Saturday, June 18, 2005

On Fear: The Sociopaths of Batman (1989) and Batman Begins (2005)

I had not been a regular reader of Batman or Detective Comics until the mid-eighties, when Frank Miller lured me in with The Dark Knight Returns, but even before Dark Knight, my limited exposure to Batman had been enjoyable precisely because Batman's villains were genuinely creepy. The first two villains to make a strong impression on me were Dr. Phosphorus, the radioactive skeleton from Detective Comics 469 (1977), and the Scarecrow, in Detective Comics 503 (1981).

One wonders if David Goyer didn't have this marvelous cover depicting Batman transformed into the Scarecrow's doppelganger on his bedside table when he penned the screenplay for Batman Begins, a film which strikingly thematizes the nature of fear by linking Batman's origin story to Dr. Jonathan Crane's psychopathic alter ego. For the movie plainly adopts the thematic implications of this evocative image--an image that iconically suggests the complexity of a character whose neurotic, often ambiguous "heroism" is as much a symptom as a willed act, and whose relationship with fear as much a martyrdom as a strategy.

Many elements make this meticulously orchestrated and on balance successful Batman film outshine the series of films it was designed to make us forget. Perhaps the most important of these, however, is Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow--the first genuinely scary big-screen bat-villain.

From the second Murphy appears on screen, our skin begins to crawl. His beauty is unnatural and chillingly asexual. We know that we are in the presence of a sociopath long before he dons the horrific Scarecrow mask and blows fear dust in our eyes to create some of the most archetypally nightmarish scenes I've ever seen in a comic book film, from the maggot infested death-mask's bat spewing maw to Crane's flame-snorting black steed. How appropriate that he's a Jungian.

By far the most inspired of these images, however, are those that transform our vision of Batman himself, propelling him directly out of the clunky batsuit and into the realm of Lovecraftian myth. From the tar-oozing demon who terrorizes a drugged out Crane to the wraithlike nightmare with glowing red eyes that swoops over the fear-crazed Gothamites, the film gives us images that capture both what we imagine an encounter with a real Batman might feel like and the uncompromising spirit of the film as a whole. They also show us what it takes to produce a Batman movie that doesn't only not suck, but that edges towards a kind of mythic grandeur.

Don't get me wrong. I loved Tim Burton's Batman (1989) at the time. I was astonished at how good Michael Keaton was in the title role, and the film's look and kineticism thrilled me. In many ways, it remains one of the great comic book movies. But even back then I had to will myself into "enjoying" Jack Nicholson's Joker--a hammy performance that set the tone for all subsequent bat-villains in the increasingly dismal series of films. Initially, Nicholson's scenery-chewing antics were a boon to the whole enterprise because their sheer weirdness got the movie noticed by a whole demographic who might otherwise have quite happily ignored it. For many mainstream viewers, there was undoubtedly something novel and even vaguely transgressive about an actor of Nicholson's stature rampaging through art galleries dressed like a homicidal mime and squirting people with acid through his boutineer. Hey--even I'll admit, it was kind of fun.

But I didn't want it to be "fun," exactly. I wanted it to be scary. I wanted it to be mythic. And in order to be either of these things, it had to take itself seriously.

In a way, of course, it did. At the time, people praised (or panned) the movie for its "edge," its "darkness." But everything's relative, and this edginess was only notable by comparison to the camp adventures of Adam West and Burt Ward in the 1960s. Keaton's broody Batman was a step in the right direction, of course, but Nicholson's Joker was a throwback to the goofy villains of the show I'd watched in Sunday morning reruns, updated only by a sadism that was not in itself frightening, precisely because it was the banal sadism of all 1980s screen villains. And cinematic sadism, in any case, is rarely frightening. It might be diverting or revolting, depending upon one's tastes and the contexts in which it is deployed. Often, it is merely tedious. Nicholson's sadism was at least joyful, and this made it bearable. But it also made it "comic-booky," in the worst mainstream sense of the term. It was "comic-booky" in precisely the way that real comics are not.

