Posts Tagged ‘Batman’

By David Reynolds

If you’re looking for an introductory history of the superhero, then you’ll be satisfied with the PBS documentary Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle. Hosted by Liev Schreiber, who played Sabertooth in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the film provides an adequate overview of the history of superheroes, but it may not quite quench the thirst of more advanced comics buffs.

Much like my own dissertation on the subject, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths, this PBS documentary focuses on superheroes as they appear across media, unlike other histories which focus only on comics in general or the superhero’s role in comics. Hearing legends like Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, and Alan Moore share their stories about the industry provides invaluable input about the infancy and growth of the genre. However, while this documentary collects interviews with many legends of the industry, it falls short in scholarly expertise. Trina Robbins‘ input as a comics historian is quite valuable in this respect, but there ought to be further reference to academic expertise throughout the series.

Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle is divided into three episodes, which roughly correspond to the Golden, Silver, and Modern Ages of Comics. Accordingly, the first episode covers the birth of the superhero in 1938 with the emergence of Superman in Action Comics #1. The origins of Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain America, and other superheroes are covered here, as well, acknowledging the inspiration taken from pulp characters, like the Spider or the Shadow. The film also discusses superheroes as American gods, emphasizing their role as modern hero myths, and it even touches on how superhero narratives were used as wartime propaganda. These are perspectives I have considered in my own dissertation. Such accounts in Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle tend to reflect the scholarship, although the treatment of these subjects in the film is brief.

In discussing the sizable slew of superheroes that emerged following the success of Superman and Batman, the film highlights Fawcett ComicsCaptain Marvel. Here is where I have a particular gripe with the documentary’s portrayal of events. The film makes no mention of the despicable copyright lawsuits that resulted in DC Comics (known as National Comics at the time) winning the rights to Fawcett’s Captain Marvel. Basically, DC claimed that Captain Marvel was infringing on Superman’s copyright, claiming the characters were too alike. They are about as alike as any other pair of superheroes, but the courts eventually favoured with DC and Fawcett had run out of money to pursue the fight. This is one of many dark stains on the genre, in my opinion, because it represents the tremendous level of greed inherent to the industry. Don’t forget how the big publishers all too often denied copyright and royalties to creators, most infamously the creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Well, the comic book copyright wars are overlooked entirely in this documentary. Don’t take this as too damning a critique, however; most are quite satisfied to enjoy the view of the tip of an iceberg.

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The second and third episodes provide accounts of the Silver and Modern Ages. The Silver Age is largely portrayed as defined by Stan Lee’s revolution of telling stories about superheroes with relatable problems, noting the introduction of the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. Superman, Batman, and other archetypal superheroes had hitherto seemed impervious to the everyday troubles of regular folk, so Stan Lee’s departure from that norm is truly remarkable even if it seems like a no-brainer to fans today. The Modern Age is defined by further narrative complexity, citing Frank Miller‘s Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen as definitive texts that reflect relevant social tensions. These works challenged the very foundations of superhero narratives, forcing readers to question the motives of all these masked vigilantes. This sort of complexity continues after the destruction of the two towers on September 11, 2001, when superhero narratives again challenge our assumptions about the value of security and civil liberties, such as with Marvel’s Civil War crossover series. The documentary literally juxtaposes the implementation of George W. Bush‘s Patriot Act with the issues addressed in Civil War. That the film engages in this conversation is reassuring, because to dismiss it would be a crucial oversight. However, the film does not go so far as to point out the troubling normalization of mass surveillance in Christopher Nolan‘s film Dark Knight.

Ultimately, Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle is well worth watching for any fan of superheroes. If you’re new to reading comics, you might find some classic titles to check out for yourself. If you’re a long-time fan, then you’ll find a great deal to be nostalgic about across all three episodes. There are some unusual moments unique to this documentary, as well; nowhere else have I heard Adam West (of campy ’60s Batman fame) read lines from Miller’s dark and brooding Dark Knight Returns. So, if you haven’t seen this one yet, you might find it on Netflix.

And, if you’re interested in reading a more advanced take on how superhero narratives function in popular culture, then you should check out my book, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths. Please, read and enjoy!

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So, with the breaking news that the U.S. has been extensively logging an unimaginable gamut of personal information from Internet users around the globe with their PRISM program, I’m sure I’m not the only person to immediately think back on Dark Knight‘s cell phone surveillance system.

