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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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