This is why Roger Ebert's complaint about the original Batman film was only half-right. "The movie's problem," he charged, "is that no one seemed to have any fun making it, and it's hard to have much fun watching it. It's a depressing experience. Is the opposite of comic book 'tragic book'?" Watching Batman is a depressing experience, but not for the reason Ebert claims. It's not that the film is no fun, but that it's too much fun--but "fun" is the wrong word. The peculiar feeling the movie evokes--an affect unique to Tim Burton's art--is depressing fun, or fun-that-isn't-fun. Not a cheerful apocalypse, not even a grim, apocalyptic joke. More like a pop nihilism that chickens out and in the end refuses the void. A timid Burtonian darkness that can't resist being just a little bit cute.

If these weren't problems enough, what irreparably marrs Nicholson's Joker and absolutely prevents him from frightening us is not simply Burton's precious gothicism, nor even Nicholson's braying performance, but Nicholson's celebrity itself. Ebert is right when he says that "Nicholson's Joker is really the most important character in the movie"--and this is true only because it is Nicholson's Joker. Nicholson cannot perform the great disappearing act that would make his Joker a truly terrifying source of chaos. We never forget that we're watching Jack; and in this way, the sociopath is domesticated by celebrity. Even if Nicholson had given a different performance, it would never be quite as frightening as a comparable performance by a lesser known actor.

It's no accident that the most terrifying screen psychopaths--Freddy, Jason, Michael Myers--are faceless nobodies or heavily made-up character actors. Nor is it an accident that Murphy's hooded Scarecrow is the first Batman villain who could legitimately join their ranks. We fear what we cannot name and this why celebrity villains cannot frighten. Jim Carey's Riddler and Arnold's Freeze are only the most painful illustrations of this rule. The relatively more obscure (though not for long) Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow is their diametrical, creep-inducing opposite.

Batman Begins is not a perfect film. The mixed reviews that it has received are to some extent earned. For audiences that have become accustomed to the weightless artistry of films like The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon the fight scenes do feel a bit stiff and old-fashioned. Bale's Batman voice is a bit silly, and the film does lose some of its visual power the moment that Bale actually puts on the cumbersome batsuit, which is still too heavy and militaristic. But these are minor complaints about a film that mostly gets it right, at least in all the ways that count. Its a film that restores some much needed dignity to a tarnished franshise and does justice to the spirit of the stories from which it grows.

For this reason, I am (almost) more consoled than irritated when bores like The Globe and Mail's Liam Lacey proclaim:

All of the story is so absurdly humourless that it is dramatically inert, as if Nolan had decided the only way to make the Batman character more substantial was to put weights on his wings. Genuine opportunities to explore a political context--the obvious post-Sept. 11 references to white powder, terrorist attacks and the political manipulation of fear--are wasted. Stylistically, the movie is similarly disappointing. Where are the dizzying perspective shots that made the first Spider-Man movie so much fun?

Where indeed, Liam? We agree about the missing perspective shots, but could it be that you're really looking for a different Batman movie altogether? The "humorous," "fun," "intoxicating, mad, gothic bang" from 1989 you pine for in the opening lines of your review? What is consoling (though at the same time frustrating) about a review like this one--a review that charges the film with "humorlessness" and describes the Scarecrow as "a snidely simpering Cillian Murphy who puts a burlap bag over his head"!--is that it ironically confirms the film's success from the point of view of a comic book audience that takes the affective power of the superhero genre seriously and is able to appreciate it when filmic adaptations attempt (and succeed) in translating comic book gravitas into a new medium. Only a mainstream film critic who does not understand the genre of superhero comics, who is unable to experience them as anything other than frivilous funny-books, and who expects his superhero blockbusters to be as airy as popcorn, could dismiss a film like Batman Begins as "humorless" with a straight face.

