Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Ambiguous Knight

By ned * Other ned Posts

Recently nerds, geeks and elaborate costumes converged on an annual event known as Comic Con. This, the major trade show for the comic industry, brings out the type of crowd one would expect for collectables, video game premieres, and panels of graphic artists. Interestingly enough, I find a lot of similarities between this dorkdom hajj and another annual event of the late winter season – the Academy Awards. Differences in the body odor of the respective patrons aside, both involve hoopla, fanfare, and people wearing a lot of plastic. These similarities highlight for me a glaring comic-based omission from the Oscar nods this year.

The Dark Knight was a film that pulled off the rare feat of mass appeal while maintaining an ability to make an artistic statement. Evidence of that is that all three Young men – Baby Boomer father, Gen-Y young professional, and angsty teenager – enjoyed the flick.
Thematically, the film grappled with the complicated relationship of anarchy and fate as well as what “good” might mean. However, what may have made the movie all the more interesting to me was what it said about the current zeitgeist when you reflect on the evolution of the depiction of Batman.

I was so fortunate to have several college professors who changed the way that I view the world. One such man was the venerable Yale legend, Vincent Scully. A passionate force for what may be called an epoch in the art history world, Scully often argued that a given society’s art would reflect its thinking and outlook. One of his famous supporting arguments for this is the evolution of the style of the Ancient Greek Temple. In the Acropolis, you do not find a building that is trying to conform to its surroundings and nature. Like the martyr twin towers, the Acropolis acts in defiance of its surroundings. Its bright white marble boldly stands out on the landscape. Scully – in ways more articulate and touching than I will ever be – argues that these buildings reflect how Greek society understood itself in relationship with nature. High Greek society touted its reason and ability to control and understand its surroundings. Similarly, the Acropolis and other Greek Temples represent how the Greeks saw themselves: in dominance of their habitat.

It is with this lens that I look at what the Batman saga has to say about us. If we take the evolution of the depiction of Batman from Adam West to Christian Bale, it correlates well with the trajectory of where Americans see themselves in the world. In particular, it shows us a gradual change in attitudes towards the ritchousness in the American Way.

When comparing live action Batmans, you see a shift from the campy to the morally introspective and realistic Dark Knight of today. The flashy Pow!’s, Wham’s!, and Ka-Booms! of the sixties would appear out of place in any show today – let alone the Dark Knight. The action of the Dark Knight contrasts this with the “gritty realism” as inspired by the Jason Bourne trilogy. This shift from Batman being an escape to authentic is even witnessed when you compare the 90’s batman’s to that of the post 9/11 era. The Bat Mobile in the current movies is a hulking, utilitarian vehicle while the sleek lines of the Kilmer model make you feel like you are still an outsider looking at a stylized comic world.

Along with this shift to realism, our Batman is more morally ambiguous than that of Cold War. From the Nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah in the opening credits to the final commercial break, the live action television show left little to question about who was good and who was evil. The Bat was clearly on the side of right unlike his comical Joker and Penguin nemeses. Similarly, the outlandish Mr. Freeze and demented Riddler of the 90’s movie series were clearly up to no good with their nefarious schemes. Although in the Dark Knight the Joker is certainly sinister, Jumping-Gee-Wilikers, reader! do you think Adam West would coldly accept being vilified as Christian Bale does at the end of the Dark Knight?

This shift in our Batman tastes mimics changes in our cultural outlook. During the Cold War, good and evil were more straightforward geopolitically. Us and them were clearly identified and there was little question about whether ultimately the nation built as the “City on the Hill” was in the right. Clarity of belief in the 60’s can be seen in a variety of ways. Even the counter culture of the day had greater confidence in its footing. I would find it difficult for someone of my generation to sincerely say “don’t trust anyone over 35.”

Without the clear opposing force today our understanding of ourselves has become more complicated. Americans have been regarded as arrogant conquistadors instead of compassionate liberators. Correlating to this ambiguity, a campy and almost na├»ve approach to story telling does not appear to connect to today’s audiences. The gradual rise of a darker, nuanced, and more realistic aesthetic implies that contemporary audiences as less drawn to a monolithic, romantic conception of its hero. We are placing greater scrutiny and unconscious interest in trying to figure out who we are. At this stage, just as Christian Bale’s Wayne ultimately sees himself on the side of good, I believe the most Americans believe themselves to be the same side of righteousness. Perhaps even more so than ever though, we are trying to understand why.

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