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Batman and Evil

This morning is overwhelmed with coverage of the horrific news from Colorado, where a shooter killed at least a dozen people, with 50 others injured, at a premiere showing of The Dark Knight Rises. It’s a horrible story, frightening and vile, and sure to overtake the news cycle and dominate discussion in the coming days. I wasn’t going to write anything about the movie they were going to see in this space, because there will be plenty of people doing that. But now that this has happened, there are a few thoughts that seem worth sharing, about evil, chaos, and how we respond to it.

I’ll admit I wasn’t really a fan of comic books when I was a kid – and I’m still not. I watch the movies because they’ve become essentially the replacements for the heroic action movies which Hollywood used to produce – paired with buttery popcorn, featuring superhuman acts, oversized explosions, and quick one-liners. Men in tights are more publicity tie-in friendly now, so that’s where the throw-downs happen – they’re the new gods of the marketplace.

I wasn’t a fan of comics. I was a fan of Batman. Because Batman, unlike the others, really understood evil in all its varied forms… and because he was, from my childlike perspective, the only hero who inhabited the real world. You’ve read the pieces about how much it would cost to become Batman – the millions one could spend on building this or that, the training, the equipment. The point is that he’s a hero who inhabits a place that is very familiar. His retreat is to the darkness of a decaying manor and a darkened cave, not a fortress in the Arctic or the Halls of Asgard.

There’s a great series of comic books, Gotham Central, about the cops who work the city, which feels closer to Homicide or The Wire than a story about superheroes. Batman rarely appears, and they resent it when he does. And that seems right somehow, in the same way the darkened alleys of that crime-ridden city felt true to life. The crimes he battled were sometimes large, but often small and intensely personal. The evil he confronted had more colorful masks, more theatrical schemes – but the nature of it was recognizable as agents of chaos and terror seeking to expose the lie at the heart of the social order.

(An aside: My favorite movie growing up was The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. My favorite movie from the past decade is The Dark Knight. Both films are about murderous evil, civilization-ending evil, confronted by brutal good. But that good, because of its methods, cannot be the civilizing force – “without Doniphon’s heroic virtues and unlawful deeds there could be no law and civilization in Shinbone, but also that a civilized Shinbone has no place for such virtues or for such a hero.” So both tales come to rest on the noble lie – Tom Doniphon dies drunk and alone, and Ransom Stoddard goes to Washington. This happens in real life, too – with more frequency than you might imagine.)

The saying goes that DC’s heroes are meant to emulate gods, while Marvel heroes are just humans with powers. Batman, surrounded by a pantheon of gods, has none. He is one mortal bent against the psychotic forces of superstition, chaos, and vice assembled against him. Without the luxury of near-immortality or the supernatural ability to cross space and time like certain other superheroes, his victories are profoundly limited events, constrained within the context of putting the evil and the insane away into dark holes from whence it is only a question of when, not if, they will reemerge. But even if the city is only safer by one person, he considers his mission worthwhile. He seeks to “find the Devil waiting, and see fear in his eyes.”

It is not an optimistic story. Batman knows he can never make Gotham into a utopia, will never end the tide of villainy or cruelty or abuse, will never bring back his parents. He knows this. Victory, in this context, would require human nature to be different than it is, than we know it to be because of events like what happened in Colorado today.

Batman’s standard of victory, then — the very idea of “winning” — becomes very different than those of other heroes. It is to stand between the chaos of evil and civilization and bear the brunt of what comes, even knowing it will eventually be more than one man can bear – that it will claim his life.  Yet this is one of the reasons Batman provides a far more relevant example of what heroism means in this cynical and dangerously insane age: his humanity is established by the fact that he knows his quest is doomed, a lost cause from the start — but even equipped with that knowledge, he refuses to quit, to ever give in, or give up. He runs to the sound of the guns.

As Neil Gaiman writes it: “The end of the story of Batman is, he’s dead, because in the end, the Batman dies. What else am I going to do? Retire and play golf? I fight until I drop, and one day, I will drop. But until then, I fight.”