It's not surprising that a certain kind of film snob will simply not "get" a film like Batman Begins. And it is all too tempting to say: well, it wasn't made for you anyway. But the impasse is worth reflecting on. The fact that a film like Batman Begins can be made, and the aesthetic distance between this movie and Tim Burton's Batman, or between Nicholson's Joker and Murphy's Scarecrow, suggest that the superhero comic book has come a long way towards recognition as a significant cultural form. The charge of "humorlessness" in reviews like Lacey's is an index of how far it has yet to come.

Of course, this is all coming from a defensive fan-boy, and we are a notoriously humorless lot.


  • Roger Ebert, "Batman," Chicago Sun-Times, June 23, 1989.
  • Liam Lacey, "This Batman Doesn't Fly," The Globe and Mail, June 14, 2005.

    Related Links
  • There's a nice discussion of this article on the boards at Bloody-Disgusting: Horror Movie Entertainment. Thanks to Straker for starting it.


    Rob Rains said...

    I have not yet viewed the Batman Begins film but I am convinced that it will be good. I was a fan of the Tim Burton films, although, retrospectively they may have been stiff and bland, with little to no character development or even plot. The Schumacher films, of course, were terrible, like gotham had turned into a cross between a circus and the Las Vegas strip. Perhaps this new Batman series will rekindle my interest in what was once a great character.

    Jim Roeg said...

    Hey, under the hill, thanks for the comment. If you dug the Burton films, I think you'll really like Nolan's. The look of the new film is similar to Burton's, only slightly less artificial seeming. A really great city design (no Las Vegas circus tents here). If you find your way back here, let me know what you think. I didn't get into it in the post, but Katie Holmes's character is by far the coolest of the Bat women.

    Jim Roeg said...

    Hey Steve,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments--I really appreciate your taking the time!

    I know what you mean about wishing that Scarecrow had been more of a force to be reckoned with. The character was riveting (thanks as much to Murphy's performance, as to the sheer coolness of his look and the way he was shot) and it was a shame that he was revealed to be a bit of dupe and so easily dispatched (though I did like that last scene with Katie Holmes).

    As for the old "biter bitten" routine, with Scarecrow getting a faceful of his own dust, I gotta agree. This was a bit weak--though the trade-off was worth it, I think, since it gave us tar-oozing Batman, one of my favourite scenes in the movie. Also, even if the classic "his own arrogance blinded him" excuse is an old chestnut, it actually makes some sense here, since psychopaths are undoubtedly arrogant. Still, it would have been nice to get a few more good scenes out of him. Maybe in a future film (one can hope)!

    About Bale, I thought he was a great Batman--every bit as good as Keaton. Someone on another message board noted that Batman Begins was more of a Bruce Wayne movie than a Batman movie and that this was a good thing. As you could probably gather from my review, I kind of agree with that sentiment. I thought the movie worked best visually before Wayne broke out the bat suit, but I also just plain enjoyed Bale's Wayne. The scene where he clears the room by "drunkenly" telling off his guests is priceless. Clooney or Kilmer would have made this cheesy, but Bale was totally convincing in acting the part of the spoiled billionaire.

    The other thing you mentioned, about the satirical elements of Burton's films, really struck me. I completely agree, and I think that's partly what irked me a bit about them. I find Burton's style hard to characterize (and I too like it--most of the time, despite my criticisms of it in the review!), but I often have the experience when watching one of his movies of wishing that he would reign in the whimsy and broad satire a bit and concentrate more on the dark stuff that he does so well. (I'm a bit of a fascist on this point, I'm afraid. It drives me crazy when horror is leavened with any hint of cuteness.) I had a similar sense of irritation when Liam Lacey complained that the film didn't do more with its contemporary political references. This is obviously a matter of taste, but I don't really want my Bat-films to be vehicles either for social satire or for political commentary. My own feeling is that the concept works best (especially on film) in a mythic or psychological or even just pure horror context.

    Thanks again for the comments!


    Jim Roeg said...

    Hey Steve,

    Thanks for the replies, and for the kind words about the site! It's really cool of you to drop back in.