In Christopher Nolan’s film, Batman resorts to such an extreme form of surveillance to combat the Joker, a relentless psychopath. The device is designed to monitor the citizens of Gotham by constructing composite images based on snatched cell phone signals. Lucious Fox finds this tool inherently abhorrent, and Batman partially acknowledges this by allowing Fox to destroy the device once it has served its singular purpose. Unlike in the real world, Batman’s cell phone surveillance is kept a secret from the population; only Batman, Fox, and the privileged audience are aware of its existence and use. Of course, all of this is very Orwellian, reeking of Big Brother all over, but engaging that would be another essay, so I’ll stick to Dark Knight for now.

Audiences should see this trope in Dark Knight as an allegory for authorities dealing with terrorism. The film reflects the dichotomy of security and civil liberty, a theme that has become more common in post-9/11 North American popular culture.

The Dark Knight's Big Brother?

In light of the news that governments have been actively conducting widespread surveillance of Internet and cell phone communications, it is most crucial that we understand why people are enraged by this invasion of privacy. So, let’s consider how fiction may contrast with reality.

When you think of President Obama do you instantly think “He’s just like Batman?” Perhaps, but I think that may be a bit of a stretch.

How about Prime Minister Harper? Does he inspire associations with Batman? Doubtful.

I make this silly contrast for a reason. Just follow me for a moment along this train of thought. As fans of Batman, audiences tend to think of him as the ultimate zenith of human intelligence and performance. That’s fine. Fans also tend to have a tremendous amount of blind faith in Batman’s judgement. So, when we watch Dark Knight and see that Batman must resort to this type of widespread surveillance to catch the Joker, we feel this is an acceptable measure because HE’S BATMAN. There is no other reassurance made. He’s Batman. Trust him. That’s it. And, many of us will likely accept that reasoning and simply enjoy the story.

It must be OK; he's Batman.

However, events in the real world are strikingly different. Consider the following points:

Firstly, PRISM has been around for years now, trawling the Internet for personal information on everyone who is online. That may be an exaggeration, but I feel entitled to it. When Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Apple, and others are allegedly cooperating in full with the PRSIM program, then I feel safe saying everyone online is being monitored. In contrast to Dark Knight, the real application of such surveillance is conducted on a much larger scale. Instead of monitoring a few million fictional citizens in Gotham, PRSIM monitors the communications and activities of billions of real, regular people around the world.

Secondly, Batman wanted to stop the Joker. That is a specific task with a definite endpoint. The so-called War On Terror is not like that at all. The War On Terror is ill-defined, vague, and without any foreseeable endpoint. Don’t be fooled by the rhetoric; war is terror. With a perpetual state of war, there is no indication that governments would ever cease to avail of such a rich source of intel. So, unlike the faith we hold that Batman will use his device only to apprehend the Joker, it strikes me as entirely unlikely that any military or enforcement agency would relinquish their power in the same way.

Thirdly, neither Obama nor Harper are like Batman. As an idealized fictional superhero with a canon ranging from dark and gritty to bright and farcical, Batman sets an impossible standard to meet. That is a given. He is like a mythical hero, idolized by many. Leaders of state do not often achieve such unconditional approval ratings. Political scandals prevent the population from having a similar sense of faith in our leaders. Just look at the IRS’s alleged bias in targeting Republicans for financial scrutiny. Just look at the slew of scandals in Canada that mar Harper’s reign, especially the election fraud (a.k.a. the robocalls) and the Wright-Duffy expense scandal. The Harper Government already equates environmental activism with extremism, regarding it as a threat to national interests (read as “oil interests”). With such a wealth of personal data at their fingertips, we are supposed to believe that they won’t use it to gain political advantages? It seems fair to me to suspect such powerful figures would misuse the collected data. Since past behaviour is the best indicator of future behaviour, one can reasonably assume that our governments aren’t as trustworthy as Batman.

Following this rationale, concern about how governments will use this information is not merely some paranoid conspiracy theory; on the contrary, it seems a rather prudent line of thought. If world leaders were all as noble as Batman and terrorists were all as psychotic as the Joker, then this would be a simpler issue. But, it is not like that. The reality is far more complex. Leaders are often not saints, and “terrorists” are often seen as freedom fighters (you have seen Star Wars, right?). The real world is not as black and white as Gotham (nor Star Wars).

Now, discussing this very real issue in terms of how it relates to a Batman movie may be seen as diminishing the real importance of the issue. That is not what I intend to accomplish here. Instead, I hope to inspire audiences to consider real world events as they relate to the stories that are told. Not every tale is purely for entertainment; many storytellers communicate valuable lessons through metaphor, symbolism, and allegory.

For further material on why online spying conducted by governments should be a concern to everyday law-abiding folks please read Ian Brown’s piece in The Guardian or view this segment on DemocracyNow.org.