Devin already posted on the two new Batman films here. She raises many interesting points concerning the history of cinema and the contrast the films, as superhero movies specifically, make against similar titles. However, while revisiting them recently, I was struck by a few points on why, to put it bluntly, I am so pleased and a bit disappointed with them.
First, they present a sophisticated take on the great battle of the grand, old philosophical debate: does society make man good or bad? (My use of “man” is intentional here and becomes clear in a moment.)
Adam Smith and Jean-Jacques Rousseau can, at a basic level stand in for each argument. Smith has it, as do pretty much all classical economists, that it makes man good: as homo economicus we benefit our fellows by striving hard for what we want. Jean-Jacques on the other hand sees it differently. Man, left in his “natural” state as he sees it, is good in a sort of pure sense. It is only with the development of society that we are corrupted, that private property is created, that we get reasons to kill each other.
But, how does this relate back to the Nolan Batman films. The tensions of this classical philosophical debate (for economics is philosophical) become apparent even in Bruce Wayne’s back-story: his father and mother are gunned down before his eyes by a man (the aptly named Joe Chill) driven, presumably, to crime by the larger economic-societal forces engulfing him. Batman though makes us ponder, as citizens in our capitalist democracy, not only, “Was what this man did wrong?” It also makes us ask, “To what degree?”
Bruce’s parents are of the generous elite. They give generously, even for billionaires it seems, to charity and civic organizations in an attempt to alleviate the crushing poverty brought upon by the system that has benefited them so much. Thus, on the one had, it seems the point may be that the capitalist system is worth the effort. In the hands of the responsible, all may benefit. Point: Adam Smith.
Yet, I hesitate to agree that this is the conclusion the viewer is meant to reach. These two do-gooders are shot and killed by the same class they attempted to help as we know. Charity is not something the vast majority of people naturally set out to get into a position to receive. Nor is it able to make up for the harms already inflicted on Gotham.
Further, the shooters earns an early release from prison due to three reasons: his stated repentance, his deal with the DA to testify against a crime lord, and, most importantly here, his position as an under-class victim of the economic depression that lead him to rob the Wayne family. The question then becomes, “Would Chill have picked up a gun, resorted to violent coercion to obtain material necessities (food, shelter) without the forces of society?” Point: Jean-Jacques.
Alternatively, the Joker (which Devin has already analyzed well for us in the previous post) is a man not constrained, apparently by choice or nature, by society’s limits. And what is he? Well, he comes off as nothing less than the direct incarnation of chaos and evil. Point for Smith or Jean-Jacques? Well, neither of the above, that’s for sure. Society, perhaps, is not the only the only point in this equation.
In the end, these questions cannot be said to have been completely sorted for the viewer. After all, great minds throughout the past have yet to come to an agreement. Moreover, multiple layers are found in the film besides the above single question, complicating it in ways I’m sure I haven’t fully conceived of: the limits and conditions of anarchism, capitalism, and democracy; the relations of the Joker, Batman, and Jim Gordon in relation to each other; the (in)ability of an individual, of either good or evil, to change society; history as either cyclical, linear, or both; the tensions between individual responsibility and societal coercion (for good or ill). (This is to say nothing of the absolutely fascinating, endlessly complex meaning of Alfred’s story concerning his days serving the British Empire in Burma.)
The films already have me interrogating some of the more contemporary questions we are faced with concerning societal values and reactions to violence . . . but that will come in another post another day.
But, what of the disappointing aspect mentioned quickly above? Ultimately, and in a move which can only really lend credence to the point I’ve made, the film also collapses under its own patriarchy. For example, the only female character of the film, Rachel Dawes, is at first fought over by two of the most powerful men in Gotham, then saved by one of them, and finally, when she cannot be saved due to the deviousness of the Joker, is bound and dies at the hands of another man. In essence, the film fails to comprehend the gendered position of half of society, just as much (most?) classical philosophy has.
Thus, the societal philosophical questions the films raise are of the classical variety: “Does society make man good or bad?” “What is man’s individual responsibility in society?” Other very different questions with their own nuances such as, “What position does woman or human occupy in society?” are left alone without so much as a lazy pondering.