Monday, July 30, 2012
Spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises follow, though at this point I assume anyone who hasn't seen the movie probably doesn't care.
I wanted to take a moment to revisit a prediction I made several years ago after watching The Dark Knight: I suggested that the last act of the third movie would center around a fight between Batman and Superman. I knew it was a long shot, but I thought it actually made sense given the first two films' inspiration and their direction.
I got in several arguments about this theory. Most everyone thought I was crazy for thinking it was a possibility; a few people thought I was even crazier for wanting it to be true. After all, Nolan's movies were set in a realistic Gotham, one without aliens, magic, or superpowers. How would Superman fit into that world?
Needless to say, my prediction didn't come to pass. I wanted to address this head-on, because it's occurred to me recently that Nolan's last movie largely demonstrates the importance of Superman's existence in Batman's world. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Dark Knight Rises was a $250 million example for why Batman simply does not work without Kal-El and his ilk.
The problem comes down to economics. The Dark Knight Rises focused on the subject intensely. In Nolan's defense, I think he had to: Bruce Wayne is the very definition of the 1%. His absurd wealth was inherited: he didn't even earn it. Batman's training, gadgets, and free time are all made possible because he was born a billionaire. Much of The Dark Knight Rises follows from this. Though his devotion to his city and his willingness to sacrifice make him a hero, Bruce Wayne is compromised by his background. The mistakes he makes in the film are those of the wealthy. He forgets his responsibility to those who are less fortunate, squirreled away in his mansion.
He is unworthy of being the Batman, a conclusion Bruce ultimately seems to reach. It's the logical conclusion, given where Bruce comes from and what he represents: how can a rich man be a hero of the people?
In essence, the concept of Batman collapses under its own contradictions. For Batman to be relevant he needs to be a hero of the people; he needs to be "one of us." But it would take a nearly unfathomable amount of money to make Batman: he can't be an ordinary human.
This is the conundrum Nolan ran into, and it drives the resolution of his trilogy. While his solution may appease a large number of movie-goers, many longtime Batman fans (myself included) are left profoundly disappointed. Ultimately, Nolan failed to make Batman a legend. Looking back at culmination of Bruce Wayne's time as Batman, he only spent about a year in the suit over the course of three movies. It hardly seems worth the six years he spent training or the eight he spent moping. All in all, he was just a rich guy dressed as a bat; nothing more.
I find that portrayal highly unfulfilling. But how do we reconcile the schism between the rich billionaire and the legendary hero? How can Bruce Wayne be anything but the aforementioned rich guy in a cape?
The answer is context. Batman was never meant to inhabit our world; in fact - and I mean this in every possible sense - the concept doesn't work in reality. Batman, as presented in Nolan's movies, can be seen as the pinnacle of what man can hope to achieve: the notion that such an accomplishment can only be achieved by the rich is deeply problematic.
But Batman doesn't exist in the real world: he exists in the DC Universe. And when he was created, it was in response to a simple editorial mandate: give us another Superman.
This is a key aspect of the character that's often overlooked by those unfamiliar with his history. He's a superhero, not a hero. He was always supposed to be "another Superman."
In this context, Bruce Wayne's wealth and physical perfection become less significant. What's important is that he's a human who makes himself into something more. In short, Batman is a self-made superhero. Sure, his money and physique were assets allowing him to accomplish this. But their value becomes far diminished when compared to the might of Superman.
As a cultural symbol, he's supposed to show us that regardless of where we start out, we can be anything. Pull Batman down to reality, and his money makes him seem superior. It gives him an unfair edge, because he's starting at the top. But in a world with aliens, magic rings, and amazons, he's only human. And as such, he's our representative among the gods.
Yes, our representative has all our most useful traits and advantages. He was born with money and connections, just like he was born with a heroic physique, Olympic potential, and a superior analytic mind. He's got the best of everything, but that's because he needs it to compete with beings who were born with much, much more.
Beside Superman, Batman is an underdog. But take Superman away - as Nolan did - and you're ultimately left with either a bully or an aristocrat.
Posted by Erin Snyder at 6:39 PM