    I couldn't agree more with your characterization of good fantasy as being rooted in believability--though I guess what counts as "believable" could take many forms. Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns (not to mention his amazing Batman Year One, with David Mazzucchelli) is one of my favs too, and is such a great example of "realistic" fantasy. Yet I also find Lord of the Rings (the films) just as believable within the "high fantasy" context that they set for themselves. For me, the real arbiter of believability is consistency (i.e. staying true to the premises of the fantasy world)--this is what I meant by "taking itself seriously" in the review. It drives me nuts when a great fantasy world is set up, but then violates its own integrity by drawing the viewer's attention back to our world (usually this happens for me when things become overtly satirical or allegorical, as in Burton's movies sometimes, or when Liam Lacey wants more 9/11 references). For me, this type of reference back to our world spoils the illusion created by the fantasy world; suddenly, I find myself not believing it anymore.

    Regarding the 9/11 point:

    "One comedian, but I don't recall who, said America follows a grace-period rule for tradegies from when we mourn to where we capitalize from it. We are not [you mean 'now', right?] in the capitilzation period of 9/11, and have been for quite sometime."

    I agree. And part of my objection to Lacey's critique of Batman Begins is that he seems to assume that if the film had developed its references to "terror" and "white dust" more fully--"Ra's Al Ghul 'Bral-Quiadans' group" [ha!]--that this would somehow have "redeemed" the film from the fact that it failed to be (for Lacey) "fun"--which is, I gather, the supreme criterion against which he measures all superhero movies. If it can't be fun, Lacey seems to be saying, *at least* it could be socially relevant, or perhaps even provide a lefty critique of fear mongering in the age of "global terror," etc.

    Now don't get me wrong--I'm all in favor of social satire! (If anything, we need more of it--the Daily Show is brilliant, but there's always a need for more genuine political debate, particularly of a critical sort.) I just think it's silly to arbitrarily decide that Batman Begins should be producing cogent social criticism in order to "redeem" itself when the need for its "redemption" is only evident to film critics who don't really get the genre they're analyzing in the first place. (And frankly, I'm not even sure that I'm convinced that Batman Begins *doesn't* articulate some meaningful social criticism or subtle satire--it just doesn't throw it in your face, as you pointed out. Admittedly, I haven't really thought through this aspect of the movie yet because I enjoyed it on a more elemental level. I think I'll have to see it again.)

    At any rate, I know I was pretty hard on poor Liam Lacey in my post, and I'm sure he's a very nice man and all that, but my irritation with his movie reviews has been building up for some time. I've been reading his reviews in the Globe for years and it's pretty clear that his tastes are, well, a little too "refined" for my palate. Frankly, I just find them snobbish in the most conventional sense of the term (he likes certain types of avant-garde movies, and by and large has no use for genre pictures). I fully admit to being a sort of reverse culture-snob (I have no patience for critics who dismiss popular culture as "irrelevant" or aesthetically facile, and though I enjoy much so-called "high" culture, find just as much of it totally insufferable and even more insignificant than more so-called "popular" or "genre" culture. When it comes to "taste," we're all snobs of one sort or another, I guess!)

    Regarding the Star Wars III - Batman Begins comparison, again, I think your comments nail it. It's really a non-starter. Sith was gorgeous, but they're such different films in every way. (And for goodness sake, couldn't Lucas have hired a script doctor? Does he really not realize how much a good *script* would have improved the film?? There was an excellent article on about George Lucas and Steven Spielberg last week that is pretty hard on Lucas--though not unfair, I think--for "retreating" too much to the private world of special effects.) I'm thinking about doing a little entry on Star Wars at some point in the near future, so maybe I'll save my thoughts for then. (I was one of the kids from the Star Wars generation in the sense that I was 5 years old when I saw the original Star Wars movie, and the impression it made on me was pretty intense.)

    Anyhow, thanks for reading and for writing back. It's really nice to hear what you think, and good luck with your studies in journalism and video production! I look forward to continuing the conversation, either here or on your own blog. Let me know if you post anything!


    Anonymous said...

