptive violence in the world. They're Al Queda without the towels on their heads.

He refuses to take part in their absolute vision of cleansing because he believes there is still something worth saving in "Gotham City." He believes that if he can make himself into a terrifying symbol of just retribution by using his wealth and technology and physical courage he can make a difference and save Gotham City from itself. He wants to leave "shock and awe" in his wake.

What makes the story line a little different is that Batman comes across as a "reasonable" vigilante in comparison to the uber version he rejects.

Maybe Nolan meant to show him as a moody and dark neo-conservative super hero, a kind of Dick Cheney in a black rubber bat suit.

Whoa. Sorry about that last image. Didn't mean to frighten you. We'd have to imagine Dick Cheney about 50 pounds lighter and a lot healthier. I don't want to think about an overweight Republican in a black, skin tight, S and M inspired outfit presiding over the Senate, especially if he tried to wear his cowboy hat over his bat ears. That would really look silly.

Anyway, I liked this potentially more human and believable version of neo-conservatism more than the current real life specimens.

Nolan makes the movie worth seeing. He tries to show why a well meaning and wounded person would choose vigilante violence in hopes of creating some kind of redemptive and just reckoning.
He also challenges that whole approach.

Pretty much everyone is afraid of Batman at the end of the movie, and many people seem worried about his sanity. Some are proud of him. And some wonder where his violent, symbolically powerful approach will ultimately lead.

During the last scene in the movie the one Gotham City cop who believes in him asks, "Where will this go? If we get semi-automatic weapons, they (the criminals) will just get automatic weapons. If we get Kevlar body armor, they will just get armor piercing bullets."

Good question. Pretty current, if you can just see through all the violence and gadgets and spin. Nicely done.

Andrew and I had a very good convo after the movie about Jesus' teaching and how it is so different from the various myths of redemptive violence and common ideas about vengeance and justice.

Good teaching opportunity if you've got a young boy in your family or in your neighborhood or ministry. Just don't mention the fat vice president in a batsuit thing....


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Wordcat,

Thanks for this thoughtful post. I liked it a lot. I have also seen the movie and my initial reaction was different from your take though I see where you're coming from and I agree with you in terms of where Batman ends up.

Perhaps I was a little more taken by Bruce and drawn in by his conflicted struggle. I thought that he made a choice reminiscent of Jesus and Paul during his time on the mountain. I am mainly focusing on the one scene when he is brought to face up to his fears and given the choice to join the league by executing the man. In this scene I couldn't help but draw connection between the league and some of the absolutist talk that is heard on both conservative and liberal sides of Christianity. It is ultimately a self-righteous "we have got it all right" attitude which inevitably leads to condemning the other utterly and the inability to see any good remaining in Gotham. I believe that Bruce makes the choice for the ideal of justice over the particular version of justice that the league has set out for all its followers. He also chooses to submit himself to the system of justice through courts by asking that the man be tried.

Don't get me wrong, I don't think the league was far off in terms of determining that Gotham is a very very fallen place but I had a hard time just equating them with the judgment of God, especially because they were essentially claiming to be on the side of the ultimate moral authority (God).

wishing to remain anonymous

11:20 AM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

I really like your stuff anonymous.

I do wonder where you're hearing the absolutist talk on the liberal side of Christianity?

Is there such a thing as a progressive Christian take right now outside of Sojourners and Prism?

Lemme know what you're reading or watching. I'd love to have a look.

9:26 PM  

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