The biggest news during my vacation was the Aurora theater massacre. It is a horrific thing. It is not; however, typical subject matter for this blog. However, Peggy Noonan’s normal Friday WSJ piece, highly touted by Instapundt, my make it so. I have here previously established my love of all things comic book – and Batman is certainly that. Therefore, when people begin discussing that medium (or related movies) as part of the problem, I pay attention.
Some preamble is in order.
I will not attempt to defend the portrayals of the Joker character from which the shooter and some copy cats appear to derive some sort of twisted inspiration. The Batman comics have turned darker in recent decades, and I have not read them routinely in quite a while for that reason. Said Noonan about the movie:
Remember Jack Nicholson’s Joker, from 1989? He was a garish, comic figure and he made people laugh. He was a little like Cyril Ritchard as Captain Hook in the old TV version of “Peter Pan.” You knew he wasn’t “real.” He was meant to amuse.
Compare that with Heath Ledger’s Joker in 2008′s “The Dark Night.” That Joker was pure evil, howling and demonic, frightening to see and hear. If you know what darkness is, you couldn’t watch that Joker and not be afraid. He looked like the man who opens the door when you get off the elevator to enter Hell; he looked like the guy holding the red velvet rope. That character was so dark, and so powerful, he destabilized the gifted actor who played him.
That is a pretty fair assessment of what has happened with the character, and as it has happened, I have found Batman less heroic – when he should have grown more heroic. You see, the Joker is so incredibly evil that he simply needs to die. Batman’s “heroism” consists entirely of catching him and turning him over to a corrupt system that finds him insane and once again commits him to Arkham Asylum so he can escape and perform more evil. For awhile this was one of those comic conventions about which everybody suspended disbelief because you wanted Bats’ best baddie to return. But as the Joker has turned more and more evil, the convention has grown disturbing.
It has created a conundrum for superhero comics. All superheros are vigilantes and that is a huge legal problem. Anything beyond citizen’s arrest of the super baddies and turning them over to the legal system technically makes the hero a criminal too. Comics have reached for a thousand ways to solve this dilemma. Some move to outer space where there is no legal authority – think Green Lantern. Some, like the X-men, just pretend like they are a part of a different world, sort of in and around the world we live in. But some, most importantly Batman, plant themselves firmly in our world and try to deal with the issue. Unfortunately they have done so in precisely the wrong fashion.
Batman’s only has only a few “real” options. One would be to ether turn his crusade in a different direction, for example to try and reform the Gotham legal system sufficiently to see to it that Joker gets death and it is carried out. That is a great way to go, but it makes for lousy comics. Another way would be for Batman to take justice into his own hands and actually kill Joker, then submit himself to the proper authorities. (They have done this in the comics with Bat-analog Green Arrow, but I do not want to get too deep into this.) Self-sacrifice is the truly heroic option (think about the Avengers movie), and Batman has failed to take it, hence my conclusion that he has grown less heroic as the Joker has grown more evil. In fact I could argue that in failing to do so, he has become part of the corruption.
The real problem here lies in making the legal system, even a corrupt one, the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong. Which leads to Batman’s third option – revolution, hopefully a peaceful one. A system as corrupt as Gotham’s may simply need replacing. Ultimately it is about right and wrong, not legal and illegal. But revolution is so morally complex that I am not sure the mediums involved, comics or movies, could do it well, and that might be as problematic as the current state of affairs.
End of preamble one – on to preamble two.
Comics have been down the path of being “The Problem” before in the 1950′s. It resulted in the creation of the now abandoned Comics Code Authority. It was an effort at self-censorship by the comics industry when comics were be blamed for everything wrong with youth in the nation. The Wikipedia entry on it is really insufficient and this NPR piece is typically a bit slanted, but you get the general idea. It is a bit too fashionable to denounce it has “censorship” these days. I will admit, comics got a bit moribund under the code, but I blame a lack of creativity on that, not the code itself. The problem was cardboard characters, not the action they pursued, but that is a debate I think we should avoid for the moment.
The real question is how it came to be abandoned. Well, the answer is very straightforward. It was self-imposed (to avoid government action) and so when the threat of government action disappeared, the industry, albeit slowly, walked away. Mostly in pursuit of bigger sales and more mature audiences – which in turn had more money to spend on merchandise and other such things to which my office stands testament. Given the dollar explosion that has resulted around all this, I do not blame the publishers for walking away one bit. I am a good capitalist after all.
Which brings me back to Noonan. She says the movie is not the problem with the Aurora massacre:
Did “The Dark Knight Rises” cause the Aurora shootings? No, of course not. One movie doesn’t have that kind of power, and we don’t even know if the shooter had seen it.
But then she goes on to deride the entire output of Hollywood, and by implication the comics on which so much of Hollywood is currently based:
Some of the sadness and frustration following Aurora has to do with the fact that no one thinks anyone can, or will, do anything to make our culture better. The film industry isn’t going to change, the genie is long out of the bottle. The genie has a cabana at the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The movie market is increasingly international, and a major component is teenage boys and young men who want to see things explode, who want to see violence and sex. Political pressure has never worked. Politicians have been burned, and people who’ve started organizations have been spoofed and spurned as Puritans. When Tipper Gore came forward in 1985, as a responsible citizen protesting obscene rap lyrics, her senator husband felt he had to apologize to Democratic fund-raisers. If some dumb Republican congressman had a hearing to grill some filmmakers, it would look like the McCarthy hearings. There would be speeches about artistic freedom, and someone would have clever words about how Shakespeare, too, used violence. “Have you ever seen ‘Coriolanus?’”
Of course there should not be hearings, or new self-imposed codes, or any other such nonsense. This is not a problem for the government.
And now, finally, this intersects with this blog’s subject matter. Religion is what to do about this problem. I will use myself as an example. I do not read modern Batman. I often pick up my old CCA covered books and enjoy them again. What I do buy new while it may no longer comply with the code, is only ratty around the edges, it is not the sort of dark, ugly, and frankly evil stuff that has produced the Joker and related characters of recent decades. That is simply a matter of preference. Those preferences were created in me by the role family and religion and God have played in my life.
If more people had those preferences, media would quit producing the sort of stuff that Noonan bemoans, because such preferences dictate where the money is and from comics to movies to merchandise they are chasing the preferences. The government cannot change preferences in a republic such as ours – it reflects them. That is the nature of being democratic. That is why we limit government so that other, more capable, institutions can shape the preferences.
The thing to be done about this is for those other more capable institutions to get better – not the government. And that means those institutions have to find other ways to influence than simply lobbying the government. That’s what lead to the Comics Code and its ineffectiveness has been demonstrated. Prohibition would be another good example. Clearly what we need here is a real hero.
This looks like a job for….CHURCH!