You either hear the news or infer it from Twitter: Ben Affleck has been announced to play Batman in a new movie. You better say something, and soon, or no one will know that you know.
On one hand, Ben Affleck is kind of a dweeby turd because he has done a lot of things that merit the description—like his movies, and his red carpet politics, and his smarmy face—but on the other hand, getting worked up about Batman would make you a dweeby turd. Not cool. Better to point out how silly Batman is and make fun of Ben Affleck. Heh, Batman. A guy who dresses like a bat, sort of. I mean he could be a horse with tiny ears and a super long mane. Whatever.
Not me. I fucking love Batman.
Maybe Ben Affleck will be bad. He doesn’t fit the type of Batman that Christopher Nolan has cultivated—the director who, I guess, either proposed or thumbs-uped a Batman who disguises his identity by talking like a little boy’s idea of daddy—which is actually a pretty good description of Batman—but Affleck has proven himself to be a competent actor and director in movies like The Town and Argo. He could be fine.
I’m not here to praise Ben Affleck or to bury him; I want to talk about Batman. I am here to say that, even though he is a rich guy who tries to fight crime while pretending to be a critter of the night— again, not talking about Affleck— Batman matters. I’ll get passionate about him and I don’t mind. I love Batman and he is worthy of my love.
Do you know Batman like I do? Specifically: have you read some of the Batman comics of the last thirty odd years? See, I think this is the critical difference between people who get Batman and people who are like, oh, a guy in a bat costume. If you only know Batman from his movies and the clippings from goofy old cartoons, he’s easy to write off. He’s a silly concatenation of wish fulfillments that adds up to a vector for Happy Meals and Mountain Dew. But that’s not Batman! Those are a fragment, a splinter, of the body of work exploring the character of Batman. If he was really a flat, nonsensical character, why would he keep coming back to revitalize the brands that live off him? Nah, see, that’s not Batman, or rather, that’s only him in his sacrificial form. Decade after decade, Batman rises up to die for America. The question isn’t why a stupid character has lasted so long but what depth drives his reincarnation.
In the 1980s superhero comics got serious. They became self-reflexive about the superhero concept but did not turn away from it, Watchmen being probably the best known example. No, they understood that though comics had been part of propagating the concept, the superhero preceded them. The superhero couldn’t be abandoned—it had to be critiqued, and no one was better equipped to do so than comic writers themselves. So you find scenes like the final conflict in Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns where Batman battles a Superman who has become the resigned waterboy for Reagan’s empire. Superheroes are the guys on both sides of the fight: concentrated power fantasies that give body to abstractions like “the nation,” and our knowledge of the lie at that heart, and the belief, requisite to avoid suicide, that somehow an individual—like us, if not quite like us—can fight back.
Christopher Nolan knows this scene: his dark, psychological films draw a great deal on the four books comprising the Dark Knight Returns arc (and, most obviously, his title is nearly identical). Differences between the two, where Nolan seems to have intentionally departed from his preferred source material, are telling. In the first act of the comic series Batman faces a young, strong, populist mutant leader who is a visually similar foil to the Bane of Dark Knight Rises. The final battle of Returns also pits Batman against a physically superior populist opponent, the aforementioned Superman. Frank Miller’s four book structure gives Batman a sequence of rising challenges, with the mutant leader, while dangerous, being the least of them and Superman—avatar for the government of the United States of America—the most threatening. By putting Bane at the end of his trilogy, Nolan combines characters from Dark Knight Returns while reversing the sequence and political message. For Miller, the mutant boss (and his reminder that Batman is aging, that he is mortal) are the least of Batman’s problems. America is his true and unconquerable foe.
But Nolan, or maybe it’s Ledger, gets the Joker right. The Joker is the key—that’s why he appears in so many of the great comics during the series’ rebirth. The relationship between Batman and Joker is the reason anyone gives a single shit about Batman today. The Joker asks the question at the heart of Batman’s origin (his parents are shot dead in a robbery, in case you didn’t know) and his lifelong self-doubt: how can we know if our violence is just? That is Batman’s epistemological struggle, and encounters with the Joker are about the madness that the law must pass through while enforcing itself violently. That’s it. That’s Batman, and Joker is the key to understanding it. If you take away the agony and doubt of doing violent justice, then it’s true that all you have is a guy in tights beating up thugs. You have George Zimmerman as seen by Ted Nugent— an ideological simpleton, an abuser empowered by the status quo.
This is why Miller ends with the Superman fight. Batman’s ultimate struggle is not to prevent the descent into anarchist violence, as in Nolan’s sequence, or even to overcome his own doubt about whether he’s just a violent psychopath born with a silver spoon. Overcoming Joker, for Miller and for Nolan, requires that he accept that they are two sides of the same coin—and Nolan does well to include Two Face as the embodiment of that self-knowledge. In the middle of both series Batman looks into the abyss and survives. The Batman coming out of that trial has a different task: to make those who would do violence in the name of justice suffer the hideousness of their existence. And that is a lesson he will teach Superman, and the government of the U.S., by any means necessary.
/// I originally included that rhetorical nod to Malcolm X to raise a specific example in American history of the ambivalence of violence as justice, but after seeing the way white people have gone wild appropriating MLK the last few days I feel like maybe I should leave it out. But here’s the point I was trying to make subtly and will now make explicit: if Batman was black— a rich black man riding around in a really nice car beating the shit out of white teens for doing the violence they are taught they are entitled to do— white America would not think of him as a superhero with psychological depth but as a terrorist. I mean they already try to smear Kanye as a delinquent dad for doing his damn job, and there’s nothing more dadly than doing your damn job. My view, which I’ve said before, is that terrorism is a value neutral description and it is the purpose for which it is being used that is the object of moral judgment. I decided to leave it in as a prompt to consider the question, what if Batman was black? ////
My point here is not that Christopher Nolan presents a reactionary version of Dark Knight Returns, although I’m also saying that, but to show how Batman is a nexus for important, timely shit. I’ve only been talking about one comic arc. There’s still Year One and The Killing Joke and Arkham Asylum and Gates of Gotham lots more, all of which start from the premise that they need to present a psychologically driven narrative about a billionaire fighting crime with brute force—which is insane, but is also literally America. (You know what else is both comically and tragically ludicrous: everything). Each writer or artist to contribute knows they are joining a conversation in progress where they need to bring something new while being mindful of responding to what’s already been said. (I mean, there are shitty Batman comics too but that doesn’t invalidate the good ones).
Of course, it’s not like Batman is the only game in town for talking about the state and madness and violence. I’m not trying to say Batman is a gospel, perfect and universal—the Batman universe tends to be assume white men are the drivers of history—but that Batman is a tradition for a critique of violence using the terms I think matter. When it fails, as it must, as it is obsessed with doing, it provides a narrative and visual language for reflecting on its failures. My investment in Batman is part historical accident, like anyone who finds themselves born into a tradition, and part out of respect for the quality and relevance of that tradition. So when there’s some news about an addition to the Batman universe, you’re goddam right I want to talk about its possible implications. I want to talk about everything Batman has to say.