    Couldn't agree more, of course. But what interests me most about the emphasis on fear in Batman Begins is what I see it as pointing to: I think fear in BB is not just there as itself and for its own sake, but also that it's deliberately present in order to highlight issues of maturation - and not just some anthropologically vague and genderless "coming of age", either, but very specifically the transition from boy to man, with all the attendant doubts and anxieties that are particular to our own Western culture (at least so I assume, having never gone through that transition in any other culture but this one). Bruce Wayne is literally instructed in fear by several characters, and they are not just bringing it up for nothing: every secondary character in this story starts out knowing something Bruce doesn't, and being in possession of a coherent world-view of a sort that Bruce just can't seem to lay his hands on perfectly...and all are busily engaged in telling him what to do with his fear, but in the end none of their world-views can hang very well on him, and that's because all those philosophies are revealed as only partly believable, only partly useful, and so at least partly dangerous and wrong. Deceit lurks everywhere, if unconsciously: from the old man who warns him not to approach the League of Shadows, right up to Alfred somewhat hysterically insisting that the Wayne name be maintained, the messages that our shared action/adventure film vocabulary would ordinarily cloak in insight and revelation and moral corrective are exposed as being untrustworthy, if not actually harmful. The warning of the old man on the mountain should be foreshadowing, yes, but it's out of place, and it comes to nothing; Bruce really does have nothing to fear by going up the mountain by the time he gets there. Similarly, Ducard's psychological assault on Bruce's idolization of his father is both successful and indispensible; yet it must be wrong too, because we as filmgoers know perfectly well that Thomas Wayne is an unimpeachably noble figure. (Even if he did decide to go out the back door of the opera house into Gotham's "bad" identity, rather than out the front door into its "good" one - perverse choice, Tom!) Even the reprehensible Falcone is right, quite right, when he berates Bruce for not knowing how the world works, as we can tell from the way that this confrontation starts Bruce off on his path to enlightenment, and being Batman...and yet Falcone is also clearly not a trustworthy relayer of truth, and in the end Batman gets the better of him because of it.

    What has this to do with fear? I'm getting to that, I hope, but first a couple more inconsistencies:

    Rachel is an idealist, just as Thomas Wayne was, but the pragmatism Bruce has absorbed from Ducard is the only thing that will save her. So we could say that her idealism is misplaced at best, and foolish at worst. Except it isn't, obviously, for God's sake! She's clearly right, and we're clearly meant to think her so! Or...are we? Inconsistencies pop out all over the place in BB, and there's no point trying to whack-a-mole them away...Ducard is right about R'as Al-Ghul's prisoner (at least by the lights of the social milieu he is found in), so when Bruce refuses to execute him he is perhaps guilty of applying idealism where it doesn't belong...but then in the very act of not cutting the man's head off, he in effect consigns him to death by fire, and so how does that make any sense? Is it idealism, or isn't it? Is it a mistake? Or merely a necessary part of the psychodrama, as Bruce learns that his choices can't not be made just because circumstances obtain...well, perhaps it's a valuable lesson, to know that even a good choice can be poorly-made. Ducard, for his part, is right about everything except the most important thing, which is his very goal: since by making "every man a criminal" he also causes the powerful of Gotham to bestir themselves in order to save their city, his plan for Gotham fails precisely according to how well it succeeds, and he never sees the contradiction. And Bruce simply can't save the good Wayne name as Alfred implores him to, a fact that is absolutely, painfully obvious to the audience...but it's peculiar as hell, too, because it was Alfred himself who suggested the new, less responsible Wayne public image in the first place. Oh, I want to give all the examples, but I can't, there's just too many. Everybody is wrong, though everybody has at least one irrefutable insight to bestow on our hero. Everyone's truth is incompatible with what's around it, and can't be absorbed without also absorbing delusion. As Ducard implies with his ironic-yet-true words, it's all too easy to sacrifice your footing for a killing stroke - to commit to a single view of the world is to become trapped by it, to become both ineffectual and lost.

