Lessons From an Oridnary Superhero
In 1992, the New York Times published an article highlighting the possibly anti- Semitic undertones of Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. Specifically referencing the character of The Penguin, played by Danny De Vito, Rebecca Roiphe and Daniel Cooper wrote that he “... is a Jew, down to his hooked nose, pale face and lust for herring ... he is one of the oldest clichés: the Jew who is bitter, bent over and out for revenge, the Jew who is unathletic and seemingly unthreatening but who, in fact, wants to murder every first-born child of the gentile community.” This interpretation caused quite a tempest at the time, but as there was no evidence of malign intent in Burton’s life or work, no drunken screeds at “Jewish” police officers, a la Mel Gibson, the issue faded.
During the intervening decade and a half, Hollywood has seen a dramatic increase in the number of comic book and graphic novel transitions to film. These are no longer presented in the manner of relatively black and white moral frameworks wrapped around some action and special effects. With the advent of Computer Generated Imagery effects in movies, catastrophic attacks or events became more easily adaptable to film.
Events in the real world sometimes outpace art, and along with their human tragedy and drama, they bring our moral dilemmas as well. Even before the world-wrenching experience of September 11, 2001, these films began to ask difficult moral questions while painting their protagonists as less than perfect superheroes making decisions in a violent world which sometimes had unintended consequences (1995’s Judge Dredd, for example). Graphic novelists like Alan Moore, whose V for Vendetta raised the difficult question of when terrorism is justified, and Frank Miller, whose Sin City and 300 have explored the true meaning of heroism and loss, are paving the way for a new paradigm for superheroes in film.
Given this background, and the existential questions about good and evil many have asked since 9/11, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight does not emerge from a vacuum. His Batman is tortured by the fact that every decision he has to make is a choice which will leave someone dead or damaged. He comes to recognize that constantly making these choices has damaged him as well, leaving him incapable of carrying the mantle of a true “knight.”
And yet ... Batman does recognize that the world—his Gotham—needs him even if he is less than perfect. It needs him because there are Jokers out there, motivated by any number of things—greed, fear, religion, lust, hate, or sheer madness, as in this case—who simply need to be stopped and destroyed, so that the rest of us may live in peace. This is a powerful message for our time. He doesn’t render moral judgement on Joker, like the public does, like the police do. No, Batman recognizes that while his own morality is strong, his actions can be or seem cruel, costly, or brutal. When the perpetrator of these actions within the context of a struggle for the greater good can recognize his or its imperfection, there is hope. Hope that such battles can be won, hope that out of such battles clearer moral choices will present themselves, hope that an inspired populace will make the right choices.
There are some things, though, which are beyond hope, and about which Nolan may be telling us we need to be more realistic. There is no hope that our generational struggle against ideological and religious fascists can succeed without casualties, without tragedy, and without loss. There is no hope that we can convince our adversaries to mend their ways. They got on their train long ago, and whether driven by faith or madness, they aren’t getting off.
Nolan’s movie is titled using the sobriquet of “knight,” and this is no coincidence. In the medieval Grail romances that gave us our concept of knighthood, it is interesting to note that the strongest, most skilled knight of all was Lancelot, a good but fundamentally flawed and damaged character. Yet he is not the one among all of the knights to succeed in the quest of the Grail. That success is left to Sir Galahad, who is young and morally pure. It is telling indeed that the Grail stories also inform us that Galahad’s father was none other than Lancelot. As the great literary critic Northrop Frye wrote in his seminal book The Secular Scripture, we can’t escape these repeated themes in our literature. Neither, it seems, can we escape them in our superhero movies.
Arieh S. Rosenblum is a Toronto-based consultant and writer, who speaks frequently through the Hasbara Fellowships and ICC speakers bureau on contemporary issues, including Israel, Zionism, anti-Semitism, and culture.