Jeff Dawson – “Has the new Batman plundered its plot from 9/11?”

Has the new Batman plundered its plot from 9/11?

Jeff Dawson | July 20, 2008

New York’s alter ego, Gotham City, is under attack. Bombs kill civilians indiscriminately. Panic spreads like wildfire. The perpetrator, a mysterious self-styled “agent of chaos”, has no apparent motive. Holy terror! Has the new Batman flick plundered its plot from 9/11? The imagery here is blatant: firefighters framed in tableau against the smouldering rubble of Downtown; politicians cashing in on the paranoia; bound hostages used to relay demands on television; the extraordinary rendition of a foreign suspect; a crusade against an “evildoer” that turns more personal vendetta than reasoned response. Then there is the film’s poster, which shows a flaming, wing-shaped hole punched through a smoking office tower. You can’t disavow gratuity here — there is no such scene in the actual film.

When it comes to the movies, the attack on New York is hardly fresh inspiration. Until now, however, even feature films had retained a respectful feel: patriotic, conspiratorial or otherwise. Then, last year, came Cloverfield, a monsters-take-Manhattan movie that models its shaky handheld visuals on the video footage of Ground Zero witnesses. The Dark Knight, the second in the latest cycle of Batman films, is even less restrained.

“As we looked through the comics, there was this fascinating idea that Batman’s presence actually attracts criminals to Gotham, attracts lunacy,” the film’s director, Christopher Nolan, has said. If his new movie feels like a full-on action thriller rather than anything remotely cartoonish, then his antihero, the Joker, is a straight-up screen terrorist. “Some men can’t be negotiated with,” as one character puts it. “Some just want the whole world to burn.”

Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that it is a superhero who has swung cape first into the fray — and we don’t mean those Fathers for Justice protesters in Britain or Lucha Libre wrestlers. In times of crisis, these modern American demigods (and, by association, global ones) are the first to go sprinting for the phone booth.

In the 1940s, Marvel and DC Comics yanked Superman and Batman away from their quotidian baddie-bashing and retooled them as patriots sticking it to the Nazis. Their buddy, Captain America, even landed a punch on Hitler’s jaw, dragging the isolationist USA into the war several months ahead of Pearl Harbor. And so it continued through the cold war, with Stalin substituting in as the new bête noire.

Such is the supes’ tradition that, immediately post-9/11, some Americans wondered why their avengers had gone Awol. “There was that thing of ‘Why didn’t Superman save us? Why didn’t he come along and stop the planes?’,” says Paul Gravett, Britain’s leading comic-book expert, whose The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics is out this month. “There was a brief debate about whether superheroes were relevant any more. In a strange way, though, they’ve become more relevant.”

Yes, sir. After a mourning period for the leading comic-book publishers, who put out commemorative issues showing their principal players humbled by the ordinary-Joe heroism of the emergency services, came the full-on counter-offensive. These days, the silver screen has supplanted the printed page as the superheroes’ stamping ground, but just look at them go.

In recent months, we have had Iron Man and Hancock. In the past few years have swooped in Spider-Man, the X-Men, two Hulks, Superman, Daredevil, the Fantastic Four, the Incredibles and more. Hellboy II will be with us shortly, and two rival Superman sequels are shaping up, one penned by the Scottish graphic artist Mark Millar, whose vigilante yarn Wanted, starring Angelina Jolie, has made him hot property in Hollywood.

Such popularity has not been lost on the powers that be. In 2005, Marvel published salutatory editions of its superhero comics for the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, launched in a special ceremony by Donald Rumsfeld. The tendency for government rhetoric to be cloaked in the superhero argot has been noted by John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett, co-authors of The Myth of the American Superhero, and of Captain America and the Crusade against Evil. “Bush is the first leader who has promised world transformation,” Lawrence says. Indeed, in 2002, when Der Spiegel ran a satirical cover portraying Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell as Rambo, the Terminator, Xena and Batman, a visit from the US ambassador was not to protest, but to report that the president was “flattered”, Jewett says. “He ordered 33 poster-size renditions to be conveyed to the White House.”