You likely won’t be in a situation in your life where you are confronted by evil as murderous as the villain in Colorado or those on the screen.  But you will be confronted by something that demands you set aside your fear to stand for what’s right, to sacrifice self-interest and safety for something more valuable than both. As Chesterton wrote, “The more truly we can see life as a fairytale, the more clearly the tale resolves itself into war with the dragon.”

Remember in that moment: there’s always something you can do.  Only you know what that is.

So do it.

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  1. Michael Lukehart

    “He runs to the sound of the guns.” In real life, only an armed citizen can do that.  Superheroes do not really exist.  The police are never there. Only real people are.  Where I live a lot of citizens have concealed weapons permits and carry everywhere.  For precisely the reason that evil can appear anywhere, anytime.  And we want to be prepared.  If we are not prepared, then, quite frankly, it is not true that “there is always something you can do.” Or, as I paraphrase another movie character, if I get shot it won’t be for lack of shooting back.

  2. Hang On

    “So do it.”

    The new Nike slogan?

    Batman for me growing up was a horrible, cheesy tv series. The Christian Bale Batman series of movies though have been excellent. The earlier movies were almost as cheesy as the tv series.

    “Yet this is one of the reasons Batman provides a far more relevant example of what heroism means in this cynical and dangerously insane age: his humanity is established by the fact that he knows his quest is doomed, a lost cause from the start — but even equipped with that knowledge, he refuses to quit, to ever give in, or give up. He runs to the sound of the guns.”

    Amazing that it doesn’t cause a rethink. Not about goals but about strategy and tactics. An individual just isn’t going to do it alone and win. Patton is far more appropriate: Make the other SOB die for his country/cause. There’s nothing noble about loss and death. Victory and life are much more glorious.

  3. Copperfield

    Bravo! Moral courage defined in context. I’m humbled.

  4. AUMom

    AHHHHHHH! I haven’t seen it yet. So sorry I read this.

  5. Aaron Miller

    Brute force and vigilantism cannot long be the basis of a just civiliation, but they are a part of it. Civilizational order does not eliminate their necessity. It merely subdues them into extraordinary measures.

    You have identified the fantasy that evil can be erased from this world. You have also identified the fantasy that brutality is never necessary. But there is another common fantasy which goes unchallenged in these tales only because they end with the installation of legal order and do not explore its maintenance. It is the fantasy that a system eliminates the need for individual judgment.

    Laws and courts are indeed preferable to shootouts. But laws alone are never sufficient for justice. Non-legal systems, like standards of shame and honor, are also necessary. But they’re not sufficient either. The letter of the law and the spirit of the law must be balanced by the judgments of individuals. Systems are necessary, but it is also occasionally necessary to act beyond them.

    Systems are generalities. They are methods for common or predictable problems. Extraordinary challenges can require extraordinary actions.

    Police and lawyers only lessen the need for vigilantes. And the former are no less tempted to corruption.

  6. Southern Pessimist

    “You likely won’t be in a situation in your life where you are confronted by evil as murderous as the villain in Colorado or those on the screen.  But you will be confronted by something that demands you set aside your fear to stand for what’s right, to sacrifice self-interest and safety for something more valuable than both.”

    I will be looking at every thing said and written about this tragedy in the coming days but I can’t imagine finding a more sobering but appropriate response.

  7. ConservativeWanderer

    A friend and I were discussing things like this many years ago.

    We decided that there are sheep (no, I don’t mean sheeple, so don’t go there), and there are wolves… and then there are the sheepdogs, who could be wolves, but who choose instead to dedicate themselves to protecting the sheep.

    Batman is the epitome of the sheepdog. He is the man ready to do violence in the night so that others can sleep peacefully. He is the one who will take on — and usually take down — the ones the cops cannot, or will not.

    Just imagine, for a moment, what Batman would have done in that theater in the wee hours of the morning.

    Oh, one off-topic bit of bat-trivia. Do you know why, on most of his costumes, he has the bat-logo silhouetted in a bright yellow oval? If memory serves (I think this comes from the Batman: Year One story), it’s because he has his thickest armor there, so that’s where he wants the bad guys to shoot him.