    And yet one must not be afraid, one must embrace one's fear, one must willingly take action, one mustn't kill, one must make sacrifices and do what is necessary, one must never give up, and it isn't who you are underneath that counts, but it's your actions that define you. All true statements. Just impossible to reconcile.

    And thus: fear. Fear of identity, because gaining adult autonomy is impossible without it, and yet to claim it one must give up so much, so many possible ways to be. One must give up the moral shelter of consistency itself, and yet still manage to find one's own truth anyway. Parturition, Batman Begins seems to say, isn't just about the pain and fear of separation from one's parents, but also from received ideas about oneself and one's moral universe. To do it the wrong way is to become misguided, or even criminal, if not "sacrifice your footing," which in other words might be "to become insane," or "to sink into delusion"...but the road that leads to "right" accomplishment in this respect is also the very same road that leads to "wrong" accomplishment, as the flower-drug that liberates Bruce is also the doomsday weapon that will bring Gotham to its knees. So maturation is not as simple as accepting inner peace from the Zen master or assuming one's conventional adult responsibilities in accordance with the timely advice of an old family friend: it is a test of strength, that if passed leads on to having a vital personality (one cannot get this beforehand), but which if failed leads to abnegation. And so the key moment in Batman Begins for me is when Gordon gives Batman a kind of backhanded sanction, by telling him "I think you're probably just trying to help." Sure, like all real adults are; the big secret is that maybe it doesn't matter so much that you can't be consistent, so long as at the end of the day you can adapt to preserve the quality of your good intentions. But don't tell the kids that! They're not ready to know that when you get older things don't clear up for you that much. In fact you'll scare the hell out of them if you tell them that, they don't need to know that fear is something you just learn to deal with as best you can while you get on with the job of being you...Batman tells R'as: "I'm not going to kill you...but I don't have to save you." No, he doesn't have to do anything, not a damn thing. Because he's the only one capable of judging his own choices - hell, not even his own philosophy can do that for him. So the pressure's never off.

    Scary, huh?

    Thanks for listening, Jim, I assume (and even kind of hope) that no one'll see this but you, since this post is so old. I can't believe how I've overwritten here. But I had to get that off my chest, damn it!


    Jim Roeg said...

    Merriman - It's taken me a little while to reply to this because it's been such a busy couple of weeks, but I have to say: this is my favorite thing that anyone has ever posted to this humble blog--and I say that with due respect to some of the other brilliant comments that you and others have left. This anyalsis of the film's thematization of fear takes the movie places I never quite expected it to go. (I love that your reading makes a virtue of what might simply be dismissed as incoherence--this is pop criticism after my own heart.) I will have to rent the movie again with your comments about contradiction and the dilemmas of adult morality in mind. I also have to say: beautifully written. Thanks so much for this, Merriman. It's a real treat to hear your thoughts on things.

    Anonymous said...

    Jim, you flatter me immensely...and I'm okay with that! But I should say that a lot of this little mini-essay of mine was helped out by how much Robby Reed on "Dial B For Blog" absolutely /hated/ Batman Begins!

    My apologies, Robby.

    On further viewings, when the inconsistencies become impossible to ignore, it becomes apparent (to me, anyway) that this "realistic" Batman is anything but; far more than any Tim Burton offering, it has the resonance of dreams, with the elements of darkness and realism only surface trappings, designed to fix our attention in a particular mood. Looking at it again, you can't help but notice that the plot is intensely contrived...and yet it doesn't matter that it is. In fact it even helps that it is. Ah, classic twentieth-century oneiric psychodrama, in the Jungian vein! No wonder the villain is a psychiatrist.

    I'm reminded of a Seinfeld joke, from that last tour of his own material he made after the show ended: he tells the women in the audience that he's going to let them in on a secret about men and comic books. "I shouldn't even be telling you this," he whispers nervously. "But Superman, Batman, men, these aren't fantasies. These are /options/."

    I may have misquoted a bit, there, but that's pretty much what Batman Begins is all about, to me. Thanks again for the kind words, really very gratifying! If I can think of something else I'm as obsessive about as this, I'll be sure to post again.