The interesting thing about Batman, who turns 70 next year, is that, unlike his contemporaries, he lacks any superhuman powers — other than the apparent ability to have accumulated a caveload of cash. Moreover, his schizophrenic existence suggests a screwed-up individual — a child who witnessed his parents’ murder and has sought revenge by dressing up as a winged nocturnal mammal.

“Batman is great to have on your side, but you wouldn’t want to have dinner with him,” declares Frank Miller, the comic-book writer and artist whose creations include Sin City and Daredevil. To this end, Batman seems rivalled only by James Bond and the England football manager in his cyclic reinvention — an earnest, back-to-basics approach after a regular and routine lapse into comedy.

Appalled at the “Biff! Splat! Kerpow!” of the 1960s pop-art television series, comic-book aficionados (having evidently been zapped with a Bat-sense-of-humour-repellent) had long been demanding a return to Batman’s dark side. It is Miller who gave us the Batman we know today. His 1986 outing, The Dark Knight Returns, was the inspiration for Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie and its 1992 sequel, Batman Returns. After Burton’s films segued into the camp capers of the director Joel Schumacher — nipples on the Batsuit and all — Nolan reinvigorated the franchise again. Three years ago, Batman Begins presented Christian Bale as a grim, tortured Caped Crusader. The Dark Knight, too, owes much to Miller, and to the iconic Bat-books The Killing Joke, by Alan Moore, Brian Bolland and John Higgins, and The Long Halloween, by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, in which he confronts his greatest adversary. Although here, squaring up to the Joker merely epitomises that great superhero precept that he (or she, in Wonder Woman’s case) is never as interesting as the bad guy. “I don’t want to kill you. What would I do without you?” the Joker coos to Batman. “You complete me.”

Sadly, as everybody knows, the actor who plays the Joker, Heath Ledger, is no longer with us, having passed away in January after filming had finished. His death has caused a huge rethink of Warner Brothers’ promotional campaign. Whispers of an Oscar nomination for Ledger may be a tad premature, but one should never discount the sympathy factor during gong-giving season. In the meantime, the actor’s grotesque, grungy performance, coupled with an inevitable sense of the macabre, has led to predictions of record openings.

Batman has come through hard times before, and will do so again. In 1954, his cosy friendship with Robin (bed-sharing and all) was denounced in an academic report as “the wish dream of two homosexuals”. Worse, by the 1960s,traditional superheroes had been marginalised. Seeking truth, justice and freedom — American way or not — seemed more achievable through social revolution than via someone whose wardrobe consisted entirely of Lycra.

Lately, artists have avoided such pitfalls in keeping their creations relevant. Millar’s War Heroes, set in a near future in which President John McCain grants his Gulf-war forces super-powers, can hardly be accused of subtlety — but a comic-book series he contributed to, Civil War, did pose a moral conundrum. In it, assorted Marvel titans were forced to confront the Superhuman Registration Act, which drew a line between those who chose to license themselves as an official “living weapons of mass destruction” (such as Iron Man), and others (such as Luke Cage) who refused to become government agents on ideological grounds.

“We’re not fighting for the people any more, we’re just fighting,” bleated the resolutely freelance Captain America, before being assassinated. Moore’s Watchmen, a fan-boy favourite, also deals with municipal terror and curbing the surfeit of maverick “costumed adventurers”. It is being filmed by Zach Snyder, who last year gave us the big-screen version of Miller’s Spartan story, 300.

In future, references to the real world may make even The Dark Knight seem oblique. Two years ago, Miller announced that he was going the whole hog, naming his next work as Batman v Al-Qaeda: a “piece of propaganda”, as he put it, that is “bound to offend just about everybody”. “These are our folk heroes,” he went on. “It seems silly to chase around the Riddler when you’ve got Al-Qaeda out there.”

His added declaration — “I’m ready for my fatwa” — no doubt caused a few nervous splutters at his publishers. There is no news yet on its likely arrival.

Published in: on July 20, 2008 at 6:02 PM  Leave a Comment  

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