  8. dogsbody

    “There is always one more thing you can do” is a favorite saying of retired General Hal Moore, whose leadership under enemy fire was memorialized in the film We Were Soldiers.

  9. ConservativeWanderer
    Mister D

    ConservativeWanderer: A friend and I were discussing things like this many years ago.

    Oh, one off-topic bit of bat-trivia. Do you know why, on most of his costumes, he has the bat-logo silhouetted in a bright yellow oval? If memory serves (I think this comes from the Batman: Year One story), it’s because he has his thickest armor there, so that’s where he wants the bad guys to shoot him. · 3 hours ago

    He actually has the yellow oval because DC was told in the early 60s that they couldn’t copyright the image of a bat, but they could do it if it was surrounded by an oval (or, I imagine, a square, circle, trapezoid, rhombus, etc). The “target” explanation was given by Frank Miller in The Dark Knight Returns in an attempt to explain a what looks like an odd color choice for the Dark Knight (though no attempt was made to explain the bright colors of Robin the Boy Target). Ironically this explanation was given just before Miller put Bats back in his classic black and oval-less costume. · 7 hours ago

    I was speaking of the in-story explanation.

  10. Clandesteyn

    What a perfect piece.  I’m glad that you posted that, because your command of composition was able to do justice to the rarely voiced realities brought to light by this confluence of tragic art and tragic reality.

    I feel like I should comment, but I’ll just say ‘amen.’

  11. Mister D
    ConservativeWanderer: A friend and I were discussing things like this many years ago.

    Oh, one off-topic bit of bat-trivia. Do you know why, on most of his costumes, he has the bat-logo silhouetted in a bright yellow oval? If memory serves (I think this comes from the Batman: Year One story), it’s because he has his thickest armor there, so that’s where he wants the bad guys to shoot him. · 3 hours ago

    He actually has the yellow oval because DC was told in the early 60s that they couldn’t copyright the image of a bat, but they could do it if it was surrounded by an oval (or, I imagine, a square, circle, trapezoid, rhombus, etc). The “target” explanation was given by Frank Miller in The Dark Knight Returns in an attempt to explain a what looks like an odd color choice for the Dark Knight (though no attempt was made to explain the bright colors of Robin the Boy Target). Ironically this explanation was given just before Miller put Bats back in his classic black and oval-less costume.

  12. Byron Horatio

    Batman’s greatest flaw, though it’s always presented as a virtue, is that he is not willing to kill the truly evil monsters he faces. Instead, he’s avidly against just/vengeful killing even though the consequences of this decision are always disastrous. (The Joker lives to kill ever more people)It’s unfortunate. But Batman has always seemed to buy the notion that slaying the monster somehow puts him on the same level of evil. That aside, this was a fantastic piece.

  13. ConservativeWanderer
    Byron Horatio: Batman’s greatest flaw, though it’s always presented as a virtue, is that he is not willing to kill the truly evil monsters he faces. Instead, he’s avidly against just/vengeful killing even though the consequences of this decision are always disastrous. (The Joker lives to kill ever more people)It’s unfortunate. But Batman has always seemed to buy the notion that slaying the monster somehow puts him on the same level of evil. That aside, this was a fantastic piece. · 4 minutes ago

    As Batman Begins illustrates, not killing the bad guys himself doesn’t mean that he’ll save them from a certain death.

  14. AHLondon

    Spot on, all of it.  I will change my post to this link with small excerpt as soon as I do a pickup and drop off.  

  15. AHLondon

    Now having seen the movie and after musings with my husband before and after, a random and often overlooked obersvation that I can’t figure out where to fit anywhere else (small spoiler):

    Regarding how much it would cost to become Batman and how wealth is one of the things he loses, wealth is often treated as, assumed to be, an advantage.  It is, but for Batman it is also his temptation.   If he chose, he could have insulated himself with wealth.  “Better” yet, he could have even used his vast wealth to contribute to caring causes that make him feel like he is making a difference without him actually having to do anything.  Moreso than the rest of us who have single homesteads and families to stand and defend, Wayne doesn’t have to run to the sound of the guns at all.  Yet he does before and after the fall of Dent, and he does in spite of the freedom his wealth offers.

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