I thought that for this time in particular, in a era where war against western society has been declared by another group of psychopaths who fly passenger planes into skyscrapers, the movie very timely and relevant.
The story of Batman as presented in this latest incarnation is the story of what the appropriate reaction to crime, violence and inhumanity is. It is a question that we all deal with as a society. Bruce Wayne was raised by parents who gave to society and did their best to improve the city they lived in, in spite of economic decay. He witnessed them both gunned down. It scarred him and he grew bent on using the fear and terror instilled on him to fight the same element.
In the first movie, he was trained in martial arts in a Monastery in the Himalayas belonging to the League of Shadows. He learns this group claims to have fought moral decay through throughout civilization by wiping them out, and that they want him to destroy Gotham, the very city his father fought so hard to save, whose poverty and crime destroyed his father. He rejects this brand of vigilantism and totalitarianism as worse than the moral decay itself and returns to Gotham as Batman.
The great Batman question is is if you can change a city for the better and fight off corruption using the fear and tactics organized crime itself uses to control others, without becoming the criminals they themselves are.
At the end of the current movies prequel, a character asks Batman what he is going to do about escalation. If law enforcement gets body armor, the enemy gets armor piercing rounds, if they get guns, the enemy gets automatic weapons, etc. Can you fight off crime and deal with the arms race it sets off? Well the latest Batman shows off the escalation in a big way. Organized crime turns to the Joker, someone who like Batman, also uses fear and theatricality for effect, but rather out of a sadistic enjoyment of fear and a callous, twisted desire to watch the world burn and destroy itself.
Many have commented that the effect the Joker has on the entire city has the look and feel of terrorism, and it rings true to me. The joker aims to set person against person, the masses against law enforcement. He aims for complete social upheaval. He wants to turn Batman into a monster like himself. There is a scene where Batman roars down the street in a motorcycle toward the Joker, who stands there taunting, “Hit me, hit me.” Batman in the end will not give in, even as it feels all the problems could be so easily solved if he would just give in and do it.
The Joker wants the escalation. He wants people to cross the line between citizen and criminal. He would show us the potential monster within us all.
For the most part of the movie, Batman resists, sparing the Joker at least twice. His resistance isn’t perfect, however. He builds a city wide sonar out of private cell phones (NSA, anyone), and he does drop a Mob boss off a building to extract information in a sickening display. On the other hand, he saves one individual who discovers his identity and wants to blackmail him in a manner that only that individual realizes his life was spared by Bruce Wayne purposefully, not accidentally. It is a powerful lesson that sometimes love and sacrifice are the most effective way to reach out to those who would use us for selfish gain.
When the Joker can’t turn Batman, he turns to the city’s District Attorney, Harvey Dent, a brave and upstanding hero, who after a horrifying trauma, has half his face severely mutilated and yields to the Joker, becoming the villain from the comic book, Two-face.
The main theme I see in the movie, which extreme will we as a society let terror turn us too, Batman or Two-face. Some compare Batman to George Bush, I disagree. I believe much of our reaction to 9/11 has been to close off far too many of the freedoms we hold dear. We have rejected Geneva conventions, condoned torture, spied on our own citizens phone calls in the NSA, all in the name of fighting terror. I would argue that the War on Terror, as George Bush has decried the hate the enemy has for the freedoms we hold dear on one side of his mouth, even as he has enacted the above anti-terror measures that themselves erode that way of life, is heading the way of Two-face.
As I mentioned, in an effort to find the Joker, Batman develops a city wide sonar using the public’s cell phones, and then puts his company head, played by Morgan Freeman, in charge of it. Morgan Freeman immediately rejects it as Batman has built something altogether too powerful for any man to keep from abusing. The correlation with the NSA surveillance program seems obvious. The system works, Batman finds the Joker, and the first thing Morgan Freeman does is immediately destroy the system. I wonder, will our government, assuming they ever can call off the war on terror, do the same? Or have we forever lost some of our most sacred freedoms?
The movie did sound a note of hope in the midst of hopelessness. I was really moved in the one scene where the cycle of escalation was broken. Two ships are set up with explosives, one full of Gotham’s criminals and felons evacuated from prison, another full of regular citizens. Each holds the detonator for the other ship in their hands, and is told by the Joker that if one doesn’t blow up the other, he will destroy both. He wants to see suffering. In the end, a prisoner grabs the remote and dose “What [the police warden] should have done all along.” He grabs the detonator and throws it into the ocean. The civilians want to give in, feel justified in giving in, but ultimately don’t. Batman clings to the belief this will be the outcome as he fights his way to the Joker. He clings to the hope that we the people will ultimately cling to our humanity even in the face of terror.
The words of Martin Luther King, Jr. have much bearing for us today in the whole war on Terror. In 1968, in his speech, Strength to Hope, he said,
“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction…. The chain reaction of evil — hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars — must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.”
For me, the ultimate message of Batman is the same cautionary tale. We can’t fight darkness with darkness. In the end it only leads to the dark abyss. The movie is not for everyone. No doubt many will find the violence and mayhem extremely disturbing. Personally, I think that is precisely the point. In contrasting the hope with the darkness it emphasizes the message that much more. It provides a terrifying vision of what may be. Ultimately, Batman always clings to the hope that society can be redeemed. I think that is an important message. Indeed, my hope is the same as Rev. King’s, that we all can find the humanity within ourselves to break the cycle of violence and find the light.